April 22, 2008

Misunderstandings and Lack of Dialogue

Though many people try to pretend otherwise, I strongly believe that there is not an active, fruitful dialogue between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Why is it so? As I noted in an earlier post, there is a pile of false beliefs about the either side which make reconciliation difficult to happen. For example, many Sunnis think that "Shiite believe that today Quran is a distorted one not equal to one descended to the holy prophet", which is an absolutely wrong accusation.

The problem, however, is not just limited to false beliefs, for false beliefs may be easily removed by educative information. Indeed, there are some real problems. Let me elaborate on one example. Some Shiite sects have had a long standing tradition of exaggerating about the status of Shiite Imams, the infallible descendants of Holy Prophet who are believed by Shiite to be the righteous guides of Muslim community and true successors of Holy prophet. Those who exaggerate about Shiite Imams often justify their act with a saying attributed to Imams: "descend us from the status of being God, and say whatever descriptions you may ever desire about us." It should be noted, however, that many Shiite scholars cast doubt on the authentication of this quote and other similar ones. After all, this is something with which Sunni Muslims could never get along.

Yesterday, a friend of mine asked Jooya Jahanbakhsh that why we are so addicted to make an idol out of saints? Jahanbakhsh made a brief, yet informative analysis of the matter. He said: "such problems usually occur when dialogue happens to transform into a form of monologue. As a historical example, Sheikh Mofid and Sheikh Saddugh, both regarded as supreme scholars of Shiite school of thought, lived in the same time around 6th century AH (14th century AD). One of them, Sheikh Mofid, taught in a Shiite seminary in Baghdad. The other one, Sheikh Saddugh, taught in Qom. Since Sheikh Mofid was very close to Sunni seminaries, he had to be careful and rational: every single issue may turn into a hot dialogue and debate. But Sheikh Saddugh, located in Qom, was far away from Sunni scholars, thus failed to practice dialogue, i.e. there was no objection to his statements: he was the sole religious authority in northern Iran. The consequences are very clear: works of Sheikh Mofid tend to be more rational, and those of Sheikh Saddugh tend to be more romantic. Sheikh Mofid used to place a high value on reason, while Sheikh Saddugh appreciated intuitive understanding of the religious resources."

Let's review the above analysis: Lack of dialogue paves the way for lack of reason, thus fostering romantic, intuitive interpretation of religion, which may not be easily justified by reason. Therefore, a heavy pile of misunderstanding comes into existence.

Though it may initially seem that misunderstandings work as an impediment to dialogue, they are originally the effect of dialogue being absent in religious atmosphere. What a terrible loop of errors!
Jooya Jahanbakhsh is a distinguished seminary student in Isfahan with a background of studies in Islam's history, whose clerical grade is equal to PhD, i.e. an Ayatollah he is. He has published several papers and some of his books are yet to be published.
Jooya Jahanbakhsh

April 14, 2008

Bahai bombers in Shiraz?

Two nights ago, an explosion in a Hussaynieh (religious center) in Shiraz, one of Iran's largest cities hosting second largest community of Bahais in Iran, killed at least 10 and injured more than a hundred. Few hours after the attack, I received a bunch of emails suggesting that explosion was the result of a bomb smuggled into the Hussaynieh so as to frighten the people who used to hear 'anti Bahai propaganda' there. In other words, such analysis implied that Bahais should be held responsible for the disaster.

Last night, however, police declared the most probable scenario identified by investigations: all around the country, many exhibitions feature War Memorials, including showcased maps, samples of remaining war materials (mines, guns, etc.), and martyrs' photos and handwritings. And in that Hussaynieh, ceremonies as well as anti Bahai speeches were held along with one of these unsafe exhibitions, a rocket of which might have been exploded unexpectedly and the rest of the story. Police, however, stressed that this is not the final result. Meanwhile, deputy of state ministry in national security affairs was quoted as saying that "Shiraz explosion is certainly accidental."

As I know, there is not even a simple case of Bahai terrorist (or just even violent) act in past decades, though some argue that bloody conflicts with majority Muslims (with attacks from both sides) followed the advent of this sect in Iran. By the way, whether this contemporary mildness is the result of a historical evolution or, as opposed to above mentioned historical accounts, just the continuity of the past trends, I feel that today Bahais are not a danger to the security/safety of Iranian society. Therefore they may live their life as do other minorities (not only Sunni Muslims, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, but also Sufis and even few Sikhs who live in Iran).

By the way, I have not heard of any official spokesman accusing Bahais of being associated with this event. On the other hand, I received many emails accusing Bahais of this 'crime'. With regards to the fact that email plays the role of modern graffiti, i.e. the media of unheard voices, I have to wonder why such a strong Bahai-phobia does exist in Iranian society.

April 1, 2008

What Young Iranians do in their free time?

Few days ago, a young Swiss boy asked me several questions about young Iranians, including how they spend their free time, how girls might get in touch with boys in Iran, etc. Here is my foreword and answer to his first question: how do young people spend their free time in Iran?


Residents of various parts of Iran will probably answer such questions in many very different ways. Though some common elements are likely to be found in all of their answers, some factors, including local traditions, geographical specifications and financial status, affect the answers.
With regards to traditions, I should mention that for example in metropolitan areas, most notably in Tehran, it's generally easier for the young to find a friend of the opposite sex, especially if they happen to be university students. Universities in my country bridge the gap between traditional society in which the parents live and modern one in which the children aspire to live. Finding a friend of the opposite sex is only one example of a series of freedoms offered by universities to the young.
With regards to geographical specifications, for example, my city, Isfahan, enjoys a beautiful river with many parks around it, which make it possible for the youth to spend their time in them. In some other areas, for example in northern west of Iran, the weather is so cold during the winter that people can hardly spend their free time during the cold season (which sometimes extends to half of the year) outside. Therefore, they are likely to invest in some suitable options such as cinema or café-net (I will explain this phenomenon in later parts).
And finally with regards to financial status, this factor affects the hobbies the young choose in 2 ways: first, well-to-do families are usually more liberal, offering their children a higher degree of freedom. Second, having enough money, the people might afford more expensive options for their free time.
The question "how young Iranians spend their free time" seems to be the an important one whose answer would cover other questions to an extent, thus I would try to provide a comprehensive answer for it, and then briefly answer other questions.


How do young people spend their free time in Iran?
A: National TV
Iranians are obsessed with TV. Official statistics reveal that some serials, including drama and especially comedy serials (which are usually planned for 90 episodes and broadcast every night during a full season), attract 60% of the population. Iran's National TV broadcasts 6 channels in the national level, a recently launched English News Satellite Channel (called PressTV), in addition to some provinces broadcasting provincial channels.
6 national channels are called: Channel One (general), Channel Two (general), Channel Three (mainly focusing on Youth and Sports), Channel Four (with a scientific-cultural focus, sometimes broadcasts original English documentaries of BBC and other famous channels), News Channel (24/7 news channel), and Quran Channel. Channel Three is perhaps the most interesting one to the youth.
B: Satellite Channels
In spite of satellite receivers being legally banned, the regime seems reluctant to crack down those who exploit satellite receivers. Some non-official reports indicate that in metropolitan areas, up to 40% of households have access to satellite channels. 10 years ago, 'satellite receiver' was supposed 'evil' by most of Iranians, but today people are somehow used to it.
Let's classify satellite channels in two classes: Persian channels, and non-Persian channels.
With regards to Persian satellite channels, most of them are Political ones launched to oppose Iran's regime, but they can not compete with National TV, thus fail to attract a fair amount of viewers. In addition to political ones, there are some other channels such as PMC (Persian Music Channel) which are dedicated to broadcasting music clips. Since such clips are banned in National TV, PMC has turned into one of the most favorite channels of Iranians.
With regards to the other class, in Iran, English is ranked above other foreign languages in terms of the number of people who try any second language. In addition, English is a compulsory part of schools curriculum since 7th grade. An average Iranian, however, is not familiar with English enough to take advantage of English satellite channels. Then, the only foreign satellite channels interesting to Iranians are porno, fashion and wild life ones.
C: Internet
The youth are eager to break the mold and cross the boundaries set by either the traditional society or the regime. The public atmosphere, however, is not ready to cope with the youth who might allegedly betray the very values of the nation. Therefore, the youth resort to private atmosphere so as to satisfy their needs.
Internet is a good example of such private worlds. One might easily find out that the cyber Iran is far different from, and probably not comparable with the real Iran. In a western country, web is generally supposed to facilitate the real life. But to the young Iranians, web brings a far different meaning: it is supposed to help the youth get rid off the real life and its limitations.
What do I mean by 'limitations of real life'? Dress code, boys-girls relations, porn, fashion, etc. are some examples of these limitations, but the real limitation is far more general than these examples. Some sociologists believe that there is a wide gap between first generations of post-revolution Iran and today generation, i.e. Iran has experienced a kind of rapid cultural shift, and the new generation finds it difficult to express itself in the real world dominated and ruled over by old generations. Therefore, it seeks to express itself in the cyber world. Between all various web features, 'chat' and 'weblog' are the most interesting ones to young Iranians. Due to these reasons, café-nets (originally cafés providing internet services along with coffee and tea, but today only internet providers) have mushroomed in big cities.
D: Cafés
There are two kinds of cafés in Iran: traditional and modern. Modern cafés are almost similar to European cafés, serving various kinds of non-alcoholic drinks (coffee, tea, soft drinks, lemonade), foods (pizza, vegetarian dish, snack), cakes (fruit, caramel, chocolate cakes), etc. On the other hand, traditional cafés serve just tea, Qalyan (water pipe: a kind of traditional Iranian smoke) and few traditional foods. Generally speaking, traditional cafés are cheaper and attract more young Iranians.
E: Parks, Mountain Parks
Parks are also a well-known destination for the youth. In addition, some nearby mountains are equipped to serve as a park: camps, rest rooms, barbecues, play grounds, etc.
In addition, in almost all of the big cities, some parks are dedicated to women so that they can freely spend their time while not being forced to wear Hijab (Islamic dress code). In these parks they are allowed to practice some activities which would be considered indecent otherwise, such as sun bathing.
F: Parties
Young people frequently arrange parties, but the scale and type of the party depends on several factors. Single-sex parties, including just boys or girls, often for birthdays, may be held very easily and families get along with them. But if some are to invite both girls and boys, or include alcoholic drinks, they have to accomplish some problems. Most important of all, police forces crack down such parties if they happen to include drugs or sex, or if the neighbors complain about.
G: Educational Programs
Several institutes offer educational programs, including language, computer, art and occupational courses. Young people, especially girls, express a lot of interest to these programs and choose them for their own free time.
H: Trips
Trips are possible from 1-day journeys to 1-week or even more ones. For religious people, some holy mosques or the graves of saints constitute a suitable option. Wealthy families usually own gardens out of the city, or villas in the coast of the sea, and spending a day or night in them is a common choice.
It should be noted that some certain areas in the coast are dedicated to women so that they have fun freely.
I: Sport
In addition to specialized clubs, many areas and parks have chess tables, skate grounds, ping pong tables, etc. Billiard clubs are also a luxury option. Swimming pools are available with some hours booked for women.
Virtually, almost all kinds of sports are available to young Iranians. But it should be noted that as expected, girls are supposed to submit to dress/moral code. This code, however, is not a definite one throughout the nation. For example, though people in bigger cities are getting used to girls biking for fun or transportation, smaller cities are less likely to observe the girls doing the same stuff.
J: Hanging Out
Just do it!