I first encountered Nazanin Afshin-Jam — a former Miss Canada and runner-up in the Miss World pageant, singer, model, and co-founder of Stop Child Executions — when she was fighting for the life of another Nazanin, Nazanin Fatehi, a teenager who was sentenced to death in Afshin-Jam’s native Iran . . . for defending herself and a cousin from rape. Afshin-Jam’s efforts paid off: Iran backed down and eventually released Fatehi. But another Nazanin is far from Afshin-Jam’s only Iranian concern. She’s committed to the frequently voiceless oppressed of her native land. As democracy demonstrators bravely stand up to the Iranian regime today, the anniversary of Khomeini’s revolution — an event that meant that her father, a Sheraton hotel owner, would be imprisoned and tortured — Afshin-Jam talks to National Review Online about the past, present, and future of her native land.
Q: Why is February 11th so important to Iran?
A: February 11th marks the Islamic Revolution, one of the most significant dates in all of Iran’s history. A Shi’a cleric by the name of Ayatollah Khomeini came to power promising freedom to the people. He deceived the nation and introduced regressive change in Iran’s political, economic, and social structure. Two thousand five hundred years of monarchic rule came to an end and was replaced with an Islamic dictatorship. This theocratic regime gave rise to gender apartheid, the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, the execution of apostates and homosexuals, and the severing of freedom of expression. The Iranian people have been suffering ever since.
Since Iran’s fraudulent elections in June, the Iranian people have been taking to the streets in protest. This year, hundreds of thousands of Iranians, if not millions, will use the excuse of the anniversary of the revolution to hold more protests.
Q: What is your father aiming to do with this video?
A: This video is a warning to the so-called Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, to pack his bags and flee the country along with his cronies unless they want the same fate as past despots in history like Saddam Hussein. My father recounts that under Khamenei’s rule, millions of Iranians have suffered great loss, poverty, despair, and hopelessness. They have been brutalized and are victims of crimes against humanity.
Secondly my father’s aim is to inspire freedom-loving Iranians to continue with their nonviolent struggle for change. In our open video plea we are encouraging others to join the Iranian people in solidarity and take part in similar projects.
Q: What is your father’s story?
A: My father’s story is not unique. He is one of millions of Iranians who were forced to flee their homeland due to the repressive rule under such a tyrannical regime. My father was imprisoned by the Revolutionary Guard, tortured and nearly executed simply for having allowed dancing, music, and alcohol in the hotel he managed, which unbeknownst to him were forbidden under the new Islamic rule. After spending a year in Spain, my family immigrated to Canada where we have lived ever since. We know what freedom means and we wish the same for our compatriots back home.
Q: He talks about a real Islam and a real Iran, not represented by the current regime. Do more Muslims need to speak out in protest to Muslim leaders?
A: The Islamic prayer starts with praising Allah as being the most “compassionate” and “merciful.” If this is the true Islam then the Iranian regime is not following the right orders. The current leaders in Iran are hypocrites. They condemn others for being “mohareb” (waging war against God), yet they are the ones who commit the most heinous crimes under the name of Islam and Allah.
Both my father and I are staunch believers in the separation of religion and state and in respect and tolerance for all faiths in society. While it is not possible to have an “Islamic democracy,” it is possible to have a democracy where the majority of the population is Muslim.
Muslims worldwide can promote the beauty of their religion but they must also see it as their responsibility to denounce aggression, force, and barbarity committed by extremists. Moderate Muslims need to voice their disgust and take a stand to speak out in protest of extremists who are giving their faith a bad name, like those in Europe who hold banners on the streets that say “Kill all infidels” or “Europe will be an Islamic state.”
“Real” Iranians are descendants of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire who introduced the first charter of human rights the world has ever known. He abolished slavery and advocated for the tolerance of all religions. There is room for us all, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and others. We can all live in peace and harmony.
Q: What is your song “Someday” about?
A: “Someday” is mainly a song of hope, in order to inspire the millions of people around the world who live under the stranglehold of an oppressive regime where the rule of law does not exist. It is an anthem-like song to encourage the masses to unite, rise up, and reclaim what ultimately belongs to all human beings on this planet: fundamental human rights and freedoms. For Iranians specifically, “someday” is “right now.” We must use this momentum to bring about major changes and pave the path towards democracy.
Q: Wouldn’t it be easier if you modeled and sang and didn’t bother with activism?
A: Would I have more time to sleep at night? Yes. Would I have more time to spend with family and friends? Yes. Would I have more time to vacation? Yes. But, for me personally I would be tormented if I led a life without striving to help bring justice and alleviate suffering in a world that often seems so dark. Modeling, acting, and singing were always means to an end. They were platforms I used to raise a stronger voice to speak on issues close to my heart such as human rights and in particular gender equality and children’s rights.
Q: Why is the issue of child execution so important to you?
A: Life is the most precious of all things. I am completely against the death penalty. I think “an eye for an eye” retribution is counterintuitive. If we as a society are teaching our children that murder is wrong, then how do we justify murdering to teach this lesson?
I am particularly concerned about juveniles being tried as adults where physiology dictates that their brain is not developed enough to understand the consequences of their actions. Iran is by far the worst offender when it comes to child executions, despite its commitments under the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Charter of the Rights of the Child. In Iran, girls are considered adults at age 9 and boys at age 15 and are being executed for drug trafficking, homosexuality, sex outside of marriage, and converting from Islam to another religion. The handful of countries that continue with these backward laws must be pressured to stop. They include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, and Sudan. The public can sign our petition at www.stopchildexecutions.com.
Q: Have you been to Iran lately? If so, what did you encounter?
A: We left Iran when I was just a year old and I have never been back. In the past five years I have been quite vocal against Iran’s abuses of human rights and as a result the regime has blocked access to all my websites. I have also received threats to my life and safety. I have great hope that I will visit the country of my birth in the very near future.
Q: What do you hear most from Iranians?
A: I keep in close contact with people in Iran. They are tired of the corruption and lies by the government. They are fed up with Iran’s image being tainted in the eyes of the international community. They are not terrorists. They are peaceful and generous. They do not want to see the destruction of Israel and they do not want Islam’s world domination.
Iranians are fed up with the government sending their hard-earned money abroad to fund terrorist factions, while they live under the poverty line and have to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet.
The youth feel suffocated. They want to have a normal life like people in the West. They want to be able to hold their girlfriend’s hand. They want to play music without having to do it in secret, underground. They want to feel alive.
Women want to have equal rights in inheritance, divorce, and custody. They want to have equal rights, travel without permission from their husbands or fathers, and choose the profession of their choice without restrictions. They don’t want to be forced to wear a veil.
In short, people want freedom, secularism, equality, and transparency.
Q: Khamenei is talking about a “punch” today. What do you think he means? Are you worried?
A: The regime understands that it is standing on its last leg. The only way it maintains power is through brute force and intimidation. They recently executed two people who took part in anti-government demonstrations and they threaten to soon kill nine others on similar charges of being at “enmity with God.” This week when Khamenei said that he would deliver a “punch to the mouth” of counter-revolutionaries, I believe he was sending his own message of warning to the public that those who take part in such demonstrations will be met with violence and bloodshed.
He also said this week that “the Iranian nation, with its unity and God’s grace, will punch the arrogance [Western powers] on the 22nd of Bahman [February 11] in a way that will leave them stunned.” I believe he is making such bellicose comments to boast to the West that they will not be bullied and give in to concessions on the nuclear front. They want to frighten the West into believing they are more powerful than they really are.
#ad#At this point the regime may believe that its last recourse to maintain power is to try and instigate war so that the Iranian people unite around the flag against any military interventions from abroad. It is what unified the Iranian people during the Iran-Iraq war, and so they may believe it will work again.
Of course it worries me having unstable, fanatic leaders like Khamenei and Ahmadinejad at the helm of Iran. They believe, if not welcome, the coming of the “twelfth imam” to bring salvation to the people at a time of “great destruction.” Will they be the ones to precipitate the coming of this hidden imam? I do not know, but I do know that they are not to be trusted. The Iranian people need the backing of the international community to help cripple the hardliners and free them from the prison they must call home.