Iran's Incremental Revolution

Through rap music and nude sketches, ordinary Iranians are quietly resisting their regime.

Amid heated discussion concerning the intentions of Iran’s leaders—Are they capable of real compromise over the country’s nuclear program? Can they be trusted to honor any eventual deal? Are they permanent ideological adversaries of America?—quieter shifts in Iranian politics have escaped notice. But in many ways it’s the mundane activities of everyday Iranians that could determine the long-term future not just of Iran's nuclear program, but of the country as a whole.

Iran is developing a new kind of politics, located not at the barricades but in culture and ordinary life. This has become clear to me in recent years from my reading of Iranian literature and journalism as well as conversations with Iranians—not least regarding my own books, which are banned in the country but, I’m told, sell briskly there even so. (Sadly, though I was born in Iran, and lived and taught there until 1986, today I can’t visit because of what some in the regime consider my support for the democratic movement. Yet I maintain close contacts within the country and have researched and written about its politics and people for decades.) The aim of this new politics, it seems to me, is not so much to challenge the central apparatus of authority, but to gradually transform the quality of the quotidian and negotiate new ways of living and thinking. It is a cultural insurgency waged in the often-ignored little battles that decide everything from the mundane minutiae of everyday existence—like how much of a woman’s hair can show outside her scarf—to the question of who can publish a book or make a film. This new politics was born, in part, from the recent defeats of the democratic movement, including the brutal suppression of peaceful protests following the re-election, widely believed to have been fraudulent, of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. The leaders of that movement have now spent more than four years under illegal house arrest.

And yet it was Ahmadinejad’s second term, which was in many ways even more destructive than his first for Iran’s economy and status in the world, that helped bring about the election of the reformist Hassan Rouhani. No less importantly, Iran’s new politics was born of the clerical regime’s relentless effort—stemming from the Islamic Republic’s founding principle of Velayat-e faqih, or rule of the Shiite jurist as the representative of Allah on Earth—to micro-social-engineer life and culture in Iran. When a country’s rulers try to dictate everything from sartorial style to sexual ethics—as Iran’s Islamic conservatives have consistently done by, for example, mandating that women wear headscarves in public and pressuring men not to wear ties—then every one of those details of daily life becomes a potential flashpoint of resistance.

The people of Iran have cleverly, and daringly, learned to turn these restrictions into tools for social and political resistance and change—so much so that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his conservative allies have repeatedly referred to what they call “culture wars” in the country. His anxieties, it appears, are not just the paranoid fears of an authoritarian.

The trend is perhaps most clearly visible in Iran’s popular culture. Authors, for example, need government permits before publishing their books, and getting such permits requires excising any mention of sex, praise for Iran’s pre-Revolutionary government, or criticism of the current regime. Yet in the past few years, a small but growing number of writers have opted to publish limited copies of their books privately and distribute them through informal networks without government approval. Though in function these materials are similar to the samizdat literature of the Soviet era—secretly distributed works by dissidents, which were often crudely and hurriedly produced—in form they are far more polished. From nude sketches by a prominent artist, to sensual or satirical poems, to experimental stories in the vein of noir novels, a new and daring publishing domain has emerged outside the regime’s prescriptions.

Plays, too, need government permits before they can begin rehearsal, and can be shut down even so, sometimes mid-performance. But there has emerged in response a small industry of uncensored plays staged in private houses for audiences ranging in size from a few dozen to a hundred people. Similarly, Mehran Modiri, a popular satirist whose program—a kind of Persian Prairie Home Companion set in rural Iran—was taken off the air, chose to privately finance the show and sell it through the underground DVD market. This market has, in the last two years or so, grown large enough that some of the producers and directors who privately finance their programs to get around regime restrictions are reported to be able to pay large sums to their actors.

Meanwhile, the music scene in Iran has never been more vibrant, despite conservative clerics’ continued insistence that music is banned in Islam and their particular emphasis on the three-decade-old prohibition on solo vocal performances by women. In 2014, women defied this ban by putting solo performances online. In the city of Meshed—traditionally one of the centers of Iran’s religious conservatism—there is now a booming underground rap scene, despite official restrictions on the genre. One of the best-selling albums in Iran in recent months is called Neither Angel, Nor Satan. “I don’t have God in my sleeve,” the lyrics of one song declare, “nor the sun in my control.” Those words are, in my view, an open challenge to the absolutism of the theocracy.

New technologies have expanded the reach of these small cells of resistance. Just as the printing press was, in the 15th century, the indispensable technological catalyst for the Renaissance, today, social media is both the arena for, and the irrepressible tool in, the new culture wars in Iran. Estimates of Iran’s Internet usage vary widely, but as of 2013 the World Bank put the number of people with access at about 31 percent of the population, which would mean about 24 million of Iran’s 77 million people are online. Among these are millions of Facebook users, despite the fact that the site, along with Instagram and many others, is officially banned in the country (leaders’ social-media accounts are exempt).

Perhaps ironically from the perspective of conservative clerics, the spread of Islamic ideas via the Internet has in some ways facilitated religious openness and tolerance in Iran. One crucial development in recent years has been digital archives making available, often for the first time, virtually every important religious book in the history of Islam. Laments of conservative clerics regarding lapsed pieties—which I’ve seen with increasing frequency in Iranian media over the past few years—hint that state-defined notions of subservience to religious dogma are on the decline among ordinary Iranians. In conversations with people in Iran, as well as the writings of leading Iranian religious thinkers inside and outside the country, I’ve observed a kind of respect for the ambiguities in the human condition that do not lend themselves to simple-minded dogmas. Prominent clerics have complained that even in Shiite seminaries, traditionally the most persistent peddlers of philosophical certitude in the country, a posture of relativism is in vogue. The process apparently underway in Iran has parallels with Haskalah, the movement among 18th- and 19th-century European Jewish intellectuals to incorporate Enlightenment values into Jewish life. Just as that process was facilitated by the promotion of the Hebrew language and the study of Jewish history, in part through the press, a similar pattern, made possible by the new information age, may be unfolding in Iran.

The digital age has also enabled broader access to education—via, for instance, an online university for members of the minority Bahai faith, who are routinely denied access to public schools in Iran—and facilitated contacts between Iranians in the Islamic Republic and those in the diaspora. As the liberating power of these technologies has become apparent, conservative clerics have demanded more and more draconian controls on social-networking tools. One leading cleric declared that these networks are new instruments of the devil, while many others have cautioned against them as potent tools of the West’s “cultural NATO.” At the same time, President Rouhani has hitherto positioned himself in opposition to the theocracy he technically serves by resisting the worst of these demands, arguing that oppressive measures have proven counterproductive in the digital domain.

In the 1960s, the philosopher Herbert Marcuse coined the term “repressive tolerance” to describe the government practice of allowing certain freedoms as a way of repressing real opposition. Regimes that engage in this practice, he argued, tolerate only those forms of resistance that pose no structural challenge to the system, thereby cynically consolidating despotism rather than accepting genuine pluralism. Some question whether the sites of resistance emerging in Iran are ephemeral and will disappear if, for example, Rouhani vanishes and another hard-line president in the mold of Ahmadinejad wins election. Here, too, history might provide a clue. In the 1960s and 1970s, in Prague, the underground cultural scene—the secret jazz clubs and theater groups—was one harbinger of the fall of totalitarian control in Eastern Europe. In today’s Iran, an insurgent culture, defiant of the regime, dismissive of absolutism, may be poised to take the same role, whether or not the regime’s limited indulgence is merely a strategic ploy to hold on to power. In the long run, the clerics by themselves won’t get to decide the direction the country takes. Iranians are showing, in the slow accumulation of small acts of resistance, that they intend to decide for themselves.