Why Khamenei Wants to Restrict Music in Iran

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Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's declaration that music is "not compatible" with the Islamic Republic has been rightly described as an expression of Khamenei's long-held mistrust of Western cultural influence, but the ruling is about more than just his dislike of music. His statement, which will be interpreted by state institutions as law, is likely designed to distract citizens from more substantive political and economic concerns. As Iranians react to a now-inevitable slate of anti-music laws -- especially likely, given the country's disproportionately young population -- they will be less focused on the country's long-worsening economy and tightening police state.

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The ruling, which describes music itself as "halal" or acceptable by Islam but forbids "promoting and teaching" music, appears engineered to be confusing and leave room for many possible interpretations. Both individual citizens and state institutions will be forced to puzzle over what is allowed and what is forbidden. The laws on music and their enforcement are likely to change rapidly and unpredictably in the coming weeks.

After all, Iranians have seen this strategy before. The regime has used similar tactics in tightening the country's infamous regulations on clothing requirement for women. When the government leadership feels threatened by popular unrest or domestic political pressure, it often responds by changing the rules of dress or tightening enforcement, often with no formal announcement so as to create as much confusion as possible

What happens next? Iranian music lovers, many of whom are among the youth who populate the green movement and trouble the regime's security, daily life will be increasingly consumed by a maze of ever-shifting regulations. Such diversionary tactics are far from a long-term solution for the regime's unpopularity among students and much of the middle class, but they have proven successful in curbing short-term dissent.

Khamenei's anti-music declaration also sets up a "release valve" he can use later to stem unrest. If the regime thinks the public is becoming too angry and it wants to reduce tension, it will loosen or simply stop enforcing the restrictions. This way, Khamenei can appear to be liberalizing and softening the police state, thus preempting internal critics, without actually loosening his increasingly rigid grip on all aspects of Iran's government and economy.

Photo: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech on June 4, 2010, marking the the 21st anniversary of former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini's death. By Sajad Safari/AFP/Getty.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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