While senior Iranian and US officials are planning bilateral talks over Iran’s nuclear research program, the Iranian and world media are distracted by other issues: young women who post images of themselves without hejab on Facebook, and a video of six well-heeled youths dancing to Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy.” The gyrating youngsters were arrested and compelled to issue an apology on state television for what authorities said was a “vulgar clip” that had “hurt public chastity.” Meanwhile, an anonymous Facebook page popped up demanding that the women who had photographed themselves with uncovered heads be lashed and imprisoned. The woman who runs the “My Stealthy Freedoms” Iranian-women-without-hejab Facebook project, journalist Masih Alinejad, has been subjected to relentless blackballing in the state-run media.
The confluence of events is no accident. While parts of the Iranian government seem to be inching closer to resolving the long-standing tensions with the United States, other parts of the regime are energetically targeting symbolic representatives of “Western” cultural corruption. How better to sabotage political rapprochement than by confirming everyone’s worst fear — that the Iranian state is a rogue actor rather than a rational one?
This should all sound vaguely familiar. Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reliably commanded the world’s attention whenever he contrived to drop a stray remark about the illegality of the state of Israel. In the ensuing commotion, Iran’s Jewish citizens, at some 25,000 the largest such community in the Middle East outside of Israel, were almost always ignored, despite being a recognized religious minority with rights to religious practice and dedicated parliamentary representation.
Similarly, there were a number of Iranian “Happy” videos posted on the Internet, and lots of young Iranian women post photos of themselves without hejab on social media. But nothing makes for better publicity than a little notoriety. In this case, although the apparent notoriety may be attached to the six hapless dancers and to Alinejad, the intention may be much more self-referential — another instance of the Islamic Republic’s hardline political faction manipulating perceptions in order to ensure Iran’s continued isolation. To the extent that this faction is aware that it cannot achieve political hegemony or an electoral mandate inside Iran, this strategy of isolation is a success. The hardliners know their best bet for staying in power and safeguarding their interests — political and economic — is to ensure that no one from outside is seriously willing to engage with the alternatives available inside Iran. Iran’s arch-conservatives know they must also discredit Iranians outside the country, like Alinejad, who call attention to corruption in the Islamic Republic, such as the parliamentary “bonuses” that she unearthed in 2005. (This reporting, and not the hejab project, is likely the real reason why the state is determined to destroy her reputation.)
It is right to condemn the targeted persecution of these young people. The smear campaign against Alinejad, which has sought to involve her family, is especially despicable. The latest installment is a false news story claiming that because she was inappropriately dressed (and therefore “asking for it” in the traditional parlance of sexual assault apologists) she was raped in front of her son. Alinejad has systematically responded to the various rumors that factions of the state have initiated about her, and rightly pointed out that there is a tinge of desperation in the latest accusations that she is a “whore” (to be despised) rather than a “heretic” (who would have to be taken seriously as a religio-political dissident).
But the persecution also needs to be kept in perspective. Alinejad lives in Britain, and despite the emotional damage she has suffered (she has stated that she is estranged from her father because of direct efforts made to convince him of her “immorality”), she is not in physical danger. The “Happy” video dancers and director (who had all credited themselves in the video, which has not been the case in most of the global “Happy” video tributes) were all shortly released after being put through a formal process of public humiliation (expressing regret and stating they had been misled). They could still be prosecuted, but as with many instances of targeted repression in Iran, it is more likely that the state will hold the threat of prosecution in reserve, to ensure that they don’t pull such a stunt again.
In the meantime, not everyone is distracted by the latest hysteria over cultural politics. Kambiz Hosseini, an expatriate Iranian who posts satirical news commentaries, has pointed out that while the state is unable to deal with chronic problems of environmental and economic mismanagement, it is efficiently focused on amateur pop song performers. Why pay attention to the dangerous levels of air pollution, the drying-up of famous saltwater and freshwater lakes or the high levels of inflation and unemployment? Why effectively prosecute the acknowledged scandals of elite corruption, when you can take public pride in arresting kids dancing on the Internet?
Most Iranians inside Iran know that the “Happy” prosecutions, and even the attacks on Alinejad, are just more instances of cultural saber rattling in order to keep attention diverted from political and economic problems and the possibilities for their resolution. The big question is: How effective will the strategy be everywhere else? Facebook and YouTube posts are often ruefully regarded as everyone’s favorite contemporary distraction. Will they effectively distract from the ongoing efforts to resolve Iran’s geopolitical and economic isolation? Let’s hope that those involved are able to keep their focus.