Tag Archives: right to protest

Which Turks?

Yesterday, I mentioned the importance of listening to Turkish descriptions of the events unfolding there, ironically shortly after the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told domestic and local press that “There is now a menace which is called twitter. The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” While I wasn’t precisely pointing to Turkish twitter users as the ideal news source on the still developing situation, I built my larger point around what one famous Turkish writer and activist had explained on her wordpress account.

Heading Erdoğan’s request that we ignore certain sorts of Turkish voices wasn’t what I had in mind when I urged “listening to Turks’ voices”. In any case, there is something else that’s striking in his statement besides a leader of a country silencing his own people. He quite literally labeled the discussions, images, and arguments made on twitter concerning recent political events in Turkey to be a social danger rooted in falsities. Is that really a deserved label given the picture of the protesters painted by the picture, spread on twitter, that’s posted below?

(A Turkish protester dressed in traditional Sufi clothing and dancing in a tradition way used by that mystic Islamic sect, but while wearing a gas mask to ward off crowd-dispersing chemical weapons. It was originally posted here.)

There’s a poignant idea of the protests illustrated above – it’s a whole series of opposing political statements to that of Erdoğan’s government. Rather than an aesthetic force for unambiguous modernization, the protester is wearing clothes associated with a largely Turkish tradition and engaging in an iconic performance of that group. Rather than celebrating the leveling of a space of political and social organization at the heart of Istanbul, he is either in or has joined the protests against that and the broader economic situation in Turkey at the moment. Rather than containing his Islamic identity to a highly specific and politically useful context (such as the regulations on women’s behaviors which I noted Suman mentioned previously), he has connected his Islam to his activism.

The fundamental nature of the currently governing AK Party in Turkey is supposed that it has both Islamic or more specifically traditionally Turkish roots married to a modern political ideology. But what that seems to have engendered in Turkey is a sort of snide social conservatism, undemocratic decision making, and economics poisoned with commercialism and corporatism. What at least this one sliver of what’s been said online about the current situation suggests is that a different Turkey – better on all of those issues – is possible. No wonder Erdoğan wants that ignored.

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Looking away and laughing

TW: Argentinian “Dirty War”, torture, indefinite detention, police brutality, violence against protesters

So yesterday, amid assorted allegations (re)surfacing about the now sitting Pope, this happened:

Erick Erickson tweeting
(Tweet from yesterday, by former CNN commentator Erick Erickson.)

Um, okay then Mr. Erickson. There’s quite a few things that could be said about that type of joke, which I already jumped a bit into last week, but in the meanwhile let’s talk about the humor that people often deploy while trying to distance themselves from and trivialize violence. If you, as Erickson later explained himself, are able to somehow twist this into something else entirely, I honestly have no idea what to say to you.

For those of you who are still reading, allow me to clarify: some of the allegations against the current Pope are indeed false. The Guardian has retracted what they originally published about him in 2011 (namely that he might have allowed the Argentinian junta to move political prisoners onto Church-controlled islands in order to hide them, which seems to be what Erickson was basing his complaint off of). But aside from that, there’s the small matter of him having informed the Argentinian government of a fellow Jesuit he suspected of coordinating with feminine religious orders, guerrillas, and otherwise earned being deported (after being detained and tortured by Bergoglio’s own admission). Isn’t that pretty Pontius Pilate of him?

Bergoglio's memo to the Argentinian government urging the deportation of a Jesuit Priest
(The original document he had sent to the Argentinian government to request the deportation of another Jesuit priest.)

There’s a sort of confusing response that seems to typically crop up over these sorts of situations – where an ostensibly “conservative” or “traditional” government is killing and torturing thousands of people. It seems to be that many celebrate and are entertained by the violence against those they deem as deserving it, but on some level realize that that will be frowned on and deemed unacceptable. So, they joke about those disappeared, while denying that the disappearances happened (or, at least, that anyone prominent in Argentinian politics at the time could possibly have been involved). It’s a strategy of simultaneously reveling in and denying the existence of terrible violence.

That’s unfortunately a very relevant perspective to watch for appearing around Brooklyn today. In the wake of the police shooting Kimani Gray, a purportedly unarmed sixteen year old Black youth in the East Flatbush area, protests against those sorts of incidents failed to pass the police’s test of what was acceptable. As people were imprisoned and homes searched without warrants, the police also managed to remove most professional media from the area. In a very real sense, violence has been doled out in the past few days against an entire community in Brooklyn, and most our society has decided to look the other way.

Still, some accounts slip through. You can read descriptions like this one:

Towards the end of the night, a group of teenagers standing on a curb were taunting a few cops standing several feet away in the street. After a few minutes and seemingly unprovoked, an officer reached onto the sidewalk to grab one of the teenagers, who took off running. This sparked an all out foot-chase, with officers in hot pursuit of the runner and some of the NYPD’s less athletic members cheering their fellow officers on. The runner cut down a side street, media and police giving chase. The suspect got away, but about halfway down the street police briefly detained a separate young man who was going home for the night. He was black—as was the runner—and immediately informed the police that he wasn’t the person they were looking for. One cop was heard explaining that he was on orders from his sergeant to arrest him. While several white cops walked the wrong man toward a police van, they ultimately decided to let him go.

Or you can simply see a few of the clandestine photographs of the situation. Or you can hear about how everyone arrested under suspicion of “rioting” is being held for an extended period. Hopefully those sorts of depictions of what’s actually happening right now in one part of the most populous city in the United States will make you think.

Hopefully, the last thing they’ll make you do is laugh.

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Obama and the office of the president

TW: indefinite detention, suspension of constitutional rights, violence against protesters

Today is President’s Day, which is a federal holiday in the US used to commemorate President Washington and President Lincoln, who are often recalled as the man who saved us from dictatorship twice over (from the UK and from himself) and the man who prevented the dissolution of the United States into smaller, weaker states during the Civil War. Though they might have done such remarkable feats which many residents of the US benefit from to this day, we often don’t like talking about what resources they had at their disposal to do so.

This, of course, is particularly noticeable today, on the day that we inevitably laud both of those prior presidents and inadvertently contrast our lofty depictions of them with the all too fallible reality the Obama administration has given us. Just a few days earlier, it was reported that those how have been indefinitely detained in Guantánamo in opposition to almost every major judicial policy laid out in the US constitution are now being subject to warrantless searches while in court. Sadly, there’s an argument to be made that warrants wouldn’t be necessary, since their jail cells were being searched, rather than their homes – nevermind that they’ve been forced to live in those cells for years now. The legal procedures are so broken, it’s hard to even sort out how many judicial norms are being broken at once.

(An unnamed Guantánamo detainee sleeps in his cell in 2008. Cells like this were targeted for searches while their usual occupants were at court hearings. Image from here.)

There’s little attention paid to how Washington personally led American troops in the successful putting down of the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, which resulted in one protester being shot and another repeatedly stabbed. In a judicial decision both of those deaths were deemed accidental but that’s a difficult explanation to swallow, particularly in the case involving multiple stab wounds. It seems quite important to admit that the first presidency of the United States under our modern constitution was marred by agents of the state killing protesters with impunity.

Likewise, whether you ultimately swallow Lincoln’s argument that habeas corpus needed to be suspended since an insurrection was happening and many citizens of the United States were no longer operating as citizens of that country, you have to admit he suspended the right to a trial and the necessity for the state to have legal charges before detaining a person. Many of the same legal rights that have been broken time and again by the Bush and Obama administrations were outright erased from the legal system for a few years under Lincoln.

In short, the constitutional norms and legal precedents of the United States’ constitution have been uniquely damaged over the past thirteen years, but those violations are by no means a break from an otherwise smooth political history, particularly when the lives of Black Americans, women, and other systemically disenfranchised groups are considered. While it might seem topical to contrast the modern situation with what’s often imagined to have been the United States of  Lincoln’s and Washington’s time, there’s less of a contrast there than we might want to admit.

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Power rather than merits

TW: brief mention of sexual assault

It’s not great shock that power rather than merits determines what messages are widely disseminated, as several recent articles show. To live in a country with a less democratic government is to have your speech coerced if not outright monitored and controlled. Egypt’s President Morsi is pursuing a policy of rather intently shutting down parodies and satires that appear to reflect poorly on him, namely one extremely popular video satirist who has mocked his overuse of the word love in recent speeches and other mannerisms.

(He hasn’t seemed to consider not giving himself extensive political powers if he doesn’t want to be mocked as power hungry. Photo from here.)

Meanwhile, Chinese officials similarly shot themselves in the foot, as they initially allowed broad coverage of the sexual assault and subsequent death of a 23 year old Indian woman, as that fit into their narrative of India’s form of development as inferior to China’s. As protests erupted across India (TW: sexual assault as “defilement”, some less reasonable than others), however, internet users speaking anonymously asked questions including, “If such things happen in China, will we have a large scale protest?” Searching for articles or coverage on Chinese networks now turns up no results, as the state has now censored discussion of the incident or ensuing protests.

In contrast to those two other examples that have to swim upstream against their own governments, Howard Schultz’s interest in some sort of a deal on the “Fiscal Cliff” didn’t face state-based censorship within the US. But furthermore, it didn’t have to compete on an open market of ideas. As the CEO of Starbucks, he could simply demand that his employees propagate his message, no matter how nonsensical its content or unclear its meaning. So even in many comparatively open and uncensored media markets, what views are represented speak more to the power of those stating them than their own merits or popular appeal.

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The year gendered violence got on everyone’s radar

TW: sexual assault, rape culture, condoning of sexual assault

2012 was the year in which sexual assault, and particularly its gendered dimensions, became something everyone had to acknowledge. And I mean everyone.

There’s a lot of different issues that could be said to have defined the Republican Party during the US’s elections this year. From the racism to the classism, a constant refrain was that those with little deserved even less. Beyond those steps taken by the party, women, particularly if affected by sexual assault or other violence related to their gender, were subject to similarly stupid proposed policies. Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan wrote excellently in August about the fatigue of beginning to lose track of how many horrifying statements about rape and sexual violence had floated around the Republican Party, at times translating into actually disgusting political proposals. The dangers were quite clear: electoral victories by the GOP would legitimize legal decisions that reflected these admitted beliefs. Women voters (especially when young or of color) by and large got that message and sent their own response back.

Blowback against these sort of attitudes was hardly an exclusively American or even first world phenomenon, this year. As allegations surfaced that the new government in Egypt had maintained the prior regime’s use of sexual violence against female protesters to discourage public dissent, there was a clear public outcry. Protesters have since embarked on a campaign to actively shame participants in sexual violence (Egyptian Arabic only, sorry) and to establish procedures to help anyone attacked by the police or others in the public places. Reports of sexual assault in Tahrir have declined since then, but whether a long term solution has been reached remains to be seen.

Indian protester women holding up placard: "Not as a Mother / Not as a Sister / I want my rights as a Human-being"
(One of the countless protests continuing throughout India since mid-December. From here.)

Most recently, however, an especially violent sexual assault in India has mobilized much of the country there. Protests and vigils have held everyone responsible – from parents to the police. New Years celebrations have been dampened or canceled out of some mixture of automatic respect and demanded contemplation of the issue at hand.

Across the world, 2012 seems to have been the year that women made themselves heard when they said that they weren’t going to take it anymore.

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In Egypt, there’s indications that the liberal coalition forged during the Tahrir Square protests that brought down the military regime almost two years ago is being tested against a new force: the more than eighty year old Muslim Brotherhood. The question being asked now is if democratic activists have the same sort of upper hand against the increasingly authoritarian Morsi presidency that they did against Mubarak.

(Pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi protesters have clashed with each other and police in recent days throughout Egypt. Originally from here.)

In Ghana, a similar test is unfolding. Today’s election is a choice between competing (and somewhat regionally distinct) ideas about how to best invest the growing national wealth from the oil industry – whether in physical infrastructure improvements or mass funding of public education. With the region having recently suffered from numerous recent civil wars, political conflicts, and even a coup, this is a clear test if Ghana’s democracy is more substantive than that of its neighbors.

Finally, India is testing its markets with significant changes to its laws on foreign investment and economic control. Historically cautious of international economic “cooperation” which was a significant component to British colonial dominance in the country, the Indian government has spent the past few decades gradually easing protectionist policies. With this change, a bit of a test is underway to see if protectionism was the reason why many Indians’ standard of living didn’t increase dramatically after independence. As the past years have been fairly inconclusive, with the majority of the benefits of the more “free market” economy going to specific groups, it remains to be seen if more foreign investment solves the problem.

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There are no great men

The “great men” theory of history got a bit of a test today in Egypt, and it failed. You might have noticed that yesterday and earlier today, twitter was abuzz with comments about the coming speech by President Morsi, which many expected to put forth a response of sorts to the public outcry over his new executive powers. Even now that’s what most overseas journalists are reporting on (only available in French at the moment). But his speech really didn’t cover much, or at least feel very responsive to many protesters.

(Protests in Itihadiya among other parts of Egypt continued unabated following the speech. Originally from here.)

If you actually read what’s being said on the ground though, it’s another story. The only way to understand what’s happened is not to focus on him, but the larger social context. The political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood has increasingly played second fiddle to its social organization, breeding a more conservative political force than what it presented itself as being. In the perceived power vacuum following the fall of the Mubarak regime, the military and Brotherhood emerged as allies who carved out a government together, which wouldn’t so much reform Egypt as replace the previous dictatorship. As Morsi became president and the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood became the dominant international media narrative, his government couldn’t help noticing how unrepresentative their Salafi Islamism was. But still, this was their chance to chase down that ever illusive idea of an authentically and adequately Islamic state, so emergency powers were the order of the day, even if they only widened the gap between ruler and ruled.

Morsi made a choice about what to say today, and he said the wrong thing, but because of the series of social forces that shaped his country, his party, and him. He’s neither the leader Egypt needs nor the leader who can make it into a country that needs him. His days look about as numbered as Mubarak’s had been.

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On Egypt, sexual violence, and twitter

TW: political violence against protesters, sexual assault, rape culture

Posting anything other than a let-me-link-you today would feel cheap as some fantastic online coverage is perfectly capturing the complex struggle going right now in Egypt. The tweeting of even just simple details by Sharif Kouddous is creating a rather vivid image of the way protest, political violence, and media are all interacting over there at this very moment. As long as you’re keeping tabs on him, you might as well pay a bit of attention to Mona Eltahawy as well, who isn’t in Egypt at the moment, but has been doing some insightful signal boosting for sexually assaulted protesters and their families.

(Clashes between different protesting groups in Cairo during the evening, midday US time. Originally from here.)

Looking over her recent coverage has put a lot of things in perspective when it comes to the politicization of rape. It was certainly interesting to take breaks from writing this piece on rape culture over at Velociriot only to read about the use of sexual assault to threaten or “legitimately” exercise violence over female protesters. The weaponization of rape is profoundly horrifying, and only grows more worrisome when you realize how utterly pervasive the trivialization of sexual assault and permissiveness towards rapists actually is.

Hopefully tomorrow’s news is less grim.

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Protesting. Protesting what? Just protesting.

TW: anti-democratic policies, violence against protesters, racism, sexism, heterosexism

Think of the last mass protest you heard coverage of. Now try to explain what it was about. Go ahead, I’ll wait. You might not be able to even articulate exactly why the protesters did what they were doing, and why they chose a particular date, why they chose a particular venue, and all sorts of other potentially illuminating insights into their politics. Two very different incidents this week were somewhat worrisome examples of this.

You’ve probably heard about the new round of protests in Egypt following President Morsi’s pressing for changes to the judicial system that would concentrate even more power in his political office. But do those protesting really want the status quo, just without those changes? I doubt it, but that’s something apparently unfathomable for most US coverage to even consider discussing.

CNN by far has the best analysis of the recent events by any US-based news, but it’s entirely absorbed in weighing the intentions and motivations of Mohamed Morsi and his supporters, with his critics assumed to have a choice between accepting or rejecting their political proposals. Do democratic activists have an alternative view of how the country should work, or just exist in a negative space of that defined by Morsi’s and Mubarak’s regimes? According to CNN, it’s the latter. Over at MSNBC, they aren’t rejecting it, so much as challenging it. ABC is lazily reposting brief quotes from the Associated Press which agree, they’re shutting down dialogue with the Morsi government. Fox gives you the choice between being told that they’re denouncing, or reacting as a developing coalition, or simply protesting Morsi’s policies.

(All these people showed up and no one bothered to find out if they had any plans for the future of their country or ideas about how things could work differently or frankly any idea beyond disagreeing with Morsi. From here.)

Normally I’ll comfortingly explain at this point in a post that US media are inadequate and all these great foreign sources exist which can actually give you a substantive look at what the opposition wants done instead, but that’s not the case. Al-Jazeera is similarly delving into the mind of Morsi by having Egyptian supporters and opponents argue about what he’s even doing while The Hindu has essentially just reprinted Morsi’s counter-argument against the protests. Apparently no one wants to actually interview someone in Tahrir Square and ask them what alternative policies they would like to see. They just know which ones they’re protesting. From over there. Where they won’t have to talk to them.

It’s easy to see this as an example of racism – as I’ve previously elaborated on how many news sources systemically ignore key issues in predominantly Arab (or otherwise non-White) countries. But this is something that almost everyone is categorically failing at, suggesting that it’s something even more profound. It appears to be partially an unwillingness to speak with those even within the same culture who are in any sense “other” since we can see the same sort of dynamic at play in the other recent incident which unfolded along similar lines, which occurred in France.

As you might know, France is undergoing a lot of economic turmoil at the moment as part of the Eurozone, but in addition, there’s been what you could call lively social discussion over the political plan to legally recognize same-sex couples as married at some point in the next few years. Thousands of angry right wing activists marched in Paris, and at least a good number of counter-protests were staged on the same streets. Unfortunately, they came to blows, namely as feminist pro-same-sex marriage activists were targeted by right wing activists.

Anti-SSM protester pepper spraying pro-SSM protester
(This image was included along with coverage of the incident and yet France 24 published no interview or even significant analysis of any of the feminist groups involved. Image from the above article.)

In France 24’s coverage of those incidents, however, the only interviews conducted were with the conservative activists, even though the article and video are billed as being about the violence against a different group of protesters. I guess those sometimes partially nude protesters were too intimidating to talk to, so the reporters held back and let the other protesters do the talking for them.

At this point it seems like a necessary rule when reading the news: if you see any discussion on any protests anywhere by any news source based anywhere, ask which perspectives you’re getting, and which ones you’re only being told what they oppose. In those gaps in discussion you see a lot of people (usually people of color, or the poor, or women, or LGBT* folks) doing something that’s apparently inscrutable or unworthy of commentary, and there’s a whole world of that out there.

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“Western” media won’t give you everything

TW: islamophobia

If you read only the typical reports and opinion pieces published by major US-based media, you would think that every facet of Egyptian politics revolved around religious social issues. Fox News would tell you that almost every part of Egyptian daily life eventually led back to the word jihad, and ABC News would tell you that the political debates in the country are between democratic Islamists and authoritarian Islamists. Every part of that particular country’s politics apparently has to do with how very Muslim they are (except when they’re non-Muslim in which case it’s how very surrounded by Muslims they are).

The more unusual but still mainstream US-based media, which is to say NBC, and most other “Western” countries’ major media have at least depicting some of the basic political discussion going on in Egypt, but there’s still clear limitations. Both MSNBC and France 24 covered recently elected President Mohamed (sometimes spelled Mursi) Morsi’s speech on Saturday, in which Morsi tried to make the case that he’s fulfilled the campaign promises that he could in his first hundred days in office and is working on the rest. Before we give those media outlets a gold star though, it’s worth noting that neither of their articles actually dive into the details of what the gap between his promises and his effect actually is. MSNBC’s coverage focuses on the seemingly random detail of his failure to cost-effectively subsidize butane cylinders, which much like his speech isn’t adequately contextualized. France 24 doesn’t even touch on any concrete issue, instead focusing on our old friend – the ever nebulous corruption.

This categorical failure to report on at least some of the deeper issues in Egyptian politics is of course nothing new. If you read one of Israel’s leading newspapers, Haaretz, or perhaps listen to one of the best news source in the US about foreign politics, NPR, it would be understandable for you to gain a completely lopsided perspective on Egyptian economics. Haaretz unabashedly reported that the political revolution threatened to “cause a profound economic crisis” in Egypt and potentially in neighboring countries as well (hint, hint). NPR’s report, while copping that not everything was rosy under ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, likewise presented the revolution as having untethered a now free-falling economy. Lost in all this reporting, naturally, were the clear arguments put forth by economists and political scientists, that “Egypt’s 2011 protests articulated a variety of  political and economic grievances that are deeply interlinked” (on page 5). And that the collapsing stock market (and to a lesser extent other poor economic indicators) was hardly a sudden economic crisis for protesters at least in part motivated by a litany of earlier reversals of fortune under Mubarak:

“[In Egypt] both absolute and relative poverty rates seem to have increased in the past decade. The proportion of the population living below the national poverty line – a measure of relative poverty – rose from 16.7% in 2000 to 22% in 2008, according to the latest available data from the World Bank, over a period when many other emerging  markets reduced poverty […] the proportion of people living on less than US$1 per day rose slightly from 1.8% in 2000 to 2% in 2005 (having previously declined from 4.6% of the population in 1991). Child malnutrition, measured by the proportion of underweight children, also increased slightly between 2005 and 2008, partly reversing improvements made in the 1990s.” (from page 4)

As in many parts of this world this downward slide into poverty has coincided with disintegrating infrastructure and a degraded environment. As Al-Jazeera reported recently, the flawed transportation policy which originated under Mubarak has continued under Morsi, with the government failed to either enforce traffic laws or invest in properly planned roads. The inadequate and poorly-run transportation system is so bad, it’s caused preventable deaths among Egypt’s own security forces. Likewise, the dysfunctional current government has compounded years of ill-advised environmental policies, leading to many residential areas only having access to drinking water that’s industrially polluted, biologically unsanitary, or both.

Injured Egyptian Security Force member being wheeled into the hospitalEgyptian man holding up dull beige water his family and neighbors have taken ill from drinking
(Left, one of the Egyptian Security Force members being wheeled to the hospital following the accident this weekend, originally from here. Right, an Egyptian man holds up the brown water his town had access to in the wake of an epidemic in August, originally from here.)

In a broader context, it’s easier to see how the crisis over butane supplies resonates with the Egyptian public – as it calls into question average Egyptians ability to safely and securely use their own natural resources. Likewise, corruption is not some vague social ill affecting intangible economic values, from investment to zoning, but a daily risk in a country with extremely selectively enforced traffic laws and environmental regulations. “Western” media won’t contextualize this for you. The only way to actually understand the politics of Egypt is through neighboring or local media that are familiar with daily life in the country. To understand some one, you have to listen to them, or at least listen to some one who listened to them.

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Constitution and Culture

TW: military occupation and political coercion of Afghanistan, Kurdish-Turkish conflicts and violence

Turkey’s recent party elections (which allowed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to remain the head of the ruling party) and upcoming Presidential Elections (in which Erdoğan seems likely to run) are an interesting and unexamined contrast to the US-led “nation-building” and democratization of Afghanistan. Both nations experienced massive political upheaval throughout the end of the twentieth century. Turkey survived three military coups, and Afghanistan saw its local monarchy succumb to Soviet occupation which in turn degraded into civil war and effective theocratic rule. In the first few years of the twentieth century, however, the US invaded and began occupying Afghanistan while pushing the development of a democratic and constitutional government. In Turkey, Erdoğan, then the mayor of İstanbul, formed the now-governing AK Party and led a comparatively peaceful and mostly electoral democratic transition. In his potential bid for the presidency, a major issue will be the lack of a replacement to the current constitution which was designed under military dictatorship.

While there are clear similarities in the overall political arch of the two countries for the past few decades, there’s a number of clear differences: most obviously, Turkey’s comparative wealth to Afghanistan’s undeniable poverty and Turkey’s endogenous democratization to Afghanistan’s part in Bush’s plan for the Islamic world. Less commonly addressed, I think, is the catch-22 that both nation’s have struggled with in different ways – for Afghanistan to create a constitution with minimal change in the broader culture and for Turkey to repair major problems in the larger political context without substantively challenging the flaws in the existing constitution.

The modern constitution of Afghanistan was adopted by consensus at a large delegate meeting of representatives of various ethnic groups and tribes and political factions, essentially organized by the US government. The political process was primarily shaped by foreign political pressure and domestic elites. Unsurprisingly, it failed to substantively address the underlying causes of terrorism and other violence against the succeeding government. As Sakena Yacoobi, Afghani literacy and women’s rights activist, explained in 2009-

“Many people tell me that Afghanistan should have democracy, but how can a society, a nation, have democracy when the people of that nation don’t know how to read and write? How can you implement a democracy if people don’t know their rights? We have a constitution, but it needs to be implemented. We cannot just talk about democracy. We have to prepare people for democracy.”

The constitution developed in 2003 remained little more than a piece of paper to millions of poor and effectively disenfranchised civilians in Afghanistan. Yacoobi also identifies the major issues that then newly-elected President Obama would need to focus on to actually substantively democratize Afghanistan:

“Peacekeeping is one way to negotiate with [civilians sympathetic to militants], but right now, for maintaining security, I think that troops are needed — but our own troops, not American. If the United States really wants to help stabilize our country, I would tell President Obama that the United States should direct its resources to planning, developing the infrastructure, and providing jobs for the people of Afghanistan and region. If people have enough to eat, a job, money to support their family, then they would not resort to suicide bombing, blowing themselves up and innocent people. Countries need some sort of national security — but most foreign troops are not primarily focused on protecting women and children. Their focus is on beating the enemy, which is very different, and ordinary citizens become collateral damage in the process.”

With stability in Afghanistan increasingly seeming unglued in spite of significant US support and cooperation with local security forces, it seems as though her warning for the course of action the US would need to take should have been heard years earlier under Bush. By the time Obama began implementing such solutions, the country had already politically disintegrated,  not from lack of a constitution but from the lack of a political context that could give such political items actual power.

Guards outside of the Loya Jirga, Afghanistan 2004.Turkish youth federation protesters who would be accused of terrorism

(Left, armed guards outside of the delegate meeting on Afghanistan’s constitution, 2004 – from here. Right, Turkish student protesters holding up a sign saying, “The Youth Federation wants and will get free education” who were charged with membership in a terrorist organization and given months or years in prison – from here.)

The current political problems in Turkey, however, are a sign that democratization that’s locally-arising and focuses on larger political issues and values isn’t necessarily enough to create lasting and effective change, especially when the constitution and legal system remain more or less unchanged. It’s hard to deny the ways the AK Party and Prime Minister Erdoğan specifically have changed political discussion in Turkey – as an even-handed analysis has to admit he’s shut-out a military which historically served as a check against democratic demands. He’s become a human incarnation of the idea that moderate Islam, representative government, and explosive economic development can be effectively combined, changing political discussions throughout the Islamic world.

But while the right to vote is not so precariously dependent on being tolerated by the military, the government has retained confusing and sometimes arbitrary limitations on freedom of speech, some of which were even used against the reformer party that now controls the government. Likewise, freedom from military violence and coercion seems exclusively a benefit that’s been gained by ethnic Turks, as violence between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish military has now reached a fever pitch. Erdoğan has helped significantly change the political culture of Turkey – but only for some and in certain circumstances, and increasingly to personal rather than national benefit. The constitution has been left unchanged since a coup decades ago and consequently gives these failures legal cover. The new system proposed by his government contains a poison pill of sorts, with it giving the presidency that Erdoğan is vying for more executive power. The larger political context of Turkey could only change so much, and the inattention to the problems with its constitution are exacerbating that problem.

The inevitable problem seems to be that constitutional and legal reform is necessary to effective democratization, but that contemporaneous changes to the broader political context and discourse in the country have to be significant. Simultaneously, the development of a substantively democratic culture requires to some degree legal and constitutional protections. We’re dealing with the chicken and the egg here – to focus very hard on only one as in Afghanistan and Turkey destroys the feedback cycle between the two, which might be the only way towards authentically democratic governance.

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It’s a world of pain

TW: child soldiers, military occupation, war crimes

There was a lot of death in the news this past week. Al-Jazeera has offered a quick but useful run-down of the origins of the conflict in Mali, where the Tuareg, a Berber tribe, initiated a secessionist movement which has since allowed the disintegration of secular governance over two-thirds of the country. There’s a lot of moving parts in the situation – a nationalist hope for statehood for Berbers somewhere in the region, a coup in Mali over the federal government’s inability to address the Tuareg rebellion, and the rising influence of Islamism in the rural Maghreb. One issue remains clear – the Ansar Dine, the Islamist organization that now controls the majority of Mali, is recruiting child soldiers and using extreme punishments (including death) on the usually forcibly enlisted children.

Last night, Rachel Maddow put on a lengthy but excellent segment about violence in Afghanistan. The data point to a clear conclusion – President Obama’s surge in Afghanistan has unambiguously failed to reduce violence, at least after the past three years. As a military strategy, the surge has in fact correlated with a dramatic increase in attacks on US soldiers, the Afghan state’s forces, and Afghan non-combatant civilians. Maddow lays out the case and the only options with this undeniable evidence is that either the surge has failed or the surge has backfired.

Additionally, an online Israeli magazine yesterday noted that a Canadian woman with Israeli citizenship was sentenced to 90 days imprisonment for avoiding military enlistment after immigrating as a minor to Canada. This was roughly contemporaneous with an incident where a former Israeli soldier was sentenced to half that time for killing an unarmed Palestinian woman and her daughter while they were waving a white flag. Independent news sources have confirmed the sentencing of the Canadian-Israeli woman and the sentencing of the former soldier. There’s many ways of interpreting the comparison these two events invite – for one, it begs the question of whether Israel views peaceful coexistence with its neighbors as possible, and likewise, how its answer to that question is impacting its citizens and the overall region.

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What do you do with a country like Russia? And who can and should do it?

TW: political killings, electoral rigging, silencing protesters

If you have a good memory, you’ll recall the on-going indications from the Romney campaign that as possible future President, Romney would reignite the Cold War with Russia. I’m curious to see if the recent crackdown on foreign-funded (including US-funded) non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia, will elicit US pundits to proclaim him to be a visionary who foresaw the coming conflict with Putin’s Russia. The obvious problem is how this is necessarily an issue of American foreign policy and furthermore one that requires decisive action on the part of the President. Russia’s problems so far have been internal in nature, even with the constant talk of “foreign agents.” Charging the opposition with being foreign collaborators or lackeys has been Putin’s response to the protests since they began almost a year ago against blatantly fraudulent parliamentary elections. This is not a strategy unique to Russia, nor even the eastern hemisphere.

This newly proposed policy has everything to do with domestic politics in Russia, especially those pertaining to civil liberties and transparent political processes. The electoral system is fundamentally fixed – for years violence against journalists has shut down effective reporting in the country, advocates of democracy and transparency have long alleged that domestic donors are threatened with arrests or violence, and last minute “fixes” from ballot stuffing to voter intimidation have become common. As demonstrations late last year and early this year continued – alleging all sorts anti-democratic efforts – the protest band Pussy Riot stormed the altar of Moscow’s main Russian Orthodox cathedral, calling on the Virgin Mary to protect them from Putin. The performance was filmed and distributed online after their arrest for hooliganism and insulting the Russian Orthodox faith (as one band member put it “I’m Orthodox but hold different political views” from church officials who urged the country to reinstate Putin as President).

(The original protest with the now famous song “Punk Prayer: Mother of God Drive Putin Away”)

The problem for Putin is clear – anarchist and feminist critiques of the de facto one party rule of Russia are getting a lot of attention and going mainstream. With the clear evidence of electoral rigging provided by better-funded NGOs like Голос (translatable as “Vote” or “Voice”), which had navigated the attacks on domestic financial supporters by looking for international support, popular movements hostile to the Putin presidency are developing.

Protests in Perm
(Protesters for the release of Pussy Riot in Perm, Russia, holding up a sign saying “the arts are the territory of freedom.” Originally from here.)

In a country where the bureaucracy is explicitly manipulated to invalidate most challengers’ candidacies and protesters are threatened with lengthy jail sentences, it’s unclear exactly what a Romney-led United States could do to help. Most of the population of Russia isn’t threatened with political killings – so a military intervention seems to be not only tactical nonsense but an ethically impractical solution. Sanctions are well-established non-starters. The EU has far more in the way of economic and political ties to Russia, and so far they’ve been leading the charge with all the diplomatic pushes they can.

If Romney honestly wants to help the people of Russia, and this isn’t empty posturing to make the US vote like it’s the 1980s again, he should be specific about what powers he sees the American presidency having which could be used to assist efforts to reinstate democratic and transparent governance in Russia. As with many other issues, he needs to be specific, if he’s going to speak up on this topic again.

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Conspiracies everywhere

TW: islamophobia, censorship, class inequality

The past weeks have seen quite a few people discussing whether conspiracies are actually afoot in all sorts of contexts. In Egypt, Hani Shukrallah pointed out that the anti-blasphemy protests in Cairo have forced the Muslim Brotherhood to politically move rightward to appeal to Islamists and have reinforced islamophobic stereotypes of violent Muslims in the United States, Europe, and Israel. He deliberately posits that if a conspiracy is at work, it’s probably not direct cooperation between Islamists and islamophobes, but rather an unhealthy and violent codependency. You should know the drill by now – repressive governments need terrorists to justify them, terrorists need a repressive government to justify them. Replace those two groups with virtually any mutually opposed violent groups. They’re secretly dependent on each other, and preventing conflicts requires identifying that.

Meanwhile, Tom over at The Sound and Noise has pointed out the terrifying “evidence” used to subpoena two different US citizens to grand juries on charges of conspiracy to riot or incite riot: they owned anarchist literature. As he points out:

The implication is that owning ‘anarchist’ literature is enough to indicate to the FBI that one is a criminal – even if that person happens to be a student studying political thought. Or maybe particularly if you are a student – the FBI document [on domestic terrorism] states that anarchists are ‘educated persons of various backgrounds, often students.

This is particularly worrisome on the heels of the Democratic Party having struck several references to civil liberties from their platform this year, essentially moving rightward to the Republican Party’s position.

Furthermore, Kitty Stryker over at Huffington Post has pointed out all of interesting examples of how both the economies of the United States and the United Kingdom are increasingly relying on illegal and unethical means of cheapening labor costs – namely with unpaid internships and welfare-work agreements below legal minimums. The funny coincidence of this being written for Huffington Post is worth a chuckle.

So, everyone hates each other, can get arrested on virtually no evidence, and probably won’t get paid. Have a fun weekend!

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The Obama administration officially needs to buy a calendar already

TW: political killings, marginalization of and violence against indigenous peoples, military coups

I mentioned late last week the unfortunate anniversary of the US-backed 1973 Chilean coup which coincided almost exactly with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s declaration that the United States is a clear force for global liberation. What I left out of that discussion was the later American support for the brutal regime, namely the apparent complacency between at least one US-based bank and former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in hiding illegally obtained funds which he intended to access after fleeing Chile. While the US government armed and otherwise assisted his violent take over of the country, its role in the 2005 probe which uncovered the bank’s unsavory deal was a bit of a fig leaf. Although it didn’t exactly correcting the past mistake, it at least made some gesture of reparation. No domestic suits were filed, but the revealed information assisted prosecution efforts in Chile.

A few years later, then presidential candidate Barack Obama would deliver a rather impacting speech on flaws in the United States’ policies with regards to Latin America, saying:

From the right, we hear about violent insurgents. From the left, we hear about paramilitaries. This is the predictable debate that seems frozen in time from the 1980s. You’re either soft on Communism or soft on death squads. […] The person living in fear of violence doesn’t care if they’re threatened by a right-wing paramilitary or a left-wing terrorist; they don’t care if they’re being threatened by a drug cartel or a corrupt police force. They just care that they’re being threatened, and that their families can’t live and work in peace. That is why there will never be true security unless we focus our efforts on targeting every source of fear in the Americas. That’s what I’ll do as President of the United States.

And yet, his administration just refused to extradite or permit domestic legal cases against the former Presidents of Mexico and Bolivia, who are charged with killing or permitting the killing of civilians who held opposing political views. This from the administration that justified the assassination of multiple targets (sometimes US citizens) in other countries often with little or no involvement of the territories’ legitimate governments. Evidently, jurisdictions only exist for other countries.

The case against former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo has been widely publicized, with The Economist and Bloomberg News both fairly explicitly calling the Connecticut-based civil suit a sham, potentially motivated by historic political rivalries. Given the dissolution of the same case against Zedillo in Mexico amid accusations that the plaintiffs were fabricated evidence, it’s necessary to not reject these claims outright. That being said, declassified US intelligence shores up the claims that Zedillo and his government either exhibited criminal negligence of government-trained paramilitaries, deliberately used them against Zapatista-supportive civilians, or did both.

While Zedillo’s and his administration’s culpability in a 1997 massacre could arguably have been adequately examined in Mexican courts and this case is only a shameful circumvention of double jeopardy restrictions (common to both Mexico and the United States), the case is much clearer against the former Bolivian President. Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada has been charged by Bolivian courts with legally condoning violence against indigenous protesters, which left 60 dead and at least 400 injured. As the current Bolivian government sees those protests as being legitimate opposition to efforts to erase the social and economic viability of indigenous communities among other groups which then faced excessive police violence, he has been charged with genocide. He has not stood trial for this actions anywhere, and the request of the Bolivian government is for him to be extradited so he could stand trial there, rather than a suit being brought to him in the United States.

(Left, police violence against protesters in Bolivia, October 2003. Right, protests for the extradition of Former President Gonzalo “Goni” Sánchez de Lozada, June 2007.)

Earlier in President Obama’s term in office, Human Rights advocates, many of them based in the United States, were optimistic about the possibility of Obama’s new commitment to reducing all forms of violence in Latin America driving an extradition of the former Bolivian president, now six years after the killings. Last Tuesday, however, his administration’s Department of State made clear that extradition was not an option for either of these former heads of state. Again, this statement was made on the anniversary of the US-backed Chilean coup in 1973 – showing a hint of ignorance or malice in the policy decision. As with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s remarks, the timing could not have been worse, let alone the substance of her statements or the State Department’s release.

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