2013 Iranian Presidential Election Predictions

The first round of Iran’s presidential election will be held on Friday.  Outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had a controversial time in office, particularly after his re-election in 2009 which I shall discuss in a moment.  His presidency has raised some questions over the extent of Iran’s president’s power.  He has precided over a period of increasing isolation for Iran as pressure, largely in the form of sanctions, mounts over the country’s nuclear program – it is also now more unpopular than ever.  A regional cold war has developed between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon, against the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the USA + its allies.  These tensions are now factoring in the Syrian Civil War, which has developed into something of a proxy war between competing interests.  Ahmadinejad is forbidden from serving more than two terms and so a new President shall be chosen.  Whoever this will be certainly has a lot on their plate.

In order to discuss the presidential election, it’s important to look at how Iran’s political system actually works.  The Western image of Iran is this bizarre, antiquated dictatorship and, while it often acts in this way, does have constitutional democratic elements.  Unlike Communist or dictatorial governments, which use elections to create the illusion of public legitimacy, I believe Iran’s system is designed to have a fairly elected president and parliament.  I haven’t studied Iran in detail, but that’s how it comes across.  The trouble is, as a theocracy, the ultimate authority in Iran is God.  Because consulting God poses a challenge, it is necessary to base laws on religious scriptures – the Quran, generally – and also the traditions of Shia Islam.  Interpreting these rules is the role of the Supreme Leader and his Guardian Council and Assembly of Experts.  As the name suggests, the Supreme Leader (currently Ali Khamenei) has supreme power over the judiciary, the armed forces, foreign policy, etc.  This leaves the role of the president unclear.  It’s incredibly complicated, but this BBC page helps make it a bit simpler.

In theory, the system should allow the population of Iran to democratically elect leaders to govern day-to-day issues that are not the concern of the Supreme Leader.  Yet, clearly, this is often not the case.  In 2009 Ahmadinejad was elected president in favour of the more reformist candidate Mousavi.  Many people believe Mousavi to have been the rightful winner and accuse the government of rigging the vote.  There were mass protests across Iran in response, and it did momentarily look as though the regime was in danger.  Yet, the government survived – mostly through using brute force to suppress the protests. It is clear that while there may be an element of democracy in Iran’s political system, it is in a manner tightly controlled by the Supreme Leader who will manipulate results if he does not believe them to be in the country’s interests.

I don’t believe the protests of 2009 will be repeated this year.  Another challenge to the regime would be nice, and the conditions of economic frustration which is common in most uprisings does certainly exist (though the anger quite successfully deflected towards the West, it would seem), I think careful planning will have gone into the election to ensure it produces the desired result.  The majority of accepted candidates are Conservatives, with the exception of the moderate Rouhani and reformist Aref, who dropped out yesterday to improve the chances of Rouhani.  Six candidates remain: five Conservatives and Rouhani.  Naturally, I am hoping Rouhani will win but I don’t think it would make much difference if he did.  If a candidate posed a serious threat to the status quo I don’t think they would not be allowed to stand after the events of 2009 – that Mousavi is currently under house arrest makes this clear.  Perhaps the results have already been decided.  It is impossible to say.

These are difficult times for Iran.  Anything could happen.  Even an unlikely reformist could be convinced that reform is necessary; look at Gorbachev in the Soviet Union or de Klerk in South Africa.  But, of course, the ultimate authority rests with the Supreme Leader, who currently seems determined for things to remain the way they are.

For an alternative look at Iran’s election, check out this unofficial candidate.

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Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

I’m really enjoying reviewing a full (ish) season of Doctor Who – series 7/7b/33/3 being the first to air since I began the blog in November.  The second episode of the series’ 2013 run is written by newcomer to the series, Neil Cross, and directed by Farren Blackburn, who previously directed The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (one of my least favourite ever episodes).  So I was quite curious to see how this episode would do.

The story begins with a montage of the Doctor watching Clara’s life develop, from the meeting of her parents to her progression through childhood.  Despite head writer Steven Moffat’s claims that each episode in series 7 will be like an individual ‘movie in 45 minutes’, we do seem to be seeing the plot arc of Clara continuing to play a role.  This opening sequence has been described as creepy, or of ‘crossing a line’, but I didn’t have a problem with it.  The Doctor is intrigued by Clara, a girl who he has met three times and watched die twice.  Of course he’s going to want to explore her origins, and to see whether she had a normal upbringing.

The story proceeds to one of the moons of Akhaten, where the Doctor and Clara take a look at the beautiful rings around the enormous gas giant.  They then travel to a market populated entirely by aliens.  I’m struggling to remember the last time a TV story of Doctor Who was set on a world with no connections to the human race – perhaps even not since the 80s.  Consequently, then episode strikes a tone rarely seen in the post 2005 series.  The pace is also slowed due to the introduction of various aspects of this alien culture – which are extensive, and very well written.  So in that respect alone, this was a very enjoyable episode.  The plot consists of a parasitic creature within Akhaten, or perhaps was itself Akhaten – I didn’t quite understand that – which is kept asleep by the continued chanting of the inhabitants of the Rings.  However it awakes and the Doctor and Clara must use their memories of the past, and the infinite memories of the future, to defeat it – er – somehow.  This is a really interesting concept, although quite confusing and under explained at times.

There are also, unfortunately, quite a few plot holes which leapt out at me.  Why did the Doctor wander off in the market?  Why didn’t they take the TARDIS to the temple, rather than using the ‘space moped’?  And on that matter, how were they breathing in space?  Why did the God parasite wake up in the first place?  How did the Doctor keep his memories after feeding it to Akhaten?  When the gas giant vanishes, how do the rings stay in orbit?  Shouldn’t they fall into the Sun?  I mean, none of these questions really largely detracted from my enjoyment of the episode, but I did feel the script could have been tighter at places.  There were times when the plot felt rather protracted and drawn out, and the dialogue rather wordy.  Although I can forgive the Doctor’s incredible speech (“I’ve walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman!), even if this too falls foul of being overly wordy.

I’m probably sounding too negative.  This was, essentially, a great story.  Matt Smith, as ever, is utterly fantastic as the Doctor.  One of his best performances – though I say that every week.  He brings life to the character, a soul, an ageless wisdom and ancient tiredness all at once, through every expression and mannerism.  Jenna-Louise Coleman is continuing to impress as Clara, who is so far passing the test of not being irritating as well as acting a fairly developed and realistic character.  Child actor Emilia Jones also acted the role of Merry very well, bringing sincerity to the role of a scared child with a mountain of responsibilities placed upon her.

Despite my intense dislike of The Doctor, the Window and the Wardrobe, Farren Blackburn’s direction in this episode was close to flawless.  The use of music, composed by Murray Gold was wonderful, and I particularly enjoyed the choral ensemble from the various singers during many parts of the episode.  However, there were times when I felt the music was simply too bombastic and loud – a common criticism for Doctor Who – though this is a fault of editing and direction, rather than of the composers.  Though the script established it, the vibrancy of this alien world is mostly due to the skill in direction – even if most aliens do undeniably look like rubber suits, but this is unavoidable on their low budget.  The episode, on the whole, felt very expensive and polished indeed.  The cinematography at times, including the silhouettes of the Doctor facing down Akhaten, was truly inspired.

Overall, The Rings of Akhaten was a surprisingly entertaining episode.  Perhaps my enjoyment didn’t quite correlate with the quality of the episode and of the script, though this suggests something must have been done right.  I think, most importantly, this episode felt fresh and new.  Nothing like it has been seen in Doctor Who for quite some time – which, really, is all a Doctor Who episode needs to be a success.  It’s just fortunate that this success happened to be enjoyable.

Final rating: 8.5/10

American Gods (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

Neil Gaiman is one of those authors who I’ve somehow managed to become a fan of without having read a single book he’s written.  I first became aware of his existence upon watching the Doctor Who episode, The Doctor’s Wife, which despite its name turned out to be one of the best episodes I’d ever seen.  Soon afterwards I watched the film adaptation of Coraline, which also proved to be a very well-written story.  I’ve enjoy reading his insightful Tweets on his Twitter account for over a year now, and so I decided it was high time I came into direct contact with one of his books face to face.  American Gods (2001) has sat on my shelf for a while since I spontaneously bought it in a bookshop,  making it the obvious candidate to be my first foray into his work.  I had high expectations which, I suppose, were never going to be met.

The first thing I noticed was that the characters were well developed and instantly engaging.  Shadow, the protagonist, is a very likeable and unassuming character who undergoes real development throughout the novel.  Beginning as a broken, lifeless ex-convict, through the events of the story he rediscovers his soul and manages to move on to a newfound sense of life.  This progression felt convincing for the most party, although I don’t entirely understand the effect the Passion on the Tree had upon him.  It took death to discover and partly resurrect his father to metaphorically bring himself to life?  Sounds very Biblical!  I imagine it would become clearer upon a second reading.  I did enjoy the Tree sections however, even if they did lose some credibility by the fact that Shadow, seemingly inexplicably, volunteered to be tied to it for nine days.  Again, would probably require a second reading.

The other characters which particularly impressed me were the more minor ones, such as Sam Crowe, whose attitude was enjoyable to read, and the majority of the residents of Lakeside – their diversity creating a village which felt very full of life.  I also liked Laura’s character, though her unexplained state of being undead irritated me slightly (which applies to most of the business to do with coins, in fact), though it was described to gory satisfaction.  It was an interesting decision to make most of the Gods decrepit, unhealthy, corrupt old men and women, but one which perfectly makes clear the idea of these Gods being ancient and abandoned.  I think Gaiman may have overstated this point, though – I tired of the drugs, crude dialogue and general sense of “disgusting adultness” which pervaded the novel very quickly.  Wednesday was an interesting character, characterised well enough so that when he is revealed to be the villain of the novel, sacrificing the other Gods for his own gain, it’s a surprising plot twist without being an unbelievable action for the character to take.  The contrast to the ‘new’ Gods is well established: the new Gods are chic, technological and efficient, wielding a deadly charisma – precisely as you’d expect modern Gods to be.

The principle of the Gods is probably the best crafted idea in the novel.  Having physical manifestations, personified figures of these mythical beings is genius.  Gaiman’s research is clear, with each character based on a ‘real’ God.  It’s fascinating to examine the idea of immigrants to America bringing their Gods with them, effectively replicating them (as the original stays in the homeland).  The Gods feed on faith and sacrifice, becoming weak and withered when these dry up.  In this way, Gaiman has achieved the extraordinary feat of making the human condition appear desirable in comparison to Gods.  The Gods in America are particularly weakened, because, for some mystical reason, although America is a good place for humans Gods do not survive well there.  Which is a fine idea, although doesn’t ring true.  The USA is one of the most religious developed countries in the world -often fanatically so.  Which, in turn, makes me wonder about the lack of the Christian God? Or Jesus?  What about Allah?  None of the ‘Big’ Gods make a presence, which is quite a major omission, if you think about it.  This blog post discusses the omission well.

 

Another criticism I have is that the novel simply drags on for too long.  I read “The Author’s Preferred Version,” with several thousand words added in which weren’t included in the original publication.  Considering at least 50% of the novel is spent travelling around the US on a ‘road trip’, advancing the plot or very little as they do so, I would really have preferred the edited down version.  This kind of story isn’t necessarily bad – for example, The Road achieves it marvelously – but American Gods lacks the substance to make it engaging, despite how well written it is.

I really wanted to like American Gods, which is why it’s paining me to criticise it so much.  Have I been to harsh?  Not given it a chance?  Certainly, there’s much to enjoy and it did pick up towards the end, but on the whole, I was a bit disappointed.

Final rating: 6.5/10

The New Pope

Cardinals locked away in the Vatican today successfully voted on the 266th Pope.  Jorge Bergoglio, 76, a relatively unknown Argentinian cardinal, has become the first man from the Americas to be elected to become the Pope.

As someone with no religious beliefs, I was surprised to realise I was actually experiencing some anticipation once the white smoke began to billow out from the Sistine Chapel’s chimney.  It wasn’t because I particularly cared about the Pope – although I was hoping for someone with more progressive views than his predecessors – but more down to watching history in action.  Rather boring history, maybe, but history nonetheless.

Unfortunately, despite the unusual circumstances regarding his election (the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, him being a non-European, creating his own Papal name, etc.), his beliefs appear to be nothing revolutionary.  He recently described homosexuality as a “destructive attack on God’s plan”, and a quick bit of Googling shows his views on traditional issues such as abortion and euthanasia remain just as conservative.  Couldn’t find much about his thoughts on contraception, but I don’t hold out much hope in having a Pope who’d actually contribute towards progress in fighting diseases like AIDS.

I expect this brief surge of interest in the Catholic Church is only temporary; unless Francis somehow manages to bring it into the 21st century, my normal criticisms should resume shortly.

The Amber Spyglass: A Religion For Me

(Contains spoilers)

The His Dark Materials books by Philip Pullman are an incredible trilogy.  I first read them at the age of 13, and they were the catalyst for my final abandonment of my religious beliefs (which I shall discuss in a future blog post).  I’ve recently re-read the trilogy; my third reading of the books.  This post will largely focus on The Amber Spyglass and the alternative approach to religion which it presents.

The Amber Spyglass can be seen as an utter rejection of Christian values and beliefs.  This is obvious by the point Lord Asriel has founded the Republic of Heaven and is waging war against God, but should be obvious even before then by scathing comments towards the church and its hold over power.  However it is in subtle allegories that I feel Pullman creates parallels with religion most effectively, which sets him up to reject it and create a new set of beliefs which I would actually like to believe in if they weren’t fictional.

These allegories focus around the world of the Mulefa, which is never named but I believe may symbolise Eden.  This may seem a strange comparison considering the imperfections which exist (chiefly the Tualapi) and that, as Pullman explains, this world came to be out of evolution and natural processes, but that’s not the point.  A central theme which develops throughout the book is the need to build a metaphorical ‘Republic of Heaven’ in people’s own worlds, where they are, by living full lives and building stories and living in harmony with one another.  The world of the Mulefa is an example of this put into practice.  They are in harmony with nature, using the seed pods to elevate themselves to a position of dominance, given to them by their ability to travel over the lava-roads and, most importantly, through the seed oil which gives them consciousness.  In return their use of the seed pods crack them open and allow the seeds to germinate.  They live a rustic lifestyle, taking from the earth what they need and in turn giving to the earth what it needs.

The Mulefa are unique also in their harmony with one another.  Two Mulefa are never seen to argue, and everything they do is done in cooperation – such as tying nets which requires two to work concurrently on the same net and in gathering food.  There are very little politics in Mulefa society; councils exist and some Mulefa appear to have elevated positions, but every member of the society has a voice and will be listened to.

The Mulefa have their own creation story.  They believe the first Mulefa – a female, in contrast to Genesis’ Adam – discovered a seed pod and a serpent told her to put her foot through it to achieve knowledge.  This is very similar to the tale of Adam and Eve in Christianity, but where humanity see this as ‘The Fall’ and long to return to the bliss of ignorance, the Mulefa celebrate this event.  Christian doctrine goes that as a result of The Fall humanity became alienated both from God and from nature, yet the Mulefa have somehow kept the union unbroken – perhaps due to their different interpretation.  This adds to the idea that the Mulefa world is, allegorically, Eden.

It is somehow fitting then that, when Lyra and Will create an exit for the prisoners of the World of the Dead, the world their atoms are scattered into is Eden.  There is no Heaven nor eternal paradise, but in becoming one with nature conscious life can reach a form of contented harmony.  To reach this state one does not need to sacrifice their lives and freedom for a Deity – this would in fact keep them trapped forever in the World of the Dead.  People need to lives worth talking about, create stories, and strive for fulfilment.  These are healthy morals, in my view.

Another theme of the entire trilogy is opposition to authority.  The head angel is never referred to as God, but as ‘The Authority’, which shows the nature of his rule.  The fact that The Authority is a wizened, weak angel needing to be kept in a crystal case for safety, whose existence is scattered by the force of the wind, sums up the futility of his role.  All throughout the novel characters are encouraged to question authority, though this most often equates to challenging the church.  While this is most definitely a theme I would agree with, it does not seem to extend to other authorities.  When the angel Xaphania tells Will and Lyra that every window between worlds must be closed to stop Dust leaving the world, and the Subtle Knife destroyed, they blindly accept it.  They have reason to, until Xaphania tells them one window could be kept open, which would be used to allow the dead to continue flowing into ‘Eden’.  If one window can be afforded to be kept open, surely a second window would not be the end of Dust either?  Surely Lyra and Will are owed the opportunity to be together after everything they have done for the rebellion?  I love this book dearly, but this is a major flaw.  In accepting Xaphania’s words, Lyra and Will are rejecting Pullman’s message that all authority should be questioned.  Clearly, only ‘bad’ authority can be corrupt.

This brings me onto the role of Dust.  Dust is an elementary particle which has a symbiotic relationship with consciousness; one cannot exist without the other.  The Magisterium fears and hates Dust, believing that it is the cause of all sin.  It is my belief that Dust is meant to symbolise sin itself.  Christian belief states that as a result of The Fall, sin entered the world.  How this happened is not explained, but it is a very similar image to the Dust Mary Malone, Lord Asriel and others see flowing out of the world, out of the universe, into the Abyss.  But once again Christian belief is subverted.  Where Christians, like the Magisterium, fear and hate sin, the message of The Amber Spyglass is that Dust ought to be celebrated.  Dust brings conscious life to the Mulefa, due to keeping the seed-pod trees alive.  It does the same for humanity, and all life which is self aware.  Once more I agree with Pullman’s message that anything which brings greater knowledge to humanity, be it Dust, the Tree of Knowledge or science, is worth celebrating.

In Christian doctrine God is split into three parts of the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit.  In the universe Pullman has created, life is also split into three parts: the body, the dæmon (soul) and the ghost.  Upon death the body and the soul, which are considered the most important aspects, dissipate and become one with the world, but The Authority keeps the ghost prisoner in the World of the Dead.  This is contrary to the Christian idea of life after death as being ‘salvation’.  Pullman takes the view that an eternal life, whether in bliss, suffering or neither, would not be desirable.  It is only through Lyra and Will’s actions that the ghosts are freed from this living death.

One final point I have on trilogy’s attitude towards Christianity is the lack of any criticism, or even reference to, Jesus Christ the Saviour.  References to the Magesterium aside, which is clearly based on the Catholic Church, the religion Pullman is criticising could easily also be Judaism.  I would imagine this is due to there being very little in Jesus’ philosophy to criticise, other than the acts done in his name.  Perhaps even, in Lyra’s world, Jesus never existed, or his doctrines never extended beyond cult status.  He is certainly a major omission, but most likely a deliberate one.

As I read The Amber Spyglass I thought this is a religion with such great messages, morals and stories that I actually wished it were true.  Dust, Mulefa, parallel worlds, death, authority… The book presents all these themes in ways I believe they should be treated.  And the ultimate theme, the idea of creating a Republic of Heaven where we are, ‘because there is no elsewhere,’ is a wonderful message.  Basically, don’t squander or waste you life because you only live once and the world is there for the taking.  The world is your oyster, if you like.  This is a positive message to take upon finishing the book, and my most significant reason for wishing that the beliefs of this fictional story are worshipped across the world in Christianity’s place.