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US Foreign Policy is solidifying the position of conservative regimes in the Middle East by giving the people of these worlds a common enemy. Theocracies and dictatorships form the fulcrum of resistance against perceived (and real) Western Imperialism, and pseudo-democratic reforms are quashed in the process. Societies become more conservative to reflect unity against the common foe and, as in every culture, the “you’re either with us or you’re against us” mentality prevails (this is a quote, ironically, from George W. Bush) as a mechanism to solidify support. Sounds a lot like good ol’ American McCarthyism to me.

To wit: Saddam Hussein was nearly toppled from power prior to Desert Storm, and in his recent “election” he received 100% of the popular vote. Sure it was rigged. He was the only name on the ballot. The point is, people didn’t need to show up to vote for him, so the appropriate measure isn’t which box they checked, moreover how many of them showed up to do it. Iraq’s population is estimated by the CIA World FactBook at 24 million. An estimated 12 million people in Iraq showed up to vote. With only one choice, Iraq had a higher per capita voter turnout than the last US election. There were no hanging chads in Baghdad.

The growth of Islamic Conservatism flies in the face of people and societies making progress toward free expression, cultural evolution, and equality for women. But does this conservatism truly express the will, or does it express the fear, of the people?

You can find people spray painting “Death To America” on subways in New York; you can find them burning flags in Ottawa. Yet what we see in our Western minds when we think of places like Iran are images of people voicing their hatred against us in murals, chants, and protests. Why? Because we believe what we are shown. And because we are shown that which substantiates our fear.

Societally, there is really very little to differentiate Them from Us. They are people. We are people. We have fear and love and so do they.

If peace begins with understanding, then this article below (and works like it) are important in cutting through the CNN/CNBC/WSJ propaganda, which teaches us to hate those in the Axis of So-And-So. We are taught to hate and fear them as an important mechanism in building support for wars abroad which have nothing whatsoever to do with democracy, freedom, or equality. They have everything to do with oil, wealth, exploitation, and paranoia.

The sad fact is that as long as we in the West try to foist our world views upon other societies, they are catalyzed to resist, galvanizing around regimes which promise to Defend their freedom, honour, and dignity. If democracy is to spread throughout the world then it must germinate and flourish within the hearts of indigenous peoples. It worked for us…

-Ian.

—– http://www.guardian.co.uk/elsewhere/journalist/story/ 0,7792,820885,00.html Inside the ‘axis of so-and-so’

Although Iran is often portrayed as a hardline theocracy, there is a vibrancy about its society that is rarely found in its Arab neighbours, writes Brian Whitaker

Monday October 28, 2002

It’s not very often, I must confess, that women beg me to change seats on a plane in order to sit next to them.

No matter how much I may have fantasised about such things, I had certainly never imagined being approached by a hijab-wearing but discreetly flirtatious Iranian woman travelling alone on a flight from London to Tehran.

“Please help me,” she said, deploying the oldest chat-up line in the book. “I have problem with my English lesson.”

And so we passed a few innocently romantic hours with English verbs and prepositions in exchange for a smattering of Farsi phrases that I hoped would prove useful during my first visit to Iran.

As we came in to land, my companion pointed out of the window. “Ayatollah Khomeini died,” she said, indicating the burial place of the man who led the Islamic revolution. Recalling the hysterical scenes at his funeral some years ago, I imagined his loss was still a matter of grief for Iranians and made suitably respectful noises.

But the Iran Air steward, who happened to be passing and had seen her pointing, leaned over and said: “Why are you showing him that? Show him something nice instead.”

From that point on, I knew that some basic preconceptions were about to be shaken. Since the revolution, Iran has been known as the Islamic Republic and recently joined, as one Iranian politician put it, the “Axis of so-and-so”.

In the west, we are so familiar with the TV images of fanatical, chanting Iranian crowds that we tend to imagine this goes on all the time. The first revelation on arriving is that the outward trappings of religion are far less apparent in Tehran than in Cairo; it is one of the most secular-looking cities in the Middle East.

And those giant murals saying “Death to America” – much sought after by visiting photographers – are also rather scarce, though they can be found if you look for them.

The second revelation is that the vast majority of Iranians are perfectly normal human beings. If they’re fanatical about anything, it’s their fondness for all things kitsch.

None of this helps to solve the puzzle of Iranian politics but merely complicates it. On one hand there is an elected president and a parliament whose members are chosen in fiercely contested ballots by voters who may be as young as 16 (since at 16 they were considered old enough to be slaughtered in the war with Iraq).

On the other, there are the elderly theologians who approve or reject candidates for election, lay down the law on other matters and often, though not always, get their way.

Determining the relative influence of these elements, and that of the factions within them, provides constant employment for foreign analysts. It’s almost impossible to talk in a meaningful way about the Iranian government without saying which bit of it you’re referring to.

One thing is clear, however. The gerontocracy creates the moral codes which others feel obliged to undermine. Thanks to the ayatollahs, defiance is almost a national pastime.

Around 70% to 80% of the population has access to satellite television, though dishes are illegal and occasionally get seized. Forged cards for the receivers cost a very reasonable £5 or so.

The popularity of satellite TV is scarcely surprising. Films on the legal Iranian channels are cut to remove any kissing, and the sound is dubbed so that boyfriends and girlfriends become brother and sister – which in most cases makes a mockery of the story line.

The hijab, of course, is compulsory and foreign women visiting Iran are expected to comply, too. A notice at the airport requesting their cooperation begins: “Dear Sisters, hijab is the expression of our Islamic civilisation …”

According to Dr Nasrollah Mostofi, Iran’s tourism supremo, this has now been enshrined by the United Nations in its global code of ethics for tourism as a way of respecting “indigenous peoples’ values”.

The reality among Iran’s “indigenous people” is that many – particularly the younger women – cover as little hair as possible, teasing the headscarf back until it is perched almost on the back of their head. If someone stares disapprovingly, they rearrange it with an expression of innocence that says: “Oh dear, look what the wind has done to my scarf.”

Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iranian women can – and do – drive cars. In theory they can also hold any official position except that of a judge. Contact between unrelated members of the opposite sex is supposedly forbidden, but it goes on nevertheless.

In Isfahan after nightfall, boys and girls cruise the main streets. The girls write their mobile phone numbers on scraps of paper, which they drop for the boys to pick up. The boys call them on the on the phone, eyeing their quarry across the street.

On the outskirts of Tehran, there’s Jamshidieh Park, a vast and picturesque area of woods and streams, cafes and picnic spots constructed by the late Shah – though people hasten to add that it has improved greatly since the Islamic revolution.

The park is also a popular retreat for the young, not least because its steep stone stairways are enough to deter the elderly or infirm from venturing far – and what the mullahs don’t see, the mullahs don’t complain about.

Jamshidieh Park does, however, have a darker side. Last week, a man was hanged there in public for killing a policeman, since the Iranian preference is to carry out executions at the scene of the crime.

I decided not to witness the hanging, though I’m told that on these occasions people usually start camping out around three or four in the morning in order to get a good view.

Unlike Jamshidieh, a neighbouring slope is treeless and bare, apart from the vast concrete wall that surrounds it. This is Evian prison, though there are no buildings to be seen on the surface. The whole structure – built by the Shah but still utilised by the Islamic regime – is inside the mountain. At least one Iranian journalist is currently locked up in its dungeons.

Despite such medieval practices, Tehran is essentially a modern capital with modern urban problems: traffic jams, pollution, drugs, HIV and all the rest. Viewed from the mountains nearby, a thick brown cloud of fumes rises from the city as the morning rush gets under way and hangs there for the rest of the day.

Hefty state subsidies mean petrol is sold at 20% its market price – which only encourages congestion. Regardless of the change of regime in neighbouring Afghanistan, vast quantities of drugs – hashish, opium, morphine and heroin – continue flowing into, and through, Iran.

In the first nine months of this year, the authorities seized 113 tonnes of drugs and arrested more than 84,000 suspected dealers. In the same period, 42 police officers have been killed – or martyred, as the Iranians prefer to say – in the battle against drugs.

According to Ali Hashemi, the presidential adviser on drugs, the situation is now much worse than it was when the Taliban were in power, because the new Afghan government has so little control.

Among a population approaching 70 million, an estimated 275,000 Iranians are addicted to heroin – which has led in turn to a spread of HIV infection. The heady days of the Islamic revolution have clearly gone but the country is still evolving, both socially and politically.

What is often portrayed as a battle between conservatives and reformers, or between theocracy and democracy, is actually a lot more complex. Neither side is monolithic and the dividing lines between them are often blurred.

It might also be portrayed as a battle between the young and the old, between the generation that remembers the Shah and the generation that does not. Amid the carnage of the eight-year war with Iraq, the ayatollahs sought to replenish their martyrs by turning Iran into a vast baby factory – with the result that half the population today is below the age of 15. And they are reaping the consequences.

In order to provide work for the rising generation, they now have to create 760,000 new jobs every year – an almost impossible feat which helps to explain the frustrations of the young.

But perhaps the old-versus-young theory is an over-simplification too. Last July the elderly Ayatollah Jalaleddin Taheri announced his retirement as prayer leader in Isfahan with a searing letter that struck a chord across the generation gap.

Attacking “the crocodile of power”, he spoke of “the hellish gap between poverty and wealth … a sick economy, bureaucratic corruption, desperately weak administrators, the growing flaws in the country’s political structure, embezzlement, bribery and addiction, and the failure to find effective solutions”.

None of this was couched in terms that questioned the value of the 1979 revolution but, rather, suggested that the revolution had strayed from its original goals.

Since then, the ayatollah has been silent. A soldier stands guard outside his house and turns away visitors on the grounds that the ayatollah is not at home. Officials say this is for his own protection, though to others it looks suspiciously like house arrest.

Iranians certainly indulge in hard-ball politics, with lots of casualties along the way, but there’s also a vibrancy about it that is rarely found, for instance, in the Arab countries with their sterile politics, their time-serving leaders and their grovelling journalists.

In Iran, it’s politics with a purpose. Newspapers speak their minds and get closed down by the dozen – only to reappear under a different name.

“The important matter is that issues surface, in the news media or in parliamentary debates,” says Massoumeh Ebtekar, who is one of Iran’s six vice-presidents and the highest-ranking woman in the country. “Nothing is being covered up.”

What is developing in Iran, she says, is “a novel form of democracy – a religious democracy. It has its own red lines, it has its own norms and values, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to work out.”

Along with other Iranian officials, she dismisses the idea that the United States will seek “regime change” in Iran after dealing with Iraq. But she argues that efforts by foreigners – particularly the Americans – to force the pace of reform in Iran have had the opposite effect, strengthening the hand of the conservatives.

“The reform process has been endangered by foreign pressures,” she says. “Democracy would have proceeded much more smoothly without those pressures.”

Email brian.whitaker [at] guardian.co [dot] uk

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