To radical Islamist groups, Islam is not a religion which all are free to pursue; it is a weapon. It is the most powerful tool that can be wielded with manipulative skill to control entire populations. Beneath their fierce rule, every aspect of daily life is dictated. What is worn, what is eaten, what you say and what you write are all scrutinized; violations of these stringent laws are met with extreme punishments. Can you imagine making a joke and facing death as a result? Can you imagine the constant fear of doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing, when you have seen people beaten, stoned, or killed in the street for nothing more than a mild transgression?
Freedom of speech and press are the Islamists' top enemies. They are targeted on a regular basis, making it difficult or impossible for the truth to be revealed to the world. While others may take their privacy for granted, the people living under this kind of tyranny must think about everything they say and do. Sometimes even the bravest of souls turn away in the face of such intimidation. Can it really be as restrictive as described? Yes, and far worse than you can imagine.
Sina Dehghan, 21, for example, was arrested by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) when he was 19 for "insulting Islam". Charges were brought against him for insulting the Prophet Muhammad on the messaging app LINE.
According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI):
"During his interrogation, Sina was told that if he signed a confession and repented, he would be pardoned and let go," said the source in an interview with CHRI on March 21, 2017. "Unfortunately, he made a childish decision and accepted the charges. Then they sentenced him to death." "Later he admitted that he signed the confession hoping to get freed," said the source. "Apparently the authorities also got him to confess in front of a camera as well."
Such a sentence may seem like madness, but in fact there is a cold and calculated pattern to these actions. When extremist Muslims gain power, they immediately create their own "judiciary system" in order to "legitimize" their implementation of sharia law. This judiciary system is, in fact, used less as a tool for bringing people to justice, and more as a tool to suppress freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Once this silence is ensured, they are able to oppress the entire society, restrain any budding opposition, imprison and torture innocent people and sentence thousands to death.
Sina Dehghan, 21, has been sentenced to death in Iran for "insulting Islam". There are many people like him in Iran who are currently imprisoned, tortured on a daily basis, or awaiting their execution for "insulting Islam", "insulting the prophet", "insulting the Supreme Leader" -- the examples are endless. (Image source: Center for Human Rights in Iran)
By imprisoning, torturing and hanging idealistic and rebellious young people, the ruling politicians and the Islamist judiciary system are using them as an example to send a message to millions of people that they will not tolerate anyone who opposes their religious or political view.
Radical Islamist groups have been using the same tactic in other nations to impose fear and shock in the public. They aim at silencing people and making them subservient. Once they have control, they will stop at nothing to keep it.
For the Islamists, once you submit to their religion, your freedom of speech and of the press belong to Allah. Your only job is to exercise silence and obedience, and follow your religious leader, imam, sheikh, or velayat-e faqih ("guardianship of the Islamic jurist").
As the Center for Human Rights in Iran pointed out:
"Security and judicial authorities promised Sina's family that if they didn't make any noise about his case, he would have a better chance of being freed, and that talking about it to the media would work against him," added the source. "Unfortunately, the family believed those words and stopped sharing information about his case and discouraged others from sharing it as well." "Sina is not feeling well," continued the source. "He's depressed and cries constantly. He's being held in a ward with drug convicts and murderers who broke his jaw a while ago."
For the ruling Islamists, it does not matter if you have been a loyalist all your life. If you speak up or oppose them just once, you will be eliminated. As CHRI quoted one source: "He was a 19-year-old boy at the time (of his arrest) and had never done anything wrong in his life."
One of Dehghan's co-defendants, Mohammad Nouri, was also sentenced to death for posting anti-Islamic comments on social media. Another co-defendant, Sahar Eliasi, was sentenced to seven years, and later the sentence was reduced to three years.
What does the term "anti-Islamic" mean exactly in an Islamist judiciary system? If it carries a death sentence, you might assume that the parameters of the law would be well outlined. However, that is not the case. For the ruling Islamists, the term "anti-Islamic" is completely ambiguous and subjective, and can relate to anything that opposes their view or their power. What might seem like an innocent remark, could change a life forever.
If they are such violent and oppressive people, you might wonder how they are ever able to gain power. They do this through manipulation, charm and countless false promises.
Some radical Islamists, before they gain power, promise people equality, justice, peace, and a far better life. They appeal to the young, to the traditional, and to the hopeful. But once they seize power, they close an iron grip around any and all freedoms, available to their people -- in particular freedom of speech.
Once radical Islam has gained power, established its own judiciary system, or infiltrated the legal system with its sharia law, no one is capable of criticizing the government or the political establishment. In a social order ruled by radical Islam, the government is Islam; the government is the representative of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad. Ruling politicians who decide the laws are "divine" figures supposedly appointed by God. They are not to be questioned.
There are many people like Sina Dehghan who are currently imprisoned, tortured on a daily basis, or awaiting their execution for "insulting Islam", "insulting the prophet", "insulting the Supreme Leader" -- the examples are endless. The issue is that we do not hear about these cases. Some media outlets refuse to report on them in order to appease the Islamic Republic of Iran -- just further proof of how coercive their power can be. The only way to reduce it -- and the oppression and slaughter of so many people -- is to bring attention to the human rights abuses conducted under the Islamic banner of religious "legitimacy " and "authenticity".
This type of tyranny is a danger, not just for those enduring it, but for the world.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, political scientist and Harvard University scholar is president of the International American Council on the Middle East. He can be reached at Dr.firstname.lastname@example.org.