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Iran's culture wars
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 10 - 2016

Music concerts have emerged as the newest battlefield in Iran, where conservatives have been attempting to show their strength against their moderate rivals led by the country's President Hassan Rouhani.
Ever since the conclusion of the nuclear deal with the West, conservatives in Iran have been tightening their control over the nation's cultural and moral values, primarily amid fears that the country could move closer to the West and lose its own values. In this respect, music concerts have become a target for religious hardliners.
But ever since Rouhani's election in 2013, conservatives have been gradually increasing their attacks on music concerts despite Rouhani and his team's resistance. They have pushed for the cancellation of concerts in various cities, enlisting the support of like-minded local authorities and, in many cases, physically attacking the concert-goers.
In a recent turn of events, the police and judiciary have also intervened to prevent concerts based on what they have vaguely described as “morality issues" despite the fact that the country's Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry has given permission to concert organisers.
The confrontations between the moderates and the religious hardliners over concerts have intensified since July. In a head-on clash and reacting to an order from the Rouhani administration that the police had no authority to stop the concerts, hardliner Sayed Masoud Jazayeri, deputy chief of the joint armed forces, called on the police to confront “moral and cultural maladies… throughout society in regards to concerts."
On 5 August, despite the permission of the ministry for a concert of the popular Iranian singer Salar Aghili to be staged as planned the judiciary intervened. The prosecutor of the Khorasan Razavi Province in the country's northeast announced the concert's cancellation.
“Due to moral issues in past performances, until the issue is looked at again and a framework set by the province's cultural council all concerts are suspended," he said.
In response, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli decried the judiciary's suspension of the music concerts in the Khorasan Razavi Province. In a letter to the Conservative Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, Fazli wrote that “we cannot prejudge the intentions of musicians and base decisions on the possibility that something could go wrong during concerts.”
On 12 August, Ahmad Alamolhoda, a conservative and the outspoken Friday prayer leader of the city of Mashhad, said in a Friday sermon that “Mashhad [the seat of the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia imam] is a pilgrimage destination… If you want a concert, you should go somewhere else.” Mashhad is the second-largest city in Iran after the capital Tehran.
By late August, under pressure from the Students' Basij Organisation, part of the Iranian paramilitary volunteer militia, music concerts were banned in all of Iran's universities.
In early October, hardliner Ayatollah Mohamed Yazdi, chairman of the powerful religious organisation the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom, took the confrontation with Rouhani and his team over religious rules to new heights. Qom, the second most holy city of Iran, is the site of the shrine of Fatemeh Masumeh, sister of Imam Reza, and one of the largest centres of Shia scholarship in the world.
Until last May, Yazdi was head of the country's Assembly of Experts, the body tasked with the supervision and election of Iran's supreme leader. As a leading hardliner, he faced an unexpected and perhaps humiliating defeat when he lost his seat on the body during the elections in February.
In a press conference on 2 October, Yazdi fiercely attacked the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati, an advocate of moderation and the son of ultra-conservative Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, chairman of the powerful Guardian Council.
“It is not your business to say whether [having] music in Qom is appropriate or not. You have no right to interfere in religious matters," Yazdi told the minister.
He also addressed Rouhani, reminding him that as a cleric he should not tolerate events perceived as sinful. “You say you are the follower of the supreme leader. He has given permission for certain genres of musical activity, but [from the religious point of view] he considers the promotion of music impermissible,” Yazdi said.
Yazdi also harshly criticised the Rouhani administration for not rescheduling or cancelling the Iran-South Korea qualifying match for the 2018 World Cup. The match coincides with the day of Shia mourning that commemorates the martyrdom of the third Imam, Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed.
He asked the government to cancel the event if the holy day was likely to be disrespected. “Can you stop people from cheering if Iran scores a goal [on the day that they are supposed to be mourning],” Yazdi asked the authorities.
In response to a comment that Iran would have to pay a price for not playing the game, he responded that “it is better to pay a price than have our sanctities harmed.”
Tensions between modernity and conservatism within Iranian society date back to Iran's Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911. The enlightened clergy who led the revolution, Ayatollah Sayed Mohamed Tabatabai and Sayed Abdullah Behbahani, demanded an end to absolutism in Iran.
However, they were also clerics who rejected modernity and insisted on a government based on the Shia interpretation of Islamic Sharia Law, and these clerics are still influential today.
The leader of the anti-Constitutionalist conservatives in the revolution was cleric Fazlollah Nouri. Nouri sided with the absolutists in the ensuing civil war and issued threats of death against the constitutionalists.
He believed that Iran's parliament, themajlis, was not empowered to make laws because the laws of society should be set by Sharia Law. In the aftermath of the constitutionalists' victory, Nouri was tried and executed for treason.
Although the essence of the current battle is of an ideological nature, conservatives are pursuing other objectives too.
They are seeking to discredit Rouhani who in his election campaign had promised more freedom. They want to say that nothing has changed under Rouhani despite his defence of the right of young Iranians to express themselves more freely. This, the conservatives hope, will lead to Rouhani's defeat in the 2017 presidential elections.
Rouhani might also be praying that Iran will not defeat South Korea in the 11 October qualifying football match. Yazdi is right: The country could erupt into cheers on a day that it is supposed to be mourning should this happen. Users of social media in Iran have even warned each other not to celebrate on the streets if Iran beats Korea.
If Iran wins the football match, the country's conservatives will have a powerful pretext to take the issue of disrespecting religious norms under Rouhani's presidency to the next level.
The writer specialises on Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East and US foreign policy in the region.

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