Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The "Emo" killings and the role of the state in Iraq

The expression "the fish rots from the head down" tells us much about the problems Iraq currently faces, especially the task of creating a more tolerant and democratic political culture. While Western analysts continue to obsess over political Islam and what other cultural "essence" may be the cause for the Middle East's political instability and violence, the answer to the region's problem may be much more simple. This becomes clear when we consider the recent killings of Iraqi youth who are known as subscribing to "Emo" (from "emotional"), a form of Western "punk" culture.

The problem in Iraq, as elsewhere in the Middle East is the state, not Islam or some free-floating sectarianism that inheres in the region's inhabitants. Iraq's problems are most certainly not the result of a a small and apolitical sub-culture, namely the "Emos," despite a Ministry of Interior memo posted on its website on February 13, 2012 (see above image) which implicitly justified the use of violence against so-called "Emo" youth.

In the memo, the "Emo" were described as "devil worshipers." According to Colonel Mushtaq Talib al-Muhammadawi, the Ministry's Morality Police would go into every school in Baghdad and "eliminate" them. Such rhetoric was an incitement to violence, as were statements by a number of clerics and organizations associated with Muqtada al-Sadr's movement that "Emos" were a "plague" on Iraqi society. The Ministry's memo was subsequently removed following extensive criticism from clerics, civil society organizations and human rights organizations both inside and outside Iraq, and al-Sadr backtracked on his earlier comments, saying the "Emos" should be eliminated through the law..

Nevertheless, the recent killings of Iraqi youth point to the problems created by the state throughout the Middle East. In Egypt, Anwar al-Sadat released Muslim Brothers and radical Islamists in 1971 to attack secular and leftist supporters of the former regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser as he attempted to consolidate his power.

The Iranian regime uses is semi-volunteer militia, the Basij, to arrest youth who do not dress and behave according to its definition of Islamic norms as well as to attack its opponents, such as the civilian demonstrators who protested disputed presidential elections in June 2009. In Syria, the Bashar al-Asad's Ba'thist regime uses a shadowy group of thugs known as al-shabiha ("ghosts") to attack and kill pro-democracy demonstrators. During the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt, thugs known as al-baltigayya (al-baltijiya) - literally from the Turkish for "axe carrier" - beat up protestors with state approval.

The problems in Iraq are not a problem of Western culture penetrating Iraq but part of a larger regional efforts to suppress cultural pluralism and social difference that originates with political authority. This effort is part of those who I have referred to in the past as "sectarian entrepreneurs" to create a new political culture of authoritarianism which seeks to thwart efforts by the region's youth and democracy activists generally to draw the Middle East out of its "democracy deficit."

At least one organization has suggested that the number of Iraqi youth who have been killed in recent months ranges from 90-100. The attacks have been particularly brutal, with youth murdered by being stoned and having their skulls crushed with cement blocks, with the bodies often deposited in garbage dumpsters. However, this attack is really an extension of attacks which began on Iraq's gay population which were publicized in 2009. The attacks on "Emo" youth is symptomatic of a larger attack on social and cultural difference in Iraq. A vulnerable segment of the Iraqi populace - youth who are attracted to Western culture and lifestyles - becomes a diversion from the real problems facing Iraq.

The attacks on Iraqi youth include not just "Emo" youth but a larger subsection of the Iraqi populace, namely gay people. These groups have been lumped under the same category of "Satanist" youth. Such rhetoric has prompted groups like the Sadrists and its militia, the "Promised Day Brigades," to call for their "elimination," even though leader Muqtada al-Sadr has subsequently called for this process to "take place under the law."

However, who and what is the law today in Iraq? How can the rule of law be said to prevail when Iraq's main law enforcement agency was itself responsible for inciting violence against those who choose to pursue a different lifestyle. The situation becomes even worse when we consider that the so-called "Morals Police" received permission to enter Baghdad schools to root out "Emo" culture.

Having spoken with Iraqis about the killings, some say the concern with "Emo" youth is that many Iraqis do not understand the culture they represent. Media assertions that the "Emo" are actually "blood suckers" (massasay dima') has made many Iraqis uncomfortable. The long spiked hair, tight clothing, pierced earrings and the make-up that "Emo" youth often wear have drawn parallels with vampires, as was evident in an al-Sumaria television program broadcast on March 2nd of this year.

Worse still, "Emo" youth has become associated with an even more ostracized segment of Iraqi society, namely gays. As science informs us, sexual preference is biologically transmitted, not an individual choice. In other words, people do not choose their sexual preference. However, gays in Iraq, as in many other societies, are being told to make a choice - change their sexuality, or face dire consequences.

To his great credit, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has come out against the killings which, through Abd al-Rahim al-Rikabi, his Baghdad representative, he called “terrorist attacks.” Many clerics, such as Muhammad al-Yaqubi, have said that the remedy to this unpopular youth culture can only be through education, and not through violence.

However, there have been recent reports that the killings will stop during the forthcoming Arab Summit in Baghdad only to begin again after it ends. If these reports are true, they certainly implicate security agencies in the killings as what other force would be able to stop the killings according to a politically defined time frame?

But education is not the current Iraqi state's goal. Rather than focus on more dangerous issues facing Iraqi youth, such as high rates of drug usage, lack of education and high rates of unemployment, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki remained quiet in the face of Ministry of Information incitements to violence against young people whose only crime is their form of dress. He has said nothing in response to sectarian groups who have railed against a culture which is asserted to be alien to Iraqi society.

Iraq experienced 35 years of brutal Ba'thist rule under Saddam Husayn, suffered under two devastating Gulf Wars, and then under the UN sanctions regime imposed on Iraq in the 199os, the most destructive ever imposed on a modern state. All this turmoil was followed by the intense sectarian based violence that followed the US invasion of 2003. A country brutalized by dictatorship, war and economic deprivation, Iraq needs political leadership that emphasizes national reconciliation and devotes its oil wealth to confronting its extensive social problems, not in tolerating violence against youth who only seek freedom of cultural expression.

No democracy can flourish in a society which practices intolerance and seeks to suppress social and cultural difference. Why isn't the Ministry of Interior's so-called Morality Police seeking out criminal organizations which sell drugs or attempting to root out pervasive government corruption?

Let's stop blaming Islamism, tribalism and other cultural "isms" for a more basic problem - a political elite which seeks to manipulate fears and social anxieties to create a new authoritarian political culture, one that attempts to force Iraqis to conform to a new sectarianism. It's time for the Iraqi parliament, media and powerful political figures - not just Iraqi cleric and human rights organizations - to both condemn the killings of "Emos" and gays and to open a national dialogue in Iraq on how to promote tolerance and cultural pluralism.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Making Sense of the Arab Spring 7: Syria and the "Shiite Crescent"

Of all the countries engulfed by the Arab Spring, Syria is the most difficult to predict as to who will win the current struggle between the regime of Bashar al-Asad and its opponents. A number of Western commentators have begun to question the viability of opposition efforts to bring a democratic system to Syria. Their uncertainty stems in large measure from the sectarian overtones of the current struggle. As talk of sectarianism has increasingly taken center stage, these commentators have trotted out the old canard of the "Shiite Crescent." But is there realy as "Shiite Crescent" and is it valid to analyze Syria through the prism of this concept?

To begin with, there is no Shiite crescent (al-hilal al-shi'i), but rather a Shiite parabola (al-mu'tarij al-shi'i). If we follow the purported confluence of the so-called crescent and move from Iran to Lebanon, we actually see that the line moves south from Iran into southern Iraq before moving north into Syria and then south again into Lebanon.

More to the point, there is no congruity of Shi'a populations in the countries which supposedly comprise the Shiite crescent since moving north from southern Iraq in north-western Iraq and eastern Syria we pass through Sunni Arab populations. In Syria itself, the Alawites populate different regions but especially the north west of the country. In the south of Syria, we find a majority Sunni population. And when the crescent moves into Lebanon, it passes through many different ethnic and religious communities before it reaches the main concentration of Shi'a who live in the south of the country.

The Shiite Crescent's origins date to a 2004 warning by Jordan's King Abdallah. Despite his subsequent assertion that his remark referred to political alignments and not sectarian identities, the term has come to provide a convenient platitude with which to analyze the politics of the Arab Mashriq.

No one would deny the salience of sectarian identities in Arab politics, as a recent collection of essays which I edited makes clear. Nevertheless, this type of analysis once again diverts the political discourse of the Arab Spring away from the desire of large segments of the citizenry of the Arab world and the larger Middle East for democracy.

It is true that the Ba'thist regime in Syria is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiism, which is a legacy of French colonial rule. But many Alawite officials are horrified by the violence of the al-Asad regime and would leave their posts if it were not for the pervasive security apparatus and fear of the repercussions for their families. While it is difficult to specify exact numbers, the opposition forces include many Alawites who are not part of the privileged elites surrounding the al-Asad family.

Weeed remeber that the most powerful social base of the al-Asad regime is int he Syrian busienss community, whcih is domiated bu Sunni Arabs and to a lesser extent Christians. This social basse refelctes the liberalziation policies which the al-Aad regime has been following since the 190s and the conscious decision to create stronger ties between the regime and the Sunni Arab merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo.

Many Syrians are resentful of the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guard units in Syria. Indeed, some Iranians have been captured by opposition forces. Similar to Iraq, where all Iraqis, including members of the Shi'a community, have expressed their rejection of Iranian interference in their internal affairs, so too do Syrians - Alawites, Sunni Arabs, Christians and Kurds - likewise reject allowing Iran to acquire significant control over their military, security service and political affairs.

The concern that Westerners have about the sectarian dimensions of the Syrian conflict stem a number of developments, including comments by al-Qa'ida affiliated groups, such as the Islamic State in Iraq, that they are joining the effort to overthrow the al-Asad regime. But why should the self-aggrandizing comments of a group such as al-Qa'ida which has been weakened by Usama Bin Ladin's death, and the Islamic State of Iraq, which has already been overwhelmingly rejected by Iraqis and which can only assert itself through sporadic bombings, give pause to Arab and Western supporters of Syria's Arab Spring.

While there have been reports of sectarian killings among opposition forces in Syria, we do not know the extent of these killings, or whether they were sponsored by the al-Asad. Certainly, the al-Asad regime has played the sectarian card in an effort to discredit the opposition and to stir up fear among members of the Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities that a Sunni dominated government would marginalize them all, thus offering a worse outcome than the al-Asad regime remaining in power.

The focus non all those who seek to bring democracy and social justice to Syria needs to be on creating representative political institutions, an independent judiciary, and free and fair elections, ending corruption and tacklling Syria's massive economic problems, especially unemployment.

Sectarianism is not genetically inscribed in the Syrian people. Give them economic opportunity and a government which cares about their well-being, and all references to the Shiite Crescent will disappear into thin air.

A consistent theme among Western journalists and academics when reform movement appear is whether they will: a) be taken over by anti-Western Islamist forces; or b) whether the movement in question will degenerate into sectarian or tribal conflict, thereby producing instability which is likewise antithetical to Western interests in the Middle East. Inevitably, the response is to call for a powerful leader sympathetic to the West to intervene to reimpose order.

After a period of more than 50 years, when the Middle East is at its most unstable point ever, it is time to resist the temptation to find a new dictator who will supposedly control the Islamists and impose stability at the force of a gun. When will the West learn the lesson that there is no other answer to the Middle East's problems than a transition to democracy, a democracy which focuses not just on procedural elements but one which offers social justice to the peoples of the region.

The road to democracy in the Middle East will be extermely difficult, but it trumps all the alternatives.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Curtailing freedom of expression in Iraq

While Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's advisers insist that the political disputes which continue to rage in Iraq are simply "the normal growing pains" of a nascent democracy, actions speak louder than words, as the memo by the National Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Iraq below attests.

Maliki is trying to centralize power in his hands, creating what Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way call in their recent volume of the same name "competitive authoritarianism." Levitsky and Way define competitive authoritarian regimes as "civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents' abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-a-vis their opponents." The core characteristics of such regimes are that "competition is real but unfair." In other words, democracy exists in name only.

Levitsky and Way fail to include any Middle Eastern states in their analysis. However, in Iraq, Maliki's State of Law Coalition is working hard to establish a political system that accords with the notion of "competitive authoritarianism." Maliki has successfully excluded the Sunni dominated al-'Iraqiya Coalition from power and is attempting to marginalize the 2 parties - the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan - which control the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) which are themselves highly authoritarian. Patronage, corruption and nepotism are the core characteristics of Iraqi politics today. The Maliki government increasingly manipulates these processes to its advantage. The result is a consistent underpinning of the ability of competing parties to wield any meaningful political influence.

Iraq's National Association for the Defense of Human Rights has published a series of directives issued by the Iraqi Intelligence Service which are designed to curb freedom of expression in Iraq. Despite knowledge of these directives, no other agency in the Maliki government has condemned them, including the Ministry of Human Rights. The memo by the Association below is yet another indicator of the ongoing efforts to curtail what citizens in any democracy have come to assume is a basic constitutional right, namely freedom of expression.

الجمعية الوطنية للدفاع عن حقوق الانسان في العراق

National Association for the Defense

of Human Rights in Iraq

Freedom of Expression is Indispensable

for Building Democracy
A number of news agencies, websites and Iraqi newspapers have published a document issued by the Iraqi Intelligence Service (Directive No. 3061, dated 20 February 2012) that requested pursuing activities organized by youths to commemorate the first anniversary of protest demonstrations that took place in Baghdad on 25th February 2011.

The Intelligence Service directives issued the following orders:

1 – To follow-up movements.

2 – To inform officials about these movements.
3 – To record names.

4 – The purpose is to pursue these people by the relevant authorities.
5 – To take intensified security measures and provide precautionary arrangements in accordance with the law.

These directives have caused deep concern among all those who uphold democracy and the right to exercise the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, including the freedom of expression in accordance with Article 38 of the Constitution which stipulates that “the state guarantees, without prejudice to public order and morality, 1- the freedom of expression of opinion by all means .. 2 - (....) 3 - Freedom of assembly and peaceful demonstration.”

These directives, issued by a government body, are therefore not only an administrative violation but rather constitute several irregularities. First; it is a blatant violation of the Constitution. Second; it is a harmful measure directed against democracy which is the basis of the political process. Third; it is a violation of human rights that guarantee the freedom of expression in accordance with the law.

Our Association has been following up this issue since the publication of these Intelligence Service directives. It has come to the conclusion that the relevant authorities that issued these directives have not denied it. We have also checked the website of the Ministry of Human Rights but could not find any comment, statement or clarification about this blatant violation. The Ministry should have condemned this violation and demanded that the relevant authorities rescind it and abide by the principles of human rights and the section on freedoms in the Constitution.

While considering these directives of the Intelligence Service to be a grave violation of the Constitution and the right to demonstrate, we note that the demands to be raised by youth belonging to the Iraqi Communist Party in the demonstration, as referred to in these directives, do not violate the laws or the Constitution. As a matter of fact, many officials have publicly given support to these demands, such as: 1 - Providing job opportunities, 2 – Putting an end to political differences. Our Association, which defends the rights enshrined in the Constitution and the UN Charter, is therefore astonished that these rights are made a pretext for security measures which are actually of political nature. Those who are in charge of the executive bodies were presumably themselves victims of human rights violations, and if this is so, how can they relish the practice of violations that are prohibited constitutionally after the fall of the dictatorial regime?!

Our Association calls upon those who issued the above-mentioned directives to announce publicly that they are abolished, as well as apologizing for issuing them. We also call upon all the authorities that implement laws to undertake a systematic study of the Constitution and abide professionally by the rights of Iraqi citizens as stipulated by the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

National Association for the Defense of Human Rights in Iraq

Baghdad - 28 February 2012

العنوان: شارع السعدون ــ عمارة مكية ــ ط3 ــ قرب المسرح الوطني

Email: iraqhumanrights@yahoo.de