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Taming globalisation? Kebabs, mini-skirts and meth - part I

By Jamsheed Choksy and Carol Choksy - posted Wednesday, 26 May 2010


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 globalisation, 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 westernisation 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. Globalisation 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 South-East 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.

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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 per cent of the world’s opium and 28 per cent 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 characterise 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.

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Of course, there’s a conservative backlash by Shiites who cannot stomach the behaviours. 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.

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The views expressed are the authors' own. Reprinted with permission from YaleGlobal Online (www.yaleglobal.yale.edu). Copyright 2010, Yale Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University.



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About the Authors

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.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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