All eyes on Neda

December 17, 2009 at 6:44 pm (1)

What does Neda Agha-Soltan, listed by Time magazine as one of 2009’s ‘25 people who mattered’, have in common with Saddam Hussein? One angel, the other devil, both died YouTube deaths, etched into the memories of millions.

When Tony Blair told the BBC last week that, WMD aside, he was glad Saddam and his sons were no longer in power, I wondered what he felt about the dictator having been executed (the last person to be hanged in Britain was in 1964 and the death penalty has since been abolished). Did he watch? Was he pleased that our enemy was hanged in that dingy cellar, much as many of Saddam’s victims will have met their deaths.

Far from squealing for mercy, the humiliated middle-eastern despot saw off taunts from his executioners – perhaps his experience in killing people had taught him how to act when it was his own neck in the noose. There was not a peep from Blair about the killing, as his subordinates limply stated that this was the justice that the Iraqis chose to dispense – not us. The important thing, Blair reminds us, is that the Middle East is a better place, especially with him there as a peace envoy.

Neda Agha-Soltan’s death also raised questions – obvious ones, such as how even a brutal regime could be so brutal. But others, too – how many of the hundreds of thousands who have watched her last moments did so more than once? Is it voyeurism? At what point does it become entertainment? And given that Ms Agha-Soltan signed no release form, is it right that footage of her death was posted on YouTube in the first place? Is it not enough to know that someone has been killed? Do we have to see it? Given the choice, might we not choose to prevent the world from gawping at our body as we breathe our last?

The final frame of that video, with blood crisscrossing Ms Agha Soltan’s face, is freely reproduced. It has even been turned into a logo. Her death has been re-enacted – first by anti-Islamic Republic demonstrators in New York (in what seemed like a YouTube mourning ritual, as if trying to make sense of their relationship with technology) and secondly in Iran by pro-regime goons, portraying Ms Agha-Soltan as a tool of UK-meddling in Iran’s affairs, in what was a macabre and tasteless piece of street theatre…

In life, many of us go to pains to look good; yet in death we are deprived of the right to own our own image and story. “Neda” is, anyway. Who knows if she’d have objected to the footage of her last moments being released. Our familiarity with her would then be limited to a news report of a 27-year-old tragically killed by a criminal state.

Unlike Saddam, Ms Agha Soltan owes her fame exclusively to YouTube. He was a brutal dictator. She was killed by one, shot on camera, and is an icon as a result. We feel entitled to doctor and reproduce her image at will, allowing empathy to override rationality – saying “We are all Neda” gives us the authority to remember her as we choose: bloodied, like so many others, confirming our justified outrage against the Islamic Republic.

We do not know her favourite colour, what ice cream she liked, whether she was a tea or coffee drinker; yet “We are all Neda” because we’ve seen her die on YouTube. As Time’s Bobby Ghosh put its: “We’ll never know the man who stood in front of those tanks in Tiananmen Square, but we do know Neda Agha-Soltan: we’ve looked into her eyes… “Within hours, millions of people around the world had been beseeched by those fading eyes, making an intimate connection.”

This implies a reciprocity – as if Ms Agha-Soltan was looking back. Accompanying these words is a still from the YouTube video, hands pumping her chest but, mercifully, no blood. In a world dominated by Ayatollahs, Blairs and Saddams, we should remember Neda Agha-Soltan, surely, for her happy, smiling face. After all, one day before her death, none of us knew who she was.

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Live and let die

December 14, 2009 at 12:44 am (Middle East)

Last Thursday two prominent Americans spoke about the recent unrest in Iran – President Obama and Kermit the Frog.

In Oslo, Obama made a passing reference to the “hundreds of thousands who have marched silently through the streets of Iran”, while accepting his Nobel prize for peace.

Meanwhile, on Minnesota Public Radio show In The Loop, presenter Jeff Horwich strummed on the guitar while Kermit sang It’s Not East Being (A) Green (Revolutionary):

Spend each day on the run from the basij… Plain clothes police, they’ll run you over, drag you off to Evin or maybe just beat you in the street with electric batons… Burning pictures of the leader… Green’s getting madder and gutsier each day.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Kermit’s stance on the Islamic Republic is tougher than the US president’s: critics consider him a Muppet despite promises of a change from George Bush.

In January Obama invited the Islamic Republic to “unclench its fist”, something it has so far has failed to do. This is despite the olive branch extended to Iran’s ruling clergy in March – the president recorded a special message to mark the Iranian New Year. In it he said he “would like to speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

Thus he ignored the crucial “us” and “them” divide between Iran’s ruling clerics and its people. (On the anniversary of the US embassy siege in November, demonstrators chanted an ultimatum to Mr Obama: “You are either with them or with us” – “Obama, ya ba ma-ee, ya ba oona”.)

After all the violence in the summer, Obama had set out to reassure Islamic Republic. “We do not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs,” he said.

Months before the President had admitted to finding the footage of 26-year-old demonstrator Neda Agha- Soltan’s death “heartbreaking.” He added: “Anyone who sees it knows that there’s something fundamentally unjust about that.

“I have concerns about how peaceful demonstrators and people who want their votes counted may be stifled from expressing those concerns.

“It’s important for us to make sure that we let the Iranian people know that we are watching what’s happening, that they are not alone in this process.”

That Obama might be glued to YouTube delivered no discernible boost to Iran’s green movement. To him, change in Iran was a matter of faith: “We have to believe that justice will prevail.”

Justice, of course, remains elusive. Ms Agha Soltan may be number two in Time magazine’s Top 10 Heroes of 2009 but this is little consolation when Washington’s Nobel peace laureate remains reluctant to back the cause she died for. (No need for 30,000 troops, just a few words: Yes you can.)

In his Norouz message, Obama said: “The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations.” This is at odds with the objective of achieving democracy in Iran – after all, demonstrators have called for an “Iranian Republic” and pictures of Khomeini and Khamenei have been torn up and stamped on.

Meanwhile, an online campaign is growing in support of Majid Tavakoli, the student leader from Amir Kabir University who was arrested by the authorities, made to dress in hejab, and accused of trying to escape dressed as a woman. Men are posting pictures of themselves wearing headscarves in solidarity with Tavakoli, using humour as a weapon.

Obama should take lessons from both them and Kermit the Frog. As for negotiating with the mullahs, send in Miss Piggy.

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Friedman’s beliefs

December 4, 2009 at 12:23 pm (1)

New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman is not a fan of Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan: “I’d prefer a minimalist approach, working with tribal leaders the way we did to overthrow the Taliban regime in the first place,” he writes.

(Grease the palms of a few warlords, a colonial tradition.)

He adds: “Given our need for nation-building at home right now, I am ready to live with a little less security and a little-less-perfect Afghanistan.” Tell that to the Department of Homeland Security.

If the world thinks Americans are stupid, Mr Friedman is an apt window into their minds – he is against the troop surge but for rather delusional reasons. “Iraq was about ‘the war on terrorism.’ The Afghanistan invasion, for me, was about the ‘war on terrorists.’ To me, it was about getting bin Laden and depriving Al Qaeda of a sanctuary — period. I never thought we could make Afghanistan into Norway — and even if we did, it would not resonate beyond its borders the way Iraq might.”

Sensibly, he did not expect Afghanistan to turn into a Scandinavian country with a little stardust from the US.

One thing US ‘opinion-formers’ excel at is making rash assumptions about the Muslim “world” (of which even India is a part!): “One of the main reasons the Arab-Muslim world has been so resistant to internally driven political reform is because vast oil reserves allow its regimes to become permanently ensconced in power, by just capturing the oil tap, and then using the money to fund vast security and intelligence networks that quash any popular movement. Look at Iran.”
 
Let’s do that – in the 1953 the US engineered a coup to depose Iran’s democratically elected prime minister who had just nationalized the ‘oil tap’ and kicked out the British. The US, of course, has no interest in oil.
 
He writes: “The most important reason for the Iraq war was never W.M.D. It was to see if we could partner with Iraqis to help them build something that does not exist in the modern Arab world: a state, a context, where the constituent communities — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — write their own social contract for how to live together without an iron fist from above.”
 
I remember watching images of the first night of the 2003 Iraq invasion on television – it was definitely an iron first pounding Baghdad and it was definitely from above.
 
Friedman’s cites “a deficit of freedom, a deficit of education and a deficit of women’s empowerment” as the reason “there are so many frustrated and angry people in the Arab-Muslim world, lashing out first at their own governments and secondarily at us — and volunteering for ‘martyrdom’.”
 
He adds: “The reason India, with the world’s second-largest population of Muslims, has a thriving Muslim minority (albeit with grievances but with no prisoners in Guantánamo Bay [as if all countries with Muslim populations have representatives in Guantanamo] is because of the context of pluralism and democracy it has built at home.”
Friedman’s solving of the “Muslim-world” problems in a few paragraphs would be entertainingly dimwitted were his views not so in line with US foreign policy. “People do not change when we tell them they should,” he writes. “They they change when their context tells them they must.”

For Friedman, who feels free to talk utter nonsense about an imagined “Muslim world”, alas, the ‘context’ remains firmly in his favour.

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