Anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984 will recall the extreme degree to which the totalitarian state of Oceania controlled the behavior and thought of its citizens. It performed executions on a large scale for harboring opinions or “thought crimes” differing from those of the state. It lured its enemies and suspected enemies into criminalized behavior to legally entrap and destroy them. It continually rewrote history, including the comprehensive destruction of earlier records and texts. It sought to control thought through intimidation and by controlling all sources of information. It incited hatred through incessant propaganda, including the daily “Two Minutes Hate” – a raucous, communal spewing of vitriol towards Oceania’s real and concocted enemies, including the alleged traitor, Emmanuel Goldstein. And, perhaps, most strikingly, it inculcated double-think, a mental technique by which members of the ruling party, such as the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, could hold as true two contradictory sets of facts, if both were promoted by the party.
Surprisingly, in addition to Oceania’s clear resemblance to Stalinist Russia, it also has significant parallels with contemporary Iran.
Iran performs more executions per capita than any other country in the world. Currently, most are for drug offenses. But, historically, the Islamic Republic, like Oceania, killed thousands on the basis of their beliefs, ideology, or thoughts. A current case in point is Mohammad Ali Taheri, whose belief in faith healing has brought down the ire of the authorities who have sentenced him to death. Among the clearest cases of persecution for thought crimes are the over 200 Baha’is executed since 1979 merely for believing in a religion arising after Islam.
In 1984, O’Brien, a ruling party member, who faked disaffection with the party, lured and entrapped Winston Smith and his lover, Julia, into what they believed was Goldstein’s revolutionary movement, thereby precipitating their imprisonment and torture.
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In recounting her former husband’s enticement into a brief affair, Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi noted that entrapment into an extra marital affair is a common tactic used by the Iranian government to destroy its opponents. In both Oceania and Iran, part of the final resolution in such cases is to rewrite history. In Winston Smith’s case, historical records would be rewritten to expunge his existence. In the case of Mrs. Ebadi’s former husband, he succumbed to pressure in prison to publicly denounce his wife by making statements, which constituted a rewriting of her history. His eventual release was partially dependent on a further rewriting of history, as he was required to enter into a backdated marriage, with the woman with whom he had had an affair, to legalize his infidelity.
The “Two Minutes Hate” is reminiscent of the weekly chants of “Death to America” at Friday prayer gatherings in Iran. In Oceania, hangings were both common and public and were used to instill fear into the population. In Iran, public hangings are also common and used to intimidate. In Oceania, children often witnessed them. Unfortunately, the same is true in Iran.
In Oceania, double-think was employed by every party member. It is also arguably common among Iranian officials. For instance, in an interview last year, Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif said that “we do not jail people for their opinions.” The flagrant falseness of this statement suggests that, if Mr. Zarif was not lying, he was either profoundly ignorant of Iran’s human rights record or engaged in double-think – somehow rationalizing perhaps that the many people jailed in Iran for their opinions were there for inchoate crimes, the equivalent of Oceania’s thought crimes.
Today, it could be argued that the Iranian regime is, for the most part, less draconian in the level of punishment it applies for thought crimes. There are no longer Baha’is on death row, for example. Nevertheless, nearly 80 remain incarcerated in abysmal conditions, including the informal leadership group known as the “Baha’i Seven,” who are serving 10 year sentences that began in 2008. May 14 marked the eighth anniversary of their incarceration – eight unjustly lost years that the international community should not permit to reach ten without serious measures in response. With the nuclear deal in implementation, the potential for Iran’s continued improvement in relations with the West might best be measured by its improvement on human rights. And, in that area, there is no clearer bellwether than its treatment of the Baha’is. Much will depend on the extent to which pressure builds on the regime to rid itself of its parallels with Orwell’s Oceania.