The Green Wave

A film by Ali Samadi Ahadi

 


SYNOPSIS

Green is the color of hope. Green is the color of Islam. And Green was the symbol of recognition among the supporters of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, who became the symbolic figure of the Green Revolution in Iran last year. The presidential elections on June 12th, 2009 were supposed to bring about a change, but contrary to all expectations the ultra-conservative populist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was confirmed in office. As clear as was the result, as loud and justified were the accusations of vote-rigging. The on-going Where is my vote? protest demonstrations were again and again worn down and broken up with brutal attacks by government militia. Images taken from private persons with their cell phones or cameras bear witness to this excessive violence: people were beaten, stabbed, shot dead, arrested, kidnapped, some of them disappearing without trace. What remains is the countless number of dead or injured people and victims of torture, and another deep wound in the hearts of the Iranians.

THE GREEN WAVE is a touching documentary-collage illustrating the dramatic events and telling about the feelings of the people behind this revolution. Facebook reports, Twitter messages and videos posted in the internet were included in the film composition, and hundreds of real blog entries served as reference for the experiences and thoughts of two young students, whose story is running through the film as the main thread. The film describes their initial hope and curiosity, their desperate fear, and the courage to yet continue to fight. These fictional ‘storylines’ have been animated as a motion comic – sort of a moving comic – framing the deeply affecting pictures of the revolution and the interviews with prominent human rights campaigners and exiled Iranians. Ali Samadi Ahadi’s documentary is a highly contemporary chronicle of the Green Revolution and a memorial for all of those who believed in more freedom and lost their lives for it.

PRESS RELEASE

Following the award-winning documentary LOST CHILDREN that he did together with Oliver Stoltz (among others the German Film Award) and his affectionate comedy SALAMI ALEIKUM – in his film THE GREEN WAVE Ali Samadi Ahadi reflects the dramatic events before and after the presidential elections 2009 in Iran. Like an eager sigh, like an unstoppable wave, the desire for more freedom began to spread out in Iran last summer. The color Green of the supporters of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi became the ever-present symbol of a potential change. But on election day the peaceful revolution failed and the regime under Ahmadinejad took action against the oppositionists, activists and demonstrators with a brutality almost too difficult to imagine.

Framed by animated ‘scenes’ which from the perspective of two young students convey a sense of the events, the film shows the real pictures of the revolution, taken with cameras or cell phones: election meetings, demonstrations, unrest and finally the attacks of the militia with batons and knives. Ahadi’s film produced by Oliver Stoltz and Jan Krueger (both of Dreamer Joint Venture Filmproduktion) is a courageous and encouraging collage composed of blog quotes, real video recordings, illustrative interviews with prominent exiled Iranians and human rights activists, and of a motion comic narrative thread – resulting in a stirring plea, an appeal for awareness and actions, and a shaking up, shocking and touching chronicle of the Green Revolution in Iran.

STORYLINE

“For a few weeks we had the feeling of being so close to our goal as never before …” – blog entry.

The Green Revolution in Iran owes its name to the color that became the symbol of recognition among the supporters of presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Being the color of Islam and the color of hope, and being one of the Iranian national colors this Green unfolded an unforeseen signal effect and symbolic power going far beyond the mere commitment to Mousavi. It was not just about election campaigning, not even about dissatisfaction with the regime under Ahmadinejad, but about a new collective spirit and the confidence that there could be another way for Iran, a way that is not characterized by reprisals, oppressions and despotism. This Green was the signal to set out, the symbol of courage and of the chance for a change that had been considered improbable for a long time.

In the streets of Tehran and other big cities, the euphoria was evident: cloths, bracelets, scarfs, nail polish, almost anything was appropriate as a green greeting, as an attribute of peaceful unity and as a gesture of rebellion.

Though news coverage from Iran was almost impossible, the Green Movement could also be sensed abroad, where usually nothing but Ahmadinejad’s provocations were received. Twitter and Facebook messages, YouTube videos and especially numerous blogs reflected an unforeseen euphoric mood. The Iranian blogger scene, which is considered to be one of the largest in the world, came up in the years 1999 to 2003 at the height of the reform movement of those days. Since 2005 this internet forum has had to struggle with more strict controls by the regime und has been curtailed as much as possible. Any blogger making critical comments has to live with the risk of prosecution by the government. In the months before the presidential elections in 2009 this scene started to flourish again and the internet has become an important vital lifeline for the revolution.

Over a thousand different entries in Iranian blogs have been the inspiration for the two ‘fictional’ students – their thoughts being the emotional thread running through the real events: how they perceive the awakening of the Green Movement, how they wake up from a frustrating hopelessness and feel that there is after all a chance to shape the future, how they become desperate with fear beginning to grow again, and how they despite all that do not give up hope.

The stories of the students Azadeh and Kaveh are animated as a motion comic, and rich in contrast going along with the real video images of the revolt and with the interviews with prominent Iranian personalities and human rights activists like Dr. Shirin Ebadi (Noble Peace Prize winner), the Shiite cleric Dr. Mohsen Kadivar (one of the most important critics of the Islamic Republic), the young journalist Mitra Khalatbari, Dr. Payam Akhavan (former UN war crimes prosecutor and a specialist in human rights), or with Mehdi Mohseni (blogger and election assistant to Mir-Hossein Mousavi).

The hopes of the Green Movement for a victory of Mousavi and for reforms were bitterly dashed on the election day and the accusations of vote-rigging still called people into the streets. But ever since the supreme clerical leader of Iran, Khamenei, declared the election result official and uttered an explicit threat to the protesters, the measures against the peaceful resistance became more and more brutal. The images of Neda killed by a shot in the chest during a demonstration shortly afterwards went around the world. Countless videos taken with cameras or cell phones and put on the internet give evidence for the excessive brutality that the government militia used against the demonstrators: militias driving on motorbikes into the crowd of people, beating them with knives and batons, or treading on casualties lying defenselessly on the ground. The regime systematically took action against the ongoing protests, against oppositionists and – like in a frenzy of violence – also against innocent bystanders. Raids at night, arrests on a large scale, never-ending interrogations, raping, abductions, torture – any desire for freedom, any thought of rebellion should be suppressed with inhuman cruelty. Up to this day the pressure of the regime continues, but although the Green Revolution has been subjugated with every available means, the desire of the people for more freedom and dignity is unbroken – just as is their willingness to fight for it.


DIRECTOR ALI SAMADI AHADI ABOUT HIS FILM

It was June 12th, 2009. After having worked very hard for two years all of us were very much looking forward to the premiere of our comedy SALAMI ALEIKUM. From all over Germany our colleagues gathered together for the International Film Festival in Emden where the film would be shown to the public for the first time. On the very same day my wife and I went to Bonn to submit our voting slip for the presidential elections in Iran. I always felt both, as an Iranian and as a German. So did my wife. We met in the no man’s land of cultures and tried to bring together in our lives the positive aspects of both of the two worlds.


Ali Samadi Ahadi

On the very same evening of June 12th it suddenly became clear that one of those worlds was in flames. Despite SALAMI ALEIKUM being a great success in Emden, our team did not at all feel like celebrating. We felt kind of petrified. Paralyzed. And this feeling of helplessness was to remain for weeks. Iran was in flames and we could not do anything. Day by day we were sitting in front of the television for hours, being on the phone with each other, one in Vienna, the others in Berlin and Cologne. Silent. We were not in the mood for talking, but then again did not want to be alone during these hours. We moved together – if only on the phone.

It really took me weeks to get out of this dizziness and to take the decision to do what I can do best: a film about the events in Iran in the summer of 2009.

But very soon it became clear that we had to find a special narrative style for this, because for the events behind us there existed only fragmentary poor-quality pictures taken with cell phones or images from archives covering the situation only in part. A reenactment was out of question for me, especially since it was clear to me that as long as the regime in Iran was in power I could no longer visit Iran.

Iran is a nation of bloggers. Thousands of young people write down their feelings, write down what is on their minds in their blogs. If it was no longer possible for me to shoot my film in Iran, to interview the people there, these blogs were exactly the right source to reach the inner voices of the people.

For a long time Ali Soozandeh and I have been searching for an adequate visual language, when we came across the so-called motion comic to tell about these blogs. I chose 15 blogs from 1,500 websites which we then translated into images. We attracted a range of actors like Pegah Ferydoni, Navid Akhavan, Jasmin Tabatabai and Caroline Schreiber. With them we re-enacted the scenes and took photos.

Alireza Darvish, a wonderful artist, accepted to do the drawings of the characters, and Sina Mostafawy and his team began with the animation of the scenes. Finally, from the archive material, the recently shot interviews, the pictures from cell phones and the animations, Barbara Toennieshen and Andreas Menn composed this collage.

The whole production took 10 months. Within these 10 months the concept, the financing, 42 minutes of animations, the editing as well as the sound design, the music and the compositing came off.

The time pressure was immense and could only be put up with, because everybody plunged into the project and worked day and night.

And at the same time one thing was clear for the team of Iranian descent: because of their participation in this project they will never be able to visit Iran again. But as has Saadi so nicely said,

“Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul,
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you’ve no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain!”

THE PROTAGONISTS

Dr. SHIRIN EBADI – since many years the Noble Peace Prize winner and Iranian lawyer is fighting for more human rights and for freedom in Iran. She is the founder of the Centre for the Defense of Human Rights in Iran. On October 10th, 2003 she was awarded the most important peace prize for her ceaseless and pioneering efforts for democracy and human rights – especially women’s, children’s and refugee rights – being the first Iranian, and the first Muslim woman to have received this prize.

PROFESSOR DR. PAYAM AKHAVAN – the former war crimes prosecutor is a professor of international law at McGill University in Montr�al. He teaches and researches in the areas of public international law and international criminal law with a particular interest in human rights and multiculturalism, UN reforms and the prevention of genocide. Akhavan has published numerous articles and books. His article Beyond Impunity about the chances and barriers in international criminal prosecution, published in 2001 in American Journal of International Law, is considered to be one of the most significant published journal essays in contemporary legal studies. Professor Akhavan was the first Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor’s Office of the International Criminal Tribunals for former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda and played a key role in the trial of Slobodan Milo�ević. He also served with the UN in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Guatemala, East Timor and Rwanda, and was appointed as legal advisor in many important cases before the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court and the European Court of Human Rights. Professor Akhavan is a prominent human rights advocate for Iranian political prisoners and cofounder of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre, an organization documenting human rights violations by Iranian leaders to prepare for legal actions.

Dr. MOHSEN KADIVAR – the Shiite cleric and philosopher, university lecturer, author and political dissident is one of the leading cleric critics of the Iranian system of Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, established by Khomeini. Kadivar studied theology and got his PhD in Islamic law and Islamic philosophy. For a long time Kadivar has been an advocate for more democracy and also religious reforms in Iran. At the end of the 90ies, for example, he fell into disgrace after having voiced public criticism and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

MEHDI MOHSENI – in his publications the blogger and journalist has advocated for reforms in Iran. He also was election assistant to Mousavi prior to the presidential elections. In summer 2009 he came to Germany in the course of a scientific exchange and since then has been living in exile there, because it would be too dangerous for him to return.

MITRA KHALATBARI – the award-winning journalist has experienced the consequences of the controversial presidential elections firsthand. To escape the pressure and the persecution of the regime, in autumn 2009 she fled from Iran to Cologne and has been living in exile since then.
ABOUT ALI SAMADI AHADI (director & author)

Director and author Ali Samadi Ahadi was born in 1972 in the north Iranian city of Tabriz. In 1985, when he was 12 years old, he came to Germany without his family and later took his Abitur in Hannover. In Kassel he studied visual communication with the focus on film and television. At the end of the 90’s he started his career as a filmmaker. He participated in several documentaries and reports as director, film editor or cinematographer. For his documentary CULTURE CLAN he was nominated for the Rose d’Or award, and in Cape Town he won the Channel O Award in the category of “Best Foreign Music Film”. Literally a flood of awards followed soon after for his documentary LOST CHILDREN in co-production with Oliver Stoltz, which won the German Film Award 2006 as well as numerous international awards (among others the UNICEF Award, Al Jazeera Award). Recently, Ahadi made his first feature film SALAMI ALEIKUM, in 2009 reaching a top position in the Arthouse charts with this culture clash comedy.

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Afghanistan: Ten Years at War

AMY GOODMAN: It was ten years ago today when then President George W. Bush announced the beginning of the war.

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against out, terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime

AMY GOODMAN: Ten years later, the Afghan war rages on. It has become the longest-running war in U.S. history. There’s no end in sight. The Taliban remains in control of major parts of the nation. Peace talks have collapsed. Civilian and troop casualties continue to mount. There have been a number of major setbacks in just the past few weeks. On September 13, militants attacked the U.S. Embassy and the NATOheadquarters in Kabul. A week later, the Taliban claim responsibility for assassinating former Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who headed the Afghan Peace Council. Just this week the Wall Street Journal reported Afghan President Hamid Karzai has given up on negotiating with the Taliban. In a recent interview, retired General Stanley McChrystal said the U.S. and NATO were only 50% of the way towards achieving their goals in Afghanistan. Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American progress.

BRIAN KATULIS: If you look at the main metric, the measure for success, in the counterinsurgency strategy, it is, how safe is the local population? 2011, this year, will be the deadliest year for Afghan civilians. More than 80% of those deaths are caused by the Taliban insurgency. But the key metric of whether we’re succeeding on a counterinsurgency strategy — are we keeping the local population safe? — the answer is, no. The number has gone up

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Afghanistan, we are joined by two guests – first, we go to Afghanistan, to Reena. She’s 19 years old, a member of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Reena is a pseudonym, her face concealed since all RAWAmembers maintain anonymity for security reasons. Welcome toDemocracy Now!, Reena. Describe what is happening now – ten years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. REENA: Thank you so much, Amy. It is a pleasure to be on your show. Ten years ago when U.S. invaded Afghanistan, they made promises of democracy, women’s rights, and a general improvement in the lives of people. But ten years later, today, the situation is clearly getting worse for our people. Everyday life has not improved. Women’s situation has gotten worse. There is no sign of democracy or freedom or peace anywhere. In fact, civilian deaths have reached 10,000 on this anniversary. And it’s going to continue to rise with the surge of troops and increase in assaults, this will obviously be continuing. AMY GOODMAN: Here in the United States, we’ve just passed the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. There was a great deal of attention to the young people who grew up in the shadow of the World Trade Center, both specifically and also just in this age metaphorically. You, Reena, or 19 years old. You were nine when the U.S. attacked Afghanistan. Where were you born? What are your thoughts growing up in the Afghan War? REENA: At that time, I was in Pakistan, in a refugee camp, but I do remember a lot of people who were there at that time, like our close relatives. We lost some people that we knew, some friends, in the bombings of the U.S. So I did not exactly witness the deadlier Civil War of 92-96. I have vague images of the Taliban regime of 96-2001. But this ten year war has definitely had a very deep impact on this generation. The civilian casualties, the fear that people live with these days, the terror that there is in the streets everywhere for the IED attacks or other kinds of threats, it is increasing day by day. It has just made everyone extremely insecure and bad for the people. AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined here in New York by Anand Gopal. He reported for The Christian Science Monitor in Afghanistan then for the Wall Street Journal. Now he is writing a book on the war in Afghanistan. Your thoughts ten years later — the longest U.S. war in U.S. history. ANAND GOPAL: By any metric we look at, the war has gotten worse. Security has gotten precipitously worse every single year. 2011 has seen the most civilians being killed of any year since the war started. We’ve seen the most number of attacks – suicide bombings, roadside bombings, since the war started for any year. The amount of territory the Taliban controls has been undiminished, despite the fact we’ve seeing a major troop surge in the last year or two years. We’ve seen a fragmentation within Afghanistan where the people who we are aligned with are starting to arm themselves and thinking about a post-American scenario where they want to all fight against each other. Really we’re at a knot here in Afghanistan in the last ten years. AMY GOODMAN: Listening to the talk shows on the cable networks, it is quite remarkable to see how things are turned on their heads. The Republicans talking about Obama presiding over the longest war. The issue of what it means if the U.S. pulls out, and the mantra often repeated that the Taliban will take over. I want to get both of your thoughts on that beginning with Anand. ANAND GOPAL: The Taliban already have de facto control of almost half of the country in the countryside. Beyond that, what we’re doing in Afghanistan is we are arming militiamen, warlords, strong men, we’re actually going into the countryside and giving them weapons, giving weapons to all sorts of human rights violators and abusers. These are people in many cases who have been disarmed after 2001 and we’re rearming now because we need help in fighting the Taliban. So what that’s actually doing is creating the conditions in which the civil war is more and more likely. In fact that I think the longer we stay and continue this policy, a civil war becomes more likely. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, your thoughts on the issue of the Taliban? REENA: Yes, I absolutely agree with him. The U.S. has armed the most dangerous warlords and is continuing to arm and support them. If they were drawn out, yes, a civil war may be inevitable. But again, we have to remember that, as we always say, this war is part of the problem. It is not going to solve anything for us. If the troops withdraw and if they give Afghanistan a chance to decide its own fate, I think things will work out. If they do not support these warlords, as he said, and the U.S. and its allies pressure the other countries not to support the Taliban, then I think maybe a civil war will not take place. It might not be as bloody as it will be if they continue supporting or if this war goes on. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, a reason often given for staying in Afghanistan — it was one that Laura Bush put forward, it was one that was picked up again, things all turned around, the kind of feminist reason, particularly put forward by the Republicans but many Democrats also support this and Democratic women — that it is about saving the women of Afghanistan. Your response? REENA: Yes, these claims were all extremely false. If they have brought to power the misogynists, the brothers and creed of Taliban into power, who are the exact copies of Taliban, mentally and have just been physically changed, then I do not think the feminist situation can improve. Today, there are slight improvements in women’s lives in urban areas, but again if you look at statistics, Afghanistan remains the most dangerous place for women. Self-immolation, suicide rates, are extremely high – it has never been this high before. Domestic violence is widespread. Women are poor. They do not have healthcare. It has the highest mortality rate in the world. There are, as I said, some improvements. And in some aspects, it might have been a little better for a handful of people, for women, but it has definitely has gotten worse for others. There is insecurity, there are threats. They always say that there are six million girls in schools and the schools have opened, but nobody looks at the dropout rates. Nobody looks at the attacks, the threats that the Taliban makes to the girls. And they do not dare go out again. Nobody looks at the quality of the schools. All these things — there have been slight changes. It has been very widely used, and to just highlight a few positive things, but overall, things have gotten worse. AMY GOODMAN: I want to play a clip from Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking earlier this week about the Haqqani network threat, blaming the ISI for orchestrating attacks on U.S. targets inside Afghanistan.

ADM. MIKE MULLEN: A second but no less worrisome challenge is the impunity with which certain extremist groups are allowed to operate from Pakistani soil. The Haqqani network, for one, acts as a veritable army of Pakistan’s internal services intelligence agency. With ISI support, Haqqani operatives planned and conducted that truck bomb attack as well as the assault on our embassy.

AMY GOODMAN: Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen. Anand Gopal, your response? ANAND GOPAL: It’s absolutely the case that Pakistan is in some way supporting the Haqqani network and the rest of the Afghan insurgency. But I think it is important to have some historical context in all of this. We once, the U.S., once supported the Haqqani network, back in the ‘80s when we were fighting against the Russians. We poured millions, in fact billions of dollars into Afghanistan to fundamentalists, to Islamic radicals and we’re getting the blowback of that now. And also that has fundamentally changed the dynamic within Pakistan, where we helped create, in a sense, the way that the ISI, the Pakistani Security Agency, acts today. They have been pretty much consistent in the last thirty years in their position. We just changed our position ten years ago. AMY GOODMAN: And the role that Pakistan — if you could talk further – plays in Afghanistan, and the fact that Pakistan has been supporting or in the past supported the very forces that they’re fighting against, that the U.S. is fighting against in Afghanistan, and helped to establish the ISI, which it now is critiquing. ANAND GOPAL: Well, there is no doubt that the insurgent leadership, the Haqqani network, the Taliban and other groups, they have a safe haven in Pakistan. There is no doubt that elements of the ISI, the security apparatus, is giving advice and support to the insurgent leadership. Pakistan is planning a double game. On the one hand, they are aligned with the U.S. and getting millions of dollars in aid for military, on the other hand, supporting insurgency. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, you are 19 years old, you are a young woman who goes back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan. How do you function? Reena is not really your name, you’re not saying where you are in Afghanistan, you’re with the organization RAWA. Explain what your group does and how you get around. REENA: RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, was established in 1977 by a martyred leader, Mina, and a group of other young women. It is an anti-fundamentalist group, women’s group, that fights for freedom, democracy, secularism and women’s rights. Because we are the only women’s group that speaks against fundamentalists — the warlords in power today — we have any security issues and we cannot be open in our activities. So we are underground and semi-underground. We function mostly in Afghanistan, but a small part of our activities are also based in Pakistan. AMY GOODMAN: Malalai Joya make a statement this week where she said, let’s see if I can find it, “we’re at a point today when Afghanistan is at its most violent since war started and the government at its weakest. Civilian casualties higher this year than any previous year, the territory Taliban controls more or less the same as last year, there’s no progress toward making a political solution.” Anand Gopal, what if the U.S. pulled out tomorrow? ANAND GOPAL: I think if the U.S. pulled out tomorrow, it would be very likely that we would see a civil war. When you talk to Afghans, and particularly in the countryside where the war is being fought, what many of them say is, we want the U.S. troops to pull out and we want there to be some sort of peace settlement from all the sides. This never really happened, even from day one in 2001. The Afghan state was not constituted on a broad-based system. It was a deal between a certain set of warlords and the U.S. You want to include civil society, groups like RAWA, other groups, and try to come together to tell Afghans to configure their state in some way, which they’ve never had a chance to do until now. So I think a peace settlement of some sort, together with the troops pulling out, would be the only way we can forestall a Civil War. AMY GOODMAN: Would you say, Reena, that each day of this war increases hostility toward the United States? REENA: Absolutely. Absolutely, it does, as it has increased from 2001 until now. Because in the start, the people were very hopeful. They had some hope that the U.S. would actually help them, that their situation would improve in the last ten years. But the U.S., unfortunately, supported the war lords, like Sayaff, Abdullah Abdullah, Ismail Khan, Khalili, and they recently killed Burhanuddin Rabbani. So all this has increased the People’s hostility, in addition in the countryside and in provinces other than Kabul and some other urban cities, the U.S. airstrikes and night raids are increasing day-by-day. This itself is drawing a lot of hostility from the people toward the U.S., and they want them to leave our country as soon as possible. AMY GOODMAN: Final comments, Anand Gopal, for people to understand and as you both lived in Afghanistan for years covering the war and you come back to the United States and see how generally it is covered as you write your book? ANAND GOPAL: It is covered very poorly. I think a lot of the discourse about the war in Afghanistan is that it is a series of mistakes. And it is a mistake. But I think at the core underneath those mistakes is a fundamental wrong policy, which was the war on terror, going into Afghanistan and thinking that the occupation of a country can solve the problem of terrorism. I think that everything that we are seeing in Afghanistan today, you can relate it back to that fundamental core issue. AMY GOODMAN: Reena, I don’t know if you heard the Nobel peace Prize was just announced. It is going to three women from the Arab world and from Africa. Two from Liberia, including the current president of Liberia, and one brave Yemeni activist, the youngest ever to receive the Nobel peace prize. Had you heard about that? Does this matter at all to in Afghanistan? REENA: Yes, I did read about this. I would like to say that the Nobel Peace Prize is, I do not think, it is a very big prize in the opinion of our people. Because every time there is usually a political motive behind giving it to somebody. And the actual real people who struggle for something or who are trying to get something are never considered for this prize. For example, last year, a warlord woman from our country, Sima Samar, was on the list of these people. She almost won the Nobel Peace Prize. That woman is in the Warlord Party. If not directly, is an agent of other countries. If you can consider giving this prize to such a woman, then it does not mean anything for our people. Anybody else can win it for political reasons or whatever is behind it. AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts in that, Anand Gopal? ANAND GOPAL: I think also more importantly, from the point of view of the Afghans, Barack Obama is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and he’s the person who increased the number of troops in Afghanistan and increased the violence in fact in Afghanistan. A lot of my Afghan friends question with the value of the Nobel Peace Prize is if it leads to more war in Afghanistan. AMY GOODMAN: Thank you both for being with us on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, now the U.S. engaged in the longest war it has ever been involved with in U.S. history. Anand Gopal, independent journalist, writing a book Afghanistan, previously with the Christian Science Monitor and then the Wall Street Journal. AMY GOODMAN: And Reena, not her real name, speaking to us from Afghanistan, her face covered. She is anonymous for her own protection. Tonight, _KPFK_’s Uprising host, Sonali Kolhatkar. KPFK is the Pacifica Station in Los Angeles—-will be leading a conversation with Reena via live video stream and taking questions from the viewing audience. You can see it at afghanwomensmission.org, we’ll put a link there on our website at democracynow.org.

UNAMA report: Mistreatment of conflict-related detainees in Afghan facilities

(For full report visit UNAMA page.)

From October 2010 to August 2011, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) interviewed 379 pre-trial detainees and convicted prisoners at 47 detention facilities in 22 provinces across Afghanistan. In total, 324 of the 379 persons interviewed were detained by National Directorate of Security (NDS) or Afghan National Police (ANP) forces for national security crimes – suspected of being Taliban fighters, suicide attack facilitators, producers of improvised explosive devices, and others implicated in crimes associated with the armed conflict in Afghanistan.

Interviews were conducted at facilities including ANP detention centres, NDS facilities, Ministry of Justice prisons and juvenile rehabilitation centres; as a result of transfers, the interviews dealt with detainees located in 24 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. With two exceptions, Government officials from the ANP, NDS, Ministry of Justice and other departments cooperated with UNAMA and provided full access to detainees and facilities.

NDS and ANP are the main Afghan security forces engaged in detaining and arresting conflict-related detainees with NDS responsible for investigation of national security crimes and interrogation of such detainees. NDS is the State’s principal internal and external intelligence-gathering organ, conducting security and law enforcement operations to gather actionable intelligence to prevent crimes against public security. As the country’s police force, ANP deals with both criminal and conflict-related offences. International military forces also play a significant role in detention of individuals for conflict-related offences.

UNAMA’s research focused on detention practices of the NDS with a secondary focus on detention by ANP. UNAMA’s interviews concentrated on the treatment of detainees by NDS and ANP officials and the Government of Afghanistan’s compliance with due process guarantees under Afghan and international human rights law. UNAMA made no assumptions or findings on the guilt or innocence of those detainees it interviewed for crimes of which they were suspected, accused or convicted.

UNAMA acknowledges the critical and extremely difficult role that NDS and ANP have in safeguarding national security in the current situation of armed conflict in Afghanistan.

Torture and Abuse of Detainees by NDS and ANP

UNAMA’s detention observation found compelling evidence that 125 detainees (46 percent) of the 273 detainees interviewed who had been in NDS detention experienced interrogation techniques at the hands of NDS officials that constituted torture, and that torture is practiced systematically in a number of NDS detention facilities throughout Afghanistan. Nearly all detainees tortured by NDS officials reported the abuse took place during interrogations and was aimed at obtaining a confession or information. In almost every case, NDS officials stopped the use of torture once detainees confessed to the crime of which they were accused or provided the requested information. UNAMA also found that children under the age of 18 years experienced torture by NDS officials.

More than one third of the 117 conflict-related detainees UNAMA interviewed who had been in ANP detention experienced treatment that amounted to torture or to other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

In situations where torture occurred, it typically took the form of abusive interrogation practices used to obtain confessions from individuals detained on suspicion of crimes against the State. The practices documented meet the international definition of torture. Torture occurs when State officials, acting in their official capacity inflict or order, consent or acquiesce to the infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering against an individual to obtain a confession or information, or to punish or discriminate against the individual. Such practices amounting to torture are among the most serious human rights violations under international law, are crimes under Afghan law and are strictly prohibited under both Afghan and international law.

Detainees described experiencing torture in the form of suspension (being hung by the wrists from chains or other devices attached to the wall, ceiling, iron bars or other fixtures for lengthy periods) and beatings, especially with rubber hoses, electric cables or wires or wooden sticks and most frequently on the soles of the feet. Electric shock, twisting and wrenching of detainees’ genitals, stress positions including forced standing, removal of toenails and threatened sexual abuse were among other forms of torture that detainees reported. Routine blindfolding and hooding and denial of access to medical care in some facilities were also reported. UNAMA documented one death in ANP and NDS custody from torture in Kandahar in April 2011.

UNAMA found compelling evidence that NDS officials at five facilities systematically tortured detainees for the purpose of obtaining confessions and information. These are the provincial NDS facilities in Herat, Kandahar, Khost and Laghman, and the national facility of the NDS Counter-Terrorism Department 124 (formerly Department 90) in Kabul. UNAMA received multiple, credible allegations of torture at two other provincial NDS facilities in Kapisa and Takhar. UNAMA did not find indications of torture at two provincial NDS facilities, Paktya and Uruzgan, at the time of its visits to these facilities.

UNAMA received numerous allegations regarding the use of torture at 15 other locations covering 17 NDS facilities. Twenty-five percent of detainees interviewed in these 17 facilities alleged they had been tortured. At the time of writing of this report, UNAMA had not established the credibility of the allegations based on the number of interviews conducted and the need to corroborate allegations satisfactorily. UNAMA continues to investigate these allegations.

Detainees in ANP custody reported that abuse occurred in a broader range of circumstances and settings. Some of this abuse constituted torture while other methods amounted to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Reports of abuse by the ANP included police officers committing torture or ill-treatment at the time of arrest, at check posts, at district headquarters, and at provincial headquarters.

The Government of Afghanistan is obliged under Afghan law and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to investigate promptly all acts of torture and other ill-treatment, prosecute those responsible, provide redress to victims and prevent further acts of torture. The Government’s obligation to respect the prohibition against torture is also non-derogable meaning that no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, can be invoked as a justification of torture. UNAMA calls on the Afghan authorities to take all possible steps to end and prevent torture, and provide accountability for all acts of torture.

Transfer of Detainees to NDS and ANP by International Military Forces

UNAMA’s detention observation included interviews with 89 detainees who reported the involvement of international military forces either alone or together with Afghan forces in their capture and transfer to NDS or ANP custody. UNAMA found compelling evidence that 19 of these 89 detainees were tortured in NDS custody and three in ANP custody.

Under the Convention against Torture States are prohibited from transferring individuals to another State’s custody where a substantial risk of torture exists. Rules of the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) also state that consistent with international law, persons should not be transferred under any circumstances where there is a risk they will be subjected to torture or other forms of ill-treatment.

The situation described in this report of transfer to a risk of torture speaks to the need for robust oversight and monitoring of all transfers of detainees to NDS and ANP custody by international military forces in Afghanistan, and suspension of transfers to facilities where credible reports of torture exist.

Canada and the United Kingdom ceased transfers of detainees to NDS facilities in Kandahar and Kabul at various times in recent years based on reports of torture and ill-treatment. These countries implemented post-transfer monitoring schemes allowing them to track the treatment of detainees their armed forces handed over to Afghan authorities. The United States Embassy recently finalised plans for a post-transfer detainee monitoring programme and a proposal is with the Government of Afghanistan for its consideration.

The Embassy advised UNAMA that it regards the programme as a positive way for the US to continue its work with the Government to ensure its detention system is safe, secure and humane.

In early July 2011, US and ISAF military forces stopped transferring detainees to NDS and ANP authorities in Dai Kundi, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul based on reports of a consistent practice of torture and mistreatment of detainees in NDS and ANP detention facilities in those areas. In early September 2011, in response to the findings in this report, ISAF stated that it stopped transferring detainees to certain NDS and ANP installations as a precautionary measure.

Torture and ill-treatment by NDS and ANP could also trigger application of the “Leahy Law” which prohibits the US from providing funding, weapons or training to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that such unit has committed gross human rights violations, unless the Secretary of State determines that the concerned government is taking effective remedial measures. In the situation of Afghanistan this would presumably require the US to resume transfer of detainees only when the Government of Afghanistan implements appropriate remedial measures that include bringing to justice NDS and ANP officials responsible for torture and ill-treatment.

Lack of Accountability of NDS and ANP officials for Torture and Abuse of Detainees

UNAMA found that accountability of NDS and ANP officials for torture and abuse is weak, not transparent and rarely enforced. Limited independent, judicial or external oversight exists of NDS and ANP as institutions and of crimes or misconduct committed by NDS and ANP officials including torture and abuse.

Most cases of crimes or abusive or unprofessional conduct by NDS officials are addressed internally. Senior NDS officials advised UNAMA that NDS investigated only two claims of torture in recent years, neither of which led to charges being pursued against the accused.

In December 2010, NDS established an internal oversight commission to examine allegations of mistreatment of detainees, due process issues and detention conditions. Following monitoring visits to several NDS facilities in January 2011, the commission was to report to the Director General of NDS. UNAMA observed the commission’s visits to several detention facilities and had concerns regarding the scope and quality of its investigations. Although a positive measure initially, the oversight body appears to have been ineffective to date in addressing torture, abuse and arbitrary detention as this report’s findings suggest.

Internal and external accountability mechanisms exist for ANP criminal conduct with most cases addressed internally through the Ministry of Interior. Alleged crimes committed by ANP officials should be referred to the Directorate of Military Affairs in the Attorney General’s Office for investigation and criminal trial by a military prosecutor. However, little information from the Ministry of Interior is available regarding any referral of such cases to the judicial system. Although private citizens can report crimes or misconduct committed by police officers through an office of the Ministry of Interior which assesses claims for investigation by one of three Ministry of Interior structures, few cases are pursued through this mechanism.

Due Process Violations and Arbitrary Detention

In almost all criminal cases in Afghanistan, including national security prosecutions, the case against the defendant is based on a confession, which the court usually finds both persuasive and conclusive of the defendant’s guilt. In most cases confessions are the sole form of evidence or corroboration submitted to courts to support prosecutions. Confessions are rarely examined at trial and rarely challenged by the judge or defence counsel as having been coerced.

Under Afghan law, where a confession is obtained illegally or forced, for example, under torture, it should be inadmissible in court. However, even in cases where defence lawyers raise the issue of forced confession through torture, courts usually dismiss the application and allow the confession to be used as evidence. This evidentiary practice clearly violates the letter and spirit of the law and is inconsistent with many expert studies that show information gained by torture is manifestly unreliable and non-probative of an individual’s guilt or innocence.

UNAMA documented other due process concerns and violations by NDS and ANP officials. These include the routine failure to meet procedural time limits demarcating the phases of the pre-trial criminal investigation and chain of custody, lack of clarity in the roles of arresting authorities and prosecutors, and lack of judicial oversight of pre-trial detention until very late in the pre-trial process. Since most conflict-related detainees do not have access to defence counsel or information about their rights, the absence of these procedural safeguards has a huge negative impact on detainees’ ability to challenge the legality of their detention, prepare a credible defence, or seek protection from torture or coercion.

Under Afghanistan’s Interim Criminal Procedure Code, custody is linked with the phase of a criminal case. Police may detain an individual for up to 72 hours after an arrest, while they conduct initial interviews, prepare charges and hand the case over to a primary prosecutor (Saranwal-e-btadaiah) who confirms the charges and basis for detention. Prosecutors then have a maximum period of 30 days from the time of arrest to investigate and file an indictment. During this process, suspects are to be transferred to a detention centre administered by the Central Prison Directorate – currently within the Ministry of Justice.

Separation of detention authority is aimed at ensuring suspects do not remain in the custody of those responsible for their interrogation for long periods, effectively serving as a safeguard against coercion and abuse. This safeguard is all the more important since the Interim Criminal Procedure Code does not provide for judicial review of the legality of detention in the early investigative stages after arrest. Rather the prosecutor effectively retains the ability to detain or release from the time in which charges are brought until the beginning of trial with minimal judicial oversight.

In practice, ANP and NDS officials routinely disregard these time limits and safeguards. UNAMA found that 93 percent of all NDS detainees interviewed were held for periods longer than the 72 hour maximum — an average of 20 days — before being charged with a crime and transferred to a Ministry of Justice detention centre. Many ANP and NDS officials attributed their inability to meet time limits to inadequate human resources, lack of logistical and technical capacity, and difficulties in travel to and from remote locations with poor infrastructure and insecurity to detention facilities.

UNAMA found that many prosecutors in national security cases delegate their investigative authority to the NDS and interview the detainee only after NDS completes its initial investigation and transfers the detainee to a Ministry of Justice prison which can take several months. In some cases, prosecutors draft the indictment solely on the basis of information gathered by NDS. This system of delegating the prosecutor’s authority along with the lack of speedy judicial review of the legality of detention means that most detainees do not see a judge or a prosecutor until they reach trial – a period of time that can extend up to three months from the time of arrest. This situation violates Afghanistan’s obligation under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to ensure all Afghans arrested or detained are brought promptly before a judge or other appropriate judicial official, and is inconsistent with provisions in the Constitution of Afghanistan that prohibit arbitrary detention.

Another weakness in procedural safeguards for detainees in NDS custody is the lack of access to counsel. Despite the right of all detainees under Afghan law to a defence lawyer at all stages of the process, only one of the 324 detainees UNAMA interviewed in ANP or NDS detention reported they had defence counsel. Almost all defence lawyers and legal aid providers informed UNAMA they had minimal access to NDS facilities as NDS officials deliberately prevented them from accessing detainees. NDS officials told UNAMA they deny detainees’ access to defence lawyers for fear they will influence detainees and hinder NDS investigations. Defence counsel reported they generally had better access to detainees held in ANP facilities but only after ANP investigating officials presented the case to the prosecutor.

Although detainees have the right under Afghan law to family visits, only 28 percent of detainees interviewed were permitted family visits during their detention in NDS facilities.

Torture and Arbitrary Detention Undermine Reconciliation and Reintegration

Torture, ill-treatment and arbitrary detention by the NDS and ANP are not only serious violations of human rights and crimes they also pose obstacles to reconciliation and reintegration processes aimed at ending the armed conflict in Afghanistan. UNAMA’s research along with the findings of other experts who have analysed the emergence and growth of the insurgency post-2001, highlights that such abuses in many cases contributed to individual victims joining or rejoining the Taliban and other anti-Government armed groups.

The findings in this report bring into focus a tension between programmes the Government of Afghanistan launched to promote reintegration and reconciliation with insurgents and abusive practices, particularly against conflict-related detainees, by ANP and NDS officials. The Government’s Peace and Reintegration Programme established incentives for insurgents to resolve grievances, reconcile with and reintegrate into their communities. At the same time, ANP and NDS abuses continue to provide individuals with an incentive to put their security in the hands of anti-Government elements and to fight actively against the Government.

The need to reduce the number of persons arbitrarily detained has been also recognised as a key confidence-building measure in efforts to promote reconciliation nationally among local communities and with anti-Government elements. The Government established several prisoner-release programmes to address the lack of confidence and mistrust in Government among local communities caused by high numbers of individuals detained arbitrarily and mistreated in detention. The High Peace Council recently began reviewing cases of conflict-related detainees held without evidence or access to courts as a means of confidence-building. Such efforts are undermined when the ANP, NDS, and the criminal justice system as a whole continue to tolerate torture and prolonged, arbitrary and abusive detention.

Torture and Abuse by State Officials Compromises National Security

It has long been the position of the United Nations that effective counter-terrorism measures require compliance with human rights and that torture and other abusive practices by State officials such as those documented in this report undermine national security. The UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy and Plan of Action affirm that human rights for all and the rule of law are essential components of counter-terrorism, recognising that effective counter-terrorism measures and protection of human rights are not conflicting goals, but complementary and mutually reinforcing. The UN Special Rapporteur on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism notes there is broad consensus that combating terrorism in compliance with human rights is not only a legal and moral obligation of States but also the most effective way to fight against terrorism.

Observations

Torture and arbitrary detention are two of the most pressing human rights issues impeding the establishment of rule of law, transition of lead security responsibilities from international military forces to Afghan National Security Forces and arguably long-term reconciliation in Afghanistan. Persistent ill-treatment of detainees and the inability of judicial authorities to respect basic due process guarantees have long been factors fostering public mistrust in the Government, dissatisfaction with Afghan security forces and the growth and viability of the insurgency. Individuals detained by the NDS or ANP suffer torture without recourse or accountability, the ability to seek redress, to challenge the basis of their detention or, ultimately, to refute the persuasive power of a coerced confession gained through torture.

Afghanistan’s Constitution, laws and international legal obligations provide an effective legal framework for prohibiting torture and ill-treatment. While some critical safeguards are not yet in place, particularly the right to challenge the basis of detention, effective implementation of existing laws could ensure the worst abuses are stopped and hold accountable perpetrators of torture and ill-treatment.

UNAMA’s detention observation shows that NDS officials are responsible for the serious human rights violations and crimes documented in specific NDS facilities. UNAMA’s findings to date are that NDS officials systematically tortured detainees in a number of detention facilities across Afghanistan. Torture does not appear to have been practiced systematically in each NDS facility UNAMA observed. In other facilities UNAMA observed, more investigation is required to determine whether torture is used systematically in the facility. UNAMA concludes on the basis of the findings of this observation programme that the use of torture is not a de facto institutional policy directed or ordered by the highest levels of NDS leadership or the Government. This together with the fact that NDS cooperated with UNAMA’s detention observation programme suggests that reform is both possible and desired by elements within the NDS. In response to the findings of this report, the leadership of NDS advised UNAMA that it plans to investigate reports of torture and address concerns through a time-limited action plan.

The comments and response of the Government of Afghanistan, the NDS and the Ministry of Interior to the findings in this report are attached as Annex II.

Use and acceptance of abusive interrogation tactics amounting to torture also reflects the need for much greater attention to reforms in the judiciary, prosecution and law enforcement sectors. Police, prosecutors and NDS intelligence officials and interrogators should be trained in national and international legal frameworks prohibiting torture and in interrogation techniques that have proved to be more reliable in gaining the long term trust and cooperation of detainees and suspected perpetrators of terrorism that strengthen national security. These techniques also provide reliable intelligence, information and testimonial evidence on which courts can base decisions and on which police, prosecutors and courts can minimise arbitrary detention and increase respect for due process guarantees the Government is obliged to provide to all detainees.

UNAMA offers the following recommendations to the Government of Afghanistan and its international partners to address and end the practice of torture and ill-treatment, and arbitrary detention in all NDS and ANP facilities.

Key Recommendations

To the National Directorate of Security (NDS)


– Take immediate steps to stop and prevent torture and ill-treatment at all NDS facilities and particularly at facilities where such practices have been used as a method of interrogation:
– Investigate all reports of torture and ill-treatment at provincial NDS facilities in Herat, Kandahar, Khost, Laghman and NDS Counter-Terrorism Department 90/124 in Kabul. Remove, prosecute, discipline and punish those officials found responsible. Permit independent oversight of these investigations and publicly report on findings and remedial actions;
– Promptly issue directives prohibiting torture and ill-treatment in all circumstances to all NDS personnel and advise them and their superiors they will be prosecuted and disciplined if found committing, ordering or condoning such practices;
– Permit full, regular and unhindered access of independent monitors to all NDS facilities including the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, UNAMA, International Committee of the Red Cross and others.
– Review the working methods of the NDS oversight/detention monitoring commission, identify why it has not uncovered torture at the facilities visited, and adopt methods that ensure future monitoring missions are effective.
–  Implement an external accountability mechanism that allows independent and transparent investigations into alleged abuses within NDS facilities.
– Ensure all NDS interrogators and their superiors receive mandatory training in lawful and effective interrogation methods, alternative investigative approaches (such as forensics), and legal obligations under Afghan and international law that prohibit torture and ill-treatment, in coordination with international partners.
– Change policies and practices on access of defence lawyers to detainees. Permit defence lawyers to visit all detention facilities and offer their services to any detainee at all stages of the process as required by Afghan law.

To the Afghan National Police
– Take immediate steps to stop and prevent torture and ill-treatment:
– Investigate all reports of torture and ill-treatment at police facilities and remove, prosecute, discipline and punish all police officers and their superiors found responsible for committing or condoning such practices;
– Permit independent oversight of these investigations and publicly report on findings and remedial actions.
– Permit full, regular and unhindered access of independent monitors to all Afghan National Police and Ministry of Interior facilities including the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, UNAMA, International Committee of the Red Cross and others.
– Issue and implement regulations instructing police that a limited number of designated officials with the Criminal Investigation Division, Counter-Terrorism Unit, and similar units conduct interrogations. Issue and train these officials on a standard operating procedure on lawful and effective interrogation and legal obligations on the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment.

To the Government of Afghanistan
• Make the legal framework and procedures regulating NDS public and transparent, and ensure legal procedures provide for the external investigation and prosecution of allegations of serious criminal conduct, including torture and ill-treatment of detainees by NDS officials, in the civilian criminal justice system.

To the Supreme Court
• Direct primary and appeal court judges to routinely investigate all allegations of torture and coerced confessions and strictly enforce prohibitions on the use of evidence obtained through torture as required under the Constitution of Afghanistan and the Interim Criminal Procedure Code.

To the Supreme Court, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior and Parliament
• Revise the Interim Criminal Procedure Code to guarantee the right of detainees to be brought promptly before a judge for an initial and periodic review of the lawfulness of pre-trial detention, and the right of detainees to challenge the legality of their detention with a speedy court decision.

To Troop Contributing Countries and Concerned States
• Suspend transfer of detainees to those NDS and ANP units and facilities where credible allegations or reports of torture and ill-treatment have been made pending a full assessment. Review monitoring practices at each NDS facility where detainees are transferred and revise as necessary to ensure no detainees are transferred to a risk of torture.
• Review policies on transferring detainees to ANP and NDS custody to ensure adequate safeguards and use participation in joint operations, funding arrangements, the transition process, intelligence liaison relationships and other means to stop the use of torture and promote reforms by NDS and ANP.
• Build the capacity of NDS and ANP facilities and personnel including through mentoring and training on the legal and human rights of detainees and detention practices in line with international human rights standards.
• Increase efforts to support training to all NDS and ANP interrogators and their supervisors in lawful and effective interrogation methods, and alternative investigative approaches (such as forensics).

Religious Liberties: An Interview with Saba Mahmood

Saba Mahmood is an anthropologist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and whose work raises challenging questions about the relationship between religion and secularism, ethics and politics, agency and freedom. Her book Politics of Piety, a study of a grassroots women’s piety movement in Cairo, questions the analytical and political claims of feminism as well as the secular liberal assumptions on the basis of which such movements are often judged. In the volume Is Critique Secular?she joins Talal Asad, Judith Butler, and Wendy Brown in rethinking the Danish cartoon controversy as a conflict between blasphemy and free speech, between secular and religious world views. Now, Mahmood is working on a comparative project about the right to religious liberty and minority-majority relations in the Middle East. We spoke over breakfast in New York City.

NS: I know you have been following the events in Egypt and have even been back a couple of times since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. How would you describe the situation?

SM: I think this is an incredibly interesting time in Egypt. The country is involved in a historic and heady process of political transformation. The stakes are very high, and it is unclear whether the kind of changes—political, social, and economic—that the January 25 Revolution envisioned will, in fact, be possible. Like any other revolution in modern history, this one faces immense challenges from both within and without.

NS: What exactly are those challenges, in your view?

SM: Well, after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, as one would expect, the movement became divided over what the collective future of the country should be. Old differences that had been set aside to topple the Mubarak regime have come to the fore again—differences of class, ideology, and religion, all of which affect the vision of what a just society should be. Second, there is the issue of transforming the political system from within to create a democratic structure—which entails, not only promulgating new electoral laws and procedures, but also forging laws that address the demands of a democratic society. Then there is the challenge of how to dismantle the much-despised state security apparatus, with its bloated and corrupt bureaucracy of surveillance and vengeance, and the Emergency Law—in place for over twenty years—that has facilitated its operations. In recent months, protestors have taken to the streets again to demand an end to the military trials that have continued since the overthrow of Mubarak. (Some report that more than 10,000 people have been tried in military courts since the revolution.) These military trials are a symbol of the old system that is still intact, and which the protestors of the January 25 Revolution had sought to dismantle. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are economic issues that are systemic, and that are not simply Egypt’s but belong to the international system of finance and capital. Egypt, like any other Third World country, is hostage right now to the global economic crisis and the immense pressure put upon those countries by international institutions (like the World Bank and IMF) and geopolitical powers (the US and Western Europe) to resist the demand for socially progressive economic reforms. The Egyptian military is part of this system and has benefitted from it immensely. I cannot see how the military, as the primary institution in charge of this “transition,” is going to set aside its economic interests to yield to the popular demand for economic justice. This is in part why Egyptians from various walks of life continue to stage sit-ins and protests across the country.

NS: How do you think these challenges might be overcome?

SM: Well, I have faith in the Egyptian people and their thirst and desire to transform the status quo. None of us expected or predicted what the Egyptians were able to achieve on February 11, 2011, with their determination and political will. The unimaginable became imaginable. The same powers are in play right now, and I suspect we all will have a lot to learn from the developments that unfold in Egypt in the coming years.

NS: Without a doubt. But let’s back up a bit now. I first read your essay on “Rehearsed Spontaneity and the Conventionality of Ritual” when I was a freshman in college, and it had a big influence on how I came to think about the practice of religion. I still look back to it. In that vein, I wonder if you, too, had an experience early on that reoriented your own thinking.

SM: One thing that had a decisive impact on me was Talal Asad’s “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam.” I was a graduate student at Stanford at the time, and I was working on issues of religion at a moment when there was little interest in the subject within the discipline of anthropology. This was pre-9/11, and people didn’t think that religion was of great importance. I was reading a lot on my own, and this essay came up in footnotes. Our library didn’t even have a copy of it, so I had to request it through interlibrary loan. I sat down, and I distinctly remember reading and then rereading it several times. I was really challenged by the questions that the article forced the reader to ask, not just of Islam but of religion in general. It’s a very well-circulated paper now, and most students of religion and Islam tend to read it, but at the time, it was a buried treasure.

NS: Tell me about what brought you to anthropology in the first place. You were an architect before that?

SM: Yes, I practiced architecture for four years. At the time I was also involved in activism against U.S. foreign policy in Central America and the Middle East. When the first Gulf War broke out, I realized that there were many pressing questions, which the war had brought to the fore, that I hadn’t really resolved for myself. These were questions that had to do with the transformed political and social landscape of the Muslim world, the ascendance of Islamic politics and the challenge this posed to those of us who grew up believing in the promise of secular nationalism to forge a different future. Following the Iranian Revolution, in 1979, Islamic movements had become the primary expression of political dissent in a variety of Muslim countries. In order to think about the transformations this ascendance had caused in the social and political landscape of Muslim societies, I resolved that I would go back to graduate school. At the time, I did not really know much about anthropology; so I enrolled in a political science graduate program, which I found to be very Eurocentric. I realized that this discipline would not help me explore the kinds of questions that I was interested in. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to anthropology at the time, and it has been my disciplinary home since.

NS: Have you found anthropology to be a discipline in which questions that concerned you as an activist can be addressed?

SM: My activism would probably have been accommodated in any discipline. But what anthropology has allowed me to do in a serious way is pursue the question of difference. The traditional aim of socio-cultural anthropology was to study the primitive other in order to reflect upon the peculiarity—and often superiority—of Western cultural and social norms. In the late 1980s, anthropologists and others launched a robust critique of the essentialized and ahistorical notion of cultural difference that had served the discipline for so long. One important result of this critique was that the discipline moved to think critically about the question of difference—not just cultural difference but how different histories, traditions, and arrangements of power force people to live and experience life in heterogeneous ways. In general I find anthropology’s commitment to thinking critically about difference unique in the human sciences and worthy of engagement and exploration. So, in answer to your question, it is not so much that anthropology is especially open to activism, but rather its insistence that we engage with difference, while being attentive to relations of power that hierarchicalize and essentialize differences, that has enabled me to work productively in the discipline.

NS: On your website, you also say that your experience in architecture influenced your work as an anthropologist. Can you say something about how?

SM: That’s probably overstated! But when I was practicing architecture, I realized I wasn’t very happy with the elitist and technological bent of the profession. I started working instead with the homeless, designing, financing, and constructing housing for people who couldn’t afford to pay rent or mortgage. The work I did was mostly in dense, urban communities, both in the U.S. and, briefly, in Pakistan. This experience left me with an appreciation for the grit of urban life, the challenges it throws up to people, and how they manage them. In a sense, this is what Politics of Piety is about, too—people trying to make sense of a world that has completely undone the possibility of a wholesome life, but in which people still try to recreate that possibility through suturing various kinds of disparate practices and habits.

NS: Why did you choose Cairo as the site of your fieldwork?

SM: At first I went to Algiers, but it was in the throes of a civil war, which made fieldwork impossible. I also went to Fes and Casablanca but found that political debate was very guarded and muffled, making it difficult to pursue the kinds of questions I was interested in. In Cairo, however, I found a place that was very vibrant and alive with debates about the importance of secularism, Islamism, and what it means to live as a Muslim in the contemporary world. The city streets pulsated with these debates, and Egyptians generally did not feel restrained in expressing their religious and political views. I found the public culture of the city very conducive to the project I wanted to pursue, and so I stayed.

NS: What brought you to the theoretical tools that would help you interpret that experience in Politics of Piety?

SM: By the time I went to do fieldwork in Cairo, I was already very critical of how the existing literature analyzed Islamist movements, largely in functionalist and reductive terms. It seemed to subscribe to a hydraulic conception of politics: you squish something down in one place and it bubbles up in another. Islamic politics, in other words, was a displacement of something more fundamental—economic frustration, lack of democracy, and so on. But I was far less prepared to think about the range of embodied religious practices I encountered and how these inform or undergird politics. It was really a challenge for me to think about people’s preoccupation with the minutiae of bodily practices and not to read them as misguided or misplaced religiosity. Like countless other scholars, I initially tended to view them as inconsequential both to politics and to the substance of religion. It was really only after doing the fieldwork, when I came back and started writing, that I began to think more deeply about these issues and my own inadequate response to what I had observed in the field. This process of reflection and writing brought me to rethink the distinction drawn between ethics and politics in liberal political theory, as well as the centrality of affect and embodied praxis to political imaginaries and projects.

NS: In the preface to Politics of Piety, you speak very eloquently about the relationship between that project and your experience of coming of age in Pakistan. Does Pakistan continue to inform the questions that you pose and the ways in which you think about them? The country has certainly come to play a different role on the world stage in recent years. . . .

SM: The developments in Pakistan have been quite tragic. The Pakistani military has mortgaged the future of the country to fight a series of proxy wars for the U.S.—wars that have methodically destroyed its infrastructure, not to mention social and political life in the country. Politics of Piety is an analysis of a different kind of Islamic movement, in Egypt, that is transformative of social and political life but not destructive of its very possibility. In Pakistan, Islamist movements have largely played a very destructive role, especially with the ascendance of jihadi movements that have made a Faustian bargain with the Pakistani military, on the one hand, and U.S. strategic interests, on the other. It’s quite different in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood—the largest Islamist political organization in the country—has eschewed militancy at least since the 1950s, and the network of da’wa groups that I analyze in my book are reformist in nature, focused largely on proselytization and social welfare activities. The career of Islamic militants in Egypt was short-lived, and they do not command the kind of power that they do in Pakistan. As a result, the social and political profile of Islamism in Egypt is radically different from its counterpart in Pakistan. In my current project, I have begun to take up the question of how geopolitics transforms the ways religious coexistence is managed, produced, and transformed. But, while geopolitics has certainly transformed Pakistani life, in my current work I’m not thinking about it particularly in the Pakistani context.

NS: Can you tell me more about the project you’re involved in now?

SM: Well, I am engaged in a couple of related projects. My personal project focuses on how Christian-Muslim relations have been historically transformed through the introduction of the concepts of minority rights and religious liberty in the Middle East, with a particular focus on Egypt. Aside from this, I am also working on a three-year collective project with three other colleagues (Elizabeth Hurd, Peter Danchin, and Winnifred Sullivan), funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. It focuses on how religious freedom is being transformed through legal and political contestations in a variety of countries in Europe, the United States, the Middle East, and South Asia. It’s called “Politics of Religious Freedom: Contested Norms and Local Practices.” Most of the scholarly work to date tends to treat religious freedom as a singular and stable principle, enshrined in international and national legal documents. Others tend to focus on how different religious traditions are either amenable or resistant to the incorporation of liberal conceptions of religious liberty. Our project is distinct in that it asks whether religious liberty can indeed be treated as a singular or stable principle aimed at achieving shared goals and objectives, given the diversity of historical and political contexts. We will track the variety of claims made in the name of religious liberty, with the aim of mapping out modular disagreements that occur in a variety of national and international political contexts. We are interested in this because we believe that, in order to reach any sort of agreement in the human rights community, it is important first to understand what is really at stake in battles over religious freedom. It is also important to ask whether religious freedom, given its manifold deployments and limitations, is the best way to achieve co-existence for the variety of actors involved.

NS: A thread that seems to connect the earlier work with what you’ve been doing more recently is the issue of freedom—from freedom as personal autonomy, in Politics of Piety, to religious freedom in international law, now. Has the one informed how you think about the other?

SM: That is an interesting question. I agree that liberty and freedom are at the center of both of my projects. The right to religious liberty is often conceived in individualist terms—whether in the First Amendment, the European Convention on Human Rights, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the right to religious liberty has also been imagined in collective terms as the right of a group to practice its traditions freely, without undue intervention or control. This latter conception has been very important to religious minorities in claiming a place of autonomy and freedom from majoritarian norms and state interventions. In my current work, I am trying to think through how these alternative conceptions of religious liberty stand in tension with each other and the sorts of impasses it produces.

NS: What kinds of methods are you using? Are you doing fieldwork again?

SM: Fieldwork is an important part, but the project has historical, geopolitical, and legal dimensions as well, since I’m interested in tracking how notions of religious liberty travel across time and history, and also across the divide between Western and non-Western. So, I’m looking at the UN charter, the UDHR, international laws and treaties, as well as particular legal precedents in Europe that have traveled to the Middle East and have gained particular traction there.

NS: Tell me more about what the fieldwork is like. After all, I imagine that the usual way of studying international law is primarily textual. How does fieldwork inform these kinds of questions?

SM: I’m interested in the social life of the law, especially since many court cases about the right to religious freedom in the Middle East are fought, not just in courts, but through public campaigns launched on the cultural-political terrain. People’s sense of what constitutes religious liberty is shaped by how human, civil, and minority rights organizations end up contesting and arguing over it. Part of my fieldwork in Egypt entailed working with human rights practitioners, particularly those who are using international human rights protocols in their legal strategies and public campaigns.

NS: Can you say a bit, in turn, about how Is Critique Secular? came about and the kinds of problems that framed it?

SM: It emerged out of an event organized at UC Berkeley to announce the establishment of a new teaching and research unit on critical theory. This inaugural symposium generated a lot of interesting debate and discussion—not only on the Berkeley campus but here on the Immanent Frame as well. The Townsend Center for the Humanities, where the event was held, approached me and other participants about putting some of the papers together in book form. As we could not pull together all the papers from the symposium, we focused on the ones about the Danish cartoon controversy. Wendy Brown, Talal Asad, Judith Butler, and I decided that we would try to organize the book around this question while also retaining some of the original impetus for the symposium.

NS: More recently, the cartoon controversy seems to have repeated itself all over again with the Park51 complex in Lower Manhattan, or the so-called “Ground Zero mosque.” And long before that, there was the fatwa against Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses.

SM: Well, I think there are substantial differences among the issues involved in each of these controversies. I think the latter is quite straightforwardly about the right of a much-maligned minority to build a place of worship near a site invested with patriotic-national fervor, while the former controversies centered upon Muslim objections to how the prophet Muhammad was portrayed.

NS: What is wrapped up for people in these portrayals of the prophet?

SM: It’s not an accident that with both the Satantic Verses and the Danish cartoon controversies, what was at stake was the particular kind of affective and religious connection pious Muslims (but certainly not all Muslims) feel to the figure of Muhammad—to his iconicity and his exemplariness. This relationhip forces us to think about religiosity in more complicated ways than as privatized belief, or as a system of rules, regulations, and taboos. Both Muslims and non-Muslims must think critically about whether the sense of injury that derives from this sort of religiosity is translatable into a language of rights, and whether understanding this sense of injury is something worthy for the ethical and political life of a religiously diverse society. I think that there is an increasing tendency within the U.S. and Europe—on the part of the majority and minorities alike—to resort to the law and the state to settle ethical and moral issues. At the time of the Danish cartoon controversy, both sides wanted to defer to the law to settle their claims. But I think that such a turn to the law, or legislation, freezes positions and allows the state to intervene in domains toward which it claims to be neutral. My contribution to Is Critique Secular? lays these issues out in more detail than I can do justice to here. In sum, what I am suggesting is that struggles over religious difference cannot simply be settled by the heavy hand of the law. Insomuch as these struggles entail competing religious sensibilities as well as deep prejudices and intolerances, they must be engaged on other—cultural, ethical, visceral—grounds. This may not yield immediate or definitive results, but it is a necessary and important step in the creation of a multi-religious polity.

NS: So how do you think this plays out in the case of Park51?

SM: There, of course, even though the personage of Muhammad was not involved, the language of injury and offense dominated the debate. If you recall, in the Danish cartoon controversy, the claim was that the right to freedom of expression is also a right to offend anybody and anyone—and that this is a characteristic of an open, pluralistic, and democratic society. Some even argued that the cartoons served as an instrument to create offense, so as to engender a critical dialogue among Muslims about Islam. In contrast, in the Park51 controversy, it was argued that the complex should not be built because, even though Muslims have a right to do so by virtue of the First Amendment, building one so close to the World Trade Center would offend American sensibilities. The claim to offense and injury in each instance was being marshaled for very different purposes.

NS: And the players’ roles have been reversed, haven’t they?

SM: Right. I do think, however, that what is at stake in all these debates is the status of a religious minority within self-avowedly liberal societies, which claim to have in place the most robust mechanisms possible for accommodating the concerns of majority and minority alike. And yet, what we find is that the rights of minorities are actually framed by the norms of the larger community; it’s against those norms that minoritarian claims are judged and contested, and that is where the idea of religious liberty and freedom of expression as an individual right remains inadequate to grasping the situation. We have to start thinking in terms of how groups are weighted both demographically and politically, and how this conditions the context in which certain claims are made or heard. It’s not enough to refer to a right that exists in constitutions—such as the right to free speech or to religious liberty—and to track when it is applied or not. Far tougher questions are at play. One has to think about how the ethical, cultural, and social norms of the majority structure the possibility of the exercise of individual and group liberties differently for minorities. I should make clear that this structural problem characterizes all nation-states (premised as they are on the demographic calculus of minority and majority populations), and is not simply particular to Euro-American societies.

NS: When you approach these issues today, are you still coming to them as an activist as well as a scholar?

SM: No, I would say that I come to them more as a scholar than as an activist. My intellectual work has often led me to challenge and complicate my political stances—to complicate the very ground on which politics can be imagined and conducted. Politics, in my opinion, demands a certain closure of thinking, in order to judge and to act. Intellectual work requires a different kind of labor. In one sense, of course, all arguments are political when you’re thinking about such controversies, but I don’t start with a political position and then see how the argument unfolds. For example, during the Danish cartoon controversy, I was puzzled by the fact that the kind of injury expressed by ordinary pious Muslims did not find any voice in the polemical debates in either the Islamic or the European press. I tried to make sense of this silence, and it led me to suggest that the kind of religiosity expressed by most Muslims in response to the Danish cartoons was incommensurable with the language of rights, litigation, and boycotts that came to dominate the debate. And it was precisely because this religiosity could not be contained within the language of identity politics that it found no expression in the public debate. Needless to say, this argument did not win me friends in either one of the two camps.

NS: Is there something in particular that you think the West needs to know about the Muslim world, or about Islam, or about Muslim minorities? Is there some message that, above all, you think needs to be definitively stated—or is the questioning enough?

SM: I don’t think questioning is enough. But I do think that there is a desperate need to challenge the current way of framing things, as a civilizational stand-off between Islam and the West. This way of thinking is not only dangerous but also unsustainable in the long run. Those of us interested in stepping out of this overheated polemic have a responsibility to make people realize why this framing is inadequate and problematic, even dangerous. Despite important differences among political ideologies and religious traditions, I believe that we have the historical language and analytical skills to think differently, to imagine a future in which Islam and the West are not locked in some zero-sum game. To take a simple example, when I speak of the kind of relationship that many pious Muslims feel toward Muhammad, which was partly at stake in the Danish cartoon controversy, surely it is recognizable to scholars of Christianity (with its long and rich tradition of the Eucharist and Corpus Christi), Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and late Antiquity? Surely we can think together about different conceptions of religiosity and what space they have in, and what effects they may have on, our political present without descending into the abyss of civilizational incomprehension and incommensurability?

NS: What about the concerns of Western feminists in particular? There sometimes seems to be especially little hope for common ground on women’s issues.

SM: Once again, feminism has a rich and varied tradition of thought and praxis. The current tilt toward painting an essentialized picture of feminism and Islam—as quintessential opposites—is inadequate to the complexity of both traditions. There are no doubt historical reasons for the great suspicion with which some Islamic symbols are treated in Euro-American societies, but I would hope that thoughtful people would be able to think through this history critically. Take the example of the current obsession with the veil in Europe: colonial discourse had long cast the veil as the essential symbol of the civilizational inferiority of the East, and of Islam in particular. It is not a surprise, therefore, that anti-colonial movements took up this symbol precisely to reverse the colonial judgment while embracing the practice—in the process, reifying the importance of the veil to Muslim identity. The current discourse is, in a sense, a re-enactment of this history. What is new, however, is the way in which the European and Turkish bans on the veil have been held up in the name of secularism, wherein secularism is equated with the principle of gender equality. For example, the judgments of the European Court of Human Rights that uphold the headscarf ban in Turkey and France rest on two interrelated claims: one, that the veil is a symbol of women’s oppression; and two, that insomuch as secularism is for gender equality France and Turkey, as secular states, cannot condone this practice. But, historically, secularism has hardly been on the side of women’s rights—otherwise French women would have been granted the vote long before 1945, and the separation of church and state would have yielded gender equality in the nineteenth century, when European states adopted this principle. Secularism and women’s rights have always had a troubled relationship, which is important to think about from within the history of feminism. This does not mean, of course, that one has to denounce secularism and embrace religion or vice versa. One has to be able to see the mutual imbrication of religion and secularism to even diagnose the problem correctly. Otherwise, I think we run the risk of dulling the critical edge of feminist thought.

NS: I found your essay about the mobilization of feminists behind the invasion of Afghanistan very powerful. I remember being so struck at that time by how American women were identifying with women in Afghanistan under the Taliban, which made some eager to support our military adventures over there. But is there a better way to ally ourselves with women in the Muslim world?

SM: The entire social fabric of Afghani society has been torn apart as a result of, first the war between the United States and the Soviet Union, between 1979 and 1989, and then the U.S. war against the Taliban and now al-Qaeda. There are civilian casualties reported almost every day—the vast majority of whom are women, children, and the elderly—as a result of U.S. bombs and drones. This violence exceeds and parallels the violence unleashed by the Taliban on the Afghanis. We read about these casualties in the media, but I do not see any mobilization by major U.S. feminist organizations to demand an end to this calamity. This silence stands in sharp contrast to the vast public campaign organized by the Feminist Majority in the late 1990s to oust the Taliban. I am often asked by American feminists what they can do to help Afghan women. My simple and short answer is: first, convince your government to stop bombing them, and second urge the US government to help create the conditions for a political—and not a military—solution to the impasse in Afghanistan. It is the condition of destitution and constant war that has driven Pakistanis and Afghans to join the Taliban (coupled with the opportunistic machinations of their own governments). Perhaps it is time to asses whether diverting the U.S. military aid toward more constructive and systemic projects of economic and political reform might yield different results.

Talk of Women’s Rights Divides Saudi Arabia

by: Katherine Zoeff

JIDDA — Roughly two years ago, Rowdha Yousef began to notice a disturbing trend: Saudi women like herself were beginning to organize campaigns for greater personal freedoms. Suddenly, there were women asking for the right to drive, to choose whether to wear a veil, and to take a job without a male relative’s permission, all using the Internet to collect signatures and organize meetings and all becoming, she felt, more voluble by the month.

The final straw came last summer, when she read reports that a female activist in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, Wajeha al-Huwaider, had been to the border with Bahrain, demanding to cross using only her passport, without a male chaperon or a male guardian’s written permission.

Ms. Huwaider was not allowed to leave the country unaccompanied and, like other Saudi women campaigning for new rights, has failed — so far — to change any existing laws or customs.

But Ms. Yousef is still outraged, and since August has taken on activists at their own game. With 15 other women, she started a campaign, “My Guardian Knows What’s Best for Me.” Within two months, they had collected more than 5,400 signatures on a petition “rejecting the ignorant requests of those inciting liberty” and demanding “punishments for those who call for equality between men and women, mingling between men and women in mixed environments, and other unacceptable behaviors.”

Ms. Yousef’s fight against the would-be liberalizers symbolizes a larger tussle in Saudi society over women’s rights that has suddenly made the female factor a major issue for reformers and conservatives striving to shape Saudi Arabia’s future.

Public separation of the sexes is a strongly distinctive feature of Saudi Arabia, making it perhaps a logical area for fierce debate. Since women have such a limited role in Saudi public life, however, it is somewhat surprising that it is their rights that have become a matter of open contention in a society that keeps most debate hidden.

Surprising, too, are the complexities turned up by the debate, which go far beyond what some Saudis see as the simplistic Western argument that women are simply entitled to more rights.

Take Ms. Yousef. She is a 39-year-old divorced mother of three (aged 13, 12 and 9) who volunteers as a mediator in domestic abuse cases. A tall, confident woman with a warm, effusive manner and sparkling stiletto-heeled sandals, her conversation, over Starbucks lattes, ranges from racism in the kingdom (Ms. Yousef has Somali heritage and calls herself a black Saudi) to her admiration for Hillary Rodham Clinton to the abuse she says she has suffered at the hands of Saudi liberals.

She believes firmly that most Saudis share her conservative values but insists that adherence to Shariah law and family custom need not restrict a woman seeking a say. Female campaigners in the reform camp, she says, are influenced by Westerners who do not understand the needs and beliefs of Saudi women.

“These human rights groups come, and they only listen to one side, those who are demanding liberty for women,” she said.

Every Saudi woman, regardless of age or status, must have a male relative who acts as her guardian and has responsibility for and authority over her in a host of legal and personal matters.

Ms. Yousef, whose guardian is her elder brother, said that she enjoyed a great deal of freedom while respecting the rules of her society. Guardian rules are such that she could start her campaign, for instance, without seeking her guardian’s permission.

She did not wish to speak in detail about her divorce but noted that, unusually, she had retained custody of her children through their 18th birthdays. She said she had founded her guardianship campaign unassisted, without any special connections, enlisting women in her circle of contacts as fellow founding members.

Activists like Ms. Huwaider, Ms. Yousef believes, are susceptible to foreign influences because of personal problems with men. “If she is suffering because of her guardian, she can go to a Shariah court that could remove the responsibility for her from that man and transfer it to someone who is more trustworthy.”

To an outsider, Ms. Yousef’s effort — petitioning King Abdullah to disregard calls for gender equality — might seem superfluous. After all, Saudi women still may not drive or vote and are obliged by custom to wear the floor-length cloaks known as abayas, and headscarves, outside their own homes.

Women may not appear in court, and though they may be divorced via brief verbal declarations from their husbands, they frequently find it very difficult to obtain divorce themselves. Fathers may marry off 10-year-old daughters, a practice defended by the highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh.

The separation of genders in Saudi public life is difficult to overstate — there are women-only stores, women-only lines in fast food restaurants, and women-only offices in private companies. Members of the hai’a, the governmental Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, patrol to ensure that ikhtilat, or “mixing” of the sexes, does not occur.

There are a few places where men and women do work together — medical colleges, some hospitals, a handful of banks and private companies. But the percentage of Saudis in such environments is minuscule.

Jidda and Riyadh host stand-up comedy shows where young people do mix — albeit summoned with only hours’ notice via cellphone in an attempt to dodge policing. At the popular Janadriyah cultural festival in Riyadh, families were allowed to visit together for the first time last year, instead of on separate men’s and women’s days.

Where conservatives like Ms. Yousef attribute the recent volubility of rights campaigners to Western meddling, liberals say that Saudi society itself is changing, and that increasing freedoms for Saudi women appear to be cautiously supported by King Abdullah himself.

Both sides of the debate tend to claim the king’s backing. Recent history suggests that the sympathies of the 85-year-old monarch — whose feelings are never explicitly outlined in public — lie with the reformers. If so, he seems out in front of most of his youthful subjects (an estimated two-thirds of the 29 million Saudis are under 25).

The king has appeared in newspaper photographs alongside Saudi women with uncovered faces, a situation that was unimaginable until very recently. Last year, he appointed a woman to deputy minister rank, a first for Saudi Arabia. Schools and colleges remain rigidly segregated by gender, but the opening last September of a coeducational post-graduate research university, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, was hotly debated, even if only about 15 percent of the nearly 400 students at Kaust, as it is known, are Saudi.

A senior cleric was fired last October after criticizing gender mixing at Kaust on a television call-in show. Two months later, Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamdi, the head of Mecca’s branch of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, caused a sensation when he told The Okaz, a newspaper, that gender mixing was “part of normal life.” In February, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, another prominent cleric, issued a fatwa that proponents of gender mixing should be killed.

Whether it is the king’s support, or simply the ever greater availability of digital social networks, campaigning is mushrooming on both sides of the women’s rights divide, although Ms. Yousef’s is so far thought to be the only conservative effort led by a woman.

Hatoon al-Fassi, an assistant professor of women’s history at King Saud University in Riyadh, called 2009 “the year of the campaigns” for women in Saudi Arabia. Female Saudi activists embraced causes as diverse as an effort to ban child marriage and the right to set up businesses without male sponsors.

Reem Asaad lectures in the finance department at Dar al-Hekma College in Jidda. She organized a nationwide boycott of lingerie shops that employ only men, choosing lingerie because even Saudi conservatives can agree that it may be humiliating for a woman to buy underwear from a male clerk.

Her ultimate aim is to broaden women’s job opportunities. Outside her university office, where her all-female students wait for meetings with their teacher, hangs a photocopy of the country page for Saudi Arabia from the Global Gender Gap Report for 2009 by the World Economic Forum. In “economic participation and opportunity” for women, the kingdom ranks 133 out of 134 listed countries, above only Yemen. “Many Saudis would rather see a woman in poverty than have her work,” Ms. Asaad said. “This is about opening doors for women in different sectors of the economy.”

Ms. Huwaider, who so incensed Ms. Yousef with her attempts to cross into Bahrain, is a veteran campaigner, famously seen driving illegally in a YouTube clip in 2008. Now she distributes small lengths of black elastic to Saudi women, asking them to wear the ribbons until Saudi laws treat them as adults.

Soon, she said in an interview, she plans a campaign for the Saudi government to put in place a law requiring men who wish to take a second wife to obtain permission from the first wife. Morocco has such a law, which Ms. Huwaider believes could serve as a useful model.

Ms. Huwaider emphatically rejects Ms. Yousef’s characterization that she attacks the guardianship system because of personal problems. Her male guardian, she said, is her ex-husband, and they have excellent relations.

She did agree, notionally, with Ms. Yousef’s claim that many if not most Saudi men try to be fair and caring guardians. “Saudi men pride themselves on their chivalry,” Ms. Huwaider said, “but it’s the same kind of feeling they have for handicapped people or for animals. The kindness comes from pity, from lack of respect.”

Ms. Huwaider lives at what she said was considerable expense — the equivalent of $16,000 a year — in the guarded compound of the Saudi Aramco oil company. She is an employee of Aramco, working in a department that runs further education and employee development, and took the rare step, for a Saudi, of moving into the compound in 2007, after her campaign for the right to drive provoked several death threats. Sometimes, she conceded, it is frightening. But she has grown so accustomed to it that “sometimes I think to myself, ‘Oh, I didn’t get any threats today.”’

Over tea and curried snack mix at her home in Riyadh, Ms. Fassi pronounced herself “very optimistic” about the women’s campaigns for more freedom. They break the censure on expression, and the list of topics that Saudi writers may address without being censored has also expanded very rapidly, Ms. Fassi said.

“The media is not that free, still, but it is much better than it was a few years ago. Nowadays we talk openly about minors’ marriages, about rape and incest, about cases brought against the religious police.”

And, of course, the activism produces backlash. “This campaign of Rowdha Yousef’s is a reaction,” she said — unaware that Ms. Yousef, when contacted by this reporter, expressed surprise that a journalist had come from New York to meet her. Ms. Yousef said more than 30 articles discussing her campaign had appeared in the Saudi press, but no Saudi reporter was willing to meet her, and coverage was mainly what she called mocking opinion columns.

Ahmad al-Omran, a pharmacist who blogs under the name Saudi Jeans, points out that, in the absence of opinion polling or free elections, it is hard to measure the popularity or representative nature of women’s campaigns. None have produced even an official response from the Saudi leadership.

“What do they achieve?” Mr. Omran asked. “Changing laws comes from higher up, not lower down.”

Even the most optimistic say that change will be slow. Ms. Fassi explained that even the hint of breaking the taboo on gender mixing had been traumatic for many Saudis. “People had lived their whole lives doing one thing and believing one thing, and suddenly the king and the major clerics were saying that mixing was O.K.,” Ms. Fassi said.

The extent of this trauma may be difficult for outsiders to understand, Ms. Fassi said. “You can’t begin to imagine the impact that the ban on mixing has on our lives and what lifting this ban would mean.”

Noura Abdulrahman, an Education Ministry employee who recently founded an after-school Islamic studies program aimed at teenage girls in Riyadh, said she tries to be generous toward the “liberaliyeen” — Saudi conservatives give the English word an Arabic plural and frequently employ it as a term of disparagement.

“The liberals’ motives might be good — they might want to make Saudi Arabia competitive with Western societies — but they’re failing to understand the uniqueness of Saudi society,” Ms. Abdulrahman said. “In Saudi culture, women have their integrity and a special life that is separate from men. As a Saudi woman, I demand to have a guardian. My work requires me to go to different regions of Saudi Arabia, and during my business trips I always bring my husband or my brother. They ask nothing in return — they only want to be with me.”

While Ms. Abdulrahman was discussing guardianship with a visitor, a neighbor, Umm Muhammad, dropped in for a morning tea. She proudly volunteered that her own guardian, her husband, was out of town but they were in constant touch by phone. In fact, she had just called him for permission to visit Ms. Abdulrahman.

“The image in the West is that we are dominated by men, but they always forget the aspect of love,” she said. “People who aren’t familiar with Shariah often have the wrong idea. If you want stability and safety in your life, if you want a husband who takes care of you, you won’t find it except in Islam.”

Eman Fahad is a 31-year-old linguistics graduate student and mother of three. In her blog, she called Ms. Yousef’s campaign an effort to “stand against women who are demanding to be treated as adults.”

Even if most Saudi men are caring guardians, Ms. Fahad said, until women have full adult rights under the law, there will be abuses. She said she resented conservatives’ portrayal of Saudi women’s rights activists as spoiled and frivolous. She spoke of women she had met who had been forced to quit work they loved because their guardianship had been transferred to a new, less understanding man, and of women with no legal recourse when estranged husbands snatched their children away.

“These are the women they are fighting for,” Ms. Fahad said of the campaigners. “They’re not campaigning because they really want to be allowed to go crazy in some nightclub.”

Yet Ms. Fahad conceded that most Saudi women cleave to tradition. “If you actually talk to ordinary people,” including in her circle, she said, “you’ll find that most people want things to stay the same.”

Haitham al-Maleh: A Lifetime of Resistance in Syria

(Originally published at Egypt Reports.net)

Renowned Syrian human rights lawyer Haitham al-Maleh recently visited Cairo as part of a tour of the Middle East and Europe to meet with human rights groups and NGOs and to call on governments to condemn the Assad regime. Maleh, 81, has spent most of his life fighting against government oppression in Syria. I sat down with him and his son, Iyas, in the lobby of their hotel in Dokki for a lengthy conversation about the current Syria and Maleh’s fascinating life story.

In December 2003, Maleh delivered a speech before the German parliament on the human rights situation in Syria. In it, he called the Assad regime “a fascist dictatorship.” When he returned home, the authorities imposed a travel ban on him and he was prevented from leaving the county for the next seven years. During this period, he was subjected to repeated government intimidation and harassment. His law office was attacked three times and his windows smashed by regime forces. The street leading to his office would periodically be closed by dozens of high-ranking police and members of the intelligence services. His clients would be harassed and told to find another attorney. “I was under a lot of pressure,” Maleh says. “It was a kind of terror against me, against my customers.

Undaunted, Maleh continued to publicly criticize the Syrian government, denouncing the continued state of emergency and the lack of judicial independence. On October 14, 2009, he was arrested and brought before a military court. In July 2010, at the age of 79, he was sentenced to three years in prison for “undermining national sentiment” and “spreading false news that could weaken national morale.” Amnesty International called him “a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his rights to freedom of expression and association.”

Maleh was suffering diabetes and thyroid problems, and his health deteriorated in prison to the point where he spent a month and a half without being able to walk. On March 8, 2011, he was released, after Assad—in the midst of a wave of uprisings across the Arab world—declared an amnesty for prisoners over 70 years old and those convicted of minor crimes.

Within thirty minutes of returning home, Maleh began to publicly criticize the regime, calling in interviews with global media for reforms and for the release of all political prisoners. One week later, on March 15, the Syrian uprising began.

Shot of Art: Ed Ou’s ‘Revolution’, Dispatches from Egyptian Revolution

Statement

In January of 2011, Egyptians from all corners of the country erupted in mass protests, challenging the heavy handed rule of President Hosni Mubarak. The entire world watched, as Egyptians fought to have their grievances heard using sticks, stones, shouts, cell phones, and computers. Over the course of eighteen days, protesters occupied Tahrir square, the symbolic heart of the revolution, where Egyptians of all ages and parts of society could speak with one unified voice, demanding the ouster of the president. They debated politics, shared their testimonies, supported each other, and mapped out their hopes and dreams for their country. On February 11, President Mubarak resigned, ending thirty years of autocratic rule. As the euphoria and excitement dies down, Egyptians are beginning to question what they have actually achieved. They are asking themselves what they want to make of their new Egypt, and how to reconcile with decades of mistrust of authority, corruption, and an economy in shambles. The difficult part arguably, is still to come.

 

About the Artist

Ed Ou (24) is a culturally ambiguous Canadian photojournalist who has been bouncing around the Middle East, former Soviet Union, Africa, and the Americas.
His photography has (so far) taken him from dark eerie crypts in Madagascar, to radioactive lakes in Kazakhstan, refugee boats in the Gulf of Aden, to animatronic love doll factories in Tokyo.
Ed started his career early as a teenager, covering the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and the fall of the Islamic Courts in Mogadishu, Somalia while he was studying in the Middle East. He first worked for Reuters and the Associated Press, covering a wide range of news stories in the area. He was also an intern at the New York Times. After university, Ed moved to Kazakhstan, where he documented the tragic consequences of Soviet nuclear weapons testing in Semipalatinsk. Recently, he has been covering the wave of uprisings that has rocked the Arab World.
Ed is the recipient of a Global Vision Award from POYi, a 1st Place Contemporary Issues award from World Press Photo, and other recognition from the Overseas Press Club, Ian Parry Scholarship, Best of Photojournalism, PDN Photo Annual, UNICEF, among others. He has been selected for a Getty Images Editorial Grant, PDN 30 Under 30, and took part in the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass. He was recently awarded the City of Perpignan Young Reporter Award.
He is represented by Reportage by Getty Images.

(For more information on Ed Ou’s on the exhibit at O’Born in Toronto please visit the website)

 

Tawakkul Karmant, First Female Arab Nobel Peace Laureate: A Nod for Arab Spring

(originally appeared at Democracy Now!)

In an interview, Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman said her Nobel Peace prize is a victory for Yemen and for all of the uprisings of the Arab Spring. Karman is a 32-year-old journalist and the head of the Yemeni non-profit group, Women Journalists Without Chains. She was detained for a time during the political unrest earlier this year. She is the first Arab female to win the Nobel Peace Prize and is believed to the youngest winner of the peace prize to date, slightly edging out the Irish activist Mairead Corrigan who won in 1976. We get reaction from British journalist Iona Craig, who has been closely following the uprising in Yemen. “This Nobel Peace Prize will actually in some ways go towards protecting her. Now she will become an even greater international figure and certainly if the regime sought to detain her again, I think they would create a huge problem for themselves,” Craig says.

[http://www.democracynow.org/2011/10/7/yemeni_activist_tawakkul_karman_first_female]

AMY GOODMAN: This is a clip of her speaking just after her release from prison in January.

TAWAKKUL KARMAN: We will continue our struggle until this regime goes from our happy country. We will defend our country. The Jasmine Revolution continues until this regime goes.

AMY GOODMAN: Tawakkul Karman is the first Arab woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and is believed to be the youngest winner of the peace prize to date, slightly edging out the Irish activist Mairead Corrigan who won in 1976. Both were 32. For Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the award comes as she wraps up her re-election campaign. Voters in Liberia head to the polls Tuesday. Leymah Gbowee’s Women for Peace movement is credited by some for bringing an end to the civil war in 2003. The movement started humbly in 2002 when Gbowee organized a group of women to sing and pray for an end to fighting in a fish market. She is a subject of an award winning documentary film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. The trio of laureates follow only a dozen other women among 85 men, as well as a number of organizations, to have won the peace prize over its 110-year history. To talk more about this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, we’re joined by two guests. In a moment we’ll be going to Emira Woods, Co-Director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She is a originally from Liberia. And with us from Britain is the British journalist, Iona Craig has been closely following the uprising in Yemen. Let us start with the Yemeni winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Tawakkul Karman. Iona Craig, tell us who she is.

IONA CRAIG: Well, I first met Tawakkul last year when she was, then, a thorn in the side of the government, working as a human rights activist and the President of Women Journalists Without Chains. She has always been a very outspoken character, fighting for the rights of [Inaudible] freedom and for political prisoners in Yemen. So, this prize is an acknowledgment of that as well as her leading role in Yemen’s unrest since January.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about her history. Talk about her significance, and the significance of a woman in Yemen winning.

IONA CRAIG: As you say, it’s particularly significant as a woman. She’s very outspoken. She’s led demonstrations, even in years gone by, leading up to the time of Yemen’s unrest which began in January, and she has inspired a lot of women as a result. She has fought very hard for press freedom and Yemen and she is also fought for political prisoners and for journalism in general in the country. She is a very forceful female, and many women have followed in her footsteps as a result now over the last 7 months and have really found their voice and will now want to be part of a new Yemen, part of this new democratic process. They don’t want to be forgotten as this, hopefully, transition happens in the months ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about her organization, Women Journalists Breaking the Chains.

IONA CRAIG: This was an NGO that she set up, not just to fight for the rights of women, but also for press freedom in Yemen. The press in Yemen have a huge amount of restrictions imposed in them, particularly Yemen journalists. I met her, initially, at the trial of a Yemeni journalist, Abdul-Elah Haidar Shaye, who was then sentenced to five years in prison, supposedly for connections to Al Qaeda. He had at the time, pinpointed U.S. involvement in drone strikes in Yemen, and it appeared at the time that he was, perhaps, being punished for that. He has since, as I say, been sentenced to 5 years and she was fighting very hard for him and on his behalf to try to get him released. There are many prisoners in Yemen who were often are taken from their houses without any representation from lawyers or without any contact with their family, and these political prisoners she has sought to fight for since 2005, when she founded this organization, to try and get representation for them and for them to receive a fair trial in Yemen. So, she has been organizing demonstrations outside of the Parliament of Sana’a on a weekly basis for many years now.

AMY GOODMAN: How much of a threat does Saleh consider here and what will this mean? How much of a boost will this give the opposition movement in Yemen for both Yemen and the Saudi regime that is supporting Saleh’s return and the Saleh regime in Yemen?

IONA CRAIG: I think will be a huge boost for them. As she said in her interview today, this is an award that she dedicates to the Yemeni youth movement and to all Yemenis and to all youth across the Arab world. Yemenis, particularly the activists in Sana’a and in Ta’izz, feel they haven’t received recognition for their peaceful demonstrations that have now been going on now for the better part of nine months. So, I’ve spoken to many of them in Sana’a, today and they are certainly celebrating this award, and they see it as a recognition for their peaceful efforts as activists, as a group, as well as for recognizing Tawakkul herself. Certainly the regime dose her as a threat, which is why she was arrested in January. But, her arrests sparked further protests, and I think that they quickly realized that it was better for them to release her than to detain her, which would have caused further problems. I think, if anything, this Nobel Peace Prize will actually, in some ways, may go toward protecting her. Now she will become even greater international figure. And certainly if the regime sought to detain her again, I think it would create huge problem for themselves. But, certainly, it’s a great day for the movement in Yemen as they see it.

AMY GOODMAN: and what does this say for the men of Yemen? What does that mean in a very much a male-dominated culture?

IONA CRAIG: They have largely, although there have been some divisions in the movement about her role, accepted her as this leading figure and a lot of women as well. As I mentioned before, a lot of women have now come forward and are speaking out, have been speaking to a large crowds of male demonstrators. But, it’s also encouraged the women to come out on the street at the same time. There have been thousands of women that have come out to demonstrate on a regular basis now on the street as a result of her presence. So, yes the men are equally inspired by her activity, and largely have been largely willing to accept her role.

AMY GOODMAN: Iona, I want to thank you very much for being with us. I think the demonstration that will be taking place in New York at 4 o’clock at 47th and 1st outside the United Nations of Yemenis will be taking on a new significance. Yemenis against the Saleh regime right now. Iona Craig, speaking to us from London, usually based in Sana’a, Yemen. She was last there in August. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report.

Afghan Women Writers

by: NILANJANA S. ROY

(originally published in the New York Times)

6 September 2011

NEW DELHI — If Tabasom wants to meet other Afghan writers or to use the Internet, she faces not just a four-hour walk but other constraints.

“I need to have a man all the time with me when I come to Kabul,” writes Tabasom, a woman in her 20s. “We can’t walk alone here in Logar,” the province southeast of the Afghan capital. She says she would like to work outside the home, but is afraid. An aunt, a nurse, was killed by the Taliban.

And yet, like the 75 or so participants in an unusual initiative called the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, Tabasom has found ways over the last two years to tell her story.

For the first year or so after its inception, the project was “flying under the radar,” its founder, Masha Hamilton, an American journalist and novelist, said by phone. The initial contributors were recruited through friends in Kabul; these women in turn referred others from farther afield, in Herat, Fargana, Kandahar and elsewhere.

As the women began offering anecdotes about their lives, political commentary and even poems to this online magazine, Ms. Hamilton brought together a loose coalition of activists and fellow writers to act as mentors. To remain part of the workshop, the women must reside in Afghanistan and file at least once a month. In August, the project went a little more public with a campaign called Freedom to Tell Your Story.

Still, the project maintains a certain level of secrecy to protect its writers, women who may fear reprisals from family or the local authorities when they discuss arranged marriages or the disappearance of relatives. The Internet center in Kabul that serves as a hub for many of the women is at an undisclosed location. Most of the women are identified only by first name, or by pseudonyms. Two of the 75 have insisted on complete anonymity.

“In most cases,” said Ms. Hamilton, who is based in the United States and recently returned there from a visit to Afghanistan, “their families don’t know, and they don’t want their families to know.”

The women are free to write about anything they choose, and many of them do just that. Fattemeh wrote about the scent of wet grass; Roya created a childhood “Museum of Memories”; Norwan mused about marriage traditions.

But while the project began, as Ms. Hamilton said, as “a kitchen table idea” after she had worked as a reporter in Afghanistan in 2004 and 2008, she is also clear that it was intended to be “an act of activism.” Many of the writings the women have submitted are about the difficulty of getting an education or being allowed to work. A participant named Leeda wrote about a girl’s descent into “poppy addiction” after her forced marriage.

Other issues include family pressures, wearing the burqa, President Barack Obama’s speeches and debates over the merits of partitioning Afghanistan — in the two years of the project, the contributors have offered their views with a growing self-confidence.

Perhaps what they reflect is the subterranean history of resistance by women in Afghanistan.

As is well documented, the women of Afghanistan lost many of their rights when the Taliban seized power in 1996, forbidding women to work outside the home, or to leave home unless accompanied by male relatives. Change since the Taliban were driven from power in 2001 in the U.S.-led invasion has been slow. Afghanistan was recently named the world’s most dangerous country for women in a survey conducted by TrustLaw Women, a program of the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But 2001, before the invasion, was also when Nasrin Arbabzadeh, then the leader of the Afghan delegation to the Third Muslim Women’s Games, made an impassioned plea to the Taliban authorities. “We are here to say Afghan women are alive and want an active part in social life,” she said.

In 2003, Malalai Joya made international headlines when, as a delegate to the Loya Jirga, the national assembly called to consider a new constitution, she delivered a speech denouncing the domination of local warlords, calling them anti-women. Her criticism of what she called “war criminals” in government earned her death threats and suspension from Parliament in 2007. She chronicled her struggles as an Afghan woman in her 2009 memoir, “A Woman Among Warlords.”

And in February 2011, the Afghan Women’s Network, an umbrella organization of rights groups, resisted when the government attempted to shut down all 14 shelters in the country for abused women. In an open letter, the women’s network castigated President Hamid Karzai: “We, the women activists, are accused by the government of having dishonored the national pride by publicly exposing the egregious and often humiliating violations of rights that women are exposed to. This, they said, shames us in the eyes of the world. This? The revelation of human rights abuse? This shames us?”A few days after the letter was released, Mr. Karzai’s government appeared to backtrack, and the shelters are still operating.

The women in Kabul and Herat who help to run the Afghan Women’s Writing Project come from this tradition of resistance in often desperate circumstances. “It’s when women write about the tough stuff going on in their lives that empowerment happens,” said Ms. Hamilton, who stressed that it was always the women who decided what they wanted to write about, and how much they wanted to disclose. “We believe that it is important, crucial, to hear the voices of ordinary women — especially as Afghanistan moves towards the planned pullout of troops in 2014,” she said, referring to the promised withdrawal of U.S. combat forces. “It’s crucial for women’s experiences to become part of the discussion about national development.” The diversity of these experiences is enormous.

In one piece, a woman running for Parliament describes the experience of campaigning among Pashtun nomads, her own steep learning curve and her ambitions for the future. If that story is relatively upbeat, the next one, by an unnamed writer, underlines the bleaker reality of the lives of many Afghan women. She says that she is being pushed into marrying a man whose family will not let her work, study or even step outside the house. “What I write here are the wounded and torn pieces of my heart and the secrets an Afghan girl suffers. I am like a piece of cloth. I cost little. Who will buy me?”

Resistance and Revolution as Lived Daily Experience: An Interview with Leila Khaled

By: Ziad Abu-Rish

(originally published at Jadaliyya.com)

 

The protests and uprisings that have taken hold across the Arab world have given new contours to processes of politicization, as well as the use of the term “revolution.” Before 2011, references to “the revolution” around the Arab World would conjure images of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Abdul-Karim Qassim, Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi, George Habash, and Yasser Arafat, among others. Put differently, “the revolution”—and all that the term entailed in terms of hopes, dreams, belonging, solidarities, and conflicts—had for many of my generation felt like a distant past, one whose possibilities were foreclosed by a variety of forces; some structural and others contingent. Even those of us that self-identified as leftists, progressives, activists, and/or organizers understood ourselves to be working in a period and context far removed from that described by our parents, mentors, inspirations, and interviewees. As a historian of the second half of the twentieth century, I am often struck by how mobilized the average person was between the 1940s and 1960s, through a combination of political party affiliation, protest participation, and boycott action, to say nothing of simply bearing witness to all that defined those decades. Such degrees of politicization provided a sharp contrast to the effects of post-1970s depoliticization and demobilization across the Arab world as various regimes consolidated their rule and the regional and international order was institutionalized.

The trajectory of Leila Khaled, an icon of the “Palestinian revolution,” one of the tens of thousands that were politicized and mobilized, and an inspiration to many then and since, is one example of the multiplicity of ways in which individuals were politicized and mobilized. Listening to Leila Khaled narrating her experience of such processes was a turning point in my own political trajectory. Day after day of visiting with her, I slowly came to understand that it was not her membership in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), nor her hijacking of two airplanes (one in 1969 and one in 1970), that made her the person she was. Rather, it was a series of smaller events, processes, and discoveries, which she experienced well before her infamous acts, that politicized and mobilized her. She was neither innately radical nor a conformist.

As 2011 enters its final quarter, Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi has been added to the list of toppled Arab autocrats, while the Ba’thist regime in Syria—which claims the mantle of “resistance” and the legacy of “revolution”—is facing a threat from below the likes of which it has never faced. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya, “the revolution” is no longer a signifier of a bygone era. It is a lived experience, a reality, and the present. The “revolution” has compelled many to claim and imitate it, in the Middle East and beyond — from Tel Aviv to Madrid and Wisconsin. As one insightful analysis put: “Politics, in short, has returned to the Arab world.” This is true in spite of, and partly as a result of, the varied contradictions of “the revolution”  across its different locals, as well as the ongoing struggles to define its scope and legacy.

However, we inhabit a very different world today, defined by different legacies, burdened by revolutions aborted and resistance abandoned. If the previous generation of resistance fighters and revolutionary activists were primarily informed by the experience of colonial rule and its aftermath, today’s generation is primarily informed by decades of indigenous authoritarian rule. Furthermore, those very political parties and ruling regimes that rose to prominence on the rhetoric—and, admittedly, programs—of social revolution and anti-colonial resistance, are now themselves accused of violating principles of social justice and national liberation. While such differences characterize the current processes of politicization and mobilization, the failures and limits of the previous generation’s promises and policies weigh heavily enough to circumscribe said processes with significant degrees of skepticism, cynicism, and fear of the unknown. Nevertheless, a dramatically larger section of the region’s populations are politicized and mobilized than before 2011. A new generation claims “the revolution.”

What follows is a translated transcription of a series of interviews I conducted with Leila Khaled during the summer of 2007. We have much to learn from her and the rest of her generation of activists and revolutionaries. More urgently now, I find myself returning to her experiences, in the context of the Arab uprisings, as we find ourselves confronted by and grappling with the hopes, dreams, demands, and strategies of resistance.
Click here to read Part 1 of this interview.

Click here to read Part 2 of this interview.

Click here to read Part 3 of this interview.