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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Notes from the Underground: Iranians and Israelis connect online

Lisa Goldman has translated an article that appeared about a month ago on the Hebrew portal Nana which discusses connections between the Iranian and Israeli blogospheres. (Hat Tip: Kamangir - who is the subject of much of the article). It's a fascinating article, but I would not place a lot of hope in the blogosphere bringing about a denouement between Israel and Iran anytime in the near future. Here's why:

So Iranian bloggers cannot write openly about Israeli bloggers?

“When Iranian bloggers have to censor themselves when it comes to sharing the mutual passion for scripts and other nerdy stuff with Israeli fellows, I guess showing any attention to ‘the Israeli interest in the Iranian blogosphere’ is out of context.”

So why are you not more cautious about entering into contact with Israeli bloggers?

“I live outside Iran, in Canada. There is a saying in Persian, “When you are drowning it does not matter if it’s one meter or 100 meters.”

Posts from the Underground

Estimates of the number of blogs in Iran range from 170,000 to 700,000. These are certainly impressive numbers, but Kamangir says that they are not an accurate reflection of Iranian society - particularly in the sense that the people who live in the less developed areas are unrepresented. “Most Iranian bloggers are middle class university students,” he writes. According to Kamangir, Iranian bloggers tend to be more liberal than the rest of the population.

On the other hand, Kamangir stresses the importance of differentiating between the opinions expressed by the Iranian regime and those of the ordinary people. “A friend of mine who came from Iran a few days ago was telling me that it is quite common to see Iranians criticize the regime, even using offensive words, in the public transit.”

“At the same time,” continues Kamangir, “A big portion of the Iranians have been exposed to the propaganda of the regime for decades and thus have unintentionally become ambassadors of the Islamic entity in many aspects…there is a big difference between an Iranian who is living inside Iran and the one who has had the experience of living in a free society, such as Canada.” According to Kamangir, when Iranian leave Iran they “start to question what they have been fed by the regime for a long time and start to think independently.”

“Blogs written by Iranian students abroad play a major role for these ‘new-born’ Iranians,” he writes. “Fortunately, this trend of free thinking is not limited to the Iranians who live outside the motherland. There is a huge number of blogs written by Iranians who live inside Iran and these blogs substantially question the official opinions of the regime. Interestingly, the questioning covers issues ranging from the official narration of Islam to human rights and sex.”

There are two key points here. First, the Iranian regime is repressive and therefore the amount of support the views expressed in its blogosphere have cannot really be accurately measured. But it is clear the blogosphere is not reflective of Iranian society generally, and the Ahmadinejad regime likely enjoys a lot more support among the lower classes. Second, the fact that Kamangir (with whom I am in touch regularly) is only free to write what he does from Canada means that if things ever come to a 'vote' in Iran, he's not part of that vote. The more significant question from the standpoint of possible 'regime change' in Iran is how many Kamangir's there are writing from inside Iran. No one knows the answer to that question.

Iran is not the only blogosphere among our 'enemies' where voices of reason can be found. Among the Arab blogs I frequent from time to time are Sandmonkey in Egypt, Across the Bay and Beirut Spring in Lebanon, Amarji in Syria and Drima in Sudan. Across the Bay, Amarji and Drima are all located in the US, and I wonder if they could write what they do in their home countries (Amarji clearly could not). While I don't always agree with what they write, I find them to all be thinking bloggers who do not adopt the knee-jerk hostility in this country that is adopted in most of the Arab world.

And even writing from the relative safety of the West is not always as safe as it seems for bloggers like these.


At 5:24 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5:25 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

There is a minority of enlightened Iranians and Arabs that rejects the anti-Western and anti-Israel fanaticism fed to them in their home countries. They are not representative of mainstream opinion in their societies but they do show some people don't think the official view means everything is alright with their way of life.

One has to understand that Middle Eastern societies are "closed" societies and by closed in the vast majority of them, there is no contact with the outside world, people get their information from official propaganda channels and Islam as an ideology has no interest in pre-Islamic and non-Islamic history. Those currents make liberal reform difficult and a distant prospect any time soon.

Individuals can try to get around those kind of institutional and societal obstacles but my guess is there too few of them at this point to get things changed so the Middle East finally does enter the modern world. One should not discount the possibility that some bloggers are simply lying to the infidels and telling them what they want to hear. With that caveat in mind, dissent should still be encouraged.

The dissents in the Soviet Union were always a minority but they were a moral voice in the country and change did eventually happen. So the larger point is change of the kind Israelis and Westerners would like to see in the Middle East is going to take a couple of generations. Whether that's longer than the Soviet Union existed is a good question.


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