Mourning has broken

"Those who cannot remember the past," wrote the perennially misquoted George Santayana, "are condemned to repeat it." Recent events in Iran are served equally well by another famous line: "Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God."

The mullahs are not having a good few weeks. The death of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, Iran's most learned Ayatollah and articulate dissident, on 19 December, at the beginning of the holy month of Muharram, could not have come at a worse time. The regime feared his death would provide impetus to the protestors. It was right. But its significance lies as much in the timing as in his demise.

Sunday 27 December was Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram, when clashes between protestors and the state reached new levels. Ashura is the day of mourning for the Imam Husayn, martyred by the caliph Yazid at Karbala in 680AD. The event sits at the centre of the Shia consciousness and its political message - martyrdom of the good at the hands of a despot - fills the national imagination.

During Ashura, the annual re-enactments of Husayn's death see thousands weep in the streets for a man killed over 1,300 years ago. This collective memory has long been a catalyst mobilising the Iranian people to political action. No one understood this more than Ayatollah Khomeini himself, who repeatedly attacked the shah, calling him Yazid, during the revolution. The message then as now was political but the medium was religious.

Thirty years ago, the political grievances of the Iranian people combined with the religious calendar to bring down the shah. In December 1978, on Ashura, protests turned to huge outpourings of rage. The regime responded in the only way it knew how: violence. It didn't work. Weeks later, the shah fled.

Crowds mourning both Montazeri and Husayn now fight the authorities in greater numbers. Ashura once again mobilises the people. This does not mean that revolution is imminent. But the government is becoming desperate and increasingly violent. It is criminal but, to use one last quotation: "It's worse than a crime; it's a mistake."

This article first appeared in the 04 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Gaza: one year on

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Ankara bombs: Turkey is being torn apart by bad leaders and bad neighbours

This is the worst terror attack in Turkey’s history. In just a few months, hundreds of civilians, Turkish security personnel and PKK members have been killed.

It had already been a deadly summer of political instability in Turkey. And now this. Another massacre – this time at the hand of twin bomb attacks on a peace rally in Ankara, which have killed at least 97 people.

It is the worst terror attack in Turkey’s history. In just a few months, hundreds of civilians, Turkish security personnel and PKK members have been killed. Barely a single day passes in Turkey without some incident of lethal political violence.

Freedom from fear is the very basic principle of human security, which should be protected by any state that wants a true sense of legitimacy over its population and territory. In Turkey, that freedom is under enormous pressure from all sorts of internal and external forces.

Stirred up

There are plenty of competing explanations for the political violence engulfing the country, but none can seriously overlook the impact of Turkey’s bad political leadership.

The terrible, violent summer reflects nothing so much as an elite’s greed for power and willingness to treat civilians as dispensable. This has become particularly apparent since Turkey’s inconclusive June 7 election, and the way various political parties and leaders did all they could to prevent the formation of a viable coalition government.

Ultimately, the power game is simple enough. At the elections hastily called for November, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party needs to garner only a few per cent more than it did in June to win the majority it needs for Erdogan to bolster his powers and make himself the country’s executive president.

To that end, pro-government media has been in overdrive throughout the summer, deliberately fuelling an environment of division, paranoia and mistrust in hopes of winning votes out of pure fear.

All the while, southeast Turkey has endured dreadful violence. Some towns – Cizre, for instance, which was under seige for days – have suddenly found themselves on the front line of renewed fighting between the security forces and the PKK.

The demise of the peace process is not just a failure of diplomacy – it signals that the armed conflict is still hugely politically and financially lucrative to Turkey’s political and military leaders. And the violence they’re profiting from is rapidly corroding social life and human security across the country.

The war next door

But the political instability caused by Turkey’s leaders has been greatly exacerbated by its neighbours, especially the continuing civil war in Syria and its deadly ramifications – an influx of jihadist fighters, a massive refugee crisis, and spiralling military interventions.

Since the end of the Cold War, global security has never been so seriously threatened as it is by today’s situation in Syria, which is now host to a head-to-head clash between the interests of Russia, the Assad regime and Iran on the one hand and the US, the EU, their Arab allies, and NATO on the other.

All sides claim to be fighting against the Islamic State and other Islamist extremists, but it’s clear that what’s really at stake is a lot more than just the fate of the jihadists or the political future of Syria. Already there’s an ominous spat underway over Russian planes' incursion into Turkish airspace; NATO has already raised the prospect of sending troops to Turkey as a defensive gesture.

And while it was always inevitable that the Syrian disaster would affect its northern neighbour to some degree, Turkey’s continuing internal political instability is proving something of an Achilles heel. By deliberately forcing their country into a period of chaotic and violent turmoil, Turkey’s leaders have made it more susceptible than ever to the Syrian conflict and the mighty geopolitical currents swirling around it.

And yet they press on with their cynical political ploys – seemingly unmoved by the cost to their people, and unaware that they could just be becoming pawns in a much bigger game.

The Conversation

Alpaslan Ozerdem is a Chair in Peace-Building and Co-Director of the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.