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Ethics of Citizenry

One Year After His Passing : An Iranian Tribute To Vaclav Havel

Ladan Boroumand
Hospodarske Noviny
December 18, 2012
Letter

There are extraordinary human beings who of right ought never to die for their very existence is a ray of hope in the tragedy of life. This thoughtis what came to my outraged and devastated mind when, on 18 December 2011, I received an e-mail from my fellow human-rights activist Igor Blažević in which he announced the expected yet still dreaded news of Václav Havel's passing. Igor is originally from Bosnia, and a Czech citizen by adoption. His e-mail was full of sorrow. He knew Havel personally, and I could only measure his pain through the intensity of my own despair. Perhaps the shared grief and tears of the Bosnian refugee and the Iranian refugee reveal more about what Havel meant-and still means to all those powerless who have rebelled against a totalitarian rule -than could any words.

The first and only time I met President Havel was on one of the many occasions when he used his prestige and glory to give a voice to the voiceless. It was 20 February 2007, at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Havel was there to receive the Democracy Service Medal from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). For the occasion, he had asked NED to invite dissidents from different countries to share the floor with him and talk about their respective struggles for freedom. The event had been cosponsored by NED and the Library of Congress, where Havel was doing research. He came to the podium short of breath and looking frail. In a brief speech, he reminded his audience that they should be aware of the shortcomings of the very concept of "dissident" invented by the Western press, that "dissidence" is not a profession, for dissidents are men and women who have an identity of their own. They are scientists, workers, artists, what makes them dissidents is their determination to defend their dignity and fight for their liberty. And thus with elegance and subtlety, Havel reminded us that those who would speak that night were more than what they would be talking about. He was warning us against the reductionist mischief of our benevolent solidarity. At this point, when we were all thinking about the limitations of the concept of "dissident," Havel shifted gears and said, not without irony and humor, that he had ended up adopting the word anyway, because "it was so practical."

The second warning that the former Czech president gave his audience was about the uncertainties of the world of dissidents, these unknown people: Who are they? Are they real dissidents? Are they insane? Are they spies? Are they just individuals who like to be invited for drinks at the embassies of democratic countries? Perhaps some of the dissidents are all the above, Havel said, and as the audience burst into laughter, he made a strong plea in favor of engaging and supporting dissidents despite all the risks and uncertainties that come with such engagement and support. To be sure, dissidents are not elected and have no other legitimacy than that which is conferred upon them by the principles for which they fight, yet the risks and uncertainties implied by engaging and supporting dissidents are always smaller than those implied by invading a country.

This is how, by means of his thought-provoking and subversive ideas on both the notion and the persona of those who belong to dissident ranks (the men and women on the stage), and the very notion of solidarity (the audience) and the challenges that solidarity must overcome on both the level of perception and that of action, Havel skillfully created a bond between the audience and the individuals on the stage. He then discreetly quit the stage, letting the light meant for him shine instead on those obscure dissidents from around the world, those men and women known to no one in the world but the security forces of their respective countries and (with a bit of luck) to the NED.

As I watched Havel leaving the podium, I was filled with gratitude to the journalist and historian Anne Applebaum, the author of Gulag: A History (2004) who had given me a copy of Havel's essay collection The Power of the Powerless. Of course I had known about Havel and admired him, as I had admired Andrei Sakharov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Lech Wałęsa and other dissidents living under communist rule, but I had not actually read Havel.

My sister Roya and I had asked Anne to come and see Omid, the online virtual memorial in defense of human rights that we had been creating to preserve the memories-and the case facts-of all those killed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Our goal, we told Anne, was to restore the common denominator of humanity that Islamist totalitarianism had destroyed. We told her that as Iranian citizens in exile, without any power, the only thing that we could do was to document the truth about the victims. We told her that the Memorial was our way of taking up the burden of our moral responsibility to stand up against Evil. As she was browsing the pages of Omid, and listening to us, Anne told us that we should read what Havel had to say in The Power of the Powerless. Two days later, she sent us a copy.

Havel's concept of "living in truth" was not new to me. I grew up in a dissident family in Iran, in the Sixties and Seventies. My father had renounced his political and professional carriers-and ultimately his life-for the sake of his principles. Living in truth and being isolated as a consequence was somehow part of the family culture. Nor was the idea of taking action without calculating the chances of immediate success a new revelation to me, for I had learned this from another hero of mine, Shapour Bakhtiar (1914-91), the last prime minister of Iran under the monarchy. An old humanist and social democrat who had spent six years in the Shah's prisons, Bakhtiar accepted the premiership in January 1979 only because he thought it was his duty to tell the truth and warn his nation against the danger of a new form of totalitarian rule. Havel had told the truth to Gustáv Husák,. Bakhtiar's less-than-welcoming audience was not a head of state, but rather the millions of his fellow Iranians who had become drunk with the Islamists' false promises of a paradise on earth. When asked why he had accepted the premiership when he knew that he had little chance to succeed, Bakhtiar said the same thing as Havel: I did it because it was the right thing to do. In 1991, the same year that my father was murdered, Bakhtiar too fell to an assassin's blade, paying with his life for his steadfast insistence on living in truth.

So Havel did not need to convince me of the need to live in truth and be oneself, but he taught me as had no one before what living in lie does to man's soul and by extension to human society as a whole. And he did so by referring to simple daily incidents of life under a totalitarian regime such as attending an official ceremony, voting for a preselected candidate, signing a petition, participating in demonstrations-in short, making dissimulation and hypocrisy a way of life to avoid trouble. These are all daily experiences that we, citizens who have lived under totalitarian rule, are all too familiar with.

For as different as the Communists' atheist totalitarianism and the Islamists' theocratic totalitarianism may be-the one denying God's existence and worshiping historical determinism, the other denying God's transcendence and making itself an idol on earth-there is an undeniable kinship between different kinds of totalitarian systems, for they all tend to reduce history to the dominion of one exclusive Truth, and by doing so pervert history's very essence. As a result, writes Havel in his open letter to Dr. Husak, " history as uniqueness disappears from the flow of events, so does continuity....The deadening of the sense of unfolding time in society inevitably kills it in private life as well. No longer backed by social history or the history of the individual within it, private life declines to a prehistoric level where time derives its only rhythm from such events as birth, marriage, and death."

Havel's masterly elaboration on the essential correlation between man's liberty, his incessant quest for consciousness, and history in his open letter to Husák helped me to understand the confusion and purposelessness that has infected the lives of my fellow Iranians for more than thirty years. That is why on the 18th of December, to honor the memory of one the greatest political and intellectual figures of our time, the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation is pleased to release the Persian version of "Dear Dr. Husak," which I consider to be a masterpiece both in its form and its content. I have no doubt that each paragraph will strongly resonate with a great number of Iranian citizens who will find in it an illuminating analysis of their own experience. This publication is to be followed by a Persian translation of "The Power of the Powerless."

Havel published his letter to Husák just a few months before the passing of another great mind, Hannah Arendt (1906-75). Arendt provides us with the tools to understand the totalitarian system from the outside. Havel takes this quest for intelligibility a step further, into man's conscience itself. They will both live as long as there is a totalitarian regime in this world. But Havel will live even when there is no totalitarian regime on earth, for he confronts brilliantly the totalitarian temptation in man's innermost being, a temptation that is inherent in human nature.

There are extraordinary human beings who should never die, and in fact they don't.