“They sentenced us to thirty years of boredom, trying to change the system from within” (pace Leonard Cohen)
Simple-minded Web 2.0 gurus latched on to the summer of discontent in Iran as the “Twitter revolution”. But such technological determinism belies the long-existing political, cultural and sexual frustration, the sheer libidinal energy of a youthful population finding no outlets for its creativity and desires. It offers thin explanation that does not recognise Iran’s repeated loss of political structure and practice and the need in each generation to build them anew, nor the manner in which politics becomes transmuted into forms of communication. Nor does it acknowledge both the extent of digital development in Iran and its control.
There are some obvious parallels between the recent summer of discontent in Iran and the revolution dynamics of 30 years ago that toppled the shah. Both moments saw the utilization of a range of available alternative small media to invent a form of politics where none other was available.
By 1979, the Shah had collapsed existing political parties in to his single Rastakhiz party, proscribed unions and political gatherings and controlled the press. In 1979, the communicative forms used by the growing movement included cassette tapes, especially recordings of Khomeini’s speeches, and leaflets, used to make public statements and to coordinate activities. A few people produced this material and it had to be physically distributed. Then, too, Friday prayers were important sites of political engagement and Shi’ism became a popularising ideology of political transformation. However, the mobilization did include men and women across the class spectrum, secular socialists and liberals as much as religious dissidents, and was finally claimed as an ‘Islamic’ revolution upon Khomeini’s ascendancy to power.
In 2009, under Ahmadinejad, face-to-face political activity — whether the establishment of parties, women’s activities or union organizing — was again severely proscribed while a version of Shi’ism had been turned into the legitimating ideology of a regime in many ways more repressive than the one it had replaced. Yet through its overweening attempts to purify Iranian culture and erase all manifestations of ‘westernization’ , every day acts were politicised, turning the wearing of lipstick or listening to rap music into small acts of defiance against the system. Bahman Ghobadi’s recent film on literally underground music, No-one knows about Persian cats, (see above photo) reveals an apolitical younger generation intent solely on making rock music, albeit a practice deemed as counter-systemic as making revolution, while their frustration can be shaped politically when circumstances allow.
Authoritarian regimes also produced internal challengers. The privately-owned press was censored and many journalists and editors arrested and jailed but, with the rolling out of state-financed digital development, web portals and e-journalism began to flourish. Iranians are eager and early adopters of new technologies and by 2007 Iran enjoyed a thriving blogosphere, a range of lively virtual spaces where personal and public issues were addressed and Persian became one of the top languages of internet use. Rich and wide-ranging political debate could be found on the net for those who searched.
Then the Islamic Republic became hoist on its own petard. It claimed legitimacy through twin sources of power, directly from god through the good council of the velayet-e-faghih and from the people and its revolutionary heritage. To maintain the popular basis of the regime, it had been necessary to involve people in supervised forms of political participation, most notably elections for the Majles and for the presidency. Considerable attention was paid to ensuring large turnouts.
In 2009, the charade became evident. The three week election period looked a lot like American-style presidential campaigning. The supporters of Mousavi, felicitously allocated green as their campaign colour, produced tee-shirts, flags and bandanas. Stadia filled with supporters and huge street rallies produced the kind of somatic solidarity that Iranians had been denied for so long, evoking memories of the enormous demonstrations of 1978-9. The invidious mistrust between ordinary Iranians that had been engendered under Ahmadinejad and the tedious isolation of private space, increasingly filled with multichannel satellite television and virtual internet content, were both broken. Mousavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnevard, offered a programme of liberal reform that included greater rights for women, and a popular groundswell of enthusiasm for change within the structure of the Islamic Republic seemed possible. The much-touted ‘younger generation’, the 70% of Iranians under thirty, had come to describe themselves as the nasle sucht, the burnt(out) generation, since they saw few prospects for employment, for financial stability to marry, for access to university education, for enjoyment and for ways of articulating their needs that might be heard and addressed. The Islamic Revolution didn’t so much eat its children as not care about nor provide for them.
But suddenly there seemed to be a candidate, a programme and a process that gave them some hope and they participated wholeheartedly and with delight. Then the election was stolen, the incredible result of 65% for Ahamadinejad being declared within hours and totally disbelieved. Participation was shown to be a sham, a democratic performance that could be denied if it didn’t produce the result that those in power intended.
The response was also instant and the tools for political mobilization widely available. The following weeks saw the biggest demonstrations since 1979 and the widespread use of new technologies and platforms such as SMS, video and Facebook to get news of events out to other parts of Iran and to the global media. A young population displayed its political nous and creativity while the digital revolution provided their tools. Twitter became a useful tool for quick action-oriented messages and news provision when other channels were blocked, yet it was only one of a range of platforms utilised.
More interestingly, Facebook has long been a space where those in Iran and those in diaspora could meet virtually and the extensive social networks formed there were readily transformed into fast and extensive conduits of political content. The complex relationships between the West (US, UK) and Iran, profoundly blocked at the formal international level, had also impacted relations between Iran and its diasporas, so that while travel in and out of Iran became easier and the internet more available, diasporic Iranians have run the gauntlet of being seen as part of an externally-planned ‘velvet revolution’ and many have been arrested on arrival in Iran. The summer of discontent rearranged the relationships between Iranians inside and outside the country and new forms of respect and solidarity have emerged. During the autumn of 2009, there is continued posting on YouTube and Facebook of a wide range of visual and musical content about on-going demonstrations and debates, suggesting that social networking sites might be more enduring spaces of politicization and solidarity than brief organizational twitterings. The orality of Khomeini’s speeches has been replaced by the historical evidence of mobile phone images.
For the moment, this newly-minted political energy has been blocked. But repressed energy has a habit of returning, in one form or another. Much of the anger was triggered by the recognition that political participation through the ballot box was a dramaturgical sham, a pure performance that was cynically staged. Such an empty performance has provoked a pre-formance, a new mobilization of spirit
and energy by which the Islamic Republic will yet be reformed, at some point or another. It is not yet clear what kind of leadership and rhetorics will emerge over the next period as an embryonic movement considers its strategy and tactics. The shamaturgy has forced open public discussion about what kind of society Iranians want, even if the main media channels of the Islamic Republic still evade such debate. In the end, web 2.0 tools can help kickstart political events and publicise them to the world. But movement toward democracy requires much more serious political re-invention and Iranians do not lack for creativity. In the summer of 2009, the Islamic and republican elements of the revolution came unstuck, quiescence is broken and the future is up for grabs.