Archive for the ‘Culture & Society’ Category

30
Oct

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In his engaging and timely presentation last week, Prof. Ansari discussed how ideology, nationalism and Iranian mythology were intricately intertwined. The Persian civilization is several millennia old and Iranians are immensely proud of their heritage. Indeed Iranian nationalism today is just as much about Islam as it is about Iranian mythology and early civilization. Prof. Ansari mentioned the important historical figure of King Cyrus, founder of the Achaemenid Empire in around 600 BC. Having originated from Persis, roughly corresponding to the modern Iranian province of Fars, Cyrus has played a crucial role in defining the national identity of modern Iran. King Cyrus, was obviously, not Muslim.

Prof. Ansari also mentioned the mythical figure of Kaveh, a blacksmith who led a popular uprising against a ruthless foreign ruler, Zahhāk. Kaveh is still today very much part of the Iranian identity, even though, again, he has nothing to do with Islam.

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What is interesting is to see how Iranians today try to reconcile their mythical, historical and Islamic identities into one Iranian identity. It is not always easy to do so, and often some stretches of imagination are required. But all three elements are fundamental aspects of who an Iranian is today.

Prof. Ansari answered questions from the public with humor and candor. When asked about the window of opportunity that is currently being opened as a result of the rapprochement between President Rouhani and President Obama, he answered that this represented an opportunity but that one should be realistic. His recommendation to negotiators on both sides was that “one should not invent a person you want to talk to. Talk to the person you have in front of you.” He seemed a bit sceptical about the “tectonic shifts” some observers claim are taking place in Iran and US relations Regarding the desire for nuclear power in Iran, Prof. Ansari asserted that unlike popular belief, Iranians were much more preoccupied about Pakistan having the bomb than Israel.

24
Sep

By Faezeh Samanian

Gender discrimination is still an issue, especially in high office, but progress is being made.

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Nearly 35 years after the Islamic Revolution, gender discrimination is still a challenging issue for Iran. On the one hand, the situation for Iranian women has improved considerably in many respects under the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI). On the other, there is a clear and seemingly impregnable ceiling for women in administrative and government positions.

Iranian Women Under the Islamic Republic

In some ways, women have enjoyed significant gains under the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nowhere is this more true than in education. In 1976, on the eve of the Revolution, the female literacy rate was a mere 35 percent. Despite the turmoil of the revolution and the imposed war with Iraq, by 1986 this rate had risen to 52 percent. Today, Iranian girls between the ages of 15 and 24 enjoy near universal literacy.

These gains are also reflected in education levels, which have greatly improved as part of the IRI’s commitment to providing universal education. For example, the female enrollment rate for primary education institutions is actually higher than it is for males. Women also graduate from their primary education programs at the same rate as their male counterparts. And despite new restrictions on what they can study, Iranian women are also strong participants in secondary education, with the female general enrollment rate in secondary education about 86 percent of the male rate.

In many ways, the high female education rate also extends to employment, especially since 1992 when the High Council of the Cultural Revolution adopted a new set of employment policies for women. Although women are unemployed at a rate of roughly twice that of men, one-third of doctors, 60 percent of civil servants, and 80 percent of teachers in Iran are women, according to the British historian Michael Axworthy.

One area where Iranian women continue to face clear obstacles is in the upper reaches of the Iranian government. For example, around 30 women signed up to run for president earlier this year, but the Guardian Council – Iran’s constitutional watchdog – rejected their candidacies based solely on gender. As Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdii, a conservative cleric and member of the Guardian Council explained at the time, the “law does not approve” of women running for president. Read more…

As published by The Diplomat on September 22, 2013.

23
Sep

By Cameron Abadi

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To state the obvious: Angela Merkel, who has just won a third term as German chancellor, isn’t very macho. Her preferred free-time pursuit is recreational nature walking. (Also, baking: she admitted during the campaign season that her husband was sometimes displeased by the paucity of crumbs atop her cakes.) She hardly ever indulges in public demonstrations of authority; she speaks softly, and mostly refrains from displays of emotion, except for occasional flashes of a nervous smile. As for body language, her signature gesture is the Merkel diamond, which seems laboratory-tested to avoid appearing confrontational.

Compare that, for a moment, with the testosterone-soaked state of U.S.-Russian diplomacy, which has devolved in recent weeks into a high-profile pissing match. Vladimir Putin raided U.S.-backed NGOs, while Barack Obama chided Putin’s posture; Putin extended asylum to America’s most-wanted fugitive, as Obama canceled a bilateral Moscow summit. For a while, it seemed as if the confrontation would have to be settled with a round of one-on-one basketball or some judo sparring. Eventually, they both managed to claim credit for averting war with Syria—Putin from the op-ed page of the one newspaper that Barack Obama professes to care about.

There was something transfixing about the display of presidential one-upsmanship; even Germans seemed more drawn to the Putin-Obama show than their own election campaign. But if Putin and Obama ever do manage to stop their reciprocal bouts of preening, they’d do well to consider cribbing from Merkel’s machismo-less political methods. There’s an argument to be made that it’s Merkel who is the Machiavelli of our day—better, and certainly shrewder, at power politics than any of her peers, including her colleagues in the White House and Kremlin.

Merkel’s quiet affect shouldn’t obscure her influence. Germany has more power today than at any time since World War II. Merkel is prima inter pares in the European Union, capable of determining the shape of the bailout packages given to the continent’s ailing economies and, thus, capable of determining the shape of their national economies for years on end. Even the ostensibly independent European Central Bank seems to take its directions from the chancellory in Berlin, afraid to get too far ahead of Merkel’s plans. Read more…

Cameron Abadi is Deputy Web Editor at Foreign Affairs.

As published in www.newrepublic.com September 22, 2103.

13
Sep

The Christian Exodus

Written on September 13, 2013 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Culture & Society, Foreign Policy, International Conflict, Terrorism & Security, Middle East

The Disastrous Campaign to Rid the Middle East of Christianity

By Reza Aslan

Egyptian Coptic Christian holds cross during a demonstration outside Egyptian embassy in Athens

A Coptic Christian holds up a cross in Cairo, Egypt (Courtesy Reuters)

As I write, the city of Maaloula in Syria has become a ghost town after being briefly occupied by members of the al Qaeda–linked jihadist group al-Nusra Front. Conflicting reports claim that al-Nusra fighters have desecrated churches and statues in what may be one of the oldest Christian cities in the world, a place where residents still speak Aramaic, the language presumably spoken by Jesus. 

Sadly, the experience of Maaloula’s residents is becoming all too common in the Middle East, where examples of brutality against Christians have been mounting in recent weeks. In Egypt, the coup against President Mohamed Morsi was followed by a wave of Islamist pogroms against Christians in which 42 churches were attacked, 37 were burned or looted, and an untold number of Christians were assaulted or killed.

As tempting as it may be to attribute these events to the atmosphere of post-insurrectionary anarchy in Egypt and Syria, that is not the best vantage point from which to view the problem. Take a step back, and it becomes clear that the recent assaults are part of a bigger offensive against Middle Eastern Christians, one that can be traced back to decades-long developments in regional politics and Islamic society. The Arab Spring may be the proximate cause of some of the worst violence, but its roots run much deeper — and the stakes are much higher than one might think. What we are witnessing is nothing less than a regional religious cleansing that will soon prove to be a historic disaster for Christians and Muslims alike.

At the start of World War I, the Christian population of the Middle East may have been as high as 20 percent. Today, it is roughly four percent. Although it is difficult to be exact, there are perhaps 13 million Christians left in the region, and that number has likely fallen further, given the continued destabilization of Syria and Egypt, two nations with historically large Christian populations. At the present rate of decline, there may very well be no significant Christian presence in the Middle East in another generation or two.

This would be a profoundly important loss. Christianity was born in the Middle East and had a deep, penetrating presence in the region for hundreds of years before the rise of Islam. In the fourth and fifth centuries, when tens of thousands of heterodox Christians were forced to flee a Roman Empire that considered them heretics, the lands of the Middle East and North Africa became a haven for them. In the years thereafter, the region became the epicenter of Christian theology. In the Arabian peninsula, a large, thriving Christian population played a pivotal role in influencing the early theological and political development of Islam. During the Inquisition (the twelfth to fourteenth centuries), Christian sectarians found refuge under Islamic rule, which classed all Christians, regardless of their doctrinal differences, as “people of the Book” and accorded them protected, albeit inferior, societal status. Read more…

Reza Aslan is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

As published in www.foreignaffairs.com on September 13, 2013.

4
Sep

By Daoud Kuttab

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Throughout the post-colonial period, Arab countries have consistently failed to produce an efficient – let alone democratic – system of government. Now, after a half-century of competition between military or royal dictatorships and militant Islamist regimes, many Arabs are again seeking a “third way” – a path toward a credible form of representative democracy. But will their efforts prove as futile now as they have in the past?

The Middle East – named for its geographic position between Europe and East Asia – was under Ottoman rule for 400 years before the Allied powers, after defeating the Ottomans in World War I, partitioned the region into distinct political units that, under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, fell within spheres of influence carved out by the United Kingdom and France. But, in response to these new divisions, an Arab awakening – shaped by pan-Arabism and support for Palestine – was occurring.

Charismatic young military rulers-turned-dictators like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad used these popular causes to win public support. But their failure to deliver better lives to their citizens, together with the discrediting of left-wing ideologies following the Soviet Union’s collapse, fueled the rise of a rival movement: political Islam.

The Muslim Brotherhood – established in the Egyptian town of Ismailia in 1928 and political Islam’s oldest, best organized, and most widespread proponent – was (and is) despised by both secular Arabs and Arab monarchies. Indeed, secular dictators have worked to suppress the Brothers at every turn – often violently, as when Assad ruthlessly crushed a Brotherhood-led uprising in Hama in 1982.

Forced to operate clandestinely, the Brotherhood built its support base with a social agenda that targeted the needs of the poor, while consistently reinforcing its Islamic ties, even using the compulsory zakat (annual financial contribution to religious causes) to build up its social network. The Brothers, with the help of a conservative society and the mosques, were prepared to seize power whenever the opportunity arose.

Another Islamist movement, Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front, almost had such an opportunity in 1991, when it won the first round of a general election. But the military prevented its victory by canceling the second round, triggering a brutal eight-year civil war in which an estimated 200,000 people died. Palestine’s Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood, succeeded at the ballot box in 2006, but has since failed to deliver credible governance. Read more…

Daoud Kuttab is a former professor at Princeton University and the founder and former director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Ramallah.

As published in www.project-syndicate.org on September 4, 2013.