Jaargang XXXIX Jaar 2017 Nummer 1

Aan het woord

Over autoritarisme en aspiraties in Syrië en Iran. Interview met Roschanack Shaery-Yazdi

Michael Auwers

Roschanack Shaery-Yazdi is recent aangesteld als tenure-track docent aan het Departement Geschiedenis van de Universiteit Antwerpen. Haar aanstelling kadert binnen de ambitie van het Departement om de geschiedenis van de Islamwereld een prominentere plaats te geven in zowel onderzoek als onderwijs. In Antwerpen wisselt Roschanack haar lessen over de geschiedenis van het moderne Midden-Oosten af met – bijzonder actueel – onderzoek naar de historische wortels van de recente ontwikkelingen in Syrië. Tijd voor een korte kennismaking.

Roschanack, you’ve led quite an international life. Born in Germany and having spent most of your childhood in Iran, you only ended up in Antwerp after stops in the Netherlands, the United States and Lebanon. Could you tell us something about your academic trajectory so far?

Sure. I received my MA in Anthropology and Education from the University of Heidelberg in 1998. I then left for the United States to study the history of the Middle East in the Area Studies program of the University of Chicago, where I obtained my PhD in 2005. Afterwards, I moved to Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. For about two years I primarily taught Persian and lectured on culture and politics of the Middle East. I also started reworking my PhD thesis.

What was your research about in those early years of your academic career?

My MA thesis was on the production of linguistic ideologies among Iranian nationalists from the late 19th century and dealt with tracing the genealogy of a particular form of Iranian secularism that created iconic links between Islam, Arabic, and Arabs. The PhD project and the subsequent book [Shi’ite Lebanon. Transnational Religion and the Making of National Identities, Columbia University Press, 2008] focused on transnational Shiite ties between Iran and Lebanon from the late 1960s. It’s about the multiple forms that the localization of transnational religious networks take and the outcome of political violence and struggles among Islamists and other Shiites in postwar Lebanon.

Your next stop was the University of Amsterdam, where you were part of a research project at the Political Science Department. What was that about?

Well, the scope of the project was to compare authoritarianism in Syria and Iran, and I executed the Syrian part of the project. The funding for this project had actually come from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs which, in collaboration with a Dutch NGO, wanted to identify local human rights activists who were in need of financial support in order to advance their democratization projects. My colleagues and I were expected to interview these people and develop academic research projects based on our findings.

This was actually a very problematic project. For instance, it happened that while I was interviewing a Syrian human rights activist, someone from the NGO gave this person an envelope with money for their initiatives. Not only did I feel that such actions interfered with my work as an academic, I also became convinced that the activities of Western NGO’s more generally endanger the work of Middle Eastern human rights activists. They might think that what they do is support, but these human rights activists are already under suspicion. Giving them money will only stimulate the leaders of the authoritarian regimes under which they live, to label them as ‘spies of the West’.

Did you have the impression that the project also put you and your colleagues in danger? After all, you could be seen as the representatives of the West who incited the local population against their rulers.

Definitely. These human rights activists were under constant surveillance of the regime, which knew very well what we were doing there. One time, a colleague and I travelled from to Damascus, where we would wait for another colleague to arrive a few days later. However, this colleague was arrested at the airport and detained for two days without anyone, including Dutch diplomats in Syria, being able to get in touch with him. Eventually, they deported him back to the Netherlands.

This was a very scary situation. I left for Beirut immediately afterwards, not knowing whether our colleague had any information in his notes or on his laptop that could lead them to us. Anyway, I left the University of Amsterdam shortly afterwards and then did some teaching on Radical Islamic Thought at the University of Utrecht.

Did you ever talk with the project leaders about the circumstances in which you had to work?

Oh, but they knew. In fact, when I left the project some of my colleagues responsible for the Iranian project left as well. This was in 2009, when the political climate in Iran hardened in the wake of a series of pro-democracy manifestations in the streets of Tehran, the so-called Green Movement. So both in Syria and Iran, it was way very dangerous for any activist and local academic to be associated with a Western NGO that described its ambitions as wanting to promote democracy in the region.

So after your short stop in Utrecht, where did you go next?

Back to Germany. I was offered a four year position at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen, where I started developing my second book project, on Lebanese detained in Syria. It contains many of the elements that I am interested in, such as issues of hegemony and resistance, of suffering and despair, and struggles for empowerment in a highly complex political and transnational context. At the same time, this project allowed me to work in a safer environment, as I conducted my fieldwork in Beirut. The book that had to come out of this project is almost finished and will be called Missing Recognition. Syrian Military Security and Detention in Lebanon.

In Lebanon, I also got involved with a local NGO and developed a project called ‘SOAL’, which means ‘question’ in Arabic. It is also an acronym for ‘Syrian Occupation Archives in Lebanon’. Since there are no national archives on the Lebanese detainees and local NGO’s hold their own data, the idea of the project was to collect all the data, systematize it and make it public. In this way, eventually a national commission could be created that could undertake the search for these detainees and missing persons. So in the two years before coming to Antwerp, I was more or less combining my work as an academic with activist activities.

Now that your second book is near completion, what will your next academic project be about?

Well, I’m thinking about starting a project called ‘Imagining Syria’. It will involve working with Syrian opposition NGO’s based in Turkey, primarily in Istanbul and in the region of Gaziantep in Southern Turkey. I would like to do something with the kind of visions that they have developed about what they call ‘The Day After’, that is after the end of the Assad-regime. It would be interesting to know how people from these NGO’s envision this post-Assad Syria and to trace the genealogy of these aspirations and ideologies. This kind of research would also tie in nicely with my previous work on hegemony and counter hegemony and on democratization in Syria.

We wish you the best of luck with this new project and look forward to reading its results. Thank you very much for the interview!

- Michael Auwers