An Iranian blogger asks: ‘Has everyone noticed the spooky absence of graffiti in our public toilets since the arrival of weblogs?’ But unlike graffiti, Iran’s blogs are boundless and global. Approximately one in five Iranians have internet access, and Persian is one of the world’s most popular languages for keeping online journals.
Yet as the Iranian blogosphere has grown, so has the Government’s interest in repressing the medium. Bloggers have been jailed and last September officials proudly announced that ‘more than 10 million websites were filtered’, or blocked, in Iran.
Still, the internet has opened a new virtual space for free speech and large numbers of Iranians are willing to stand up for their rights and raise their voice in the debate about their country’s future. As one unwavering journalist blogger wrote after her release from prison:
Being lazy, I did not take the upkeep of my blog very seriously. But prison taught me that you have to write in newspapers, in blogs and on websites, on walls and anywhere you can.
The authorities have also tried to fight back by actively encouraging what they often label as ‘Islamic bloggers’. Plush conferences celebrate and hand out awards to the chosen few; Basij (Islamic Republic paramilitary) centres around the country and seminaries in the holy city of Qom now offer blogging lessons.
Nevertheless, bloggers are able to voice their resentment of a religious system that governs every aspect of their lives, even if such blogs are soon closed down or blocked, as was this irritable one by ‘Fozool’:
People put an ayatollah and the clergy on the same level as pimps and thugs and they would shove the whole lot of you up a donkey’s arse if they could.
Against such utterances must be set many others who write reverently about their faith. In fact the fiercest voices against a regime that rules in the name of Islam often resonate from those who profess to be religious. As the prominent Islamic scholar and Shi’a cleric Hadi Ghabel says in his blog, 25 years of rule by the clerics in Iran ‘has not made Islam stronger, but it has brought about a decline in the position of the clergy and religion in society’.
The educated young
The country’s young people are described by the Iran-based philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo as the ‘fourth generation’ who are moving away from political Islam towards an ‘Iranian secularism’, based on Islamic traditions and Persian cultural history. It is this generation that will ultimately determine the future of Iran.
Those who lived through the Iranian revolution of 1979 are now in the minority. In the post-revolution baby-boom, Iran’s population has more than doubled to almost 70 million, of whom over 65 per cent are under 30 years old. Literacy is well over 90 per cent, even in rural areas; and in 2005 more than 65 per cent of students entering university were women. The voices that come through most strongly in the Iranian blogosphere are those of this educated young generation.
In November 1979, at the dawn of the revolution, Khomeini stated that ‘a country with 20 million youth must have 20 million riflemen… such a country will never be destroyed’. The intention was to create soldiers of the state, but now groups of young people who aspire to a more Western lifestyle have even turned events like St Valentine’s Day into a local festival. The regime’s attempt to shield Iranians from the West’s ‘cultural invasion’ has backfired and the country’s youth is now almost obsessed with the Western culture they have been deprived of for so long. Ali Abtahi, a mid-ranking Shi’a cleric who became Deputy President under reformist President Khatami, commented on the new enthusiasm for Valentine’s Day among young lovers in Islamic Iran in his blog. Although there are many irritated by all this, he said: ‘We cannot deny the reality. And anyway the Islam that I know encourages life and love.’
Iranians have lived through a recent violent revolution and war; bleak years that they do not want to experience again. They are clearly still haunted by the futility of the eight-year war with Iraq that only ended in 1988. The roads, streets and narrow alleyways of Iran have been renamed after the hundreds and thousands of dead that the locals of these neighbourhoods still vividly and fondly remember as young boys. ‘Shargi’ perhaps sums up the views of many when she say in her weblog: ‘I hate war. I hate the liberating soldiers that trample your soil, home, young and old under their boots. Believe me, I love freedom. But I believe that you have to make yourself free. No-one else can free you.’ In a jibe against US sabre-rattling threats, another blogger writes: ‘God invented war so that Americans can learn geography.’
Blogger ‘baba.eparizi’ concludes:
When the most ruthless are the victors and not the wise... the story is truly of a bloody, vicious struggle... The ruthless killings at the dawn of the Revolution... the assassinations... eight years of devastation and war... the bombing of towns... the dastardly killings of prisoners en masse in the 1980s... These are all the bloody roots of our story... Yet today these blood feuds are fading from the minds of a new generation... a generation that was created to fight for God... a generation that was created for martyrdom is suddenly aware of its predicament and the world around... and no longer believes in the endless wars of its forefathers... A new generation is pressing forward to destroy the old formula.
There is, however, a vast gap between such utterances by bloggers – or the reality that even casual visitors to the country know well – and the perception of Iran in the West. Having published my email address in my recent book We Are Iran, I receive frequent letters from readers who often tell me that they ‘never imagined such an Iran’. I read these gratifying, kind-hearted notes with a tinge of bitterness for they show to what extent we Iranians are assumed to be frenzied death-chanting, shroud-wearing masses at war with the world.
Angry images of Iranians are increasingly used as a fitting backdrop to news items speculating about Iran’s nuclear activities. Consider too the coverage of an attack by a crowd of about 400 demonstrators against the Danish embassy in Tehran last year following the publication of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.Among the protesters that day was the Iranian Basij (militia) member and blogger Saleh Meftah. The following day he wrote in his blog about the thrill and the fun-filled atmosphere of the attack, posting smug photos of himself taken inside the embassy compound.
On the streets of Tehran, only the brave or the foolhardy would dare to confront a member of the Basij; in this cyber-sanctuary, however, within a period of only two days hundreds of angry comments had been left on Saleh’s page. The following is just a tiny sample:
I cannot hide my hatred of you and your actions. It’s your bestial breed that gives Westerners cause to insult our dear Prophet and faith.
You’ve written here that, as you read the comments, ‘I am proud that the enemies of the revolution are attacking me.’ Listen, you godless fool... what enemies?! They are ordinary people who are telling you how they feel ... your fellow countrymen!
You Basij just don’t learn. No matter how many of you fill up our universities like flies through [government] quotas, you still don’t seem to get wise to the fact that you are being played. You talk of bringing the true face of the revolution to the Westernized, northern [affluent] suburbs of Tehran by setting fire to that embassy. My brother! While there, you should have opened your eyes. For your mentors and this nation’s tormentors... live behind those neighbouring grand high walls. But I also want to say that I commend you for not deleting the messages here and for upholding the democratic principle of free speech.
Iranian Muslims may well be dismayed by xenophobic images of their prophet dressed as a terrorist, his turban a bomb with a lit fuse. But most did not take part in such a protest. Yet the Western news coverage would have had us believe that this 400-strong, officially backed mob, in a city populated by 12 million people, represented the mood of the Iranian street. Today a generational change threatens the survival of the hardliners. Ultimately this will force the regime to concede to the demands of a youthful population for amiable relations with the outside world and Iran’s integration into the global economy.
Even in the conservative segments of the Iranian blogosphere championed by the Government there are growing rumblings of dissent against the President’s failure to fulfil his campaign pledge of social justice and distribution of oil money to the poor. Blogger Beheshti, who calls himself a Hezbollahi (a member of the Party of God), writes in a post addressed to Ahmadinejad:
I hope that there won’t come a day that we forget you were supposed to stand up against the corrupt... With all the respect that I have for you, I now try to avoid your news conferences as I can’t bear to see you evade answering questions.
Confronting Ahmadinejad are young idealists who have taken the egalitarian rhetoric of the Iranian Revolution and interpreted it literally. These young people are perhaps the greatest challenge to the regime as they are part of a new generation of Iranians who are fonder of the truth than of martyrdom.
Obstacles to peace
In recent months we have seen a toughening US and British stand against Iran, with Iran accused of being an ‘obstacle to peace in the region’. Yet while some of the youth of Iran’s Arab neighbours may dream of replacing the dictatorships they live under with Islamic states, the Iranians have been there, done that, got the apparel – and suffered the drawbacks. In most of the Arab world they are wary of running free elections as they are likely to produce fanatics. The children of the Iranian Revolution, in contrast, are no longer allowed free elections on campus, as in recent years they have continually elected pro-democracy student leaders.
In December 2006 British Prime Minister Tony Blair praised UAE’s progress towards democracy following elections in which less than one per cent of its citizens were allowed to vote for an advisory council. Yet more than a century ago colonial powers brought an end to Iran’s constitutional government of 1906. In the 1950s the democratically elected government of Mossadegh was finished off in a coup backed by the United States and Britain [see Iran: a history].
Liberal struggle had failed us and, with the 1979 Iranian revolution, we introduced a bemused world to political Islam. Iran’s current supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said: ‘We are not liberals like [Salvador] Allende and Mossadegh, whom the CIA can throw out.’ And he is right, as it is only the Iranian people who can alter the system they live under.
On 6 December 2006, despite the Government’s extraordinary crackdown on dissent, a sizeable crowd of students participated in Tehran in an event called ‘University is Alive’. They chanted ‘nothing to lose but our chains’, ‘death to dictators’, and ‘we want bread, not bombs’. At Amirkabir University students disrupted a speech by Ahmadinejad, setting fire to his picture and heckling him. There were many gatherings at other universities, including Shiraz, Mazandaran, Mashad, Allameh Tabatabai, Tabriz and Hamedan.
But Westerners applauding such demonstrators for their bravery in standing up to the regime should not jump to the wrong conclusions. One of the student leaders of the Tehran protest was rapturously cheered by the crowd for saying: ‘Our struggle is twofold: against internal oppression and external foreign threats.’ These young people are not waiting to be liberated by invading soldiers, but would unite behind their oppressors in the face of foreign aggression.
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