Sima Shakhsari, Politics of Rightful Killing: Civil Society, Gender, and Sexuality in Weblogistan (Duke University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Sima Shakhsari (SS): Since I immigrated to the United States over thirty years ago, I have been interested in activism and scholarship in relationship to the Iranian diaspora, gender, and sexuality. After volunteering and working in activist organizations in the Bay Area in the 1990s, and then later becoming disillusioned with the non-profit industrial complex, I decided to go to graduate school to think more critically about the politics of gender and sexuality among the Iranian diaspora. In my master’s thesis, I explored a few diasporic cultural productions, including an Iranian gay and lesbian magazine, and diasporic plays to think about the discursive production of queerness in diaspora. When I started my PhD studies, I was hoping to expand that research by studying the Los Angeles-based diasporic Iranian television programs that were broadcast to Iran. At that time, which was soon after the onset of the “war on terror,” these programs suddenly became extremely active in “anti-regime” programming. I started doing fieldwork in Los Angeles and Turkey to study this sudden fervor among former entertainers who had become political pundits.

After preliminary fieldwork, I learned two things. First, the competition between these television channels over who was more anti-regime was owed to Condoleezza Rice’s proposal to spend seventy million dollars on Iran “democratization” projects. Ironically, none of these television channels received that money. Instead, the US Department of State launched the Voice of America Persian from Washington, DC. Second, except for a few old Iranians in Los Angeles, most of my interlocutors told me that they never watched the Iranian television programs, because the royalist entertainer-made-pundits were outdated and irrelevant to the Iranian politics. Instead, many people told me that blogs were “where it was at.” As one young woman in Istanbul told me, “Iranian televisions do not need to be researched. They need to be boycotted.” Incidentally, I noticed that Persian blogging was getting a lot of attention in mainstream international media, for being the fourth language of blogging in the world. The dominant narrative in these accounts about Weblogistan was, “because there is no freedom of speech in Iran, Iranians, in particular women, have finally found a voice through blogging.” According to this narrative, Weblogistan was where civil society had emerged for the first time in Iran. But, as I started reading Persian-language blogs, I learned that most of the famous/popular bloggers who were mentioned in the dominant accounts about Weblogistan lived outside of Iran, especially in Toronto. So, the narrative of the lack of freedom of speech as the reason for the proliferation of Persian blogs did not make sense.

I decided to conduct online and offline ethnography to see what the hype about the liberatory potentials of Persian blogs was all about. In particular, I was interested in how gender and sexuality figured in blogging conversations about the future of democracy in Iran. It was through this research that I came to the idea of politics of rightful killing, which basically describes the geopolitical paradox wherein the Iranian people’s “freedom of speech” and “internet freedom” become buzzwords of “internet democratization projects,” at the same time that the Iranian population is subjected to death through deadly sanctions. Put simply, I wrote the book to explain how the Iranian population is being killed softly in the name of rights.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

SS: The book engages with the literature about diaspora, internet, civil society, queer theory, biopolitics, necropolitics, and studies of governmentality. In particular, it argues that in the first decade of the new millennium, Weblogistan became the center of attention for the democratization industries and “experts” who deployed notions of international civil society, freedom, pre-emption, and security to ensure the geopolitical interests of the empire and global capitalism. The allocation of funding (by the US Department of State and the Dutch Parliament) to the Iranian diasporic media with the purported aim of promoting democracy in Iran; the proliferation of discourse about helping “opposition groups” in Iran and its diaspora to hasten regime change in the post–September 11 era; and the timely emergence of Persian blogging as a fast medium for transnational exchange of information, all brought Weblogistan into the spotlight of democracy projects. As a part of the transnational Iranian civil society, Weblogistan was a new site where heated debates about Iranian politics took place among internet-savvy Iranians in Iran and its diaspora. These debates highlighted the gendered, sexed, and racial exclusions of a futurity that was imagined through rehearsals of democracy and freedom in Weblogistan. As a technology of self, “practicing democracy” became the buzzword among some Iranian internet users who assumed their blogging world to be a microcosm of the Iranian population at large. In Weblogistan, heteronormative and homonationalist Iranian subjectivities were neither solely produced and regulated according to the Iranian nationalist discourses, nor by an assumed unidirectional neoliberal order. Rather, hegemonic forms of Iranian-ness were produced (and constantly reproduced) in a complex and multidirectional discursive, affective, and economic assemblage that included Iranians in Iran, diaspora Iranians, and competing and complicit non-state, para-state, and state entities (of several states) that operated under governmental and nongovernmental nomenclature.

Contrary to the accounts that celebrate Weblogistan as a unified, democratic, revolutionary, and anti-state online community that epitomizes the promises of civil society, in the book, I show that Weblogistan was where violent conflicts took place, inequalities that existed offline and online were reproduced, and desiring subjects (who aspired to exceptional citizenship) were normalized according to nationalist and neoliberal discourses. Weblogistan, I argue, was also a site where neoliberal self-entrepreneurs/experts produced and disseminated information about Iran, where cyber-revolutions dominated the lexicon of democratization projects of the empire. Ultimately, I argue, Weblogistan as a part of the transnational Iranian civil society was where the desire for exceptional citizenship and democratic futurity was cultivated, while the Iranian population was (and still is) subjected to the politics of rightful killing. Notwithstanding the desire for proximity to whiteness, displays of market virility, and disavowal of Arabness as strategies to survive anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism, I argue that Iranians who aspire to exceptional citizenship constantly shuttle between rightfulness and rightlessness, as the looming fear of the Middle Eastern “terrorist” travels through contagion (to borrow from Puar), thus implicating all Iranians and marking them “risky citizens.” In other words, the risky citizen in the digital realm is a self-responsible individual, apt for democratization through bio-political and ethico-political practices that seek to normalize the (currently undemocratic) population according to the ideals of liberal democracy. However, unlike the exceptional citizen who is folded into life, this risky citizen simultaneously maintains a desire for liberal democracy, and a sense of belonging to a population that embodies a pending threat to the security of the “international community.” Living a loaned life, this risky subject can become disposable at any given moment.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

SS: As I said earlier, this book is an extension of my scholarly and activist interest in the Iranian diaspora, queer theory, and sexuality studies. In the ten years that it took for the dissertation to become a book, I wrote a few articles based on my ethnographic research among queer and trans refugee applicants in Turkey. This work builds on the concept of politics of rightful killing, which initially appeared in my dissertation and based on which this book is written. So, the book is closely related to my ongoing engagement with biopolitics and necropolitics, but it focuses specifically on the internet democratization projects.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SS: I hope that scholars and activists interested in the politics of “war on terror,” transnational feminist theory and praxis, anthropology, gender and sexuality studies, studies of biopolitics and necropolitics, diaspora studies, internet studies, Iranian studies, and Middle East studies will read this book. I wrote the book as an intervention in cyber-enthusiastic accounts about the “internet revolutions” in the Middle East, and to highlight the hypocrisy of “freedom projects” when the Iranian people are subjected to deadly sanctions. Hopefully, the book will engender critical conversations about these topics by encouraging a form of skepticism that pays attention to complicities in relation to the internet and diasporas.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SS: Currently, I am working on a second book project that expands the notion of loaned life to think about queer and transgender refugees. As a scholar/activist, I am also working to raise awareness about the violence of sanctions on Iran through a billboard project and by fundraising for organizations that help those who are most affected by the sanctions in Iran. The outbreak of the coronavirus and the high mortality because of the lack of access to life-saving medicine makes this work even more urgent. I am also thinking about the devastating effects of the sanctions on social movements in Iran. In a time when the United States hawks and regime change forces opportunistically appropriate the Iranian people’s protests, social movements become almost impossible, as the Iranian state accuses activists of collusion with foreign forces. The legitimate protests to suppression of social freedoms, economic disparities, and austerity measures (which in large part are results of the sanctions) are shut down by the state in the name of national security. My recent article, co-authored with Minoo Moallem, thinks about these issues by analyzing the geopolitics of protests in Iran.

Excerpt from the book

On July 8, 2008, towards the end of my fieldwork, an Associated Press reporter asked Senator John McCain (then a presidential candidate) why, despite sanctions against Iran, U.S. cigarette exports to Iran grew more than tenfold during President Bush’s presidency. As McCain responded, “Maybe that’s a way of killing them.” Less than a year later, McCain would be paying a tribute to Neda Agha Soltan—a bystander who was shot during the protests that followed the Iranian presidential elections in Tehran in June 2009—condemning the Iranian state for repressing the Iranian people’s quest for democracy, applauding Twitter and Google for making the video of Agha Soltan’s death viral, and advocating U.S. support for democracy in Iran. Congress approved allocating $120 million for anti-regime broadcasting in Iran (Hivos 2011). President Obama’s administration established Near East Regional Democracy (nerd) in 2009 to focus “primarily on activities that don’t require an in-country presence. This included a strong focus on the support for media, technology, and Internet freedom, as well as conferences and trainings for Iranian reformers that may take place outside Iran.” Of the $40 million of nerd allocation in the fiscal year 2010, $10 million was specified for “internet access and freedom” (Hivos, 2011). In fy13, $8 million of the proposed $30 million was designated to “defend and promote an open internet” (McInerny 2012). The centrality of the internet in U.S. “liberation” projects was also reflected in Obama’s 2012 Iranian New Year address, in which he celebrated Facebook, Twitter, and other internet social networking tools for connecting Iranians and Americans: “The United States will continue to draw attention to the electronic curtain that is cutting the Iranian people off from the world. And we hope that others will join us in advancing a basic freedom for the Iranian people: the freedom to connect with one another, and with their fellow human beings.”

The U.S. government’s efforts to “lift the electronic curtain” in Iran while imposing the harshest sanctions in the history of sanctions on the Iranian people seems paradoxical at best. On July 1, 2010, President Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (cisada) to amend the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 (isa). cisada added new types of restrictions that Obama proudly announced to be crippling the Iranian economy. The new sanctions imposed excruciating economic pressure on the Iranian population—especially the working class—and jeopardized many people’s lives by making lifesaving medicine unaffordable. Ironically, the Obama administration added several provisions to make “it easier for American businesses to provide software and services into Iran that will make it easier for the Iranian people to use the internet.” How does one explain this aporia where the production of desire for free and democratic life is intertwined with death? What can be said about the politics of death and killing, management of life through rights, and the affective deployment of freedom in cyberspace? How do the material effects of sanctions and military intervention complicate the celebratory accounts of internet revolutions and affective mobilizations online? If mainstream representations of Weblogistan depict it as the bastion of civil society and therefore the realm of rights, what can be said about cyber civil society and rights in relation to death and disposability? This inconsistency of the U.S. policies towards Iran delineates the position that Iran holds in a militant neoliberal order, wherein the Iranian population is seen as a desiring consumer of both commodities and liberal ideals of freedom in global capitalism, while the dispensability of Iranian lives is sanctioned in the name of security.

[…] I build from biopolitics and necropolitics to suggest a form of power over the liminal state between death and life: a life that is not bare, but is instead imbued with rights. As a trope, the “people of Iran” constitute a population that is produced through the discourse of rights and for which death through sanctions and/or bombs is legitimized within the rhetoric of the “war on terror.” I call the politics of death in relationship to an unstable life that is at once imbued with and stripped of liberal universal rights the politics of rightful killing. The politics of rightful killing explains the contemporary political situation in the “war on terror” where those, such as the “people of Iran,” whose rights and protection are presented as the raison d’être of war, are sanctioned to death and therefore live a pending death exactly because of, and in the name of, those rights. Foucault argues that while “the relationship of war” (“‘If you want to live, the other must die’”) is not new, modern racism makes this relationship “function in a way that is completely new and that is quite compatible with the exercise of biopolitics” (2003, 255). During the “war on terror,” the management and optimization of protected life (populations that are worth protecting) uphold national and international security as a justification for racism. The exercise of racism in the name of democracy entails biopolitical practices at home and abroad, as well as preemptive disposability of those who threaten “our way of life” or jeopardize the interests of the “international community.” Democratization (through trainings in the realm of civil society) and protection of rights (through the work of the “international civil society”) become preemptive strategies to contain the risk of terrorism in populations that are not fully redeemable and remain suspect. As such, strategies of preemption/redemption can be revamped as strategies of killing unapologetically and with no need for justification.

The politics of rightful killing does not replace necropolitics or biopolitics, but it exists in the same political terrain where populations are disciplined, normalized, and debilitated (Puar 2017) and where “bare life” (one that is stripped of rights in the state of exception) is subjected to death. It refers to the necessary correlate of biopolitics insofar as biopolitics encompasses the relationship of the life of one depending on the death of the other (Foucault 2003, 255). Like necropolitics, however, the politics of rightful killing addresses the insufficiency of biopolitics in accounting for contemporary configurations of politics of life and death and is concerned with the living dead, the population that lives on the threshold of life and death (Mbembe 2003, 40). Unlike the living dead, however, loaned life (zendegiye nessiyeh) addresses the coexistence of dreaded yet rightful life and impending death on the same plane. Neither bare life, nor the life of the shadow slave or that of the absolute enemy (as discussed by Giorgio Agamben in the death camps and Mbembe in the colonies, the plantations, and in Palestine), loaned life is killable not just in the exceptional state of emergency, state of lawlessness, or the state of siege—although it is legitimized under those states—but in the state of normalcy. Rather than being completely stripped of rights, loaned life is imbued with and indebted to (universal human) rights. Rather than Foucault’s formulation of biopolitics (“make live, let die”) or Puar’s formulation of debilitation (“will not let die”), the loaned life in the politics of rightful killing encapsulates the conditional life of the population that has the potential to be democratized and contains the risk of terrorism. It is loaned, as it is conditional and contingent on the form of life (make live only if life aligns with the tenets of liberal democracy) and the temporality of rights (make live only as long as gifted with rights). Unlike homo sacer, loaned life cannot be expended by anyone except for the liberalizing states that protect the life-worthy population (even as the life-worthy population is eliminating its internal dangers through racist technologies of government). The loaned life holds the promise of civil society, and thus the potential of being governed transnationally, while being prone to preemptive death for the risk that it contains. In the endless state of war against the “terrorist states,” a new norm is established where the loaned life becomes the target of the sovereign’s right to kill in the name of rights and the protection of the “international civil society.”