Iranian dissident Masih Alinejad has been condemned by conservative media in Tehran as an apostate and heretic — a verdict that carries a death sentence — for testing the limits of free speech in New York, her adopted home-in-exile.
The celebrated social movement leader, famous for her online My Stealthy Freedom campaign, that shows women in Iran illegally photographing themselves without the mandated headscarf, undertook a bold social experiment in New York City to see how far she could go with criticizing other people’s religion, beliefs and even with historical facts.
By using her constitutionally-guaranteed liberty to mock Christianity and deny the Holocaust, as many Islamic Republic leaders do, she exposed the hypocrisy and double standards of mullahs who denounce her outspokenness but revel in spreading anti-Christian and anti-Semitic ideas.
Carrying placards reading “Jesus is Fake,” plus “The Holocaust is a Myth” and “Israel should be wiped off the map” (the notorious slogans of former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) the journalist and writer sought reactions near a downtown Manhattan Catholic church, and in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which has long had a sizable population of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
“Here in New York when I asked about people’s religious beliefs or denied their past I was totally safe and people respected my freedom of speech, but I got attacked by the Iranian conservative media websites!” she told Women in the World.
“A lot of them called me a heretic and an apostate — which carries the verdict of death or execution — because they think I am encouraging Iranian young people to cross a red line and rebel or disrespect religion.
“But my idea is just to open the door to discussion. If you don’t hurt anyone you can challenge them about everything.”
The contrast with how impossible it would be to perform such an exercise in her own country, and to then share the videos on Facebook and Instagram, was striking for Alinejad. “I come from a country where millions of student activists, journalists and ordinary people, or people from minority religions, suffer from not having freedom of speech,” she said, noting that regime opponents could be imprisoned, executed or forced to leave their homeland.
“I am learning myself, because here in the U.S. when these people see denial of such a tragedy [the Holocaust] they keep calm and they teach you how to control your emotional reaction. In my country if you deny the prophet Mohammed or if you ask a question about Islam it is the end of your life.”
Expecting she would be screamed at or perhaps punched, Alinejad was surprised by the calmness of passers-by, even those who were brought to tears by her ‘protest.’ “At first we felt uncertain about completing this exercise,” the journalist and activist explained. Denying the Holocaust in public and getting people’s reactions was the most difficult social experiment she has ever done for her popular online Tablet Show — a weekly news and commentary program for Voice of America. Produced by Iranian-American journalist Saman Arbabi, the Tablet Show is broadcast globally by satellite, including to Iran and the Middle East. Video is then uploaded, with English subtitles, to Alinejad’s Facebook page.
“If you’ve lived in the United States long enough, you have most likely met a Holocaust survivor, or someone very close to them, or war veterans who fought during WWII and feel compassionate about what they have lived through,” she said.
Despite some misgivings Alinejad decided to move forward with the exercise “because freedom of speech in a free society comes at a high cost.”
“Remarkably almost everyone had one thing to tell us, regardless of how hurtful the message of this exercise was: it was important to defend freedom of expression,” she said.
هفته گذشته تبلت یک آزمایش اجتماعی در مورد آزادی بیان و میزان تحمل مردم نیویورک در برابر نقد مذهب مسیحیت، انجام داد. اما رسانه های نزدیک به حکومت نوشتند که آزادی بیان در آمريكا هم مرز دارد و نمی شود به اسراییل نقد کرد یا نقد هولوکاست باعث زندانی شدن خبرنگار می شود.این هفته تبلت دو جمله معروف محافظه کاران را در دو سوی یک تابلو نوشت یکی انکار هولوکاست و دیگری محو اسراییل از نقشه جهان. ببینید مردم نیویورک چه واکنشی نشان می دهند اين واكنش بخش هاي از مردم نيويورك است At first we felt uncertain about completing this social experiment . If you’ve lived in the United States long enough, you have most likely met a Holocaust survivor, or someone very close to them, or a war veteran who fought during WWII and feel compassionate to what they have lived through. Remarkably in the end almost everyone one had one thing to tell us regardless of how hurtful the message of this exercise was. Defending freedom of expression
Posted by Masih Alinejad on Saturday, June 11, 2016
The proudly non-hijab wearing Iranian feminist doesn’t ascribe to the negationist views on the Shoah propagated in her home country, which still hosts an annual Holocaust-denial cartoon contest. However, she wanted to know if it was possible to ‘insult’ and deny firmly-held spiritual beliefs and historical reality without risking violence or police reprisals.
Alinejad was inspired to perform the experiment after Iranians criticized her for attacking the Mullahs and the regime from the safety of the United States, where she has lived since 2014, after fleeing to London first during the crackdown on protesters and reformers in the Green revolution. “When I left Iran I thought this was a good time to interview the mullahs on their landlines and mobile phones. But I got emails and comments from people inside Iran saying ‘now that you are in America you are still criticizing the mullahs’. They said ‘It’s not fair. You should also criticize people in the US or its government.’”
So Alinejad began her series of social experiments to show “that although America is not perfect I have the freedom to ask whatever I want to ask.”
The woman who described her hair as “a hostage in the arms of the Iranian government” has developed a specialty using this journalistic method, shooting similar programs around the subjects of gun violence, the rise of Donald Trump and police brutality. After attracting hundreds of thousands of views for her “Jesus is Fake” video, Alinejad received numerous comments from Iranians who were skeptical that if she did the same experiment about Israel or the Shoah the result would be the same. “A lot of commenters said ‘Oh, you are just criticizing Jesus but in America there are limits you cannot criticize the Holocaust and you cannot criticize Israel. If you dare deny the Holocaust in public you will get beaten up, and end up in jail and they will kick you out from America.'”
Determined to answer her detractors, Alinejad went to Brooklyn to hold up two signs carrying the famous catchphrases popularized by Ahmadinejad. “I was really nervous because denying such a tragedy is very difficult,” she said of the exercise.
The experience gave her an even deeper respect for the people of New York, she said, because she “broke their hearts by denying the Holocaust,” but they didn’t react with anger or physical violence. “The beautiful thing was they are all protecting the first amendment and freedom of speech,” she said.
An elderly man from Poland told her all his family were victims of the Holocaust, to which she replied “Why don’t you punch me?’”
“His answer shook me and I learned from this old man from Poland. He said ‘We have freedom of speech here which we cannot have elsewhere in the world, and the First Amendment and the constitution of the United States of America will allow us to express ourselves.’”
For the exiled Iranian such professional projects that probe deeply-held convictions about liberty of expression are important learning exercises. “This exercise is just showing we can practice freedom of speech. You can’t find absolute freedom anywhere and I’m not saying America is perfect but people are practicing it every day in daily life.
“You can be calm and listen to other people and learn from other experiences and it doesn’t mean you kill somebody else because they are challenging your beliefs.”
Follow Emma-Kate Symons on Twitter @eksymons