Tag Archives: Democracy

Iran: democracy, media, and protests

What’s happening in Iran right now?

It’s difficult to know where to start online, I’ve got literally thousands of RSS feed items to read and hundreds of tweet with the hash tag #IranElection. I’ll try and cover as many points as possible.

A few extracts from some of those I’ve read, be they UK bloggers, international columnists or Middle East activists. First, some opinions from Sheffield students –

Nick Smith, an MA Broadcast student from University of Sheffield:

“Iran seems to be caught in a Catch 22 situation supplemented by an odd paradox. The supreme leadership of Ayatollah’s suggests a nation which should follow a doctrine of autarky, yet they have their own elected Presidential governments (although this constitutional element is in serious dispute). They are a nation which strives to restrict Western influence and promote strict Islamic values, but at they same time they have embraced certain aspects of Western technological developments and this has allowed influence from the Western World to penetrate their population.”

As Nick mentions ‘elected’ is highly disputable label with regards to Iran’s leaders, seeing as power rests with Khamenei. What started off as a stolen election has merged into fury at the establishment, the greatest challenge to the revolutionary powers who earlier in the year were proudly celebrating thirty years in power. Nick is, I think, actually referring to two different ‘they’ group in his post: the government has restricted Western influence and although in terms of nuclear power, military technologies and the like they have embraced Western technology, it is the people – the young, 50% of the population who are under 30 – who have actively decided to, at the least, not dismiss the West.

During the Iran-Iraq war, Iran encouraged the population to have more children, to replace the martyrs dying on the border. There is some irony that those born on the back of a revolutionary war that encapsulated the regieme for it’s first decade in existence are now challenging the same ideals that drove thousands to their deaths.

Twitter in Iran

Lex Rigby, a staff member and ex-student at Sheffield University, has been furiously tweeting over the past few days with a passion and awareness I can only admire. There’s been plenty written about the use of Twitter during the protests – see Andrew Sullivan’s piece in the Sunday Times (not yet online). As I’ve said before, new media and technological tools will only, perhaps, truly have come of age where we stop talking about their use during specific events as a novelty. Here is Lex’s take:

“Last time I got hooked on Monitter was during the Mumbai attacks last November when my need for real time information got so intense that it became difficult to deattach my eyes from the computer screen. This time it’s the Iran elections (#iranelections) that have really got me. Sat here feeling so overwhelmed and helpless I really have found the evidence needed to prove the usefulness of Twitter.”

Of course, if it weren’t for those in Iran using the same tool, it would tell us little of what had been going on. It has been quite amazing – yesterday I went for a bike ride to find over 7,000 new tweets with that hash tag.

It’s still just a tool: but with the restrictions on foreign reporters, and the slowing down of the Iranian internet, Twitter has become invaluable for thousands. It’s remarkable to see instructions on how to safely wash off tear gas or which embassies are accepting the injured. Noam Cohen has an anaylsis of it’s role, and Jay Rosen has been urging people to debunk what he calls ‘the myth’ that Twitter is the main organising tool in Iran.

I can’t help but wonder whether there will be a turning image or video during the protests, that somehow defuses or inflames it. ‘Neda’ could be one such video. But in fact it’s a not a ‘turning point’, or a historical footnote – not now. It’s a young women dying before the eyes of the world for freedom. It happens everyday round the world, we just happen to see this one. From CNN:

Amid the hundreds of images and videos of Saturday’s brutal crackdown on protesters in Iran that flooded the Internet, it was the graphic video showing the death of a young woman that touched a nerve among those following the events in Tehran for more than a week.

Like most of the information coming out of Tehran, it is impossible to verify her name, Neda, or the circumstances of her apparent death, captured close-up on a bystander’s camera.

CNN ran a pixilated version of the video, which was posted on YouTube. It shows a woman in jeans and white sneakers collapsed on the street, as the person with the camera — most likely from a cell phone — runs toward her and focuses on her face.

There is an image of her here. The video is here – You Tube have apparently decided to allow more violent videos than usual from Iran, because of the public interest. Viewer discretion is advised.

Comparisons with 1979

It’s an easy pathway to an analysis of ongoing events, but a necessary one. Both Reza Aslan and the BBC’s John Simpson have articles comparing the current protests with the mood in 1979. John Simpson, who also reported there thirty years ago:

“But just because people seem brave and attractive and believe intensely in freedom, that is not enough to make sure they will get rid of the system they have come to hate.

It did not happen in Tiananmen Square, after all.

In other words, just because I watched a revolution happen here 30 years ago, it does not mean that very much the same sort of people marching through exactly the same streets will automatically win now.

Or if they do, it will take more than simply marching.”

Given that the protests were, at least to begin with, predominantly middle class and consisting of Westernised Iranians, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Western media has taken a visual liking to the green-clad protesters. But especially in the past few days, the crowd has changed to reflect a more diverse Tehran, as Roger Cohen notes:

“There were people of all ages. I saw an old man on crutches, middle-aged office workers and bands of teenagers. Unlike the student revolts of 2003 and 1999, this movement is broad.”

Reza Aslan:

Yet for me and millions of my fellow compatriots — both inside and outside Iran — it is the memory of 1979 that most keenly informs our perception of what’s taking place in our home country. The similarities between today’s protests and the events of 1979 suggest that this election represents a real turning point in Iranian history. All of this is not to say that another revolution is afoot in Iran. The Iranian regime, despite all its multiple and often competing poles of power, is far too entrenched to be so easily dislodged. Still, whatever happens, whoever ends up leading the country, however this crisis of legitimacy is resolved, one thing is certain: Iran will never again be the same. For better or worse, a new Iran is emerging. Whether it will be more isolationist and militaristic or more accommodating and democratic remains to be seen.

What can we do?

This isn’t some humanitarian crisis where the DEC springs into action. Nor do we, adversley, want to appeal to Western governments to ‘do more’ – as Benjamin Sarlin discusses with a opposition cleric, greater and harsher condemnation will only play into the Iranian government’s hands:

Kadivar said that the opposition movement was entirely self-sufficient and in need of no support from foreign leaders. “What Obama has done so far is about perfect,” Kadivar, garbed in his traditional cleric’s robes, said. “We don’t need any special support from you. The green movement for democracy and liberty in Iran is independent and we don’t need anything from the foreigners. We should get democracy ourselves.”

This is by no means a uniform view, but the West would be in a much worse position had this election and it’s protests taken place a year earlier with a Bush White House. If foreign intervention is to be avoided then, what can we do? Helia Phoneix, until recently a fellow web journalism MA student at the University of Sheffield, has some ideas:

Yes, I know that voicing my support for the protests and the marches through changing my facebook profile picture / my twitter status / the background to my blog may make no difference at all. But I rather think that you’re missing the point. The point is not to affect change from here – because essentially what we do here makes no difference at all. We can’t affect policy there, we can’t affect politicians (because they take orders directly from god), we can’t do shit. The point is to do the only thing we can – to show solidarity, to show support to those people living under a regime from which they want out. To show them that it’s not The World vs Iran, as the media there would have us believe, and not Iran vs The World, as some Western media would have us believe.

These things may not make any difference in the long run, but to my cousins and their friends, knowing they have support from people beyond the fringes of their own country gives them determination and belief in their cause. They’re all on facebook, on twitter, they have blogs and they’ve arranged themselves and their movements using these new communication channels. Without it all, they’d be sat in silence in their houses, feeling isolated, alone and totally gutted. Anything I can do digitally that counters that or encourages them, then I’ll do it. More power to them.

Watch, learn, converse, translate, re-post, re-tweet, engage, debate, support. Since the Iraq War the idea of democracy in the Middle East has too often been accompanied by accusations of imperialism and arrogance on the part of the West. But we didn’t create these marches, or monitor the election, or kill those protesters. Democracy shouldn’t be a dirty word, an exclusive concept, just because it’s one the West has adopted. We shouldn’t be afraid of supporting those marching, and those too afraid to march.

So just have a listen to this:

Letter to Obama on democracy in the Middle East

Welcome to Through the Middle East. We start with a post on an open letter sent to President Obama yesterday, urging his administration to support democratic movements in the region.

The letter, which can be seen in full here, was signed by 140 signatories who are largely made up of academics, think-tank members and the occasional politician. Announced at a press conference on 10th March at the National Press Club in Washington,  the letter  welcomes Obama’s elections and states that it is: ‘critical that the United States be on the
right side of history regarding the human, civil, and political rights of the peoples of the
Middle East.’

One of the signatories, Michele Dunne, emphaises the importance of the issue:

“We understand that promoting Middle East peace enjoys a high priority in this administration, and we believe that it is entirely possible to cooperate with Arab governments in that endeavor while also pursuing improved human, civil, and political rights for Arab citizens. In fact, not to do so would be shortsighted and ultimately counter productive.”

Elections and Islamists

The authors continue:

“For too long, American policy
in the Middle East has been paralyzed by fear of Islamist parties coming to power. Some
of these fears are both legitimate and understandable; many Islamists advocate illiberal
policies.
In many countries, including Turkey, Indonesia, and Morocco, the right to participate in
reasonably credible and open elections has moderated Islamist parties and enhanced their
commitment to democratic norms. We may not agree with what they have to say, but if
we wish to both preach and practice democracy, it is simply impossible to exclude the
largest opposition groups in the region from the democratic process.”

As I argued in my undergraduate dissertation (‘The relationship between Islam and democracy in Muslim states in the Middle East’), only through engagement with Islamist groups can the West hope to centralise them and bring them into a democratic process – the so called ‘inclusion-moderation’ thesis, as previously advocated by, among others, Vali Nasr.

Obama himself made his views on the Middle East clear in an interview with Al-Arabiya, seen after the jump:

Wider picture

There are however, serious problems with the letter, least of all in its authors. I personally admire many of the signatories, in their expertise and passion for democracy in the Middle East. However, there are over twice as many US signatories as those from overseas.

The letter states that:

“There is no doubt that the people of the Middle East long for greater
freedom and democracy; they have proven themselves willing to fight for it.”

However, with a total lack of examples this is little more than well-meaning rhetoric. Can those signatories really know what the ordinary (and increasingly young) citizen in the Middle East wants? They are undeniably the ‘elites’ of their countries, be that American or from the Middle East. They are unelected and largely detached from the ‘Arab street’. Then again, given the lack of free elections in most of the Middle East and a repressed media, is there any other medium through which dissenting, pro-democratic voices can be heard but the Westernised, anti-establishment elites?

Human rights activist and ex-Israeli politician Natan Sharansky disagrees, and is optimistic  about the letter:

“Whenever we speak of democratization in the Muslim world, we inevitably hear the question asked: “But where are these democratic voices in the Middle East itself? Why do we not hear from them?” The answer, simply, is that you can hear them if you want to! This letter is such a voice, signed by democratic activists and dissidents from Syria, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, and many other countries.”

Complex picture

The above issues do not even touch on one of the most ongoing discussions: whether or not Islam and democracy can ‘work’ together. There has been a lot written about this topic. My basic view is that a scholarly, or theological synthesis of the two ideologies cannot work due to their different origins, and even if it did (and many have attempted it), it is insignificant compared to the developments already happening on the ground: the AKP in Turkey, Hamas and Palestine, the many political groups in Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamic Action Front (IAF) in Jordan. Therefore, it is their behaviour, success and platforms we should be focusing on.

This will be an eternal debate, and one that journalism and civil development has a role in. Al-Arabiya and Al Jazeera are as much a threat to anti-democratic regimes as US influence. On a smaller scale, so are the bloggers, be they in Iran, Morocco or Egypt who we so often hear about for the wrong reasons – namely their arrest and imprisonment.

In terms of development journalism, the Middle East is a largely under-reported region. If one were to look at capitals like Dubai and Cario, it would be possible to ask why bother focusing on development in the region: it’s wealth is growing already. However, development journalism takes many forms, and especially in the area of new media, the Middle East provides us with a wealth of topics.

The Western media often prevents a confused picture of the Middle East. Speaking to a friend recently, she seemed convinced that it remains a place of violence and conflict. In contrast, we should be careful of assuming the region is ready for, or willing to embrace,  a Euro-centric view of democracy.

Economist covers by Matthew Bradley

Economist covers by Matthew Bradley

Hopefully through its focus and topics, this blog will do its part in the making the picture a little clearer.