Two Murdered Women

July 23, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

By Walid El Hourican

* Neda and Marwa: One becomes an icon, the other is unmentioned

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A girl holds a picture of murdered Marwa El-Sherbiny during a memorial in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin July 17, 2009.

REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

On June 20th 2009, Neda Agha Soltan was shot dead during the post-election protests in Iran. The protests occupied the largest news segments around the world, with analysts and commentators predicting the fall of the Iranian regime and the dawn of freedom breaking in “the axis of evil.”

Neda’s death became an icon of the Iranian opposition and a symbol for millions of people of the injustice of the Iranian regime and the defiance of the protesters. Neda’s death was put in context. It was taken from the personal realm of the death of an individual to the public realm of the just cause of a whole society.

On July 1st Marwa El Sherbini, an Egyptian researcher living in Germany, was stabbed to death 18 times inside a courtroom in the city of Dresden, in front of her 3-year-old son. She had won a verdict against a German man of Russian descent who had verbally assaulted her because of her veil. Her husband, who rushed in to save her when she was attacked in the courtroom, was shot by the police. Marwa’s death was not reported by any Western news media until protests in Egypt erupted after her burial. The reporting that followed focused on the protests; the murder was presented as the act of a “lone wolf,” thus depriving it of its context and its social meaning.

The fact that media are biased and choose what to report according to their own agenda is not the issue in this case. What the comparison of the two murders shows, is that European and Western societies have failed to grasp the significance and the importance of the second murder in its social, political, and historical context.

The “lone wolf” who stabbed Marwa 18 times inside the courtroom is the product of the society he lives in. If anything, the murder of Marwa should raise the discussion about the latent (perhaps not so latent anymore) racism against Muslims that has been growing in European societies in the last few decades, and noticeably so since the mid-90s.

It would be difficult to avoid relating the crime to the discussions about the banning of the Niqab, or the previous discussions about the wearing of the veil. These issues and others pertaining to the Muslim immigration in Europe have been occupying large parts of the public debates in several European countries. It would also be difficult not to notice the rapid rise of right wing populist parties to power in several European countries in the last decade, all of which have built their discourse on the fear of Islam and the “immigration problem.”

The absence of reporting, or adequate reporting of the murder, and the alarm bells that did not ring after this murder, reflect the denial in which European societies and public discourse are immersed.

While Europe preaches freedom of expression and the need to accept otherness, and while Europe preaches about the dangers of racism and sectarianism in third world countries, and while Europe warns about hate speech and anti-Semitism, we see race-driven crime, prejudice, and hate speech gaining both legitimacy and power in France, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Denmark and other democracies in the old continent. Race-driven crimes are constantly presented as exceptions within a tolerant society. However, the recurrence of exceptions puts in question their exceptional nature.

The absence of Marwa’s story from the mainstream media and the failure to start a debate about the immediate dangers of present European anti-Muslim racism shows the depth of the problem and draws us to expect a gl oomy future for Muslims in Europe. Muslims like Neda only get to the news if their story serves the dominant narrative that presents Islam as the primary threat to freedom, while Muslims like Marwa who expose the pervasive racism of the West and challenge the existing stereotypes fail to get their story told.

What is significant to note is that in Neda’s case the media accused the Iranian regime as the authority responsible for the context in which the crime was committed rather than looking for the person who actually shot her. The accused is the establishment or the institution rather than the individual shooter. However, in the case of Marwa’s murder the media were persistent in stressing on the individuality of the murderer, calling him a “lone wolf”, implying that he is a social outcast who holds no ties to the society he lives in. The murderer was given a name “Alex W.” and the institution, the society, and the establishment he lives in were taken away from the picture.

While Neda’s death enjoyed wide arrays of interpretations and readings in context, Marwa’s death was deprived of its context and was presented as a personal tragedy, featuring a madman and his victim. Meanwhile Europe keeps shifting to the right at an accelerating pace, and cultural stereotypes, failure to integrate (read: social and political alienation), miscommunication, and a growing financial crisis only nourish this trajectory and support the populist and chauvinistic discourse of various newborn and resurrected right wing parties.

In the 1930s, following the big economical crisis of the 1920s, a young populist right wing party suddenly rose to power in Germany and few predicted what was to follow. There is no realistic proof to say that Europe is a more tolerant society than any other, or to say that people necessarily learn from their history, or even that some societies are exempt from racist behavior. All the evidence points to the end of the European myth of post-war tolerance; and the media have yet to connect the dots before history repeats itself.

– Walid El Hourican be reached at: walid@menassat.com. This article appeared in CounterPunch.org.

Six Reasons Why Iran

July 9, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Cannot Be Explained in a Twitter Feed

New America Media, News Analysis, Jalal Ghazi

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A policeman stands guard in front of the British embassy during an anti-Britain protest gathering in Tehran, April 1, 2007. Picture taken April 1, 2007. 

REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/Files

The world’s attention is on Iran. But the rhetoric of reformists vs. conservatives and students vs. mullahs cannot capture the complexity of what is happening on the streets of Tehran. Here are six reasons why the situation in Iran cannot be reduced to simplistic headlines or Twitter feeds.

First, the post-election crisis in Iran is not only a reflection of divisions between conservatives and reformers. Perhaps more importantly, it has brought divisions within the conservatives to the forefront.

“It is true that most of the armed forces, especially the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, support the Supreme Leader and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but the decision making in Iran is not exclusive to these two men,” said human rights activist Ghanim Jawad on the London-based (ANB-TV) Arab News Broadcast. He pointed to a “vertical division,” not only within the government but also within the society.

Ghanim added, “This vertical division is more dangerous to the Islamic revolution than the eight years of war between Iran and Iraq.” That war, he said, united Iranian society. Now Iranian society is split and there are divisions within the Expediency Council, the Guardian Council, the parliament and the Assembly of Experts -– all important decision-making institutions.

Most significantly, he added, the religious authority in the holy city of Qom is also divided.

Second, the disputed election results provided the spark that ignited the street demonstrations, but there were many other important reasons that pushed hundreds of thousands of Iranians into the streets.

The widely read journalist Fahmi Huwaidi wrote on Al Jazeera.net that “one must acknowledge that this is the first time since the Islamic revolution that people held such large demonstrations to express their anger toward the regime and the supreme leader.”

Huwaidi added, “It is hard to categorize all protesters under one title, but all have anger as a common denominator.” There is anger over the election results, lack of individual freedoms, tense relations with the West, high unemployment and inflation, government support of Hezbollah and Hamas, and lack of rights for Arab, Kurdish and Sunni minorities.

Third, presidential candidate Mir Hussein Mousavi has become the symbolic leader of the reformist movement, but that does not mean that he is the one who created this movement.

During his election campaign he was accompanied by former President Muhammad Khatami everywhere he went because Mousavi was not a good public speaker, wrote Huwaidi.

Many Iranians also question his alliance with pragmatic conservatives who are suspected of corruption, such as the head of the Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

Arab author Azmi Bishara wrote on Al Jazeera.net that “corrupt conservatives within the regime such as Rafsanjani rely on reformists such as Mousavi and Khatami as a way to renew their appeal, weaken the Supreme Leader, promote a more pragmatic policy and create better relations with the West.” Bishara, however, warned that the pragmatic conservatives may temporarily agree to reforms, but reverse their position once they are in power.

Fourth, the street demonstrations are not necessarily an indication that Iran is an oppressive government or less democratic than neighboring Arab states.

“The position taken by the Iranian society toward claims of discrepancies in the elections is much better than the position of Arab societies toward similar claims,” wrote Huwaidi. Iranians at least protested on the streets and clashed with police and security forces for 10 days. Arab populations have now accepted election fraud as a fact of life and given up on trying to change it, wrote Huwaidi.

Political writer Ahmad Asfahani told ANB that he was impressed by the “vigorous Iranian society” that gave birth to three populist revolutions in less than 60 years: the uprising that followed the overthrow of Iranian Premier Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953, the Islamic revolution in 1979, and now, the 2009 street demonstrations.

Fifth, not all of the 20 people who were killed during the demonstrations were protesters. According to Ghanim, at least eight security force members were also killed. This shows that the security forces were not the only side that used violence.

Ghanim told ANB that in this situation it is hard to control either side. He added that this raised questions about who really killed the young Iranian woman Neda Agha-Soltan who became a symbol for the street demonstrations. Ghanem said that it is possible that she was killed by “some groups who wanted to escalate the situation.”

Sixth, the strong divisions within the major governing institutions in Iran show that the Iranian system is more similar to the American system than Arab regimes, whether they are ruled by presidents or monarchs. For example, the strong criticism that the Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani has made against the interior ministry as well as the criticism by Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri in Qom of the Guardian Council shows that Iran has its own system of checks and balances which does not exist in most Arab countries. This also was evident in the televised debates in which Ahmadinejad made strong accusations against senior Iranian officials, including Rafsanjani.

The Iranian system has many discrepancies but the same can be said about the American system. Bishara wrote that the differences between the Republicans and Democrats in the United States are not much bigger than the differences between the conservatives and reformists in Iran. There seems to be no fundamental change in many respects. Iranian mullahs have used their positions to become very wealthy, much as American corporations have used lobbyists to pass laws in Congress that benefit them.

The real question is how Iran will emerge from all of this. If it comes out more powerful, it will be a vindication of the political process in Iran and proof that its system works better than those of its Arab neighbors. That is what really makes Arab countries nervous.

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Neda

June 27, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

By Sumayyah Meehan MMNS

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A screen grab captured from the popular social-networking site YouTube shows the final moments of Neda Agha-Soltan, as she lies dying from a bullet shot through her heart by Iranian government forces. 

She stepped out of the car for just a moment to catch her breath.  And in the blink of an eye she was shot dead by government forces in the middle of an Iranian street.  The lone bullet hit Neda Agha-Soltan right in the chest. The 26-year-old university student began bleeding from her nose and mouth as her eyes rolled back into her head and her body became still. The woman whom friends have described as a loving friend and engaging companion was buried the next day.  Her family was not even allowed to hold a memorial service or hang a black banner on the front  door  because the government feared it would only further incense protestors and cause more havoc on the Iranian streets.

Neda’s death was captured on a cell phone video camera and uploaded to the Internet before her body was even removed from the street. Millions of Internet users have viewed the footage of Neda’s final moments online and her death has served as a catalyst for the continuation of protests against perceived voting irregularities, which resulted in the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

For thousands of Iranians, Neda has become the symbol of the fight against the oppressive Iranian regime. She was an innocent victim who was targeted simply because she attended a public protest against the government.  There have been many innocent victims of the Iranian government’s crackdown on so-called unlawful protests. Both men and women alike have been beaten by merciless government forces, with many losing their lives in the battle.

Neda’s death has, specifically, reached out to the hearts and minds of Iranian women who have been emboldened to let their voices be heard. Some women walk down the streets adorned with the Islamic headscarf while holding placards skyward. Others throw stones and chant anti-government slogans. While others yet have used themselves as human shields to protect the injured from further atrocities or helped the wounded get off the streets and away from government forces.

The current protests in Iran have been likened to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, however there has been a drastic change that runs along gender lines. The revolution that took place 30 years ago was comprised almost exclusively of male protestors whereas today female protestors are clearly outnumbering the men on the Iranian streets. It has taken years for Iranian women to find their voices. Their coming of age can be seen in screen grabs from cable news program and in video footage uploaded to the Internet.

No matter what the outcome of the current protests turns out to be or how many innocents are beaten and battered. There is one thread of truth that runs through it all and makes Neda’s assassination anything but in vain. And that truth is that the Iranian women are the new pioneers for change in their country. With every step that they take or stone that they hurl, Iranian women are fighting the good fight for change, democracy and freedom in their country.

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