A rather peculiar reference to a prominent nineteenth century philosopher made Mir Hossein Mousavi’s letter to Ayatollah Montazeri of some urgent interest. More than three months into the post-electoral crisis of June 2009, the chief oppositional candidate, who had cried foul soon after the officially declared victory of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, had written a letter to the aging Ayatollah soliciting his help and support for his idea to channel and lead what was now dubbed as the Green Movement in a purposeful direction. “The late Molla Mohsen Faiz Kashani,” Mousavi reminded the Ayatollah of the prominent seventeenth century Shi’i philosopher (1598-1680), “in his Olfatnameh/Book of Affinities, considers the ultimate purpose of religious duties to be the attainment of social empathy and affinity/mohabbat va olfat-e ijtema’i. The result of this social empathy and affinity is what in modern social sciences is called social networking/shabakeh- ha-ye ijtema’i.”
Mousavi then proceeds to point out that he intends this constellation of social networking to be used to “resist the government, prevent it from repeating its past mistakes.” These networks will also “result in social rejuvenation, contain the emerging energies and excited affections, and prevent their degeneration into destructive directions.” He further adds plaintively, “based on what Faiz has offered, this suggestion might have been considered a new adaptation of the Islamic scripture, but unfortunately it has been unfairly dubbed an idea copied from the CIA.”1
The tug of war between Mir Hossein Mousavi and the regime, which he took implicitly to task by soliciting the official opinion/fatwa of the leading oppositional ayatollah over and above the head of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, was predicated on the prominence of cyberspace social networking that over the last two decades have redefined the terms of mass communication in Iran, almost simultaneous with the rest of the world. The widespread use of cell phones, SMS, Tweeter, Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, personal weblogs, political and cultural websites, and the Internet editions of leading reformist and conservative newspapers, skyrocketed in significant portions of the society in the two decades leading to the June 2009 presidential election. Mousavi was not initiating any cyberspace strategy. He was banking on it.
In a remarkable way the rise of computer literacy in the early part of the 21st century in Iran is comparable to the rise of newspapers and magazines early in the 19th century, when one of the first groups of Iranian students that were sent to Europe brought with them the first printing machine and with it founded the first periodicals, whereby expanding the spectrum of the public domain, of the collective consciousness of a society on the verge of monumental changes. Almost a century later, during the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, the press had experienced such an organic growth that it played an instrumental role in the successful making of the most massive social uprising in the entire region, whereby an absolutist monarchy was forced to accept a constitution. By the time of the Constitutional Revolution, the press had helped expand, define, and circumscribe the boundaries of the public domain beyond anything achieved before it. The post-electoral crisis of the June 2009 presidential election echoed and expanded those momentous occasions early in the 19th and then again early in the 20th century.
What we have witnessed over the last two decades, however, which came to a dramatic crescendo in the course of the presidential crisis of 2009, is the steady and exponential expansion of the public domain into the cyberspace, to the point of having a catalytic, if not overwhelming, effect over the physical space. In this respect the question of the access to a personal computer or computer literacy is entirely irrelevant, just as regular literacy was irrelevant earlier in the 19th and 20th century, for all it took was just one person per family, or a few per neighborhood to cover the entire pubic domain. We have accounts of the early 20th century when newspapers were read on street corners to a gathering crowd; and I have vivid memories of my own childhood in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s in southern Iran where one television set would serve an entire neighborhood. Regular literacy early in the 19th century and computer literacy early in the 21st century may indeed be identical percentage-wise–common to both remains their catalytic effect on the society at large, which is now globally wired.
The effective use of social networking in the course of the 2009 presidential campaign was predicated on the preceding three decades of the Islamic Republic, where an overwhelmingly young population was increasingly drawn into the electronically savvy age. When Mir Hossein Mousavi declared to his followers that har Irani yek setad/every Iranian [is] a campaign headquarter, he was banking on the resourcefulness of his young admirers. By then SMS instant messaging had become definitive to campaign organizations–so in between ordinary and routine messages of friends and family members, a sudden rush of political messages began to redefine the medium, as it expanded the modus operandi of social mobilization and political campaigning. By now mobile phones had become an integral part of the urban scenes, and literally millions of young Iranians were on Facebook and Twitter. The skeletal structure of cyberspace, well-oiled and operative by mundane uses, was now instantly turned into an effective mechanism of social mobilization.
The same mobile phones that were used to take pictures of friends and family to share with others in and out of the country, were no used to take pictures and shoot videos of massive demonstrations around the country and dispatched to millions of others who were not there. The primary purpose of these snap shots or 30-second to 2-minute videos was entirely domestic, for disseminating information, enabling mobilization, and regrouping and organization, but before long these visual evidence found their ways into the studios of BBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera, and other global networks. Soon after the 12th June election, all major foreign correspondences were either severely restricted or else their permissions were cancelled and they had to leave the country. By then the very architecture of journalism was being re-defined. CNN’s senior correspondent Christiane Amanpour was sitting in London looking at these snap shots and videos trying to make their tail from their head. The notion of a “citizen journalist” had by now assumed a particular poignancy in a nascent civil rights movement.2
Though it was in the offing long before the June 2009 presidential election, the Iranian Civil Society/Jame’eh-yeh Madani rapidly extended into the cyberspace, with political protest as a modus operandi of civil society and civil protest. The events of post-presidential election of June 2009 in Iran suddenly changed the Facebook into an active site of social networking beyond a cyberspace coffeehouse where people vicariously attended to meet knew people. Did the Facebook save the Iranian civil right movement or the Iranian civil rights movement save the Facebook–suddenly became a proverbial adage that tilted on the side of the Iranian users of the coffeehouse.
The effective and creative use of cyberspace social networking by the demonstrators obviously alerted the security apparatus of the Islamic Republic in extending their surveillance mechanism to that domain. High-ranking militia officers in fact made it quite clear and publically announced that the demonstrators should not think that the Internet was immune to their surveillance. Suddenly, almost overnight, many Iranian users of Facebook changed their name and profile, assumed “Neda” (in reference to Neda Aqa Soltan, who had assumed iconic significance after her murder by the security apparatus of the Islamic Republic) as their first name and “Irani/Iranian” as their last name. Nokia was particularly singled out for attack and boycotting because it had evidently sold the security apparatus of the Islamic republic surveillance software. By no stretch of imagination, however, did this extended form of surveillance prevent people from continuing to use the Facebook and other forms of social networking–but the instant use of pseudonyms and fear of reprisals became palpably evident in the Internet.
Almost a century before Facebook gave a new cyberspace meaning to the term “social networking,” in his Web of Group Affiliations (1922), Georg Simmel (1958-1918) suggested that while social groups are composed of individuals, it is through those group affiliations that we become and are defined as social persona. Without seeing something in different contexts, it is difficult to define it for what it is. Simmel suggested that each new group that we join or with which we become affiliated defines us in what was potential but unrealized in us. Our individuality, or social persona, to be more exact, is born at the center of the different confluences that social situate and publicly affect and us. In the Iranian context, social networking has made people more social than insular; while the fear in North America and Western Europe is that the same social networking is providing a false and fictive sociability in lieu of the real thing. Iranians have used the cyberspace to turn their politics of despair into a dramaturgy of hope. Instead of their reality being subsumed into the irreality of the cyberspace, the amorphous possibilities of the cyberspace has expanded the political efficacy of their public domain–and that is precisely what frightens the custodians of the medieval theocracy most, deeply troubled as they are by this particular “Fifth Column” that is not the work of any external Enemy–just the frivolous doing of a band of playful geeks out to commandeer their country from its illegitimate usurpers. The significance of Mousavi urgently invoking the distant memory of Kashani in his letter to Montazeri is precisely in providing a modus operandi for that re-appropriation of the social space is precisely in providing a Shi’i twist to an otherwise amorphous re-imagination of the public persona.
Hamid Dabashi is the author of “Iran: A People Interrupted.” He is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His Web site is http://www.hamiddabashi.com/.