I'll Blog Your House Down

Hossein Derakhshan who was born to a traditional Iranian family with ties to the government, is the godfather of the Iranian blog culture.

Last June, after a brief visit to his native Iran, Hossein Derakhshan wanted to return to Canada, but was delayed at Tehran airport for questioning. For seven hours he was interrogated by an Iranian Information Ministry officer concerning the blogs he writes in English and Farsi. He was told that he could no longer criticize the Ayatollah Khamenei and was asked to make a public apology or be banned from leaving the country. Derakhshan apologized but continued his activities undeterred. This week he succeeded in angering the Iranians again, when he decided to visit Israel in order to present Israel to his Iranian readers through his moderate eyes.

Derakhshan, 31, who was born to a traditional Iranian family with ties to the government, is the godfather of the Iranian blog culture. Five years ago he left Tehran after the regime shut down the newspaper at which he worked, as there was strict censorship in Iran at that time. Since then Derakhshan has settled in Toronto, where he writes a political blog (www.hoder.com), and helps young Iranians launch their own blogs in order to feel culturally involved and to cope with the strict censorship of the media in Iran.

"My goal is to break through the apathy of young Iranians," he says in an interview last week at a Tel Aviv cafe.

Derakhshan, whose ideas approach those of the Iranian Reform Party, which failed miserably in the last parliamentary elections, says the situation in his country can be altered only via elections, "which are the hole in our political system," and not by external pressure.

"In order to bring young people closer to politics," says Derakhshan, "we have to change their language, because that is where ideas are created and determined. I write in unofficial language in my blog, and sometimes even crudely, like in the satirical programs on American television. This is the only way to create new norms."

In a country in which censorship of the media is so all-encompassing, Derakhshan's quest is no small thing. In the past few years several Iranian bloggers have been arrested for their activities, and some are still serving prison terms. Last week the Iranian government blocked the access to the Farsi version of the BBC Web site, and at present Iranians cannot even surf to the Flickr photo-sharing site. "Ever since the last elections the government censorship policy has become even stricter," says Derakhshan. "Iran is heading in the direction of China. The screening of sites is becoming worse all the time, and more sophisticated tools are being used."

When Derakhshan's blog was censored, too, after his interrogation by the Information Ministry, he was forced to find alternate ways to disseminate his ideas. Since the method used to block access to Web sites in Iran is not sophisticated, some 13 percent of Derakhshan's readers reach his site via sites with alternative domain names that he purchased with the help of donations. Most of Derakhshan's 11,000 readers ask to receive his blog by e-mail, which Derakhshan says is the best way to evade the censorship. "After they interrogated me, censored my blog and arrested other bloggers, I realized how important blogs are - otherwise the government would not care about them," says Derakhshan. "When all the media are suppressed and controlled by the government, blogs can provide reliable firsthand reports of what is going on in the country, and can be a tool for cultural change.

"Blogs relay information that is not broadcast on the news, and they help connect different parts of the population.

"Blogs are the only place where I and other moderates can read what is happening to extremists and fundamentalists who are managing blogs, and they can read what we are thinking and can respond. This is also the only platform that enables women to express themselves freely, to write about their lives, without censorship or editing by men."

A bomb in the right hands

Derakhshan has dreamed of visiting Israel for years. Now, at the height of the war of words between Israel and Iran, he feels that this is the right time to realize his dream and to share his experiences with readers of his blogs. During the week he spent in Israel, he met with Israelis who emigrated from Iran, lectured at Tel Aviv University on how young Iranian reformists are using the Internet for political purposes and sought mainly to see and speak to as many Israelis as possible. "The idea is to come to Israel as a civilian and a journalist, to contribute to the dialogue and perhaps to help a little to dispel the tension between the two countries," explains Derakhshan. "Both Israel and Iran gain from this propaganda machine that portrays the other side as the bad guy, and our goal as civilians is to change this.

"I am trying to show Israelis that there are lots of people like myself living in Iran, with the same moderate ideas about Israel and the world. Most Iranians want normal relations with Israel, and do not view Israelis as bloodthirsty Jews who want to kill all Muslims, which is how the regime tries to portray them."

As expected, one of the common subjects in Derakhshan's conversations with Israelis is fear of the moment Iran completes the development of nuclear weapons. Derakhshan denounces and opposes any idea of an external attack in an attempt to destroy nuclear weapons.

"When the world focused on stopping Iran's development of nuclear arms, it led to the electoral defeat of a moderate president and the rise to power of a more radical president," explains Derakhshan. "I understand the fear of nuclear arms, but the focus has to be on democratic means and not on halting nuclear development. If the bomb is in the right hands, it won't be dangerous at all." Instead of preventing the development of nuclear arms, Derakhshan wants to halt the mutual demonization of Iran and Israel. He suggests, for example, that expatriate Iranian Jews living in Israel write about their everyday lives on Farsi blogs.

"People in Iran," says Derakhshan, "will be very interested in discovering that there are Iranians in Israel living completely normal lives, without any connection to bombings and incitement."

No one's puppet

Blogistan - the Internet nickname for the Iranian blog community, has grown very rapidly in the past few years. Out of 6.4 million Iranians who are connected to the Internet (about 10 percent of the population), some 700,000 write on blogs. Derakhshan, who views himself as the evangelist of Iranian blogs, contributed considerably to this revolution.

The first Iranian blog was launched in September 2001, and a few months later Derakhshan published the first Farsi guide to writing blogs.

"For the past few years I have been preoccupied mainly with the dissemination of the blog idea," says Derakhshan. "In order for this medium to gain momentum, I convinced famous public figures to publish blogs, provided them with technical support and built an index of Iranian blogs."

The regime did not object directly to this activity, and granted licenses to open offices in Tehran to the seven companies that provide platforms for uploading text files to the Internet.

"The authorities censor content in blogs if it looks sensitive to them, but many politicians, even from the fundamentalist stream, use this tool, so it is considered acceptable. As long as you choose your words carefully, you should have no problem."

Despite his optimistic tone, Derakhshan's visit to Israel and his critical writing against the Iranian government institutions cost him dearly. He has been warned that if he returns to his homeland, he could be detained and tried. For his part, Derakhshan contends that he is a product of his upbringing and does not understand why the authorities are bothering him.

"I am against [U.S.] President Bush and capitalism, just as much as I oppose Khamenei," says Derakhshan. "I am a product of their system, of what the regime did during 20 years of revolution. I came from a very religious background and attended a private school designed to produce Iran's religious leaders. It is impossible to say that I have been brainwashed, because all my ideas were created by the establishment. Maybe I'm the black sheep of the family, but I am not anyone's puppet."

In preparation for the upcoming municipal elections in Iran, Derakhshan is trying to convince bloggers to recruit support for a non-party candidate. "If 1,000 bloggers manage to convince 20 people each," explains Derakhshan, "we will be able to send a representative of Internet users and bloggers to the Tehran council, without any assistance from another source."

The idea of translating blogs into votes at the polls was inspired by the Internet campaign conducted by Howard Dean and John Kerry in the United States. Derakhshan is planning for blogs to spread messages, and sites similar to Wiki (which hosts the Wikipedia encyclopedia that anyone can edit), will be used to formulate the Internet representative's platform.

"If we can prove that this works," says Derakhshan, "it will be the most impressive example of the ability of blogs to influence politics, and we will use them in the next parliamentary elections, too." How can Derakhshan preach to people to criticize the government and risk being arrested, when he himself is living outside Iran?

"I can't. Of course, it is easier for me to do this from Canada, and I respect anyone who lives in Iran and has to make the appropriate adjustments. In addition to the great fear of the government, pressure from surroundings, family, friends and the discourse in Iran make people more conservative. When I was there, I too felt that I had to stop writing that way, and had to get away from there to see clearly."