Mullahs versus the bloggers
Ben Macintyre, The Times: Opinion
THE MUSIC OF Eric Clapton was banned in Iran this week. Broadcasters were ordered to cease playing “decadent” western songs and stick to “fine Iranian music”. Not content with denying the Holocaust, Israel’s right to exist, and advertising hoardings featuring David Beckham, Iran’s hardline President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has now denied his people the chance to listen to Layla — cruel and unusual punishment indeed.
But if Iran, under the repressive rule of the ultraconservatives, is silencing the sound of Western pop, in another area of its culture, a wild cacophony of voices has erupted. The blogosphere is exploding. READ MORE
In Iran there are now more than 100,000 active blogs or weblogs, individual online diaries covering every conceivable subject, from pets to politics. Farsi is the 28th most spoken language in the world, but it now ties with French as the second most used language in the blogosphere. This is the place Iranians call “Weblogistan”: a land of noisy and irreverent free speech.
The collision between these two sides of Iran — hardline versus online — represents the latest, and most important, battle over freedom of speech. The outcome will dictate not only the shape of Iran, but also the future of the internet as a political tool, heralding a new species of protest that is entirely irrepressible.
The growth in Iranian blogging is part of a worldwide surge. In 1999, there were some 50 bloggers on the web; in January there were about 5.4 million; today, according to the blog search engine Technorati, there are more than 23 million.
There are reasons why Iran should be especially fertile ground for blogging. More than 90 per cent of the country is literate, and 70 per cent of the country’s citizens are under 30. Computer ownership is relatively high and internet cafés abound. The first Iranian blog was born in November 2001, when Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian journalist, posted instructions on how to build a simple weblog in under ten minutes. As Nasrin Alavi (a pseudonym) demonstrates in her new book, We Are Iran: the Persian Blogs, these diary sites cover the gamut: angry, sad, humorous and brave. Like all blogs they can also be self-indulgent, inaccurate, inarticulate and boring. Internet usage is growing faster in Iran than anywhere in the Muslim Middle East, and there are now more blogs in Farsi than in German, Italian, Spanish, Russian or Chinese. Apparently, since the rise of the blogs, graffiti have almost entirely vanished from the walls of Tehran’s public toilets.
With almost all Iran’s reformist newspapers closed down and many editors imprisoned, blogs offer an opportunity for dissent, discussion and dissemination of ideas that is not available in any other forum. There is wistful yearning in many Iranian blogs, and a persistent vein of anger: “I keep a weblog so that I can breath in this suffocating air,” writes one blogger. “I write so as not be lost in despair.” Blogs by Muslim women are particularly moving in their bitter portrayal of life behind the veil.
The Iranian State has done its utmost to smother the nascent Iranian blogosphere. In 2003 the Government began to take direct action against bloggers — more than 20 have been arrested, on charges ranging from “morality violations” to insulting leaders of the Islamic Republic. One blogger was sentenced to 14 years in prison for “spying and aiding foreign counter-revolutionaries”; in October, Omid Sheikhan was sentenced to a year’s jail and 124 lashes for a weblog featuring satirical political cartoons.
The regime has also reportedly brought in powerful software programs to filter the net and block access to provocative blogs. But the Government remains profoundly alarmed by a tool it cannot control. Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, the head of the Iranian judiciary, recently described the internet as a “Trojan Horse carrying enemy soldiers in its belly”. Many of Iran’s religious leaders recall how an earlier revolution was fuelled by new technology, when cassette tapes and videotapes of sermons by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini were smuggled into the country, undermining the Shah and hastening his downfall.
Decentralised, informal and versatile, blogs offer a potential for secrecy, anonymity and evasion unthinkable in a hierarchical, paper-based information system. A blogger may be arrested, but once his words are out there and replicable, they are effectively immortal and invulnerable. The bloggers have proved so wily and hard to censor that the Government has even considered removing Iran from the internet entirely, by creating a national intranet that would seal off Iranians from the contaminating freedom of the world wide web.
If the Iranian Government succeeds in crushing the blogs, other intolerant regimes will take heart; but if the Iranian blogosphere continues to expand, nascent networks of free thought will follow elsewhere. Already US policymakers are exploring ways of nurturing home-grown Arabic language blogs in the Middle East to spread democratic ideals and increase pressure for change.
It is less the political content of the blogs that terrifies Iran’s Government than the mere existence of this space outside its control, where Iranians are free to say whatever they wish to one another. Here in Weblogistan they can tell jokes, flirt, mock their leaders and share music files, unencumbered by mullahs’ fiats or state decrees.
For a reader from the West, the blogs offer a vision of Iran, far from the chanting crowds, hidden women and ranting mullahs of popular imagery. As much as President Ahmadinejad may seek to turn back the clock and battle “Westoxification”, at the blog level this is a modern country. “My blog is a blank page,” writes one young Iranian blogger. “Sometimes I stretch out on this page in the nude . . . now and again I hide behind it. Occasionally I dance on it.” That may not sound like a call to arms, but in a country where the music is dying it may be the harbinger of revolution.