Jun 13

British political pessimism and where Syria fits in Sunni vs Shia

Two quick reading links for the weekend. Both of these excellent pieces would fall into the category of “explainers” but do it so well that the explanation rises to the level of useful originality.

  • David Gardner’s analysis for the FT of the very dangerous context for the decision by the US to arm the Syrian rebels – or at least to try to arm only some of them. Gardner concentrates on the centuries-old Sunni vs Shia warfare as the driver of events but concludes that outside intervention is preferable to none.
  • Steve Richards dissection for The Guardian of the electoral gloom affecting both major British political parties. He is surely right that this pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cool illustration too.

May 13

New, improved censorship from Iran’s Supreme Council of Cyberspace

I’m not inventing this: Iran really does have a body called the the Supreme Council for Cyberspace. This body with the science-fiction name is wrestling with the dilemma facing dictatorships everywhere.

Even by official estimates, more than half of Iran’s 75m people are net users. At that level, the internet is basic to the functioning of the economy, and that includes trade and contacts outside the country. So the cyberspace councillors can’t just shut down the internet even if they had the technical means to do it.

So they do two things: they slow it down and they try to build infrastructure which they can watch. There’s a tense election coming in June and the authorities have had several years to plan against a repeat of the demonstrations which took them by surprise in 2009. As AFP reports, the authorities in Tehran are suspected of putting the internet in a “coma”. Revealingly, the people who seem to have spotted this first are the DVD pirates who can’t any longer download foreign movies because the system is so slow.

The way that the cyberspace rulers may be managing this is by blocking Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Iranians who don’t want to be traced accessing sites outside their borders use VPNs to connect to international sites and to disguise where they are. The use of VPNs is illegal on the grounds that they are insecure and may carry material considered depraved, criminal or politically offensive. So the Iranian authorities are building their own VPN for people to use, which internet experts quite reasonably assume will be transparent to the supreme cyber-councillors, not to mention to the security police.

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Sep 12

Salman Rushdie and Islam: the importance of not forgetting history

Salman Rushdie    Salman Rushdie has published a memoir of his years under police protection while the clerical regime in Iran had put a price on his murder. I was reading a long extract in the New Yorker when a paragraph brought me up short.

The narrative is gripping, spoilt only by Rusdie’s insistence on cataloguing every insult and let-down during those grim years. On this blog I happened to note the other day that the struggles under way in countries like Egypt, Tunisia or Syria were intra-Islam battles, fights both political and violent between different interpretations of the religion. The following paragraph from Rushdie’s book “Joseph Anton” encapsulates this in a much more powerful way. He is recalling 1989, shortly after he had been forced into hiding:

“Bookstores were firebombed – Collets and Dillons in London, Abbey’s in Sydney. Libraries refused to stock the book, chains refused to carry it, a dozen printers in France refused to print the French edition, and more threats were made against the publishers. Muslims began to be killed by other Muslims if they expressed non-bloodthirsty opinions. In Belgium, the mullah who was said to be the “spiritual leader” of the country’s Muslims, the Saudi national Abdullah al-Ahdal, and his Tunisian deputy, Salem el-Behir, were killed for saying that, whatever Khomeini had said for Iranian consumption, in Europe there was freedom of expression.”

We have no business being surprised that revolutions in states with large Islamic populations do not automatically deliver Jeffersonian democracy. Iran in 1978, Algeria since the aborted election of 1991, Iraq since the 2003 invasion, the 2006 election in Gaza – all these examples were before us when the Arab Spring happened. Perhaps journalists just don’t read enough books.


Sep 12

Tunisia and its media: the quiet struggle heats up

If you want to understand what underlies the riots and attacks against US embassies across North Africa, have a look at one usually under-reported country where three people died in disturbances at the weekend. In Tunisia, the struggles of a newly-liberated Arab society over religion, society and law are being played out in and around the media.

Never seen as a cradle of revolution before 2011, Tunisian protestors triggered the Arab Spring. Overthrowing the dictator now looks like the easy bit. Working out new rules for a society which has thrown away the old ones turns out to be the hard part. The media, once run or intimidated by the state machine, has turned into one of the flashpoints. The first free elections saw a moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, come to power at the head of a coalition which faces more radical Islamists and Salafists one one side and the secular opposition parties (“leftist lobbies” in goverment language) on the other, some tainted by association with the old regime.

The pivot of the competition for power under new constitutive rules is not between “western” (i.e. Euro-American) ideas of liberalism and something vaguely labelled “Islamic” but between rival interpretations of Islam. There are many different versions of how Islam co-exists with civil society – and indeed whether Islam tolerates something we call civil society. Few regret the passing of corrupt Arab dictators such as Tunisia’s Ben Ali, but those dictators were aggressively secular.

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Mar 12

Journalists and the perils of the over-optimistic herd

The international affairs scholar Walter Laqueur (left) has been asking himself why so many commentators – who might in his view have known better – were proved wrong in assuming that the Egyptian revolutionaries of Tahrir Square would usher in age in Arab countries of democratic tolerance and European rights. Whether or not you accept his view of Egypt, his speculation about why these mistake are made has something interesting to say about crowdsourcing and collective judgement.

Laqueur begins by going back to another glaring example of over-optimism (which happens to have long fascinated me): inflating the prospects for the integration of Europe and the imminent triumph of the continent’s superior economic and social model. He gives a few examples of overblown hyperbole about how the 21st century would be Europe’s era and asks why the evidence that this might not happen was so often overlooked. This resonated with me since I’ve had experience in the past of trying to persuade American audiences that uniting Europe might not turn out to be as straightforward as many politicians in Europe claimed. I can still remember lecturing at a college in Vermont in 1989 (just weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall as it happened) and telling a sceptical-looking audience that the unification of Europe wasn’t going to be like assembling the united states in America. My audience looked very grumpy and disappointed.

Then Laqueur looks at rosy-eyed predictions about what future elections would bring in Egypt, noting that very few journalists reporting the revolution in Egypt went beyond Cairo (and some never beyond Tahrir Square). A trip outside the capital might have revealed that support for a secular revolution was very limited and that while there might be competition between different variations of Islamic politics, the new Egypt was going not going to be secular and more “western”. The odds, he says, were stacked against a tolerant, plural, secular outcome from the start.

I’m less interested in whether Laqueur’s Egyptian pessimism is correct than in the conclusions he draws about punditry: Continue reading →


Mar 12

The release of Nedim Sener in Turkey – did an international fuss work for once?

From time to time the authorities intent on locking up journalists have second thoughts and we should mark it when they do. So it was this week when a Turkish court released Nedim Sener and three other journalists arrested in the Oda TV case connected to the (allegedly enormous) “Ergenekon” conspiracy.

Sener and several colleagues had been held for a year and had been the focus of a noisy international campaign, led outside Turkey by the International Press Institute. It’s easy for organisations like IPI to believe that while it may be their duty to protest and lobby when journalists are put in the slammer because of the opinions they hold, the results of such campaigns tend all the same to be meagre. So celebrations are in order when it seems to work. Sener was arrested a year ago this month, named a Press Freedom Hero by IPI in June 2010 and released nine months later. You can’t prove the causal connection, but….

It certainly seems to have made a difference to Sener’s time in jail. IPI director Alison Bethel Mackenzie said yesterday that Sener and his wife “today mentioned over and over and over again the impact of the letters that poured in from all over the world from IPI members and supporters, as well as the letters that were sent on behalf of the IPI board of directors and, separately, from the World Press Freedom Heroes. He also said that he had heard that board members sent letters to Turkish embassies in their home countries. He was very moved by that.”

The Ergenekon conspiracy trials are likely to run for years. Sener and three others are due back in court in June; six more defendants, mostly journalists, are still in custody (a taste of the arguments generated here) . Hundreds of people have been arrested for what is routinely described as a “conspiracy” to bring down the governing Justice and Development (AK) party led by prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. I am not an expert on Turkey and no doubt there are no doubt parts of this complex story that I’m liable to misunderstand. But when I see a government arresting hundreds of people and constantly enlarging the scope of what cannot possibly have been any kind of efficient “conspiracy” – simply because the numbers claimed are so large – a warning light goes off in my head. Isn’t the alleged existence of this vast, all-connected conspiracy a bit too convenient to be plausible? (It predates Sener’s arrest and centres on the murder of Sener’s friend Hrant Dink, but there’s an excellent essay by British Turkey expert Maureen Freely on the complex politics of journalism and free expression in the country’s “embattled half-democracy”.)

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Dec 11

Christmas catchup of stuff I missed

This post just carries links to one or two pieces worth reading that I’ve missed or put to one side in the past few weeks.

  • I’ve been waiting for some time for a systematic, measured study of new media’s role in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. This looks like the first such one (if you know of others I’ve missed, please tell me). It’s only about Twitter and really only about the networking aspects, when the real study needs to link and compare the use and consumption of every thing from satellite TV to Facebook and Twitter. But it’s a start and a fascinating one.
  • Second up is a piece by Clay Shirky about news institutions and the “crisis”. Above all this is a plea for experiments in news and a strongly made argument that, important as newspapers are as institutions, their adaptive capabilities really aren’t keeping up with what’s happening. Shirky’s piece also contains a link to an essay by Jonathan Stray on the digital public sphere which also looks excellent.
  • Last is the New York Times picture essay on 2011: a vivid way to recall what has been a truly unusual twelve months.

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Oct 11

Wadah Khanfar: fascinating, but carefully tactful

Wadah Khanfar can claim to be one of the world’s most significant journalists in 2011. He doesn’t make that claim himself, but he ran the Middle East’s most outspoken satellite broadcaster, Al-Jazeera, as the revolutions erupted in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and as they spluttered in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria.

Last night he came to City University to give the James Cameron Memorial Lecture and most of his audience wondered if he would shed any light on his abrupt departure from Al-Jazeera’s director-generalship a few weeks ago. He shed no new light directly. But a few hints were dropped, and they illuminate both the power and the limits of the Arab Spring.

When people suddenly announce they are going to “move on”, that decision can be assumed to be not entirely voluntary. The deal to depart is sealed with a payment, conditional on neither party saying more than a very limited amount in public about the rupture. Khanfar was not replaced by a journalist or broadcasting executive but by a member of the Qatari royal family from one of the state’s oil and gas outfits. Khanfar is a charming and plausible speaker, but I doubt that many in his audience quite bought his explanation that after eight years at the top of Al-Jazeera, he had decided to quit while he was ahead. The indicators point to Qatar’s ruling family wanting someone a little “safer” in charge.

Al-Jazeera’s foundation in 1996 was a remarkably bold act by the Emir of Qatar. Even if Al-Jazeera did not report quite as vigorously on Qatar itself, it was allowed to report without inhibition on other states in the region. The Emir in effect tore up the convention among Gulf ruling families that news media from their own state try to avoid embarassing rulers of neighbouring states. Or at least that appeared to be the case until the Arab revolutions began this year. And Al-Jazeera’s own journalists rapidly built the station’s own editorial identity and strength, probably becoming more famous, influential and controversial than its cautious founders anticipated (backgrounder here). Qatar, Khanfar said in answer to a question last night, did not start Al-Jazeera “for charitable reasons”. The state had “expectations”, he said; but then, he added, so did Al-Jazeera’s journalists have their own expectations, aims and agenda. The channels, Khanfar said, found their “mission” and created a “solid identity”. This identity, he implied, was not quite what Qatar’s rulers had in mind.

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