When Push Comes to Twitter
TEHRAN – In late March, I traveled to Iran to study the impact of the
Internet on the presidential elections scheduled for June.
Arriving in Tehran, I immediately
sensed an atmosphere of apathy. On the street, hardly anyone spoke of
politics, let alone about the presidential candidates. Nor was much
enthusiasm for politics shown by Iranian bloggers, who had just discovered
the joys of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, thanks to the regime’s recent
decision to unblock these social networking sites.
But with the beginning of the campaign
season in May, the situation began to change. An air of festivity spread
over Tehran and other major cities around the country, and in the Iranian
blogosphere. The lackluster campaign of Mir-Hossain Mousavi was energized by
reformist websites—including his own Facebook home page—with messages of
“hope” and “change” reminiscent of the 2008 Obama campaign.
The Western press was quick to pick up
on this. But when CNN International, BBC, and CBS News reported on the same
pro-Mousavi rallies I attended, the narratives they produced had more to do
with American and European ideas than the situation on the ground.
The scenes of unruly youths dancing to
Western music, including half-covered young women holding anti-Ahmadinejad
signs and shouting out Mousavi’s name, gave the false impression that the
protesters were hostile to Islam.
Despite the protestors’ universal cry
of “Allahu Akhbar” (God is Great) and embrace of Islamic green, the Western
media largely framed their stories as a contest between Mousavi’s secular
young urbanites and Ahmadinejad’s devout country folk. Mousavi’s own support
in rural areas never made it onto Western screens.
As the Montreal Gazette
editorialized on June 13, “As many as 80 per cent of the country’s 46.2
million voters were expected to vote, spurred on by a campaign that laid
bare the divisions in Iranian society: Rural voters against urban; the
wealthy and educated against the poor; secular Iranians against the devout.”
In this battle, “modern” Iranians were on the march, chipping away the power
base of a traditional, religious government and moving towards a more
secular political order.
Iran’s state-sponsored media employed
the same storyline, for ideological reasons of its own. Describing the
election as “an historic event,” TV reporters spent a good deal of time
conducting interviews with somberly clothed men and women in chadors.
One hot day in central Tehran three
weeks before the election, I watched one reporter grill his carefully
selected subjects on voting as a religious duty. Participation was the
responsibility of all citizens concerned for the welfare of society, he
said. It would strengthen the nezam, or political order, and thereby
serve the common good.
That night, I watched brief clips from
the interviews. With 1990s techno music beating in the background, it seemed
as though the country itself was speaking in unison.
In the early days of the uprising that
followed the election, I knew I was witnessing an historic event with a
trajectory as uncertain as the 1978 protests that led to the toppling of the
Pahlavi monarchy. But this time around, cell phones and the Internet changed
the ways street protests and state violence would be reported, and the
impact they would have.
Events encountered on the street were
immediately posted—unedited, uncut--on YouTube or emailed to CNN, VOA Farsi,
or BBC Persian. Many Iranians who did not participate in the demonstrations
would later watch those very images (some of them very violent), get angry,
and run to join the protesters, injecting new momentum to the
Not surprisingly, the images of
baton-wielding riot police beating up demonstrators that dominated news
coverage in the West were passed over by the Iranian news media. The
government closed a number of reformist newspapers and detained prominent
Soon enough, the Internet was
considerably slowed down. Yahoo, Gmail, Facebook, and YouTube disappeared.
Most foreign reporters were ordered to leave the country, leaving Western
media to depend largely on the Internet for information.
The result was a new type of news
coverage, presenting events on the ground exclusively via the prism of video
footage and photo images posted online, along with on-the-ground
descriptions of the unfolding crackdowns through email and social-networking
sites. Twitter became the major source of information for a number of media
outlets, who desperately sought to find news for an eager public outside of
It was because of this narrow prism
that the role of new technologies as a medium of communication for the
protest movement was somewhat exaggerated. A number of reports—for example,
Yigal Schleifer’s “Why Iran’s Twitter Revolution is Unique,” in the June 19
Christian Science Monitor—even went so far as to describe Twitter
(still a relatively unknown social networking site in Iran) as a driving
force behind the “green revolution.”
Ironically, the main entity responsible
for this kind of media production of knowledge was the Islamic Republic
itself, which by limiting access created the conditions for the Western
media to create a narrative of the crisis that haunts the hardliners in
power to this day. But while they gave such coverage as there was more
impact, the new media sources did nothing for its sophistication.
At the heart of the massive protests
and ensuing political crisis lay not only demands for an end to corruption
and greater government transparency but also a call for reinterpreting
religion as a force for democratic change. This religious element was
entirely missed by the western media, which remained locked into an image of
an “Iranian people” eager for modern secular democracy versus an oppressive
In fact, many Iranians opposed
Ahmadinejad’s re-election precisely because they rejected a political order
that they considered increasingly “secular”—by which they meant corrupt and
greedy for worldly power. This was brought home to me a few weeks after the
elections during a visit to the shrine city of Qom, a major Shia scholarly
Visiting a bookshop, I overheard a
group of mid-ranking clerics talking about the post-election turmoil, the
possible electoral fraud, the violence on the streets, the reports of
torture in prisons, and most importantly the role in the conflict of the
country’s Spiritual Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
One of the clerics claimed that the
Islamic Republic no longer had legitimacy (mashru‘iyyat) because of
its harsh and unjust reaction to those who demanded a recount of the votes.
Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad who is Shia Islam’s fourth
imam, had ruled with justice and not brute force, he said. Ali had based his
government on tolerance of opposition, which was necessary for him to rule
the Muslim community efficiently and wisely. According to the cleric, Ali
had distinguished mashru‘iyyat from power (hukumat), always
making sure that the former would never be sacrificed for the latter.
Ali, who ruled the Islamic world from
656-61, has served a model of just rule for Shias through the centuries. In
the view of the clerics I overheard—and, increasingly, of many other devout
Iranians as well—Ayatollah Khamenei has failed to live up to that model.
With the show of brute force after his infamous Friday sermon threatening
demonstrators with violence a week after the elections, Khamenei revealed
his true identity as a usurper and a corrupt ruler who preferred hukumat
Beyond that, the model of Ali has been
used to challenge the entire theoretical basis of the Iranian
regime—Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory of the “guardianship of the
jurist” (Velayat-e Faqih). Introduced after the 1979 revolution, this
novel theocratic concept assigned traditionally quietist Shia clerics the
responsibility of ruling on behalf of the Twelfth Imam, whose eventual
return is believed to culminate in the establishment of divine justice on
earth. Thus was established the first theocratic state in Shia Islamic
In the years following the revolution,
not all Shia Iranians accepted Khomeini’s vision of theocracy. One of the
country’s senior clerics, Ayatollah Muhammad Kazem Shariatmadari, called it
a deviation from true Shi‘ism—and was immediately stripped of his religious
authority and placed under house arrest. Never before had a high-ranking
jurist been deposed by another cleric. Subsequently, the takeover of Qom by
state-sponsored activist clerics caused many independent clerics to keep
quiet for fear of retribution.
In the wake of the protests, however,
many began to challenge the regime publicly. A number of leading figures
spoke out on behalf of the protestors. Ayatollah Yusef Sanei, one of Qom’s
leading reformists, went so far as to call Ahmadinejad a “bastard” for
illegally gaining power.
But it was Ayatollah Ali
Montazeri—slated to succeed Ayatollah Khomeini before falling out of
favor—who delivered the harshest critique, denouncing Khamenei as a dictator
with no legitimate right to rule. Later, an anonymous letter written by a
group of clerics demanded the Spiritual Leader’s immediate removal.
Behind these taboo-breaking
accusations lay a growing realization that the Islamic Republic was becoming
not merely a dictatorship but a military state. The Iranian Revolutionary
Guard Corps (IRGC), charged with defending the Islamic Republic against
domestic and foreign threats, stands accused of playing a decisive role in
According to critics of the regime, the
Guard has become increasingly politicized since the 2001 elections, when the
reelection of President Mohammad Khatami and the rise of reformists posed a
major threat to the clerical establishment. It has now been permitted to
take over much of the country’s economic and industrial infrastructure,
including its controversial nuclear technology.
There is no question that the IRGC
played a crucial role in putting down the election protests. By empowering
it, Khamenei has effectively signaled the end of authentic Islamic rule in
It is an indication of how things have
changed since the elections to hear clerics speak out against the status quo
in so blunt a manner in a public place in a conservative religious city. But
it is no less telling to hear echoes of their arguments, in similar Islamic
terms, from Iran’s most “westernized” citizens—reformist students, secular
nationalists, feminist internationalists.
The fear of many Iranians is of a type
of military rule that dominates not only the (limited) democratic
institutions of the country but also the spiritual authority that can be
expected to uphold Shia ideals of justice and tolerance. In effect, what
Iran experienced over the summer was the delegitimization of its
theocracy—and the resulting secularization of its governing regime.
That’s the story that the Western media
are going to have to catch up to.