What the Killing of Shireen Abu Aqleh Means for Israel & the Middle East

By Ethan Dinçer

On the 11th of May, Israeli snipers shot and killed Palestinian-American journalist and Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Aqleh while she was on duty in Jenin, a city in the occupied West Bank. Abu Aqleh was covering an Israeli raid of Jenin when she was shot in the head, and reports have made it clear that there were no Palestinian forces in the area, indicating that Israeli forces specifically targeted Abu Aqleh and the three other journalists she was with. All four journalists were wearing press helmets and vests, and her killing has sparked a renewed wave of criticism against the Israeli occupation.  

The violence didn’t stop at the killing of Abu Aqleh. During her funeral, Al Jazeera aired live footage of military police raiding the funeral proceedings, detaining and beating mourners—almost causing the dropping of Abu Aqleh’s casket— smashing a window of the hearse, and tearing down Palestinian flags. According to the Israeli police, the violence was prompted by mourners refusing to place Abu Aqleh’s casket in a hearse, an arrangement previously agreed to by Abu Aqleh’s family. As funeral attendees were beat, kicked, subject to stun grenades, and arrested, Israeli forces once again proved their unending violence against the Palestinian people. 

Israel’s reaction to the killing of Abu Aqleh has been ridden with a lack of accountability. Soon after her killing, the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs claimed that indiscriminate firing of Palestinian terrorists shot and killed Abu Aqleh, a claim that was furthered by a statement from Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office. Both claims have been retracted, pending an Israeli military investigation. These acts of Israeli media deflection have had an immense impact on media coverage of Abu Aqleh’s death: the Middle East Eye reports that The Guardian, Associated Press, and the New York Times all made misleading or vague statements surrounding the nature of Abu Aqleh’s killing, using rhetoric such as “clashes” and “fights” that obscured the responsible party. 

Abu Aqleh’s killing by Israeli occupying forces can be placed in a larger continuum of violence. In the past few months, more than 17 people were killed in raids and clashes in Nablus, occupied West Bank, 30 Palestinians were injured during an Israeli raid of the al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan, and Israel continued air raids in Gaza after a rocket attack in late April. Juxtaposed with last year’s 11-day Gaza war, in which 250 Palestinians were killed and 1,948 injured—in which the Human Rights Watch named apparent war crimes—the Israeli occupation seemingly remains steadfast in its violence towards Palestinians. 

What does this violence, and the international community’s increasing recognition of it, mean for continued support of the Israeli state by Western governments? The United States arguably remains Israel’s largest supporter in terms of monetary aid, with US $3.8 billion being delivered to the Israeli state in 2020, part of President Obama’s US $38 billion aid promise to Israel from 2017-2028. As more activists and human rights groups from across the world call for a reckoning with Israeli violence, military aid, and freedom for Palestinians, Shireen Abu Aqleh’s murder represents another instance in which the normalization of Israeli occupation—from across the Middle East to the interstate system—is being challenged. 

Abu Aqleh’s case, in particular, represents a challenge to the Biden administration’s support for Israel. Abu Aqleh was an American citizen, and an increasing number of lawmakers, activists, and civil society representatives are calling for a critical look at how the United States treats Israel, actively pointing out the double standards in US policy. Many of these double standards surround journalist rights and freedom of the press. When American journalist Brent Renaud was killed in early March by Russian forces in Irpin, Ukraine, the Biden administration immediately condemned the killing, with White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan condemning Russia and Putin’s “brazen aggression” against journalists. The day after Renaud’s killing, the United States and France jointly agreed to step up sanctions against the Russian state. Similarly, after Washington declassified a report on the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Kingdom’s Istanbul consulate last year, the Biden administration was quick to maintain sanctions on the hit squad that killed Khashoggi. Yet, President Biden was steadfast on not taking action against Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, a move Biden defended in order to avoid ostracizing the head of state. 

These three cases illuminate the shifting, and at times hypocritical, policies maintained by the United States vis-a-vis journalists. Now, with increasing calls for Israeli accountability for the killing of Abu Aqleh, where does Israel stand in relation to the United States and to the greater Middle East? As more human rights advocacy groups name Israeli occupation as apartheid, Israel’s historic omnipresent force in the region seems to be dwindling. The Israeli government’s reaction to any critique of the occupation has turned more inflammatory, and Israel’s media campaign to diminish their violence against Palestinians is not reaching the same audience. Albeit relatively low, the higher number of U.S. Congressional representatives calling for a conditioning of aid to Israel signifies an interstate system increasingly willing to recognize and denounce the unacceptability of the occupation’s violence. 
Abu Aqleh’s killing, in the short term, should inspire more critical approaches to the Israeli occupation by both governments in the Middle East and the United States. While the Biden administration has called for an investigation of the violence at Abu Aqleh’s funeral, compared with the administration’s response to the murder of American journalist Brent Renaud, Biden is being expected to take more critical steps to hold the occupation responsible for Aqleh’s killing. In the Middle East, Abu Aqleh’s killing is a reminder of ongoing violence against Palestinians, especially to the four states—Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Morocco—who normalised ties with Israel under the Trump administration’s Abraham Accords. Abu Aqleh’s killing should be a sobering example to the Middle East about their policy decisions towards Israel, and inspire re-evaluating the policy support towards Palestinians.

Two Interpretations of Religion: The Tudeh Party and Iran’s 1979 Constitution

By Kelly Skinner

After Iran’s 1979 “Islamic” Revolution, Foucault noted that Islam was pervasive throughout Iran’s political discourse, rendering secular political options obsolete (Behrooz. Foucault in Iran, 82). This was largely due to the association of Islam with nationalism during the Revolution as it was used as a symbol of resistance against both the Shah and Western imperialism (Mirsepassi. Intellectual Discourse and the Politics of Modernization: Negotiating Modernity in Iran, 100). This left the secular-identifying political groups in a difficult position– would secularism remain central to their ideology or would they forge political alliances based on other factors? In mid-1979, as Iranian leaders were in the midst of creating a constitution which would define the new Islamic Republic, the political stakes could not have been higher. One of these secular parties, the communist Tudeh Party of Iran, forged an interesting path in their approach to this question, ultimately putting their economic goals above any other consideration. The Tudeh Party’s response to the growing presence of political Islam included identifying multiple interpretations of religion and espousing one interpretation as aligning with the party’s own goals. This also included identifying which versions of an Islamic Economy mostly closely aligned with their own economic platform. The Tudeh Party publicized these ideas in various interviews and articles published at the time, including those printed in Mardom, Ettelāʿāt, and recorded in the international press by the FBIS-Daily Service.

In early June, before the official June draft constitution was published, the Tudeh Party published their goals for the new constitution in Ettelāʿāt. Secretary General Nurredin Kianuri stated:

… the new constitution must include the following principles: full national independence and sovereignty in all political, economic, cultural, social and military affairs, democracy meaning the provision of all freedoms and fundamental rights, the right of the masses (tudeh mardom) to participate in determining their own destiny through strong social institutions, ensuring the national rights of the peoples (hoquq-e melli-ye khalqhā) and nationalities living in Iran within the framework of our unified and indivisible homeland, social progress that guarantees the comprehensive industrial, agricultural, and cultural progress of society, its dynamics and its people and the flourishing of human character, moral values, and spirituality. Public welfare for all the toilers (zahmatkashān) and the provision of the right to work, education, treatment, rest and housing etc. The health of the country’s economic construction in order to secure the interests of the vast majority of people and cut off the possibilities of plundering the natural and human resources of our country. (Ettelāʿāt 12 Khordād 1358/ 2 June 1979)

After the publication of the June draft, the Tudeh Party’s positions changed very little though the draft had included little of what they had argued for. However, their goals for the new document did have one significant shift, the inclusion of a cooperative sector of government in their ideal economy. In late August, the Tudeh Party published an article in their party paper, Mardom, stating,

The economic system of the Islamic Republic of Iran should be based on three sectors: public (dowlati), cooperative (ta’āvoni), and private (khosusi), with regular government planning. The governmental sector is the main economic factor of the country and is the basic device for its dynamics and the advancement of the economic objectives of the revolution. (Mardom 29 Mordad, 1358/ 20 August 1979)

This new part of the Tudeh’s platform was repeated in another instance in which a Tudeh Party spokesman qualified their advocacy for these types of ownership by adding that this was what the party believed, “under the current circumstances” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. Tehran Ayandegan in Persian 1979. “Tudeh Gives Views on Constitution.” 2 August 1979). This is interesting, because while cooperative ownership is not featured in the June draft, these three types of ownership are popular in many conceptions of an Islamic economy, including in the ideas of Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, Ayatollah Mahmoud Taleqani, and Mas’ud Rajavi. 

This shift can be explained by the Tudeh Party’s new support for leftist conceptions of an Islamic Economy. In late July 1979, Tudeh Party published an article in their party paper, Mardom arguing that there are two different interpretations of Islam. What the Tudeh Party claimed to be the modern interpretation was the Islam that Ayatollah Khomeini and other revolutionaries followed. This interpretation supported the same economic goals as the Tudeh Party. The article states:

In this regard, we should especially name Imam Khomeini and also other Islamic thinkers such as Ayatollah Taleqani, Doctor Ali Shariati, Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, and others. This Islamic ideology, political and societal, that thanks to their efforts and the appearance of collective other Islamic thinkers of our country and was named “Monothesistic insight” (binesh-e towhidi), was a very important spiritual flag in the first stage of the of the victorious Iranian revolution against the Pahlavi dynasty and for  the establishment of an Islamic Republic and still in in the current revolutionary phase plays a progressive role in expanding and spreading the achievements of the revolution (Mardom 8 Mordad, 1358/ 30 July 1979)

In the same article, the Tudeh party also claims that in this new interpretation, Islam had become a social ideology, “Imam Khomeini by preserving his strict loyalty to all Islamic beliefs and Shi’ism, has given a new impetus to this trend and today Islam in countries is more and more formulated as a social ideology” (Mardom 8 Mordad, 1358/ 30 July 1979).

Not surprisingly for a communist party, the Tudeh Party’s support for Islam and an Islamic Economy only mentions the leftist proponents of an Islamic ecnomy, perhaps except for Khomeini. However, in his speeches during the Revolution, Khomeini too, often spoke of lifting up the oppressed, something the Tudeh party seems to have taken note of as they even adopted Khomeini’s rhetoric. In a press conference given on October 9th, 1979, Kianuri lays out the “content of the revolution” that the Tudeh party would support. These points include the following: “Fundamentally changing for the better the living standards of millions of plundered people, i.e., the working classes or, to use the term coined by Imam Khomeyni, the Mostaz’afin [the deprived]” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. Tehran Bamdad in Persian 1979. “Kianuri Press Conference”). Notably, Mostaz’afin, originally a Qur’anic term, was first used to talk about economic class in Shariati’s translation of Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth into Persian as Mostaz’afin-e Zamin (The Oppressed of the Earth) (Abrahamian, Khomeinism: Essays on the Islamic Republic, 47). Khomeini’s use of this term shows, at least to the Tudeh, that he is combining Islam with class struggle. 

On the other hand, the Tudeh party’s use of Mostaz’afin also attempts to show the Iranian people that although they often use different language to express their agenda, it is remarkably similar to Khomeini’s own goals. This is also evident a month later when in an interview a German newspaper Kianuri states, “The Shi’ite religion has democratic roots and in history it was linked with popular national and anti-imperialist forces… We are making every effort to find a common language with Khomeyni, because objectively he is playing a progressive role in Iran’s development” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. East Berlin 1979. “Interview with Tudeh’s Kianuri” 16 November 1979). Kianuri justifies this position by saying, “between scientific socialism and the social content of Islam there are no unbridgeable differences rather, many common aspects” (FBIS-NES Daily Report. East Berlin 1979. “Interview with Tudeh’s Kianuri” 16 November 1979).

Following this strategy, the Tudeh Party, although not agreeing with the form of government instituted by the new constitution, did support the overall constitution due to the leftist economic principles in the document. In November 1979, Kianuri stated:

Some articles of the constitution are positive and others negative… We support the articles relating to the structures of the economy in the Islamic Republic. The economy will be based mainly on the national sector… despite the great resistance shown by the bazaar. (FBIS-Daily Service 20 Nov. 1979)

This is interesting because Khomeini has historically been an ally of the bazaar in the lead up to the Revolution and relied on their support to oust the shah (Abrahamian, Khomeinism, 41).  In the view of the Tudeh party then, the final constitution marks a victory of Khomeini’s revolutionary rhetoric over his more conservative tendencies. However, the economic focus of the Tudeh Party may have been shortsighted as the party would be banned by the new government only a few years after the Revolution, in 1983.

Secular political groups in Iran had to adapt to the changing meaning of Islam during and after the Revolution. The Tudeh Party did this by accepting the fact that Iran’s constitution would include principles for an Islamic Economy. Following this acceptance, the Tudeh Party then identified the proponents of an Islamic Economy whose ideas were most similar to their own economic beliefs. This included Shariati, who was known as the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution, though he died before its fruition and Khomeini, the leader of the Revolution, as well as Bani-Sadr and Taleqani whom the party endorsed for the Assembly of Experts. Even after the final draft of the constitution was published, the Tudeh Party still supported the document, which famously included theocratic elements such as Velāyat-e Faqih, due to its inclusion of leftist economic principles.

Image obtained from Tudeh Party of Iran

Three Strikes: Somaya’s Story

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM), an annual campaign to raise public awareness about sexual assault. Based on prevalence data from 2000 to 2018 across 161 countries, the World Health Organization estimated that 1 in 3 women throughout the world are survivors of sexual and/or physical violence. Insiya Raja interviewed Somaya Tarek, a brave Egyptian woman who exemplifies the struggles women continue to face, not only in experiencing sexual assault but also in speaking out about it. 

Strike I

On October 25, 2015,  Somaya Tarek was publicly harassed in a mall in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis After Somaya threatened to call security, the man turned around and slapped her in the face twice. The entire incident was captured on closed-circuit television, and the security video from the mall was leaked. When she went to the police, the officers laughed at her, joking about the incident. No investigation followed and the man was not charged by the police. 

This did not deter Somaya, who made the rare decision of personally speaking out in Egyptian media about the incident. She posted the video on her Facebook that night, which had over 400,000 views by the next morning. As her case began to garner national attention, talk show hosts invited her to speak. She agreed to an interview with Reham Saeed, a famous TV talk show host, which aired on the private network Al-Nahar. Reham had invited Somaya, telling her that she needed to be “honoured for her courage.”  She went to the interview, and before she entered, a man from the production team told her she was not allowed to take her phone on stage and must leave it with him. 

When they went on camera, Saeed told Somaya, “I’m not bringing you here to make you a hero. Do you think you were dressed appropriately?” Any expectations that the presenter would treat Somaya with empathy and trust were quickly dashed. Saeed questioned her aggressively, blaming Somaya for provoking harassment by wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and even accusing her of being the one to catcall her assailant. Somaya asked for the termination of the interview and the return of her phone; instead, she was handed a paper to sign. After four hours, when she got angry and threatened to call the police, they finally returned her phone and let her go.

One hour after this dramatic incident, Saeed’s show aired on TV, showing private pictures of Somaya, including in a bathing suit, which had been stolen from her cellphone. Somaya was accused of being indecent, and Saaed argued that if a woman dressed provocatively, it is no surprise she would get harassed. Saeed concluded with the remarks: Just as there are harassers in the streets, some girls have really gone beyond the limits. You won’t like this, but this is the truth. Keep your girls in check and nothing will happen to them.

Saeed’s crass accusations and misogynistic behaviour sparked outrage amongst women’s rights advocates, who launched a social media campaign calling for the suspension of the show. Bowing to pressure from the activists, Al Nahar’s management suspended Saeed’s show for several months. 

After a whole year, the court finally sentenced the harasser, identified as Hany A., 28-years old, to one month in prison and a fine of 100 Egyptian pounds–about $6 U.S.. After he appealed his sentence, his jail-time was reduced to two weeks. In 2015, under the Egyptian penal code, the minimum punishment for sexual harassment and assault was six months in prison or a fine of 3,000 Egyptian pounds. However, the court said the video was not enough proof to establish that. The court also told Somaya’s lawyers that Hany was handed the minimum possible sentence because of the media fuss Somaya had created, and that they did not like media interference in a trial.  

The culture of victim blaming and shaming was pervasive, and Somaya came to be known as the “Mall girl” in the media, with a hashtag even arising from the moniker, فتاة_المول#. However, after Somaya first spoke out, she also received hundreds of messages from girls all over Egypt who said that they had faced similar harassment but had been too afraid to speak out. They told her they were waiting for someone else to make the first move. In 2017, a global movement would shake the world, as women inspired by the #MeToo movement in 2017 would speak out. However, it is in this year that Somaya would suffer the consequences of her speaking out. 

Strike II

Two years to the day of her assault, as if marking the anniversary of his first crime, Hany, a released assailant, attacked Somaya again. But this time, he tried to kill her. After slashing her face with a box-cutter–causing a 20mm gash from behind her ear to her cheek–he left her bleeding on the pavement in the Korba district of Heliopolis. It was 3 pm on a Saturday afternoon in a busy Cairo street, but Somaya could not find anyone willing to help her. She ran by herself to three different hospitals, but all of them refused to treat her. Finally, at the fourth hospital which was private, she was taken in. 

It took 50 stitches to close the wound across the side of her face. It appears this attack was not only meant to disfigure Somaya, but to kill her.  Somaya re-appeared on several other TV shows, and publicly accused him of attacking her with a knife, with the large gash on her face still an unhealed wound. 

The police arrested Hany a second time, and investigators said that he confessed to the attack. Under Egyptian law, the minimum sentence for attempted murder is seven years. Hany was sentenced to eight months in prison.  

The second attack was Hany’s revenge for Somaya going public with the case in 2015. However, the attacks against Somaya did not end there. The public nature of the case caused scrutiny amongst the broader population of Egypt. In Somaya’s experience, 90% of the comments on the forums she had posted on after getting out of the hospital, were critical of her. Amid all the victim-blaming, the cruellest comment that Somaya saw constantly was that she got what she deserved

Two months after the incident, after she had been told that more than 70% of her scar was permanent, she went online on Facebook to express the desire to take her own life in front of 60,000 viewers. However, in comment after comment, people continued to shame her, often encouraging her to go through with suicide. 

Strike III

Hany was released in 2018, after which he began stalking and threatening Somaya. He showed up at her house, at her work, and at her family’s homes. Every time she would find a new job, he would be waiting for her outside. A man called her, claiming to be Hany’s brother, and said that they would “take her mother” if she did not go to the police and said that she had identified the wrong person. 

While Hany was free, Somaya was constantly under threat. Fearing for her safety, she moved ten times in just two years. She complained to the police, but nothing was done to rearrest the man. She tried many times to flee Egypt,  and finally got out in December 2021 after she was able to obtain a visa to Spain. 

Somaya is currently living in Spain. Her lawyer has filed her asylum application under Spain’s gender violence category. Even though the application process is taking time, Somaya says that she finally feels safe and is grateful to be able to take a walk on the street without overwhelming fear. 

The Broader Situation in Egypt

In 2013, a research study conducted by United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) revealed that over 99.3% of Egyptian girls and women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in their lifetime. A member of Egypt’s National Council for Women (NCW) said in 2016 that this widely circulated statistic is “exaggerated,” that sexual harassment has started to “recede,” and that the numbers incorrectly suggest that “all women on the street are harassed.” The NCW,  the only “national independent women machinery in Egypt,” was established by a Presidential decree in 2000;  the members of the council are appointed by the President of Egypt himself. 

Recently, the Freedom Initiative (NGO) released a report entitled No One is Safe which found that Egypt employs abuse in detention as a method to coerce, punish, and bring a population under the control of the state. According to Allison McManus, Research Director at  the Freedom Initiative:

Sisi will declare “the year of the woman” and the new National Strategy on Human Rights will claim it prioritizes gender-based violence and sexual harassment, but the Egyptian state fails to protect women like Somaya who do not conform to strict gender laws. This is because the state sees the mandate of women’s empowerment through its claim to “guard morality” in a way that is narrowly heteronormative and patriarchal. 

In 2011, officers in the Egyptian army subjected women to “virginity tests” in Tahrir Square, a practice that continued to be carried out against female political detainees under President Sisi. Mainstream and local media coverage of violence against women in Egypt has contributed to the culture of victim-blaming. In December 2011, a woman who was dragged and beaten by soldiers became known as the ‘blue-bra girl’ after her abaya was pulled over her head during the assault. The media demonized her and accused her of provoking the attack, with commentators asking why she would wear such a provocative bra, or why she did not wear more layers of clothes under her abaya. However, the pervasive violence carried out systematically by both state and society has come under increasing criticism on social media in recent years. 

Women human rights defenders in Egypt have faced persecution. Last year, two TikTok influencers, Mowwada al-Adham and Hanin Hossam, 22 and 20 years old respectively, were arrested for posting content on social media. Hossam was accused of human trafficking after inviting her followers to join the social media platform Likee, and the court sentenced her to ten years in prison. A 2018 cybercrime law has been used to punish women for expressing their opinion online, violating “family values” and undermining  “public morals,” with imprisonment of up to five years in some cases. Recently, Egypt’s highest court upheld a prison sentence against Amal Fathy, a well-known activist, who had spoken out against sexual harassment on Facebook. Egypt has also placed travel bans on women who have been active and vocal advocates and activists, and frozen the assets of women’s rights organizations such as Nazra for Feminist Studies and the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance. 

The situation of women is not unique to Egypt, and initiatives like SAAM remain extremely important in the world today. A special thanks to Somaya for telling her story and continuing to inspire women everywhere.