Gary Bunt on the 2009 Iranian presidential elections…

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Gary R. Bunt, senior lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Wales, was kind enough to share his time and thoughts on the events surrounding the 2009 Iranian presidential election, the protests, and the deeply entrenched tensions between politics and religion. His most recent book, iMuslims, sheds new light on the nature of contemporary Islamic discourse, identity, and community. Drawing on more than a decade of online research, Bunt shows how social-networking sites, blogs, and other “cyber-Islamic environments” have exposed Muslims to new influences outside the traditional spheres of Islamic knowledge and authority.  Here is what he has to say regarding Iran, politics, religion and the internet:

Iranian_presidential_election,_2009,_protests_(1)The significance of the internet as a tool for mobilizing discourse and activism has been brought into sharp focus in the ongoing events surrounding the 2009 Iranian election. As I write, I am also monitoring Twitter feeds from Tehran and elsewhere:  in the time it takes to write this article, thousands of new tweets will have emerged in Farsi and English. These tweets in turn link to other social media, and form part of the public politics and protest following the disputed election results. Now I’m checking Google Maps: this mashes up the points of origin in YouTube clips, and positions them in Tehran. This included a clip from YouTube of Mir Hossein Mousavi: the technical quality was poor, reflecting its cell phone origins – but it’s there, on the streets, happening in real time. Perhaps the starkest application of Web 2.0 technologies in Iran was represented by the killing on June 20, 2009 of Neda Agha Soltan, a victim of Basiji militia gunfire; her death was captured on cell phone footage, circulated on Twitter, uploaded to YouTube, and broadcast on media channels worldwide: within 24 hours, Neda was one of the most prominent subjects on Twitter.

Twitter is also pointing me to photos from earlier protests. They’ve been put into a gallery on Flickr, and include bloody images from student protests in Iran. They, in turn, are linking to Facebook. I’ve been watching the Facebook pages from opposition groups for a while, with their content in Farsi and English. Both Facebook and Google introduced Farsi translation tools earlier than scheduled, in part as competition for some for the Twitter audience. A number of sites have been uploading blog posts and tweets from all sides in the election, including pro-Ahmadinejad web content, in order that readers could require an overview of perspectives. Ahmadinejad supporters and Iranian governmental agencies are also blogging, tweeting, and sending out SMS texts in attempts to galvanize domestic and international support, and derail opposition social networking activism.

Many have been describing the events as part of an internet revolution. This may be true, in part, although what we are seeing is a transition in the technologies being used, rather than simply a rapid, mass adoption of internet technologies in 2009. Iran has been “wired” for a long time, and has a relatively high level of internet access, although there remains issues of access outside of major conurbations. The emphasis in current discussions on social networking tools such as YouTube, Twitter & Facebook has often been made without the acknowledgment that this is part of a longer process in which technology and Islamic expression have combined in Iran. In 2009, a significant difference was the immediate availability of information feeds generated through Twitter, whose required brevity (of 140 characters or less) was effective enough to synthesize content from diverse media (video, audio, etc) and to link into domestic and international mainstream media. For reporters whose movements in Iran were restricted, they found themselves reporting on online content, which became a significant element of media output. Participants in demonstrations posted immediate tweets, SMS texts, photos and film, which were picked up by international media. Facebook was used as a social networking resource and information exchange portal, where observers and participants could meet together and exchange data in Farsi, English and other languages.

Prior to the Twitter evolution, the blogging revolution was ongoing in Iran and elsewhere, helped in part by the promotion of Farsi blogging by Hossein Derakhshan. (Although he was not the first “Iranian blogger,” Derakhshan’s user-friendly guidance resulted in tens of thousands of Iranian voices emerging into cyberspace.) Blogging has been a critical element in Iranian discourse, given the tens of thousands of Iran-centered blogs in the blogosphere, with diverse subject areas and interests, not all of which connecting directly or indirectly to political issues – popular culture being one driving factor.

In iMuslims, I discuss how there are still issues of internet access for Iranians, but that the how there are still issues of internet access for Iranians, but that the exponential growth of cell phone usage has led to alternate portals for internet discourse opening up. The Iranian government had encouraged the development of cell phone and internet services. The motivation for this has more to do wtih business and enterprise, than accessing religious content online-which forms a micro-area of the range of online services available and usage made. As access increased, so did the issues for security forces and censors: the Iranian internet structures have included the development of censorship and filtering technologies, with the assistance of international techonology companies, although the effectiveness of this system has brought into question, given the aptitude of many, to get around internet blocking through the use of proxy servers.bunt_imuslims

Previous elections saw the use of developing web technology, as a way to encourage votes: during the 2004 Iranian general elections, Farsi and English blogs gave “eyewitness” commentaries of events. This included actuality, as contributors conveyed their personal experiences of visiting polling booths, and provided a sense of the mood on the streets. The 2005 presidential elections saw candidates offering voters pre-paid cards for free net access, and using websites and blogs to publicize their campaigns. Having introduced an email the president features on his website, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad subsequently positioned himself as a blogging president in 2007, although his posts were limited, and he was making efforts to control the media (although not necessarily going towards full closure and censorship). Political-religious identities were reinforced by net exchanges & dynamics of discussions simulated by all parties through integrated online media.

The use of the internet to promote religious messages has been ongoing since the 1990s, with sectors in the religious heartlands of Qom and elsewhere being particularly proactive. Islamic expression, in its myriad forms, has been published online in Iran and elsewhere in multiple formats for download and distribution, as part of wider media strategies. When I started studying the intersection between Islam and the internet in the 1990s, there were many sites devoted to the Ayatollah Khomeini-including audio sermons, film clips and photos–although given bandwidth limitations, many of these would have been difficult to access in Iran at the time, and may have been designed primarily for consumption outside of the Islamic Republic. Remember too that the 1979 Islamic Revolution was heavily influenced by the distribution of cassette sermons and the utilization of faxes, representing a further connection between technology and Islamic discourse.

The sheer quality of information emerging from Iran has been a challenge for the media to manage. It also raises issues for academics following these events in real time and experiencing information overloads, as they keep posted on online feeds, and capturing/recording/archiving the many gigabytes of data (some before it was removed by authorities). My own personal efforts at capturing and recording key links, tweets, videos and data have taken many hours. The extent to which every tweet is being archived and every video stored is a serious issue, especially when future analysis of events in undertaken.

The 2009 Iranian presidential election and its aftermath has acted as a developmental hothouse for integrated media, and a recognition that dynamic social networking applications can make a difference at a previously unseen scale for mobilizing groups and encourage participation in public politics. The extent to which this forms a precedent for future events–in Iran, in other Muslim contexts, and elsewhere–will be a subject for future observation and analysis. What has been significant in the present Iranian context has been a recalibration of the application of social networking resources, to focus upon political-religious issues and and discourse through a synthesis of various online resources and software. The internet is part of a natural discourse for digital natives–we’re no longer talking about “early adopters” of technology, or indeed interpreting this for any kind of novelty value. Immediacy is one significant element within the dynamics of any discussion on the current scenario being played out in Iran. This includes the ways in which, for example, protesters contributed to mobilization and the distribution of information through tweets and YouTube clips–which made up for their lack of professional journalistic refinement with their immediacy and eye witness qualities. Whether one describes the dynamic as specifically “Islamic” or not may be open to discussion: on- or offline, religion is clearly a key subtext and defining identity element in the Iranian context.

-Gary Bunt

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