Draped in the color of Iran’s Green Movement and standing beside his wife, Akbar Ganji accepted the 2010 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty on May 13. Ganji’s acceptance and the remarks that followed capped an evening of celebration and speeches — a biennial event the Cato Institute has presented for the last eight years.
More than 900 Cato Sponsors and friends from as far as Australia filled the gala ballroom of the Hilton Washington to join in celebrating the legacy of Friedman and the achievements of Ganji. The Iranian writer and journalist, who spent six years in a Tehran prison for advocating a secular democracy and exposing government involvement in the assassination of individuals who opposed Iran’s theocratic regime, was the fifth recipient of the prize, joining Yon Goicoechea, leader of the pro-democracy student movement in Venezuela; Mart Laar, former prime minister of Estonia; Hernando de Soto, Peruvian property rights crusader; and Peter Bauer, the late British development economist.
The Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty, named in honor the great 20th century champion of liberty, is presented every other year to an individual who has made a significant contribution to advance human freedom. This year’s pool of nominees was deep, but Akbar Ganji stood out. He is best known for a 1999 series of articles investigating the Chain Murders of Iran, which left five dissident intellectuals dead. Later published in the book The Dungeon of Ghosts, his articles tied the killings to senior clerics and other officials in the Iranian government, including former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
In his acceptance speech, delivered through an interpreter, Ganji said that “emancipation movements in the United States,” from the American Revolution to the civil rights movement, have inspired struggles for freedom around the world. But he warned that the United States had sometimes supported dictatorial regimes in other countries and that in the Middle East “the tyranny of secular and corrupt governments, supported by the United States and other Western countries,” had pushed their people toward the only visible alternative, religious extremism and fundamentalism. In his own Iran the U.S.-backed shah was overthrown by the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Today, he said, after 31 years of “extremist Islamic fundamentalism,” Iran is “the only country in the region that if fair, free, and competitive elections were to be held, democratic forces that believe in the separation of religion from the state would be victorious.” He also said that Western leaders were wrong to believe that “by invading a country and occupying it they can bring democracy to it.” It didn’t work in Iraq, and in Iran both the intensification of economic sanctions and the threat of military action will weaken the democratic opposition and strengthen the hand of the ruling regime.
George Will, Pulitzer prize-winning columnist, delivered the keynote address, a meditation on the financial crisis in Greece, the American welfare state, and baseball. “Given freedom, the American people will flower,” Will said. “Given the Cato Institute, the American people will, in time, secure freedom.”