Omid Memarian

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Confronting the Civil Society; Government’s Dominant Discourse!
Interview with Dr. Sohrab Razzaghi

In an interview with
Rooz, Dr. Sohrab Razzaghi talks of the Government’s confrontations with civil society, and limitations imposed on civil society organizations for reasons stated as countering a velvet revolution. Director of Volunteer Actors Non-Profit Institute, and former professor of political science in Allameh Tabatabaee University, who has been barred from teaching his classes with the advent of Ahmadinejad cabinet, counters the Government’s doubts about relations between local civil society entities and international NGO’s, and says: “I am all for attracting financial backing of civil society organizations from international sources, and under current circumstances, I see it as essential.”

Though the institute under his direction was closed down by authorities for unspecified reasons about six months ago, he believes “the current administration’s policies to weaken civil society will affect everyone negatively, because a weak and undeveloped civil society will even prevent a
strong and productive government from formation, and in the absence of a strong civil society, unharmonious, unbalanced, and caricature-like development will form.”

The Volunteer Actors Non-Profit Institute which concentrated on developing the capacity of civil society organizations had a profound presence in creating the literature and conducting training workshops in this area. These days Razzaghi continues his research around Iranian and international civil society. He has published many articles regarding the characteristics of
Iranian civil society. My interview with Dr. Sohrab Razzaghi follows:

During the 29 years since Islamic Revolution, Iranian civil society has seen no periods as fraught with challenges, limitations, and suppression as the two years since Mahmood Ahmadinejad came to power. Ahmadinejad and his security-led cabinet, clearly view the civil society not as a partner, or even a competitor, but with utmost pessimism as an enemy. Confronting the civil society seems to be a major agenda item for his government. Why do the populist conservatives try to control, weaken and neutralize the civil

Ahmadinejad’s cabinet views the civil society as a Trojan horse. They believe the civil society to be a western, and specifically American, project for a soft overthrow and a velvet revolution in the Iranian society, and therefore view all objectives and activities of
civil society organizations pessimistically. They believe that in the absence of a political society, social forces will determine the future of Iran.

They regard the civil society as the power center of reformist and opposition groups, a platform from which reformist thinking and uprising will result. This is mainly because Iranian civil society is the only arena from which people’s limited creativity in social affairs, people’s voices, and isolated groups can emanate, pursuing demands of social
groups. This is why they try to conquer all civil platforms, sources of reformist and opposition groups’ social empowerment, such as universities, newspapers, syndicates, volunteer organizations, etc. through whatever means or to push the real civil society aside and to form their intended civil society, a tame, obedient, and guided society!

After the 2005 elections and assumption of power by the new political layer, the thinking that fears and confronts the civil society and democracy gained power. They regard democracy and civil society as an undesired western phenomenon in direct
opposition with Islam—an arena for corruption and immorality.

The return of populism to political and economic realms is another reason for confronting the civil society. They view civil society as a nuisance in their access to the public, and would rather interact with the masses without intermediaries, so that they may do as they please in providing direction and mobilizing people to achieve their goals and objectives. The foreign aid project to promote democracy and civil society in Iran has become a tool in the hands of the government to suppress the civil society.

You referred to a return of populism after Mahmood Ahmadinejad came to power. What are the sources of conflict between populism and civil society?

Populism is a sign of political underdevelopment, a pre-modernity phenomenon. Its root lies in a mass society and a state of anomie or the society’s confusion and lack of organization. Anomie or confusion, describes a society which has detached and deteriorated cooperative networks, connections, traditional associations, and social structures, but which has not yet developed new structures, relationships, and social interdependencies. A lack of distinction among structures and roles, separation and chaos, lack of social form and appearance are the most important characteristics of such a state. In a state of anomie or confusion, a member of the mass society appears as a particle, detached, has no sense of identity, feels lonely and isolated, and is submerged in his private arena. A mass society is a conformed and monotonous society, which is fluid, floating, and particle-based. It is a state of social “nakedness” where the meaning of belonging to a group and cooperative living is lost; each individual feels defenseless and lacking of access to intermediary groups which could protect and shield it against direct and forceful pressures of political and economic powers. A civil society, on the other hand, is a symbol of political development, it is a modern phenomenon, and is a sign of passage from mass society, development of connections and new identities. Through developing social structures and distinction, citizens are developed. A civil society is a center for resistance and limitation of political power, and an arena for citizen empowerment. A civil society is a center for development of creativity, social innovation, a training and practice center for democracy, tolerance, courage and social moral standards. A civil society is a place where social assets are generated and stored, where freedom and equality are developed.

Over the past years and specifically during the two years since the election of Ahmadinejad, several scenarios have been implemented to limit the activities of civil society. Various conspiracy theories including a velvet revolution have been used as tools to fight the civil society. In the face of such confrontation, what types of limitations have been imposed on non-government organizations?

In order to neutralize a velvet revolution scenario in Iran, activities of civil society organizations have been limited through refusing to issue establishment and operation licenses; amendments to existing rules and regulations governing these organizations; elimination of subsidies; etc., creating a state of fear and terror; arrests of civil society activists and elimination of cooperative networks, all in an attempt to increase the costs of activities in the civil society arena; diverting civil society organizations’ activities towards service, assistance and charity; pursuing a policy to strengthen religious organizations and governmental civil society organizations vis a vis an independent civil society; attempting to severe relations between Iranian civil society organizations and their international counterparts; and finally destroying their communication infrastructure; interfering in operations and management of independent civil society organizations through sealing their offices and dissolving them; preventing creation of cooperative networks amongst activists and civil society organizations, etc.

Under such circumstances, how would you forecast the outcomes of the Government’s policies pertaining to a dominant security discourse over civil society activists? What threats and opportunities do you see for their continued activities?

The most important outcome and result of the Government’s policies and their dominant security discourse over the civil society is limitation of rights and civil, social, and political liberties of citizens and prevention of their empowerment in the society. Other outcomes are proliferation of social alienation and indifference in the society. Continuation of such actions could also result in uncivil and violent behavior, spread of Government’s dominance and violations of people’s rights, increase of underground civil activities, reduction of transparency and accountability amongst civil society organizations, erosion of civil society activists, driving the Iranian civil society into isolation, replacement of the real civil society with a fake civil society, etc.

One of the other outcomes of the government’s negative policies is the dominance of a security discourse in the society. However, alongside the negative aspects, such policies have had and continue to have positive outcomes for Iranian civil society. For example, the said policies have mobilized Iranian civil society activists to become united and harmonious. They have also provided an opportunity for a review and rethinking of strategies and past plans of civil activities. These reviews will help civil activists to devise new strategies and to attempt social innovations.

It is possible to see spurts of unity amongst pockets of civil society, generated in response to pressures, but it is easy to see that over the past two years not only the resources of civil society organizations, but also the resources of activists involved in those organizations have become depleted and eroded. How will this erosion affect the civil society movement?

Limiting measures and replacement policies in recent times have contributed to destabilization and contraction of the Iranian civil society. This is why everyday we witness further retrenchment and anemia in this area. As sensitivities and costs of civil activities mount and a convoluted air develops, some civil society organizations and activists have moved to non-civil arenas, have closed their offices or dissolved their organizations. Some others have adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude and currently have a pale presence in the civil society sphere. Yet, some others have coordinated themselves with the new policies and are attempting to operate based on the new Government’s policies. Some civil society organizations have been sealed by the security authorities, awaiting a court ruling on continuation of their activities. A few others continue their independent civil activism and volunteer work in spite of limitations.

One of the most important questions facing activists and civil society leaders in Iran is which direction the civil society is taking under the dangerous current conditions?

Three alternatives are conceivable at this time:

Alternative One, Strengthening and Establishment: This is a condition whereby civil society organizations as main players in the new power game, play their roles. In other words, their role and position within the power structure is recognized and established, serving as an important foundation of sustained development and democracy, in a way that other players of the power game cannot ignore or eliminate them. This alternative is very unlikely now.

Alternative Two, Premature Death of Civil Society: This is a condition where civil society organizations are eliminated as a player in the power games, and will not be allowed to participate in the social arena, burying all previous civil society achievements with them.

Alternative Three, Moving Towards A Limited and Guided Civil Society: This is a condition whereupon civil society as a social force is eliminated and continues its existence only as a technical tool for charity, assistance, and welfare in the Iranian society. Iranian civil society will continue a vegetative state, and will only exist on paper, devoid of any effective role in social arena. It will serve as a decorative element in social connections and interactions and on an international level.

Under transitional conditions, the role of those who can create change is pivotal. How can active civil society forces who desire a successful transition facilitate it, or at least maintain a clear outlook about it, so that they can reduce additional social-political costs?

Under the current circumstances, one of the most important elements which will determine the future and direction of Iranian civil society organizations is the ability of those involved, activists and leaders of civil society organizations to perform effective change management and management for change. This will only be possible when they have a good analysis of capabilities, conditions and circumstances of civil society organizations, outside environment, resistance centers, etc., and are able to develop a clear strategy for a successful transition, organize members and other cooperative networks around those strategies, and avoid all monopolies. The civil society organizations during will have to act as though they are faring through troubled seas on a perilous and unpredictable journey. This is why activists, leaders, and those involved in Iranian civil society organizations must learn and teach how to navigate this troubled and stormy sea, find their paths, and turn their weaknesses into strengths. They must identify threats facing them to the extent possible, and try to turn them into opportunities, inventing navigation tools for sailing these waters. The most important strategic goal of leaders and activists of civil society in the dangerous current circumstances must be to strengthen a dynamic, energetic, development-oriented, and democratic civil society, avoiding its premature death. This is not possible except with a strategy and implementation plan.

Is confronting the civil society a phenomenon specific to Iranian conservatives, or is it also present in other countries in the Region?

The traditions of fear of democracy, populism, and confronting the civil society are significant and shared characteristic of governments in the Middle East and West Asia. These governments fear the empowerment of their citizenship. This is why they attempt to pass laws and regulations which would make it difficult for civil society organizations to operate. They regard civil society organizations as West’s agents. They regard activities in different areas, specifically in the women’s rights realm, as efforts to bring western culture into power, assisting Christianity to overpower Islamic values. In Bangladesh in the 1990’s, street protests were organized against civil society organizations, forming organizations with names such as “Organization to Fight Kafirs (atheists) and Non-Government Organizations.”

Is there a continued trend to confront civil society in the Region, such as the one you mentioned in Bangladesh, or have civil society organizations been successful in spreading their message to authorities?

As I mentioned before, the tradition of fearing democracy and civil society is the dominant paradigm of the Middle East, Southern and Western Asia, and it continues. India was the first country in the Region to limit activities of civil society organizations in 1976. Two years later, Bangladesh attempted a similar action. Studies show that over the past several decades, governments have tried to restrict the activities of civil society organizations. Even so, civil activists have been able to achieve certain successes under the perilous current circumstances, forming powerful civil society organizations, and implementing important projects. Change management and managing for change has been the most important strategy of civil society activists in facing environmental and other challenges. Through propagation, support, and counseling, they have been able to take long steps towards establishing contact amongst people, deprived constituencies, government, and other social groups.

Over the past several months, in an attempt to limit the small amount of resources made available to civil society organizations in Iran by non-government organizations of other countries, the Government has attempted to create fear amongst them in accepting those funds, facing them with dangerous consequences. While similar neighboring countries are increasingly accepting resources made available to them by international civil society, what long-term effects do you foresee for Iranian civil society organizations in rejecting those funds?

In many countries of the Region, specifically in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, civil society is increasingly growing, extensively utilizing international resources and opportunities. Rejecting international resources and opportunities will result in incalculable effects and negative outcomes in short- and long-term abilities and effectiveness of Iranian civil society in local, national, regional and international levels. Under such circumstances where all players are competing for such international resources and opportunities, depriving the Iranian civil society of its “support industry” which takes place in the framework of “security and development,” is a strategic mistake. This is why many countries try to encourage international organizations to make social investments in their countries.

One of the negative side effects is that Iranian civil society will lose its ability to “say no” to power game players at different levels, due to its restricted resources. This will pale the independence factor of civil society, as one of the ways in which civil society’s independence is measured is “diversity” of its resources. Under-development and holding back of Iranian civil society is another outcome of it. Inability to use resources, opportunities, and international experiences will lead to isolation and dependence. We mustn’t forget that in today’s contiguous world, a weak, anemic, isolated, and under-developed civil society cannot represent the best interests of Iranian society in different levels, reflecting the voices of groups, social forces, and people of Iran.

Today, when justice is discussed, harmonic and balanced development is an important measurement criterion for justice. Holding back and intervening in the process of civil society development is injustice itself.

Do you believe, then, that non-government organizations should receive funds from international organizations? Under what conditions can such funds be accepted?

I am in favor of civil society organizations’ acceptance of funds from international organizations, and under the current circumstances, I see it as essential. Just as governments are allowed to utilize all legitimate international resources, civil society organizations should also be given this opportunity and possibility to create diversity in their local and international funding sources, increasing their ability to “say no.” But just as with the governments, they should be cognizant of a few guidelines: transparency in the funding sources and relationships, accountability to beneficiary groups (target groups, members and volunteers of the organization, financial supporters, and government), avoiding misuse and promoting equal relations with international organizations, etc.

With the dominance of civil society paradigm in international relations, what do you see as opportunities for dual-point and multi-point relationships between local and international civil society organizations? Would receiving international assistance help its development or is it something that might endanger its existence?

I believe that in order to construct a civil society, all local and international resources must be utilized in utmost transparency and accountability. The only way out of under-development and lack of democracy, two historical shortcomings of the Iranian society, a strong civil society must be built. Acceptance of international aid is just as legitimate as receiving assistance from the government, and vice versa. Receiving international assistance and aid from the Government is harmful when it is done in an unclear, secretive, un-monitored (by public) environment, where civil society organizations cannot “say no,” becoming dependent on them.

Over the past few decades, astounding developments have taken place on an international level, creating international and national movements. Civil societies, as players and agents of development and democracy have entered the realm of social struggles. They have important and effective roles in all social levels, daily gaining in role and importance, and this is why some refer to civil society as the largest projects of the new millennium.

Some believe that the suppressive approach, even in the long run, will harm those who have imposed a security approach on the civil society. Do you agree with this view? Why?

Yes. With the conditions brought forth, civil society organizations as the third sector could not be major players and agents of development and sustainable democracy, and won’t be able to play an effective role in the development process. In the development process, Iranian society has been pushed to the side, deprived of the ability to provide important capabilities and capacities of civil society such as closer and wider interaction with local societies, connections and pursuit of their demands and representing social groups, reflecting people’s voices and advocating isolated groups, provision of tools and necessary opportunities for presentation of citizens’ views, empowering citizens to fight and change public policies, and building a different world. In the new development paradigm, civil society tries to provide a new model for productivity and efficiency, accountability, transparency, instilling diversity and organizational discipline in the society. This way, all social groups will lose, because a weak and undeveloped civil society will even prevent a strong and productive government from formation, and in the absence of a strong civil society, unharmonious, unbalanced, and caricature-like development will form. We know that civil society is one the major bases and foundations of a sustainable democracy and in its absence, talking about democracy is a big lie.

In the international arena, what are the political ramifications of the government’s policy to confront civil society?

They will lose an important opportunity, silencing the voice of Iranian civil society on an international level, and this will in turn enable others to speak for Iranian civil society. This will also put Iran on a par with other countries violating international treaties and human rights; countries such as Cuba, Libya, China, Syria, etc.

Is it possible to convince the Government to stop actions to limit and suppress civil society through dialogue?

Under the current circumstances, social dialogue is a way out and to stop illegal actions. I view social dialogue as a strategic mechanism, necessary for strengthening democracy, civil society, and sustainable development in Iranian society. The ability to have dialogues amongst groups and social forces in any society (local, national, and international) is a sign of those societies’ development, and confrontation and violence are signs of its pre-maturity. By dialogue I mean the type of interaction and verbal discourse which is used to understand each other, and to promote understanding amongst all forces and social groups and governments, pursuing the goal of establishing rational interactions amongst individuals, groups, social forces and governments.

How long do you think the present condition can continue? What factors can facilitate an end to these circumstances?

In the middle of widespread pessimism, I am optimistic about the future. I believe Iranian civil society can implement the strategy of “change management and management for change” to successfully come out of the current difficult situation, replacing the paper civil society with a strong civil society. In addition to the above strategy, a few other elements can be named and here’s a summary of those actions:

· Implementation of a diversity strategy to increase civil society’s effectiveness and efficacy

· Development of capabilities and skills of propagation, support, and counseling of civil society organizations on different social levels

· Social marketing and development of social position through establishing cooperative networks and efforts to achieve strategic allies

· Development of cooperation and communication on a regional and international level for exchanging experiences and dialogue about shared subjects, attending conferences, and membership in international networks

· Creating transparency and accountability to constituent groups through implementing volunteer systems, and programs to issue qualitative performance certificates (self regulatory policies)

· Social dialogue with Government, private sector, and United Nations organizations around shared topics

· Trust building strategies.


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