Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Azar Nafisi -- Your Best Weapon is Your Culture

Johns Hopkins University visiting professor and acclaimed author Azar Nafisi gave an extraordinarily moving and insightful keynote speech at the outset of the April 12 GWU conference on "Iran's Blogosphere and Grassroots Voices." I watched it for a second time this evening, and found that, like any profound film or fine work of theater, there was more to appreciate, and more to learn the second time around.

Nafisi was particularly eloquent in describing how Tehran's rulers have perverted the meaning of Islam to support their totalitarian political agenda, obscuring even the religion's true historical role in Iranian life. To make the point, she recalled how horrified her own grandmother was by the excesses of the Iran revolution. "My grandmother," she related, "who never took off her veil, had the same idea as I did. And she would cry, and tell us this is not the real Islam, because they do not flog people and they do not put young women in jail and give them virginity tests, they do not insult God's children in this way if they are true Muslims." The regime was emblematized, she stressed, by a blind censor in Tehran who had once ruled whether plays that he himself could not see were appropriate for the city's theater audiences.

For all of the present travails of Iranians, Nafisi does take some comfort in the fact that in the wake of the contested June 2009 presidential elections, some important truths about Iran are finally emerging from behind the cardboard images that three decades of the mullah's authoritarian theocracy as well as Western stereotypes have helped erect. "Finally," she said, "those voices and those images that had been forced underground for so many years, have burst and blossomed on the Internet and television screens." She is convinced that the protesters -- or at least the broad societal impulses they represent -- will eventually triumph because their movement is about qualitatively changing Iran, not simply about playing politics. Americans should not be led astray by confusing the image of the ruling mullahs and their conservative supporters with the reality of a far more diverse Iran than Tehran is willing to acknowledge. The broader Iran longs to connect with world civilization, to which Persia has traditionally belonged. Nafisi reminded the audience that "Your best weapon is not the military; your best weapon is your culture."

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Hamid Tehrani's Global Iran Voice

Global Voices Iran editor Hamid Tehrani, whose excellent blog has been a prime reference point for those of us working on the April 12 "Iran's Blogosphere and Grassroots Voices," has just posted his observations about the (many) challenges facing Iran's bloggers and citizen journalists at this complex moment in Iran's history. He is one of a number of bloggers who are cautioning against any irrational 2.0 exuberance, reminding us that "Iranian netizens are facing enormous pressure and have been the victims of the Islamic Republic’s persecution; and in some cases, they have been largely misunderstood by Western media."

Friday, April 9, 2010

A "Surfing University" for Iran?

An entire generation has come of age in Iran with little opportunity to join the mainstream intellectual discourse in the rest of the world. That may not bother traditionalist clerics nor their conservative supporters, but it should be an ongoing concern for people who would like Iran to draw closer to that global mainstream rather than to continue to drift aimlessly in its current educational and cultural isolation. Meanwhile, a hugely vibrant and creative Persian diaspora reminds us of how aberrant the current situation really is.

As our conference on "Iran's Blogosphere and Grassroots Voices" will undoubtedly underline, private efforts to encourage contacts and exchanges with Iran have been mostly stymied, particularly in recent years. So the imperative now should be to come up with creative approaches for promoting people-to-people connections, perhaps relying in part on the potential of the new media and social networks.

For instance, what about a cyber-age version of Poland's venerable "flying universities," which once provided an unofficial outlet for honest academic discourse, both during the 19th century Tsarist period before Poland's independence, and then again during the Cold War, when university education was strictly controlled by the pro-Moscow Polish communist authorities?

These gatherings of independent-minded professors and students were always on the move, from one apartment to the next, "floating" just out of reach of the secret police. They helped sustain an independent intellectual life in Poland, free from censorship and official restrictions, until the moment came when Poles could choose an open rather than a closed society. The flying university counted among its "alumni" many of the leading Polish figures of our era: the future Pope Karol Wojtyla,
poet Zbigniew Herbert and Adam Michnik (pictures top to bottom).

Were a consortium of like-minded universities, institutes and foundations in Europe, North America and elsewhere to band together in a broad initiative to help Iranians access quality educational offerings online, something important might happen. The idea would be to make available lectures and other courses in free, digital form, with Farsi subtitles -- perhaps the basis for a new "surfing university" to take shape.
A global network of university websites or something more akin to iTunesU could host the course offerings, with financial resources for the required production and translation work generated through the foundations, which could solicit both private and government funds. A multilateral private-public board would make decisions about what disciplines and courses to emphasize by polling Iranians about their needs and interests, rather than following someone else's playbook for fomenting Twitter revolutions. This would be educational and intellectual engagement for the long-term, or at least until Tehran was ready to move away from its current authoritarian model of thought-control.

Would Iranians embrace a "surfing university," either by directly accessing the video and audio courses, or organizing themselves into virtual academic institutions that would take on board the distance education content the consortium would make available on line, while integrating it into an Iranian-led educational whole? Impossible to tell, I'm sure.Yet the type of investment that would be required is far less ambitious, in both budgetary and in moral terms, than the grim scenarios that some Iran watchers feel may result from continued stalemate over the volatile nuclear issue. While the international community may well need to confront Iran's rulers, it should not fail to boldly and creatively engage the Iranian people, however difficult that may be at present. As our conference keynote speaker Azar Nafisi once observed, "You need imagination in order to imagine a future that doesn't exist."

...And A Word From Evgeny Morozov

Our Institute's first-rate program coordinator, Morgan Dibble, reminded me the other day when we were discussing the idea of adapting the old "flying university" concept to engaging Iran that Evgeny Morozov had already floated the idea last year of investing in this type of initiative. Morgan dug out the relevant language from Morozov's otherwise rather skeptical FP.com post on Public Diplomacy 2.0:
So why not simply spend all this money putting more of such courses and putting them online? Cover as many disciplines as possible – do not just go for the low-hanging political fruit like the History of the Cold War or the US Foreign Policy in the Middle East; if you really want people to be thankful and treat you seriously, produce courses on topics as far removed from the US foreign policy as possible. The more practical knowledge you could cram into them, the better; look at the success of Stanford's course on developing applications for the iPhone – with more than one million downloads, it's one of the most popular online courses in history. Teach people how to make a living, and their loyalty is practically guaranteed.

I'd go even one step further: why not pour money into creating an international community of people around this academic content and then involve them into producing subtitles for the courses, thus making them available even to those who do not speak English? I've visited enough poor countries that know that there will be plenty of intellectually curious youngsters who could only dream of watching lectures by faculty from Harvard or Yale in their own languages. The success of the TED Conference's translation project – with roughly 1,000 translators signing up to translate their vast repository of talks in a very short period of time – is yet another proof that this could be done.

Iran's Bittersweet Blogosphere -- Through A Cartoonist's Eyes

Among a first-rate group of panelists who will take part in the April 12 “Iran’s Blogosphere and Grassroots Voices” conference at George Washington University, Iranian political cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar stands out.

One of Iran’s top political cartoonists before being thrown in jail in 2000 for having offended an Iranian ayatollah he nicknamed “Professor Crocodile,” Nikahang subsequently left Iran for Canada, where he currently resides. He is a regular blogger and contributor to citizen journalist websites, and has a sizeable presence on Facebook – some 11,000 friends in all!

Although you may not know his name, you have almost undoubtedly seen his work, especially in the wake of Iran’s contested June presidential elections. His drawings have been reproduced on CNN and BBC, as well as in leading U.S. and European newspapers. As this YouTube video of a recent talk he gave at Johns Hopkins University demonstrates, he is candid, witty, but also passionate about his country and the plight of Iranian bloggers and journalists inside and outside of Iran.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Our Conference on Iran's Surprising Blogosphere

The Persian blogosphere is the often surprising counterpoint to many of the images we in the West carry around in our heads about a relentlessly hostile, regimented and theocratic Iran. According to recent estimates, Iran has some 60,000 active blogs, covering a whole spectrum of individual political opinion and social orientation. That makes Iran not just the most active part of the blogosphere in the Middle East, it puts Farsi blogs in the top ranks of global blogging, alongside those in languages such as English, Japanese and Chinese. Heavy-handed intimidation by the Tehran authorities, the persistent blocking of Internet sites and services and even the arrests of bloggers and citizen journalists, have not quieted the Iranian blogosphere, at least not yet.

On Monday, April 12, George Washington University’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication and the Broadcasting Board of Governors will hold a half-day conference on campus at the Jack Morton Auditorium to examine the special role Iran’s blogosphere plays within Iran and beyond, and to explore whether, despite the serious political tensions of the moment, there are ways that Iranians and people from outside Iran can still connect and pursue common interests. The program for the conference, entitled “Iran’s Blogosphere and Grassroots Voices: Risks and Rewards of Engagement,” is available here.

We are delighted that author and SAIS professor Azar Nafisi has agreed to be our keynote speaker. Her best-known work, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, was on the New York Times bestseller list for over two years and has been translated into 32 languages. Nafisi is an especially articulate and passionate speaker, whom I feel certain you would enjoy, either in person at the "Iran's Blogosphere and Grassroots Voices" conference or via our live streaming video feed on April 12.