Monday, November 24, 2008

Gaza is a Symbol

The world cannot afford to remain indifferent towards the ongoing tragedy in Gaza. The cries of Palestinian children echoes throughout the world. Gaza is now under siege for several weeks and Israel has blocked all entry points preventing even medicine and food from entering. News of an eminent humanitarian disaster is on the way. Only once in a while a few truck loads of medicine are allowed entry.
The continuing growth of new settlements and the denial of the right to return for millions of Palestinians stranded in camps or in exile are evident reasons why the global public opinion seriously doubt the sincerity of the Zionists and their supporters.
Actually more diplomats and top level politicians feel the same way and sympathize with their cause . I remember some of the discussions I had with a group of UN diplomats on the sideline of an international environmental event. They were totally disillusioned with the double standards governing political , economic and social spheres in today's world. They felt that the Palestinians were betrayed by the international community . During a certain period ,they were kept busy with the negotiation process while new settlements were built so that there would practically be no land left for them to bargain. A reality they named the " blue cheese" phenomenon.
In the international conference hosted by the Club de Madrid and the Foundation of Dialogue Among Civilizations, last month in Tehran, the causes of violence and intolerance in today's world were discussed. I remember Professor Iqbal Riza the Special Advisor to the UN Secretary General , mentioned that the actions of a few powerful in the global village have led to the suffering, despair and anger for the many oppressed peoples. How could they trust the world leaders after what they have experienced, he noted. Reverend Chane, the Bishop of Washington was also very critical of the unilateral policies which have undermined the confidence of the public opinion particularly when it was done under a religious pretext.
I also mentioned the importance of the Palestinian issue as an outstanding crisis which the international system has not succeeded in resolving in a just manner. Palestine is a symbol for freedom seekers; it is a symbol of the injustices and double standards prevailing in this age. Those who believe in human rights, freedom and justice should stand up now in support of Gaza.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Freedom of Expression ?

For several hours ,I was under peaceful siege and questioning of dozens of journalists who sought to find replies for their political , social, urban and international queries. I took some time yesterday (Thursday) afternoon to visit the National Press Fair held in Tehran. The Press Fair is now an annual event and many newspapers and news agencies take part to introduce their work and activities in the field of journalism. The free press has faced many challenges in the past in Iran and some members of the press were absent due to the ban that the judiciary has set on their publication, nevertheless many independent newspapers and reformist press were present. It was a very demanding function, since I was constantly ushered into different booths and expected to visit and of course, provide an interview for each. Some of these newspapers now have a considerable readership, although many argue that the numbers are still much lower than what should be expected considering high literacy and education rates in Iran.

A popular Tehran daily, Hamshahri, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Tehran Municipality, now has a group of affiliated journals as well. I spent more time with them, since as a Tehran City Councilor ;I felt we needed to take more stock of the assets of the newspaper group for better urban management. In meeting with some of the more conservative media I could not refrain from stressing upon the importance of observing freedom for the press and allowing a wider spectrum of views and criticism to be voiced. I criticised some of the current policies in curbing freedom of expression and troubles created for independent press. There were many people around us asking for autographs, contact numbers, proposals and ideas for urban management and environmental protection. I guess I missed some of them in the crowd and the hassle created.
The interviews were mostly political , the news agencies were asking about the alignment of political parties and their coalitions. They were also inquisitive about Mr. Khatami, of every 10 people I met 9 were asking whether Khatami would accept to stand as a candidate in the upcoming Presidential elections. "The answer is not clear yet, otherwise you wouldn't all be asking the question. Mr. Khatami has not made the decision. There is alot of pressure on him to stand, but he has his reservations and that makes it difficult to decide." I told them.
After 3/5 hours , there were still many media asking for interviews , the closing of the exhibition at 8 pm was a relief for me. My vocal chords were just not holding up. I left the fair pondering on the reasons why as an Islamic Democracy we have not fared well in tolerating criticism and allowing more freedom of expression as stipulated in our Constitution.
The Reform movement has endeavored to create an opportunity to accommodate the principle of freedom of expression and the right to criticise power, but that has proved to be a difficult ordeal in the past.We have to hope for the future.

Monday, November 17, 2008

My Economy, Your Economy, Our Economy

Mr. Hashemi Rafsanjani the head of the Expediency Council and the Experts Council , two top level political councils in the Islamic Republic, yesterday criticized the government of President Ahmadinejad for not abiding to the National Vision for 20 Years. The current policies of distribution of wealth (alms) he noted are not in line with national development policy. This rare expression of direct criticism is indicative of the concerns that economists and experts have voiced regarding the state of the economy in Iran. In this dimension, at least , it seems we are moving parallel to the Western or industrial world. The G-20 session in Washington, has emerged without any concrete remedy or solution for the current global crisis. While major European economies are now feeling the recession and openly expressing that the outlook is worse than expected, the US economy is not faring much better. They are dealing with a significant shrink in economic growth and also an increase in unemployment. While Japan is also following the same direction it seems that other more independent and non-aligned members of the global community are attempting to decouple their economies and some may be more successful in alleviating the pressures and delaying the effects.
I remember we had breakfast in Barcelona, in mid October, on the sidelines of the IUCN Congress with some friends , two professors from Yale and a renown Indian personality who held significant economic and political clout . He mentioned that certain European politicians were angry over the independent position of Indian diplomats in recent WTO negotiations. Apparently, the Indians had opposed the wavering of agricultural subsidies in support of their farmers and vulnerable agriculture sector. Not to mention that Americans had also insisted on keeping their agricultural subsidies for some time now. Someone , he said ; had proposed that India should take loans from strong European banks , mentioning Irish banks as potential lenders. That morning in Barcelona we had heard the news that Irish banks had faced a serious blow due to the global crisis. A few days later we heard on the news that Pakistan , which is known for its pro-west political orientation and open to foreign investment and manipulation in its economy was facing serious woes and setbacks as a backlash of what was happening in the West. The economies of developing countries are more vulnerable and their weak populations will suffer the most from the misdemeanors of capitalist leaders of New York. Particularly since the food crisis and environmental pressures have been building in recent years. Unfortunately world leaders still do not believe that all nations are passengers of the same ship. Prosperous and poor nations will all face the same destiny, sooner or later.
The picture in Iran is similar in a sense and very different in another. We are now facing difficult economic challenges due to the lowering of petroleum prices in Iran , but most of our problems also stem from the faulty and unstable policies of the current populist government in power.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Interfaith Dialogue: Rhetoric or Practice?

Last week many global leaders joined an interfaith dialogue initiative led by King Abdullah the Saudi Monarch. The fact that leaders have acknowledged the imperative of dialogue as a remedy to current inflictions is in itself a positive development. The fact that erroneous Western policies towards the Muslim world have been criticized by Arab leaders who are renown for their Western alignment is also noteworthy. However the fact that such an initiative would be led by leaders who do not have a prominent role in the Islamic world and who have not followed such initiatives in their political careers is questionable. It takes the whole initiative to the level of empty rhetoric with no practical backing.
Today, in the absence of personalities such as President Khatami who put forward the policy of Dialogue Among Civilizations and led an initiative which was warmly welcomed by the global community and is still followed in academic and independent circles , it is natural that self proclaimed leaders would step forward and fill the gap. The outcome is however essentially different. Before being considered as a politician President Khatami is considered to be a thinker and scholar of political and religious science. He has enough theoretical backing for what he has proclaimed . He considers his progressive pro-democracy Islamic thought to be a natural outcome of the Islamic Revolution. For eight years, he displayed in practice, the example of a political leader with robust ethical principles who stands as a role model for Islamic leadership. President Khatami is still a popular figure, among young Iranians he is a beacon of hope for those who aspire to see the prosperity of Iran's Islamic Democracy.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Obama Season

There has been extensive coverage and much attention on the American elections in Iranian media over the past week. Even while the Iranian President had initially predicted that Obama would not be allowed to become President, he congratulated the President -elect in a message impressing many Iranians and others alike. Although many Iranians and most political groups reformist and principalist are hopeful that President Obama will bring a change in American foreign policy , many are yet skeptical and feel that he may not be able to keep his promises. The question that many put forward is how profound and genuine is the 'change' that Obama will bring about in the directions that the Administration has been taking for the past years. Will he stand firm to change the domineering and militaristic policies America has pursuing for the past decades? Will he keep the spirit of multilateralism that he professed in his famous Berlin speech or will he succumb to the imperial policies of the conservative elements in Washington? There are many historical and political reasons for Iranians to be cautious in expressing their content for seeing a new President after Bush in the White House. Can President -elect Obama gain their trust and confidence after more that three decades of a " tall wall of mistrust"? It remains to be seen .