Every January, Americans honor the life and legacy of civil rights leader Martin Luther King. In the 1960s, he called on the United States to live up to its principles and end racial discrimination against black Americans. He refused to accept injustice, but also refused to give in to advocates of violence. "We will not resort to violence. We will not degrade ourselves with hatred. Love will be returned for hate," he said.
The U.S. was founded on democratic ideals and principles. Martin Luther King's words challenged the nation to live up to those ideals and helped bring significant social change. Today his words and actions have special meaning for millions of people struggling against injustice elsewhere. In authoritarian regimes from Cuba to Burma, from China to Iran, brave men and women are challenging decades of repression and violence. They come from many walks of life. They are teachers, students, journalists, religious leaders, lawyers, and workers. They are speaking out and peacefully protesting for fundamental human rights. They are calling for an end to authoritarian rule. And they are being heard. They include a history professor from Tehran's Tarbiate [tar-bee-aht-teh] Modarres [mo-DAH-res] University, Hashem Aghajari [hah-SHEM ah-gah-JAR-ee]. A member of an Iranian reformist political party, the Islamic Revolution Mujahedin Organization, Mr. Aghajari spoke out publicly for a "religious renaissance" among Shi'ite Muslims. He said people "should not blindly follow" religious leaders. For this, he was convicted in a closed trial and sentenced to seventy-four lashes, eight years in internal exile, and then, death.
In protest, thousands of Iranian students took to the streets. The Islamic clerical regime responded with more repression. Peaceful protests were broken up and protestors reportedly beaten by Islamic vigilantes. Iran's rulers closed down two leading reformist newspapers, the daily Hayat-e-Nou [hai-at-eh-no] and the daily Bahar [bah-har] for allegedly "insulting" authorities.
By their repressive measures, Iran's hard-line Islamic rulers stand against those who aspire to peaceful change and a better life for Iran's people. The experience of America and other democratic countries proves that healthy and prosperous societies can only be built on peaceful change. The alternatives are violence and poverty. The people of Iran have chosen to follow the path of non-violent activism. And as President George W. Bush said, the United States will "continue to stand with the people of Iran in [their] quest for freedom. . .and the rule of law."