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Will Iran's uprising trigger an Islamic reformation across the Middle East?
The showdown between Iranian protesters and the clerical regime is another episode in Iran’s clash of theocracy and Western-style secular modernity. Its outcomes will reverberate across the entire Islamic world, so the West needs to pay attention, writes Elahe Boghrat of Persian-language, London-based Kayhan magazine.
The middle ages came back to the Middle East in 1979, when Iran became an Islamic Republic. Like Europe in previous centuries, this regime, which succeeded a secular, Westernizing monarchy, turned religion into "a business”, as the twentieth-century Iranian writer Ahmad Kasravi put it. Kasravi was himself murdered by a fanatic.
Islamists were present in the region before the ayatollahs took power in Tehran, but they had no government with which to impose their dogmas — excluding certain traditionalist countries such as Pakistan or Saudi Arabia.
In Europe, modernity arose in reaction to the Catholic Church's oppression and crimes. But in the Middle East, the mosque became the response to an influx of Western modernity that made traditional, and mostly Muslim, societies face certain historical contradictions. Traditionalism and religion — and even superstitions and bigotry — were briefly hidden behind a thin, modernizing façade, the values of which were barely understood, let alone put to use for social progress.
In Iran, this contradiction became an opportunity for the fundamentalists who followed their leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, into power in 1979. Wielding state power for the first time, they set up a medieval regime, inspired by the depths of Islamic history but with some of the trappings of a modern society, such as a constitution, three branches of government and the superficial institutions of a republic. Its essence, however, was the absolute rule of an authority (Vilayat-e mutlaqe-ye faqih).
Sham elections, torture in prison or a violent police force typify any dictatorial regime. The dictatorships and authoritarian governments that littered Europe and Latin America in the twentieth century were naturally challenged because of the oppressive institutions that served a person or a party.
But the "medieval" essence of a theocracy is its use of religion, which can attract not just the faithful, but curiously — as shown in the Islamic Republic, Turkey and Arab states — also secular elements and self-styled intellectuals. In "standard" totalitarian outfits, you are unlikely to see dissenting opponents willingly turn into the regime's useful idiots.
Under communism, opponents bided their time, suffered and waited, before coming together in a final and decisive wave of "velvet revolutions" that toppled the socialist block and its leftovers. The same must happen in the Middle East. The difference, as far as I can tell, is the great-power factor: while Middle Eastern states barely played a role in key developments of the West, powerful Western states play a decisive role in events in the Middle East.
The rise of the Islamic Republic spread a certain type of theocratic politics to other countries. From Algeria in the 1980s to the Taliban in the 1990s, its vile brand of religious zeal spread far and wide, reaching Manhattan's Twin Towers in the new millennium. The September 11 attacks were an astounding episode in the fight between reaction and modernity. Reaction showed it would happily use the tools of modernity to destroy modernity and implement its own program — a program that is essentially destructive, in spite of its moral pretensions.
Yet fundamentalist thought proved helpless in the face of technology, and the West has enhanced its role in pushing fundamentalism toward moderation of sorts. This is the "hard power" factor that keeps a Middle Eastern renaissance dependent, for now, on the relative weight and interplay of enduring power blocks.
To get along with a powerful West, Islamists who hold political power have had to moderate their tone and play the diplomatic game, even as they strive to grip and guide their nations toward their own deeply conservative goals.
This has even provoked confusion among sectors of the voting masses in Turkey, Iran and Egypt. In recent decades, voters imagined that they might vote the Islamists in and out of power, mixing and matching the past and present in a conservative setting. But there is no transition toward modernity unless religion is stripped of legislative, juridical and penal powers. One side must lose. In Iran in 1979, the (1905) constitution, and constitutional rule, lost to sharia laws; modernity lost to tradition; and secularism lost to religious government.
But if — as is currently being shown — Iranian society has kept its modernizing potential in spite of decades of Islamist influence, the struggle will continue. The outcome of this showdown in Iran will have repercussions across the Middle East, North Africa and even among the Muslims of Asia and Europe. In all these countries, opponents of fanatical government must back each other in their shared struggle.
Meanwhile, the misuse of modern institutions (like elections) continues to harm the political foundations of a participative society, because the result of farcical elections is socio-cultural perversion. The veneer of free elections — which are in reality weighted towards those in power — serves as a justification to subsequently dismantle social and political rights. This is done while claiming a mandate from the people, as was done by Egypt's fundamentalist president, Muhammad Mursi, before he was overthrown.
And the perversion is made worse when "pragmatists" and "moderates" justify it for expediency's sake.
— Elahe Boghrat / Kayhan-London
What do you remember from the news this week?
1. What did Ukraine President Zelensky insist on calling the G20 summit, in an apparent dig to Russia?
2. What was The New York Post referring to with the following irreverent headline: "Florida Man Makes Announcement"?
3. NASA's new Artemis rocket lifted off successfully, headed toward the Moon. When was the last time a man set foot there? 1969, 1970, 1971 or 1972 ?
4. The 2024 Paris Olympic Games have unveiled their official mascots. Is it: Revolution-era hats / Roosters / Eiffel towers / Croissants?
[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]
A tweet from Nathan Allebach, a creative director from Philadelphia has gone viral this week for claiming that he created a Google Document to save every type of meme format that was ever published on Twitter from the last three years, in case the social media platform shuts down. This comes amid rising concerns since Elon Musk took over the site, laying off thousands of employees.
• Mondrian & Warhol auction boom:Composition No. II, which features Piet Mondrian’s signature blue, red, white and yellow squares, sold for $51 million at Sotheby's New York, setting a new auction record for a painting by the Dutch artist. Mondrian’s artworks rarely come to auction as a majority are displayed in museums around the world. The following day an Andy Warhol work sold for $85 million.
• Daniel Barenboim turns 80: The world of classical music sent tributes this week to Argentine-born star conductor Daniel Barenboim who turned 80 years old on Nov. 15. Barendoim had planned to perform works by Chopin and Beethoven at a concert in Berlin to celebrate his birthday but was forced to cancel after he was diagnosed with a severe neurological condition.
• Pretty good week for Queen B: Beyoncé has claimed a leading nine nominations at the Grammy awards, tying with her husband Jay-Z as the most nominated artist in the history of the show at 88 total. The U.S. singer has also become a topic of study at the highly-selective French school École Normale Supérieure, which announced it was organizing a series of seminars titled “Beyoncé: nuances of a cultural icon.”
• International Film Festival opens in Cairo: The 44th Cairo International Film Festival kicked off this week in the Egyptian capital, gathering actors, directors and celebrities from 52 different countries, with Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans opening the festival that will run until Nov. 22.
• Blur to reunite for one-off show: Seminal 1990s British rock band Blur announced it will play a one-off show at Wembley stadium in July, in what will be the band’s first headline appearance since 2015 and first-ever show at the iconic London venue. They will be accompanied by Northampton rapper Slowthai, pop musician Self Esteem, and experimental pop duo Jockstrap.
How did Vladimir Putin’s mass mobilization for new troops affect Russia’s elite? Independent Russian news platform Vazhnyye Istorii/Important Stories reports on how the war has impacted the oligarchs’ offspring — and it turns out that for them, not much has changed. It is a story that may enrage people in Russia more than Ukraine…
Read the full story: Kremlin Kids, Inc: How The Children Of Russia's Elite Keep Busy Avoiding The War
The newly constructed city of Lusail in Qatar makes one thing clear: the West is not the target audience for this World Cup — Qatar has much bigger ambitions. French daily Les Echos dives into the “city of the future” still emerging from the ground. Lusail is a symbol of the new era that Qatar entered when its bid to host the 22nd FIFA World Cup was granted.
Read the full story: Lusail Postcard, City Of The Future And Window Into Qatar's Ambitions
Detoxing is à la mode, with many alternative solutions like teas or even ear candles. The idea of cleansing the body of toxins sounds appealing on the surface, but as Edzard Ernst explains in German daily Die Welt, these treatments are not always authentic, and some can even turn out to be dangerous.
Read the full story: Purge At Your Peril: Too Many Detox Treatments Come With Hidden Dangers
German startup Dryad has developed a new “ultra-early” warning system for wildfires. The company, which has raised about $12.2 million, aims to reduce the detection time of wildfires and catch them right in the beginning, when there isn’t an open flame yet — usually within the first 60 minutes. It has designed a solar-powered sensor fitted with a gas detector that “can detect hydrogen, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds — it can basically smell the fire,” according to Dryad’s co-founder and CEO, Carsten Brinkschulte. “Think of it like an electronic nose that you attach to a tree.”
In an orphanage for baby elephants in Nairobi, Kenyan journalist Alvin Kauda was filming a report about the baby elephant's life conditions, and how they were looked after. In the middle of his reporting, he got some surprise cuddles that he tried to ignore, until he burst out laughing.
• Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel is set to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin next week in Moscow.
• The Türkiye Energy Summit, under the theme of "Energy and Geopolitics Special," will be held Monday and Tuesday in the southern coastal city of Antalya. This summit will bring together participants from the public and private sectors.
• The FIFA World Cup begins with the opening match Sunday at Al Bayt Stadium, with host Qatar facing Ecuador.
News quiz answers:
1. During his intervention at the G20 meeting this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky kept referring to the assembly as the "G19," in an apparent dig at Moscow: Although Russia is a G20 member, Russian President Vladimir Putin was not in Bali and sent Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov instead.
2. The New York Post trolled Donald Trump hard, burying the launch of his 2024 White House bid under the headline "Florida Man Makes Announcement" — and possibly signaling a major change of heart from the tabloid’s owner and former Trump ally, Rupert Murdoch.
3. U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan is known as the “last man on the Moon,” having been part of the final Apollo lunar landing in December 1972.
4. The Organizing Committee of the 2024 Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games has unveiled their two mascots: small red Phrygian caps — Revolution-era hats meant to symbolize freedom and “embody the French spirit.”
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