DIARY, Part 8: Stop press
TEHRAN - Abdul Karim
Soroush, a philosopher-theologian, is a leading thinker of post-Islamist
Iran. But it's impossible to meet him at his office near
Soroush has been in jail for five months now, accused of talking and
writing against the regime. His private secretary says that any
communication has to pass through his lawyer. Before his arrest, the No 1
Iranian dissident had already been forbidden to teach at the university
Soroush's writings are required reading for any
reformist-minded student: in fact, his secretary used to sell cassettes of
his conferences abroad, with titles like "Islam and Freedom" and "Islam
and Democracy". From the point of view of the privileged classes who
profit from the Islamic regime, the criticism is devastating. Soroush's
analysis ultimately judges the institutions of divine law - such as the
function of the supreme leader, fatwas and inequality between
men and women - as totally illegitimate.
For Soroush, religion is
a private affair and social life is the responsibility of people, who
should manage it as democratically as possible. What the Islamic
revolution did in 1979 was to take over society by means of supposedly
religious rules, which the system then uses to perpetuate itself in power.
Soroush advocates total separation between religion and politics.
If one says and prints these things in
even as the winds of reform are blowing, one is still guaranteed to land
The crisis of the Islamic republic is not only a
political crisis. It is basically the crisis of a concept: the concept of
an Islamic state. Soroush may be the most illustrious protagonist of a
debate that has taken over the press, but it is also raging among the
clergy. Islamism is discredited because it simply has not found concrete
solutions for people's problems. Iranians now talk about Islamists as they
used to talk about the Shah: jokes - the Iranian term, in English, for
political jokes - are the inevitable staple in the back seat of any shared
taxi. This situation has generated an extraordinary paradox: for some
religious circles, religion can only be saved by some sort of secularism.
Even before President Mohammad Khatami was elected for the first
time in 1997, pro-clergy papers such as Salam were already very critical.
Intellectuals started expressing themselves not through books but
basically through magazines - like Soroush, long associated with the
magazine Kian. Soon two currents of thought were visible. The first,
represented among others by Soroush and Ayatollah Shabestari, was equating
religion with spirituality; therefore social life should be managed
democratically by the people. The second current of thought, represented
among others by Ayatollah Montazeri, held that legislation didn't have
necessarily to be strictly Islamic: it would only have to be not
Soroush's criticism, of course, is the most
subversive: he always said that if the sacred is the domain of people's
inner life, the outside world simply cannot be the world of an Islamic
absolute. He is saying that it is a total misunderstanding of Islam to try
to exercise power in its name under a totalitarian conception where the
religious is mixed with the social. For him, civil society and "religious
civil society" are the same in the Iranian case.
One can say that
Soroush is a religious minimalist: for him, if everything is done in the
name of Islam, Islam dissolves itself: and so does its credibility,
because political decisions are, by definition, subject to failure.
It still requires courage to say what you mean and mean what you
say in Iran.
A newspaper editor in Tehran,
who must remain anonymous, says that in the past few years "we could not
publish our opinions: if you published something considered to be
insulting to the Islamic system, or deviation of public opinion, you could
go to jail, and the treatment was harsh". Now the situation is "more
positive, and some journalists are being released". But anything could -
and still can - be considered as "deviation of public opinion".
All newspapers and magazines in
are screened by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. They prefer
to screen monthlies, rather than weeklies. The newspaper editor mentions
the case of one magazine that applied for a license - even before it was
published for the first time the ministry told the editor not even to
bother. Another weekly magazine was closed down for a while. Then the
ministry "suggested" that it could become a monthly.
newspapers are not screened every day, but "controlled". Some top figures
of the regime are totally off-limits as far as criticism is concerned.
Readers' letters and open letters are also controlled. The newspaper
editor says that before the reformists came to power in 1997, "autocracy
groups" were attacking and closing down the offices of many publications.
They remained active even after Khatami was elected president.
Since the beginning of 2000,
may have been living in a so-called "press spring" - "one of the most
unique periods in the history of
according to the newspaper editor. Between the summer of 1997 and the
spring of 2000 he was himself the head of domestic press at the Ministry
of Culture and Islamic Guidance, "Most reformist papers got their right of
publication during this time." Some had a circulation of as much as
700,000 a day. "We can say that reformist papers had a total readership of
at least 10 million readers a day. People were even complaining about
reading too much and having family problems ... they accepted reformist
papers as the truth. The papers became more important than the
As some papers and journalists were elevated to
iconic status, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance was
increasingly despised: "The conservatives saw that this was getting out of
hand. There were two new big problems under Khatami: cultural expansion
and political expansion. So Khatami himself came under attack by the
The newspaper editor decided to retire as an
official of the ministry before it brushed him aside or condemned him as
being too liberal. He says that the conservatives started closing one
paper after another. "When one paper closed, another one opened, by the
same group. As many as 19 papers were closed in two or three days. Almost
all of the directors were arrested." Since April 2000 - which the
newspaper editor regards as the apex of freedom of the press - no fewer
than 83 publications were closed down in
The newspaper editor was in charge of Bonyam - established in
February 2001, and part of the "second-generation reformist papers", as he
puts it. "We are more careful on how to deal with the system - and more
analytical." But even this attitude did not prevent Bonyam from being shut
down after publishing 55 issues - last May 5, "one day after May 4, which
is celebrated worldwide as the day of freedom of the press".
are two kinds of publication closure in
"Your case can go to court, and you can appeal. But most cases are like
the 83 that were closed down. Seventy-nine of them are waiting to go to
court one day so their crimes can be established. And this could never
The decisions on whom and what to close are made by the
judiciary system - whose head is directly appointed by Grand Ayatollah Ali
Hoseini Khamenei. "Sometimes the head of the judiciary says he was not
'aware' of a closure, at least in the first few hours. The judges in
usually say, 'We had to follow the viewpoints of the supreme leader.'"
Tired of dealing with these tricky situations, journalists wrote a widely
reprinted letter to the supreme leader last March. In the letter, they
accused the leader himself of ordering the closures. There was no official
According to the newspaper editor, the conservatives even
tried to close down the "coffee-nets" - the Iranian version of Internet
cafes. Access to the Internet is relatively limited in
- a maximum of 2 million homes - but coffee-nets are ubiquitous. Satellite
dishes are still banned - the Council of Guardians vetoed them - although
everybody and his neighbor follows racy Turkish and Lebanese programs, as
well as news from Al Jazeera and the British Broadcasting Corp through
their illegal dishes.
The majlis - the Iranian parliament
- tried to legislate against the closure of publications. The matter went
to the powerful Expediency Council, controlled by former president Hashemi
Rafsanjani - and there it remains, with no decision. The newspaper editor
says that the majlis -
with an almost two-thirds reformist majority - should try to submit a
reform of the press law to a referendum. "Around 20 votes could be
swinged. But not right now, it may be too early; maybe in 2003. There are
not more than 30 independents in the majlis who do not follow the
conservatives blindly. But it takes time to convince them." The problem
remains anyway: the supreme leader will have to accept these changes, but
there is no indication that he ever will.
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