Music and power in Iran

An instrument of propaganda and control

In her essay, Maria Koomen examines the important role played by music in the history of Iran, in particular since the Islamic revolution of 1979

The permissibility of music has been contested in Iran since the onset of Islam in the seventh century AD when Muhammad passed and his companions sought to keep men's minds away from malahi (forbidden pleasures): wine, women and song. While the Koran doesn't condemn music per se, it claims that music can lead to a loss of reason resulting in "uncontrollable behaviour" and an "inflammation of passions".

After the Prophet's death, Islamic purists began to collect his sayings, or hadith. One ancient hadith says: "Listening to music leads to discord, just as water leads to the growth of vegetation." Hadith were then used by legists to effectively forbid music, save that tolerated by Muhammad. Music in Iran was to uphold these Islamic standards and abide by the Islamic moral code established by the Koran and the hadith.

However (in)compatible it may be with Islam, music is deeply rooted in the country's rich and diverse history. In addition to the practice of halal (compatible) music, Iranians have historically maintained the practices of makruh (blameworthy yet tolerated) and haram (incompatible) music.

Before the advent of music reproduction and other information communication technologies (ICT), music – underground or not, halal or haram – was confined to physical locations in real-time, historically controllable by authorities with centralised power in a physically and temporally confined country.

The development of ICTs in the mid to late twentieth century, paired with a progressively minded government and loosened controls on cultural practices led to an increase in the import and export of (musical) ideas. With the introduction of music reproduction technologies, Iranian music underwent a process of rapid internationalisation. New and portable media revolutionised how, where and when musical practices could be carried out on the periphery of the public domain. This made them increasingly more difficult to control.

The Islamic revolution

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during a press conference in Tehran on 1 February 1979 (photo: AP)
Speaking in 1979, Iran's first supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, told "Keyhan", Iran's major conservative daily newspaper: "...music is like a drug, whoever acquires the habit can no longer devote himself to important activities. We must completely eliminate it."

The Islamic revolution of 1979 and the end of the Shah dynasty brought about dramatic reform, new power constellations and a purge of outside – and in particular Western – influences. The new theocratic regime sought to centralise its control over Iranian society and culture.

During the revolution, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini told the "Keyhan", Iran's major conservative daily newspaper:  "...music is like a drug, whoever acquires the habit can no longer devote himself to important activities. We must completely eliminate it."

In the course of its politicisation of Islamic ideology, the regime brought all public music to a halt. Systematic measures were designed to officially suppress Islam-incompatible music, and draconian control of music was imposed through the agency of official organisations. Concerts were banned, and those who had attended or performed in concerts or music festivals prior to the revolution were interrogated. Music ceased to be broadcast, music schools were closed and the symphony orchestra, ballet troupe and opera company were disbanded. The ban was so severe that revolutionary guards were reported to have organised raids in small villages to collect and destroy musical instruments.

By establishing official legislation to define music's permissibility according to Islamic criteria – however vague that legislation might have been – the revolutionary regime officially dismissed the long-contested issue of music's permissibility, turning it instead into the issue of music's regulability.

The appropriation of Shajarian's music

In an effort to preserve, retrieve and propagate the cultural "purity" of Iran's history through the promotion of select Persian traditional music, thereafter dubbed "revolutionary music", the embargo was imposed on all music except revolutionary and religious music that government officials felt "[spoke] truth to the sensibilities of Iranian culture".

The state sponsored a campaign featuring Persian traditional music such as Mohammad-Reza Shajarian's famous "tasnif", or epic song "O Iran, O House of Hope". It was broadcast repeatedly over mass media channels to set what cultural sociologist Motti Nieger calls the "tune of the nation's mood".

Shajarian's piece resounds with ideals of social cohesiveness, national unity and pride. With these qualities, the piece was used to propagate ideological support for the new regime's triumph over the old, unifying a message of hope for a new era. It was planted in the collective memory of the Iranian public to be associated with the social, political and cultural ambiance of the 1979 revolution.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ershad, in Tehran (photo: www.ric.ir)
The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ershad, in Tehran is responsible for checking and approving music productions and concerts

The power of music has long been acknowledged and documented throughout Persian antiquity and modern-day Iran, above all by those who have been impelled to censor it. Islam has always approached music with mistrust, suspecting it of being endowed with "magic" or even "diabolic powers liable to drive [its listener] to the worst extremes." Down through the years, religious and political leaders in Iran have continued to use these suspicions as their motivation and justification for its regulation.

The power of music has not only been acknowledged and feared by authorities throughout Iran's history, it has also been used as an instrument of propagation and control. In the case of Shajarian's epic song "O Iran, O House of Hope", the state-controlled radio broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), re-created the musical space of the popular Persian traditional song again in 2009, a time of civil and political unrest.

The controversial presidential election of 2009

The results of the 2009 presidential election were highly contested. Accusing the authorities of having used fraudulent methods to obtain false election results, supporters of the opposition party took to the streets to demand a recount. Meanwhile, the IRIB strategically and systematically re-broadcast some of the nation's most respected Persian traditional music from the 1979 revolution era including Shajarian's "O Iran, O House of Hope" to conjure and re-propagate the pro-state connotations initially assigned to the song in the wake of the revolution.

The government attempted to utilise the transgressive power of music by saturating radio and TV channels with the song's imposed associations of patriotism and religiopolitical optimism, to distract, discourage and even change the hearts and minds of those in opposition. The aim of this attempted recreation of the revolutionary "ambiance" was to legitimise the events surrounding the 2009 election.

Shajarian, along with several other musicians, poets, filmmakers and artists, expressed his support for the opposition by re-appropriating the power of his own music. Using the government's censorship mechanism against itself, Shajarian silenced his own music, decrying the connection between the song and the present situation.

He demanded that the IRIB stop broadcasting his song. In doing so, Shajarian attempted to re-assign to the politicised song the initial connotations associated with it, namely optimism, citizenship and cultural and national pride. Nevertheless, this powerful piece will always retain the scar caused by the government's misappropriation.

In 2011, more than two years after the dispute surrounding the 2009 election and Shajarian's act of defiance, the state fought back. The IRIB announced that Shajarian's beloved Ramadan song "Rabbana" was banned. The state banned all recordings and performances of Shajarian in a desperate attempt to take back the power he had exercised via self-censorship.

Despite all this, Shajarian is the "undisputed master of Persian traditional singing", he is considered a national treasure by music lovers in Iran and throughout the Iranian diaspora, and his global fan base is growing by the day thanks to the Internet and social networks outside the reach of religiopolitical censorship.

Iranian music on the Internet

While ICTs continue to play a pivotal role in undermining the systems of state control of music in Iran, the Internet has transformed the issue completely by providing a whole new dimension. Music's expansion into virtual space rendered the state's infrastructures of enforcement outmoded, therefore putting the state under pressure to change tack. This time, applying the principles of censorship has proven far more difficult.

The Iranian government's legal, administrative and technical agencies are making steadfast attempts to apply enforcement mechanisms to Iran's increasingly densely populated virtual society. Meanwhile, underground music persists online despite being faced with progressively pervasive barriers of bureaucracy. Internet users have made impressive strides in circumventing Internet-based music censorship. Musicians in Iran and the Iranian diaspora continue to grow and strengthen their networks online while end users in Iran continue to develop and harness the means to evade filters in order to create and experience underground music online.

Although underground music cultures continue to create new musical space online and exploit new technologies to deal with historically rooted barriers, music in Iran and its growing diaspora face a turbulent future, especially in the wake of the 2013 presidential election. What is now the "tune of the nation's mood" and who is setting it? Whatever the answer, the future of music in Iran is rooted in both a rich history and the global network that is the Internet.

Maria Koomen

© Qantara.de 2014

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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