Votes and Violence in Iran

Its frustrating to maintain a blog, yet fail to comment on some of the most potent stories of the moment.  Nothing doing here on the expenses row or the election of a new speaker.

Worse still, nothing on the ongoing protests and violence, following the recent disputed elections in Iran.  That’s not to say I’m not engaged with what is happening.  I’ve been following the pleas for help via the #iranelection tag on Twitter, and looking various photostreams on Flickr.

During the street protests that followed the Mumbai attacks, I said that social media has come of age.  But now, looking at the Iranian events, I worry about that.  First, we have seen that the network is still vulnerable to interference from governments.  And second, raising awareness of an event is not the same as establishing consensus, much less ensuring there is a critical mass of people for effective action.

I discussed this briefly in a post about the Burmese Monks protest (the short-lived “Saffron Revolution”) in September 2007.  Despite the use of the Internet as a co-ordination tool, it seems that critical mass – or, to be more precise, the right kind of critical mass – is still an elusive Pot of Gold.

Protesters assist a riot policeman in distress in Tehran Protesters assist a riot policeman in distress in Tehran
Protesters assist a riot policeman in distress in Tehran

Update (13th July)

The image above, of protesters helping a battered policeman detatched from his riot-unit, was removed from Flickr a few days after being posted. It returned a few days later, with the faces of the protesters blurred. Apparently, the authorities have been using social networking sites to identify protesters and target them for arrest (or worse). That’s the dark side of new media.

Blogging Can Kill You

… in Iran.  Omid Reza Mir Sayafi, Iranian blogger Dies in Prison.

In December, he was sentenced to two and half years in prison for allegedly insulting religious leaders, and engaging in propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Mir Sayafi was still awaiting an additional trial for insulting Islam.

In an interview [fa] with Human Rights activists in Iran a few days before going to prison, Omid Reza said his blog was a cultural blog and not intended to be insulting.

This is via the Global Voices Advocacy site, which has been nominated for a 2009 Index of Censorship Freedom of Expression Award.

The Emir's Third Way

Here’s a dilemma: The Emir of Kuwait has to decide whether his own cousin should be executed for drug smuggling.

To grant a pardon would seriously undermine the rule of law in what is supposed to be a constitutional monarchy. But to allow the execution would obviously cause terrible distress to other members of the Royal Family (and, one presumes, the Emir himself). Such a precedent would also worry other Royal Families around the Middle East, says The Times.

But the Emir has a third way, which is to place a moratorium on executions alogther. Often, draconian laws are enacted because those with power assume “it would never happen to me”. They only change their minds when the unthinkable happens.

In other execution news, Andrew points us to, a blog dedicated to the anniversaries of notable executions. It is fascinating and macabre, but commemorates events we would do well not to forget.

Lebanese Gambit

Now something more sober. Browsing a post by Curious Hamster, I thought I would begin the week by reiterating a point I struggled to make (or rather, reposing a question I have yet to answer) in my first ‘proper’ post on this blog, about what we do when we’re constrained by our own rules.

In war, as in a game of chess, you are sometimes manoevred into positions where you have to take up counter-intuitive positions. In the classic board game, you might find your opponents Queen or rook open for the taking. In the short term, its a good move, and you award yourself a ‘!’. In the long term, however, your bold and decisive move leaves your peices in the wrong place. Ultimately you find yourself in a stalemate, and those examining the game mark your moves with a ‘?’.

This, it seems to me, is what is occurring in this current Lebanese crisis. Attacks on civilians are justified on the basis that the evil Hezbollah are hiding among them. Short term logic. Instead, how about admitting that if Hezbollah have hidden amongst the civilians, it means we can’t bomb them. We (well, the Israelis, but current analysis would put us as their ally) have been outmanoevred here, and the decisive move by our ‘opponent’ was made a long time ago. Our response has not been to ackowledge that we need to defend against these moves, but to try and change the rules by which we play. But we made those rules for ourselves because of well-founded humanitarian reasons. To change them now is to admit the defeat of those ideals. We might be taking a beating now, in the short term. But it is something we have to acknowledge if we want to emerge as ultimate victors over these cheaters.

There is more than one way to defend against Hezbollah’s rockets. Ditto the ways in which we might defend against the wider Al Q’aeda threat. I’m not sure what an alternative strategy might be, but do I know the current strategy is not working.

Eye for an eye

A couple of sound-bites have been been bandied around the political theatre these past few days. They almost sound like truisms, and have thus escaped any kind of critical examination.

First, we’ve heard Condolezza Rice say that any ceasefire

must be “lasting permanent and sustainable.”

Why? Surely any ceasefire is better than none? Even during a temporary and shaky ceasefire, people aren’t getting killed. There may be strategic – even humanitarian – reasons why it is preferable not to let up on the Lebanon bombardment, but Condi isn’t making those arguments. We’re left with the implication that, if Israelis are going to be attacked in Haifa, we might as well bomb some Lebanese too.

Second, have a look at these comments from Tony Blair, to a question from Sir Menzies Campbell, at last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions:

Let me repeat what I said yesterday. It is important that Israel’s response is proportionate and does its best to minimise civilian casualties, but it would stop now if the soldiers who were kidnapped—wrongly, when Hezbollah crossed the United Nations blue line—were released. It would stop if the rockets stopped coming into Haifa, deliberately to kill innocent civilians. If those two things happened, I promise the right hon. and learned Gentleman that I will be the first to say that Israel should halt its operations.

Forget the debate about proportionate or disproportionate force. The logic here is that because one side are the first to start something, they must also be the first to end it. This kind of justice may work on the playground… but on an international stage this logic leads to a morality contingent on what other people do. Weather-vane ethics. Since Israeli military operations have not been effective at securing the release of the Israeli prisoners, or in stopping the ball-bearing laden rockets being shot into Haifa, it is legitimate to ask whether the bombing of Lebanon is right or wrong in itself.

Given the source of the ideologies on both sides in the conflict, it is unsurprising that this entire situation is being conducted according to Old Testament morality: An Eye For an Eye, et cetera. We need something more radical.

Middle-East wars and the Edinburgh Festival

I am hot and busy, working on the AV elements for Black Watch, an Edinbrugh Fringe production by the NTS. It is based on interviews with former soldiers who served in their 2004 tour of Iraq. We’ve been called in because the show takes in ideas of modern warfare, and how public perception of conflicts are influenced by the media. We see the results of an attack on the TV news, usually before those who actually carried it out. Instant analysis, spin, moralising, judgement. No more heros, just jarheads who create the cross-fire for children to get caught in.

The current conflict between Israel and Lebanon feels very much like a play, running to a predictable, banal script. The headlines from Condoleeza Rice’s latest trip to the Middle-East:

” … we have great concerns about the suffering of innocent peoples throughout the region.”

Is there any possible universe in which she would not have said that? Is there any possible universe in which Israel would not have retaliated against the Lebanese after the Hezbollah rocket attacks? These events are a tragedy in the strict sense of the word, where the traits of the main characters make certain events inevitable. Sure, Israel didn’t start it. Watch any one of the countless Greek Tragedies that will plague this year’s Edinburgh Festival, and you will see that it is never the protagonist’s fault. Hercules didn’t start it. Electra didn’t start it. Clytemnestra didn’t start it. But at the end of the play, when everyone’s dead, one still thinks “if only you had been different.” Nasrallah is the malevolent deity, nowhere to be found yet omnipresent at the same time. He laughs at how easy it is to provoke this tragedy.

And just like the Greek stories, now the children are being dragged into it. Some Israeli kids have been signing the missiles being shot into Lebanon. After drawing their pictures (I rather doubt they are writing messages of death to other kids as Sabbah suggests), the Israel children probably don’t see the effects of their missiles. We do, however, because we are the TV audience. And we watch as the cycle repeats itself. Another blood feud is created, ready to be concluded in some Tel Aviv pizza parlour in 2012.

Alaa Free

Funny how the same words, in a different order, mean vastly different things. Last month I blogged about the Free Alaa campaign, an online drive to raise awareness of the detention of Egyptian blogger and democracy activist Alaa Abd El-Fatah. I heard about his detention via blogging, and by the same methods (via Adloyada) I now hear he has been released.

Part of the campaign was a GoogleBomb, whereby bloggers attempted to fool Google into returning pages from the Free Alaa campaign site, whenever the word ‘Egypt’ was searched for. As Adloyada suggests, this particular tactic may have had minimal effect, but the wider use of the internet as a medium for campaigning is what interests me here.

We are updated regularly on the ‘explosion’ of blogging, with about a billion new blogs created daily. Many of these – arguably the more interesting ones – are likely to spring up in places where democracy and human rights are not guaranteed. I worry that examples of bloggers being detained, already a regular occurence in Iran, will increase with the popularity of blogging in general. Perhaps we will begin to see a form of campaign fatigue, whereby it is difficult to keep track of which bloggers have been detained, and where!

This is where Web 2.0 innovations such as wikis and RSS feeds can come into their own, ensuring we can keep updated and active over a lengthy period of time. Metaphorical ideas of momentum and critical mass are crucial factors in political movements. It will be interesting to see whether technology will lead to more sustained and effective campaigns, or just higher-profile, yet ultimately damp, squibs. Looks like the former in the case of Alaa, thank goodness.

Free Alaa – Egyptian blogger detained

While MK posts on the benefits of the small-web (more on that another time), we find a good example of the ‘large web’ we have all come to know. Demoblogger posts G-B4A as a Test Case in Web 2.0 Activism, highlighting the 21st century methods being employed to hasten the release of Alaa Abd El-Fatah, who has been imprisoned for his part in a peaceful, pro-democracy protest.

The web can raise awareness of these issues, but we must still focus on more traditional channels in order to effect change in this particular issue. Pickled Politics suggests that Google-bombing might not be successful, and in any case should not be an end itself.

[The] free-Alaa campaign needs to become more prominent with mentions in the national papers. But surprise surprise the press has largely ignored the story … My suggestion is: organise or join a demonstration outside the Egyptian embassy or send emails to your newspaper or broadcaster of choice and ask why haven’t they yet written about this story.

Or, of course, can allow you to make your MP aware of the issue. The new Foreign Secretary might be prompted to take up the issue of free speech with the Egyptian government.

Science fiction and nuclear weapons

Reading George Monbiot’s suggestion that nuclear proliferation is a self vindicating policy reminded me of the science fiction writings of Phillip K Dick and others. Specifically, stories where the effect precedes its cause, due to some paradox of time-travel or other. Going back in time to kill yourself, or become your own father, or both, that sort of thing.

In the world of global powerplays, the idea of deterrance and pre-emption means that cause can come after the effect – no time-machine or supernova required:

In nuclear politics, every action is justified by the response it provokes … Israel, citing the threat from Iran, insists on retaining its nuclear missiles. Threatened by them (and prompted, among other reasons, by his anti-semitism), the Iranian president says he wants to wipe Israel off the map, and appears to be developing a means of doing so. Israel sees his response as vindicating its nuclear programme. It threatens an air strike, which grants retrospective validity to Ahmadinejad’s designs. And so it goes on. Everyone turns out to be right in the end.

Since, the absence of a time-machine, we cannot return to the beginning of the last century and arrange for nuclear weapons to be uninvented, we fear an escalation. as each side (including the UK) maintains and improves their nuclear arsenal for the next fifty years at least. Negotiating not only non-proliferation, let alone disarmament, seems in itself the stuff of utopian fiction.

Perhaps we should look to another great science fiction story for the answers. In Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the epynonymous hero employs a series of bizarre and often counter-intuitive thinking to win the war games he plays. Perhaps a sudden and unsuspected move could solve the problem. Several people, including a correspndent in Time, suggests that Western nations build Iran enough solar panels to satisfy their energy needs. Alternatively, we could simply disarm unilaterally and without reason, thus confounding the opponent. After all, as Joseph Heller’s Closing Time teaches us, you don’t actually need any weapons to act as a deterrent, you just need to market them properly. Milo’s ‘Ssh’ aircraft can fly silently and bomb targets yesterday (more time-travel, presumably).

Having said that, Joseph Heller’s novels are hardly set in a world of tranquility and sanity, and another of Ender’s teactics is to lauch pre-emptive counter attacks with an all out, willfully destructive force.

Here’s another thought, however: If nuclear arsenals are deterrents, but nevertheless some president does actually lauch a nuclear attack on another country… what exactly would be the point of nuclear retaliation? The destroyed cities would still be beyond repair even after a counter-attack, the only difference being that there would be twice as many of them, and twice as many dead civilians, as after the ‘first-strike’. Humans consider vengenace to be an integral part of justice, but if it means that the aggreate population of the human race is diminished by two million people instead of one million, retaliation seems an inherently useless response.

The best way to prevent a nuclear war would be to ensure that the people who would use the weapons are not in power in the first place. The chain of events that brought Ahmedinejad to power are only now becoming clear. If we wanted a different situation in the Middle-East, we should have acted ten, twenty or thirty years ago. Look’s like we need that time-machine again….

Never mind driving: how about the vote?

Saudi Women in Full VeilsA perpetual debate rages over the role of women in Islam. The extreme Wahhabism practiced in Saudi Arabia is held as an example of the faith’s essential sexism, as evidenced by the state’s insistence that women cover themselves in public. Moderate Muslims argue that proponents of Wahhabism and Sharia law should not be taken to speak for all Islam, which I agree with. They also argue that the veil is not necessarily oppressive, a point on which I am not so sure.

Commenting for the BBC’s From Our Own Correspondent on the slow pace of change in Saudi, Gerald Butt discusses that other well known ‘test case’, the fact that Saudi women are not allowed to drive. Apparently, King Abdullah has contributed to a debate by saying that one day, this may change.

A member of the all-male Majlis al-Shura – the 150-seat unelected consultative council – caused something of a rumpus. Muhammad al-Zulfa pointed out there was nothing under Islam or the constitution that justified the ban on women driving, and the council should discuss ways of lifting it.

A heated debate ensued. Even King Abdullah found himself involved. In response to a question on American television, he said he thought a day would eventually come when Saudi women could drive.

While this is welcome, I cannot help thinking that they seem to have their priorities wrong. As a caption in Butt’s article reminds us, Saudi women cannot vote. This undermines all of Islam, demeans women, and offends everyone. Driving licences can wait – there’s only one important right that Saudi women need. Once they have the vote, perhaps they can decide for themselves whether or not they need to drive…