Monthly Archives: April 2009

Turkey and the Durban II conference: Above all there is silence

By Daniella Kuzmanovic

While my fellow bloggers have called attention to the Iranian and Arab reactions to the Durban II conference in Geneva, I have refrained from writing anything on Turkey. The reason is obvious: The Durban II conference has been bypassed in almost complete silence by the Turkish press at large, by columnists, as well as by Turkish politicians. Apart from reporting on the speech by Iranian president Ahmedinejad and the reactions it caused, the Durban II conference has simply been a non-issue. One column by pro-Islamic writer and thinker Ali Bulaç in Zaman 24.4.09 ( seems to be the exception that proves the rule. Instead, other domestic policy related issues including among other a speech by the Commander in chief, economic crisis, Turkish-Armenian relations, Ergenekon related weapon finds, Northern Cyprus elections, and a possible reshuffle of the cabinet are obviously of more pressing concern.

Considering that Turkish government, including prime minister Erdoğan himself, has put some effort into becoming the new best friend of the Muslim world, the lack of comments on the Durban II conference by Turkish political establishment deserves a few notes, though. One of two issues at the centre of the Durban II conference is the Palestinian question and the possibilities of a critique of Israel. Most probably recall the showdown in Davos earlier this year, where prime minister Erdoğan walked out during a session on the Gaza situation after having called the Israelis ‘killers’, and having complained that he was only allowed a few minutes for comments while the Israeli representative, president Peres, was able to speak for a lot longer. Subsequently Erdoğan was hailed as a hero at home and in a range of Arab countries. Moreover, Erdoğan also articulated the sentiments of a range of Muslim countries when Turkey displayed strong concerns regarding the choice of Mr. Rasmussen as general secretary of NATO.

Turkey, alongside most UN countries apart from Iran, has only been represented by their diplomatic UN staff at the Durban II conference. In addition to this, it has not gone unnoticed in Turkey that the OIC secretary-general, Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu (a Turk!), would be attending the Durban II conference. One could suggest several reasons why the Durban II conference is not really given much attention by Turkish policy makers and thus not by the Turkish press either:

          Turkey, more specifically prime minister Erdoğan, is one of two founders of the UN supported Alliance of Civilizations initiative, and would rather that this is the forum in which issues concerning the Muslim world, freedom of speech and of religion is debated

          Turkey is at present member of the UN Security Council and see little benefit in creating further tensions by profiling themselves in a forum which is much less significant and boycotted by among other the US. Not least since the new US president is seemingly interested in making Turkey a key ally in a new, dialogue-oriented foreign policy in the Middle East and Central Asian regions.

          If Turkey were to stand out with critical remarks at the Durban II conference they would be associated with the outbursts of president Ahmedinejad, which would damage their image as oriented towards dialogue and building bridges rather than burning them. The grand ole man of Turkish pro-Islamism, and the one who AKP has broken away from, Necmettin Erbakan, actually visited Ahmedinejad only days before the Durban II conference started. The AKP will probably make an effort to avoid this kind of association

More reasons could surely be listed. Feel free to add…

A rapper will change the Iranian elections!

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

I’m sorry, but this deserves its own post. As I’ve mentioned earlier, there were rumors of presidential candidate and 72-year old revolutionary cleric Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Karubi’s meeting with a group of pop artists recently – among them the underground rapper Sâsi Mânkan (Sasy the Model). It is now more or less confirmed. Since Khatami’s withdrawal, this is the most shocking event of the 2009 presidential elections in Iran!

No doubt, young Iranians can see through this election campaign stunt. Many will see it as a desperate attempt to curry favor with the young. Nonetheless, some will love Karubi for it. It might be a joke, but see what this blogger writes:

“Even if I didn’t vote for the Sheikh [i.e. Karubi] when he promised cash handouts of 50,000 tomân, this will surely make me vote for him! A person who will recognize a guy like Sasy Mankan can be a really fun person; even if [Karubi] did this for the sake of elections and later on states that he does not even know a person called Sasy. Say what you like!

If it becomes clear which one of Karubi’s advisors proposed this meeting, I propose he should become Karubi’s first advisor in the new government.

Yeah, Karubi, you’re so cool, yeah!”

It is also certain that Karubi will be criticized for this over the coming days and weeks. It has been reported that already at the meeting itself, clerical members of Karubi’s entourage objected to the presence of underground rappers. Nonetheless, we should thank Karubi for finally giving this election some color! By the way, Karubi has already said he does not know of any ‘Sasy the Model’ …

Reactions to Ahmadinejad’s Geneve performance

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

Here is a short summary of the reactions in Iranian media to Ahmadinejad’s show at the Durban II conference yesterday. More headlines (and, if I can find the time, a proper analysis) will be added later today or tomorrow.

KEYHÂN (state-run, close to the Leader):

“With his speech, Ahmadinejad bombarded Israel”

“Ahmadinejad: ‘Despite the wishes of the West, I will attend all global meetings'”

“The support of 210 Majles deputies for the president’s viewpoints in the Geneve conference”

IRNA NEWS AGENCY (state-run):

“United Nations must be the epitome of freedom of speech and democracy”

“The president’s intelligent speech at the Durban conference has aroused global praise”

“By leaving the Durban meeting, the Zionist supporters have increased the importance of Ahmadinejad’s speech”

FÂRS NEWS AGENCY (state-affiliated)

“Ahmadinejad’s braveness cannot be found in any other country’s leader”

RAJÂ NEWS AGENCY (close to Ahmadinejad):

“Ahmadinejad made Israel’s ambassador flee Switzerland”

“Ayatollah Hossein Nuri-Hamadani: ‘Ahmadinejad’s courage is inspired by The Imam’s courage”

MEHR NEWS AGENCY (state-affiliated):

“Insulting actions against Ahmadinejad testifies modern barbarity”

“The way Iran’s message was conveyed at the Geneve conference was a victory for the political system”

“Anti-Zionists are beloved: Ahmadinejad bursted Israel’s blister”

TÂBNÂK (‘moderate’ conservative, Mohsen Reza‘i-affiliated).

“The insulting action of Westerners: Exit from the auditorium during Ahmadinejad’s speech” (carries a picture of empty chairs at the conference, something that state-run news agencies did not bring)

E‘TEMÂD-E MELLI (‘reformist’, Karubi-affiliated)

“The noisy appearance of Ahmadinejad in Switzerland”

ÂFTÂB-E YAZ (‘reformist’, Karubi-affiliated)

“Karubi and Musavi’s criticism of Ahmadinejad’s travel [to Geneve]”

[Karubi:] “When experts deem insults possible why is it necessary to participate in such meetings?”

KHORDÂD (‘reformist’-affiliated):

“Ahmadinejad attacked by protestors”

AFTÂB (‘centrist’, allegedly Rafsanjani-affiliated)

“[Mir-Hossein] Musavi: ‘Insults against other countries cannot be hidden by sentences of epic poetry'” [see below]

“Zibakalam’s analysis of the throwing of things against Ahmadinejad in Geneve”


I haven’t had time to read all the news items, but it seems clear that only the ‘reformist’-affiliated media outlets’ description of the events fits that of major international media.

State-run and pro-Ahmadinejad media interprets the speech as a historic victory for the Islamic Revolution that shows that Iran is now a superpower and a leader of the Muslim world community. These portrayals reduce the protests against Ahmadinejad’s speech to isolated provocative acts financed by some states who are against Iran.

In the meantime, Ahmadinejad has promised to show up at every international gathering from now on; that ‘the divine promise and shining day for humanity’ is near; and that if the European countries would allow a ‘referendum’, it would show that ‘70% of the people’ in Europe ‘supports the Iranian nation since the speeches of the Iranian nation arises from God’s inner nature’. Last but not least he promised to hold a similar referendum in Iran, which he promised would show that ‘100% of the Iranian people is against your [i.e., the West’s] policies in the world’.

Allegedly, the people who came out to greet the returning president answered with the slogan ‘O, you, the hope of the dispossessed; you turned Geneve into Tehran; welcome to Iran’.

Zibakalam, professor at Tehran University, argued that Ahmadinejad’s speech might not benefit Iran in the way his supporters believe.

Zibakalam stated that apart from Ahmadinejad’s own entourage, “only a number of diplomats from Arab countries (Sudan)” clapped for the president. Not only was the topic of his speech not that important or necessary right now, argued Zibakalam, the speech itself could have been formulated better. “The important issue is that we will have to decide whether Iran’s foreign policy strategy should be aimed at national interests or ideological [goals]”, stated Zibakalam, referring to the national(ist)/ international(ist) dichotomy, which is as old as the Islamic Republic itself.

ZIbakalam concluded that Iranians could ask themselves which was more important: “the Sudanese’s encouragement and applause or the exit of diplomats from many influential countries of the world during Iran’s president’s speech?”.

(By the way, Sudan’s ‘Justice Minister’ stated today in Tehran that the international arrest order for Sudan’s president is due to the fact that Khartoum does not recognize Israel).

In today’s Âftâb-e yazd, the chief editor wrote that the insult against Ahmadinejad was also an insult against Iran, but that the president’s trip to Geneve was completely unnecessary when only three presidents of insignificant countries attended the conference. Furthermore, the editor stated that Ahmadinejad had nothing new to say at the conference and that, apart from the UN general secretary and the Swiss president, Ahmadinejad did not meet any world leaders, as promised. Indeed, the editor concluded, Ahmadinejad’s Geneve performance was not the ‘epic’ act that his supporters have named it.

So far, the most notable criticism from within the system has come from Musavi. While he stated that the provocative act against Ahmadinejad (the clowns? the exodus?) was deplorable and an insult against Iran, he also blamed the president’s advisors for not warning Ahmadinejad of the possible ‘scenes’ he could encounter at the conference. He then implied that when uttering ‘words of epic poetry’ (kalamât-e hamâsi) one should know the outcome – in other words, that Ahmadinejad should have worded his views differently to prevent the embarrassing scene. By using the word ‘hamâsi‘, Musavi might also be playing with the words: could we maybe even translate it as ‘Hamas wording’? Anyhow, Musavi then said:

“The repetition of such an event will threaten our reputation and the reputation of the Islamic Republic and  that of Iranians abroad. This event should not be repeated. After all, for what purpose have we established such a magnificent diplomatic institution? I think there is a problem.”

This might not seem as harsh criticism compared to the international outcry. Nonetheless, in my interpretation – and I welcome alternative readings – this is quite harsh for a figure so high up in the political system as Musavi: he is stating that Ahmadinejad’s actions were wrong and that the diplomatic institution is not working correctly despite all its ‘splendor’ (sarcastic?). Also note the way Âftâb has distorted Musavi’s words in the headline. As far as I can see, there is no mention of ‘insults’ against ‘countries’ in the text itself. Nonetheless, an editor must have ‘read’ this between Musavi’s lines. Furthermore, Musavi is quoted slightly differently on other sites (see for example Entekhâb)

Finally, by mentioning ‘Iranians abroad’, Musavi reflects the feeling I have gotten from browsing the internet today: that many Iranians, in particular those in the West, are simply embarrassed with their president.

Arab reactions to Durban II: the ghost of colonialism

by Sune Haugbolle


The images of EU representatives walking out during Ahmedinejad’s speech in Genève yesterday, amidst the cheers of Arab and other representatives, are haunting. They speak of a chasm in cross-cultural understanding, and that sense will probably remain as a big ugly stain on our collective global consciousness from this event even if the diplomats manage to avoid further walk-outs and a final document is agreed upon. It is a chasm worth dwelling on for a bit. How can the world’s leaders, in 2009, disagree fundamentally on such a universally deplorable phenomenon as racism?


We can begin to grasp this chasm by looking at the Arab press’ reactions to Durban II. The views on racism presented here differ dramatically both from the Western press and from the universalising UN discourse that forms the basis of the conference. As columnist Mahmoud Mubarak wrote in al-Hayat on 20 April, “the seven years that have passed since Durban I have been some of the most racist in recent history.” From an Arab perspective, the US is to blame for much of this: the war on terror, Iraq, Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib, Quran-pissing in Guantanamo, have all been products of a resurgent neo-colonialist US under President Bush. Add to that the Muhammad cartoons, Israel’s incriminate wars on Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, the continued occupation of Palestinian territories, and the racist ideology that underpins it. One then wonders, according to Mubarak, why none of these issues will be on the agenda at Durban.


He answers the question himself. The reason is that the Western countries have other priorities, and perhaps other views of what racism means. Mubarak wryly ends his piece by noting that the Dutch call for a sentence on protecting “sexual freedoms” (ie. homosexuality) in the final document of Durban II “reflects the difference in thinking between the Islamic countries and Western countries on the priorities of this conference!”  


The op-ed on 21 April in another of the pan-Arab London dailies, al-Quds al-Arabi, follows suit. Why did the European delegates walk out, when Ahmedinejad, deplorable as he may be, “only spoke the truth”? This only underscores that the West is not fully committed to freedom of speech. In a conference on racism, critique of Israel, “the most racist regime since the dawn of time,” should be a natural given. At the very least, the critique should be listened to in full details. By walking out the EU delegates “consented to Israel’s position.”       


The feeling of victimization is well rehearsed and nothing new, and not without a certain sense of self-rightousness, as racism is also a fact and a problem in Arab societies and Arab politics. But the important part here is the totally different optic through which the issue of Palestine is viewed.


One should recall that the weeks leading up to the conference have seen an arduous diplomatic work to refine the final document – a piece of work not condoned by all nations, and certainly not by all populations either. Judging from the Danish debate surrounding “Durban II”, the usual cohort of Islam critics in Europe sees this conference basically as a venue for the display of Islamic power on the global scene. There is no understanding for the points of view put forth, least of all given that they come from less than democratic governments.


The points of contention are principally the questions of Palestine question critique of religions. The first was alluded to in the declaration from Durban I in 2001, which said: “We are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people under foreign occupation.” That caused an uproar back then in the US and Israel in particular by people who objected to the singling out of Israel, the only country mentioned in the declaration, even though there was other language that respected the “rights to security for all states in the region, including Israel”.


The explicit mention of Israel and the Palestinians has been removed from the new document. But at the same time the text reaffirms the 2001 declaration, which is why the US and Israel have strongly condemned the 2009 text also. Furthermore, an echo of the old formulation has survived in that the text emphasises the need to protect “all those under foreign occupation”. Again, despite its seemingly universal message, a troubling line to Israel, the US and other of its supporters.


The second question, regarding critique of religions, of course follows directly on from the Muhammad cartoons debate. During the negotiations leading up to the meeting, some Islamic countries attempted to introduce the concept of “defamation of religion.” This would have had the effect, so western and other critics argued, of restraining free speech.


The final document deplores the “derogatory stereotyping and stigmatization of persons based on their religion” without singling Islam out as the document deplores all religious intolerance including “Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christian phobia and anti-Arabism”. To some, not least in Denmark, the freedom of speech is so holy that anything that suggests an Islamic temperance of it by recourse to “racism” was seen as reason enough for the Danish government to stay away. As we know, the Danish Foreign Minister, quite boldly, chose to let Denmark participate, as did 22 other of his EU colleagues.


We have here the conflation of several contested issues, racism, islamophobia, freedom of speech and colonialism. Why colonialism? I believe that this is the basic explanation of the chasm that manifested itself in the walk-out yesterday. Colonialism was supported and justified by racist ideas and executed in a spirit of Caucasian and Christian supremacy. It is not the only history of racism. Racist ideas of other peoples have existed in many other parts of the word and in different historical periods. But it is one that has shaped our modern world decisively, and its effects persist in territorial conflicts such as that over Palestine.


The post-colonial states live with this historical experience in a whole other way that any of us in the West. Racism exists anywhere, but we are not equally subjected to it, and have not been equally subjected to it in history. At the UN we are all expected to agree on a formulation regarding this subject. We imagine a universality that is, frankly, illusory. To think that the world’s populations share in a common view on a discourse that has been instrumental in determining the power relations of modern history in way that subjugated large parts of the world to Western control is naïve and ahistorical.


Yes, but…, many would say, colonialism is over. Get on with it.


And this is why some walked out while others cheered.  














Déjà vu! Inciting social unrest in the name of national interest

by Daniella Kuzmanovic

The rapid unfolding and alleged extent of the so-called Ergenekon network in Turkey startles all observers of Turkish affairs. At the heart of this wast and complex case are the allegations that a network of persons within the Turkish state apparatus, or ideologically in tune with the statist Kemalist, nationalist elite, have conspired to cause social unrest in Turkey with the aim of toppling the current AK party government. There are primarily two reasons why these people are upset with the AK party. Firstly, they are convinced that the AK party is in fact undermining the secular order of Turkey, secularism being one of the crucial principles of the Turkish republic. Secondly, they are suspicious of the way in which the AK party has pursued a policy of among other European integration, something which in their view is endangering the national sovereignty of the Turkish republic. Undermining national sovereignty means exposing Turkey (once again) to the influence of foreign powers, severely limiting the ability of Turkey to make decisions with regard to vital national interests on her own, and hence ultimately threatening the existence of the Turkish nation state. In other word these people see themselves as protecting national interests.

It has already been pointed out by various commentators and analysts, how the roots of Ergenekon in Turkey must be traced back to the 1960ies and 1970ies, and the battle against Communism and radical leftists during the Cold War period. The similarities between the strategies of the Ergenekon network and the Operation Gladio of the 1950ies have of course not gone unnoticed either. The methods are supposedly roughly the same; false flag operations in order to frame the enemy (most notably leftists and Communists) thus creating public support and legitimacy for various military and security-related measures taken against such enemies, and causing unrest in order to legitimize the use of force and cohesion to maintain social order. Among the many allegations raised against ‘the Ergenekon gang’ has thus been that they are behind the hand grenade attack in 2006 against the staunchly secular newspaper Cumhuriyet, a newspaper which represents the outlook of the Ergenekon network. In fact several of its editors, journalists and columnists have been arrested as suspects in the Ergenekon case, most notably Mustafa Balbay and Ilhan Selçuk. Another allegation is that Ergenekon was behind the attack on the Turkish council of State (Danıştay) in 2006 leaving one judge dead and four injured. One of the judges was known for ruling against the wearing of the headscarf by school teachers. The shooter yelled ‘God is great’ before he fired so as to make it look like he was seeking revenge on behalf of pro-Islamic forces in Turkey.

The other day, as I was reading about the Events of September 6-7 (1955), also known as the Istanbul pogroms, I could not help but being struck by a déjà vu. Not that this is in any way to be interpreted as an attempt on my behalf to establish any sort of direct links to the present case, although the events seemed to involve a wing of Turkish military known to be acting as a counter-guerilla. Rather than propagating any conspiracy thinking, it simply struck me how these strategies of false flag operations and the stirring of social unrest appear again and again in a number of historical contexts, also in Turkey, in order to protect or strengthen the nation state. That is too say they are instigated in the name of national interest. The wider context of the pogroms was not least the way in which the Cyprus issue had become redefined as a matter of vital Turkish national interest during the early 1950ies, thus being able to serve as a mean to mobilize Turks versus Greeks including Turks versus the Greek minority in Turkey.

The event, which set in motion the Istanbul pogroms, however, was the news of the bombing of the Turkish Consulate in Thessaloniki on September 5th 1955, near the house which was the birthplace of the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. It was therefore depicted as a plot against Turkey. The following day, as the reports reached Istanbul through the vivid (but not altogether accurate) accounts of the Turkish press, crowds started gathering around Taksim square. The mobilization is suspected to be partly orchestrated by Turkish military and other authorities, partly by civic and political organizations sympathetic to the Turkish nationalistic account of the Cyprus issue. But no doubt the mobilization also gathered strength from the general strong animosities towards the Greeks accentuated by the nationalization of the Cyprus issue and the way this had been exploited by the Democratic Party, the party in power throughout the 1950ies in Turkey, in order to gain public support in the face of economic hardships. The crowds soon began to attack businesses and properties belonging to non-Muslim minorities, particularly Greeks, and the riots spread beyond Taksim. The events lasted until midnight, when the Turkish Army intervened and declared martial law. The results were devastating, although sources vary as to the number of businesses, residences, schools and churches attacked and the number of persons assaulted. The long term effects were that yet many more from the Greek-speaking minority left Turkey, hence contributing to the homogenization of the population bringing it in accordance with the national ideal of the homogenous (ethnic) Turkish nation state.

The déjà vu, though, most of all stems from the fact that the bomber of the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki, Oktay Engin, turned out to be connected to the Turkish Intelligence Service. In other words it was a false flag operation most probably intended as part of a plot to cause social unrest and incite acts of revenge against Greeks in Turkey. This, of course, all in the name of protecting and advancing national interest.


Studies on Events of September 6-7, 1955:

Güven, Dilek (2006): Cumhuriyet dönemi azınlık politikaları ve stratejileri bağlamında 6-7 Eylül 1955 olayları. İletişim

Vryonis, Speros Jr. (2005): The Mechanism of Catastrophe: The Turkish Pogrom of September 6 – 7, 1955 and the Destruction of the Greek Community of Istanbul. Inc

Too late for a reformist momentum?

by Rasmus Christian Elling.

After a turbulent start, the Iranian presidential election race has entered a new phase. Now, the presidential candidates are aiming their slogans and promises at Iran’s youth. But is it too little, too late to create a reformist momentum?

Over the last two weeks, Mir-Hossein Musavi – the candidate for which Khatami stepped down a month ago – has received support from major organizations on the ‘reformist wing’. The Combatant Clerics Coalition (the main ‘reformist’ clerical body), The Participation Front (the main ‘reformist party’), The Organization of the Islamic Revolution’s Mujahedin (a key political group) and the central committee of The Third Wave (a pro-Khatami movement) have all announced that they will back Musavi in his bid for the presidency (sources: 1, 2, 3, 4). Furthermore, the ‘centrist’ Executives of Reconstruction Party – which is aligned with the powerful Ayatollah Rafsanjani – has also declared its support for Musavi (even though Rafsanjani himself has not yet voiced support for any candidate).

What may be quite important in terms of factional battles is that Musavi apparently received the blessing of most marâje‘-e taqlid (Sources of Emulation: the highest ranking Shiite clerics) during a recent trip to Qom, Iran’s religious center. According to a pro-Musavi weblog, the state-media was ‘shocked’ by this show of support, and have tried to downplay its importance. It seems as if the marâje‘-e taqlid have refused to meet Ahmadinejad as a group. The fact that they met with Musavi can thus be seen to indicate their support for change in government.

Despite the recent string of statements, the support is not unanimous. A key member from the Combatant Clerics Coalition, Mohammad-‘Ali Abtahi, has joined Musavi’s competitor, Mehdi Karubi, as an advisor. Abtahi has stated that other members of the Coalition will vote for Karubi. The Executives of Construction Party may support Musavi, but its secretary-general, Gholam-Hossein Karbaschi, announced his support for Karubi several months ago. In some ‘reformist’ circles there have been talk of bringing in former interior minister Abollah Nuri as a ‘real reformist’ candidate instead of Musavi. Even in the main ‘reformist’ party, Moshârekat, key members – Khatami’s brother Mohammad-Reza and leading theoretician Sa‘id Hajjariyan – had called for a new candidate, but in the end, they accepted the party’s endorsement of Musavi. In other words, the many declarations of support are not indicative of a universal consensus on the ‘reformist wing’.

In any case, this show of support is far from enough to secure a ‘reformist’ victory. Apart from the fact that the ‘reformist’ vote is split between several candidates, the major obstacle is that the young segment and the politically active students remain hesitant and unconvinced of the ‘reformist’ nature of Musavi – and his ability to change anything. Consequently, Musavi has started currying favor with this segment. A couple of weeks ago, he announced that if he were to become president, he would dismantle the so-called Guidance Patrols (gasht-e ershâd), also called religious police in Western media. These patrols enforce Islamic moral values and dress codes among young Iranians and are hugely unpopular with the less conservative youth. Recent years have seen the implementation of the ‘Social Safety Program’ under which patrols periodically launch harsh campaigns against ‘morally deprived’ young Iranians. By announcing that he will stop these patrols, Musavi is trying to win young votes. Karubi – who has also promised cash handouts to all young Iranians if he is to win – has jumped on this wagon, and announced similar promises. He has threatened to go to Khamene‘i if the patrols continue their harassment of young Iranians.

However, such promises seem like nothing but hot air. Indeed, it is – as pointed out yesterday by Iranian judicial authorities – not up to the president to make such a decision. A judiciary spokesman stated that the patrols are ‘interminable’ and the Disciplinary Forces (niru-ye entezâmi) Commander Ahmadi-Moqaddam blasted Musavi and Karubi, warning that such statements are unacceptable. Nonetheless, Musavi continues his efforts to attract young voters. He has stated that he knows the young and their trends better than any other candidate; that ‘we should trust the youth’ just as in the early years of the revolution; that confronting the young only leads to ‘pessimism’; and that instead of ‘authoritarian methods’, the state must work with cultural means to reach out to the youth.

Musavi is also playing his ‘artist card’ now. An architect and painter (you can see some of his works here), he enjoys some support among Iran’s artists (such as the famous film-maker Dariush Mehrjui), who are hoping for a more tolerant government and less censorship in the future. In a meeting yesterday, reformist politicians praised Musavi as a liberal figure who had defended artistic freedoms even in the early days of revolutionary fervor and cultural revolution. Musavi is not a man who will put up ‘barbed wire to prevent a flood’, one speaker stated, referring to the wave of cultural products flooding the globalized world and, consequently, also Iran. Such statements come at a time when Internet is more widespread and popular in Iranian society than ever; and at a time when the Revolutionary Guards have announced a cyber war on illegal websites.

Thus, Musavi is trying to cash in on the more ‘liberal’ image as an intellectual and artist. Furthermore, we will undoubtedly see more of Musavi’s wife in the coming months. Zahra Rahnavard is a scholar, writer and artist in her own right, and has recently criticized the discrimination of women in Iran.

As I have elaborated on earlier, Musavi is presenting himself as a cross-factional candidate. Since my last post on the topic, this has become even more apparent. Alongside ‘reformist’ statements such as the above on the patrols, Musavi has also stated that he will not work with anyone who tries to ‘break the framework’ of the political system; he has repeatedly stated that Iran must return to the revolutionary path; and he has avoided oppositional figures, pro-democracy student gatherings and visits with the families of political prisoners. Nonetheless, the praise for Musavi, which we have heard from some moderate conservatives the last couple of months, has yet to translate into direct support. Even if conservatives who are fed up with Ahmadinejad should actually support Musavi in his bid for president (and they might do this secretly, a ‘reformist’ has stated), this flirt with conservative forces will probably alienate an important constituency: the politically aware students.

As an example, the pro-Musavi website Qalam recently featured an article with the headline ‘Universities must take steps towards reaching the goals of pure Islam’. The article carried statements by a person identified as head secretary of Daftar-e tahkim-e vahdat (The Office for Consolidating Unity), which is the main pro-democracy student body. However, this was the secretary of a breakaway pro-conservative group known as the Shiraz Branch – and not the original group that helped Khatami to power in 1997. Pro-democracy students were infuriated that Qalam brought this article and on various student blogs and websites, the conclusion was drawn that there is no difference in Musavi and Ahmadinejad.

It is the apparent similarity with Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric and ideological outlook that is Musavi’s Achilles Heel. Musavi will not be able to change his image without losing that same quality that makes him more acceptable to the ruling conservative elite than Khatami. Half-baked promises of removing the religious police from the streets will not satisfy the politically aware students and young Iranians. There seems to be a feeling that Musavi is either no better or different than Ahmadinejad, or maybe afraid to speak his mind. Furthermore, when it is rumored that even such central figures as Hajjariyan doubts Musavi’s ‘reformism’, it can come as no surprise that others can have a hard time imagining Musavi as a new Khatami.

‘Reformist’ blogger Bahman recently wrote:
“In my opinion, Musavi is not a reformist, just as Karubi isn’t either. Musavi is not representative of what we have fought for and talked about for the last twelve years [since Khatami’s presidential victory in 1997]. Musavi is one of the high-ranking executives of the political system who happens to believe more than most (maybe even most of all) in the political system, who wants to protect it and who wants to make it work efficiently. He sees the political system as a popular system: not in its modern sense but rather in the sense of the Ummah, or Muslim community. That is, to him, ‘the people’ are those he imagines as the real owners of the revolution and the political system.”

Indeed, if Musavi (or Karubi) were to win – would they be able to change anything? This ubiquitous question was formulated in an interesting way recently. Akbar A‘lami – former MP for Tabriz and an outspoken critic of Ahmadinejad’s government – has questioned the ‘reformist’ label for Musavi and Karubi. A‘lami himself has announced he will run for president, but it is doubted whether the unelected vetting body, Guardian Council, will admit him into the race. During his recent campaigning, which has received little if any attention from state-run media, A‘lami has invited Musavi and Karubi to an open public debate. In this invitation, A‘lami asked each candidate what he would do if he was to become president and was faced with a ‘state decree’ from The Leader Ayatollah Khamene‘i?

This question is crucial as it reveals the impotence of any president in opposing these decrees issued every now and then by the Leader. The opaque yet overshadowing and unhindered power of the Leader is indeed a core problem of the Iranian political system. It is also yet another reason why some find the outfall of the presidential elections unimportant – and thus, participation in the election process pointless.

This is not to say that the presidency is a post completely devoid of significance. The Iranian votes have proved time and again to reflect important shifts in public opinion. Constrained as he might be, the president is nonetheless Iran’s face abroad and a representative of a significant segment and interest in society. Yet it becomes increasingly difficult for voters to discern the differences between candidates’ political outlook – and correspondingly harder for Iranian politicians to persuade the population to believe in the system and the power of their votes in bringing about change.

With less than two months left before the presidential elections, something close to a miracle – or at least, a fundamental change of strategy – is needed. If not, Ahmadinejad will most probably win with a slight majority and continue into his second round as president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

[more to follow …]


Just to prove my point that the reformists are desperately addressing the Iranian youth these days:

Mehdi Karubi is reported to have visited a group of pop musicians, including the rapper Sâsi Mânkan (!). This unprecedented move is shocking since the hugely popular underground music, and in particular Persian Hip Hop, is effectively outlawed. As I have commented earlier, the political system sees Hip Hop as a threat to society. It will be interesting to see if state-run media will pick up on this story!

Can Saudi Arabia reform itself?

by Lars Døssing Rosenmeier, MPhil Student, and Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen, Professor, both Copenhagen University

(This article was printed in the Danish daily Information 7 March 2009 and can be read in Danish here)

Can Saudi Arabia reform itself?

King Abdullah’s political testament seeks to move the country towards a more liberal state governed by law. But enlightened absolutism is probably still too optimistic of a description.

In early February, a 23-year-old unmarried woman was sentenced to one year imprisonment and 100 lashes in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. According to local media she had ‘confessed’ to the judge that she had been forced to have sex with several men after she accepted a ride from one of them. After the rape the young woman realized that she was pregnant and in desperation tried to get an abortion at a military hospital in Jeddah. Instead she was arrested.

The young woman’s case brings to mind another case from the province of Qatif, which received a lot of attention in both Saudi and Danish media in the winter of 2007. In Qatif a woman was sentenced to lashes after being raped by a group of men who had caught her and an unrelated man together in a car. In both cases the women’s crimes consisted in social contact with an unrelated man before being raped, and in the more recent case also the attempt to terminate the pregnancy. Several Saudi media described with amazement the hostility that the girl from Qatif and her lawyer met in the legal system during the appeal process, which ended up increasing the girl’s punishment. Fortunately, she was later pardoned by the King.

These kinds of cases, and the discontent they raise among liberal Saudis, in the Saudi media and in the international community is seen by international and local observers as a major motivation for the reforms that King Abdullah decreed February 14. The most remarkable of the king’s decrees replaced conservative managers in the ministries of justice and education, appointed the first Saudi female Minister and gave the Council of Senior Ulama (Saudi Arabia’s most senior religious institution) a more pluralistic profile.

A convenient approach
In a commentary in the Danish daily Politiken Anders Jerichow made it clear that these reforms should not lead us to applaud King Abdullah, as Saudi Arabia is still one of the most oppressive and religiously intolerant countries of the world. He is right. It is also true that the Saudi regime’s insistence that reform must come gradually, is a bit of a convenient strategy. Yet it is not unfounded. The royal family is not popular in all parts of the country, and some observers had thought that the king was too fearful to even dare challenge the religious establishment. Since the founding of the Saudi state in 1932, the royal family has maintained an alliance with the influential Saudi ulama (religious scholars). The puritanical and reactionary ulama have been allowed to dominate the country’s religious institutions, courts and religious police and operate a significant mission abroad. In return the ulama support the Saudi monarchy. Yet King Abdullah’s royal order shows that the regime still sets the framework for cooperation with the ulama. What is perhaps more surprising is that the king had both the will and the backing to honor some of the expectations that both secular and religious liberals have held for his term of governance.

Judges on a leash
For the king, the most risky intervention has been the reforms in the judicial system, but they have also been the most popular. Even Islamists – at least in the liberal end of the spectrum – have expressed great satisfaction with the reforms. In a telephone interview the Saudi human rights activist Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb said that the reforms in the legal system contain all the essentials components that reformists had dared hope for, and that they will put an end to the most arbitrary and inhumane sentences. The replacement of the conservative Sheikh Saleh bin Muhammad al-Luhaidan as President of the Supreme Judicial Council is seen by observers as a penalty for al-Luhaidans reactionary blunders, among which is the increase of the Qatif Girl’s punishment. The new chairman of the Supreme Judicial Council, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, is the former chairman of the Shoura Council, which is a parliament with all members appointed by the king. He is known for being professional, progressive and of course loyal to the king. Along with the new minister of justice he will be charged with keeping the judges on a leash and introduce a new legal system with a supreme court as the ultimate body of appeal.

Saudi Arabia’s religious police, the muttawwa, have been at least as unpopular among reform-oriented Saudis as the conservative judges. It is therefore most welcome that the king has replaced its chairman, Sheikh Ibrahim al-Ghaith, with the royal adviser Sheik Abdul Aziz al-Humain. It is a slap in the face of the mutawwa that the new man on the job is one of the king’s trusted men rather than from their own ranks.

Reformists and parts of the Saudi press have often expressed dissatisfaction with the judicial system and the conditions of Saudi women and they have put focus on cases where the mutawwa have been seen as too brutal and as having exceeded their mandate. Although they are inadequate, the new reforms can therefore also be seen as a small victory for the reformists and the more liberal media. A new minister for culture and media has also been appointed, but the boundaries of freedom of expression are patrolled with a heavy hand by the politically conservative and powerful Minister of the Interior, Prince Naif, King Abdullah’s half brother. Prince Naif is brother to Crown Prince Sultan, who is also seen as a conservative. Liberal observers therefore fear the development the regime will go through after King Abdullah’s death, although the two brothers are also both over 75 years of age. It is therefore not impossible that these reforms are to be seen as Abdullah’s political testament and an attempt to set a course for the development after he has passed away.

The female minister
As such the Saudi women’s rights advocates hope that the appointment of the new female minister Nura al-Faiz, is a promise of better times to come. Nura al-Faiz is the new deputy minister for girls’ education, a typical field for an Arab country’s first female minister. In the west we often focus on the fact that a Saudi woman cannot drive or travel without her husband. The biggest injustice for the Saudi woman, however, lies in the fact that because of legislation and discrimination she is in practice a legal minor, and for example needs her male guardian’s permission to access the courts. This means that she is dependent upon the will of her male guardian. Many male guardians do not hesitate in interfering in the lives of Saudi women. Hence, the conservative and misogynistic view of women is not only widespread among the reactionary ulama but also in the population. The appointment of Nura al-Faiz shows that King Abdullah does not support the conservative view that women cannot be capable leaders and managers and cannot work with men. Nura al-Faiz, however, has said that she would prefer modern means of communication over direct contact with her male colleagues.

As her new boss Nura al-Faiz will get the 56-year-old Prince Faisal. The prince has a direct experience in fighting religious extremism, but also more liberal forces as deputy head of the Saudi intelligence service. He replaces the highly conservative minister of education, Abdullah bin Saleh al-Ubaid, who was appointed in 2005 under pressure from among others the ulama. The appointment of the new minister of education is a sign that the regime believes that education must be wrested from the ulama if future generations of Saudi citizens are to be better qualified but also less conservative and more inclined towards pluralism.

An upper limit for lashes
Kong AbdulIah has also ensured that the Council of Senior Ulama, gets a hint of pluralism. The Council is enlarged by three members to a total of 21 members. Most significant are two new members who have their background in the hanafi and maliki schools of Islamic law. Previously, only the hanbali law school was represented and the Saudi ulama have often expressed a hostile view on ulama from the other three major Sunni law schools. The new council will not likely in any greater extent draw in rules from the other law schools and the new members are known to be conservatives. But whereas previously the authorization of the members was only held in their representation of the right doctrine, it now seems to be the intention that the council should reflect the country’s population. Many Saudis follow a different school of law than the hanbali, especially in the more cosmopolitan and less conservative area around Mecca, Medina and the commercial city of Jeddah. Hence there seems to be an underlying idea of representation, and thus a popular mandate behind this new initiative.

The Council of Senior Ulama will most likely play a central role in an expected future codification of Islamic law in Saudi Arabia. Such a codification will contain new limitation on sentences for various criminal offences, including a maximum number of lashes for immoral dealings with the opposite sex. One should not expect that the religious leadership will abolish lashes as a sanction. It may be hoped that the reforms in the judicial system can lead to fewer people being sentenced toinhumane forms of punishment.

Royal mercy
King Abdullahs reforms do not change the fact that Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s most repressive and religiously conservative regimes. Rather, the new measures put focus on the fact that the regime sets the limits of the religious scholars’ influence, not the other way around. We can hope that the reforms are an expression of an understanding that the educational sector and the religious institutions need to be reformed to disseminate a new way of thinking among the Saudi population. But the regime’s political conservatism and its clinging on to power are highlighted by the lack of political reforms in this new initiative. At the same time the oppressed Shia Muslim minorities are also still barred from religious institutions, for example the Council of Senior Ulama and have not received the amount of seats in the Shoura Council that some reformists had wanted.

This is ultimately the essence of the reforms: The king has set a slightly more progressive team, but has not shared the royal family’s power or influence. The liberally inclined Saudis are still rather powerless. They must, as the girl in Jeddah and previously the girl in Qatif, place their trust in the mercy of His Royal Highness.

Where are Turkish swing voters to swing to?

by Daniella Kuzmanovic.

Local elections in Turkey, which were held on Sunday the 29th of March, brought about some interesting results and indications, also concerning the future national political landscape of Turkey. Many of these have already been scrutinized in detail by Turkish press, and I have no intention of repeating their insights in this comment. However, I did find one particular insight from political scientist Doğu Ergil regarding the current character of the centre-right in Turkey worth an additional comment, since it reveals one of the central problems in Turkish party politics today.

In his column ‘Lessons of the elections’ in Today’s Zaman on April 1 Ergil rightly points out that the results reflect how the AKP has become (or at least has become perceived as) a centre-right party. Hence, they stand out in the eyes of a segment of their voters as that which they have always themselves claimed to be, namely a conservative democratic party. Ergil’s analysis is backed by the observation that the right-wing nationalist party (MHP) and the conservative pro-Islamic party (SP) won back some of the more nationalist and religious conservative voters respectively from the AKP. In others words those voters further to the right went back to their roots. As furthermore rightly pointed out by Ergil, this shift must imply that the AKP now fine-tune their agenda in order to meet the expectations of the voters, which did vote for the AKP. Otherwise these votes may be lost by the next general election in 2011.

Centre-right has traditionally been significant in relation to Turkish national politics, since two thirds of Turkish voters have a tendency to vote for parties right of centre and on the far right. One naturally has to be careful with such terms as left and right of centre in Turkish politics. Here it does have some relevance, though. If one goes back to the 1990ies it created huge problems in national politics throughout the decade that the two dominant centre-right parties at the time, The right path party (DYP now DP) and the Motherland party (ANAP), were not able to cooperate, among other due to personal animosities between the respective leaders of the parties, Tansu Çiller and Mesut Yılmaz.

The two parties became hugely discredited throughout the 1990ies due to, among other, corruption and embezzlement charges, inability to carry out effective economic policies, personal animosities. The parties were among the biggest losers in the general election in 2002, when the AKP came to power. Neither DYP nor ANAP were able to pass the 10 percent threshold. Their loss was confirmed in the 2007 national election. The parties formed an election alliance in order to attract voters to the traditional centre-right, but received less than 6 percent of the votes, and were unable to enter parliament. The story of the success of the AKP is thus also the story of the decline of traditional centre-right parties.

This decline of the traditional centre-right was reaffirmed in the local elections yesterday as well. Looking at the results ( DP (former DYP) continued their downwards slide with regard to total number of voters (local election 2004: 9,97 %, national elections 2007: 5,42 %, local election 2009: 3,72 %). This was also the case for ANAP (local elections 2004: 2,5 %, local elections 2009: 0,76 %).

What does this then tell us, in addition to Ergil’s analysis of the shift towards MHP and SP and the consolidation of AKP as the new centre-right? As I see it, it reminds us that the Turkish voters simultaneously continue to concentrate around a limited number of dominant parties. This should come as no surprise given that the campaign budget and media exposure of parties outside parliament is limited. Never the less we should keep in mind that this voter concentration centers round the very parties, which have not only monopolized but also polarized Turkish political life throughout the past seven years.
One must hope that the level of political tension and polarization in Turkey lessens during the years to come, and that the current party in power seeks to contribute effectively to this. However, where are the centre-right voters to go if the AKP and the opposition parties do not? As seen from previous elections Turkish party politics is highly volatile. Large blocks of voters can, indeed, swing from one party to others in any given election. But with the current condition of the centre-right, and for that matter also the centre-left, in Turkey who are these voters to swing to when only currently four parties remain standing?

Turkey is, as the local elections unfortunately also revealed, still badly in need of new political parties, new political programs, and new politicians.