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Who's the "we" in We are Iran?

We are Iran: The Persian Blogs Nasrin Alavi (Brooklyn, New York: Skull Press, 2005), 365 pages.

Up until the recent enactment of a law in Iran which requires Iranians to register their personal websites and weblogs with the authorities, weblogs had given Iranian internet users the ability to write freely and anonymously on various topics including forbidden or taboo issues in Iran. (1) Waves of press crackdowns had galvanized many journalists into turning to alternative platforms for their opinions. Since Mohammed Khatami's election as president of the Islamic Republic in 1997, over a hundred publications have been closed down in the midst of a public confrontation between the reformist and conservative camps. (2) Likewise, ordinary people have filled websites and weblogs about their personal lives with various matters such as art, culture, music, photography and sports.

Whereas weblogs went largely unnoticed and their influence underestimated by the government for some years in their infant phase, the authorities seem to devote a good portion of their time now to the analysis and restriction of weblogs and to the intimidation of bloggers. Journalist Sina Motallebi, for instance, was arrested for "undermining national security" through cultural activities and the content of his blogs. (3) At the same time, the case of Motallebi demonstrates the massive influence of weblogs, as the Iranian "blogosphere" united to gain publicity and to collect signatures for an online petition soon after his arrest. According to journalist Mark Glaser, the blogger was released after only twenty-three days in prison. (4) Some analysts such as Glaser claim that it was at this moment that the Iranian government woke up to the movement of bloggers in Iran.

It is this cyberspace to which Nasrin Alavi addresses her book We Are Iran. For her, "the virtual meeting place" is the only realm that provides a unique environment for Iranians "to bypass many of the strict social codes imposed on them by the theocratic regime." (5) With weblogs as one of the main sources of reference, Alavi attempts to march through the dynamic and sparkling history of Iran in 365 pages, with emphasis on the last quarter of the 20th century. In eight chapters, the author engages the reader through covering issues such as the revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, women's movements and the media. Alavi correctly recognizes that for a comprehensive and accurate understanding of today's Iran, it is necessary to dig deep to the roots of events.

For instance, female activists such as Shirin Ebadi, Azam Teleghani or Fatemeh Haghighatjou--who fight for human rights, women's rights and struggle to change the system from within--are, according to Alavi, neither unique nor unprecedented in the history of the women's movement in Iran. Alavi cites a writing by William Morgan Shuster--an American lawyer who was best-known as the "Treasurer-General of Persia" and was appointed by the Iranian parliament in early 20th century to help manage its country's finances--about his exposure to the then vivid women's movement in Iran: "The Persian women since 1907 had become almost at a bound the most progressive, not to say radical, in the world.... In Tehran alone, twelve women's associations were involved in different social and political activities." (6) Iranian women, Shuster remembered, "become teachers, newspaper writers, founders of women's clubs and speakers on political subjects" overnight. (7) Further, Alavi notes that "the earliest recorded Women's Day celebration in Iran was in 1921, when fifty women gathered in the Caspian Sea town of Anzali." (8) The primarily descriptive pages about today's women's activities by well-known activists such as Ebadi must be regarded as a continuation of women's strenuous efforts to fight for their rights in Iran. These ladies, Alavi notes, "are less interested in whether or not to wear the veil and more concerned with gaining access to education, wider employment opportunities, equality at work and better health care for their families." (9) In fact, veiling was a blatant symbol for "Muslim feminists." Wearing it came to mean "not the failings of their culture in comparison to western traditions, but its uniqueness and superiority," a sign of resistance to western values. (10) Muslim "feminists believed that by veiling they would cease to be sex objects and would be treated on equal terms based on their capabilities and inner strengths." (11)

Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, has dedicated herself to women and children's rights under Islamic law and, as many other activists, according to Alavi, she has received considerable attention from Iranian bloggers. "Zahra," such a blogger, writes, "Shirin Ebadi is the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize! My hands are shaking as I type this.... This news is too big.... Congratulations to all Iranians--especially our women." (12) Another blogger "Omid" writes, "Today I really felt that all our pains and struggles are not for nothing.... Shirin has struggled relentlessly ... despite all the dangers to her own life." (13) On 13 October 2003, Alavi claims, bloggers organized a reception at the airport for the newly awarded laureate upon her arrival in Iran. (14) "Havoc" dedicates one of his blogs to this unique evening: "We had all come to see our lady of peace ... old men and women, students, human rights and women groups.... Balloons, accordions, drums, music, songs and slogans." (15) "Foroogh" had come to greet Ebadi as well: "I went to see Shirin Ebadi, a truly once in a lifetime experience; there were about 25,000 people there.... She [Ebadi] said: 'This prize does not belong to me. It belongs to the people of Iran and is proof that we are a peace-loving people.'" (16)

Shirin Ebadi may be considered a prime example of the fortitude Iranians have demonstrated in their causes. The blogger "Godfather" writes:
 [Iranians] have been fighting against fascists for at least the
 last 100 years. Our great-grandfathers during the Constitutional
 Revolution [1906] tried to bring democracy to this land. But the
 British with their Anglo-Iranian Oil Company were against it and
 soon killed it off. Do they know about the democratically elected
 government of our beloved Dr Mossadeq? Do they know that the CIA
 toppled him nearly 50 years ago and replaced him with (to paraphrase
 Roosevelt) a 'son-of-a-bitch, but our son-of-a-bitch.' And the sick
 joke is now they want to give us democracy! They only hear the
 psychopaths among us. Don't they know that many like me believe
 in the maxims of Hussein [the grandson of the prophet Muhammad],
 who said, 'If you are a non-believer, at least be a libertarian.'
 He did not practise our faith like these tyrants. (17)


Like "Godfather," a number of weblogs discuss the perception and misperception of Muslims around the world. Without exception, all Iranian bloggers who are presented in We Are Iran, first, believe that Muslims are not perceived accurately in the West; second, that the atrocities on 9/11 are "taking our world to the edge of an abyss"; and, third, can not believe that Muslims are capable of carrying out such evil acts. (18) "Spirit" notes with disillusionment: "I always thought we were more humane than those westerners.... they were the ones who carried out indiscriminate killings ... like the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Bosnia." (19) Further, Iranian bloggers feel "an enormous sense of shame, guilt and helplessness," because "Bin Laden taints us all, every single one of the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world." (20)

Nasrin Alavi explores the world of Iranian bloggers and provides an insight of their minds, thoughts and feelings. She shows that Iranians are not disconnected from world affairs, that they care about the historical trajectory of their country and are interested in their own image in the world. Even though Alavi has ample, accurate descriptions of vital moments and events in Iranian history, and has focused on crucial figures and personalities, a number of caveats and weaknesses of the book need to be taken into account. Alavi utilizes numerous weblogs; however, she does not state how and by what criteria she has selected the weblogs and why she provides the electronic address of some weblogs but not of others. Further, how are we to assess the magnitude of these weblogs? Are these weblogs significant enough to make statements about the entire Iranian population? Are they selected randomly? Were the weblogs the base for Alavi's themes or did the historical events provide the base for the selection of blogs? Are they communicating with one another? Are politics and Iranian, history and world events the only subject matter of Iranian bloggers? In fact, a systematic qualitative and quantitative analysis is omitted entirely.

By personally selecting fifty weblogs randomly at "Persianblog," the first Persian weblog service provider and one of the biggest Iranian online communities, reveals that a majority of thirty-eight weblogs do not discuss politics at all or just a little. (21) In fact, the bloggers of these weblogs deal with their own personal lives; some of them are indeed very boring for readers who have no relationship or association with them. They write about trees, streets and birds; some write lines of Hafiz poetry or curse their broken cars. Others are literarily exigent and challenging to read and understand. Shoraka and Omidi conclude from an analysis on the internet in Iran that the majority of Iranian weblog users are not interested in politics but fun and entertainment. They observe, "The users enjoy visiting various sites, browsing in them, watching pictures, listening to music, chatting with others, and exchanging email." (22) Thus, if the politically-interested and politics-discussing bloggers represent a negligible category of Iranian weblogs, how is the relevancy of Alavi's collection of blogs to be assessed?

Further, Alavi seems to be excessively preoccupied with a tense dualism between bloggers/activists on one side and the government on the other. This concern, however, reveals not only one path of story-telling of Iran that ignores many relevant issues, but also culminates in one conclusion: On the way towards democracy, there must be a clash between the Iranian people and their government. The book is yet another imprecise reflection of a typical black-and-white categorization of Iranian society: reform-minded Iranians on one side, conservative political elites on the other. Do all those Iranians who do not care about politics or the current government, but are vastly concerned about their economic well-being, have a place in Alavi's We Are Iran? After all--if the facts about Iran are correct--the unemployment rate accounts for 11.2 percent and 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line--these are proportions of the population too large to ignore. (23)

If Alavi claims to be presenting a "multi-voiced portrait of contemporary Iran," one cannot ignore that fact that only a minuscule fraction of Iranian society is connected to the World Wide Web, has computer skills and maintains websites and/or weblogs. (24) According to her, there are only an estimated four to seven million internet users. (25) Moreover, the reader does not learn anything about the socio-economic background of the bloggers. One can merely assume that they are reform-oriented based on the content of their weblogs. Furthermore, their concerns seem to go hand in hand with those of some well-known intellectuals and reformers such as journalist Akbar Ganji and Professor Hashem Aghajari, who are among the individuals who have received Alavi's attention. This group of people is interested in only one set of issues: freedom and liberty At the same time, this group has not been able to identify the concerns of the majority of Iranians or explain the reasons for Ahmadinejad's victory in the presidential elections in 2005. A qualitative analysis of the archived op-ed articles of the online daily news-provider Rooz, the Iranian zenith of reform-oriented mouthpieces, for which a number of prominent intellectuals, journalists and activists inside and outside the country write, reveals how little attention the journalists had given to Ahmadinejad as a presidential candidate in their articles and comments before the elections. (26) In fact, only a handful of articles mention him parenthetically only to later compare him with the Taliban because of the danger Ahmadinejad posed to the freedom of the press. These journalists failed to analyze other issues Ahmadinejad stood for and who his constituencies were in the immediate aftermath of his victory It is, thus, not surprising that "intellectual" and reform-oriented Iranians were "astonished" and could not comprehend the election results in 2005. Does this mean Iranian intellectuals have become detached from the rest of Iranian society?

Rooz and the majority of Alavi's weblogs leave out a tremendously vast number of the Iranian population in their considerations, and their obsession with a dualism between two extreme parties in the Islamic Republic has culminated in the exclusion of the sixty million Iranians not part of the blogosphere, about whom hardly reliable information or data exists. What are the issues that concern this large section of the Iranian population? Where, between the extremes of the government's position and the reform-oriented bloggers/celebrities, do these Iranians stand? To what extent have the actions of Iranian bloggers impacted Iranian non-bloggers? Answers to such questions remain deficient in We Are Iran.

In order to deserve the "we" aspect of Iran in the title of the book, Alavi should have been more considerate of the multi-faceted Iran instead of focusing on politically-interested, reform-oriented and intellectual groups and individuals. Empirically and analytically, the book has no particular use for scholarship. To loyal New York Times readers of the Middle East section, it does not provide much complementary information. Merely those without any or some background knowledge who necessitate some crash course in some of the key events and central personalities in Iranian history will gain from Alavi's book. But even in the latter instance, Alavi could have written the same book with the same content, result and conclusion without the translation of numerous weblogs.

NOTES

(1) The registration takes place on the following website: http://samandehi.ir/index.php.

(2) "Iran Closes Down Two Reformist Papers Allegedly over Nuclear Cartoon," International Herald Tribune, 11 September 2006.

(3) Malcolm Glaser, "Iranian Journalist Credits Blogs for Playing Key Role in His Release from Prison." Online Journalism Review (9 January 2004).

(4) Ibid.

(5) Nasrin Alavi, We are Iran: The Persian Blogs (Brooklyn, New York: Soft Skull Press, 2005), 16.

(6) Ibid., 160.

(7) Ibid., 160.

(8) Ibid., 203.

(9) Ibid., 194.

(10) Ibid., 169.

(11) Ibid., 169.

(12) Ibid., 281, http://www.zahra-hb.com.

(13) Ibid., 282, http://omid.khushe.org/weblog.

(14) Ibid., 283.

(15) Ibid., 284.

(16) Ibid., 285-286, http://www.froogh.blogspot.com.

(17) Ibid., 92.

(18) Ibid., 83 (quoting "siprisk").

(19) Ibid., 85.

(20) Ibid., 85, 91.

(21) http://www.persianblog.com/.

(22) Majid Shoraka and Mohammad Reza Omidi, "The Internet in Iran," IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 21, no. 1 (2002): 28-32.

(23) CIA World Factbook 2004, "Iran."

(24) Nasrin, back cover.

(25) Nasrin, 4.

(26) See: http://www.roozonline.com/.
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Title Annotation:We Are Iran: The Persian Blogs
Author:Javanshir, Maryam
Publication:Journal of International Affairs
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Words:2475
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