Friday, August 19, 2005


Annan demands release of jailed Iranian journalist

Fri Aug 19, 2005 08:19 PM ET

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Friday wrote Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, demanding the release of imprisoned dissident journalist Akbar Ganji.
The letter marks the strongest action to date by the world body in pushing for Ganji to be freed. Such initiatives are always ticklish for the United Nations because Iran is a member-state.

While Annan's letter has not been made public because it has not yet been received by the Iranian authorities, it calls for "the immediate release on humanitarian grounds" of Ganji, according to a copy seen by Reuters.

The dissident this week ended more than 60 days of hunger strike in protest at his imprisonment.

He was jailed in 2000 and sentenced to six years in prison for "acting against national security" and other crimes. His arrest followed a series of articles linking senior officials to the murder of dozens of political dissidents.

Ganji's plight also has aroused concern at the White House and the European Union, which have similarly called for him to be released.

His supporters feared he would die from the long hunger strike but his condition was improving after he resumed eating, the spokesman of the Iranian hospital where he is being held was quoted as saying on Friday.

However, relatives and lawyers told Reuters in Tehran they were being prevented from visiting Ganji and could not confirm he had begun eating.

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WE DON'T respect or understand any religious or nationalist fervor other than our own.

By Robert Scheer

08/16/05 "Los Angeles Times" -- -- WE DON'T respect or understand any
religious or nationalist fervor other than our own. That myopic distortion
has been a persistent historical failure of U.S. foreign policy, but it
has reached the point of total blindness in the Bush administration.

The latest exhibition of this approach was President Bush's thinly veiled
threat this weekend to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities or even invade the
country as a last resort, sparked by Tehran's troubled negotiations with
the West over its nuclear program.

It is telling that Bush made the comments on Israeli television, which
makes them exponentially more provocative. Israel is, of course, not only
Iran's archenemy but is also believed to be the sole possessor of nuclear
weapons in the immediate region.

It is as if Bush is not content to rattle his saber at Tehran's
hard-liners; he also wants to ensure that he infuriates and publicly
mbarrasses even moderate Iranians.

If diplomacy fails, "all options are on the table,"Bush said. "You know,
we've used force in the recent past to secure our country." But it was
precisely Bush's use of preemptive force against Iraq that now makes it so
difficult to pressure Iran to abandon its worrisome nuclear program.

Neither the security of the Iranians nor of the world is enhanced by any
nuclear program that includes weapon capabilities. Nuclear weapons are
inherently weapons of terrorism, and international monitoring of nuclear
programs for all countries is in order. Iran insists that it only wants
peaceful nuclear power, but we cannot assume it is telling the truth. If
Tehran refuses to be transparent and open to inspections, the U.N.
Security Council can take up the issue of imposing sanctions.

Yet as the head of the only nation to have used nuclear weapons on human
beings and the one currently devising the next generation of "battlefield"
nukes, it would seem that Bush should be a little more careful about
trying to seize the moral high ground. This is especially the case because
Washington has accommodated the nuclear programs of three allies
(Pakistan, India and Israel).

The timing of Bush's bombast is particularly unfortunate. Only last week
the world marked the 60th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki. The mayor of the latter city, which was apparently destroyed at
least partly because the U.S. military wanted to test a plutonium-based
bomb, was bold enough in his anniversary remarks to point out the
hypocrisy of our current stance.

"To the citizens of the United States of America: We understand your anger
and anxiety over the memories of the horror of the 9/11 terrorist
attacks," he said. "Yet, is your security enhanced by your government's
policies of maintaining 10,000 nuclear weapons?"

Bush's Iran policy is rife with contradictions and idiocies. What, for
example, is the point of publicly threatening Iran when doing so
immeasurably strengthens the hand of hard-line nationalists and religious
fundamentalists in Tehran? These are the people who, for more than a
century, have secured much of their appeal by posturing as the protectors
of the Muslim populace against Western imperialism.

And the reality is that we are in a much, much weaker position vis-a-vis
Iran than we should be because of our invasion and disastrous occupation
of neighboring Iraq.

Iran now holds some high cards in this poker match. It is closely allied
with the most powerful force in post-Hussein Iraq: Shiite religious
leaders. Any invasion of Iran might break our already strained military
machine. If Iran were to send its fanatical revolutionary guards into Iraq
as saboteurs, they could make the current carnage seem like a walk in the

And finally, Iran is one of the world's biggest oil exporters. At a time
when oil prices are soaring, much of the rest of the world would be
hesitant to back the United States in any adventure that could cut off the

As German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder put it accurately on Sunday in
response to Bush's comments: "Let's take the military option off the
table. We have seen it doesn't work."

What can work is what has worked in the past: carefully maximizing
international pressure on Tehran to comply with the demands of the
International Atomic Energy Agency so that Iran's program can be monitored
and limited to nonmilitary purposes.

Perhaps this isn't as exciting to the neocon chicken-hawks in the Bush
administration who love treating the world like a big game of "Risk," but
it is certainly the most prudent approach if the goal is a more peaceful

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Friday, August 12, 2005


In Iraq, Bush is laying the foundations of an Islamic Republic

The Daily Star

By Peter Galbraiyh
Saturday, August 13, 2005

On June 4, Jalal Talabani, president of Iraq, attended the inauguration of the Kurdistan National Assembly in Irbil, northern Iraq. Talabani, a Kurd, is not only the first-ever democratically elected head of state in Iraq, but in a country that traces its history back to the Garden of Eden, he is, as one friend observed, "the first freely chosen leader of this land since Adam was here alone." While Kurds are enormously proud of his accomplishment, the flag of Iraq - the country Talabani heads - was noticeably absent from the inauguration ceremony, nor can it be found anywhere in Irbil, a city of one million that is the capital of Iraq's Kurdistan Region.

Ann Bodine, the head of the American embassy office in Kirkuk, spoke at the ceremony, congratulating the newly minted parliamentarians, and affirming the U.S. commitment to an Iraq that is, she said, "democratic, federal, pluralistic, and united." The phrase evidently did not apply in Irbil. In their oath, the parliamentarians were asked to swear loyalty to the unity of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Many pointedly dropped the "of Iraq."

The shortest speech was given by the head of the Iranian intelligence service in Irbil, a man known to the Kurds as Agha Panayi. Staring directly at Bodine, he said simply: "This is a great day. Throughout Iraq, the people we supported are in power." He did not add "Thank you, George W. Bush." The unstated was understood.


When Bush spoke to the nation on June 28, he did not mention Iran's rising influence with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. He did not point out that the two leading parties in the Shiite coalition are pursuing an Islamic state in which the rights of women and religious minorities will be sharply curtailed, and that this kind of regime is already being put into place in parts of Iraq controlled by these parties. Nor did he say anything about the almost unanimous desire of Kurdistan's people for their own independent state.

Instead, Bush depicted the struggle in Iraq as a battle between the freedom-loving Iraqi people and terrorists. Without the sacrifices of the American servicemen and women, and the largesse of the U.S. taxpayer, the terrorists could win. As Bush put it, "The only way our enemies can succeed is if we forget the lessons of September 11 - if we abandon the Iraqi people to men like Zarqawi."

Bush's effort to revive the link between Iraq and September 11 produced a flood of criticism, leading some of his critics to dismiss him as a habitual liar on Iraq matters. Alas, the comment may be more indicative of how disconnected administration strategy is from the realities of Iraq. Unfortunately, many of the administration's sharpest critics seem to share its assumption that there is a people sharing a common Iraqi identity, an inaccurate assumption that provides fodder for misleading Vietnam analogies.

There is, in fact, no Iraqi insurgency. There is a Sunni Arab insurgency. And it cannot win. Neither the Al-Qaeda terrorists nor the former Baathists can win. Even if the U.S. withdrew tomorrow, neither insurgents nor terrorists would be knocking down the gates to Iraq's Presidential Palace in Baghdad.

Basically, the military equation in Iraq comes down to demographics. Sunni Arabs are no more than 20 percent of Iraq's population. Even in Baghdad - once the seat of Sunni Arab power - Sunni Arabs are a minority. To succeed, the insurgency would have to win support from Iraq's other major communities - the Kurds at 20 percent and the Shiites at between 55 percent and 60 percent. This cannot happen.

While the Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims, they have a history of repression at the hands of Sunni Arabs. A few dozen Kurds have been involved in terrorist acts, but Al-Qaeda and its allies have no support in the Kurdistan population, which is one reason Kurdistan has largely been spared the violence that has wracked Arab Iraq.

The Shiites are completely immune to any appeal by insurgents. Sunni fundamentalists consider Shiites apostates, and possibly a more dangerous enemy than they do even the Americans. (The Americans, they know, will leave. The apostates want to rule.) For the last two years, Sunni Arab insurgents have targeted Shiite mosques, clerics, religious celebrations and pilgrims - with a toll in the thousands. The insurgent goal is to provoke sectarian war, and they seem to be succeeding. In spite of calls for restraint by Shiite leaders, there are growing numbers of retaliatory killings of Sunni Arabs by Shiites.

But while the insurgents cannot win, neither can they be defeated.

For most of his 35-year rule Saddam Hussein faced guerrilla warfare from Kurds or Shiites - and sometimes both. Even the most brutal of tactics could not pacify communities that did not accept Sunni Arab rule. Today Sunni Arabs reject rule by Iraq's Shiite majority. It is unrealistic to think the American military - operating with a fraction of the intelligence of the Saddam Hussein regime and with much less brutality (Abu Ghraib notwithstanding) - can quell a Sunni Arab resistance that is no longer solely anti-American but also anti-Shiite.


In his speech, Bush outlined a two-pronged strategy for dealing with the insurgency: the training of Iraqi military and security forces to take over the fight ("As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down") and the continuation of Iraq's democratic transition with the writing of a constitution as its centerpiece.

Building national security institutions is a challenge in a country that does not have a shared national identity. Saddam's army consisted of Sunni Arab officers (with a few exceptions) and Shiite and (until 1991) Kurdish conscripts. Today, the Iraqi military and security services are a mixture of Kurdish Peshmerga, rehabilitated Sunni Arab officers from Saddam's army, and Shiite and Sunni Arab recruits. What is little-known is that virtually all of the effective fighting units in the new Iraqi military are in fact former Kurdish Peshmerga. These units owe no loyalty to Iraq, and, if recalled by the Kurdistan government, they will all go north to fight for Kurdistan.

The Shiites, naturally, want a Shiite military that will be loyal to the new Shiite-dominated government. They have encouraged the Shiite militias - and notably the Badr Brigade - to take over security in the Shiite south, and to integrate themselves into the national military. Neither the Shiites nor the Kurds want the Sunni Arabs to have a significant part in the new Iraqi military or security services. They suspect - with good reason in many cases - that the Sunni Arabs in the military are in fact cooperating with the insurgency. No Kurdish minister in the national government uses Iraqi forces for his personal security, nor will any of them inform the Iraqi authorities of their movements. Instead, they entrust their lives to specially trained Peshmerga brought to Baghdad. Many Shiite ministers use the Shiite militias in the same way.

A few months after the Iraqi elections, U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld flew to Baghdad to warn the new Shiite-led government not to purge Sunni Arabs from the police and military. He got a promise, but the government has no intention of keeping on people associated with Saddam's regime. Too many of them have the blood of Shiites or Kurds on their hands, and neither group is in a forgiving mood. But the Americans, with little comprehension of Iraq's recent history, seem not to understand. Recently, the Kurds identified the retired Iraqi officer who personally carried out the 1983 execution of more than 5,000 members of the tribe of the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. The killer's son holds a senior security position in Iraq, appointed by the American occupation authorities.


A Shiite list won a narrow majority in Iraq's January elections. Sponsored by Iraq's leading Shiite, Ayatollah Ali Sistani (himself an Iranian who was therefore ineligible to vote), the list includes Shiite religious parties, some secular Shiites including the one-time Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, and even a few Sunni Arabs. Real power in Shiite Iraq rests, however, with two religious parties: Abdul Aziz Hakim's Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and Al-Daawa ("Call," in English) of Iraq's Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari. Of the two, SCIRI is the more pro-Iranian. Both parties have military wings, and SCIRI's Badr Corps has grown significantly from the 5,000 fighters that harassed Saddam's regime from Iran in the decades before the war; it now works closely with Iraq's Shiite interior minister, until recently the corps' commander, to provide security and fight Sunni Arab insurgents.

SCIRI and Daawa want Iraq to be an Islamic state. They propose making Islam the principal source of law, which most immediately would affect the status of women. For Muslim women, religious law - rather than Iraq's relatively progressive civil code - would govern personal status, including matters relating to marriage, divorce, property and child custody. A Daawa draft for the Iraqi constitution would limit religious freedom for non-Muslims, and apparently deny such freedom altogether to peoples not "of the book," such as the Yezidis (a significant minority in Kurdistan), Zoroastrians and Bahais.

This program is not just theoretical. Since Saddam's fall, Shiite religious parties have had de facto control over Iraq's southern cities. There Iranian-style religious police enforce a conservative Islamic code, including dress codes and bans on alcohol and other non-Islamic behavior. In most cases, the religious authorities govern - and legislate - without authority from Baghdad, and certainly without any reference to the freedoms incorporated in Iraq's American-written interim constitution - the Transitional Administrative Law (TAL).

Daawa and SCIRI are not just promoting an Iranian-style political system - they are also directly promoting Iranian interests. Abdul Aziz Hakim, the SCIRI leader, has advocated paying Iran billions in reparations for damage done in the Iran-Iraq war, even as the Bush administration has been working to win forgiveness for Iraq's Saddam-era debt. Iraq's Shiite oil minister is promoting construction of an export pipeline for petroleum from Basra to the Iranian port city of Abadan, creating an economic and strategic link between the two historic adversaries that would have been unthinkable until now. Iraq's Shiite government has acknowledged Iraq's responsibility for starting the Iran-Iraq war, and apologized. It is an acknowledgment probably justified by the historical record, but one that has infuriated Iraq's Sunni Arabs.

Through its spies, infiltrators and sympathizers, Iran has a presence in Iraq's security forces and military. It is virtually certain that Iran has access to any intelligence that the Iraqis have. Not only does Iran have an opportunity to insert its people into the Iraqi apparatus, it also has many Iraqi allies willing to do its bidding. When I asked an Iraqi with major intelligence responsibilities about foreign infiltration into Iraq, he dismissed the influx from Syria (the focus of the Bush administration's attention) and said the real problem was from Iran. When I asked how the infiltration took place, he said simply, "But Iran is already in Baghdad."

On July 7, the Iranian and Iraqi defense ministers signed an agreement on military cooperation that would have Iranians train the Iraqi military. The Iraqi defense minister made a point of saying American views would not count: "Nobody can dictate to Iraq its relations with other countries." However, even if the training is deferred or derailed, it is only the visible - and very much smaller - component of a stealthy Iranian encroachment into Iraq's national institutions and security services.

So far, the Bush administration seems surprisingly untroubled by the influence in Baghdad of a country to which it has shown unrelenting hostility. But should Bush want to understand why the Shiites have shown so little receptivity to his version of democracy, he need only go back to his father's presidency. On February 15, 1991, former President George H.W. Bush called on the Iraqi people and military to overthrow Saddam Hussein. The Shiites made the mistake of believing he meant it. Three days after the Gulf war ended, on March 2, a Shiite rebellion began in Basra and quickly spread to the southern reaches of Baghdad. Then Saddam counterattacked with great ferocity. Three hundred thousand Shiites ultimately died. Not only did the elder President Bush not help, his administration refused even to hear the pleas of the more and more desperate Shiites. While Bush's behavior may have many explanations, no Shiite I know of sees it as anything other than a calculated plan to have them slaughtered. By contrast, Iran, which backed SCIRI and Daawa and equipped the Badr Brigade, has long been seen as a reliable friend.


Days after the Kurdistan National Assembly convened in June, it elected Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani as the first president of Kurdistan. Before so doing, it passed a law making him commander in chief of the Kurdistan military, but specifically prohibited him from deploying Kurdistan forces elsewhere in Iraq, unless expressly approved by the assembly. (Kurdistan retains some 50,000 Peshmerga under the direct control of the Kurdistan government.) The assembly also banned the entry of non-Kurdish Iraqi military forces into Kurdistan without its approval. Kurdish leaders are mindful that their people are even more militant in their demands. Two million Kurds voted in a January referendum on independence held simultaneously with the national ballot, with 98 percent choosing the independence option.

Kurdistan's leaders would like Iraq to be a loose confederation in which Kurdistan makes its own laws, retains its own military, the Iraqi military stays out, and Kurdistan manages its own oil and water resources. Although Iraq's interim constitution, the TAL, talks of "federalism," it has been implemented so as to create no more than a confederal relationship between Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq. The Kurdish leaders would accept its continuation provided the text was clarified to assure Kurdistan's ownership of petroleum in the region and if the status of the disputed region of Kirkuk were resolved.

While the Shiite religious parties accepted the TAL when it was promulgated in 2004, the Kurds now believe they don't mean it. When he swore in his Cabinet on May 3, 2005, Jaafari eliminated reference to a "federal Iraq" from the statutory oath of office; this so angered Barzani that he forced a second swearing-in ceremony. Some Shiite drafts for Iraq's permanent constitution would sharply restrict Kurdistan's autonomy and demote Kurdish from its current status at the federal level as an official language equal with Arabic. The Kurdish leaders also worry that the Shiites will try to eliminate Kurdistan's current ability to modify the application of national law in Kurdistan; they fear that the Shiites will, at least, stop secular Kurdistan from rejecting the imposition of Islamic law.


In his speech, Bush alluded to the importance of Iraqis meeting their deadlines. The deadline that looms is August 15 for the National Assembly to adopt a constitution. Because the differences among Iraq's three communities are great, it seems unlikely that they can find common ground on a constitution by August 15, if ever. But the deadline could be met if the assembly agrees simply to continue the TAL, with some modifications of the provisions on oil and Kirkuk. The Shiites have a desire similar to the Kurds' for oil to be owned and managed by the regions. The Shiite south sits on top of nearly 80 percent of Iraq's known oil and, like the Kurds, the Shiites feel the old system of central management enriched Baghdad and the Sunni Arabs without providing benefits to the regions owning the oil. Shiite leaders from the three oil-rich southern governorates have already proposed creating a southern region that, like Kurdistan, would have its own oil.

Control over Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed governorate, will be much more difficult to solve. The Kurds insist it is the heart of Kurdistan, and believe a great injustice was done when Saddam expelled Kurds from the area and resettled Arabs in their place. But Kirkuk also has indigenous Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, and Chaldeans. The Kurds and Shiites could make a deal to have a referendum to determine Kirkuk's future, which, since the Kurds are now again likely to have a majority, could be significantly at the expense of the Sunni Arabs. But not entirely, since Kirkuk's Arabs and Turkmen are both Sunni and Shiite.

In the constitutional battle, Kurdistan leaders - and many secular Arab Iraqis - have drawn the line on three principles: secularism, the rights of women and federalism. They fear that Bush will be more interested in meeting the August 15 deadline for a constitution than in its content, and that they will be under pressure to make concessions to the Shiite majority. It may be the ultimate irony that the United States, which, for among other reasons, invaded Iraq to help bring liberal democracy to the Middle East, will play a decisive role in establishing its second Shiite Islamic state.

In fact an agreement on the constitution in the National Assembly may not end Iraq's sectarian divisions but set the stage for new battles. Voters must approve the constitution in a referendum scheduled for October 15, and under the TAL two-thirds of the voters in any three governorates may veto it. There are three Kurdish governorates, but also three Sunni Arab governorates. Even if Kurdistan's leaders reluctantly accept a Shiite-written constitution, the independence-minded Kurdistan electorate may reject it. Moreover, the Sunni Arabs could easily use the referendum to torpedo any Shiite-Kurdish agreement.

The ratification clause of the TAL creates a timed fuse that could blow Iraq apart, and as is true for so much else that has gone wrong, it is American arrogance and ignorance that are to blame. When Iraq's Governing Council was considering the TAL in February 2004, the Kurds came up with a simple proposal to protect their existing autonomy: the permanent constitution would come into effect if ratified by a majority of Iraqis, but would only be operative in Kurdistan if ratified by a majority of Kurdistan's voters. This simple formula, which involved no veto on the ratification of the constitution but only a geographic limitation on where it would apply, was largely acceptable to the Arab Iraqis. But it was not acceptable to the American administrator, Paul Bremer, who did not want to concede that Iraq's ethnic communities should be treated differently. He came up with the three-governorate formula, preparing the way for a future train wreck.


There are two central problems in today's Iraq: the first is the insurgency and the second is an Iranian takeover. The insurgency, for all its violence, is a finite problem. The insurgents may not be defeated but they cannot win. This, of course, raises a question about what a prolonged U.S. military presence in Iraq can accomplish, since there is no military solution to the problem of Sunni Arab rejection of Shiite rule, which is now integral to the insurgency.

Iraq's Shiites endured decades of brutal repression, to which the U.S. was mostly indifferent. Iran, by contrast, was a good friend and committed supporter of the Shiites. By bringing freedom to Iraq, the Bush administration has allowed Iraq's Shiites to vote for pro-Iranian religious parties that seek to create - and are creating - an Islamic state. This is not ideal but it is the result of a democratic process.

The Bush administration should, however, draw the line at allowing a Shiite theocracy to establish control over all of Iraq. This requires a drastic change of strategy. Building powerful national institutions in Iraq serves the interest of one group - today it is the Shiites - at the expense of the others, and will inevitably produce conflict and instability. Instead, the administration should concentrate on political arrangements that match the reality in Iraq. This means a loose confederation in which each of Iraq's communities governs itself, and is capable of defending itself. It may not be possible to accomplish this in a constitution, since the very process of writing a constitution forces these communities to confront issues - religion, women's rights, ownership of oil, regional militaries - that are hard to resolve ideologically.

Many of these issues, however, could conceivably be worked out practically. For example, the Iraqi Oil Ministry and the Kurdistan government are currently cooperating on fulfilling oil contracts made by the Kurdistan government, without having to face the constitutional issue of who owns the resources. Without having to make a constitutional decision on religion, the Shiite south can apply Islamic law as it now does and Kurdistan can remain secular.

War always has unintended consequences. Currently, the U.S. is pursuing a strategy that will not end the insurgency but that plays directly into the hands of Iran. No wonder Agha Panayi, the Iranian intelligence official, was smiling.

Peter W. Galbraith is a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia and, as a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he documented Saddam Hussein's "Anfal" campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s. He is the senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, and a partner in a law firm specializing in international negotiations. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary, which originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, by permission.

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Secularism, national identity, and the role of the intellectual. Dialogue no. 2, May 2005, between Ramin Jahanbegloo and Shlomo Avineri

Bitterlemons Dialogue

Jahanbegloo: I have been thinking for the past several years about the situation of intellectuals in the Middle East. I believe we live in deeply troubled times in the world and particularly in the Middle East, and it is certain that Middle Eastern intellectuals can play an important role in the future evolution of this region.

One of the biggest problems of Middle Eastern societies lies in the inability of intellectuals in this region of the world to make up their minds about who they are. Are they specialized experts and professionals operating within specific market-oriented and technophilic spheres, adapting rapidly with the changing economic and political situations? Or independent souls whose only commitment is to truth and who add their voices to the public debates in the Middle East? In my humble opinion, intellectuals in the Middle East have to confront this dilemma and draw the necessary conclusions for the future of peace in this region.

For a long period of time the Middle East suffered from the existence of intellectual elites who gave up their intellectual habits and submitted to the strict rules of ideologies such as Marxism-Leninism or Islamism. As a result, these intellectuals have been to a great degree traitors to their own status and very often re-interpreters of the political realities of the Middle East in accord with their purposes, while closing their eyes to truth. Intellectuals assisted the spread of ideological messages in the Middle East, whatever they were, by becoming the icons of discontented, disillusioned and frustrated generations anxious for change and peace. Political parties and clergy used the intellectuals to extend their organizational power and political control.

An intellectual struggle in the Middle East is not only of a political nature, but also a permanent struggle against what Michel de Certeau calls "an enforced belief". A public intellectual in the Middle East should act as a check on this enforced belief and bring forward a new tone of debate in the public sphere. This desire for a critical rather than an ideological discussion is exemplified by what Edward Said called "speaking truth to power". To do such a thing, intellectuals in the Middle East need to position themselves outside the masses and question in a radical way the very idea of the "public sphere" itself.

Beyond the choice between tradition and modernity, there is a world of conflict and vision that can stimulate the contributions made by intellectuals to the public debate in the Middle East. This contribution is accompanied by the interpenetration of western and eastern thought. The Middle East represents the historical foundation of the eastern and western civilizations. Therefore, it is natural that intellectuals in this region of the world try to root themselves in a national culture, but it is even more natural that they feel a need to be nurtured by multicultural roots.

This oppositional practice emerges as the re-appropriation of the secular into the political context, in contrast with the practices of the theological, but also in opposition to the quasi-theological dogmas of national organizations and party politics. In other words, the secular intellectual in the Middle East needs to put morality ahead of politics. This has not yet happened.

Avineri: The role of intellectuals in any society is indeed one of the elements crucial to its development, yet intellectuals come in all stripes and it is not only Middle Eastern intellectuals who should be criticized for their shortcomings. After all, the French Revolution's reign of terror was instigated by people whom we would today classify as intellectuals: Lenin and most of his comrades were intellectuals (how many people could ever understand his Materialism and Empirio- Criticism?); and not all Nazis were thugs--Dr Goebbels was certainly an intellectual.

To my mind, the way to assess historically the impact of intellectuals on any given society depends on the society in which they are operating: where civil society is weak, where nonconformity is generally frowned upon, where tolerance and pluralism are lacking, intellectuals will find it difficult to steer society toward a more open political and moral climate.

This, and not just that many intellectuals in the Middle East may be in the thralls of Marxism or Islamism, seems to me to be at the root of the inability of so many societies in the region to be reformed and transformed. And it is here that one should make distinctions. I may be wrong, and if so, please correct me, but Iranian society--with its rich history and multi-layered traditions, where Islam is only one of the building blocks of national identity--appears to offer many more options for critical intellectuals to find within their own society legitimizing elements for change and transformation than is the case in many Arab societies, where Islam is, in one way or another, linked to the heritage of Arabism, and truly critical thinking may be stunted.

The weakness and pusillanimity shown by so many Egyptian intellectuals when faced with the persecution of Sa'ad Eddin Ibrahim is amazing when compared with critical voices one hears coming from Iran. So many Arab intellectuals view themselves as guardians of the "true" vocation of their Arab national movement as against what they see as corrupt politicians willing to make compromises: this was also evident in the reluctance of Arab intellectuals to speak truth to power--to use Edward Said's phrase-- when it came to criticizing Saddam's repressive regime. There are too many Robespierres lurking in the shadows.

Can an intellectual overcome the limitations of his age and society, and jump over Rhodes (to use Hegel's memorable phrase)? Where does he get his values from, and how does he make them legitimate within his own society?

Jahanbegloo: I agree with you that intellectuals play an important role in the formation and evolution of civil society in all societies (either western or eastern), and therefore they could and should be criticized for their shortcomings in the process of democratization, especially under totalitarian rule and dictatorship. Yet I do believe that the role of the “intellectual” has been totally misunderstood and misinterpreted in the Middle Eastern countries, especially in the Arab countries, where as you say critical voices are rare when one has to choose between dictators like Saddam and democracy. Actually, if we make a comparison between the rise of intellectuals in the Middle East and the birth of "intellectualism" in Europe, we can see many differences. The most important among these is what Max Weber calls the "disenchantment of the world". To my mind, Middle Eastern societies and more especially Islamic countries have not gone through this process of “disenchantment”. When we take a look at the birth of intellectuals in Europe (and more specifically after the Dreyfus affair), we see that intellectuals are the most important sociological actors of modernity. As a matter of fact, their struggle for critical rationality and civil liberties goes hand in hand with their critique and refusal of instrumental rationality and spirit of domination.

Since in your response to my first statement you mentioned correctly the role of Iranian civil society, I would like to add a few historical details to your statement. Iranian elites started dealing with the issue of modernity 150 years ago after the Qajar defeat against the Russian army. The nineteenth century Iranian reformers whom we can consider as the “first generation of Iranian intellectuals” were perfectly conscious of the fact that it was not enough to rely upon the antiquity of Iranian civilization to think about its continued ability to survive. They tried to establish a relationship with men of power that would have permitted them to dictate their blueprints for reforms. These blueprints naturally remained without immediate impact among the men of power to whom they were addressed. These intellectual reforms encountered a widespread opposition from the court and the Ulama.

Unlike the first generation of Iranian intellectuals, the second generation intended to introduce modern civilization to Iran, not only by imitating the West, but through a coherent and systematic approach to European culture. With the popularity of Marxist ideology among the third generation of Iranian intellectuals, the new culture for translation and knowledge of modernity was drawn inevitably toward moral and political absolutes. Intellectuals claimed to be “givers of lessons” and acted as “moral legislators” who were critics of both the state and the society.

Very different from the second generation, perceived as the heir of the Enlightenment, the third generation of Iranian intellectuals was mainly influenced by the totalitarian outlook of Russian Marxism. Post-revolutionary Iranian civil society is symbolized today, from my point of view, by a period of transition from utopian thinking and a quest for an “ideological modernity” to a non-imitative dialogical exchange with modernity and the West.

Avineri: I was fascinated by your review of Iranian developments, which are so different from those in the Arab world. While I am not familiar with the different stages described by you, to my mind this explains a lot about current developments in Iran--and the basic deficit in parallel developments in Arab countries. I agree with your reference to Weber's "disenchantment of the world" as being a crucial ingredient in these developments. Weber might have been too much beholden to the Protestant tradition so central to the German academic discourse, but he put his finger on the major issue: European society--in the West, not in Eastern Orthodoxy--went through such a disenchantment via the Reformation, and it was the Reformation that led to the enlightenment. Muslim societies did not go through a parallel process, and this may explain many of the phenomena we were discussing. Am I right in suggesting that in the Iranian case the ability to draw on a "usable past", harking back to an enlightened Persian heritage (or a modern reconstruction of it) made it possible for Iranian intellectuals to find alternative sources for their identity beyond Islam? With all due respect to our Arab Muslim friends, for Arab intellectuals such an option does not exist: before Islam, after all, there was only jahiliya.

So when Arab intellectuals tried to find a foundational overarching narrative for modernization, there was very little that they could find within their own societies and their history. Hence the incessant recourse to western ideas and the sometimes naive and undifferentiated attempts to implement them on Arab soil. Western liberalism, constitutionalism, nationalism, fascism, socialism--all have found, as Fouad Ajami so masterly describes, their apostles in the Arab world. Yet because they were totally anchored in external phenomena, and in many cases linked with western imperialism, they did not find deep roots in society--or were so sadly distorted as to give us "modernizers" like Saddam Hussein or, in a way, even Nasser. After this colossal failure, the "return" to Islam appeared for many as the only credible option.

This leads me to an interesting possible parallel to what happened in the West, among 19th century Jewish intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe. They tried to distance themselves from orthodox, rabbinic Judaism, yet still wanted to link themselves to a Judaic tradition: this they found in the reinterpretation of the Bible not as a sacral text but as an epic rendition of ancient Jewish history; a return to Hebrew not as a language of rabbinic discourse but as a secular language; and, eventually, some of them found their way to Zionism as an expression of a modern, national relationship to an ancestral land. But about this, perhaps, later.

Jahanbegloo: I would like to continue our debate by addressing the last part of your statement on the idea of national relationship as an expression of modernity. More than 150 years ago, Marx and Engels boldly claimed in the Communist Manifesto that “national differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing”. For Marx and Engels, the future of mankind was to be nation-less, classless and religion-less.

Certainly the world has changed and so has Marxism, yet nationalism is more alive than ever, not only as a sense of belonging, but also as a framework for political identity making. We can see this process very clearly in the contemporary history of the Middle East. Let me take once again the Iranian example, but this analysis could be easily applied to Turkey. Both modern Iran and modern Turkey were shaped by nationalistic ideas and there is no doubt in my mind that nationalism continues today to play a significant role in the social and political life of Turkish and Iranian citizens.

Evidence of nationalism in Iran is difficult to discover prior to the 19th century. We need to associate national identity in Iran with the cultural encounter of Iranian elites with the West after the Persian-Russian war. The Constitutional Revolution of 1906 represented in a new manner the entry of Iran into a new political era and created a series of clashes among the traditional and the modern political forces. Yet continuous foreign interference in the affairs of Iran helped to legitimize Islamic movements there as nationalistic powers. With the Mossadegh failure in 1953, a new form of Iranian nationalism was promoted by the Islamic groups and the clergy in Iran. This process has been intensified in the past 26 years since the Iranian Revolution.

Even if the Islamic government has frequently stressed the role of Islam as a major source of identity, opposed to the secularism of the Pahlavi dynasty, Shi’ism seems to have provided a national collective consciousness that we can call “religious nationalism”. The most obvious example of this is the use of the word “Iran” by the Islamic leadership since the war against Saddam in the 1980s. This recalls the vitality of nationalism in the Iranian political and cultural consciousness.

Today, secular nationalism is gaining ground among Iranian youth and even among devout Muslims in Iran. Such a development reminds me that because Islam was imported to Iran by the Arabs, it is not as central to Iranian identity as it is to Arab identity. Five centuries ago, the Safavid dynasty conceived Shi’ism as an Iranianized Islam, largely to distinguish itself from Arabs and Ottoman Turks. Today, once again, Iranian nationalism is changing the Iranian political identity. But this time Iranian nationalism is looking toward a secular future.

Avineri: I found your analysis of the Iranian Islamic Revolution in terms of the Iranian historical discourse fascinating--I can only wish more people outside of Iran would be aware of this. It certainly provides a key to the understanding of what happens in your country--and paves the way for hopeful developments in the future.
Those elements of continuity and change in the national consciousness, which integrate and transform a religious tradition under the impact of modernization, are also something that happened in Jewish history in post-Enlightenment Europe.

With secularization gaining ground in the 19th century, many Jewish intellectuals in Europe rejected orthodox religiosity, but still wanted to preserve elements of their Jewish identity in a modern context. Hence, as I pointed out earlier, they interpreted the Bible not as a religious text, but as a repository of an historical and moral heritage, telling the story of the Israelites--their kingdoms, wars and internal strife, moral prophecies and hopes for redemption. In tune with European nationalism, they viewed Hebrew not as a sacral language (a sort of Jewish Latin) but as a national language, uniting Jews in different countries round a national-linguistic culture and tradition. Consequently, 19th century Jewish intellectuals in Central and Eastern Europe started writing poems, novels and philosophical tracts in a modernized Hebrew; finally, some of them reconfigured the religious Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel--then part of the Ottoman Empire--not as a Holy Land, but as the ancestral land of the Jewish nation. These are the origins of Zionism in the age of Enlightenment and secularization.

In parallel fashion, some Jewish intellectuals, under the impact of European socialist ideas, re-read the Bible and found in it a message of social justice and salvation. The Sabbath was transformed from a religious day on which labor is prohibited to a harbinger of social legislation--a prescribed day of rest for all. Religious precepts about redistributing land among the people--because, so religious tradition says, the land belongs to the Lord--were interpreted as proto-socialist egalitarian measures of social redistribution. And the Exodus from Egypt was reshaped as the first attempt of slaves at emancipation and a quest for freedom (Michael Walzer in his book Exodus has used this most creatively in his account of different modes of emancipation and salvation).

These 19th century Jewish intellectuals were, on the one hand, revolutionizing Jewish collective consciousness and the Jewish narrative. But for all their being under the impact of European ideas, they fashioned their interpretation in a context of Jewish history and continuity: this gave their revolutionary ideas internal legitimacy. And thus they could be both extremely critical of the stifling rabbinic traditions against which they rebelled, but also innovative and revolutionary within a context of historical continuity.

It seems to me that this anchoring of intellectuals in their own societal historical narratives while at the same time transcending them is a powerful tool of moral responsibility and historical change. Both of us, who are no strangers to the Hegelian tradition, will recognize here the power of Aufhebung: historical change grows out of the dialectics of continuity and transformation, and is not concocted out of thin air.

Jahanbegloo: I would like to turn our debate to the question of secularization in the Middle East, which I think is closely related to the question of nationalism and to the role of intellectuals in this area of the world. If we come back for a moment to the issue of modernization in the Weberian sense of the term, we can say that modernization in Europe, as in the Middle East, has always involved a process of secularization, systematically displacing religious institutions and substituting for them those of rationality.

Secularization in the Middle East can be dated back to the 19th century, when the impact of the secular West on Arab, Iranian and Turkish societies called for social, political and cultural reforms. However, if we take a closer look at this process we can see that it has gone through several different stages: radical secularization, followed by radical Islamization (as in the Iranian case), and again by a resurgent secularization. Yet the relationship between secularization and democratization in the Middle East has been more complex than that experienced by the West. In many cases, nationalism and communism as secular modes of binding people in the Middle East retarded democratic development in this area of the world.

Middle Eastern societies came into direct contact with secularism as early as the first half of the 19th century, when they experienced military defeats against the West. The landing of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798, the loss of Greece by the Ottoman Empire, the defeat of Qajar Persia by Russia, were all felt as shocks of awakening that started a secularization process. But without democratization; most of the reforms in the Middle East began first with the reorganization of the armies. In Iran, a French military mission was sent to assist Crown Prince Abbas Mirza in the task. In Egypt, an ambitious Albanian military officer named Mohammad Ali lead the secularization drive.

Thus, secularization in the Middle East has been generally authoritarian. This created an inherent power conflict in Egypt, Turkey and Iran between modernist elites and Islamist elites. However, even the most devout believers in the Islamic countries came to realize that western civilization had only begun to progress once it had separated the religious from the temporal in all spheres of life. No matter how close Muslim scholars and intellectuals felt to their religion, the influence of western secularism on their thought has been undeniable in the past 60 years, and has only increased over time. Islamist movements in Iran, Turkey and Arab countries in the region have developed their own educated, technical and intellectual elites, which resemble the secular modernist elites they criticize.

Today, this process of elite formation among the Islamic movements is leading to de facto secularization, and therefore making support for radical Islam less likely among elites in countries such as Egypt, Iran and Turkey.

Avineri: Your account of modernization and secularization in the Middle East may indeed be the explanatory key for their problematic outcome. Unlike what happened in the West, these processes in our region were conscious adoptions of external--i.e. European--models, and did not grow out of local socio- economic conditions or out of internal developments like the European Enlightenment. Secondly--and this may be even more significant--they were instituted by political rulers, mainly with a military bent (Abbas Mirza in Iran, Mohammad Ali in Egypt), and did not grow out of the needs and interests of civil society. Hence they tended to strengthen state power and ended up underpinning an authoritarian structure, rather than creating a vibrant, pluralist and tolerant civil society with powerful political representative institutions. Because of this historical context, the efforts at secularization identified with these rulers tended also to be viewed by many as alien impositions, inimical to Islam and its heritage.

In this respect, Middle Eastern modernization has some interesting parallels to what has happened in Russia since Peter and Catherine (let's leave out the adjectives "The Great"): adopting western military and administrative measures tended to strengthen state authority, not to create a societal countervailing force. Putin is a true successor to this ambivalent and problematic tradition, just as under Lenin and Stalin the emancipatory potential of Marxism was turned into another tool of statist repression.

Maybe this authoritarian modernization and secularization has now run its course in the region. In Turkey, out of authoritarian Kemalism a more open society has emerged, and while the current AK Party represents a "return" to Islam that may be worrying, it is still done within a relatively open and democratic society. You point out encouraging signs in Iran, where a traditionally vibrant civil society has a potential for further development. Things are moving, for the first time, in Egypt, and Lebanese society has shown a remarkable potential for mass mobilization against oppression.

Maybe we are on the threshold of tremendous changes. It is here that the intellectuals will have an opportunity to prove whether they continue to be handmaidens and lackeys of authoritarianism or--as Gramsci has suggested--are critical enough to transform their societies in an emancipatory direction.

Ramin Jahanbegloo is director of the Department of Contemporary Studies at the Cultural Research Bureau in Tehran and a professor of philosophy at Shahid Beheshti University. His books include Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, Ghandi: aux Sources de la Nonviolence, and Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity. Shlomo Avineri is professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His books include The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Hegel's Theory of the Modern State, and The Making of Modern Zionism. Jahanbegloo and Avineri are collaborating on a book of reflections on the Middle East.

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Wednesday, August 03, 2005


Portland’s Hunger Strike in Honor of Akbar Ganji

Goudarz Eghtedari*

On August 4th the new Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be sworn in and Mohammad Katami will leave office. This will end eight years of reformists’ control of the administrative branch in Iran. In a slow move the hardliners took over the legislative branch a year and a half ago and with this change in presidency they will control all three branches of the government in addition to all the powers that are vested in the unelected supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

A quarter century after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the new president won the elections with the promise to reverse all the moderate and West-leaning social and economic policies of the past sixteen years. This in effect means that he is going back to the revolutionary sentiments of the early 80s when Iran was in the middle of an eight-year bloody war with Iraq. President-elect Ahmadinejad, himself a revolutionary guard commander with a civil engineering Ph.D., who has been the mayor of Teheran for past two years belongs to a faction of the power structure that comes from military and intelligence background. While the world is seriously cautious about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, this change in power balance promises a darker stage in contemporary Iranian history.

What I am writing today however is not exactly about the new president, it is about a soul in danger of disappearing and a light close to dying. Mr. Akbar Ganji, an Iranian investigative journalist and a prominent advocate of human rights and civil society has been in prison for more than five years. Mr. Ganji was arrested on April 22, 2000 following his participation in an academic and cultural conference held at the Heinrich Böll Institute in Berlin, April 7-9, 2000. He was sentenced on January, 2001 to 10 years imprisonment plus five years internal exile. Then, on July 16, 2001, Ganji was sentenced by an appeal court to six years in prison on vaguely worded charges of collecting confidential information that harms national security and spreading propaganda against the Islamic regime by attending the Berlin Conference. In fact, it appears that major reason for Ganji’s imprisonment is a series of articles he has written as an investigative journalist implicating leading Iranian government figures in the 1998 murders of several dissident writers and intellectuals.

It is with astonishment to know that a person, who has served his country, has devoted his life to the improvement of civil society and has come to be known as one of the most vocal and respected journalists of his time should be treated in this way. Mr. Ganji is an honorable member of PEN Canada and continues his work and writing even from inside the prison wards and now from hospital quarantine. Ganji is one of the Iranian government’s most forceful critics. In his writings, he has criticized Iran’s system of governance. In a letter smuggled out of jail last week, Ganji held Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei, directly responsible for his persecution and possible death. According to his wife, the judicial authorities have pressured him to “repent” for his writings as a condition for his release.

Ganji has served nearly five-and-a-half years of his six-year sentence while most prisoners in Iran are eligible for pardon after serving half of their sentence. He suffers from acute asthma that he developed in prison. The Iranian authorities have repeatedly prevented Ganji from receiving specialist medical care or taking medical leave like other prisoners are permitted. In protest of his unfair treatment, Ganji began a hunger strike almost two months ago, and has since sustained himself only on liquids. As Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch writes “It is a serious contravention of the most basic humanitarian standards, and the international community should strongly condemn it.” Unfortunately all efforts to resolve this issue have failed, President Bush, Senator Joseph Biden, The European Union, Amnesty International, Archbishop Desmund Tutu, five other Noble Laureates, and many other international figures have appealed for his release without any response from the Iranian judiciary which is another stronghold of the unelected supreme leader.

Akbar Ganji is suffering tremendously from 55 days of hunger strike, has lost more than one third of his weight and his health situation puts him in grave danger. As a freelance journalist myself, I and a group of other concerned citizens in Portland will start a limited hunger strike this Friday afternoon at 7 pm in the South Park Blocks in front of the PSU’s Library, as the sacred place of Book and Pen, in honor of Akbar Ganji and in solidarity with his wife and children who are going to be sitting in front of the United Nations’ office in Tehran at the same time.

This Friday where ever you are PLEASE light a candle for all prisoners of conscience!

* Goudarz Eghtedari, Ph.D., is a Human Rights and Peace activist, a community organizer, a writer, and producer of the Voices of the Middle East program on KBOO 90.7 fm ( He has served on the boards of the Oregon Peace Institute and the Iranian Human Rights Group, and is a member of the Iranian Studies Advisory Board at Portland State University.

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