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16 May 2012

Believing What You See: Iran’s ‘Gay’ Hangings

Yesterday a report that four gay men in Iran were due to be executed for being gay went viral. I read the report, firstly in Pink News and then beyond, with some suspicion. The reports were vague, relying largely on responses from nameless sources and Western activists. Despite Pink News quoting two sources for the story, the latter source seemed to rely on the first. In fact, every single report of the story relied on ‘reports’ from something called the “Human Rights Activist News Agency”. Given that the vast majority of readers are going to be ignorant of this organisation (I certainly was) you would expect some context as to its reliability, but there was none. There was remarkably little variation in the reporting, suggesting no independent verification. From past experience, I thought it reasonable to assume that many of the writers of these reports had made no effort to verify the story or even ascertain further details. Indeed, it’s not the first time that there has been a horror story about gay executions in Iran - and it wouldn’t be the first time that such a horror story had spread across the world with little evidence behind it.

Today, a photo purporting to show the four men’s execution (EXPLICIT CONTENT) was widely shared on social media. Again, I was suspicious. If such an event had taken place with so many onlookers, surely we would be beyond relying on a single report? Surely we would have further details of the men aside from some names in inverted commas? The fact that people sharing the photo couldn’t even agree on which day it was taken further troubled me. So this evening I did some googling. I found this great article. You must read it but in short it argues that many Western gay activists (notably Peter Tatchell) are so eager for ‘gay victims’ that they completely abandon any attempts at objectivity or rationality. It goes on to examine the reports regarding the four men and finds them wanting, to say the least. Unlike, I imagine, pretty much all of those who disseminated the story, the writer actually attempts to find out further information from HRANA and fails.

I then noticed something else: the image purporting to show the men’s execution had ‘2008’ in its file name (at least on the site I first found it linked to this story). Finding that odd, I put the image into Tinyeye search, which aims to find other instances of any picture you input. And there it was - sites using the image in 2008. Notably, they give next to no details about it, observing only that it shows a public execution in ‘Borazjan 2008’.

That search literally took seconds. The fact that none of the hundreds, thousands of people who have shared it, including some professional journalists, noticed this is worrying to say the least.

However, what does it matter? Maybe there are four men as described and Iran certainly has demonstrable form in human rights abuses and executions, including against gays. It is undoubtedly a brutal regime.

The problem is that it was a brutal regime last week and it will be a brutal regime next week. As the image shows, it was a brutal regime in 2008 when it executed four men who are anonymous to the world, preserved forever in that grim image. Yet the issue was not that it’s a despotic regime, or that it uses capital punishment (something it shares, of course, with America). The issue was that it was killing people merely for being gay. That was what made so many suddenly take notice.

This raises troubling issues. Not least, it raises the issue of how easy it can be to manipulate people into believing a certain narrative about Iran - a narrative which, of course, aids the manipulation itself. Given the drumbeats of war sounding for Iran in many powerful quarters, it’s not difficult to imagine how dangerous this could be. I saw many comments, mostly on American sites, demanding that ‘we’ bomb Iran. Some had a tone of ‘alright, now I’m in’, suggesting that previously they had not been eager to support a war but had been convinced by this barbarity. Given the lies and manipulation which led us into the Iraq war, you would surely expect us to be more wary of these emotional responses and, moreso, of whatever information led us to them? There has been a steady drip of stories about Iran’s barbarity over the past year or so - the fact that they so neatly serve powerful interests should put us on guard. It’s a sinister insight into how the softening of public opinion for an attack on Iran could happen (if it’s not happening already).

The very interesting thing is that many of the stories have concerned totemic liberal values such as gay rights and women’s rights. The ‘everyday’ oppression in Iran rarely inspires much ire - it’s these issues which get people worked up. It’s reminiscent of when we have been encouraged to support war in Iraq and Afghanistan on the grounds that it would improve the lot of women. You don’t have to spend long reading about either conflict to see that these claims are, at best, problematic.

The response also reminded me of the response to the murder of Stuart Walker in Scotland last year. There was another case where liberal-minded and I’m sure well-intentioned people rushed to judgement based on little information. That case also quickly went viral with many expressions of disgust and demands that something be done. Within hours, however, it became clear that the case was far more complex and Stuart’s sexuality might not have played a part in his death. As quickly as the outrage and concern arose, it vanished. I didn’t see a single person correct themselves or even admit that they might have got it wrong. Everyone moved on and I sincerely doubt that even 1% of the people who wrote about it have any idea of, or even interest in, what happened in Stuart Walker’s case since.

As with Stuart, we know absolutely nothing about these four Iranian men (assuming the case is real). They have immediately become ‘four gay men’ and that is the extent of their identity. The problem with that is that it becomes the extent of their usefulness. If it transpires that they were executed for, say, rape, the outrage and concern vanishes, people move on, no-one spends any time thinking about why they were so quick to get it wrong. As the Paper Bird piece argues, they are useful ‘gay victims’ for advancing certain agendas and world views and nothing else matters:

But don’t you see?  Marking them “gay” means they are not “innocent,” not in the Iranian judiciary’s eyes. You know nothing about these four men, nothing at all. But you’re still content to call them names that convict them. What gave you that right?

The truly sad thing is that someone, somewhere, deliberately decided to deceive in finding the 2008 photo and linking it to this story. The fact that this deception has so easily and so quickly spread around the world only serves to obscure the real brutalities of the Iranian regime; it serves to bolster the idea that the West will stop at nothing to discredit Iran and so strengthens the regime. More immediately, of course, it serves to obscure the reality surrounding the four men or, if they do not exist, others like them. Others like, in fact, the men in the 2008 photograph.

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Themed by Hunson. Originally by Josh