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
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 playboy.com 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
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"
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.