Saturday, August 13, 2005

Civil Society in Suspense

Omid Memarian, Rooz Online:
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are ineffective patches whose formation the future government will try to prevent and create suitable replacements for them.” These are the words of a high ranking official of Hezbe Motalefe-ye Islami (the Islamic Coalition Party). Such statements are made at a time when civil society activists in Iran are seriously concerned about the continuation of civil activities after the work of the new government begins its work. READ MORE

The words of Hamid Reza Taraghi from the Coalition that it is not possible to meet people’s needs through NGOs that have been formed on Western thoughts and are incompatible with Iranian culture and civilization,” are in fact guidelines indicating the kind of attitude conservatists belongings to Ahmadinejad’s government will bring on board. Other references to “prevent the formation” of such organizations and “reforming the structures of public organizations” are the ideas of these neo-conservatists in response to civil society in Iran.

Taraghi continues Civil society and Western democracy has been advanced in Iran for a few years now and the government has provided support to them through millions in credit.” The future government shall promote the use of mosques and Muslim associations that are compatible with the country’s local culture in meeting the needs of the masses,he has clarified.

These statements and the repeated summon of civil society activists to law enforcement agencies, denial of licenses to groups to organize themselves and engage in civil activities, the end of government financial support to them and other similar measures herald the coming of hard times for the advocates and activists of civil society. This level of threat and opposition has no precedent in the 27 year history of the Islamic Republic.

Interestingly, just last year, in a meeting with the then Mayor of Tehran Ahmadinejad, a group of participating NGOs requested from him to end the trend of disregarding the expertise of these organizations and start utilizing them for the public benefit. They argued that even if these organizations held views that were different from those of the mayor, their work would bring improve the conditions of Tehran residents. But still, the trend of eliminating the independent NGOs continued and still continues. It should be noted that these groups have only existed during Khatami’s eight year presidency and so are new and depend on many other institutions. For example, facilities belonging to Tehran municipality that had been used by NGOs over many years have gradually been denied to them, making their work almost impossible. In some cases NGOs had rented certain municipality facilities just to meet and hold gatherings. Many of these facilities have now been denied to those NGOs. Furthermore, the municipality has been ending its arrangements with the NGOs by either not renewing them or not signing new agreements with them. The NGOs earned money through arrangements with municipality divisions, and so the termination of these relations has forced some of them to shut down altogether. At the national level, Khatami’s government continued to provide financial support to them by using their expertise, as it had been obliged by Majlis legislation on this. For example the National Youth Organization (Sazemane Melli Javanan) alone distributed almost two billion Toman to private youth organizations in 2004. Similar disbursements exist for organizations working on women’s issues. Such government agencies as the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology because of their legal responsibilities have supported such NGOs by providing specialized work to private scientific and cultural organizations, and services to the disabled and sick.

The negative view on these organizations has led to a reduction of government budgets in this in utilizing their services. In some areas, funds have been completely cut off by the Majlis. In contrast, the budgets of Islamic Associations have noticeably increased. For example, Qom Theological Seminary’s budget has increased, as has that of the Islamic Propagation Organization, the Foundation for the Preservation of Artifacts and Values of the Eight-year War with Iraq, students of religious schools.

In a similar approach, the Majlis cut off funds that had been allocated for local tourism to the Baseej militia for improving their Islamic programs. Such cuts contrast with what Khatami’s government was doing on these issues. Because the conservatists in Iran held negative views about NGOs, their campaign against them led to the Majlis too to question many programs and individuals within the government who were supporting NGOs. The National Youth Organization and the Center for Women’s Participation were the first to be hit with such budgetary cuts by the Majlis. Conservative Majlis deputies argued that reformists were using NGOs to promote their goals. Such claims have repeatedly been denied by professional independent NGOs, but to no avail.

After Majlis’s attacks came Tehran Municipality’s curtailments. Such professional organizations as Iran’s Medical Association came under attack with an effort to take over their control and management. There are bills that could completely replace many independent professional agencies that have a long history of service in Iran. Their replacements are committees comprising inter-agency officials. If these regulations – themselves unique in the world - are approved and implemented by the conservative Majlis, that would be the death knell for the independent NGOs in Iran.

Similar fates await organizations that are involved in defending and promoting human rights. Examples are women’s guilds, associations, and other groups that work on citizen’s rights. Experts in these organizations are warning that women’s groups are likely to be the focus of such denials as neo-conservatists strive to deny an active role for women, especially through the workplace. An event that brought inspiration to women in general but particularly to NGOs that work on women’s issues was the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Shirin Ebadi.

Youth organizations are another group that have been targeted by officials. Attempts are made for religious institutions such as mosques to take over their services. Conservatists have used the argument that NGOs working on youth issues tolerated the mixing of the sexes that are at odds with Islamic values. During Khatami’s terms, more 2500 associations engaged in providing services at the national, provincial and even local levels to the youth received operational licenses. According to education specialists, many of these organizations provided training to the youth at a scale that could not be matched by official agencies.

Even though even during Khatami’s terms the support provided to the NGOs had many limitations because of conservative legislature and the negative views on them, relatively speaking, these civil society organizations flourished. Now with a new wind blowing, their growth and even survival is seriously at stake.