Blurry Red Lines

I found this recent article on Iran from the Times Online website rather interesting. Especially in the last few paragraphs were it describes the approach of the Islamic government of Iran towards censorship:

The way censorship works in Iran is that the rules are deliberately kept vague. Something that sneaks through one week is then used later as a catalyst for a crack-down. What is acceptable and what not changes constantly: the blurry red lines foster a climate of self-censorship more powerful than any rules.

Sadly, this is also a succint description of the way Baha’i pre-publication “review” works. There are no clearly defined lines. In fact, they would bristle at the word ‘censorship’ being applied to what they do. But the outcome of the process is the same as that in the Islamic Repulic of Iran: within the Baha’i community there is no academic freedom, nor is there freedom of the press.

And by keeping the mechanism and process as vague as possible, the result is that a state of fear is produced. Academics, authors and all creatives begin to self-censor themselves much more readily and to a deeper extent simply because they don’t quite know where the lines are. If one day a Baha’i of many years can be thrown out of the community for calling himself a ‘Baha’i theologian’, then who knows what’s next?

Here is an excellent article by Barney Leith on pre-publication review.

In case the link to the Times article kicks the bucket, here is the complete article:

This is Iran, but not as you know it

Young Iranians are doing more to transform their country than any outside agency could do, writes Rageh Omaar

It might have been hot, but it was going to take much more than the familiar Tehran cocktail of unrelenting heat and choking smog to deter the 20 or so young Iranian women gathered outside the record shop. Beethoven’s isn’t exactly the sort of name you would expect of a hip music store. But this is Tehran, and as with most things involving young Iranians today, even a seemingly boring name hides something far more subversive.

All the young women are in manteaus, the figure-hugging three-quarter length jacket worn as a substitute for the chador. But underneath they sport tight white jeans, Versace print head-scarves, designer sunglasses and delicate sandals, the thin straps of which wrap around perfectly painted toenails.

A brand new silver Mercedes glides up and an androgynous young man clad in trendy black gets out. Behind him walks a confident man in his late thirties who shepherds the younger man past the adoring female fans. A ripple of excitement goes through the crowd as the girls recognise the young man while some hold up their mobile phones to take pictures and video clips of him in the crush.

Were it not for the head-scarves and manteaus, it could easily have been Robbie Williams outside HMV. Welcome to the vibrant and almost completely unnoticed world of Iranian pop music.

Tehran is one of the most talked about cities in the world; many people believe it could well be the next target for the Bush administration’s third invasion in its so-called ?war on terror?. The majority of the limited reports and images to have emerged from the Iranian capital in the past year have been about alleged nuclear weapons programmes, senior members of Iran’s theocratic state and, of course, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Very little has been said that accurately describes this nation of 70m, which is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse countries in the Middle East. Despite a recorded history of more than 5,000 years, making it one of the oldest civilisations on earth, Iran remains shackled to a small number of clich?s; turbaned mullahs, women wearing the black chador and antiwestern rhetoric.

As a news correspondent this Iran was familiar to me. I’d seen many angry rallies postFriday prayers and done interviews with politicians and military figures. But I longed to show the unseen and hugely varied life of ordinary people in Tehran; one of the least understood cities on earth.

I had a personal reason for doing this, too. There have been many times over the past year or so where the accelerating crisis over Iran has reminded me of the relentless build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2002. The similarities are chilling; accusations of the development of WMDs, allegations of sponsoring terrorism, and military reinforcements being sent to the region while leading Bush administration officials consistently speak of the need for the world to be prepared for preemptive action.

I reported from inside Iraq for several years before the invasion and I regret enormously that while I did endless stories about Saddam, his regime, weapons inspectors and suchlike I spoke very little about ordinary Iraqis; what role religious and sectarian beliefs played in their identity, what they made of the exiled politicians groomed by Washington as their leaders in waiting.

I wanted to make sure that mistake was not repeated. It took a year of wrangling with the authorities to be able to follow the lives of ordinary Iranians without restrictions or minders, but I was given an extraordinary opportunity.

Iran has one of the youngest populations in the world; around 70% of its citizens are under the age of 30. That means 70% of Iranians have no memory of life under the Shah, and have grown up under the rules of the Islamic republic. For them there is the profound sense that nearly 30 years after Ayatollah Khomeini led the world’s first Islamic revolution the rebellion has to renew itself to become relevant to their generation.

So in Iran at the moment there is a unique situation where an Islamic theocracy is being challenged, scrutinised and publicly questioned in a way that very few other regimes in the Middle East are. This is not just happening in Iran’s parliament and the active media; it is being done in the streets, in people’s homes, and even by what citizens wear and how they express themselves.

The pop star I met at Beet-hoven’s record shop was called Benyamin and the analogy with Robbie Williams is pretty accurate. Benyamin is currently the hot young thing in Iranian pop music. Mohsen Rajabpour, his manager, is Tehran’s Simon Cowell — and is a match for his English counterpart in every way. The last person I expected to hang out with in Tehran was a pop svengali cum entrepreneur.

?The difference between me and this Englishman [Cowell] is that he is not restricted in making his pop stars,? said Rajabpour as we glided around in his Mercedes. ?Mine must be created within the restrictions of Iran.?

But this hasn’t stopped him producing a number of highly successful pop acts. The restrictions are ones you’d expect. ?I can’t do songs that are about hot sexy topics,? but despite this his acts find ways of pushing back the boundaries with each record.

The key to Rajabpour’s success and why he is an unlikely modern revolutionary is that he succeeds as a pop entrepreneur by having a very good grasp of the laws and jurisprudence of the Islamic republic. He’s now working on what he thinks is the perfect rock band for Iran.

?It has the usual things: drums, bass, guitars . . . but with girls!? They’re going to be Iran’s answer to the Spice Girls, but with a very different kind of girl power. The law says that the lead vocalist in a publicly approved rock band cannot be a girl. His trick is that all members of the band are vocalists, so it can’t be said that the lead vocalist is a girl. It is in thousands of such small tests of change that Iranians from all walks of life are transforming their country.

Bozorgmehr Sharafeddin is the editor of Chelcheragh, one of Tehran’s best known weekly youth magazines. Still in his twenties, he leads a constantly changing group of 40 or so young Iranian men and women journalists. The topics range from politics and culture to music and comedy. In the midst of Benyamin’s appearance at Beethoven’s, the editor quizzed me about my documentary and I explained that I wanted to follow the lives of ordinary Iranians.

?So,? he said with a wicked grin, ?you are on mission impossible.? He paused briefly then said: ?Why don’t you write an article for our magazine as a guest reporter? It’s the best way for you to get as deep into Iranian society as possible.?

I duly attended the magazine’s editorial meeting where I was quizzed by staff and given a stark insight into the constant battle they face with the censors and the threat of the magazine being suspended or shut down.

Iranian journalists call them ?red lines?, the opaque and constantly shifting guidelines by which the state clamps down on publications. My article was going to be edited by Sharafeddin and any sensitive or risky comments would be cut.

I said I wanted to write a feature profiling three prominent young women: Nazila Noe-bashari (who runs a transportation company employing many men), Newsha Tavakolian (a renowned photojournalist I met in Iraq) and Ghazal Chegini (who works in Iran’s huge nongovernmental organisations network for a charity caring for children with cancer).

The three of them allowed us into their lives and homes in Tehran and took us around their city. I discovered a mass of contradictions. Tehran has one of the highest rates of cosmetic surgery among young people and terrible poverty. One day I went to a pro-Hezbollah protest in the morning and a recording studio with Benyamin in the afternoon. Women cannot ride motorcycles, but in the glitzy shopping malls of the affluent northern suburbs young men with earrings openly court girls.

I went back to Sharafeddin to go through my article. Various lines and paragraphs had been crossed out and the changes revealed a lot about the republic. For example, my comment about women not being allowed to ride motorcycles in Tehran was changed to ?in Tehran there are no women motorcyclists?.

The reason? My original sentence laid too much emphasis on the government’s restrictive rule. Another comment, on how Iranian women wear what they want in their homes but outside wear a headscarf (which, it seemed to me, meant they were hiding their identities behind a mask), was rejected and changed to ?women felt they were having to take on different identities?.

The way censorship works in Iran is that the rules are deliberately kept vague. Something that sneaks through one week is then used later as a catalyst for a crack-down. What is acceptable and what not changes constantly: the blurry red lines foster a climate of self-censorship more powerful than any rules.

And yet it is the millions of largely young Iranians who are forcing through a slow but surely unstoppable transformation in the country. Sometimes at a terrible cost to imprisoned journalists and human rights activists, the restrictions are being rolled back. But the quickest way to reverse this progress is for the West to attack.

Fahrenheit 445

Well, Baha’i Rants’ prediction that the boycott of Kalimat would not be restricted to the US, where it began, is slowly becoming true:

In fact, I would not at all be surprised to see other NSAs soon following the lead of the US in this decision. In that case, it would confirm my suspicions that it did originate from the House of Justice (and/or the ITC).

Just recently the UK NSA boycotted Kalimat. Not only does this mean that Kalimat is in further danger of closing, but more and more it also seems that this is not an isolated action taken by the NSA of the US. Rather, it was probably a decision taken at the highest level (ITC/UHJ) and delegated down to them:

Below you will find the latest letter from the UK NSA to all local assemblies in their jurisdiction. To make it interesting, the UK letter (in blue) invoking a boycott of Kalimat is contrasted in color with the US NSA letter (in red) :

23 July 2006

December 29, 2005

Dearly loved Friends

Dear Bah??’? Friends,

The National Spiritual Assembly has taken the decision that Baha’i Books UK and its agents will cease to distribute books and other items marketed by Kalimat Press with immediate effect.

Enclosed for your information is a copy of our letter of today’s date addressed to Kalim??t Press. We ask you to comply with the decision we have made that all national and local Bah??’? agencies cease to distribute books and other items marketed by this publisher. However, you may continue to sell whatever you may have in stock until your inventories are depleted. Individuals are free, of course, to decide to purchase books from any publisher.

Baha’i Books UK and its agents may continue, however, to sell whatever Kalimat titles remain in stock until their inventories are depleted. Further, individuals are free to decide to purchase books from other suppliers.

Our decision was regretfully reached as a result of increasing concern in recent years that a number of titles handled by Kalim??t Press, aside from those which have enriched Bah??’? literature over the years, contain matter inimical to the best interests of our Faith. It is highly inappropriate for Bah??’? institutions, which are obligated to safeguard such interests, to provide channels of distribution for publishers promoting such titles.

The National Assembly’s decision was reached as a result of increasing concern in recent years that a number of titles published by Kalimat Press, aside from those which have enriched Baha’i literature over the years, contain matter inimical to the best interests of the Faith. The National Assembly believes that it would therefore be inappropriate for it, as the institution obligated to safeguard such interests in the United Kingdom, to provide channels of distribution for such material.

With loving Baha’i greetings,

With loving Bah??’? greetings,

National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United Kingdom

NATIONAL SPIRITUAL ASSEMBLY OF THE BAH??’??S OF THE UNITED STATES

As you’ve noticed, the two letters are almost identical. Were they simply polished and lightly edited based off a ?master’ letter out of the ITC?

You make the call.

Related Links:

Karen’s commentary on her blog

Alison’s commentary and podcast on her blog

Boycott of Kalimat

Fahrenheit 245

Website of Kalimat Press

NSA letter to LSAs (pdf file)

NSA letter to Kalimat Press (pdf file)

Let Justice Rain

There is an amazing open letter on BahaisOnline.net from Justice St. Rain regarding Kalimat and the recent action taken against them by the US NSA. If you haven’t already, go read it !

I was not only impressed by the tone of love in the letter, but also by the courage that it took to write it. After all, if the US NSA decides to retaliate against the author of the letter, a livelihood that took more than 15 years to build can be vaporized as fast as an email with the words ‘inimical to the Faith’ can be cc’ed. Justice has also written quite a number of other articles on different subjects. They are all worth a read.

If you have no idea what this is all about, read the Kalimat petition (and if you’re not familiar with this whole situation, read the background material). Then sign it if you agree. It will probably be closed and sent off to the UHJ very soon. So this is your last chance. Also, let others know by informing them of the situation and forwarding the address of the petition to them.

As well, you might want to take a gander at the catalogues of Kalimat and Special Ideas:

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Update on Kalimat Petition

As I mentioned before, there is a petition appealing the boycott of Kalimat Press by the US NSA. If you haven’t yet, please take a moment to read the petition and it’s background information to familiarize yourself with the whole situation. I encourage you to sign it. And then to show your support, buy one of the many excellent titles they offer.

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But I’m not writing this merely to repeat what I’ve already mentioned before. I wanted to address the reaction of some Baha’is to the petition. Many have a knee jerk response running along the lines of “petitioning is not Baha’i-like”.

As Dilbert quipped, when did ignorance become a point of view?

In fact, Baha’i history is replete with instances of petitioning and petitions. To give you some idea of what I mean, I’ll provide three specific examples:

The Baha’i temple at Wilmette was built as a result of petitioning by the Baha’is of North America. They had heard a lot of good things coming out of Ishqabad and their temple and had a bad case of temple envy. Abdu’l-Baha received the petitions, acquiesced and came to lay the cornerstone.

The Kitab-i-Aqdas was written after a small group of Baha’is repeatedly petitioned (harassed would be a more accurate albeit non-politically correct adjective) Baha’u’llah for a book of laws. Baha’u’llah had not written any rules until then but acquiesced after the intense and repeated petitions.

In the late 80′s, at the US national convention a petition was distributed to the delegates which asked the UHJ to apply the law of Huquq’u’llah to all believers (then it only applied to non-Western Baha’is).

As you can see, petitions are allowed and have been used quite a bit. They have a long and glorious history with the first petitions being presented to Baha’u’llah Himself. I’m sure that if you do a little bit of digging on your own, you’ll find more examples. Hopefully, the above puts aside the fallacious belief that the Kalimat petition or petitions in general are somehow ‘not kosher’ in the Baha’i Faith.

Which brings us to the recent events surrounding the Kalimat petition. Apparently it was presented at the recently held US national convention by a delegate. Or atleast, an attempt was made to do so on the floor. But it was quickly snuffed out by Henderson. No consultation or dialogue was allowed on the matter. And the petition was not allowed to be distributed either.

So it seems that its not petitions per se that are anathema but petitions which originate from outside the AO from the grass roots. Those that were there for the Huquq petition, remember seeing, as if by magic, copies of the petition come out of nowhere and with them hundreds of pens with which they were expected to sign it.

Short Term Memory

On June, 15th 2007, the website mentioned below was taken offline.
It is available at the Internet Archive.

The NSA of South Africa A few Baha’i youth unaffiliated with any institution of the Faith has have an interesting contribution to the world wide campaign mounted to bring attention to what is happening to the Iranian Baha’is (please refer to the comments section for clarification of edit). In about a subtle way as a charging rhinoceros, the site compares what is happening to the Baha’is in Iran to what happened to the blacks in South Africa during apartheid.

Now since the majority of those using the internet and reading blogs nowadays were not around then, it must be explained that the late 70′s was a rather politically charged era. Not only was Vietnam still fresh in people’s minds, but apartheid was a glaring eyesore on the political landscape. And as you would expect, many Baha’is felt that since it went directly against the bedrock values of the Baha’i Faith, they must do something about it.

A few of those kind of Baha’is were in California at that time and as luck would have it, they had just organized themselves into publishing a new magazine called Dialogue. Naturally, they felt that since this was such a popular topic in their time, they must address it within their newly created Baha’i magazine. What they got for their trouble is simply embarrassing (for the Baha’i administration involved). I’ll let Karen Bacquet describe what happened :

There were several disputes over articles: about a dozen were censored outright and dialogue was required to excise phrases in and alter the titles of others. The often slow and cumbersome review process also created real difficulties for the publication schedule.

The first major battle occurred over an article about the anti-apartheid movement. While Baha’i scripture teaches racial equality, Baha’is are expected to abstain from any political involvement. Scholl was warned that to criticize the South African policy of apartheid might endanger the Baha’i community in that country, even though the Baha’is’ failure to oppose this institutionalized racism created the impression that they supported it. In the end, the article was allowed to appear after several changes had been made.

So while the apartheid was raging, Baha’is were not allowed to make a peep about it. Nor do anything or say anything against it… even though it went against everything that the Baha’i Faith stands for. Baha’is were gagged by their respective NSAs and something as simple as an article could not pass censors because it opposed apartheid.

Which makes this part of the website created by the NSA of SA especially interesting:

“…like so many…” Indeed.

But now, now that apartheid is over… and by over, I mean that Baha’is stood on the sidelines and did nothing nor contributed anything to its demise… I guess its alright for the NSA of SA some of us to use it in a rhetorical technique to draw attention to the suffering of Iranian Baha’is.

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A final thought: Dialogue was pressured so much over an incident (A Modest Proposal) that the founders could do nothing but shut it down with a heavy heart.

Related Links:

Intensifying Persecutions in Iran
The Return of the Hojjatieh
Universal House of Justice message of March 22, 2006 (English)
Universal House of Justice message of March 22, 2006 (Persian)
Statement from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights