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Iran at the cross-roads
Image, identity, tolerance and freedom

By Yahya R. Kamalipour
July 30, 1999
The Iranian

As individuals, regardless of our race, religion, culture, or politics, we have been searching relentlessly for answers to three simple, yet complicated, questions: Who am I? Where am I going? Why? As we are poised to enter the third millennium, we have not been able to arrive at any definitive answer to those existential questions. We have become so immersed in an image-driven, materialistic, commercialized, and politicized world, that the "self" has been lost.

We no longer consume products, we consume images. We no longer elect leaders, we elect images. We no longer see for ourselves, we see through our television sets. We no longer think for ourselves, "others" direct our thoughts. We no longer determine our identities, "others" determine our identities. We no longer live in a "metropolis," we live in a "technopolis" (a wired world). We no longer belong to just a village or community, we belong to a global community or the global village.

In short, we can no longer afford to survive in isolation, nor can we ignore one another. As the late Canadian philosopher, Marshal McLuhan, once said: We can no longer speak of "them," there is only "us!" Furthermore, we should not continuously blame "others" for our personal, social, political, or economic shortcomings. We must take charge of our lives and destinies with the realization that we live in a world of confluences. We influence and are influenced.

Positive Image vs. Negative Image

We now live in a global community in which the mass media (radio, television, newspapers, magazines, books, motion pictures, recorded music, and the Internet) greatly impact our daily lives and our world view. It is often through the media that people form their perceptions of others and learn about world affairs. Furthermore, the mass media, particularly the visual media, have created an image-driven world -- a world in which manufactured images promote everything from toys, breakfast cereals, political candidates, and automobiles, to values, religions, nations, and ideologies.

In fact, when it comes to product advertising, consumers often purchase the images which are attached to the products, not the products per se. In other words, one buys good "feelings" in case of Toyota, "passion" in case of Elizabeth Taylor's perfume, "masculinity" in case of Marlboro, "individual style/prestige" in case of Bijan (the Beverly Hills designer), "good taste" in case of foods, or "good looks" in case of fashion or other products. Indeed, we "swim" in a sea of images-persuasive images that influence our habits, tastes, health, dress, thoughts, and our perception of the world and of ourselves.

Of course, persuasion is not just the specialty of advertisers and marketers. In fact, "The U.S. government spends more than $400 million per year to employ more than 8,000 workers to create propaganda favorable to the Unites States. The result: ninety films per year, twelve magazines in twenty-two languages, and 800 hours of Voice of America programming in thirty-two languages with an estimated audience of 75 million listeners -- all describing the virtue of the American way" (1991, pp. 4-5).

In addition, the U.S. is the number one producer and exporter of cultural products (television programs, recorded music, motion pictures, etc.) in the world. Obviously, one can argue that the popularity of the United States and its products is not accidental -- it is the result of a carefully planned, orchestrated, and implemented persuasion strategy, dating back to the first and second World Wars.

Indeed, the global media (CNN, British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America) have been successful in reaching practically every nation of the world. This global reach, of course, allows a handful of Western democracies which have the money, human resources, and credibility to influence domestic and foreign policies of other nations (Stevenson, 1994).

Incidentally, during the writing of this article, the American National Public Radio reported that the U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe's Iran service (originally called Radio Free Iran) and Radio Free Iraq, both based in Prague, began beaming their daily programs in Farsi to Iran and in Arabic to Iraq. It is noteworthy that these two radio programs have their genesis in Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty which began broadcasting programs in 1951, from Munich to Soviet-controlled countries during the Cold War. Six years after the collapse of communism, RFE/RL moved its headquarters from Germany to the Czech Republic (U.S. Radio Liberty..., 1998).

The "information age" has altered traditional ways of life in every respect. It seems that in this age "images" speak louder than mere "words." For instance, when it comes to marketing and sales, products which enjoy a positive image or reputation succeed, while those with a negative image or reputation fail.

Just think of the popularity and positive reputation of the Sony products in Iran and elsewhere. Likewise, in today's intensely competitive global economy, nations which enjoy a positive image are much more successful-in terms of politics and commerce-than those with a negative image. Hence, the prevailing stereotypical images of Iran have a negative impact not only on the country and on its international affairs, but also on every Iranian throughout the world.

In a recent study, conducted by this author, nearly 500 American high school students were asked to express their mental-images of Iran and the Iranians. The question posed to them was this: "What images come to your mind when you think of Iran or the Iranians?" Their overall responses follow: Ayatollahs, Khomeini, Extremism, Hostages, Anti-American, War, Oil, Mean people, Iran-Contra, Dark skin, Mustaches, Terrorism, Conflict, Religious, Poverty, Muslims, Strict, Fanatical, Sand, Fighting, Arabs, Death, Hated, Saddam Hussein, Missiles, Oppression, Not Without My Daughter (the movie).

Unfortunately, these negative stereotypical images, fostered largely by the Western mass media, White Anglo-Saxon experts, government officials or ex-officials, and fueled by the rhetoric and actions of certain political and religious factions in Iran as well, is such that the mere mention of Iran conjures mistrust, hatred, and terrorism.

Clearly, the Iranian polity and community must take appropriate action(s) toward changing the "negative global images" of Iran through a concerted effort marked by both short and long term policies and deeds. In the final analysis, in today's global society, stereotypes, images, or mind sets become the basis for interpersonal, intercultural, and international relations. No country in the world can afford (politically, economically, or socially) take this important fact lightly.

Individual Identity vs. Cultural Identity

Identities may be classified as individual, cultural, and national. While an individual may have his/her own interpretation of what it means to be an Iranian, an American, or an Iranian-American, that same individual may not be able to detach himself/herself from larger global, cultural, and national identities. While a positive cultural image may encourage individuals to associate themselves with their cultures, a negative cultural image may result in disassociation.

For instance, the negative image of Iran may prompt certain Iranians to change their names, to become self-appointed members of another cultural group (such as Italian, Spanish), to become ashamed of associating themselves with their motherland, and/or sever their ties with the Iranians altogether. The result is loss of identity -- a phenomenon with a wide range of social, psychological, and political implications that should be investigated by psychologists and social scientists. However, the purpose in venturing into the social dimensions of identity is to illustrate that identity is not only individually defined ("This is who I am"), but also ascribed.

Ascription is the process through which others attribute identities to an individual or culture. Stereotypes and attributions communicated, often through the mass media, are examples of ascription. In part, identity is shaped by others' communicated view of us (Samovar & Porter, 1994). Hence, our cultural identity is greatly influenced by "others." These "others" could be the global media, Hollywood, Americans, Chinese, or Japanese, or any group with vested interests.

Tolerance vs. Intolerance

One of the fundamental differences between democratic and authoritarian systems is that in democracies, at least theoretically, various viewpoints can be heard (or tolerated), while in autocracies any criticism of the government in power is suppressed (or not tolerated).

Government censorship and self-censorship of media contents exist throughout the world, even in democracies. But, in general, countries that impose fewer restrictions on individual rights and press freedom tend to be more vibrant, prosperous, open, and tolerant of opposing viewpoints than those with more restrictions.

Iran, throughout its long history, has generally been ruled by dictatorial regimes whose legacy has produced an imprint in the minds and souls of the Iranian people. Autocratic and intolerant regimes tend to foster autocratic and intolerant individuals. It is, then, no wonder that many Iranians, especially when discussing political issues or even social or religious issues, tend to dismiss any opposing viewpoint by insisting that only theirs is the "right" one.

Furthermore, consider the patriarchal family structure in Iran where, generally, father rules or "father knows best." Unfortunately, one of the shortcomings of Iranians at large is that, except for a few fleeting instances, they have not had any lasting opportunity to experience freedom or practice democracy. Nor have they been allowed to express themselves without fear of prosecution. Likewise, the mass media and the journalists have not been free, except for a few fleeting periods, to play a meaningful or constructive role in the social and political affairs of Iran or to debate vital issues of their society without fear.

Freedom vs. Oppression

Since the landslide victory of President Mohammad Khatami in the 1997 Iranian elections, some hopeful signs relative to freedom of the press, freedom of expression, and tolerance have emerged. But, unfortunately, the recent tragic incidents, including the invasion of Tehran University, destruction of students' dormitories, arrest and confinement of students, closure of several publications, and the senseless murder of several journalists and intellectuals have dashed many of those earlier expectations. Nonetheless, the Iranians -- especially the youth, or the children of Revolution, who account for over 50% of country's population -- remain hopeful.

Undoubtedly, not only images but also actions speak louder than mere words. But, one can argue that, at least rhetorically, Mr. Khatami has contributed to the debate surrounding the issue of civil society in Iran. For instance, in his inaugural speech, on August 4, 1997, he said: "If freedom of thought were to be suppressed then it would continue to be nurtured in the minds and hearts of the people. Therefore, the best system of government would be the one which would allow people to express their thoughts without any limitation."

In another speech, on March 14, 1998, Khatami declared that "Those who are afraid of freedom are those who do not have a base of support among the people." In yet another speech at the University of Tehran, on May 23, 1998, he said: "When we speak of freedom we mean the freedom of the opposition. It is no freedom if only the people who agree with those in power and with their ways and means are free" (Khatami).

Reportedly the Iranian media are considered to be among the freest in the Middle East and prior restraint or "official censorship" does not ostensibly take place. However, the conservative faction of the Islamic Republic has been seemingly successful in imposing "self-censorship" on all publications through intimidation tactics such as arrests, fines, assaults, and cancellation of permits.

An Iranian journalist commented that "In Iran no one tells me what to write or not to write, but I have to be very careful-there are consequences" (Iranian Publishers, 1998). Today, Iran stands at a crucial cross-roads: One road is marked by tolerance, freedom, and democracy; the other by intolerance, oppression, and autocracy.

Drawing upon the magnificent Iranian literature, we learn that Sa'di Shirazi, the 13th century philosopher and poet, quite eloquently recommended the virtues of the freedom of expression:

Zebaan dar dahaan ey khradmand chist, kalid-e dar-e ganj-e saaheb honar

Cho dar basteh baashad cheh daanad kasi, keh johar foroosh ast yaa pilehvar

(If a person of intellect remains silent, we would never know whether he/she is a person of substance or a huckster.)

In concert with Sa'di, another poet, John Milton, stressed the fact that freedom of speech promotes discovery of the truth. Aristotle wrote that "the true and the just are by nature stronger than their opposites." More precisely, "if true ideas are inherently more powerful than false ones, and all ideas are freely expressed, the public will ultimately come to accept the truth" (Fraleigh and Tuman, p. 7). Furthermore, John Stuart Mill argued that the power to control the expression of even one person was illegitimate:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. (Quoted in Fraleigh & Tuman, 1997, p. 8)

In other words, freedom of expression should not be confined to the government, the mass media, a particular ruler, or the dominant culture. In fact, it should be extended to the ethnic minorities whose religions, values, and world views may not necessarily be in accord with the prevailing cultural or political ideology of a given nation. Indeed, it would be ideal if "...all humanity could uphold the core values of respect for life, liberty, justice and equity, mutual respect, caring, and integrity.

These provide a foundation for transforming a global neighborhood based on economic exchange and improved communications into a universal moral community in which people are bound together by more than proximity, interest, or identity. They all derive in one way or another from the principle, which is in accord with religious teachings around the world, that people should treat others as they would themselves wish to be treated" (The Commission on Global Governance, 1995, p. 49).

In sum, freedom and freedom of expression allow people to speak their minds, contribute to humanity, debate ideas, and arrive at socially, economically, and politically sound consensus. An open or democratic society is much like a lively, clean, vibrant, and reflective pond in which all forms of life co-exist in a relative state of harmony.

On the other hand, a closed or autocratic society is much like a still, muddy, sluggish, and unreflective pond in which mere survival becomes a struggle. In a muddy pond, even the agile frogs become lethargic as if forgetting their natural ability to "jump!"

Of course, no nation in the world is, nor can be, totally free. Indeed, a free society, without responsibility, can become a chaotic society. Freedom or "Liberty," said George Bernard Shaw, "means responsibility. That is why most men dread it."



Dr. Yahya R. Kamalipour is professor of mass communications and acting head of the Department of Communication and Creative Arts, Purdue University Calumet, Hammond, Indiana USA, where he has taught graduate and undergraduate courses since 1986. His published books include: Images of the U.S. Around the World: A Multicultural Perspective (State University of New York Press, 1999), Cultural Diversity and the U.S. Media (with T. Carilli, State University of New York Press, 1998), The U.S. Media and the Middle East: Image and Perception (Greenwood, 1995; Praeger, 1997), Mass Media in the Middle East: A Comprehensive Handbook (with H. Mowlana, Greenwood, 1994). His new book, Religion, Law, and Freedom: A Multicultural Perspective (with J. Thierstein) is scheduled for publication this coming fall ... TO TOP


Fraleigh, D. M., and Tuman, J. S. (1997). Freedom of Speech in The Marketplace of Ideas. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Gerbner, G. (1997). Foreword: What's wrong with this picture? In Y.R. Kamalipour (Ed.), The U.S. Media and the Middle East: Image and Perception (pp. xii-xv).

Iranian Publishers, Worried of Oppression. (1998, October 27). Iran Times, pp. 1, 10.

Khatami, M. (1998). Excerpts from Khatami's speeches.

Pratkanis, A., and Aronson, E. (1991). Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use And Abuse of Persuasion. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company.

Samovar, L. A., and Porter, R. E. (1994). Intercultural Communication: A Reader, 7th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Stevenson, R. L. (1994). Global Communication in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Longman.

The Commission on Global Governance. (1995). Our Global Neighborhood. New York: Oxford University Press.

U.S. Radio Liberty beamed to Iran, Iraq. (1998, October 31). Chicago Tribune, sec. 1, p. 9.

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