Return to the Khomeini Era?

Since the end of last year, broadcasting western music on Iranian state-run radio has been prohibited. But how to draw the line between what's permissible and what's not? And what consequences does the new law have for cultural practitioners in Iran? Arian Fariborz reports

The new ban on western music on state-run radio is sending a strong message to Iran's independent musicians: rock band "Jam" rehearsing in Tehran.

​​Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, known for his archconservative views, is currently trying to turn back the inroads western culture has made into his country.

Just a few months ago, at the behest of the President, the so-called "Supreme Council for the Islamic Cultural Revolution" passed a ban on the import of foreign films that show violence and unethical conduct.

In mid-December, a further decree followed, prohibiting state-run radio from broadcasting western music. The reason: such music was seen as "decadent" and "immoral."

Religious songs, Koran recitations and mourning rituals have already been fixed features on state radio stations for decades. But that's apparently not enough for Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: in the future, the accent should be exclusively on traditional and – in his words - "relaxing" music, with songs from the days of the Islamic revolution of 1979 as a welcome highlight.

Turnaround in cultural policy feared

For the state-run radio stations, this law entails considerable changes: during the term of former president Mohammed Khatami, European classics, folk music, and even Hip-Hop had found their way into many music programs – even when only instrumental pieces were used as background music or played in the breaks.

But Iran's hardliner Ahmadinejad is out to put an end to this trend – initiating a turnaround in cultural policy that sends a clear message to all musicians, journalists and artists, according to Massoud Ma'fan, editor-in-chief and publisher of the Persian cultural journal "Baran":

"Iran's new government is trying with all its might to return to how things were in the days of the 1979 revolution," says Ma'fan. "Secularism, feminism and western art have always been a thorn in the side of those in power. But they never succeeded at stifling cultural and intellectual life in Iran. And they won't be able to turn back the clock this time either."

He does fear, however, that the new law will sow insecurity and passivity among many musicians. Many are sick and tired of constant confrontations with the authorities, which is why some of them are thinking of leaving Iran.

Western music boom despite bans

As it stands, the prohibition to broadcast western music only applies to the state-run radio stations, which already toe the government line. But many independent cultural practitioners in Iran worry that the laws could have more far-reaching consequences, at some point forbidding or at least drastically limiting the private consumption of prohibited Iranian or western music.

This is no wonder because, thanks to the Internet and satellite television, classical music, jazz, pop and rock have experienced a veritable boom in the Islamic Republic in past decades, despite the rigid proscriptions.

There is still brisk business in under-the-counter pirated music CDs and videos. Particularly during the liberal Khatami regime, Iran's music market opened up even further, making way for a vital Persian rock and pop scene.

Still today, however, many independent musicians lead a fringe existence underground – since the mullahs have censured their music as "immoral" and as "the western work of the devil."

Strict controls

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance ("Ershad") has for decades been keeping a close watch over the music scene in Iran. Its decisions on which music to allow and which to prohibit are usually arbitrary and difficult to comprehend, comments Iranian singer Mahsa:

"The difficulties faced not only by musicians, but also by artists, are enormous. Concerts must always first be approved by the "Ershad" ministry," says Mahsa. They must also be officially registered with the authorities.

"In no democratic country in the world does a musician need this kind of state permission to perform," Mahsa complains. I have often had the experience that it wasn't clear until the very last minute if a band would be allowed to go on stage."

In this climate of strict control and constant clampdowns by the Islamic morals police, Ahmadinejad's recent music prohibitions are not failing to have an impact.

The President's harking back to the cultural policy radicalism of the Khomeini era already prompted the director and conductor of the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, Ali Rahbari, to throw in the baton last month and leave the country.

Arian Fariborz

© 2006

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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