Monthly Archives: December 2008

Orientalism: something like a disclaimer

By Sune Haugbolle.


As a blogging newbie I’m discovering how entries can be funny, and sometimes not so funny, in the way that they take on a life of their own on the Net. My previous piece about MESA 2008 and why we should put Said on the backburner was read by a lot of people, which is great. It was also not only linked, but quoted in full length on Daniel Pipes’ Campuswatch webpage, undoubtedly because it contained a critique of MESA president Mervat Hatem’s address in November which can be seen to fit with the general thrust of Martin Kramer’s longstanding attack on the Middle East Studies Association (his book Ivory Towers on Sand, etc). In other words, I was NOT included on Campuswatch for the same reasons as those of my friends who have had the honour. I don’t like that association, and I find it necessary to specify my critique. Having stated my dislike of the McCarthyist project of surveying ME studies for good (read patriotic, anti-Islamic and pro-Israeli) scholarship, it must be added that not all is bad on Campuswatch, and its Middle East Studies in the News section, where I was quoted, has in the past linked to many balanced and interesting pieces (e.g. this Juan Cole refutation of Thomas Friedmann). At the same time the incident has made me think about some of the fault lines in ME studies in new ways. So here’s something like a disclaimer, and an attempt to reflect further on the issue.


First, I do believe that Hatem’s address was indicative of an unreflective kind of celebration of Orientalism in certain circles (perhaps certain generations) of the Middle East Studies community, which I have observed and which I find problematic for several reasons. Said’s book is not flawless, nor is his representation of our discipline’s history. As David Irwin, Maxime Rodinson and many others have painstakingly demonstrated since the book was released thirty years ago, Said’s readings of European Orientalists do not do the scientific insights of their work justice. Nor is his lumping together of very diverse intellectual projects over several hundred years into one “Orientalist” truth regime persuasive at all when subjected to a closer reading of the original texts. So using it as some sort of Bible or Constitution of Middle East Studies is a betrayal of the rich history of our field.  


Perhaps the more important reason why I found Hatem’s address so troubling is that I sensed it was full of repressed knowledge. I cannot believe that she honestly thinks that the UN Human Development Reports reflected Orientalist attitudes, internalised by the Orientals who wrote them, more than the well-documented multiple social and political crises in the Arab world that the reports described. In other words, the knowledge that there is a measure of truth in some of the right-wing attacks on the region, which are of course truly Orientalist in their generalisations, was repressed in Hatem’s speech. In that sense it reflected how the politicisation of Middle East Studies can force people to adopt skewed standpoints that actually betray the knowledge we produce about the region, because their opponents are so radically far to the right in their argumentation.     


Certainly, the attacks on Said and Orientalism that we have witnessed since 2001, represented by the likes of Irwin, Kramer and Ibn Warraq (Irwin being the least ideological of the three), have also been taken too far. In their most extreme, theses critics argue that Said has become a spokesperson or icon for apologetics of everything they think is wrong with the Middle East, be it (an ill-defined) “Islam,” human rights abuses, lack of political freedom, suicide bombers, or Palestinian “terror,” and that MESA is dominated by such individuals who are blind to these ostensibly very obvious things. This is of course an extreme simplification of Said’s work and of the rich and sophisticated research being produced on the Middle East. I don’t share this position, and certainly not the general Said bashing. For me, Edward Said was principally a humanist, who was the product of a particular time and intellectual milieu that reacted against imperialism, intellectual conservativism and, most of all, the tragic injustices committed against the Palestinian people. In fact, I think the main mistake of the Said critics of the last few years is when they (choose to) ignore the reality of Orientalist stereotypes in present and past Western society and scholarship, but also the reality of imperialism and its lingering effects in the Arab world. Not that the reality that the book sought to counter can be used as an excuse for the mistakes and misreading it contains, but it does, to some extent, explain why we can sympathise with its fundamental position. Furthermore, as I said in my last post, the focus on Western misrepresentations of the “Orient” is still a timely intellectual project, not least in the US.


The radical critique of Said which sees him as a “charlatan” (Ibn Warraq) completely ignores all this. That is exactly why my hair stood up when I was listening to Hatem’s presidential address: she fitted the Said critics’ stereotypical image of MESA so well! And she was speaking as the president after all.


That kind of discourse can only lead to a dialogue of the deaf who accuse the other of serving up a dish of stereotypes that has nothing to do with the real world. This whole politicisation of our field may be a fact that we have to deal with, but not one that we should seek to perpetuate. Perhaps the best way to rid ourselves of a polemical war of trenches and extreme politicisation of our work is to ignore the Orientalism debate a tad bit, to the extent that it is possible. A friend of mine commented on my unlikely inclusion on Campuswatch that this proves exactly why Said can’t be put on the backburner. In other words (at least I presume this is what she meant), as long as the likes of Kramer are out there, we need to be aware of stereotypes and politically powerful lobbies who promote the old Orientalist canard about the Orient as intrinsically backwards and therefore in need of help (and invasions). Perhaps. But it should not – must not – lead us to lose focus of our real job: to describe and understand current and past social reality in the Middle East.


The looming threat of sectarian violence on Iran’s borders

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Jondollah, a Baluchi militant group, has executed 16 Iranian police officers. Now, Tehran accuses Saudi-Arabia of supporting Sunni terrorism in Iran’s restive southeastern border area.

Jondollah (also spelled Jundullah, Jundallah, etc.) – ‘God’s Army’ in Arabic – has been active for at least four years. Its young leader Abdolmalek Rigi is Iran’s most wanted man. Rigi has stated that his band of Baluchis – an ethnic minority living across the deserts between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – are fighting for their rights as a Sunni Muslim community in Shiite-ruled Iran. He also claims to fight for a democratic Iran respecting human rights. Yet, in 2006-7, Jondollah launched a string of gruesome terror acts. In March 2006, Jondollah militants dressed as Iranian soldiers stopped a convoy of cars on a remote desert road. The militants pulled the travelers – a mix of civilians, military officers and local administrators – out of their cars and shot down all 22, execution-style. In May 2006, during a similar ambush, Baluchi militants killed 12 travelers and took others hostage – this time near Kerman, in the centre of southern Iran. Video footage of Jondollah beheading hostages reached Iranian web sites. And in February 2007, Jondollah detonated a bomb in the provincial capital of Zahedan, killing 18 Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Basiji officers on their way to work.

Iranian officials condemned the attacks as ‘blind terrorism’ and pointed accusing fingers at Taliban, Al-Qaeda and the US for supporting Jondollah. Iran has also criticized Pakistan for not cooperating in the hunt for Rigi and his group. The province of Sistan-Baluchistan – Iran’s poorest region and historically home to bandits and smugglers – has since seen a heavy military presence and severe security measures. Baluchi proponents have claimed that innocent civilians are harassed and local Sunni clerics persecuted while the leader of Jondollah hides across the borders in either Pakistan or Afghanistan. Due to the inaccessible location and due to restrictions, it has been difficult for international media and human rights groups to verify claims of human rights abuse.

In June 2008, it was reported that militants abducted the police officers of a checkpoint near Saravan on the Iran-Pakistan border. Rigi claimed responsibility for the attack and demanded the release of 200 of his compatriots from Iranian prisons in return for the hostages. BBC reported that one of these prisoners was probably Rigi’s own brother, who had allegedly been handed over by Pakistani authorities to Iran. In October, one hostage was released; however it was also reported others had been killed. Indeed, the Arabic news channel Al-Arabiyya showed footage of the execution of three police officers.

Then, last week, deputy police commander Ahmad-Reza Radan confirmed that all 16 officers abducted from Saravan had been killed. Since the news broke, the Iranian government has promised to give a “tooth-breaking” response to Jondollah. On Monday, state-run Tehran Times reported that “Iranian intelligence and police forces have arrested some terrorists who were behind the killings of 15 Iranian police members”. The Minister of Intelligence, Hojjatoleslam Mohseni-Ezhe‘i stated that Pakistani authorities “did not cooperate sufficiently” in anti-Jondollah operations. MP Kazem Jalali said that Islamabad, after receiving evidence that Jondollah is supported by Pakistani “elements”, had promised to strike down on “terrorist groups”. Jalali also reported that footage of the trial against those arrested would soon be aired on national TV. Indeed, in this footage, Iranians are to see ‘nation-betrayers’ confessing to their terrorist acts and to the ‘regional and international’ support they have allegedly received. Furthermore, Jalali promised tougher action against smugglers of opium and heroin from Afghanistan. Iranian authorities and media have often linked Baluchi militant groups to the thriving drug trade that has blossomed since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Just as they did after previous Jondollah attack, Iranian media outlets have recently accused foreign powers of supporting the Baluchi militants. State-run Press TV quoted Pakistan’s former Army Chief, who allegedly stated in July that Jondollah was “the main recipient of US financial and military aid”. Iranian media has also used the work of investigative journalists from the US itself: Press TV regularly points to a 2007 ABC News report about US aid for Jondollah and to Seymour Hersh’s alleged revelations about US Congress funding for ‘covert operations’ in Iran. Indeed, in the Jondollah case, the Iranian state has found yet another tool to turn the ‘War on Terror’ rhetoric on its head and present US as a major hypocrite in world politics. Thus, during Tuesday’s Security Council session, Iran’s UN representative could justly state that “Iran is a victim of terrorism. It has taken practical and effective measures in its fight against terrorist and extremist groups including Al-Qaeda and Jundullah”. The case of Jondollah’s terror is thus used to present Iran as an innocent victim of the West’s double standards.

However, this time, the accusing finger not only points to Washington but also to Iran’s rivals across The Persian Gulf. Apparently, the Arabic news website Nahrayn Net recently quoted ‘informed sources’ in Peshawar claiming that Jondollah is supported not only by the US but by the secret service of Saudi-Arabia. The Iranian News Agency Shahâb News wrote: “These sources stressed that evidence from Peshawar shows that Saudi-Arabia’s intelligence agency is directly and fully supporting Jondollah in its terrorist acts in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province …”. In the report, it is claimed that Riyadh is financially supporting Jondollah and that the ruling family in Saudi-Arabia has commanded Arabic media to report regularly on the actions of Jondollah.

Thus, Iranian media today portray Jondollah as a proxy army with which several enemies are fighting the Islamic Republic. Such reports should of course be seen on the historical background of tensions between Iran and its Arab neighbors in the Gulf. Indeed, when Al-Arabiyya showed the Jondollah footage in October, Iranian Press TV published a piece titled ‘How to sponsor terrorism, Saudi-style’. The issue of Jondollah has become yet another point of conflict between Iran and Saudi-Arabia.

The Islamic Republic’s media exposure of Jondollah’s terror have caused politicians and spokespersons across the board to express their disgust with the group. However, this wide publicizing of Jondollah’s acts can also hurt the government itself. Student activists use the issue of Jondollah’s terror to depict the state apparatus, and Ahmadinejad’s government in particular, as incompetent. Speaking in the language of nationalism and patriotism, student groups have demanded that the government respond to the threat, confront Jondollah and force Pakistan to take responsibility for security on its side of the border. The main student organization, The Office to Consolidate Unity, recently criticized Ahmadinejad’s government for focusing on international issues, on defending Iran’s nuclear energy program and on repressing peaceful opposition in Tehran while the real threat is actually on Iran’s borders. The students also lambasted Iran’s security and intelligence agencies for being incompetent and inefficient in combating the terrorist threats.

However, the issue should not be reduced to the fight between the Iranian state and a militant group. What is much more dangerous is the lurking threat of a widening Sunni-Shia divide in Iran. Iran is predominantly Shiite and the political system dominated by Shiite clerics. However Baluchis, Turkmens and many Kurds are Sunnis, which makes them a sort of ‘double minority’ in majority-Persian Iran. Recently, Iranian Sunnis have become increasingly vocal in their expression of discontent with discrimination and marginalization. Indeed, there have been many signs of rising tensions between Sunnis and Shiites in Baluchi areas: last month, a Sunni cleric was killed in Saravan, the border town mentioned earlier. Thus, when Iranian officials, state media and even opposition forces describe Jondollah’s attacks as a fetne – the Koranic word for discord – they convey an imbedded warning of sectarian violence looming on the horizon. There is indeed good reason to fear that Jondollah’s actions will provoke Shiites to attack Sunnis and cause further persecution of proponents of Sunni and ethnic minority rights.

Last but not least, the case of Jondollah threatens to make Iranians, and the world community, forget the plight of the Baluchi people. In their 2007 report, Amnesty International portrayed a broad-ranging clampdown on ethnic activists as well as militants. Despicable human rights breaches in the region and the economic and cultural discrimination against civilians were among the issues Amnesty pointed out. Furthermore, as the line between criminal and political activity has been blurred in the state discourse, it is feared that Iranian authorities use the fight against drug smuggling as a pretext for executing Baluchi activists. Thus, with Jondollah’s terror warfare, there is no room left for the voices of ethnic and religious minority rights. Indeed, over the last couple of weeks, Baluchi students at Zahedan University have protested against violent attacks by security forces – attacks that have resulted in the death of a student and the wounding of many others.

The question that remains is: if Western powers or Arab states are indeed supporting Jondollah, are they not in fact doing Iran’s Baluchis a great disservice? It is true that, potentially, Jondollah’s attacks can further destabilize the region and even cause confrontations between Iran and its neighbors. However, we must not forget that, apart from Iranian officers, the real victims are the Baluchis, who are being criminalized and persecuted on a daily basis as punishment for Jondollah’s actions.

The public debate in Iran leaves no doubt that Jondollah as a terrorist group is hated by common people. Even though its leaders have learned to place the group in the headlines of Iranian and international media, Jondollah is not a positive contribution to the democratic struggle in Iran – or to the fight for its own people.

Student Day in Iran – updates

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

In connection with my piece on Saturday on the Iranian student movement, here are some updates on what’s happened so far in connection with Student Day:

Update #2

According to an eye witness report, around 3-4,000 students demonstrated in Tehran University. When security forces and plain clothed officers tried to prevent hundreds of students from other universities from entering campus, fighting ensued and one of the main gates was forced open. Students shouting ‘Death to dictatorship!’ apparently attacked university intelligence offices after which security forces entered campus. University authorities prevented a full-scale attack and the students proceeded with speeches in which they expressed support for the women rights movement, the labor movement and ethnic minority activists. Key speakers were prevented from entering university.

After the speeches, students continued demonstrating, allegedly shouting ‘Seyyed ‘Ali Pinochet, Iran will not become Chile!’ (a reference to ‘Ali Khamene‘i, Iran’s Supreme Leader). The state-affiliated news agency Fârs reported that ‘extremist’ students tried to create unrest in the streets but that security forces ‘kept their cool’ and prevented chaos. Amir Kabir University Newsletter reports that several students were severely injured during battles with security forces – however, there are no reports of arrests yet. There are also reports of student demonstrations in other places such as Kermanshah and Mazandaran and tomorrow in Shiraz.

What in my opinion was really surprising today was the issue of ethnic minorities. First of all, the Kurdish students at Tehran University chose to have their own demonstration – apparently in protest against the main student organization’s ‘nationalist behavior’. This is interesting since DTV recently has supported ethnic minority rights. Secondly, it was reported that when an Azeri student spoke in defense of Azeri cultural rights, a group of ‘pan-Iranists’ – that is, radical Persian chauvinists who are opposed to ethno-nationalist sentiments among Iran’s non-Persian groups – tried to silence him. One can see this as a positive sign: i.e. that ethnic groups are finally being allowed to speak and be heard, and that the issue of ethnicity is no longer a taboo. However, the apparent tension between ‘pan-Iranists’ and ethno-political proponents, even amongst the students, could also point to a broader, more worrying tendency in Iranian identity politics.

Update #1

BBC reported that Ayatollah Khamene‘i did not attend yesterday’s Students Day at The Science and Industry University in Tehran as planned. No official reason was given but it is probable that the tense atmosphere in Iranian universities right now is behind the decision. Apparently, Iran’s Minister of Science has declared that ‘counter-revolutionaries’ are trying to exploit Students Day. Members of a government-loyal ‘student group’ have argued that ‘liberals and those who reject the Imam [Khomeini]’ should not be allowed to mark Student Day. It also seems that today’s meeting in which Khatami was scheduled to talk has been cancelled.

Students from Amir Kabir University in Tehran have reported that ‘more than 1,800’ students joined protests against the ‘security atmosphere’ imposed by authorities here. In particular, the students objected to the installment of ‘security gates’ around university, which they think. In Hamadan, ’thousands’ of students joined an illegal demonstration to mark Students Day. Security forces fired tear gas into the crowd while the students were singing a song. It seems the authorities excused this attack by saying that signing was inappropriate since yesterday also marked the martyrdom of a Shiite Imam.

In Tehran University, pro-government students marked Students Day in their own fashion and staged a rally against, among other things, ‘Imperialism’. Fârs News Agency claimed that ‘1,000 students’ had joined this demonstration and shouted slogans such as ‘Death to America’, ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Students are aware, they are tired of Obama’.

It is reported that authorities have taken extreme security measures in Tehran University as pro-democratic students have called for a demonstration today under the banner “The Cry of Freedom”.

Student Day in Iran

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Today, it is Ruz-e dâneshju or ‘Student Day’ in Iran: it is time to reassess the status of and situation for the Iranian student movement.

Revolution, reformism, repression, revival
Since ‘modern’ universities were established in Iran in the 1920s and 30s, they have been key centers of political dissidence, arenas for ideological battles and homes to alternative voices. Universities played central roles in the revolutionary movement that ousted the Shah in the late 1970s and in the reformist movement that brought Khatami to power in 1997. Indeed, during the so-called ‘Tehran Spring’ of 1997-99, it seemed as if a democratic student movement was ready to burst out of university and revolutionize Iranian society.

However, the severe clampdown on students – and in particular, the violent attack on Tehran University dormitories in July 1999 that resulted in widespread riots throughout Iran – curtailed this movement. The repression eventually seemed close to completely wipe out the Iranian student movement through juridical and extra-juridical measures, violence and threats. The state apparatus placed legal obstacles on student groups and partially seized their organizations, harassed and intimidated their spokespersons, and closed down their facilities and newsletters.

However, instead of disintegrating, the key organizations of the movement – the so-called Islamic Student Societies (anjoman-hâ-ye eslâmi-ye dâneshjuyân) and their umbrella organization, The Office to Consolidate Unity (daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat, hereafter DTV) – underwent a painful divorce from the parliamentary reform movement, its institutions and its head, Khatami. DTV succeeded in distancing itself from the waning image of the reformists and has since struggled to transform itself into a platform for a wide variety of grass roots and civil society groups. The aim of DTV today is to reach out beyond the walls of universities and into Iranian society.

While the process of bridging the intellectual and theoretical discourse of a student movement with general discontent in other layers of society has been quite difficult, the greatest challenge came with the election of the neo-conservative hard-liner Ahmadinejad in 2005.

Since this election, government has sought to ‘re-Islamize’ and control universities by discharging critical professors and appointing loyal managers, by segregating facilities in certain universities, by installing CCTV surveillance and by burying ‘martyrs’ of the Iran-Iraq War right on university campuses and thus imposing the militant ideology on students. Student activists all over Iran have faced official and unofficial reprimands, abductions to secret interrogation facilities, mock trials, torture, incommunicado detention and heavy sentences that span from exclusion from university and forced transfer to other universities to fines and jail sentences. Individual students are even given ‘stars’ depending on his/her level of political activity in a ludicrous evaluation scheme aimed at intimidating and punishing student activists.

However, the difficulties facing the student movement are not just political. Students are also confronted with a wide array of problems including the fierce competition for enrollment in prestigious universities, the dwindling quality of teaching and research in Iranian universities, the severe problem of brain drain, social problems such as drug addiction and suicide as well as issues related to everyday student life such as appalling conditions in dormitories, lack of pastime facilities and, of course, the prospect of post-graduation unemployment.

Yet despite all these obstacles and challenges, there is still good reason to argue that student activism is alive and kicking in Iran today. Indeed, students have staged small but vocal demonstrations and sit-ins, and some have even attacked Ahmadinejad’s policies directly. Recently, it seems students have become particularly active. Tensions have been felt as far away as Sistan-Baluchestan on Iran’s southeastern border, where students have clashed with security forces. In the provincial capital Hamadan, students have reported a wave of intimidation and threats by local authorities that are concerned with student activities.

Student Day 2008
Thus, the Iranian student activists are to mark Student Day today – a tradition that dates back to 1953 when 3 students from Tehran University were killed by the Shah’s security forces. This year, students have not limited themselves to Student Day itself but have indeed declared December 2 to 9 a ‘Students Week’. The last month or so, Iranian media have claimed that students are secretly preparing unrest and mayhem around Students Day. A Basiji student group has claimed that ‘violence-seeking’ individuals are ‘planning riots’ on Khajeh Nasir University in Tehran. And on the conservative website Tâbnâk, journalists reported that ‘some domestic extremist groups’ have been planning to provoke unrest, including melli-mazhhabi proponents (Religious-Nationalist, i.e. the domestic opposition of moderate ‘Islamo-nationalists’), who have allegedly called for a student-led riot like that of July 1999. The journalists even claimed that students from ethnic minorities studying in Tehran are planning disturbances to further their ethno-nationalist aims and that DTV has been in contact with opposition activists in exile. DTV denied this report and criticized it together with a series of accusations and rumors published by state-run dailies and news agencies.

With the severe security measures installed by the neo-con government and its cohorts in the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij militias and the police forces in mind, it is difficult to see how students could indeed create such unrest. ”Students are under attack from all sides by the government and the fundamentalist media”, Bahare Hedayat from DTV’s public relations bureau stated recently. Hedayat, who has been imprisoned for her activities several times, argued that “the stored-up concerns and discontent amongst students over the last three years” were the result of “the clampdown by authorities outside the universities” on student activists and “the erroneous [university] management of officials selected by the Ministry of Science”.

According to Hedayat, ‘unrest’ is simply a negative term hyped by media controlled by ruling forces who are afraid of student activism: “The sick minds who cannot tolerate even a student protest gathering in university, are referring to peaceful meetings and protests within the milieu of the university as ‘unrest’”, she stated. Even ISNA – the Iranian Students News Agency, which was founded to reflect the voices of students – has “been turned into a platform for anti-student organizations”, Hedayat argued.

Student activists, in particular those at Amir Kabir Technical University, have reported that pro-government groups, Basiji students and university authorities are coordinating a counter-strike in case of student unrest on or after Student Day. These reports surfaced while DTV a week ago published its call for marking Student Day. In a thinly veiled attack on Ahmadinejad’s government, DTV stated: “[O]nce again, we will rise and sound the call of protest against oppressors who are busy stripping Iran and the Iranians of their national resources, honor and integrity, and whose erroneous policies have resulted in pervasive corruption, widespread poverty, disregard for civic rights, destruction of Iranians’ prestige all over the world, international sanctions, unemployment, and thousands of other problems”. DTV has called for a demonstration in Tehran University tomorrow and Khatami has said that enshâ‘allâh, he will come to speak. Four years ago, students heckled Khatami when he came to Tehran University on Student Day. It could become an interesting moment when Khatami and the students come face to face.

The students and ‘the reformists’
With the 2009 presidential elections looming on the horizon, the so-called ‘reformists’ seems to be looking to the student movement, hoping it could again play a significant role. Indeed, the ‘reformists’ would benefit from a re-activation of the huge potential among Iran’s two million university students. Yet, significant change is needed: since Khatami’s ‘lame duck years’ as president, and in particular, his reluctant and belated response to the state clampdown on students in 1999 and subsequently, the activist milieu has been marked by a profound skepticism towards the ‘reformists’. Indeed, the spokeswoman of the DTV stated that “reformists should know that the students are watching their behaviors and will not forget”. In other words, reformists will certainly have to redefine their ambitions and strategy in order to attract the much-needed votes of Iranian students. It seems the students, despite previous boycotts, have not yet rejected the idea of participating in the elections – so it might pay off for reformists.

However, when evaluating the ‘potentials’ of the student movement, one should keep in mind that since they ‘divorced’ from the parliamentary reformist faction, DTV and its local cells have focused on social, cultural and civil society activities – indeed, DTV declared in 2005 that it would henceforth function as a ‘Civil Society Watch’. In an interview with two days ago, DTV secretary, Mehdi Arabshahi, stated that the new DTV would not repeat the fault of earlier generations in this organization: that is, to act as a political party and to play the role of opposition within the boundaries of the political system. Thus, we should not expect the students to act as a sort of ‘youth division’ of any political faction, including the reformist, in the future. Indeed, stated Arabshahi, the new DTV would not repeat the old mistake of seeing elections as “a remedy for all the nation’s troubles”.

Yet, at the same time, Arabshahi would not rule out the possibility that the election of a new government could bring about better conditions for social movements. Hedayat, the spokeswoman mentioned earlier, also explained in a separate interview that the situation had changed dramatically since the DTV boycott of the presidential elections in 2005: now, said Hedayat, a fresh analysis was needed. In other words, DTV might not boycott elections. Whatever the DTV chooses to do, Hedayat stated that the organization would strive to have its demands and issues reflected during the elections.

DTV and the student movement in general has been criticized for not participating in the 2005 elections and thereby having contributed to the loss of votes for the reformists and thus, indirectly paving the way for a neo-con victory. However, student activist spokespersons stand by their old decision. The former DTV figurehead, ‘Abdollah Mo‘meni, who is now spokesman for DTV’s alumni division, Advâr-e tahkim, stated in an interview that he would defend the decision and that the failure of reformists to mobilize voters could not be reduced to the role of students. Indeed, said Mo‘meni, the reformists had much graver problems than DTV’s election boycott: the fact that they couldn’t even agree on a single candidate to represent them, that they had made their constituencies disillusioned and that they participated willingly in a ‘commando-election’ – these were more likely the reasons for their failure.

In other words, the reformists will have to ‘deliver’ if they want to have any hope of regaining the confidence of the young generation: they will need a strong and charismatic leader, a clear and resolute program and they will need to address the key issues championed by social movements, the women rights movement and the student movement.

A student movement?
So, the question remains: can we speak of an Iranian student movement today? ‘Ali-Reza Raja‘i, a melli-mazhhabi, recently argued that “the activist atmosphere has been restricted to some extent. However, it is perfectly clear that if there is an opening of the political environment, [the student] movement will take on more visible forms”. In other words, Raja‘i thinks that the student movement right now is not a movement per se, but rather a potential movement waiting for a window of opportunity to become active again and develop into a broad-based movement.

However, the wounds inflicted over the years upon the student movement, and indeed the tormented history of democratic struggle in Iran, has left many pessimistic. Indeed, there is a widespread feeling that it will take more than a new government and more than a student movement to change Iran. “Democratic struggle is eating itself from within”, wrote the renown dissident Taqi Rahmani recently: without an active civil society and without organizations representing, for example, professional, labor or ethnic minority interests, any democratic movement is doomed to failure, Rahmani argued. This is why Iranians are prone to be disillusioned when they see that their votes have not brought about a miracle. This is why the Iranian voters are tired and weary: the constant impediments and numerous obstacles placed in front of democratic movements by the rich and powerful elites throughout history. Only by creating a strong and vibrant civil society can Iran move towards democracy.

While DTV has yet to announce its position vis-à-vis the presidential elections, it is clear that people like Raja‘i are warning the students not to boycott the elections. Indeed, Raja‘i and his ilk – the tolerated ‘opposition’, ‘the reformists’ and ‘the moderates’ – still believe that it is possible to reform and change Iranian politics and society through elections. Even though DTV earlier seemed to reject the possibility of the Islamic Republic reforming in a democratic direction, they have, as stated, not rejected a possible participation in next year’s elections. It remains to be seen what the student activist milieu would do if Khatami – or another key reformist figure – was to run for president again; and it remains to be seen what measures the neo-conservative government and its supporters in the clerical and paramilitary elites would take to obstruct the reformists. No matter what happens, it is too early to rule out a revival of the Iranian student movement.

Aoun’s visit to Damascus and (failed) Christian reconciliation

by Sune Haugbolle.

Hello folks, here is an analysis of Aoun’s visit to Syria and the situation in the Christian community that I wrote yesterday. The language is not really so bloggy as the piece was written for another format, but I think the analysis can be useful. There’s a bit of “Lebanon 101” information in there which the Lebanon connoisseurs among you can just ignore.

Yesterday, Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, strongly criticised the recent visit of Michel Aoun, leader of the Free Patriotic Movement, to Damascus.

Aoun proclaimed his visit a “historic reconciliation”, while President Michel Suleiman said that ties with Syria are “back to normal”. The reactions of the three most prominent Christian leaders point to the deep divisions in the Christian community, which will be pivotal in the parliamentary elections expected in May or June 2009.

Christian divisions

Most of Lebanon’s communities are heavily associated with one side or the other of the March 14/March 8 divide. The Shia community overwhelmingly backs the March 8 coalition; the Sunni and Druze communities heavily favour the March 14 alliance. The Christians, however, are split between both sides.

The current divisions among Christians date to the 1975-90 civil war, which witnessed numerous internecine battles and massacres; in some cases family rivalries are even older. During the post-war period of Syrian control, the main Christian fault line ran between charismatic but absent anti-Syrian leaders such as Samir Geagea, Amin Gemayel and Michel Aoun, and a broader political class that cooperated with the Syrians. Since the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri and the subsequent withdrawal of Syrian troops, powerful Christian families and political parties have been split along somewhat different lines:

Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and Gemayel’s Phalange aligned with the Western-backed March 14 alliance, which also includes Sunni leader Sa’ad al-Hariri’s Future Movement and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party.

Free Patriotic Movement head Aoun and northern Maronite scion Suleiman Franjieh aligned with the Syrian-backed March 8 coalition, which also includes the Shia parties Hizbollah and Amal.

Reconciliation efforts

Hizbollah’s demonstration of force in May 2008 alerted the government to the limits of Western backing, leading to the signing of the Doha Agreement, a national unity government, and the arrival of centrist Maronite Christian President Michel Suleiman. In the aftermath, encouraged by Suleiman, representatives of the two Christian camps have engaged in several attempts at reconciliation, which all parties claim to support but about which none can agree:

During a September 21 rally to commemorate members of the Lebanese Forces killed during the civil war, Geagea offered a general apology for wartime “mistakes”, but also demanded that his rivals abandon their partnership with Hizbollah.

Aoun and Franjieh responded by arguing for a reconciliation process focusing on the legacy of the civil war, rather than complicating the matter with current issues; such a focus is of particular relevance given Geagea’s alleged role in the 1978 slaying of Franjieh’s father, mother and sister.

The exchange illustrated that the divide between Lebanon’s Christian groups is entangled with current political conflicts as well as violence in the past, making a successful reconciliation process unlikely in the foreseeable future. By going to Damascus, Aoun signalled to Geagea and the March 14 coalition that his alliance with Hizbollah and Syria is not open to negotiation. As a result, Christian competition is likely to intensify in the run-up to elections next year.


By associating himself with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Aoun hopes to ride the wave of Syria’s rapprochement with the West and current position of strength in the region. The Syrian media and March 8 media in Lebanon hailed his visit as a historic turning point in Lebanese-Syrian relations. These commentators argue that:

stronger diplomatic ties between the two neighbours are justified by their deep economic, social and cultural linkages;

Syria is an important ally against potential Israeli aggression;

the visit is a natural continuation of the normalisation process initiated by Suleiman’s state visit to Damascus in July; and

the visit is helpful for Muslim-Christian relations in the region.

Media associated with the March 14 alliance paint Aoun’s visit as a betrayal of the national interest. They argue that:

the Syrian regime should not be invited to reclaim the role of overseer of Lebanese politics that it commanded before 2005;

the visit is an unwarranted boost for Assad in his quest for international rapprochement;

Aoun has hijacked Suleiman’s agenda for his own political gains, and by doing so risks muddling the process; and

Aoun’s self-portrayal as the representative of all Christians in the Middle East is ludicrous given the intense disdain for him among March 14 supporters.

Strengths and risks

Aoun appears to be in a good position to repeat his electoral success of 2005. The very public Syrian endorsement of Aoun could:

tighten the bond with his Shia partners in the March 8 coalition, Amal and Hizbollah, whose support could be decisive in the large number of mixed Shia-Christian districts; and

convince Christians of his ability to lead and make important strategic decisions.

At the same time, the visit carries risks. There are indications that Aoun might well be misjudging the strength of Christian antipathy toward Damascus:

Some of Aoun’s allies in 2005, including the influential Greek Orthodox leader Michel Murr, appear cooler towards him in the wake of his alignment with Hizbollah and reconciliation with Syria.

While Aoun will undoubtedly win a far greater proportion of the Shia vote than in 2005, when Hizbollah tacitly backed the March 14 coalition, some polls show significantly diminished support for Aoun in his heavily Christian home district of Kesrouan.

Aoun’s Gaullist approach to leadership has begun to produce dissent within his party.

In conclusion, Aoun’s embrace of Syria has further polarised Lebanon’s Christians. While a smart strategic move at a time of rebounding Syrian influence in the region, Aoun’s visit will likely cost him support in his own community in advance of critical parliamentary elections. The key question will be whether his outreach to the Shia pays off at the polls.

MESA 2008: put Said on the backburner

by Sune Haugbolle.

Here is the promised post on MESA, a bit late due to my busy schedule in the States. The 42th annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association as usual included hundreds of panels on diverse issues in the field. It may be hard to draw out trends from that smorgasbord of new research, but I’ll try.

Just like last year, one of the best attended and most talked-about panels was on new trends in the study of Saudi Arabia. This year’s Saudi panel included two of the young researchers, Thomas Hegghammer and Stephane Lacroix, who organised last year’s tremendous “new directions in the study of Saudi Arabia.” This time they, along with a host of other brilliant scholars, were asking whether the global spread of Saudi Islamism can be attributed to a Wahhabi masterplan, or to an “accident of globalisation.” Their answers were somewhere in-between, provided through detailed analysis of the different groups of salafists and wahhabi activists and thinkers from the late 1970s to today and their intricate links with the Saudi authorities. Look out for the excellent (fellow Scandinavian) Hegghammer’s forthcoming book on the topic, which will be out with Cambridge UP next year. The panel chair Marc Lynch has a more detailed write-up of the different papers here.

Another striking event for me was the incoming President of MESA’s address. Unfortunately it was strikingly…disappointing, in my opinion, and perhaps indicative of a trend in the field. Mervat Hatem spoke about the influence of Edward Said’s Orientalism on Middle East studies and about power and knowledge in general. The first reason why I found it disappointing is that these addresses should offer at least some kind of overview of the field of Middle East Studies, which Hatem’s didn’t. Secondly, her rendition of this important question offered nothing new (do we really need to be taken through Foucault and Said again?) and was overly uncritical in its celebration of the book, I thought.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the focus on Western misrepresentations of the “Orient” is still relevant – particularly in an American context. And Said’s intervention was certainly needed at the time, even if it vilifies several Orientalists whose work had much more real insights into Middle Eastern societies to offer than most present-day Middle East scholars. But Mervat Hatem’s talk was typical for those in the field whose focus on misrepresentations in a Western context sometimes leads them to forget social reality in the Middle East. Hence, she cited the recent UN Human Development Reports as examples of how Western conception of “modernity” and “development” are internalised by Arab intellectuals to critique their own societies in a way which she found “Orientalist”.

Really, that’s so off the mark. The problems with education, gender inequality and authoritarianism in the Arab countries are real and pressing, and cannot be written off as Orientalist constructions. As one of my university professors once said to me, “put Said on the backburner” and focus on people in the Middle East instead. I understand that Orientalist fantasies are alive and kicking in parts of Western societies, and in the States more than anywhere else. Representations do matter, for sure. But I don’t think that they should be the main concern of Middle East studies anymore in 2008. Instead, let’s take a hard, balanced look at the other forces that have shaped the history of the modern Middle East, like the young researchers on the Saudi Arabia panel and many more did so excellently at MESA.