An American not in Tehran

Tehran, where Danny Postel is not writing from (image: matthew cassel)

After publishing my article “An American in Tehran” in In These Times, one commentator named Danny Postel wrote a critical response from Chicago and brought in a bunch of his friends to support his positions. One of his friends even dismisses my article as “propaganda” and a “sham.”

In a strange move for most publications, the popular Tehran Bureau website, which calls itself “an independent source of news on Iran and the Iranian diaspora” and has a partnership with the American Public Broadcasting Service, republished Postel’s already published response to an article on a completely different site. Postel’s response, which Tehran Bureau editors cleverly titled “Pretzel Logic on the American Left,” is a few hundred words longer than my original piece. One would think it only fair that Tehran Bureau then give me the space to respond, however, after an initial email exchange weeks ago where I asked to be given the chance to defend myself I’m still waiting to hear back. Unfortunately, it seems that few outside Iran are willing to take part in a discussion around the diverse “Green Movement” if it means portraying individual activists as anything other than “Gandhiesque.”

I’m pasting the text of my response which you can also find published below Postel’s response in In These Times here.

Contrary to Danny Postel’s claims, I did not intend to portray the Basij or Ahmadinejad government in a sympathetic light. Rather, my aim was to lend nuance to a complex reality in Iran that has been oversimplified by nearly all media outlets in the United States, from Fox News to commentators like Postel.

Unlike Postel, I do not attempt to make sweeping generalizations about the ideology of a diverse opposition movement that includes Iranians from all walks of life. Nor would I ever attempt to make such generalizations from the other side of the globe. I traveled to Iran to gain a better understanding of what was happening there.

Perhaps from my hometown Chicago, where Postel writes from and which I left years ago — knowing that I couldn’t accurately cover the Middle East without actually being here — I might share his naive assessment of the situation. But the fact is, on the ground in Tehran, I found a reality that doesn’t coincide with Postel’s illusions.

The majority of the opposition activists with whom I spoke seemed to not be as concerned with this idea of “nonviolence” as Postel and his friend from Columbia University. To impose this label upon them is absurd and offensive to those activists who don’t necessarily agree that the only justifiable form of resistance is one of “nonviolence.” Most activists I met were angry and ready to fight. One woman even expressed how she wishes Hezbollah (which she wholeheartedly supports) didn’t have such a close relationship with her government so that she could return to Lebanon with me and be trained in guerrilla warfare to use against the state.

Another activist, who expressed sympathies for the former Shah, told me a story about how her and her friends had to dive on top of a friend from South America during the June 2009 protests to protect him from dozens of raging opposition protesters who attacked him chanting “Basiji” just because of — as she explained it — his darker skin and beard. Such events prove the tremendous diversity in political and tactical strategy among the protesters.

To pretend that there is one ideology that unites the opposition couldn’t be further from the truth. This, along with the massive pro-government rallies since the elections that I pointed out and which Postel conveniently omits in his critique, are exactly why I conclude that what’s happening in Iran is not necessarily the makings of a new revolution.

Last year’s controversial elections have, however, sparked a new wave of political activity in Iran, and because of the sensitivity of the situation my sources all asked to remain anonymous. My article in no way apologizes for the Iranian government’s brutal repression of opposition activists. Postel, on the other hand, apologizing for Mousavi’s role as prime minister in the 1980s, shows the utter hypocrisy of many on the “left” who are no less guilty than the right for trying to prevent a more realistic portrayal of what’s happening in Iran from reaching people in the United States.

An American in Tehran

Tehran. (image: matthew cassel)

An American in Tehran
The ‘Green Revolution’ won’t come as soon as we think it will.
by Matthew Cassel

I awoke as the plane’s wheels touched the ground. Two women in the row ahead of me secured their scarves over their heads, and I popped some gum into my mouth to cover up any lingering scent of alcohol on my breath. Pulling up to the gate, I glimpsed the red, white and green flags with the distinctive “Allah” logo in the middle, welcoming me—I hoped—to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

I was going to Iran in the midst of ongoing protests that began following last June’s contentious presidential elections. As an American journalist who has worked in the region for years, I was invited to give a talk at a media conference on the Western media’s coverage of the Middle East.

Hizballah's call for legitimacy

image: matthew cassel

Last week Hassan Nasrallah delivered a speech over video link from an unknown location, as he frequently does. The leader of the Lebanese Shia Islamic resistance and political group Hizballah addressed the audience in Beirut to present the group’s new manifesto, their first since 1985 when the group unveiled its initial open letter.

The new political document, however, contained few surprises for some observers like independent Lebanese journalist Bilal el-Amine. “It’s not new for the people who have followed Hizballah over the past 20 years,” he said. “The new document only formalizes Hizballah’s process. [Unlike the 1985 letter] there is no call for an Islamic state which has been the de facto position for many years now; this shows their commitment to become an integral part of Lebanese society.”
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Book review: "A World I Loved"

This is my review of Wadad Makdisi Cortas’ memoir, A World I Loved. I highly recommend this book for people outside the Middle East who wish to better understand this region’s recent history.

Book review: “A World I Loved”

091104-cassel-cortas“This is my story, the story of an Arab woman,” Wadad Makdisi Cortas states in the opening line of her memoir A World I Loved. Born Wadad Makdisi in Beirut in 1909, which at that time was considered a part of Syria, she discovered Arab nationalism at a young age and lived a life true to the idea in every sense. Cortas, born a Greek Orthodox Christian, believed passionately that Arabs, in order to protect their culture and values, should liberate themselves from Western colonialism which sought to impose its ways and divide the people.

Though the memoir was originally written in Arabic, Cortas’ daughter Mariam Said explains in the book’s introduction: “She felt compelled to write in English to explain to the West the politics around the Palestinian tragedy …” (xxviii). Before her death in 1979, Cortas gave the manuscript to Mariam’s husband, the late Palestinian thinker Edward Said, for publication. At first, the family was unable to find a publisher. But after the 11 September 2001 attacks and subsequent US-led wars in the Middle East, the region became the focus of much of the world. It was then, Mariam Said writes, “that the time for her book had come” (xxix).

Cortas’ story begins in 1917, the year of the infamous Balfour Declaration in which the British promised Arab Palestine as a national home for the Jewish people, and the year before an old empire would be replaced with a new one. World War I marked the end to centuries of Ottoman rule and the beginning of the French and British Mandate over much of the Middle East; Syria and Lebanon fell under the control of the French. While growing up, Cortas had no choice but to become involved in politics. Her father, a professor of Arabic at what is now the American University of Beirut, sent her to the still-operating secular Ahliah National School for Girls in Beirut. She learned much through him and his intellectual colleagues who would meet at the family’s home to discuss issues of the time. Throughout the book, she quotes her father’s lessons: “‘No one loves us for our black eyes,’ goes a saying that Father often repeated. ‘These big nations are selfish; their major aim is to use us as tools to further their interests and ambitions'” (34).

Continue reading “Book review: "A World I Loved"”

Baseless organ theft accusations will not bring Israel to justice

Baseless organ theft accusations are a propaganda gift for Israel, and deflect attention from its well-documented war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (image: matthew cassel)
Baseless organ theft accusations are a propaganda gift for Israel, and deflect attention from its well-documented war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. (image: matthew cassel)

Baseless organ theft accusations will not bring Israel to justice

by Matthew Cassel

On Friday I was invited to appear on Press TV (Iran’s international English-language satellite channel) alongside Donald Bostrom, a Swedish journalist who authored the recent article about the Israeli army stealing the organs of young Palestinian men it had killed in 1992 during the first Palestinian intifada. I surprised the producers at Press TV who I don’t think invited me to argue the article’s legitimacy, but instead reaffirm its claims.

After the show, a producer in Tehran thanked me and told me that it was nice to get someone from the “other side.” But I had to make it clear, that I was not from the “other side” as she meant it. I support uncovering human rights violations and war crimes wherever they occur, especially in Palestine, where I have worked for many years. I do believe Bostrom’s intentions were to do much the same but that his process was highly irresponsible. The problem is not that he is accusing the State of Israel of wrongdoing, but that he is making accusations of what would amount to extremely serious war crimes while providing absolutely no evidence to support his claims. Rather than advancing the cause of Palestinian human rights, such behavior hurts the many organizations, journalists, activists and others working tirelessly to expose and document Israel’s numerous violations of international law committed against Palestinians and people of other Arab nations in recent decades.

Bostrom’s article lacks credibility for a number of reasons. In the opening paragraph he tells the story of Levy Rosenbaum, a Jewish man in New York linked to illegal trafficking in human organs with counterparts in Israel. While Rosenbaum has admitted to buying organs from destitute Israelis, until now there has been nothing outside Bostrom’s article to suggest that this trade involved the organs of Palestinians killed by the Israeli army.

Rosenbaum has also admitted to being involved in the trade for the past ten years which is well after 1992, when Bostrom claims the organ theft may have occurred in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Other than Israel being involved, there is no evidence to make a direct link between these incidents. It is poor journalism on Bostrom’s part to use a timely event and try to connect it to something that happened nearly two decades earlier without offering any evidence.

Bostrom also refers to Palestinians disappearing for days at a time and have in many cases returned dead. This is known to have occurred before, especially Palestinians being arrested and taken to detention centers without the Israeli authorities bothering to inform the families. This is something that has been reported on and documented by numerous Palestinian human rights organizations. Israel may have even performed autopsies on the bodies without the families’ consent, as Bostrom reports. He publishes a horrific photograph of one of these bodies alongside the article, but again, this is not proof that organs in that person’s body were removed and sold, or given to Israelis in need, as the author implies.

One must also ask why this story was not covered in 1992, when Bostrom claims the organ theft occurred. It seems this would be a more appropriate time to expose such a story when bodies of those killed by Israel could have been autopsied to determine for a fact whether or not organs from those Palestinians killed by Israel were in fact removed. In the Press TV interview, Bostrom claimed that he did approach many Palestinian, Israeli and international organizations but none, minus the UN, heeded his call for further investigation. Yet, he only makes brief mention of this in the article and says the UN staff was prevented from doing anything about his findings.

Unlike Bostrom’s reporting, when most Palestinian human rights organizations or other journalists have uncovered Israeli violations, they are sure to provide well-documented evidence to prove beyond a doubt that such violations were in fact committed. Even though Israel has made it very difficult for both Palestinian and international journalists and human rights workers to practice inside the West Bank and Gaza Strip, many have risked their lives to see that evidence of Israel’s crimes is uncovered and reported.

Many such well-documented violations committed over recent decades include: willful killing of civilians, including children; torture; extrajudicial executions; depriving a civilian population of food and other necessities; blackmailing patients in need of medical care to try to turn them into informers; wanton and deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructure; punitive home demolitions; and illegal use of restricted weapons against civilian targets, including white phosphorus and cluster bombs. The list of UN resolutions and international treaties violated by Israel is far too long to list here, although these violations have been carefully documented over many years by human rights organizations that have worked tirelessly for their enforcement.

I am not trying to argue here that Israel or some Israelis could never have trafficked stolen Palestinian organs. In a place like Palestine, however, where evidence of Israeli war crimes has never been difficult to find — despite Israel’s consistent efforts to block investigations — those concerned with holding Israel accountable should not level allegations of such seriousness without producing some evidence.

Following Israel’s winter invasion of Gaza — during which more than 1,500 Palestinians were killed, the vast majority civilians — several well-known international human rights groups issued reports containing irrefutable evidence of shocking crimes. Israeli soldiers who participated in the attack on Gaza have been quoted in the Israeli press talking about how they or their colleagues committed atrocities, such as shooting dead unarmed civilians, including children.

The fact that Bostrom did not offer evidence for his organ theft claims has given Israel an enormous propaganda gift. Because he offered nothing more than conjecture and hearsay, Israel has launched a major campaign casting itself as an aggrieved victim of “blood libel.” This allows Israel to distract attention from the mountains of evidence of well-documented war crimes, and even to discredit real evidence. If there is no evidence behind the organ theft claims, Israel can argue, then maybe all these other claims about crimes in Gaza are equally dubious.

Predictably, Israel and its supporters launched a ridiculous campaign not only targeting Bostrom and his newspaper, but against all of Sweden and its population of more than nine million. Some have started an online petition calling for the boycott of the furniture retailer IKEA, founded in Sweden, while the Israeli interior ministry claims it will freeze the entry visas for Swedish journalists. Furthermore, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is demanding that the Swedish government declare its “condemnation” of the article. This is a strategy that Israel could not use in response to the Gaza war crimes reports. With each violation clearly documented and coming from a wide range of credible sources and testimonies, Israel could not demand that governments condemn the human rights groups and publications that disseminated them. Israel predictably objected to the reports issued about Gaza, but tried to bring as little attention to them as possible — understandably, because the reports are irrefutable.

But Israel has done all it can to draw attention and create an international crisis out of the organ theft allegation. Even the president of the Official Council of Jewish Communities in Sweden has condemned the response, saying that Israel “had blown the issue completely out of proportion.” As Israel does with increasingly little discrimination, it has claimed that the article was motivated by “anti-Semitism.” So far, Sweden has withstood Israel’s hectoring that its government must take a position on an article published in a free press. But given the record of pandering to Israel, it remains to be seen if Sweden will stick to this position. If Sweden does bow down to Israeli pressure, it would set a frightening precedent for journalists whereby Israel can affect a state’s policy of freedom for the press.

Israel’s tactics of intimidation are not justified by Bostrom’s article, which is nothing more than an example of irresponsible journalism and publishing. The editors at the Swedish daily Aftonbladet who published this piece, should’ve sent it back to the author and told him to investigate the issue further until he found evidence to corroborate his claims. If there is any basis for the organ theft allegations, diligent reporting would bring it out. As Malcolm X said, “Truth is on the side of the oppressed;” all we need is to collect the evidence to prove it.

The Western media and Iran

The Western media and Iran
Matthew Cassel, The Electronic Intifada, 23 June 2009

Protestors, anywhere in the world, are extremely brave individuals whose reasons for demonstrating openly should be listened to and respected. Protest is democracy at work. However, too often, US and other Western-based media pick and choose which protests to cover and which to ignore completely.

The US media often celebrate themselves as the “freest and fairest” in the world, completely independent of a state unlike, for example, the media in Iran. Yet, an astute observer will notice that the US media generally choose stories and cover them in a way that play directly into the US’s global agenda.

Who decides whether or not a particular issue is “newsworthy?” One would think that this is the role of the media, to cover issues like conflict or rights abuses as they happen around the world. Although, it seems this isn’t the case. Most Western media appear to follow their government’s lead when focusing on different issues and then cover them in a way fitting with the government’s position, hence the complete domination of events in Iran in nearly every single Western media outlet and the overwhelmingly positive portrayal of the protestors and the opposition as just. The current case of Iran makes it clear that it is governments who are directing the media’s coverage, instead of the actual news organizations themselves.

There was also a noticeable shift in the US media’s coverage of foreign affairs after the attacks of 11 September 2001. Soon after, then President George Bush’s rule of “with us or against us” was applied to all, and media outlets and individuals critical of American foreign policy were immediately demonized and labeled “unpatriotic” or “anti-American.” To counter such charges, it became common for American television journalists to prove their patriotism and loyalty by wearing American-flag lapel pins.

These reasons explain why over recent weeks while the Iran elections were happening there has been virtually no coverage in most media of demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands in Georgia or Peru. It has even been reported in Peru that dozens of persons have been killed during the protests, or “clashes” as they’ve also been labeled (since more than a dozen police have also been killed), more than the reported number killed in Iran.

Why are protests in Iran receiving more attention than those in other places? One logical explanation is that the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is a key ally of the US and NATO. Thus, the West and its media have remained largely silent about the opposition protests to not give them attention that would likely inspire the demonstrations to continue and grow, undoubtedly weakening the Saakashvili government.

Meanwhile, the situation in Latin America is particularly sensitive. Coverage of protests by indigenous groups and their supporters in Peru might further embolden these efforts and expose the unjust policies of recent Free Trade Agreements with the US and perhaps lead that country down a path like the increasingly popular governments of Venezuela or Bolivia. Of course, both nations are seen as “anti-American” for their critical positions regarding US intervention in Latin America.

However, Iran is different than both Georgia and Peru. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has probably overtaken Osama Bin Laden as the most hated individual in the US. Over the past several years, many officials in Washington have called for more aggressive actions to be taken against Iran. More recently, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave US President Barack Obama an ultimatum that the US president better take care of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, or else Israel would. It’s no coincidence then that the protests in Iran are receiving around-the-clock media coverage and are also one of the only examples in recent years where US government officials have showed support for demonstrators like Obama did when he called on Iran to “stop all violent and unjust actions against its own people.” They are certainly not the only protests that have been met with violent government repression.

For years, Palestinians have organized weekly nonviolent demonstrations against Israel’s wall in the West Bank. Each week protestors face the heavily-armed Israeli military and are beaten and shot at with rubber-coated steel bullets and tear-gas canisters, sometimes fatally. Yet, during his recent speech in Cairo to the Muslim world, Obama made no reference to these protests and instead called on Palestinians to “abandon violence” and adopt nonviolent means. Days after the speech a Palestinian was killed and a teenager wounded during the weekly protest, yet there has been no call by the US administration for Israel to “stop all violent and unjust actions” against the Palestinian people. And the media has followed and remained silent, even though covering the demonstrations would be as easy as a 30-minute drive from most Jerusalem-based news bureaus on any given Friday.

Furthermore, at the height of the Bush Administration’s call for “democracy” in the Middle East, an indigenous democratic movement arose in Egypt to challenge the corruption and failed economic policies of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Comprised of workers who organized unprecedented strikes for four years that grew in number with each successive rally, the demonstrations received little coverage in the US. An odd occurrence, considering the duration of the strikes and the size of the protests, which a number of observers believe had the potential to lead to something much bigger in Egypt, perhaps even a “revolution.” The lack of media coverage of these events can only be explained by the relationship between the US and Egypt. Mubarak, who has governed Egypt for nearly three decades, is often referred to as a dictator for his repression of opposition political figures and journalists critical of his government. Yet, he remains one of the most important US allies in the Middle East, so “violent and unjust actions” against Egyptians is tolerated by the West.

Similarly, during Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza this past winter, there were massive and unprecedented demonstrations across the Middle East in support of Palestinians in the besieged territory. Again, these received minor if any mention, likely because it challenged the media and Washington’s narrative that Israel was “fighting Hamas.”

Also in accordance with that narrative, there was scant footage broadcast in the Western media from inside Gaza. Similar to what Iran is doing now, Israel banned journalists from entering Gaza during the attacks. Despite this, there were large Arabic-language satellite stations like Al-Jazeera reporting from the ground with footage of nearly everything that was happening there.

When images were shown by CNN or its competitors, it was generally not true to the real horror faced by Palestinians in Gaza. I can’t recall seeing one video of one of the hundreds of children killed in Gaza shown in the US media. In contrast, two days ago CNN broadcasted footage of a woman who was shot and bleeding to death on a Tehran street. Most of these viral videos are taken on citizens’ mobile phones, and they even have a special logo that CNN has created for the “unverified material.”

But there is plenty of “verified material” showing violent images from the Middle East and many other places around the world in recent days, weeks, years that has never been shown. Videos and testimonials are readily available on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, waiting, indeed begging, for the US media to take notice. But coverage of certain places might contradict US foreign policy there, something much of the media are proving unwilling to do.

If the elections and demonstrations in Iran have revealed anything, it is that there are undeniably huge divisions that will greatly affect the future of the country. It’s the individual’s decision to choose which side he or she supports, if any. And it’s the responsibility of the media to be independent of the authorities and to present accurate information in context so that news consumers’ judgments will be informed and not made based off the foreign policy of Western governments.

A free and independent media is an essential part of any democracy, and something that the West is proving more and more that it lacks.

On the Iranian Election Fraud Allegations

A friend asked me to write something up quickly on the Iranian elections for, so I quickly modified and extended my last blog post. You can also find an Arabic translation by clicking the link at the top right of the page on Meedan’s site.

This was written at 3am when I was also tweeting like a madman, so please mind the typos!

The Internet is going crazy over the happenings in Iran. The response to alleged election “rigging” is being called a “revolution” by everyone from right-wing Americans to left-wing Egyptians. Personally, I am not convinced that fraud did occur in these elections, and that’s not because I pretend to know or understand Iran’s electoral system or what happened when tens of millions of Iranians went to the polls on 12 June. I’m not convinced for one simple reason: If fraud was committed it would’ve had to have been on a massive scale, and voter fraud on a massive scale would mean that there must be at least a shred of evidence. Until now, there is absolutely none.

Everyone outside Iran needs to take a few deep breaths, chill out and get the facts straight before accusing one side or the other of foul play. Say what you will about Iranian “democracy,” Ahmedinijad could very well have been the legitimate winner in these elections, meaning the majority of Iranians voters chose him last week. What’s happening now involves a lot of mostly angry youth who are protesting in Tehran and it’s being reported in a few other places around the country. Before the world jumps behind their “revolution,” let’s discuss what we know.

A blog featuring the reporting of Iranian-American Alireza Doostdar in Tehran breaks down the numbers put out by the Iranian Interior Ministry. Now, one can argue that these numbers are not independent of the government and could therefore be rigged. But at least this does show what the government is reporting by district and explains how it could make sense. No one denies that Ahmedinijad has more support among Iran’s working class and also among those who are more religiously conservative. The protests now are happening in the upper-class north area of Tehran where people are upset by the election results as is clear in the numbers released by the interior ministry.

Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog also explains how the results make sense by providing statistical analysis of the elections.

Another important item that indicates there was no need for fraud is a poll conducted by a US non-profit weeks before the elections shows that Ahmedinijad has support at a margin of 2 to 1 just weeks before the elections. It also shows that before the elections Mousavi was not the most popular among Azeri voters even though he “emphasized his identity as an Azeri, the second-largest ethnic group in Iran after Persians, to woo Azeri voters.”

As US President Barack Obama admitted recently in Cairo, the west has interfered in Iranian affairs in the past when he made reference to the US/British-backed coup in 1953. That coup, which overthrew the democratic (and secular) government of Iran put into power the pro-American Shah. More than two decades later Iranians took to the streets en masse and overthrew the Shah in 1979, hence the Islamic Republic of Iran that exists today.

Now, more than 50 years after the coup, there are again powerful forces outside Iran working to see the elected government fall from power. Before citizens of the world also join a campaign against Ahmedinijad we should consider that if it does happen and it’s not the voice of the majority of Iranians calling for it, we can probably expect that the violent images circulating the web will be little compared to those that will follow.

Hizballah and the Lebanese elections

image: matthew cassel
image: matthew cassel

LEBANON: Hizbullah Punching Above Its Numbers
Analysis by Matthew Cassel

BEIRUT, Jun 6 (IPS) – Understanding Lebanon’s complex political system is no easy task. In a relatively small country of about four million, Lebanon has more than 18 religious communities and dozens of active political parties. The sectarian political system divides the 128 seats of parliament between 10 of those religious sects, leaving one for minorities.

Much has happened in Lebanon since the small Middle East country’s last general elections in 2005. Those elections happened in the wake of the February 2005 assassination of then prime minister Rafiq Hariri by a car bomb that shook Beirut’s seaside.

Just a month prior to the 2005 elections, Lebanese politicians including Rafiq Hariri’s son and current March 14 Future Movement leader Saad Hariri led demonstrations known as the “Cedar Revolution” which eventually led to the end of a near 30-year presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon.

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