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Iranian civic rights activists challenge authorities with hunger strikes

Article Summary
Iranian authorities are increasingly challenged by a wave of hunger strikes conducted by civic rather than political activists.

Farhad Meysami, a physician and human rights activist, began a dry hunger strike Sept. 8 to protest his imprisonment on the charge of spreading “propaganda against the establishment.” Meysami was arrested in July for possession and distribution of a badge stating his opposition to the compulsory hijab and for expressing solidarity with the protests against mandatory veiling earlier this year, which resulted in the arrests of 29 women.

While Meysami’s hunger strike, which began as a wet hunger strike July 31, is notable for its longevity and resonance among women’s rights activists in Iran, it is only one of a string of such actions undertaken by political prisoners and human rights campaigners since the May 2017 presidential election. Last summer, 17 opposition activists in Rajai Shahr prison participated in hunger strikes against living conditions in detention facilities. In late August, Kurdish dissident Ramin Hossein Panahi initiated a hunger strike in prison for being convicted of “acting against national security.” (Panahi was executed Sept. 8.) 

Although the motivations for each of these hunger strikes varies greatly, ideological synergies and expressions of solidarity between activists suggest that the hunger strikes represent a burgeoning civil disobedience movement. This movement appears to have gained cross-factional appeal for two reasons: its stringent commitment to apolitical activism and its impassioned support for homegrown democratization in Iran, as opposed to foreign-imposed.

Even though hunger strikers such as Meysami and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh supported the Green Movement protests, they have formally renounced any connection with any political faction. This apolitical activism is modeled after the hunger strikes of spiritual leader Mohammad Ali Taheri, who has urged followers of his Erfan Keyhani movement to push for religious freedom through civil, rather than political, resistance.

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Instead of aligning with political figures, hunger-striking activists have rallied supporters around a values-based agenda. For instance, Meysami’s hunger strike emphasized the need to fight injustice, promote government transparency and ensure the government acts in accordance with the constitution. The Rajai Shahr prison hunger strike similarly gained sympathizers due to its promotion of every individual’s right to human dignity. In pursuit of these causes, hunger-striking activists urged reform-minded Iranians to not boycott elections or attend disruptive demonstrations, like the December 2017 attack on Tehran’s rapid transit bus stations over price hikes. The activists argue that these actions contravene the values a democratic Iran should uphold.

This belief in political non-alignment extends to the international sphere, as hunger-striking activists oppose groups such as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), which supports US-backed regime change. The ideological opposition to Western interference is inspired by the ideas of dissident journalist Akbar Ganji, who famously refused to meet with George W. Bush administration officials during his 2006 visit to the United States, given his principled opposition to the Iraq War.

In this vein, an independent human rights activist with close ties to both Meysami and Sotoudeh told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the collective opposition to the Donald Trump administration’s regime-change agenda stems from their civil libertarian focus. Although the protests against mandatory veiling have frequently been described as a throwback to the shah’s attempts to secularize Iranian society, the activist told Al-Monitor that the hunger strikers' challenge of Iranian theocracy is not a result of Westernization, but rather it is inspired by the defense of individual liberties.

This adherence to common values has inspired informal cooperation between advocates of peaceful civil disobedience in Iran, even though some hunger strikers eschew being labeled as supporters of organized protest movements. For example, in response to Panahi’s execution and Meysami’s decision to start a dry hunger strike, artist Shahrokh Heidari rallied 300 advocates of apolitical activism to participate in two-day hunger strikes.

The Iranian government’s response to the growing tide of hunger strikes has varied since early 2017. Initially, conservative political figures, like the Islamic Coalition Party’s Hamidreza Taraghi, branded hunger strikers as Western proxies and supporters of President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to restrict the power of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. But the depiction of hunger strikers Arash Sadeghi and Ali Shariati as Rouhani proxies by conservative commentators subsided after opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi announced a surprise hunger strike in August 2017. Indeed, although the hunger strikers are not affiliated with Karroubi’s National Trust Party, security agencies under Rouhani’s direct control viewed Karroubi’s action as an expression of solidarity with the activists. This interpretation of Karroubi’s actions led to an intensified crackdown against hunger strikes, since Rouhani’s allies believed they were agents of regime change.

The Iranian political establishment’s unified opposition to apolitical activism has allowed Tehran to contain the political impact of the hunger strikes. A human rights activist involved in the campaign to free Mohammad Ali Taheri told Al-Monitor that the refusal of hunger strikers to align with any political party has left them without defenders in parliament. Meanwhile, the Iranian public is largely unaware of the crackdowns on the hunger strikers.

This lack of public awareness has allowed state media to link the activists to the MEK, discrediting their cause and legitimizing their continued detentions. Yet it remains unclear whether the Iranian authorities will be able to maintain this delegitimization strategy, especially as hunger strikes become more frequent. At the same time, it is also clear that the atmosphere of uncertainty will likely contribute to further crackdowns on apolitical activists.

Although Western governments continue to focus their attention on economically motivated protests and the growth in conservative unrest against Rouhani, the civil libertarian causes espoused by hunger-striking activists have gained an unprecedented degree of momentum in Iran. If the wave of hunger strikes continues, and if crackdowns on apolitical activists encourage further demonstrations, peaceful civil disobedience could become a prominent feature of Iran’s political landscape for the foreseeable future.

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Found in: Human rights

Samuel Ramani is a PhD candidate in international relations at St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is also a journalist who contributes regularly to the Washington Post, Huffington Post, The Diplomat and the Russian International Affairs Council. On Twitter: @samramani2

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