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At the "Way of the Future" cybercafe in Tehran. Photo by Atta Kenare, AFP

Cyber clash
Conversations with Iranians in cyberspace on the clash of civilizations

By Dokhi Fassihian
December 9, 1998
The Iranian


- Clash of civilizations
- The Iranian dimension
- "Iran" chat room
- Sense of harmony
- Political issues
- The interviewees
- Relationships & culture

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Clash of civilizations

The issue of culture in international relations has never been as important a topic as it is today. Advances in technology and increased access to information has added a new and complicated dimension to global politics and the resulting "globalization" has presented an important challenge to world leaders. Put simply, a smaller world with easier transfer of people, material, information, ideas and values has replaced one with limited mobility and farther distances. Borders can no longer be sealed and outside information and influence can no longer be kept out despite a government's best efforts.

In the early 1990s, simultaneous with the end of the Cold War, an important debate emerged regarding the role of culture in contemporary relations between peoples and states. The headline-making article "Clash of Civilizations," written by Samuel Huntington in 1993, incited a heated controversy over whether a "clash of civilizations" existed in the post-Cold War world, such as between Western Christian civilization, Islamic civilization, and Confucian Chinese civilization; or, whether a larger universal human civilization is indeed in the process of forming. The debate centers on whether national and international policy makers should frame the world in civilizational entities and prepare for possible friction and conflict between the world's major civilizations; or, whether some other socio-political construct such as nationalism and ideology better represents the divisions of the world's population.

Today, the majority of the world's scholars and intellectuals, who consciously seek to defuse rather than incite tensions between powerful global players, rejects Huntington's thesis. But there are many politicians who have subscribed to Huntington's divisive ideas, mostly for domestic consumption by their national constituency. It is important to note that all of these arguments are almost always presented by governments, their oppositions, and leading intellectuals in major capitals around the world, and rarely does the opportunity exist for ordinary citizens of these societies to express their views about their own culture in relation to foreign cultures.

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The Iranian dimension

As an ancient country that has experienced a contemporary ideological revolution based on the "clash of civilizations" thesis, Iran represents an interesting and telling example of the real life dimensions of this debate. Iran is perhaps the first country, although not the only, which has officially used the "Western cultural onslaught" argument and acted on it by violently retreating from the international arena. This February will mark the twentieth anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. The revolution of 1979 is still little understood among outside observers. It was a unique political revolution which employed cultural tactics to achieve its goals, wherein society underwent an induced "Cultural Revolution" when members of the religious establishment took over the reigns of government in Iran.

An imposed "Islamic" value system and lifestyle was forced on the population, which included a new form of government, new legal and personal status laws, a strict dress code and rigid rules of conduct, and a revisionist view of history. Unlike most autocratic systems of government, the Islamic Republic has employed tactics which control not only the political sphere of life but the cultural sphere of life as well, and not only the public lives of its citizens, but their private lives as well. Throughout this period, the Islamic Republic of Iran has expended enormous resources on the dissemination of regime propaganda, almost approximating the high level of propaganda used in communist-ruled Soviet Union.

Almost twenty years later, the world is witnessing a thaw in the Islamic Republic's propaganda machine, not because the regime has lost interest in maintaining the status quo, but rather, because the legitimacy of the Islamic Republic, its value system and its practical success, have failed to attract Iran's newest generation-the 75% of the population which consists of the country's youth, aged 25 and under. This is an alarming demographic statistic for any government and even more so for the Iranian leadership, which for all effective purposes wants to remain in power and must appease this large constituency to do so. It is precisely this generation of Iranians, which will determine the political future of Iran. The success to which their demands are met and they, themselves, are integrated into the system will decide the political future of this regime and of the country as a whole.

I wanted to address my questions of culture directly to this generation of Iranians, a generation, which grew up in the Islamic Republic of Iran and a generation with no memory of the days of the Iranian monarchy and its love affair with the West. Instead, this generation of Iranians has lived in a country with a narrow Islamic identity that harbors a deep revolutionary animosity toward the United States and the West. These interpretations of this ancient and complex nation have been the subject of systematic indoctrination by the revolutionary regime, which has ruled the country for two decades. Indeed, there is no doubt that Iranians have suffered immense political turmoil, repression, international isolation, and a devastating eight-year war with Iraq in the last quarter of this century. The question now remains as to the future political direction of this country and the best judge to this are the minds of young Iranians.

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"Iran" chat room

I was encouraged to learn that a group of university students in Iran today have access to the Internet and often join the various chat rooms associated with the Internet. I actively sought to become acquainted with some of these students and bought computer software that is used in Iran to chat with people abroad. In a chat room simply called "Iran," I met eight students who were connecting directly from Iran. My initial interest was to get to know them, gain their trust, and become more familiar with their ideas.

Usually, there are between 15-30 other individuals present in the "Iran" chat room, usually all Iranian immigrants living in other parts of the world, including different European countries such as Sweden, Germany, Finland, France, the U.K., as well as New Zealand, Australia, Dubai, Egypt, and from hundreds of cities in the U.S. The nick names of the eight from Iran were: Mordeshur (Persian slang word meaning deep frustration), Tarsoo (meaning coward in Persian), Pickme, Bugzy, Babak, Farzad, Golpesar (meaning a boy as good and pure as a flower in Persian), and Saveez (named after the person's best friend who came to the U.S. seven months ago). For the purposes of this paper, I will refer to these individuals by their screen "nick names" rather than their real names to protect their privacy.

The organization of this chat room is quite interesting. The "Iran" chat room has its own terminology, and there are rules of the chat room, and "operators" who enforce these rules. New "operators" of the "Iran" chat room are chosen by a board of "operators" who hold monthly cyber meetings to discuss the management of the chat room, and are usually people who have advanced knowledge of computers and who spend the most time in the chat room. Many of the Iranians from Iran are among the "operators." Iranians connecting from Iran are the ones who actually manage the chat room, and there are a few reasons for this. First, because they had the most time and interest and considered investing in the chat room as worthwhile activity, and second, because of their extensive knowledge and interest in computers. The subject of discussion in the chat room is always open although topics are often chosen by the "operators" and posted in case people want a designated topic to talk about. Sometimes the topics are political, and sometimes cultural.

The public chat room is an area where people talk which is open and visible to all the participants in the chat room. A person can also message and chat with another person in the room privately. The languages of the chat room are English or Persian (transliterated into Latin letters, which is being done more and more for computer purposes), and I was told this was since most people knew enough of one or both languages to communicate effectively. Although many tried to speak Swedish, French, and German, the "operators" threw these individuals out of the chat room unless they spoke Persian or English. No cursing or offensive comments were allowed in the public chat room and this was strictly enforced.

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Sense of harmony

It was quite interesting to observe the interactions between Iranians in Iran with Iranians in the Diaspora. I felt a sense of harmony, understanding, and cultural closeness between them. Immediate bonds were made between immigrant Iranians and Iranians inside Iran. Close friendships were made, people sent pictures to one another, and visited each other regularly on their travels. Many had found their girlfriends and boyfriends in the chat room, and I knew of at least one case that led to marriage.

There was no visible contradiction of cultural norms in the social interaction of Iranians inside Iran with those living outside of Iran. On cultural and social issues, there was no tension, only understanding, even between those Iranians who had lived abroad all of their lives with those who always lived inside Iran. Some of the Iranian immigrants had poor Persian language skills, but still struggled to communicate in Persian with the help of others. The Iranians from Iran were always the most understanding and helpful in these situations.

Friends of the chat room celebrated the Persian New Year by sending each other electronic holiday cards, they shared their joy during the emotional soccer victory in the World Cup game against the US, and they shared news with one another of the Iranian nation worldwide. They asked each other questions such as "What do you do for fun in Iran?" "What is it like going to a bar ?" "What's going on with the Clinton-Lewinsky affair ?" Comments were made such as "I hope Iranians in Tehran don't show too much excitement about their soccer victory over the US so as to create more resentment and jeopardize the thaw in relations." They exchanged Persian jokes and recited Persian poetry to one another.

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Political issues

On political issues, there was some debate and immense curiosity, and little disagreement on the hopes that the situation would improve in Iran under President Khatami. Both sides were happy to interact with one another and seemed to respect each other's views. More individuals were traveling to and from Iran and would meet the friends they met in the chat room in Iran. In fact, chat room parties were held in Iran, where friends would get together to see each other, and or to see a visiting friend from abroad. These parties were also held in Sweden. Pictures were taken and web pages created for the "Iran" chat room, where the pictures of the parties were posted for everyone to see.

I decided that I wanted to learn more about the students from Iran. I wanted to give them the opportunity to express in their own words their experiences living in the Islamic Republic, and to air their views, complaints and desires relating to their own lives and to the outside world from which they are isolated. I designed a questionnaire on the subject of culture to gauge this generation's attitudes toward their own culture versus Western culture.

By no means do the results of this questionnaire claim to represent the entire generation of Iranian youth; instead, it is only meant to give a microscopic sample of some of the ideas and attitudes of young Iranians. Also, it must be noted that no women are included in this survey. Not surprisingly, fewer women access the Internet in Iran and I did not meet any in the chat rooms; however, I was told that many do chat, especially on the domestic networks inside Iran. I was also told that because girls are less attracted to computer-related fields and more rarely choose computer activities for a hobby, that they are less inclined and determined as boys to find the necessary means to access the Internet. So, for the purposes of this questionnaire, women, arguably the most important force for change in Iran, have been left out.

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The interviewees

The young men I interviewed live in three different cities in Iran: Tehran, Rasht, and Shiraz. All are top university students or recent graduates from universities. All are proficient or fluent in English. All include among their hobbies, computer activities and "chatting" on the Internet. It must be said that some of these individuals, without exception, spend a large portion of every day, on the Internet and in chat rooms. This means staying up all night almost every night and by the time they leave the chat rooms, it is usually 5:00 am in Iran. All are very knowledgeable about the latest computer technology to the extent that I often asked them for information and guidance on computer matters. Lastly, all want to come abroad, preferably to the United States or Canada to continue their studies and live.

A computer exhibition in Tehran held in the beginning of the summer attracted all of these students. Those who didn't live in Tehran traveled there to go to the exhibition. But the reaction was one of disappointment. Saveez, 21, and who lives in Shiraz, told me that there was no new technology that he didn't already know about. Mordeshur, 19, majoring in computer software and hardware programming constantly complains of the ignorance of professionals who are twice his age and are already working in the field. He professed his love for computers and his career and hopes to come to the U.S., he says, not to make more money, but to use his mind to the fullest. In Iran, he says, he can hope only to use only 10% of his mind.

It must be said that less than 0.01% of Iranians have access to this technology. Only those who have sufficient money (a computer costs 500 to 600 thousand tomans, which is the equivalent of roughly $1,000, and approximately a year's salary of an ordinary Iranian civil service worker), are students at an established university, and or have other connections through professional or personal contacts can gain access to the Internet. Even then, the majority of the access is offline access, but some smart young people have found creative ways to dial-up and get online access. Those young people who do have online access to the Internet regard it as their sole interactive access to the outside world. The Internet represents their most important extracurricular activity and they spend hours and hours on the Internet.

Only a few people showed hesitation when I approached them with my questionnaire, but after becoming comfortable with me and after reassurances about the research purposes of the survey, all eight agreed to answer my questions. I forwarded a copy in both Persian (transliterated) and English. Three answered in English and three in Persian (which was later translated into English). In their responses to particular questions, direct and indirect restraint is demonstrated. For most, this is true especially with questions pertaining to their views of the culture of the Islamic Republic. But in general, all demonstrated an incredible openness and welcomed my inquiries about their views on the situation in Iran, especially when speaking to them live in the chat room. I did not feel that anyone feared to speak their mind with me. They all displayed an eagerness to talk, but showed some caution with certain topics they felt uncomfortable with. Some promised to speak more openly with me if and when I went to Iran.

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Relationships & culture

The subjects on which I have based the majority of my questions relate to relationships between young men and women in Iran, love, marriage, and overall views on Iranian culture and Western culture. I picked the subject of love and marriage for three reasons; first, because it is an important life-shaping issue, second, because it is the the focus of much attention and control by the revolutionary Islamic authorities in Iran, and third, because it is portrayed by the regime as a conflicting cultural issue between Western and Iranian culture. There did exist some predominant themes throughout the responses I received and I will mention them here.

All rejected most of the values of the Islamic Republic or refrained from specifically answering this question. By far the most important theme was that almost all referred to freedom when asked the question of which aspects of Western culture they accept. A few also offered some criticisms of Western culture. All wanted to come to the United States, but attitudes were mixed about taking the opportunity to do so with the condition of never being able to return to Iran. Also, the majority claimed the opposite of the previously widely held belief that the Iranian youth are an apolitical generation. All stated that there exists more than one, and at least, two cultures in Iran, determined mostly by family groupings. All also claimed that there was a sharp distinction between the culture of the Islamic Republic and that of the Iranian society. All wished to gain the freedom to express opinions, participate in civil society, and have open relationships with the opposite sex. Lastly, attitudes were mixed about whether or not Iranian culture is at odds with Western culture, although the majority expressed that if there is a clash, it is clash between the Islamic Republic's culture and Western culture, and not Iranian culture and Western culture.

It should also be noted that throughout some of these questionnaires, there is a strong tone of cynicism. This reflects a popular style of communication for contemporary Iranian society. It can be interpreted as a method to avoid the question or answer it indirectly. If one pays close attention, many indirect answers are given which are not directly stated. Also, this cynicism may reflect the overall dissatisfaction and frustration that exists in Iran and the overwhelming sense of hopelessness which has gripped the younger generation. However, my feeling through my general conversations with them is that since the election of the moderate President Khatami last May, there is a renewed hope and activity among young people in Iran.

It is clear that despite the indoctrination of 19 years of radical revolutionary Islamism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Westernism by the Islamic Republic, the newest generation of Iranians have maintained an open mind and a balanced attitude toward not only the West, but toward the Islamic Republic, and toward their preferred Iranian cultural values. It is truly a pleasure to view this amazing generation of Iranians and listen to their independent ideas and values, which are as diverse as they are similar.

I came away from this experience making good friends whom I hope to meet and converse with more some day either in Iran or in the U.S. I also came away with increased hope for a better future for Iranians living in Iran. I believe the "Children of the Iranian Revolution," to which they are often referred, represent the best chance yet for Iran to create a tolerant and pluralistic society, and the strongest evidence yet in support of a universal human civilization.

About the author

Dokhi Fassihian is a graduate of John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, with a an emphasis on the Middle East. Back to top

Ataollah Togha's critique of this feature


* Tehran's first cybercafe: where East meets Web
AFP report, December 9, 1998

Copyright © 1997 Abadan Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved. May not be duplicated or distributed in any form