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Books | Three-Way Ties: Civil Society, State Ideology, and Geopolitics

by GARETH SMYTH

18 Apr 2012 21:15Comments

talaie_iran.jpgDrugs, Deviancy and Democracy in Iran: The Interaction of State and Civil Society
by Janne Bjerre Christensen (I.B. Tauris)

Arab Spring Dreams: The Next Generation Speaks Out for Freedom and Justice from North Africa to Iran
edited by Sohrab Ahmari and Nasser Weddady (Palgrave Macmillan)

Gareth Smyth has reported from the Middle East for 20 years. Among his recent pieces is "The Idle Hands of Youth," on young people in Iran.
[ books ] In 2005, I visited a museum in Rafsanjan. There was a room full of the gifts received as president by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, of which a gaily painted rickshaw from Bangladesh was the most memorable.

That led to a room commemorating the "martyrs" of the 1980-88 war with Iraq, and in turn to one commemorating the "martyrs" of fighting between security forces and drug smugglers. A quick calculation suggested annual deaths in the latter had been higher than in the former, which surprised me even given Rafsanjan's location on a drug route to Iran's southern ports from Afghanistan, where after the Taliban's ouster opium production had risen to 90 percent of global output.

In Drugs, Deviancy and Democracy in Iran, Janne Bjerre Christensen suggests that 3,500 Iranian police officers have been killed fighting smugglers since 1979. This apparently omits members of customs, the army, and others, and it's not clear how up-to-date this figure is (the book was published at the end of 2011).

But Christensen, an anthropologist, is not primarily interested in the scale of drug smuggling or addiction in Iran, nor in the different kinds of treatments used. Her concern lies rather in the ways in which NGOs in the field of addiction interact with state bodies and what they reveal about the relationship between the Iranian polity and civil society.

Her focus is partly empirical, but it is also rooted in the philosophy of Michel Foucault and this for some readers will make the book overly theoretical. She argues that the recent history of the drug NGOs reveals and illuminates the wider struggle between "reformists," who wanted to stimulate civil society (jameh-ye madani) and NGOs, and "conservatives," who were suspicious of what they saw as attempts in civil society to undermine Iran's Islamic character.

The great strength of the book is that it undermines simple notions on all sides. While many conservatives regarded drug use as a sign of moral contamination from the West, even aided by foreign-backed militant Baluchi groups along the Afghan and Pakistan borders, they nevertheless had to face the awkward reality of addiction among "sacred" war veterans. Hence Iran's authorities readily developed "progressive" policies, based on treatment and rehabilitation, in cooperation with the U.N. and other international agencies.

Debates in Iran about whether harm reduction -- for example, using methadone -- effectively endorses drug use are similar to debates elsewhere, as are equivocal attitudes among the police. This is not a question of "secularism" against religion.

Neither is drug use a recent phenomenon -- the practice of eating or smoking opium has been common since the 15th century. Christensen cites a current figure of between 3.5 and 4 million "drug users" in Iran in a population of 70 million, or around 5 percent, compared to an official figure of 0.5 percent in the United States (not including alcohol). But she also writes that, according to government figures from the 1950s, 1.5 million of a then population of 19 million, 8 percent, were drug users.

Much of the recent emphasis on drug use in Iran, and indeed "moral panic," relates to the rising injection of heroin and the spread of AIDS. After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election victory in 2005, writes Christensen, there was renewed talk of "strengthened control" and "moral security," as well as (although she gives no comparative figures) a large increase in the number of drug dealers executed.

But what has taken place represents far from a simple break with earlier practice, she writes, as the Ahmadinejad government has endorsed "one of the most progressive, NGO-operated drug treatment programs in the Middle East." This, she argues, is evidence that analysts focusing on "parliamentary politics and political actors...often overlook the piecemeal ways in which the means of governance have been modified, and the ways the language of reform has been implemented."

Christensen suggests drug NGOs may have fared better than many other extragovernmental groups under Ahmadinejad as the voluntary sector became a political battleground. This was partly because they skillfully adopted much of the new, more "moral" language, and partly because their earlier success had made such inroads into the way all political factions understood drug abuse.

As president, Ahmadinejad put forward a "mosque model" of NGOs, drawing on the informal, religious-based networks and organizations he had utilized so successfully in his 2005 presidential campaign: Christensen has a telling quote from a Basij commander describing the militia as "the largest NGO in the world."

This is a fascinating thread to her book, as the plethora of religious organizations in Iran, which make up a large part of civil society, were far too often ignored by the reformists. Indeed, Christensen makes the point that poorer Iranians looked more to religious-based organizations than to the new-style NGOs that sprang up under the Khatami presidency. So while she describes some stunning work done by workers in drug NGOs, in some cases themselves ex-addicts, she is also illuminating a debate about "civil society" that is far from theoretical.

"Civil society" is classically defined as separate from the state, and yet it has become contentious political ground. In 2006, then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice allocated money to boost NGOs in Iran as part of a "democracy" program. Many Iranian reformists argued this would, at least in the short term, encourage the conservatives' desire and ability to isolate reformists, both in politics and in wider society. Christensen's research seems to support this view: "The threat of foreign plots has been the most effective tool," she writes, "in thwarting the endeavors of the NGOs, and by linking the activities of the Western conspiracies all manner of punitive repercussions are legitimized." The likes of Saeed Hajjarian and Mostafa Tajzadeh have long argued the same.

Amy Hawthorne, in a 2004 paper for the Carnegie Endowment, tied to pinpoint the assumption underlying Washington's approach: "Some U.S. policy makers and other observers of Middle Eastern politics further assume that much of civil society is populated by latent pro-American forces that could, with outside support, become sources of benign democratic change 'from below.'"

Hawthorne pointed out not just that the pro-civil society approach was older than many assumed -- since it began under the first President Bush, George H.W. -- but also that it was based on the attractive assumption that while "civil society" was ostensibly apolitical, it in fact could be used to undermine authoritarian political systems. The flaw in the strategy, illustrated by Christensen's research among drug NGOs, is that U.S. intervention in civil society can rapidly politicize it.

The debates in Iran under Khatami over "civil society" and the attempts to unravel an "Islamic democracy" from Western connotations have more recently been echoed in the "Arab Spring." At the same time, developments in the Arab world have also given fresh hope to Americans keen to transform the Middle East but demoralized by the chaos produced by intervention in Iraq.

Arab Spring Dreams, edited by Sohrab Ahmari and Nasser Weddady, is a collection of short pieces submitted by young people from North Africa to Iran in an essay contest organized by the American Islamic Congress on the theme of civil rights and funded by the Unitarians and the free-market Earhart Foundation.

The Congress, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and has 75 staff members in six countries, receives funding from the State Department in line with its belief that the United States has been "a haven for Muslims" with "remarkable freedoms and coexistence." The book encourages U.S.-based activists to "help" people in the Middle East toward "a liberal awakening."

Ahmari and Weddady commit the anthology to avoid geopolitics and U.S. policy -- a marked contrast to Christensen, who even when among addicts in south Tehran remains aware of geopolitics. But of course the wider picture still exists, and the editors in describing the Arab-Israeli conflict as a "tragic collision of nationalisms" on a "tiny sliver of land" give some indication of where their geopolitical sympathies lie.

Unsurprisingly then, the contributors do not include, say, a young teacher in a Hezbollah school in Lebanon, who by an objective criterion would be a "civil society activist." Neither are there any supporters of Ikhwan, the Muslim Brotherhood, who have been a large part of the Arab Spring. Such young people would have made the book far more interesting and given American readers a far better insight into the Middle East.

In the editorializing throughout the book, explaining the rather brief essays to the uninitiated, there are a number of dubious or sweeping claims: that Kuwait is less socially conservative than Iran, that Ikhwan is "reactionary," that the Shah "empowered women and ethno-sectarian minorities." There are also strange mistakes, like the claim that Iran's Arab neighbors have Sunni majorities, whereas both Iraq, the only mainly Arab country with a land border, and Bahrain, across the Persian Gulf, do not.

In conclusion, the editors argue for an "ideological Marshall plan" in which the United States supports Middle Eastern "liberals" -- making young people "entrepreneurs of their own destinies" -- with the justification that the Arab Spring will otherwise be "hijacked" by Islamists, presumably including Ikhwan. The underlying assumption, Fukuyama-like, is a teleology: that American "liberal democracy" and "free market" capitalism is the desirable end for the world, and indeed what everyone really wants.

Photos: A drug NGO in Tehran (2006), courtesy of Ramin Talaie, a photographer based in New York City. Homepage photo: Sign directing addicts to an NGO for free and clean needles. Above, addicts wait for free food and clean needles in an NGO in south of Tehran. The writing on the wall: "Love is our common language. Race, nationality, sexuality are not important."

by the same author | Iranian-Saudi Tensions Play Out in Beirut, Tripoli | The Peculiarities of the Secular | Mr. Salehi's In-Tray | A Twisted Kind of Entertainment

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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