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Iran and Its Culture War


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Gatestone Institute

Amir Taheri
April 30, 2023

  • It was supposed to be a routine remake of scores of reportages offered by the official TV each year. The formula used is simple: A concert hall filled with a handpicked audience of carefully screened audience chanting "God is Great, Hail to Supreme Leader!" Then the "Supreme Leader" enters, accompanied by his military and clerical entourage, to sit on high chair on an elevated platform facing the audience below from a distance of 10 meters.

  • As the cameras roll, the "Supreme Leader" repeats his shop-worn monologue about humbling the American "Great Satan" and wiping the "Zionist entity" from the face of the earth. He invites the young audience to prepare for martyrdom as a short-cut to a place in heaven in the next world. At the end of the ceremony, everyone shouts "Hail to the Chief" while the "Supreme Leader" exits the stage wearing a triumphal smile.

  • This month, however, the segment in the 34-year old soap opera didn't go according to the script. To start with the audience, consisting of young recruits for the Baseej (Mobilization) militia, a key element in security, seemed hesitant to stand up as the chief arrived and, even worse, seemed parsimonious about shouting his adulation.

  • When the "Supreme Leader" developed an argument against consulting the people via a referendum, some in the young audience started to cackle and boo. Visibly taken by surprise, the chief mumbled, "We shouldn't bang our heads against each other". Then, as the booing continued albeit in a muffled form, he announced that the session was over and hastily headed for the exit.

  • The amazing extension of the cyberspace to Iran has had two crucial effects.

  • It has ended the government's monopoly on sources of information and it has opened a window to the outside world which seems to live in another time-zone. Both those facts operate against a system that, struck by ideological atrophy, has failed to develop any mechanism for reform.

  • Today, the official TV is watched by less than 20 percent of Iranians while foreign-based satellite TV stations, beaming from Britain the United States, have secured audiences in virtually every corner of the country. Despite repeated efforts to shut the Internet, foreign based Persian-language TV stations claim audiences topping the million mark even for question-and-answer shows with Iranians spending a fortune on phone bills to express their grievances on live TV.

  • Another new fad is for young Iranians to wear the latest world-style clothes and accoutrements and take selfies for posting on social media. The idea is to show that many young Iranians, if not a majority, reject the one-size "Islamist" lifestyle that the regime has tried to impose for more than four decades.

  • International media have portrayed the current tension in Iranian society as a popular movement against the officially-imposed head-covering known as "hijab". A closer look, however, shows that much more is at stake. With every day that passes, the number of women discarding the "hijab" grows while the mullahs wonder what to do.

  • Since the protests started almost six months ago, at least 600 people have been killed by security forces and a further 22,000 arrested, according to official figures.

  • What is going on is a cultural war between one world-view, propagated by Khomeinist ideologues, and another, defended by champions of what is called Iranism.

  • For Khomeinists, Iran is just a part of a global entity with a mission to spread the "true message" to every corner of the world. Dr. Hassan Abbasi, a leading theorist of Khomeinism and known as "Kissinger of Islam", says Iran's manifest destiny is to turn the White House in Washington into a Hussaynieh, ending American global hegemony. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi talks of "burning Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground."

  • To young Iranists, Iran is a reality that transcends the Islamic part of its complex identity.

  • A series of opinion polls over the past three decades show that the American "Great Satan" is more popular in Iran than in France and Germany.

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