Khatami's Disdain for Zahra Kazemi:
Dialogue as Brutality

by Russell Berman

September 11, 2006


Former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami advocates a dialogue between civilizations, and Harvard defended its controversial decision to give him the prominent forum of the Kennedy School invitation because of the importance of the free exchange of ideas.

Yet Khatami evidently cannot tolerate dialogue within a civilization, i.e., free and open discourse within Iran; and Harvard has given a forum of freedom to freedom's enemy.

This became painfully evident in a detail of the exchange following his speech. An Iranian in the audience questioned him about an egregious case of the suppression of free speech: the arrest, rape and murder of Canadian-Iranian journalist Zahra Kazemi.

Khatami's propaganda mission has been to present a softer image of Iran to a West perplexed by the antics of his successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Yet the material of this question was not immediately relevant to that project, since it involved an internal Iranian scandal—no matter how much it also involved Canada and the world public. "Dialogue between civilizations, but tyranny at home"—this seems to be Khatami's motto. He offered no condemnation of Ahmadeinjad's call to purge Iranian universities, no apology for his own role in the suppression of dissidents in Iran.

Born in Shiraz in 1949, Kazemi moved to Paris to study literature and cinema in 1974. In 1993, she immigrated to Canada and acquired dual citizenship. As a journalist she traversed the Middle East, covering, among many other topics, the US role in Iraq. Working in Teheran, she was arrested in front of Evin prison in June of 2003; nineteen days later she was dead. In the abortive murder trial, her family was represented by Shirin Ebadi, who won the Nobel Prize the same year.

But the issue here is not the scandalous story of Kazemi's murder and the cover-up perpetrated by the Iranian "justice system." It is Khatami's callous response to the student's question. The friendly reformer's reply to a question about a brutal killing:

"Maybe if the relatives of Kazemi had not made into such a big political issue it could have been resolved a lot quicker and more to their liking."

So it's the fault of the relatives who wanted to see a murderer brought to justice. It's their fault for having pursued justice through the institutions available to them. For all his chatter about dialogue, what Khatami lacks is the basic capacity for human empathy. Hardly a good place for dialogue to begin.

This small detail is unlikely to work its way through the press, predisposed as it is to give Khatami a pass. Too bad. One might have expected some solidarity in the press corps with their murdered colleague—let alone some appreciation for those true Iranian reformists who want nothing more than an end to theological tyranny and to propagandists like Khatami

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