King of the Iranian bloggers
With the exception of Israel, says cyberspace star Hossein Derakhshan during a recent visit here, Iran is the freest country in the Middle East. And Ahmadinejad is no Hitler.
Hossein Derakhshan's T-shirt is the only thing that gives him away. "I love Tehran," it says. Actually the shirt is the only thing that would lead one to guess that the affable, young-and-restless technology aficionado is not from here. He's from Iran, and proud of it. He was born in Tehran, grew up there and thinks it's the most fantastic city in the world. Even today, even now. Because even though Derakhshan cannot live in Iran at present, he is still an Iranian patriot. He despises Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but admires Khomeini; he's a total atheist, but thinks that an Islamic republic is the solution for the future; he's a friend of Israel, who thinks that Ahmadinejad's anti-Israeli policy is the leader's stupidest mistake, but he's also an enthusiastic supporter of the Iranian nuclear program and believes it would be very good for Iran to have an atom bomb. Good for Iran - and good for Israel.
Based on all we think we know about Iran, Canada-based Derakhshan ought to be totally out of the ordinary, an endangered species. He's a journalist who never misses an opportunity to say that his president is stupid, a well-known blogger who preaches to a cyberspace that is free of censorship and oversight. But these two qualities, explains Derakhshan, are not unusual in Iran. The Iranian press slaughters Ahmadinejad on a daily basis, and blogs are a big hit. Some 700,000 bloggers are active in Iran today, he estimates, from radicals who curse spiritual leader Ali Khamenei to madrasa students in the holy city of Qum. Even Ahmadinejad himself started his own blog a little while ago.
It's not by chance that Derakhshan speaks about blogs as if he were talking about religion. Dr. Michael Dahan of Sapir Academic College, who studies the phenomenon of blogs in general and of those in the Middle East in particular, says that Derakhshan could be considered the spiritual father of the bloggers in Iran. This is the man who also found a technological solution to writing blogs in Farsi and also gave the blogger movement its ideological cast - promoting a free space for discussions about everything that's happening in Iranian society.
Thus, it was not surprising to find him as a guest at the conference held this week at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Be'er Sheva, entitled "Reform, Opposition and Conflicts in the Middle East." Derakhshan spoke during the session led by Prof. Yoram Meital about "Blogging as a Realm of Opposition in the Middle East." Derakhshan's visit to Israel, his second within a year, had two purposes: to show his Iranian readers that Israel is not an enemy, and to explain to Israelis that the terrible image they have of Iran is distorted and without connection to reality.
Two freest countries
Hossein Derakhshan was born into the Islamic Revolution. He is 31, meaning he was four years old when millions of Iranians toppled the shah's regime and eagerly welcomed Khomeini upon his return from exile. Derakhshan grew up in a religious family and received a religious education, though this did not stop him from working at one of the popular liberal newspapers, Asr-e Azadegan (Hour of Liberation). The newspaper was closed under the reformist president Mohammed Khatami, but Derakhshan easily found work at another paper. In 2000, his wife received a visa to emigrate to Canada and Derakhshan emigrated with her (they have since divorced).
Even though the newspaper where he worked closed, Derakhshan describes the press in Iran in a surprisingly positive light. "During the time of President Khatami, the conservatives feared that the reformists were really America's emissaries, who wanted to topple the regime without a battle, and therefore they closed down newspapers then," he explains. "Today, this fear has passed. Except for criticism of the spiritual leader Khamenei, you can write criticism of anyone. The press is so rough on Ahmadinejad that not long ago, he went to Khamenei and complained to him about the criticism. Khamenei told him that it was true that he was getting some harsh criticism, but that there was nothing to be done about it, that that's how the game works."
With the exception of Israel, asserts Derakhshan, Iran is the freest country in the Middle East. He cites a recent event at Tehran University, where the students greeted President Ahmadinejad with boos, and one student even burned a picture of the president right in front of him. Not a single student was arrested. "You couldn't do that in any other Middle Eastern country," he says.
His description of life in Tehran is surprising, too. "I love Tehran," says Derakhshan, who has made his home in Toronto in recent years, but also travels frequently in Europe. "It's a huge, lively and varied city that's alive 24 hours a day. The restaurants are open until four in the morning." In fact, it's rather similar to Tel Aviv, he says, in terms of both architecture and character. "Young people in Tel Aviv and Tehran are listening to the same music and using the same drugs."
But don't get the wrong idea. Derakhshan does not think that Iran is a paradise. And he has plenty of reason for feeling this way. Before he left Tehran, he was summoned for questioning by the security forces and forced to sign a document of apology for things he'd written against the regime. In 2001, shortly after he immigrated to Canada, he began writing his blog, entitled "Editor: Myself" (at www.hoder.com).
For several years, it was the most popular blog in Iran, until the authorities decided to block access to it two years ago. This happened after he violated one of the iron rules of the Iranian press: It is forbidden to express criticism of spiritual leader Khamenei. "I wrote a post entitled 'Khamenei: A Well-Meaning Dictator,'" Derakhshan recounts. "I actually wrote pretty good things about Khamenei, but ever since then they've blocked my blog."
What matters most to Derakhshan is that bloggers have managed to create a steadily expanding space for public discussion. A space where supporters of reforms can exchange views, but also argue with conservative bloggers, who are also very active on the Web. And all of this space, which has no center and no hierarchy, says Derakhshan, is protected by the government.
Despite all the problems, Derakhshan believes in the Iranian revolution, in Khomeini and the Islamic republic. It's odd to hear such things coming from a young man who looks thoroughly Western, sitting on the lawn at Ben-Gurion University on a warm afternoon, but this is what he says.
"Khomeini's revolution is as important as the French Revolution," he maintains. "The central ideas of Khomeini were equality and independence. I believe in them. I used to be more critical of the idea of an Islamic republic. Today I think that this is a post-modernist idea, that it's a correct idea. I'm an atheist, I don't care at all about Mohammed and about religion, but it's impossible to disqualify religion like they did in Turkey. It doesn't work, and it leads to counter-reactions. Religion is an organic part of our society. It needs to be given a new interpretation. This is what Iran is offering the Muslim world."
What about equality? I wouldn't imagine that women in Tehran often use that word to describe the regime.
Derakhshan: "True, women are forced to wear a hijab, but that's only an external matter, it's only part of the story. Women in Iran have a much greater presence in society than women in other Middle Eastern countries. In Parliament, for example, in public positions. The marriage laws have also changed a lot in women's favor in the past 15 years, as a result of the ceaseless efforts of the women's organizations."
As for Ahmadinejad, Derakhshan says that he, like many Iranians, is embarrassed by the president "the way a lot of Americans are embarrassed by Bush." Ahmadinejad was elected on the basis of promises to improve the standard of living, Derakhshan explains, but instead all he does is talk from morning till night about Israel, about Holocaust denial and nuclear capabilities.
Derakhshan is convinced that the Iranian public is either put off by these things or simply not interested in them. He says that the Iranian public is not hostile toward Israel. Perhaps even the opposite. "The Iranians remember that the Palestinians supported Saddam Hussein when he fought against Iran," he says. "And some also remember that Israel tried to transfer arms to Iran in the Iran-Contra episode, and that's something in Israel's favor."
He adds: "You have to distinguish between rhetoric and actions. Iran has no desire to destroy Israel. If it did, Tehran would have permitted Hezbollah to use long-range rockets against Tel Aviv in the last war. Ahmadinejad is not Hitler. The one who controls the army is Khamenei, and he is not pleased by Ahmadinejad's declarations. Iran and Israel have a common interest: They live in a region controlled by Sunni Muslims."
And Derakhshan has yet another surprise up his sleeve: His opposition to Ahmadinejad's policy doesn't mean that he's opposed to the Iranian nuclear project. On the contrary, he believes that it would be good for Iran to have nuclear arms. Only with them can it protect itself from its threatening neighbors: nuclear Pakistan, Iraq and the whole Sunni Middle East. And Israel, too, will benefit from an Iran that is strong and secure, he says.
And what if Israel attacks the Iranian nuclear facilities?
"Then it will be seen as the long arm of America, and the attitude toward it will follow accordingly."