Born and raised in a medium-sized town along the Caspian Sea of Iran, Reza Mohajerynejad led a quiet, peaceful childhood.
Yet while at Iran’s Tehran University he led the secular, pro-democratic protest movement that aimed to shake the foundations on which the autocratic rule of the Islamic religious leaders was based.
While such protests nearly cost him his life, after six months of torture Mohajerynedjad escaped Iran, and this weekend visited the College as a guest of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding and the sociology department.
And although he is still learning the fundamentals of the English language, he shared his story helped by the translation of Iranian immigrant and Professor of Sociology Misagh Parsa,.
Mohajerynedjad’s tacit acceptance of the Iranian social order became to crumble as a high school student.
Listening to his teachers, he sensed contradictions and conflicts in their words and the ideology they and the official school texts preached.
Sensing a greater truth and reality behind the veil of constraints imposed by Iranian society, he came to see his society as one violating basic human needs and moral principles of freedom and justice.
In 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini came to power under the promise of greater democracy for the citizens of Iran.
Yet in the eyes of Mohajerynejad and his fellow protestors, Khomeini and his successor in 1989, Ayatollah Khamenehi, did not deliver on such ambitious promises.
His complaints against the government
According to Mohajerynedjad, in the Islamic Republic of Iran any diversity of opinion is stifled, often condemned by imprisonment or even death.
Freedom of expression and democracy, according to the Islamic leaders, would only lead to moral degeneration and corruption, for to speak against the government was like speaking against God, Mohajerynedjad explained.
Yet he and his comrades felt human freedom was “as necessary as oxygen for breathing,” and hoped to separate religion and politics, creating a democratic system with true freedom.
Furthermore, while the nation was rich in natural and human resources, the country was submerged deep in debt and its citizens mired in poverty. Such a dire economic situation, according to Mohajreynedjad, was the direct result of the incompetence and monopolization of resources by the clergy.
In addition, he disagreed with the culture he saw the religious leaders impose on the nation. Mohajerynedjad and his fellow protestors wanted a culture rooted in Persia’s rich history, one of happiness and peace, not of mourning and violence.
And thus, immediately upon arriving as a literature student in 1993 at Tehran University, the nation’s largest and most prestigious college, located in Iran’s capital city, Mohajreynedjad began organizing.
Just three weeks after settling into school, he and his comrades began distributing leaflets around campus which contained banned songs and advocated freedom.
Intelligence services at the university, however, quickly identified the organizers and searched throughout the dormitories for Mohajreynedjad and his comrades.
Mohajreynedjad, however, was able to escape, and hid underground for fifteen months until university officials promised him and others that they could return safely.
After such a start, the protestors kept the next few years of their activities underground.
But in 1997, they again publicly mobilzed, this time around protesting the university’s cafeteria food. Over 10,000 students — out of 15,000 living in the dormitory — left their rooms and entered the cafeteria, dumping their food and banging their dishes.
The internal protest quickly became political, with students shouting “Death to Dictatorship and Autocracy,” and police and anti-riot squads were called in to control the situation.
Two years later in July 1999, students again protested, in opposition to the closure of a moderate newspaper.
Such protests resulted in the death of three students, and when students were denied an appropriate response to the deaths, they again took to the streets, in an all-out six-day student uprising.
“We don’t want a government of oppression, we don’t want hired mullahs,” the students shouted.
With over 50,000 students and community members protesting, the government arrested over 20,000, including an eight year old boy, Farmarz Tavsoli, who became the nation’s youngest political prisoner.
While Mohajerynejad evaded arrest for several days, he too was jailed.
Six Months of Torture
Arrested merely for his political beliefs and opposition to the Iranian government, he endured six months of torture.
His torturers tied his hands and feet while whipping him with cables, poured salt in his wounds, and even hung weights from his genitals.
The pain was so intense, he said, that for 23 consecutive days he could not sleep. His nose, cheek, and teeth were broke; even now he still suffers severe skin problems.
Two of his best friends and colleagues in protest, Akbar and Manoucher Mohammadi, are still in jail.
Akbar, shouting slogans against the Islamic republic while being tortured, lost one of his kidneys and is now seriously ill. Manoucher is on a hunger strike until death.
Yet Mohajerynejad was released from jail after six months, and managed to leave the country, travelling to Europe and now the United States, where is currently seeking political asylum.
Continuing the Battle
And although he can no longer safely return to Iran, as the only member of the student protest movement to escape the country Mohajerynejad hopes to lobby for democracy in Iran while raising awareness of the atrocities commited by the Iranian government.
Currently residing in Washington, D.C., he is organizing the International Association of Iranian Students and a website, and remains in close contact with the continuing student movement.
He hopes to devote his time to defending the rights of political prisoners, especially his colleagues and friends in Iran who remain imprisoned.
And according to Parsa, if democracy is to come to Iran, Mohajerynejad will be a part of it.
“He has big ideas,” Parsa said, adding, “Their struggle is not just a student movement but one for justice and democracy throughout the world.”
Parsa, a scholar of social movements, had been in contact with Mohajerynejad ever since he escaped Iran.
Upon hearing that he was coming to the United States, Parsa arranged more interviews, and coordinated for him to visit Dartmouth, where he spoke to students in Parsa’s sociology courses on democratization and social movements.
“Unlike you, who are sitting here and discussing these issues freely,” in Iran, a similar free, open dialogue would never even be tolerated, Mohajerynedjad explained.
“You who are students… hopefully you will continue your studies and see how things changed in Iran,” he said.
“What can you study without freedom of expression and ideas?” he added.