Free Speech, Top Stories

Why I Signed the Harper’s Letter

In 1996, the late great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was on stage taking questions at the Lincoln Center in New York City after the premiere of his film Through the Olive Trees, when someone asked why he had used classical music (a piece from Concerto for Oboe and Strings by Domenico Cimarosa) in a movie that was set in a small village in northern Iran? Kiarostami turned to me, his translator for the hour, and said, in his soft voice and even softer manner, “Tell him classical music has long ceased to belong to the West. It belongs to the world now.”

That exchange, the way Kiarostami disabused the audience of the notion that music knew borders or that great ideas, once invented, remained the “property” of one nation or region, was on my mind when I signed the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which ran in Harper’s Magazine last Tuesday. What I saw at the heart of the text was a defense of American democracy, which no longer belongs solely to America. For every activist on the streets of Hong Kong, every feminist in the prisons of Saudi Arabia, and every interned Uighur in China, America and its democracy remain, for better or worse, the last hope. Are they naïve and misguided? Right or wrong? It does not matter. Those who are suffering under tyrannies around the world, who are trying to imagine a different future for themselves and their fellow citizens, do not dream of Moscow, Beijing, or any nation in Europe. Just as little girls in the far corners of the world who do not even speak English want to dance like Beyoncé, and just as the youth living under prohibition in the Middle East huddle together to secretly watch bootlegged copies of Hollywood films, activists everywhere look to America, and dream of this democracy.

Moscow clamors to undo America’s elections. Tehran hacks our cyberspace. Along with its cheap goods, China is exporting its freedomless capitalism to the world as an alternative to America’s liberalism. These are only a few of the many threats from avowed enemies to our American way of life from outside. Of the lesser powers that once appeared to be on a democratic path only a few embers glimmer in the ash heap that remains. The overwhelming majority of the “revolutions,” whose outbreaks glued us to our television screens in the past decade, failed: Egypt, Syria, Iran, Venezuela, and Hong Kong… 1,200 protestors were killed on the streets of Iran in the span of two weeks last November. But that was not the injustice Iran’s supreme leader, foreign minister, or president tweeted and spoke about last month. Rather, it was George Floyd. Any day that America is shamed is a holiday for every tyrant anywhere.

It is against the backdrop of this onslaught on democratic principles outside of the United States that any threat from within must be viewed. It is in this broader, precarious global moment that the barring of speakers from academic and scholarly venues takes on an alarming meaning. It is in this light that the firing of editors for running “non-factual” or “dangerous” opinions cannot be justified in the name of public safety, as if any autocrat who ever locked up a dissident did so in any other name. With America’s democracy under a ubiquitous siege, not least from inside its own White House, everyone must ask why publishers are suddenly worried that the readers of their opinion page cannot see through a politician’s truth-bending propaganda disguised as opinion—the kind that the Putins, the Zarifs, and other such distinguished thugs have been printing for many years.

Of all the indignities that have ever been leveled at Americans, the one about their narcissistic ways is most evident in much of the criticism that has thus far been leveled against “The Letter.” Reduced to tabloidism, these detractors cannot look past the who’s who, who’s worth how much, or who hankers for whose attention. Vladimir Lenin is rumored to have said, “When it comes time to hang the capitalists, they will sell us the rope.” He was right about Americans having no qualms about paving the way of their own demise for the right price. But if these navel-gazing critics are any indication, it will not be capitalism, which every authoritarian superpower has embraced, but liberalism, which they have not, that will be gasping for air in the noose.

America’s racial inequities, of which police brutality is only a minor part, must end. They are what disfigure her and undermine her promise of the nation that is to be “indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” But this long overdue transformation must be done according to the blueprint that James Baldwin, among his other enduring gifts, has left for us: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” It must all begin with the love of America and with the fundamental commitment to its founding ideals and the work of making her better. Because if America’s democracy—racially unjust and highly imperfect as it is—fails, the hope of freedom will vanish. Domenico Cimarosa will be confined to Europe again. And there will, surely, be less music in the world.


Roya Hakakian’s memoir, Journey from the Land of No, has been named among the Guardian’s Top Ten Books on Iran. Her forthcoming book is called A Beginner’s Guide to America for the Immigrant and the Curious (Knopf, 2021). You can follow her on Twitter @RoyaTheWriter.

Photos supplied by the author