Washington Prism is a “weekly on-line journal of culture, politics and public affairs in Persian [and English], dedicated to bringing the news and views of concern from the United States and beyond to the Persian speaking countries and communities in an accurate, comprehensive and analytical manner.”
WP: Why did you choose to write about blogging and why these six countries?
AL: After the 9/11 terror attacks and the Iraq war, I was increasingly frustrated with the lack of non-Western voices in the media. It was if only Western “experts” were allowed to explain the terrible events in New York and Washington. Blogging became a necessity to gauge the moods, attitudes and opinions of the majority of the world; most of the Western media was simply failing in their responsibilities. The Iraq war proved this point even more so, when indigenous Iraqi voices were virtually invisible before the invasion, and remains so today.
I chose the six countries in the book – Egypt, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China – because they are routinely referred to in the West as “enemies” or “allies” of Washington and we were rarely gaining true insights into life for average citizens, away from stories about “terrorism.” I wanted to talk to bloggers, writers, dissidents, politicians and citizens and hear their stories, removed from “official” perspectives.
WP: You write in your book that western media does not reflect the whole picture of these countries, do you think blogs are helpful? Does limited access by western people to English written blogs by Iranians or Syrians create another biased source of information?
AL: Blogs have become an essential addition to understanding the non-Western world. It’s important to remember that bloggers are often middle-class and not representative of the society as a whole, though they’re more insightful than state run, propaganda-producing media. It is therefore essential that we also read blogs in the original languages, in translation if necessary, and not simply rely on bloggers writing in English.
WP: Was there any radical difference between the Iran that you had in mind and the Iran you visited?
AL: I imagined Iran would be a restrictive society, but was pleasantly surprised how vibrant it was beneath the surface. The years of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have undoubtedly been brutal on dissidents, women, journalists, writers and activists. Free thought isn’t something celebrated at this current time in the Islamic Republic. But despite these restrictions, I found both men and women willing to defy the authorities and speak, blog and party like in any other Western society. The vast separation between public and private spaces was something to behold.
WP: In Iran you say you met moderate Islamists and you add such a term is unknown to the western media. Why?
AL: 9/11 has caused the vast majority of the Western political and media elite to demonise Islamism. It’s a grave mistake, however. Across the Arab world, and Iran, moderate Islamists are growing in strength and influence and we ignore them at our peril. Western human rights group shouldn’t be afraid to campaign for imprisoned Islamists (as we’ve seen in Egypt.) Not every Islamist hates the West and shares the views of Osama Bin Laden. Quite the opposite, in fact. Western media discourse is so unsophisticated, and willing to take its implicit cues from the US State Department, that only Washington-approved “dictators” need apply for approval in much of the Western press.
WP: You wrote that while you were walking in the streets of Syria you felt a real difference comparing to Iranian or Egyptian streets. Why?
AL: The streets of Iran, though bustling, feel oppressive. I was there in the middle of summer in 2007, so this probably didn’t help. I loved the sight of women pushing the envelope against the religious authorities by wearing the headscarf far down their heads and applying extravagant make-up. Stylish men, wearing lashings of hair gels, looked like characters from the film Grease.
In Egypt and Syria, it is possible to see a greater openness on the streets, though both states are one-party dictatorships.
Hamid Tehrani resides in Europe and is a contributor to Washington Prism