[This is the second installment of a two-part roundtable on abolitionism and Iran featuring Naveed Mansoori, Golnar Nikpour, and Omid Tofighian. Read Part 1 here.]
As we were completing this roundtable, the supreme court in Iran decided to uphold death sentences issued against three protestors—Amirhossein Moradi, Mohammad Rajabi, and Saeed Tamjidi—who participated in demonstrations last November against a decision to raise the price of gasoline. The decision fueled public outcry expressed through the widespread circulation of a hashtag, #اعدام ـ نکنید [#do_not_execute]. In response, a request for a retrial was accepted, halting the executions. The highly-publicized outrage, domestically and internationally, has cast a spotlight on the modern carceral state in Iran.
In the first part of this roundtable, we asked: Is abolitionism a universal movement? Is there a universal critique of policing? Or are the protests taking place in the United States specific to the African-American experience? If not confined to US borders, are they specific to the lived experience of Blackness globally? A third possibility exists: Is a critique of global white supremacy a critique of prisons and incarceration the world over? If so, how? In other words, can we forge political solidarity by using the critique of race in the United States as an optic for analysis beyond the United States?
To read the introduction and first part, click here.
Before COVID-19 and the abolition movement to defund police captured headlines, escalating military tensions between the United States and Iran were a lead story. Are there links between these developments? If so, how do you see them? Put differently, what can we learn about racial injustice and policing in the United States by looking at the US presence abroad vis-à-vis Iran and Iranians? And what can we learn about the US presence abroad vis-à-vis Iran and Iranians by looking at racial injustice and policing in the United States?
Omid Tofighian: I appreciate these questions very much. They have pushed me to think more about how US aggression against Iran functions in the domestic politics of both nations. I also started drawing parallels with the way Australia uses the rhetoric of national security to justify its border regime. I will leave it to my colleagues to analyze in more detail and with more expertise but I think it is worth raising two points in relation to US-Iran relations: 1) the way the United States reintroduces and reframes issues such as human rights in Iran or Iran’s military power for strategic purposes at home; and 2) how Iran exploits US threats to stoke nationalist sentiment and deal with weakening legitimacy, to justify suppression, and divert from their own failings. These times of heightened tension involve more inflammatory rhetoric on both sides about national security, national interest and national values; they help mask or divert from racial injustice, stigmatization of minoritized groups, and plans to increase policing and incarceration. In relation to border politics in Australia, we often witness a carousel of reasoning that switches between national security, national interest, and national values. This strategy functions to create perplexity among different electorates in order to help justify inhumane policies, and it also garners support by stoking settler colonial fantasies and fears.
Golnar Nikpour: Omid’s answer really says it all—the hypermilitarized and securitized relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic plays very well into the most militarized and retrograde forces in both governments. Clearly, there is an immediate and direct link between violent policing at home in the United States and militarism abroad, including in the United States. It is not simply a matter of family resemblances between these institutions, but rather concrete material links. The need for a robust anti-militarist and anti-war movement that makes these links has never been more urgent. For those particularly interested in Iran, this also means an anti-sanctions movement and a move towards the de-militarization of relations between the United States and the Islamic Republic.
Naveed Mansoori: In 1901, W. E. B. Du Bois, writing from Jim Crow America, called the color line “the problem of the twentieth-century.” Du Bois made this prophecy when the field of international relations saw global difference through the demarcations of race. On one side, there were the few who could govern themselves; on the other, the many who needed governance. After World War Two, the United States enforced the color line at home and abroad. Nikhil Paul Singh describes this dynamic as “war at home and police in the world.” Anti-Blackness conditioned its two aspects. Consider the reasoning of John Cooper Riley, the United States’ ambassador to Iran, for why Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh was not fit to govern Iran as he campaigned to nationalize oil: “The paucity of competent public men in Iran is appalling,” he said. “Like the story of the ten little ni—er boys, the roll call ends in Iran, ‘and then there was one.’ He was the Shah.” After 1979, the United States was initially anxious that Iranians were exercising freedom, not being denied it.
When concern about police militarization is focused on technology, its more crucial significance is lost: not what police own, but how they relate to us. Trump did not need to invoke the Insurrection Act to set counter-insurgency efforts into motion. Neither is this new. When Ted Koppel covered the 1992 LA Rebellion, he stated, “There’s a familiar dissonance to it: US troops patrolling the neighborhoods of an American city, as though they were on a foreign mission.” With calls for the “defunding” of police, Trump has proposed a 740.5-billion-dollar budget for national security to Congress. He does so off the heels of last year’s war games with Iran. The 2020 rebellions have so far focused on war at home. Hopefully, they will recall policing abroad.
It may help to see Iran as caught between contending visions of carcerality. By that I mean the United States is both responding to the Islamic Republic with hard and soft punitive measures, while the Islamic Republic’s domestic policies are carceral as well in their own specific way, as we see in the arrest, imprisonment, and sometimes death of prisoners in Iran’s prison system. After the Revolutionary Guard accidentally shot down a commercial airline in Tehran, students at Amir Kabir (Polytechnic) University released a statement criticizing US militarism and their own government depicting Iran as a country that is surrounded by “evil” from all sides.
What does abolitionism mean in the context you study and/or work in?
GN: This is a question I have struggled with, insofar as the language of prison abolition is clearly born of the context of slavery and anti-Blackness in the United States; it is this context that gives the language of abolition its profound moral force and urgency. For all of us drawn to abolitionist models of scholarship or activism, our political education has come from Black feminists such as Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and Mariame Kaba. To deny the specificity of the American context and the legacies of slavery and anti-Blackness on the abolitionist idiom would be both historically and politically wrongheaded. Yet Angela Davis herself has repeatedly argued against US exceptionalism in the movement to abolish prisons and consistently reminded us that, insofar as colonialism and capitalism are constitutively global projects, our work to undo the legacies of slavery, colonialism, and carcerality must be equally global in reach.
I do not know that there is any one word in Persian that could translate the moral and political force of the word “abolition” in the US context. Still, it is important to note that from soon as the first modern prisons in Iran were built in the 1920s, Iranians were writing about oppressive prisons and violent policing and the hypocrisy of a government claiming to be “progressive” and modern yet nonetheless putting its citizens into cages. I believe we can find an essentially de-carceral ethos in many Iranian texts, but the one I would like to highlight is one that many Iranians might find surprising because it does not address prisons as such. The text I am referring to is famed modernist poet Forough Farrokhzad’s short documentary film The House is Black, which is about the violence and deprivation of a leper colony in modernizing Pahlavi Iran. In my view, it is as moving a moral vision against modern carcerality, and the notion that citizenship is seemingly conditioned by violent exclusion, as one can find in any language. It is fitting given the foundational importance of feminist thinkers and artists on the project of de-carceralizing our world to add Forough’s voice to that pantheon.
NM: Abolitionism seeks to abolish prisons and the police. More broadly, it sets out to break habits of perception that see punishment and exclusion as the optimal answer to social and political problems. Where those habits are embodied in institutions, abolition cannot abide the institution. Since abolition has its origins in the slave trade, revisiting that recent past may help understand the stakes. Abolitionists did not desire a benevolent master. They demanded the end of mastery, categorically. Abolitionism is concerned with the whole gamut of social and political problems, nor does it ignore them to prove its own desirability. It aspires for actual solutions. There are currently more Black people in US prisons than there were slaves at the height of the slave trade, and police kill Black people at a higher rate than were being lynched at the height of Jim Crow. Police brutality is the sixth highest cause of death for young Black men in the United States. Abolition has adapted with the mutation of the racial state into the carceral state, its most recent form.
In the context I study, I stand forth as a witness to history, not as an actor on its stage. Abolition is a method that foregrounds the principle of non-domination as weight and measure. I do not think it is illicit to speak sincerely about the values that shape our writing and thinking, even if we learned those values in contexts alien from the topic of analysis. I have also had my values enriched by an archive that is home to family history and heritage. I refer to the 1979 Revolution. I spoke before of contending visions of carcerality. Iran was a battleground for those contending visions too in the 1960s and 1970s: the Pahlavi State was a police state; the Islamic Republic seamlessly took the reins. Yet that is an incomplete story. How might we tell it in the service of Iran, not in the service of the vultures here and there hovering for their next meal?
OT: I indicated that my research and activism involves a two-pronged approach: dismantling the material conditions and transforming the epistemic and symbolic foundations that drive the border industrial complex (I think the same approach is important for the prison industrial complex). In relation to the former I am concerned with the supply chain that sustains the detention industry and other methods of border control. This involves identifying how the private sector is complicit—detention is a business and cannot survive if investors are not making profit. In relation to the latter I argue that it is vital to decolonize the social imaginary that underpins border politics; that is, decolonize the way knowledge is produced about displaced and exiled peoples and the narratives and symbolism associated with borders and border crossing. Both approaches are debordering practices and challenging one without the other is insufficient.
Concerning the first point about the material conditions: we have seen throughout the recent history of migration to Australia that there were some instances of progress, but then previous technologies of control were reintroduced and strengthened. Many legal approaches were successful, but were then thwarted when governments changed the law. Concerning the second point about the epistemic and symbolic: the colonial mentality and racial imaginary is too deeply ingrained in so many aspects of Australian society, culture and politics—the pervasive, stereotypical tropes associated with displaced and exiled peoples are damaging and exist across the political spectrum. Unless there is a fundamental change in the social imaginary and intellectual landscape, the successes achieved in areas such as policy change and leadership may not be sustainable. Finally, my work tries to effect change by producing new knowledges that emerge from narratives of resistance; by engaging with diverse storytelling practices in political ways I aim to center questions and concerns about intersectional discrimination, colonial violence and other forms of historical injustice, and transnational solidarity.
Based on the other responses to the previous question: what points of overlap do you see between various efforts to pursue abolition?
GN: I believe that studying the history of modern prisons provides us with an essential insight: modern carcerality is a relatively new phenomenon in human history. In my work, I argue that to understand the historical origins of the modern prison is to be able to imagine a world after the prison as well. In other words, when a story has a beginning, it may very well also have an end. In the Middle East, where so many conflicts and crises are described as “timeless” or “ancient” battles stretching back to time immemorial, this insight is especially crucial. This is not to fall back into the retrograde nativist posture that haunts so much politics across Iran and the broader Middle East today, but a future-oriented posture that demands a new and better world.
OT: I think the strongest point of overlap with Golnar and Naveed is the scholar activist vision and commitment. I am particularly inspired by the nuanced connections between different historical periods (Qajar, Pahlavi, IRI; US Slavery, Jim Crow, post-war and Contemporary US), geographical settings (Iran and US in a global context) and theoretical viewpoints (critical race theory, abolitionist theory, Black feminism, and Iranian political and cultural studies). I see many methodological connections in the way historical continuities are foreground and interweaved with a comparative approach, particularly in terms of the justifications for policing and expanding carceral sites. In their responses both Golnar and Naveed—and Arash [Davari] in his feedback as editor—have encouraged me to look closer and further unpack the connections between nation-state formations and their dependence on prison systems for determining insider/outsider notions of belonging. Amplifying this feature in my own work will be useful for exploring notions such as crimmigration (migration law and criminal law encroaching on each other).
This engagement has reminded me of the importance of critically analyzing the situation of prisons in Iran for my research on the border industrial complex. Borders, like prisons, are powerful symbolic and practical instruments that work to determine us/ours from them/theirs. As the pandemic keeps Australians on the precipice of illness, death and loss, Iranian and other refugees are still incarcerated in Australian onshore and offshore detention centers, or those released are forced into other vulnerable social environments. Like the dangers that exist in regular population prisons, refugees in immigration detention are being held in highly volatile circumstances with staff members and their friends and families also in danger. COVID-19 has provided another proof for the relational nature of our well-being and how abolition is in fact a way to protect the rights and safety of everyone in society. The state response to COVID-19 has also proved how technologies and practices of confinement can easily be exploited to control and intimidate all citizens, how confinement is normalized when society is vulnerable; the interconnections between state measures and technologies and practices of border security have been uncanny in Australia. The state response here is a cautionary tale about how borders, security, military and prisons are becoming even more entangled.
NM: The George Floyd protests sparked a fire that raged beyond Minneapolis and beyond the United States, breathing life into local grievances in cities across the United States and across world against carceral regimes. Omid’s remark about centering settler colonialism in Australia is an important one. It’s important to see unity in difference, namely, of prioritizing the fractured histories of carcerality as prior to the moment of shaping abolitionist movements into a unity poised against one thing. Golnar’s insights about confluences between abolitionist politics in the United States and Iran provides an historically grounded account of how we might shape a global history of abolitionism. This conversation has drawn my attention to a correspondence between national historiography and the carceral strategy of border policing internal to the modern and contemporary history of Iran. A practice that I had not considered as part of the effort to think beyond the walls of the prison is collapsing the walls of archives that were founded upon, and sustain, the borders of the nation-state.
Given recent developments around the arrest of Amirhossein Moradi, Mohammad Rajabi, and Saeed Tamjidi, and the movement against the death sentences levied against them, is there anything you would like to add to your responses?
GN: The global outcry led by Iranians both inside and outside of Iran against the execution of these three protesters is an extraordinary reminder of the power of social movements to effect change at the highest levels. As we continue to fight for these protesters’ rights, we must also remember that the overwhelming majority of those incarcerated (or executed) in Iran are not held on “political” charges, but rather have been captured in the quietly political dragnet of the carceral state, largely on drug charges. In the last several years, Iran has backed off of some of its most draconian death penalty practices for some drug charges—in part due to pressure from a wide assortment of Iranian activists, organizations, and public health advocates—but opposing the death penalty in all charges, all cases, and all countries is a critical component of the struggle against the carceral state.
OT: To follow up on my comments regarding the entanglement of borders, security, military and prisons, the capture and death sentences handed down against the three Iranian protesters is another tragic and alarming case that reflects this phenomenon. Two of the protesters—Rajabi and Tamjidi—were deported back to Iran by Turkish authorities after asking for asylum, a violation of the international legal principle of non-refoulement. Significantly, following the gains made by the campaign against executions, another campaign was launched and gained traction in Iran called #Don’t_Kill_Kulbars #كولبر_نکشید in response to the recent death of kulbar (Kurdish couriers working in borderland between Iran and Iraq) Vazir Mohammadi in Kermanshah by border guards. Kurdish kulbars risk their lives for little pay due to limited opportunities to earn a living, and their deaths at the hands of authorities has been dramatically increasing in recent years. Following that, a similar hashtag was launched to protest the deaths of Baluchi soukhtbars, #Do_Not_Kill_ Soukhtbars#سوختبر_نکشید . These and similar events underscore the way borderlands are transformed into battlefields and the far-reaching political impact these forms of state violence have on the rest of civil society, and they raise critical questions about the use of online activism as a response and how it can be made most effective. It is significant that similar hashtags are now emerging in support of other marginalized and persecuted groups.
Omid Tofighian with Behrouz Boochani and locals during his first visit to Manus Island in 2017, holding a signed film poster for Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time (dir. Arash Kamali Sarvestani and Boochani). Image provided by Tofighian.
After the uprisings in Iran at the beginning of 2018, I interviewed Kurdish artist and musician Farhad Bandesh. He was locked up in Manus Island at the time and remains incarcerated almost three years later (he was transferred to other sites and is now in a Melbourne immigration detention center). In response to my question for an article I was writing about the links between Australia’s sanctions on Iran, the Iran protests and refugees in Australia he mentioned the kulbars as an example of how economic discrimination and political suppression are indispensably connected. Similar accounts about the interdependence between socio-economic status and political oppression have been explained to me by writer Mardin Arvin, another Kurdish refugee who has also been incarcerated for over seven years (and now held in Melbourne). He confirms that the politically constructed category of “economic refugee” —used to contrast with “political refugee” —is misguided and damaging. With the use of online activism and the promotion of first-hand accounts, in combination with other tactics, it is possible to mobilize in order to disrupt and dismantle the material conditions that enable carceral sites to exist, and transform the social imaginary that shapes and directs dangerous views and behaviors against displaced, exiled and incarcerated peoples.
NM: I mentioned above that I saw Iran as caught between contending visions of carcerality. It’s important to call a spade a spade, and not always modify critique to appeal to the sensibilities of a fictive American audience who thinks Disney’s Agrabah is real. I say that because those of us who study and care for Iran and write about it from the heart of empire are always navigating the hard truth that the fictive audience I referred to above has a real referent. I share a concern with Eddie S. Glaude who made the powerful claim that the United States is not unique in its sins, but what makes it unique is how unwilling it is to recognize them. That expresses itself through Americans displacing all the injustices of the world “over there,” while measuring those injustices based on some American ideal that isn’t real. The United States has the largest prison population in the world, and capital punishment is still authorized in twenty-eight states. So, when we witness the Islamic Republic threaten to execute its citizens or does so, I think it is important to both acknowledge that what we are seeing is wrong without confusing our ethical standpoint with the physical place—that is, the United States—we are making judgments from.