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Iran struggles to mold 'revolutionary youth'

The Iranian government’s persistence in trying to force its preferred lifestyle on Iranians has failed to change the preference of a considerable segment of society for a more relaxed way of life.
Iranian youth use their mobile phones as they rest at a park in Tehran, Iran, May 16, 2017. REUTERS/TIMA ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. - RC1A55C54480

Can Iran mold its internet-surfing young people into a “revolutionary youth” driven to steer the country toward an idealized Islamic civilization? It's hard to say, but Islamic authorities are certainly doing their best to curb un-Islamic influences in actual and virtual reality, stepping up their efforts in May. 

In early June, Iranian media reported that authorities had closed hundreds of restaurants for failing to observe Islamic principles and had introduced 2,000 new morality officers to police what they consider to be “bad hijab,” when women do not, in their eyes, cover themselves properly. Also, over the last few months, crackdowns have intensified against musicians and fashion photographers on Instagram, one of Iranians’ favorite social media platforms.

On May 23, anyone who visited the Instagram accounts of three musicians — Aso Kohzadi, a violinist; Mehrdad Mehdi, an accordion player; and Naghmeh Moradabadi, who plays the tonbak and tar, traditional Iranian instruments — was greeted with the message, “By the order of the judicial authority, due to publication of unlawful content, this internet address is seized and individuals involved with the topic of the lawsuit have been subject to legal proceedings.”

The band, avid users of Instagram, had posted photos and videos of their performances, including on the streets. In one clip, Kohzadi and Mehdi play a cheerful waltz on Isfahan’s iconic Naghsh-e Jahan Square, surrounded by a crowd of passersby. The judiciary has refused to comment on the reasons for blocking their Instagram presence, and Al-Monitor has learned that the three musicians have been instructed not to speak to the media. The cyber police, known by the Persian acronym FATA, has announced that it will file a lawsuit against those behind the Instagram accounts.

The singer Negar Mozam was summoned to court in June over a video of her dressed in a traditional outfit and singing in public to a crowd of cheering and dancing tourists and locals in the resort village of Abyaneh, in Natanz county, Isfahan province. Ruhollah Amini, the leader of Friday prayers in Natanz, condemned Mozam's “brazen move” and urged the judiciary, intelligence and the police to deal with “such disrespect.” For Iranian hard-liners, women singing violates the teachings of Islam and is thus unlawful. Women are not supposed to sing - particularly in public - according to their strict interpretation of Islam.

Meanwhile, fashion photographers came under attack in industrialized Markazi province. Local media reported in May that the Instagram accounts of several photographers had been blocked and that some of the photographers had been arrested. In IRIB's reporting of the story, the provincial unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was quoted as saying in a statement that it had helped identify “three organized networks of vulgarity and their active members in the modeling sector” and had arrested them. “In the cultural sphere, we are witnessing the enemies’ severe and increasing attack on the Islamic lifestyle,” the statement said.

In Iran, social media platforms offer an escape for the masses in the face of strict religious laws that ban what the majority of the Iranian establishment views as a Western lifestyle. The administration of President Hassan Rouhani has been under pressure by hard-liners to block Instagram, the sole major social media platform still available in the country.

Iranian officials use Instagram to directly speak to the public. Businesses exploit it for marketing, and celebrities us it to reach out to their many fans. The platform also reveals the stark contrast between Islamic virtues and the so-called Western way of life that has been adopted in Iran, a country of nearly 80 million people. Millennials are not afraid to display their affection for pets disapproved of by the government, show off their tattoos or wear clothes that violate the public dress code.

The internet has helped expose a lifestyle driven, according to the establishment, by cultural infiltration by the West. The hard-line-dominated centers of power have a history of pushing back against exposure to Western ways by pressuring internet users and the government to limit internet access. Much to the disdain of the public, last year the judiciary blocked Telegram, the widely used messaging app. In addition, the cyber police have summoned Instagram influencers and asked them to observe the country’s religious teachings, including dress codes.

Iranian leaders believe a cultural war is aimed at undermining the virtues of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and those succumbing to it will be incapable of defending the revolution in the face of crises arising on the economic and political fronts. Ahmad Alamolhoda, a prominent hard-line figure and Friday prayer leader in the holy city of Mashhad, said in May that instead of promoting debauchery and licentious behavior, political figures who seek to bring “cheerfulness” to the young people should help prepare the groundwork for their engagement in the “economic war,” as Iranians call the pressure campaign and unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States against Iran after reneging on the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on May 22 that the revolution needs committed, religious youths to realize its great vision and goals. He used the word “hezbollahi” to describe his preferred lifestyle for the young revolutionaries. The term is primarily used in referring to the lifestyle adopted by members of the IRGC-affiliated Basij. It entails a strong belief in Shiite principles, a conservative political orientation and active participation in religious rituals.

Over the years, a clear contrast has become evident between the relaxed way of life preferred by a substantial portion of Iranian society and that advocated by the religious leadership and their supporters, leading many to question the government’s persistence in using forceful means to enforce the latter.

“On what has this [coercive] way of dealing with the issue of women and other social and cultural topics been based?” the sociologist Nematollah Fazeli asked in an article for Hamshahri. “Ignoring the realities is questionable.… The citizens have a very simple expectation. They ask, if the regime does not give them a remedy for their wounds, pain, suffering, limitations and deprivations, why does it pour salt in these wounds?”

The rigidity of the IRGC, police and the judiciary, whose solution is to render differences invisible by using force, has turned this issue into an impasse. Despite the push from the reform-seeking part of the political spectrum, a toleration gene in hard-liners is not much in evidence. What is clear, however, is that the establishment’s harsh measures have not managed to change Iranians’ preferred way of life.