Taming Globalization? Kebabs, Mini-Skirts and Meth – Part I

Politicians try to rile or sooth citizens as needed with a few select details of globalization. Yet with the speed and far-reaching nature of modern trade, travel and communication, these attempts to corral bits and pieces of globalization are futile. A savvy public – young or old – comes to understand other intricate connections and recognize the attempts as distractions from far more serious challenges. This two-part YaleGlobal series analyzes the responses to foreign influences in two nations, Iran and Italy, each with its own long history of influencing the globe. The first article describes how fundamentalist mullahs in Iran opened the door to a few items of fashion, film and literature. But the young – two thirds of Iran’s population is under 30 – bristle at restrictions and hypocrisy. So the battle rages over traditionalism or globalism – which best eliminates corruption, and which provides the most satisfying education, jobs or sense of purpose. – YaleGlobal

Taming Globalization? Kebabs, Mini-Skirts and Meth – Part I

Young Iranians oppose mullahs by embracing the good and bad of Western ways
Jamsheed K. Choksy and Carol E.B. Choksy
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Marching past: Young Iranians embrace western fashion, leaving the Mullahs fuming

TEHRAN: For now, the Iranian regime has regained the upper hand over protestors who dispute both the June 2009 presidential election results and the mullahs’ hold on power. Morals squads venture forth once more to police the cosmopolitan, fashionable and uninhibited in the name of religion. Too much globalization, it seems, threatens the fundamentalist Shiites’ hold on power. The theocratic state views individualism and diversity as irreligious and pro-Western political threats.

Yet fundamentalists are in a losing battle. Their views were shaped by negative reactions to rapid westernization under the last Shah. Most of Iran’s current population, born after the 1979 revolution, now chafes under the obscurantist yoke. The regime, eager to participate in and even influence the modern world, has failed to keep secular influences at bay. Globalization has reached Iran and is here to stay.

On the streets of Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and even the clergy’s stronghold of Qum, Chanel scarves adorn rather than conceal women’s hair. Armani jeans, slung low, accentuate waistlines. Watches and jewelry by Cartier, Bulgari and Rolex provide ostentatious displays of wealth. Chinese and Southeast Asian knock-offs are available, too, flowing into the country from the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and Pakistan. Iran ranks seventh among the world’s nations in consumer purchases of personal luxury products, imported using hard currencies from oil, gas and electronics exports.

Western literature and Bollywood movies are readily accessed by satellite television and the internet at homes, offices, libraries, stores and cyber cafes. On one visit to the Isfahan public library, we learned that the most popular DVDs among men feature Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris and Sylvester Stallone while Paris Hilton and Shakira rank as top entertainers for women.

Metal, rap, hip-hop and rave music contribute to young Iranians’ cultural rebellion, too. Rock concerts are sold out weeks in advance. Because authorities regard these gatherings as expressions of anti-regime sentiment, they frequently arrest performers and audience members. Nonetheless, as with clothing, cosmetics, literature and videos, the regime’s crackdown proves only minimally effective. Ordinary Iranians are willing to risk incarceration rather than give up their increasingly secular ways.

Internet chat groups, online dating and casual sex challenge the clergy-dictated way of life outside the public eye.

Yet disenchantment against the theocracy’s control also takes destructive turns. Iran has experienced a sharp spike in recreational drug and alcohol use. The 2009 World Drug Report by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime notes, “Iran is one of the nations most badly affected by drug trafficking despite local authorities seizing 84 percent of the world’s opium and 28 percent of all heroin.” Likewise, crystal methamphetamine use is increasing as the drug of choice among the affluent, according to data from Iran’s anti-narcotic police division.

So men and women mingle and experiment with drugs and alcohol in settings ranging from ski chalets in the Elborz Mountains north of Tehran to private residences in the desert towns of Yazd and Bam.

Participants characterize their choices of dress, music, art and even their substance abuse as “expressions of individualism.” They cast these actions as part of a struggle to craft their own identity against the state’s all-embracing totalitarianism. Consequently, these activities are not confined to specific age, gender, educational or professional groups, or city folk.

Of course, there’s a conservative backlash by Shiites who cannot stomach the behaviors. The fundamentalists tolerated foreign products to mollify citizens’ material desires while hoping to ward off ideas and values that accompany those commodities. They resigned themselves to sex, drugs, and rock and roll in the hope these would distract the disenfranchised. Now they sense their strategy is failing. They link recent street protests to ideas picked up from the West concomitantly with consumerism and individualism. The ayatollahs condemn it all as “decadence” and urge crackdowns by police morals squads and committees for Muslim behavior.

Many individuals were offended when Tehran’s acting prayer leader Hojatoleslam Kazem Sadeqi alleged in a sermon after Friday prayer that “Women who do not dress modestly… lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society… there is no other solution but to take refuge in religion and to adapt our lives to Islam’s moral codes.”

Yet Sadeqi’s sentiments have support among the orthodox segments of Iranian society. The majles or parliament, dominated by religious hardliners, urges the administration to “deal firmly” with deviations from Islamic codes.

Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najar, a former Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp commander, has instructed all local police units to enforce government-stipulated behaviors. As a result, “Guidance Patrols” – a euphemism for the police’s morals squads – have recommenced crackdowns on Iranian conduct. Police commander Hossein Sajedinia is “rigorously” implementing the state’s Social Discipline Plan on the grounds that: “The public expects us to act firmly if we see any social behavior defying our Islamic values. We will first warn, then arrest and imprison those women and men.”

So the balance between individualism and state control, between indulgence and activism, has increasingly become a test of wills that pits Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his cohorts against a public curious about the temptations of the West.

For now, the state hopes to resolve “cultural and social ills” by throwing money and personnel at the matter. It has allocated US$1.5 billion to boost Muslim morality and $4.5 billion to enhance Muslim culture from the annual budget of $347 billion. Funds will be spent on founding neighborhood religious centers, recruiting additional individuals into the official and semi-official guidance patrols, plus producing and distributing Shiite literature, movies and other forms of official art and culture.

Consequently, the battle between globalism and traditionalism is fought through words and deeds daily in Iran. During our research there, we too came close to arrest. A patrol inquired of a young woman with us why her long tresses were barely covered, and she retorted: “Didn’t God create my hair? So why should I hide it.” On Si o Seh Pol, or 33 Arches Bridge in Isfahan, we witnessed an elderly couple argue with police who had chastised them for holding hands in public. A crowd gathered in support and the authorities backed off.

Members of a women’s organization in Shiraz asked us, rhetorically, why police and judiciary are not more focused on “reigning in the rampant corruption” that pervades the state bureaucracy. Rejecting the state’s social codes, they question “why clergy and politicians can lead their lifestyles, even lavish ones, without fear of punishment, but we cannot?” They pointed to Supreme Leader Khamenei, who reportedly divides time between palaces where he maintains stables of race horses, and ex-president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who chairs the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Discernment Council while amassing a personal fortune worth more than $1 billion.

Iranians have long welcomed springtime with a rite of leaping over bonfires. Like the newfound trendy fashions, this much older tradition has been frowned upon of late by the authorities as un-Islamic and subversive. Yet state officials have not succeeded in stopping the public from attending.

The consumer-driven modern world has provoked a range of faith-based radical responses including the tyranny of Iran’s Shiite ayatollahs. Despite their efforts, a permissive and globalizing societal revolution is underway across Iran.


Jamsheed K.Choksy is professor of Iranian and international studies and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University. He also is a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the US National Endowment for the Humanities. Carol E.B. Choksy is adjunct lecturer in strategic intelligence and information management at Indiana University. She also is CEO of IRAD Strategic Consulting, Inc. The views expressed are their own.
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