Monthly Archives: October 2009

Reactions to Sunday’s attack on Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Sunday, a small radical Sunni group again attacked Iran. A suicide bomber targeted a meeting close to a small town on the border with Pakistan in the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan. Among the around 40 dead were six or seven high-ranking Revolutionary Guard commanders. This is the latest act in a long-running small-scale war with insurgents in a volatile corner of multi-ethnic Iran. It is also yet another good reason why many Iranians feel their country is under attack by its many enemies.

According to the state-owned Iranian Press TV, Jondollah (aka. Jundullah, Jundallah) – a Sunni Muslim, Baluchi terror group – has claimed responsibility for the  (read more about Jondollah here). For at least six years, Jondollah has been behind several acts of terrorism, including ambushes on military convoys, assassination, abductions and execution of officials and soldiers.

Reportedly, a group of Revolutionary Guard commanders, Shiite and Sunni clerics and local tribal leaders were supposed to congregate at a ‘Unity Meeting’, where they would discuss security issues in the province, which has been marred for many years with drug smuggling, terror and armed gangs. Among the Revolutionary Guards were Brigadier Nour-Ali Shushtari (deputy commander of the Guard’s ground forces, head of the local main base), Brigadier Rajab-Ali Mohammadzadeh (provincial commander) and commanders of major cities and towns in the province. Several of the tribal leaders and both Shiite and Sunni clerics also died.

The terror act has been described by Iranian officials as a foreign-sponsored blow to the Iranian state’s endeavor at reconciling Shiites and Sunnis, and as an attempt at disrupting security and creating ethnic and sectarian strife in multi-cultural Iran. Namely, the US, Britain and Pakistan have been accused for supporting Jondollah. This is not the first time Iran makes this accusation, and there is still reason to take this claim seriously and not dismiss it categorically as just another piece of propaganda or political paranoia. In particular, there have been speculations for several years whether or not the US have been in contact with Jondollah, or maybe even trained and equipped them (see here, here, here and here – also see Press TV interview with Jondollah leader Abdolmalek Rigi’s brother here and here).

Just as with earlier episodes, Iranian officials have again linked Jondollah to ‘Talibanism’, Al-Qaeda and Wahhabism, and thus there is also an indirect accusation against Saudi Arabia, whom Iran has accused before for supporting not only Baluchi militants, but also Kurdish guerillas (see Uskowi Iran’s analysis here).

The Iranians have been very clear this time that the Jondollah is using Pakistan as a safe haven. Ahmadinejad stated that certain elements in the Pakistani state support the Jondollah. I interpret his statement as condemning not an overall Pakistani strategy, but rather the notion of rogue elements from within the Paki intelligence and military establishment – autonomous elements who share anti-Shiite tendencies with various extremist factions in Pakistan. The Iranian parliament demanded swift military action – including attacks over the border and into Pakistan. I don’t think this will happen unless the Pakistanis agree (maybe unofficially, as seems to have happened in the case of Iran attacking PJAK on Iraqi soil). Indeed, Iranian media have reported that during a phone call, Ahmadinejad and Zardari agreed to coordinate actions against Jondollah.

However, instead of dwelling on the different (conspiracy) theories and whether or not they can be true – including the admittedly interesting question of whether the US is (still?) supporting Jondollah – I will focus on the impact on Iranian public opinion.

It is my impression that Iranians in general do not perceive Jondollah as a group fighting for ethnic or sectarian rights – and certainly not for democratic values. The Iranian state-run media, government officials and the clergy have thus succeeded in planting the Wild East image among ordinary Iranians: that Sistan-Baluchistan has always been ‘wild’, plagued by unruly tribal marauders and drug gangs. The Jondollah is thus perceived as bandits (ashrâr) and not as political activists, symptomatic of a primitive barbaric culture that has more to do with ‘Afghanistan’ than ‘Iran’.

Pundits in Iran, however, are very well aware of the several layers of political and social implications in Jondollahs activities, whether ethnic, sectarian, regional or international.

In general, ‘opposition’ bloggers – that is, those bloggers who generally support a major democratic change in Iran, whether through the ‘reformist’ alternative or through overthrow – certainly do not cheer for Jondollah. Even though these bloggers are among the most ardent critics of The Revolutionary Guards, they forcibly condemn Jondollah’s suicide mission. One example is this blogger who is clearly not a fan of the Islamic Republic. His view is that of the classical Persian nationalist, and his blog post is introduced in the name of the Zoroastrian diety:

“This act clearly underscores that [Jondollah] do not care the least bit for Iran. They are a bunch of extremist Wahhabis, who are abusing the diversity of the Iranian people. They want to create ethnic strife, and on top of it, religious-sectarian strife. The existence of such people in Iran is a disgrace for all Iranians. The age of ethnicity and tribalism is over, and our country must discard all ethnicities in order to enter the new world – even though we’ve never actually have had ethnic units in our country”

Another ‘Green’ (that is, pro-reformist) blogger condemns the attack on ‘defenseless people’ and identifies the two sides of Sunday’s fight, The Revolutionary Guards and Jondollah:

“The Guards are now known to everyone, and they do not need thorough introduction. They are an organ, the members and employees of which may be of the Iranian race but surely do not share the positive traits of the people of this country… We have all witnessed how they violently and vehemently attacked [their own people] … But Jondollah, on the other hand, is no more than a bunch of bandits and thieves: people who stop innocent and unarmed civilians on the road, in the middle of the night, tie their hands and shoot them all down [referring to earlier Jondollah ambushes].”

He continues to portray Jondollah as ‘rabid dogs’, ‘hungry wolves’, ‘wild pigs’ and rhetorically asks those who have named Jondollah a ‘popular resistance movement’ exactly what good Jondollah has ever done for Iran. He states that the group’s leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, has never been and will never be a representative of neither the Iranian people nor the people of Sistan-Baluchistan. He concludes:

“I would personally never want my name alongside that of the Revolutionary Guards … and would certainly never cooperate with them. However, if I should ever be forced to chose between the Guards of the Islamic Republic and Jondollah, without doubt I would chose the fortress of the Guards, and I would fight to root out the terrorism of this extremist religious and Taliban-esque [Jondollah] …”

However, the more or less nationalistic view on the issue – i.e., Jondollah being a threat to Iran’s territorial integrity and not the regime of the Islamic Republic – is also supplemented with more nuanced views. Indeed, in the Persian blogosphere one often encounters an understanding for the bereaved, extremely poor people of Baluchistan, as well as sympathy for civilians who are inevitably going to get caught up in the ‘bloody revenge’ promised by Iranian authorities. One commentator on a website wrote that ‘tomorrow they will surely round up four random, innocent guys and execute them in public as “terrorists”’.

As usual, there are several conspiracy theories floating around cyberspace. One blogger – identifying as an Iranian woman – argues that this bombing should be seen as the latest in a string of ‘IRGC eliminations’: in other words, she is implying that the killing of the Revolutionary Guards commanders is part of a wider attempt at eliminating the old cadres of the IRGC in order to let the younger members take over. That theory seems a bit too far-fetched, but nonetheless reflect how widespread myths and ideas about the IRGC are in Iran today.

However, in my interpretation, the main point that shines through most cyberspace writing in Iran is the belief that Jondollah is a mercenary group. Thus, both the regime and the ordinary people will see the latest attack as the mindless spilling of (more or less) innocent blood by foreign powers pursuing their own geostrategic agendas through proxies such as Jondollah.

In February this year, the US State Treasury branded PJAK, the PKK-affiliated Kurdish guerilla group fighting the Iranian state, as terrorists. It will be interesting whether or not the US under Obama’s administration will also place Jondollah on the list. According to this article from ILNA, an Iranian news agency, Obama’s administration is considering to do exactly that. It would be the only decent thing to do. Jondollah is an extremist and opportunist group, willing to work with anyone, and willing to shed the blood of both civilians and military personnel. It is not a ‘popular resistance group’, as VOA once introduced them. Jondollah is a terrorist group, nothing more, nothing less.

EU Progress Report and Civic Culture In Turkey

by Daniella Kuzmanovic.

Wednesday, October 14th, it was once again time for the yearly assessment of Turkish efforts to meet the political and economic criteria in relation to the EU membership negotiations (http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2009/tr_rapport_2009_en.pdf). With regard to the political criteria all the usual critical issues are, as could be expected, mentioned in the report: Minority issues, the Kurdish problem, human rights, equality with regard to gender, sexual orientation and disabled people, children’s rights, labor and union rights, the role of the military in politics, administrative structural problems in the bureaucracy, anti-corruption initiatives, the structure and functioning of the judiciary, the Ergenekon case, freedom of expression, and the lack of action with regard to the Cyprus issue and the question of opening Turkish ports for Cypriotic vessels. This year, in the light of the on-going tax case against the Doğan media group, and the accompanying verbalized attacks against the group’s media and journalists from members of the ruling party, concerns regarding freedom of speech were, as could also be expected, particularly emphasized.

My attention, though, was immediately drawn to a couple of smaller sections of the assessment report (page 20) dealing with civil society. This should perhaps not come as a surprise, since civil society in Turkey has been my object of research for some years. The role of civil society and input from civil society is frequently mentioned in the report. But on page 20 there are a couple of paragraphs that deal with some of the many challenges civil society faces in Turkey. One deals with the issue of funding, another with the issue of state – civil society relations:

“Some legal provisions place an undue burden on the operations of associations. There are high fines or severe punishments for failing to comply with the Law on Associations [note 23 inserted: In the event of failure to keep the necessary records of an association, the executives of the association are liable to imprisonment of between three months and one year.] The legal obligation to notify authorities before receiving financial support from abroad places a burden on associations. Negative portrayal in certain media and at times disproportionate inspections of NGOs receiving funds from abroad, including EC funds, remain a further cause for concern.”

[…]

“There is a growing awareness in public institutions and in the public at large about the crucial role played by civil society organisations, including in the accession process. However, some difficulties encountered with the consultation procedures reflect the lack of trust between State institutions and civil society organisations. The legal framework for collection of donations and tax exemptions for NGOs needs to be strengthened, in line with EU good practice, to improve NGOs’ financial sustainability.”

To take up the latter first, for sure one of the main obstacles with regard to an enhanced role for civil society in Turkey is the lack of trust between state authorities and particular sections of civil society. That is to say those sections which have traditionally perceived themselves as being in opposition to the statist elite and the authoritarian state tradition in Turkey, and which have used the idiom of civil society to express this opposition from the mid 1980ies onwards. Having stated this, I have also stated that the lack of trust, among other, has to be understood with reference to the events of September 12, 1980 (i.e. the military coup) and the subsequent clamp down of state authorities on a range of civic political and intellectual forces, but particularly leftists. The result of the 1980 coup were also a number of highly restrictive laws with regard to associations (dernek) and foundations (vakıf), associations being more heavily controlled than foundations, though, since associations were associated with leftist activities. In addition the lack of trust must also be understood with reference to the events of February 28, 1997 (the so-called postmodern coup) particularly aimed at pro-Islamic forces. These two sections are in fact two prominent sections of that part of civil society in Turkey, which aims to influence the political developments and decision-making processes. Many of the NGO’s that have the attention of the EU are indeed part of a broader leftist tradition.

The restrictive laws on associations and foundations have in recent years finally been revised. However, building trust between state authorities and civil society takes more than legal revisions and strengthening of procedures. Yet the wording in the progress report makes it sound as if the issue of trust is a technical issue, rather than stemming from those broader historical experiences of the past decades that still influences state- civil society relations. The EU does in fact support trust-building measures with regard to state-civil society relations in Turkey, but the report fails to mention this.

The first of the quoted paragraphs touching upon the issue of funds from abroad for civic activities, deals with the way in which the influx of foreign support for civic activities is perceived in Turkey by state authorities and by “certain media”. As a matter of fact, foreign funding for civic activities is also a major issue of debate among civic activists themselves. For several reasons accepting foreign funds is viewed with suspicion by some segments of civil society, and those organizations that do receive funds from the EU, the Soros Foundations or alike thus make themselves a liable target for critique from various other segments of civil society. One of the main aspects of this critique pertains to a firm belief that funds do not come with ‘no strings attached.’ They are part of a political-ideological ambition (or plot as some would prefer) to establish ideological and economic dominance in Turkey. Not least US funding has been read with such a perspective in mind, the Soros Foundation being seen as a prominent example of how a US neo-liberal, pro-Israeli segment is gaining influence in Turkey. A book entitled ”Project democracy”: Sivil örümceğin ağında (Project democracy: In the web of the civil spider) (Ankara: Ulus Dağı Yayınları) is a prime example of such thinking. Other aspects of the critique pertain to a desire among civic activists to dissociate themselves from western values and influence more generally speaking, in order to state that their organization does not adhere to such values.

The issue taken up in this section of the progress report is in fact a complex issue pertaining yet again to the way in which various historical experiences form part of civic activism in Turkey. One pertains to the question of Turkish sovereignty, which is close to the heart of both traditional Kemalist civil society organizations that hold on to the notion of Turkey as ‘threatened’ by foreign powers, as well as to those leftists who see themselves as involved in a global anti-imperialist struggle. Another pertains to the struggle between western modernity including political values, and what not least a number of pro-Islamic organizations perceive as ‘local’ (read: authentic) forms of civic activism. That was just to mention a few of the aspects of the issue. Again the report barely hints at the variety of historical experiences, which are involved in constituting the critique in certain media and the general suspicious attitude towards foreign funds. I stress the importance of this outlook and sensitivity towards the historical experiences in play in order to underline how technical solutions aimed at transparency, alterations of legal structures and bureaucratic procedures is only one aspect of supporting civic culture in Turkey. This has also been pointed to in numerous reports on civic culture in Turkey, such as those from TÜSEV. I just wish, the sections in the EU progress report had also shown even greater sensitivity towards the issues at stake.

al-Jazeera and the blame game of racism

By Sune Haugbolle.

On Thursday night, al-Jazeera aired its much touted and feared programme about racism in Denmark. The trailers aired in the last week had sent alarm bells ringing among both politicians and media here in Denmark. The programme promised to expose Danish racism, intolerance, and Islamophobia, and could maybe trigger negative reactions in the region?

So far, no sign of an uproar from that notorious Arab street that should cause Danes to be alarmed… First of all, because people in the Middle East have much more important things to worry about than Danes and Denmark (I know this is hard to believe for some). And second, because the programme did not touch on any of the religiously fused issues that brought matters to a head during the Muhammad cartoon crisis. The story about failed integration in Western Europe is not a new one, even though the programme probably added to any dismay Arabs may already have felt towards Denmark. And maybe just because a lot of people will have found the tone a little shrill – certainly if they have any personal experience with Denmark.

I personally found instructor Awad Jouma’s portrayal of our problems with immigration, racism and crime in Denmark really black and white, both in content and form. The programme zoomed in on the most negative aspects and blew them out of proportion. Talk about al-rai wal-rai al-akher… For example, there was an unreasonably large focus on the Danish Nazi party, a tiny group of lunatics and not in any way representative of neither Danish attitudes towards immigrants nor the real political issues at stake.

Namely, principally, the Danish People’s Party and its central position in Danish politics since 2001. The regime change in 2001 was touched upon, but not analysed in any details that could have helped Arab viewers understand the situation. If any one thing about Denmark and Muslims would be worth communicating to the Arab world, it would be a nuanced, detailed story of how an extreme right wing party (Fremskridtspartiet) in the mid-1990s morphed into what has become the deciding factor in Danish immigration policies. How fears of Islam among some population groups have been blown out of proportion and used politically, and in the process changed the basic rules of public debate in Denmark.

As it was presented here, the viewer had no chance of understanding why around 10% of the Danish population vote for this party, how it conquered parts of the middle ground, and what relation this change has to racism. And, not least, how a large part of the Danish population is both alarmed and ashamed about our right-wing turn. The viewers of this programme would have learned little about neither the Danish “Kulturkampf” between left and right, nor the important implications it has had on politics and media in the last seven years. And it is no excuse that the director was an outsider: indeed, he was not. Awad Jouma lived most of his life in Denmark, and has previously shown some of the more positive aspects of that experience in a documentary about his father, also shown on al-Jazeera.

What we got instead was a vaguely formulated thesis, sustained by the usual fare of over-dramatizing background music, about how racism in the Danish population, broadly speaking, has lead to a number of things: to failed immigration, to crime among young immigrants, to the Danish police assisting ostensibly racist biker gangs like Hell’s Angels in their ongoing war against immigrant gangs, and how Danish foreign policy has become completely entangled with American and Israeli interests. All a result of racism in Danish society, mind you. The blame fell squarely on the Danish population.

There is of course racism, and there are anti-Muslim sentiments in Denmark, which is something we are all struggling with. And there is, in my opinion, way too little debate about it in the Danish media which appear to have agreed that tackling racism amounts to “political correctness,” a “Swedish” stage of development which Danish society has luckily long surpassed, as the Danish immigrant politician Nasser Khader formulated it on the news show DR2 deadline Thursday night. We should face our demons, (even if that makes us Swedes in the eyes of some), by all means, and we and outsiders interested in Danish affairs should understand how mainstream politics became infused with fear of “the other.” Not least because it not a purely Danish issue, but a problem in all of Europe. Therefore TV documentaries, very influential media forms in today’s world, are welcome.

But such a project calls for a nuanced and sensitive critique, not sensationalistic TV journalism. Where the programme worked tremendously well was in the parts where it talked about conditions in Denmark’s Sandholm asylum seekers center, which like other such centres truly is a shame and a crime. But mostly, we were served a spicy sauce of conspiracy theories, racist bikers, and the gloomiest shots of wonderful Copenhagen I have ever seen in my life! Every single image was of grimy suburban streets in February. Having seen this programme I think more than one Arab viewer would have been left wondering why anyone would have wanted to leave the Middle East for Denmark in the first place.

Understanding the roots of violence, racism and cultural divides in our societies can never be a blame game. The first thing we must realise is that they are shared predicaments, and that we must look for the answers, in a careful and nuanced way, both in Europe and in the Middle East.