RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari details Iran's effort to fight fire with fire, social networking style. Recommended as a "must read" by the Council on Foreign Relations.
By Golaz Esfandiari | Council on Foreign Relations
July 28, 2010
In the aftermath of Iran's disputed 2009 election and the social networking firestorm it created, some Iranian hardliners have responded with their own networking site -- to fight fire with fire, reports RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari.
"The website of the followers of Khamenei has been created. Please enter with your hijab and after completing your ablution."
With that Facebook post, 29-year-old Iranian Ahmad heralded the arrival of a new social-networking site, called "Velayatmadaran," launched by the Iranian establishment.
The name is a reference to "followers of the velayat," or Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and it's part of an attempt by Iranian officials to get in on the social-networking craze. Like other sites that have proved to be crucial tools for communication, discussion, and the exchange of news and information among members of the opposition -- including Facebook -- Velayatmadaran allows users to network and post pictures, videos, and articles.
Predictably, given his support for Iran's political opposition, Ahmad's status update, the messages that go out to Facebook "friends," became an immediate hit. There was an explosion of sarcastic comments from his friends. One wrote that he would join the website on condition that his friends promise not to tag him in pictures of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and hard-line cleric Ahmad Khatami. Another mocked that "the networking site is a dream come true."
Iranian officials have smeared such social networkers as lackeys of Iran's enemies and victims of a "soft war" being waged against Tehran.
For his part, Ahmad thinks Velayatmadaran holds little attraction for young Iranians: "[The hard-liners] are losing their supporters from top to bottom. It's clear just from the name of the site that it is designed for their own supporters."
If You Can't Beat 'Em...
According to the "About Us" section, the site was launched to create an online platform for the religious hard-liners of Iran's Hezbollah to exchange ideas and fight "evil." Issues like "the rule of the supreme jurist" and "women and family" are up for discussion.
So far, the site has attracted some 3,000 members and includes posts of pictures of "Imam Khamenei," a reference that seeks to elevate the current supreme leader beyond his clerical status; articles about the teachings of ultra-hard-line Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi; and cartoons skewering the opposition Green Movement.
In the aftermath of Iran's disputed election in 2009, social-networking sites were filled with images and comments related to the protests over the reelection of President Ahmadinejad. Despite official attempts to limit the free flow of information, word of the use of force by government forces spread quickly.
Velayatmadaran's creators write that "the enemy" has recently used social-networking websites for its own benefit and for "spreading lies." They say that while that same enemy has used the virtual world "skillfully" and social-networking sites as a "weapon," Hezbollah has relied on its "faith and correct belief." It's time to fight fire with fire, they argue.
Ali Honari, a 32-year-old sociology student who has been living and studying in Holland for nearly a year, sees little to attract Iranian young people. He says the new website appears to be an attempt by the Iranian authorities to funnel their supporters away from mainstream social networking or from engaging in open debate.
"A friend of mine who taught some courses at the Qom seminary said that even there, students are becoming increasingly modern," Honari says. "They have access to the Internet, they watch the latest movies. [The establishment] needs to make sure they remain loyal."
Toronto-based Iranian blogger Arash Kamangir says he doubts Velayatmadaran will attract many members. "It's not difficult to launch a new social site," he says. "What is difficult is to attract members. [Iranian leaders] cannot do it, because they don't want to open these sites to those who are opposed to them and their supporters don't seem to be many."
He adds that Velayatmadaran looks suspiciously like a sort of "training camp" for hard-liners to gain familiarity with social-networking sites. "They see it as a military camp where they can receive training," Kamangir says. "They say that the next steps will be to go out and take some [action]."
New York-based journalist Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, who was jailed in Iran in 2004 over his online writings, says the creation of Velayatmadaran and other similar moves -- such as the launching of hard-line blogs -- is the result of Tehran viewing the Internet as a threat.
"The Islamic republic and the security military organs that are behind such projects make a big mistake by thinking that online tools -- blogs and now social-networking websites -- themselves have the power to influence," Mirebrahimi says. "It's a wrong belief, these are only tools -- the ideas that are being discussed within these tools are [what is] important."
The Iranian establishment has for years fought a cyber-battle on several fronts. It has reportedly blocked and hacked websites, tracked activists online, and threatened Iranians who have turned to blogs and other online platforms to express themselves. It has prosecuted and jailed some people based on their online content.
But the Iranian establishment has faced fierce and determined opposition by activists and intellectuals, who have used proxy sites and antifiltering tools to bypass government censorship.
One web developer in Tehran, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety, says activists seem to be winning the cyber-battle. "The government blocks [and] young citizens find a way to unblock the filtered website," he says. "They manage to spread the news the government wants to censor."
One Friday Prayers leader, Ayatollah Alam Ahdi, effectively acknowledged as much last week. He said during a public appearance in Mashhad that "the enemy" has occupied the virtual world, adding that the "cyberwar" should be taken seriously. "If, for example, we have inside and outside the country 10 million bloggers, 9.5 million of them are against Islam," he said.
He advocated using "any tool," even if contravened Shari'a, or Islamic law. "In a war, anti-Shari'a [moves] are permissible; the same applies to a cyberwar," Alam Ahdi said. "The conditions are such that you should fight the enemy in any way you can. You don't need to be considerate of anyone. If you don't hit them, the enemy will hit you."
Honari, the doctoral candidate studying abroad, says he thinks the Iranian establishment is fighting a losing battle. "All the sites that are popular are sites where users can discuss and express their critical views [freely]," he says. "That's against the views and principles of an authoritarian regime. The Iranian government cannot use the Internet properly."
As far as Velayatmadaran goes, he says a critical dialogue is impossible. "What would they do with someone like me with opposed views if I became a member?" Honari asks. "They would have to delete me over and over."
Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent with Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty.