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Internet & Imams in Iran

From Mike Theodoulou in Iran
The Times of London

The imams are wrestling with the Internet in the battle for the nation's young minds

A young woman sporting Doc Martens was sipping a cappuccino and giggling at her screen. A balding man was checking the state of play on Wall Street. We ordered espressos and went looking for sex. Pictures, centrefolds, pin-ups, that sort of thing.

"Sex?" mused Reza, a stubble-jawed customer who was drinking sweet tea brewed in a steaming samovar the size of a beer barrel. "Most people here are more interested in music or sport." Our curiosity was purely academic, we assured him. In this spirit of scientific inquiry he reluctantly obliged, keying in and proving that yes, such things are indeed available in Iran . Well, technically at least. Reza logged off as the site was downloading, well before we caught an eyeful of any Playmate. "This is the Islamic Republic," he explained.

Iran 's first cybercafe opened three months ago and business is booming. Surfers pay Pounds 3 an hour, a whopping sum considering monthly salaries are often just 20 times that amount, but still far cheaper than going on-line at home. And, unlike government-installed Internet lines, private providers don't block black-listed websites. Yet Hamid Chizari, the cheerful, Charles Bronson- lookalike who runs the cafe, keeps a watchful eye on his cyber surfers. "If we see customers calling up sex pictures, we ask them to stop. If they continue, we ask them to leave."

Unamused, nevertheless, are some of the puritanical old guard who rail against the Internet as the West's latest high-tech weapon in its no-holds-barred assault on Islamic values. "Westoxication" they call the insidious cultural invasion. Forbidden fruit being the sweetest, young Iranians have been seduced by American pop culture. Leonardo DiCaprio smoulders from the bedroom walls of thousands of Iranian girls. Like many foreign films, Titanic is officially taboo, but has broken box-office records on Iran 's booming bootleg video circuit.

Killjoy hardliners realise it is futile to confront the enemy head on. Smuggling in contraband videos is too easy. Satellite dishes are prohibited, but squat on countless apartment balconies. And thanks to the Internet, pictures that "threaten all of humanity and chastity" can now hurtle down international phone lines at the speed of light, says Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a leading conservative. He has devised an intriguing remedy to lure the country's youth back to purer paths. State television and radio must be made more entertaining. How? By producing "attractive films about the lives of the imams, the Prophet Mohammad and the early history of Islam".

Unsurprisingly, Jannati does not enjoy huge popularity among fun- hungry young Iranians. Their champion is President Mohammad Khatami, a middle-ranking cleric who is battling, in the teeth of ferocious hardline opposition, to liberalise society and politics and open Iran to the world. Young people need "legitimate" pleasures, he says. "We cannot ask them to go only to the mosque." Khatami, who has read the philosophers Kant and Hegel in the original German, argues that an Islamic civil society can benefit from certain aspects of Western civilisation.

The trouble is, not much of the Western culture reaching Iran is very civilising. Many Iranians fear their own 2,500-year-old culture is being diluted by Hollywood, MTV and Microsoft. Few Iranians better articulate the challenge posed by a global monoculture than Massoumeh Ebtekar, Iran 's first woman vice-president.

Profit, not ideology, is driving the global media, she says. American pop culture "doesn't give young people a sense of direction or values". "We are not the only ones who feel threatened - so do many European and Asian countries who fear the dominance of the English language and a globalised culture."

It was Ebtekar's own expert use of the English language that propelled her to fame two decades ago when, aged just 19, she was the spokeswoman for the radical Islamic students who seized the American embassy in Tehran, holding 52 hostages for 444 days. Cowled in a black chuddar, she was nicknamed "Sister Mary" by the American press. Like many others involved in the embassy takeover, she is now a prominent supporter of Khatami's reforms, which include mending fences with the "Great Satan" America.

Keeping up with technology is seen as essential if Iran's relationship with the West is to develop on an equal footing. "Being isolated from the world's information networks can only turn us into pawns of others because it is they who control the flow of this vital and strategic resource," Khatami says. The Internet is also seen as a way of explaining Iran 's Islamic and Persian culture to outsiders, while scientists and academics see it as a must.

For Chizari, the Cybercafe owner, personal responsibility, not censorship, is the key. The Internet is like a kitchen knife, he says. "It's useful in the right hands, dangerous in the wrong ones." Few British or American parents would disagree.


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