Saturday, June 27, 2009


Abbas Barzegar has a sensible commentary on the happenings in Iran (and the media coverage thereof) in the Guardian (h/t Pulse) which is a relief from the many hyped "purple finger" columns that have dominated the news.

Our fantastic political analyses spring from idealistic liberal hopes and are symptomatic of the larger problem we have in understanding political Islam. That this crisis has been presented as one between the "Iranian people" and its government is among the greatest errors of the media coverage this week. The competing crowds of millions for and against Ahmadinejad should have been enough to indicate that the conflict was as much a social issue as it was a political one. But phrases such as "a lot of Iranians" or "Mousavi's broad constituency" make weaker soundbites than "the Iranian people." So, from Sarkozy to Sky News, the only "Iranian people" that seemingly exist this week are those wearing green.

But bias is not my gripe; the good Muslim v bad Muslim game is an old one. I care about misrepresentation. By ignoring the millions of Ahmadinejad supporters (even after counting for mass fraud) journalists and pundits have mistaken Iranian Islamists as communist bureaucrats on a payroll that might easily fold when forced to attack other Iranians. Instead, we have seen Basiji volunteers jump at the opportunity to smash their batons across the faces of men, women, and anyone else in their way.

Iranian Islamists' allegiances do not lie with saffron rice and Hafez's poems. They love God, then country, grind through life as factory workers and farmhands in addition to getting PhDs in engineering and medicine. Iranians loyal to their Islamic project recite prayers for their president, relish the martyrdom of Hussein, and wait for the return of their messiah. So did anyone really think that his terrestrial representative would allow more than a week of bank burnings and highway closures? Are we really shocked that the military would close rank, dissidents would be arrested, and political threats be neutralised as 250,000 US troops sit on the country's borders and Cheney's $400m support for regime subversion gets stamped by Obama?

Instead of trying to understand the complexity of Iranian Islamism and its fusion into the international political system, intellectuals in the west have dismissed its architects and supporters as brainwashed fanatics controlled by wicked priests. We have lived vicariously through its dissidents and exiles. We have cherished stories such as Reading Lolita in Tehran and recommended films such as Not Without My Daughter and Persepolis to our closest family and friends. It was only a matter of time, we so desperately believed.

What is happening in Iran is fascinating, exciting, heartwarming, because it shows the willingness of people to stand up for what they want. But just because this set of people put a higher priority on things we might feel are most desirable does not mean that there is not another set of people that have a different set of priorities. A set of priorities best articulated by Ahmedinejad. In the US, the only things we know about Ahmedinejad are that he thinks Iran has rights to nuclear power and that he, at the very least, minimizes the holocaust. In Iran, he is probably known and liked, or disliked, for much more. A system is confronting the dissatisfaction of a portion of the populace. In times of such confrontation nations develop if the ruling establishment is willing to accept compromises to satisfy, or at least mollify, the disaffected elements of the society, or the crisis deepens further. The rulers of Iran are not immature in their understanding of power so I would be surprised if they went with the latter option.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An analysis

Writing in the Guardian Pankaj Mishra provides a sensible analysis of the situation in Pakistan. In particular his response to the view of many western pundits is refreshingly sane. He comments on this statement from Joe Klein in Time about a meeting Holbrooke had with students in Peshawar:

But the most telling meeting was with young adults, many of them students, from the northwest tribal areas. A young man said he had known one of those killed in a Predator drone strike. "You killed 10 members of his family," he said. Another said the refugees created by the Predator strikes had destabilized his village. "Are many of them Taliban?" Holbrooke asked.

"We are all Taliban," the young man replied. It seemed a statement of solidarity, not affiliation, but as a way of revealing how mixed loyalties and deep resentments make Pakistan so difficult to handle, it was shocking all the same.

To which Mishra says:

One wishes Klein had paused to wonder if people anywhere else would wholeheartedly support a foreign power that "collaterally" murders 50 relatives and friends from the air for every militant killed.

And in reference to a comment by India's answer to Thomas Friedman:

But this does not amount to popular endorsement of drone attacks. Last month Fareed Zakaria informed Jon Stewart on the Daily Show that Pakistan is emerging from its state of denial since his Pakistani friends, who previously opposed the drone attacks, now tell him: "You know what? If that's the only thing that will work, kill those guys." Some members of Pakistan's tiny elite, where Zakaria's native informants come from, may long to exterminate the brutes: they fear, often correctly, Islamic extremists as embodying the rage and frustration of the country's underprivileged majority. But as the suffering of civilians in Swat becomes known, the highly qualified public support for military action will wane quickly.

It is an interesting article and well worth a read.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The speech to the Muslim world

A thoughtful appreciation of the President's approach to the Middle East from a former skeptic.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Some accountability

There are moments that become etched into your mind. The day Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed is one of those. I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. I had not really believed that they would actually go through and kill him. But they did. And now, fourteen years later, finally some small measure of accountability. Royal Dutch Shell, which had found Saro-Wiwa a turbulent irritant, settled rather than face a trial over complicity in Saro-Wiwa's death.

New York– After legal battles lasting nearly fourteen years, oil giant Royal Dutch Shell has been forced to pay a $15.5 million out-of-court settlement. Plaintiffs from the Ogoni region of the Niger Delta have successfully held Shell accountable for complicity in human rights atrocities committed against the Ogoni people in the 1990s, including the execution of writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa. The legal action is one of the few cases brought under the U.S. Alien Tort Statute that have been resolved in favor of the plaintiffs. The settlement includes establishment of a $5 million trust to benefit local communities in Ogoni.

“We congratulate the plaintiffs on their victory. Let there be no doubt that Shell has emerged guilty. With this settlement, Shell is seeking to keep the overwhelming evidence of its crimes away from the scrutiny of a jury trial,” said Ben Amunwa from the UK-based remember saro-wiwa project. “Shell could not stand the damage of bad publicity around this human rights case. Global campaigners have helped to highlight Shell’s abuses and we share in this historic victory.”