Reshuffling the Civil Society
A member of the central committee of the Hezbe Motalefe Islamic party (Islamic Coalition Party) once again called for combating civil society groups in Iran. Hamid Reza Taraghi, who holds no government or other official positions in Iran, has come out like a decision maker and this time called for a complete reshuffle of civil society organizations.
His call comes at a time when fundamentalists have been effectively controlling city councils across the country and the parliament, through their latest elections and now are focusing more on non-government religious organizations and groups. Taraghi’s problem according to his own words is that he believes that NGOs are occupied by what he calls “outsiders”, and thus beyond any official control. And without naming any one specific person or group to whom these “outsiders” belong, he simply calls all of them “royalists”, a term that these days does not carry any political weight but is a vague reference to the old guard prior to the revolution of 1979. What appears to be the focus of the likes of Taraghi is anything outside the formal government structure because all the official political organizations are now safely in the hands of the hardline conservatists, with the presidency and thus the executive branch being the very last to fall into their hands. So the attention of these politicians is now NGOs and other groups not yet taken over by the hardliners. So civil society institutions are the new target.
Taraghi goes further to clarify his views by saying that there are plans to strengthen organizations to be in line with the regime and its cultural principles. While he does not name any particular groups, it is clear that any such move to curtail the activities of the NGOs or take them over, will lead to a still wider gap between the government as a whole and the public, who now have some influence through their NGOs. Such alarms and suspicions are not without cause. Other government officials have expressed their concern about independent NGOs in the past, but more so recently after the June 2005 presidential elections that brought a hardliner into the presidential palace. Last year about this time, a number of leaders of NGOs were arrested and demanded to explain their activities. Others were called in by the government’s bureau that monitors and control housing affairs, as these organizations had rented space from the bureau. Both types of activities have created a sense of insecurity and an atmosphere of fear for civil society activists.
Just recently, Jomhurie Eslami newspaper, a conservative hardline newspaper close to the leadership, published a report on NGOs accusing them of being line with the interests of the West, a code word for being Western agents. Following this, one Member of Parliament named a specific NGO calling it an agent of the West and working to promote foreign interests. Result: more NGO activists curtailed or even suspended their work.
In yet another attack on civil society groups, this year’s government budget had cut all the support and money it used to provide to NGOs for their work, which flourished during president Khatami’s terms as they provided assistance programs in health, education, needs of the youth, welfare and other social work to those in need. So with no funds and an atmosphere of terror, NGOs are either ending their work or preparing to do so. At one time there used to be some 2000 groups active in issues pertaining to the youth, whose primary goal was to maintain a link between government policies and the youth. In contrast with the third development plan where article 147 specifically called for government support of NGOs, the fourth development plan is silent on the issue.
Taraghi traces the current attitude towards NGOs to the days when fundamentalists had no faith that independent NGOs and civil society would be localized, meaning it would be free from Western ideas and definitions on human rights etc. So from his perspective, these groups were suspect before they even had a chance to present themselves and their utility. Still, the record of these groups shows that a very large number of youth have stayed involved in government programs in such areas as education, vocational training, women’s issues, health awareness, environmental awareness, cultural events, social participation and even political events, particularly at the local provincial levels. Even the sixth parliament (made up primarily of moderates) made use of specialists in some of these fields.
The distrust with which conservatists and hardliners view NGOs is perhaps well demonstrated in an article that one of their newspapers, Resalat, published in which it claimed that after the newspapers belonging to the moderates and liberals were closed down, their publishers would work through their NGOs to advance their Western ideas.
The word that Taraghi now uses for taking over independent NGOs is cleansing, indicating the depth of changes they have in mind. Changes that will be met with resistance and will further alienate the public
* published on Roozonline daily