In 2003, my son and I launched BlogsCanada.ca, a website devoted to Canadian blogging. Essentially, the website was a categorized directory of Canadian blogs and it included my own blog, Officially Unofficial. Blogging and citizen journalism were in their infancy in 2003 and BlogsCanada developed a reputation as the authority on the Canadian blogosphere. (Blogosphere! When was the last time anyone used that quaint word?)
In our research and development of Canadian blogging, we looked at traffic statistics and one blog that stood out for exceptionally high traffic was Editor, Myself. Editor, Myself was Hossein “Hoder” Derakhshan’s English language blog. In 2003, it was the most popular English language blog. More impressive, however, was that fact that Hoder’s Persian language blog drew about 4 or 5 times as many daily visitors as his English language offering.
In December 2003, I contacted Hoder and asked if he’d consent to an interview for BlogsCanada. He was happy to oblige and my son, Jesse, conducted the interview shortly thereafter. Jesse recorded the one hour session and and I transcribed it. We published the interview in two parts on December 16 and 17, 2003. I met Hoder myself in person at a citizen journalism conference at the University of Toronto in 2004.
In my phone conversations, our interview and subsequent personal meeting, I found myself somewhat astonished by Hoder’s naivete. His outlook and world view seemed almost childlike in their rosy optimism. He felt that George W. Bush was essentially a nice man and that Iran and the rest of the Middle East would come to a peaceful understanding with Israel. He even got a fair bit of hate mail and snarky comments on his blog but he chalked them up entirely to jealousy. He knew that his large blog readership was coveted by lesser lights but he seemed to harbour no resentment to the heckling.
A couple of years ago when I heard that Hoder had gone back to Iran for a visit, I suspected that he was making a big mistake. A couple of months later when I heard that he’d gone missing, I suspected the worst. My fears were not unfounded. Finally, Hoder’s fate is being revealed. He has been locked up for two years and is facing a possible death sentence.
His optimism seems to run in the family. Hoder’s relatives are reported to be confident Canada will step in and prevent Iran from executing my friend. They must not have been following the near complete lack of support the Harper government has been offering to Canadians, particularly hyphenated Canadians, who have found themselves in trouble in foreign lands.
What I find fairly ironic about this incident is that Hoder’s writing was very mild in criticizing the Iranian regime. His bigger “crime” was likely that he taught other Persian speakers how to publish a blog. Among the Iranian expatriate community, bloggers who learned the craft from Hoder are, no doubt, much more critical and “deserving” of punishment in the eyes of the Iranian government. I suspect they are punishing Hoder to make an example to other Iranian bloggers.
The BlogsCanada interview is no longer available at BlogsCanada.ca. I sold the website in 2009 and the archived contents are long gone. However, I don’t throw anything away and I have pulled the interview from my records and I’m republishing it here. I’m doing this so that others can meet the innocent, optimistic, naive young man I got to know 7 years ago.
Here, then, are the two BlogsCanada posts from December 2003.
Tuesday, 16 December 2003
(Intro by Jim Elve) The idea that the Internet and blogging, in particular, can serve as important vehicles for social and political change is something that people in the Middle East seem to have adopted wholeheartedly. In Iran, anonymous blogging has allowed the current generation to disregard the strict rules imposed by politico-religious authorities. Despite censorship and filtering, the Persian (Iranian) blogging community is one of the strongest and most active worldwide.
A leading figure (quite probably the leading figure) in the Persian blog community is University of Toronto student, Hossein Derakhshan or ‘Hoder’, as he is known online. Hoder’s Persian blog gets an average of more than 3,500 visitors daily. This makes Torontonian Hoder one of Canada’s most influential bloggers.
Recently, Hoder announced that he would run for parliament in Iran’s upcoming elections. Last week, he spearheaded an anti-web censorship campaign that caught significant attention at the WSIS meeting in Geneva.
BlogsCanada’s Jesse Elve sat down with Hossein Derakhshan in Toronto for an hour and talked about blogging, politics, Middle East peace and life in Iran. The interview paints a picture of an idealistic and optimistic young man with real ideas for positive change in his birth country and throughout the Middle East.
A one hour interview is quite long. It is being presented in two parts – the first today and the the conclusion tomorrow. In Part One, Hoder discusses the Persian blogging phenomena, Iranian society and politics, George W. Bush and more.
The Hoder Interview – Part One
Jesse Elve: Tell us a little about yourself. You were you born in Iran. When? At what age did you come to Canada? What are you studying at University of Toronto? That sort of thing.
Hossein Derakhshan: I was born in Tehran, the capital of Iran, in January, 1975. I came to Canada about three years ago in December 2000. I am now studying at the department of Sociology at the University of Toronto. I had some background in sociology in Iran, as well, and I came here with an associate degree. The good thing is that the U of T has accepted some of those credits. I have to finish the other half of my credits to get my BA.
JE: How many blogs do you have?
Hoder: I have lots of online activities, not all of them are blogs. I have two weblogs, one in English and one in Persian, with the same name which is Editor: Myself which I guess pretty much says why I started blogging. I have two filters, if you’re familiar with the term. These are collective weblogs that do not have anything of their own. People just post links to other resources. One of them which is in Persian is getting very popular. It’s called Sobhaneh, which means “breakfast”. The other one is IranFilter which I’ve just launched. There’s another website, a directory called Blogs by Iranians with which I’m trying to cover those blogs that Iranian people all over the world are writing in English. I think that’s it. Oh! I have Uof T Blogs, as well, which is only a directory of blogs by UofT students and staff and I haven’t been able to work on it. It doesn’t have a lot of visitors yet. And there is still another one: stop.censoring.us which is focused on the issue of Internet censorship in Iran.
I think the reason blogging is so popular in Iran is that some major social changes have happened to the new generation of Iranians, I mean those who were born after the revolution in 1979. They have a whole new value system that’s different from their parents. As I have mentioned before, they are very much more individualistic. They’re more self-expressive, and are more tolerant than their parents. All of this is based on things I’ve seen. For example, if self-expression had not existed, the whole concept of blogging wouldn’t have caught on. Or, if tolerance was not there, people wouldn’t have let other people comment on their posts. This is very popular right now in Persian weblogs. And, individualism, if it hadn’t existed, they wouldn’t have start talking about themselves with their real names or making their private lives public. It’s very serious, even among young women. There are a lot of women who are blogging, especially among students and graduates. I think it’s because it’s the first time in Iranian history that women can openly and publicly talk about their point of view, their perspective toward the world.
JE: Just the fact of them doing that is fairly revolutionary?
Hoder: Yes it is. It is and they are very enthusiastically blogging. I think they’re more interested in doing that compared to the boys. This is the first time ever that they can talk about many things.
JE: You also were saying that you see secularization and a declining importance of religion.
Hoder: Yes, you can easily see that on many blogs. But they don’t talk about politics overtly. They’re more concerned with their social freedoms but even talking about social freedom can be considered as political in a closed society.
JE: Who are these Persian bloggers? Are they mostly political blogs or are many of them teenagers’ diaries?
Hoder: I think that the majority of them are between something about 16 to 30 years old. It’s not a very ‘teenage’ thing. I can say that.
JE: Many of them are students, then?
Hoder: Yes, that’s right. They are mostly university students. I’ve seen some high school students who blog, as well, but they’re not taking this as seriously as older guys. Maybe the reason is that high school students were born after the Iran-Iraq war and therefore have a whole different idea about the world. They’re more into personal freedoms and don’t care much about politics. They do not use the internet to access information but as a way to socialize. I think dating is one of the biggest reasons they use the internet, so maybe blogs are not very popular among them.
JE: So, going back to who they are… socio-economically middle class, upper middle class?
Hoder: Yes, they’re mostly middle-class people who can afford having a PC at home.
JE: …with access to the technology.
Hoder: Exactly. One of the most important reasons is that there are many internet cards. They are very similar to long distance phone cards here. If you buy, for example, a hundred hours of internet access by modem, you get a password and an anonymous username on the back of the card which you can use.
JE: The whole process is anonymous?
Hoder: Right, and you do not give out your name. You can be absolutely secure and safe in doing whatever you want.
JE: Do you think there is a big generation gap?
Hoder: Yes. Yes, there is. One of the biggest functions of Persian weblogs is filling social gaps. What I mean by that is social gaps between women and men, between parents and children, between politicians and ordinary people and between homeland inhabitants and expats.
JE: And blogs are opening up lines of communication?
Hoder: Exactly. And making bridges. The concept of bridges is a key concept here to describe the situation of weblogs in Iran.
JE: You think that’s actually happening? It’s not just the young people reading their own blogs, the expats reading their own blogs?
Hoder: No. Many of them are curious about the other part, the other side of the bridge.
JE: Do you think that blogs are having an effect on the people in power?
Hoder: Yes, I think that one of the bridges that is being built is between politicians and people and this is the first time that they can directly see what the new generation talks about, what they think about, what they want. I know for a fact that many of the politicians are regularly reading these blogs everyday.
For example, I personally met some Iranian diplomats in Ottawa. Not only were they friendly with me, which is surprising because I was always criticizing their sacred beliefs and the government they work for, but they were very friendly and I saw that they were following my weblog and many other Iranian weblogs very enthusiastically. This is something new. I didn’t expect them to be so easy to me.
Maybe the fact that these weblogs are personal things makes it easier for them to stop judging me as a typical opposition member that they see a lot everyday. It’s very important for them to see we are human and for us to see that they are human, as well. We have many common things. We might have different goals and methods, but are both human after all. They like it when we talk about our personal lives in our blogs.
JE: You’ve said before that you don’t feel like you could go back to Iran.
Hoder: No. I don’t think I can go back, because I know that some of those hard-line, radical, and dangerous people are closely following my blog. They might be personally friendly people again, but I don’t think they’d let me simply go back to Iran without asking me questions – I’m sure that they are suspicious of who is behind all these things.
JE: Foreign subversion?
Hoder: Yes. They always try to prove that we are getting money from somewhere. One of the most possible things that may happen if I go back to Iran is that they summon me, at least, to ask about these things. They arrested Sina, one of my close friends in Iran who was blogging and was writing in one of the newspapers, too. He was not very politically active, but he was arrested. This makes me a little worried about going back to Iran.
JE: You couldn’t have the same sort of blog if you lived in Iran?
Hoder: Definitely not. It’s true. I couldn’t do one percent of the things that I am doing now. Mostly because of the poor Internet connection and the filtering.
JE: So, is blogging being used as a vehicle of protest within Iran?
Hoder: The contents of weblogs are not generally political. But, as I said, in a closed society if you talk about personal things which are taboos, this can be considered as political. I think the government is seeing weblogs as political because they are actually the only free media that exist in Iran. I know some of the journalists who can accept the personal risks of saying some of these things – the newspapers cannot accept that risk – are turning to weblogs as their personal tribune.
JE: Are there threats?
Hoder: Yes, there are threats. That’s maybe why there are not many people blogging under their real names.
JE: Are many people blogging anonymously?
Hoder: Yes. Many of the serious ones inside Iran are doing it anonymously. But, one of the interesting things that recently happened is that one of the vice presidents of Iran has started blogging. He’s a very cool guy. He is a very funny guy, but he’s a populist. He has started blogging because he knows that it is very popular among young, educated, middle-class people. I think he has some plans for his political future based on this thing that he is doing. His weblog is really funny. He takes secret photographs with his mobile phone from formal meetings, for example. On the first day of his weblog, he posted a picture of himself beside Eduard Schevardnadze, the now-ousted president of Georgia, which were secretly taken and it was very funny. So, it’s getting into the mainstream, even among officials. It’s being accepted, gradually.
JE: Are there blogs that you would recommend for learning about Iran?
Hoder: There are many of them but they are in Persian. There are some of them in English which you can find on blogsbyiranians.com. I’ve set up a system that if any of these websites is updated, it will appear in bold type.
JE: Using a ‘blogroll’?
Hoder: Yes. Using blogrolling’s fantastic features. Some of them are very good reads.
JE: Let’s talk about Javad Larijani. You’ve basically endorsed him.
Hoder: I don’t know him personally. I even haven’t met him. But I think he is a good example of a moderate conservative who has moderate views towards the West. He’s educated in the West. He’s a personally and politically moderate person and the fact that he’s running the best scientific institute in Tehran with a wide range of people – religiously or politically – shows that he can more or less implement this same model in the country as the president. If the radical Islamists let these moderate conservatives come to power, Iran could come out of this blocked situation that is in now.
You know, I have a rough theory about the future of Iran. I think that the parliament should be radical but the government should be conservative. Because the leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who has all the power, is a conservative person. If he doesn’t like the government, he doesn’t let them do anything. He didn’t like this government – the Khatami government – because of historical backgrounds and he didn’t trust them, so he didn’t allow any of his under-cotrol iinstitutions work with the government. They couldn’t solve the US-Iran relationship. They couldn’t do many of the important things that I’m sure even the conservatives knew were necessary. They didn’t want reformists to do it.
JE: So, you’re ascribing to a politics of pragmatism?
Hoder: Yes, at least for now.
JE: Realistic, gradual change as opposed to a more radical approach?
Hoder: Absolutely. So I think moderate conservatives will be more successful. Radicalism is useless in Iran now because you have the great power that the constitution gives to the leader and unless you change the constitution, you cannot do anything.
JE: And that would basically be another revolution?
Hoder: Yes. I personally hope it happens in the next five or six years with the next government; that the constitution starts to be questioned and finally be changed. That’s one of my plans for my parliament candidacy that I want to talk about.
JE: You’ve been adopted by the right-wing in the US. How do you feel about that?
Hoder: I don’t actually like being always quoted or supported by the right-wing bloggers. I guess we don’t share much about the future of Iran. For example they favour a radical, quick regime change without considering what people really need. I think part of it is because they don’t know Iranian society very well because of the misinformation they get. But, I have no choice because I think that the liberal Americans are already pre-occupied with the Bush administration, the economic problems, with civil liberty issues and the whole war against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan that they can’t open a new front, a new focus. And add the presidential campaign in 2004 too. So, maybe that’s why they haven’t paid attention to international issues as much as the right-wing has. I hope some of them read this here and want to support me [laughs] – I mean, not me, but Persian blogging. This is one of my problems. I always have to convince people that it’s not only me. I am part of it but I don’t want to just promote myself. The things that I do are more important than the fact that I am doing them.
JE: You have a lot of debates with other people commenting on your blog. It’s a kind of community.
Hoder: Yes, again i think it’s something new in the Persian language media to let people freely comment on your posts. Some of the major news websites such as Gooya have recently started to that as well.
JE: Okay, how do you feel about Bush?
Hoder: I think Iranians do not actually know Bush. Europeans do not know him either. I personally find him a cool person – very warm, very friendly, and down to earth. He actually would be very popular in Iran if people could really know him, because, you know, being down to earth is a very respected value among Iranians, traditionally. But as a politician he has done stupid things and he has kind of an arrogant and tough attitude which is different with his personal character I guess.
JE: But he did lump in Iran with his “axis of evil”.
Hoder: Yes he did. It’s very complicated. Ordinary lower-class people in Iran sometimes seem that they do not oppose a military action to remove the regime if it is not very violent and bloody. But I think it’s because they are so tired of being repressed by the Islamic regime that say these kind of things. Maybe if they see that this is going to happen in one or two days, they’d change their minds. I was hearing a lot of things from ordinary people: “What if it happens to Iran?” They wished that the same thing as Afghanistan could happen to Iran. Real political change in a short time. But then, I guess, the more they see Iraq, the more they give up the idea of military intervention.
JE: So, there’s not a strong anti-American element?
Hoder: Not at all. This one of the biggest surprises in the Middle East that Iranians are the least anti-American people in the whole region. Part of it is because they’re not as, sort of Muslim as other nations. They do not like Arabs, historically, because in Iranian history it was Arabs that invaded Iran and they forced people to be Muslims. Although they actually accepted it and even culturally developed many parts of Islam, Iranians don’t identify with Islam very much – at least not as much as Arabs do. They have our own identity as Iranians and most of the people are very serious about it.
Yesterday, we published the first half of an interview conducted by BlogsCanada’s Jesse Elve with Iranian-Canadian blogger and political activist, Hossein Derakhshan (Hoder).
Today, Hoder talks about Iranian pop culture, US-Iranian relations, the Palestinian issue, his candidacy for Iran’s Parliament, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, human rights, internet censorship and more.
The Hoder Interview – Part Two
Jesse Elve: People here, I think, don’t make the distinction (between Arabs and Iranians). Some people know about the history and that Iran is a completely different civilization but, generally, it just gets lumped in with the others.
Hossein Derakhshan: This is very sad for us as Iranians. Just because only the last letter in Iraq and Iran are different, doesn’t mean that they are very similar. They’re very, very different, culturally and historically and socially. Back to anti-Americanism…Before the revolution, American culture was dominating the Iranian society. There were many American products. They are still very popular. Some of my own relatives, from my parents’ generation, still think that every American product is better than anything else. They always favour, for example, American fridges over Japanese ones or American cars over other cars. They’re still obsessed with the image that the U.S. had built before the revolution. But intellectuals, especially the leftist ones, have traditionally been anti-Imperialistic as you can guess. But still, all of them were watching American movies and listening to American or British Rock music.
JE: Do you think that Iran is quite westernized then?
Hoder: Yes. You can easily find many people in the north of Tehran who are living exactly like upper-class New Yorkers, Londoners or others. They have almost the same lifestyle and same belief system. But, you know, everything is always limited to inside their home.
JE: What about pop culture? What kind of music are people listening to? Are they listening to American music?
Hoder: I guess typical young middle and upper class people are pretty much listening to Western music. The more educated they get, things like Radiohead comes in and more serious rock or dance music, jazz, this kind of stuff. It’s almost like everywhere else.
JE: You were talking about pro-democracy Iranians welcoming an invasion by the US.
Hoder: No, not exactly that. It’s a very delicate issue. It’s more about an emotional reaction than a rational one.
JE: The people are frustrated?
Hoder: Yes. They’re so frustrated and that’s why they talk about it this way. But I don’t think they really favour a military invasion. I think they’ve given up fighting with the Islamic regime. Although sometimes they say there must be a rapid and radical change, but they don’t help such change. They stick to their own social lives and they just want to live as freely as the can without interfering in politics. The new generation which paid a huge price a couple of years ago because of the big student protest in Tehran; many of them got arrested and were kept in jail for about a year or more with a serious threat for being executed over their heads. So the younger ones saw that and they are now totally out of politics now. They are more into dating, girlfriends/ boyfriends, drugs, sex, movies, music and all the things that other teenagers everywhere are into.
JE: That kind of follows the theme with the way that Chinese society is evolving.
Hoder: Yes. One of the things that conservatives are hoping to achieve is to build a socio-political system like China.
JE: The power structure doesn’t change so much but economically . ..
Hoder: … and socially they get some freedom. They don’t want political development as much as other kinds like social and economic development. But I think it doesn’t work in Iran. I favour a conservative government in Iran for the next term, because I know that they want to do this but I also know that it doesn’t work in Iran because we have a long history of fighting for democracy and political activism which have created so much expectations that don’t exist in China. I favour this because if they implement the Chinese model, we’ll have social freedoms and economic growth which will eventually translates to a gradual but very effective change of the regime.
JE: You feel that power will shift with a larger middle class?
Hoder: Yes, absolutely. And it will subtly change the system. In a very subtle and gradual way, in about ten years the Islamic regime will be completely gone and only the name of it might exist, with no blood shed.
JE: An Iranian, Shirin Ebadi, recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. The western press has reported that this was downplayed by Iran’s leaders. Does the pro-democracy Ebadi have any real influence in Iran?
Hoder: Shirin Ebadi is one of the kind of conservative reformists who are very influential in Iran. She’s personally a religious woman and fits into a category who are for gradual change. She is anti-violence, pro-democracy and pro-secularism. She has talked about the compatibility of Islam and democracy. I think she is trying to change the image that Islam is crating for itself in the world: anti-democracy and anti-civilization.
Aside from that, I think she is more in favour of a secular government. Her actions in the last five or six years have been very political and people knew about it. She’s been defending many of the opposition people, many of the citizens and the intellectuals in the Iranian courts. She’s very popular among them. Generally, she was a well-known activist among middle-class educated people before the Nobel Prize ever happened.. I guess she could play an important role in the future because she’s a woman and women have had a great role in the gradual change of values in the Iranian society.
Some people think – and I agree with them – that the main engine of social change in Iran has been women. It’s women who have made men accept some of the real changes in their value systems. Like with individualism; if women didn’t get this, it wouldn’t happen in Iran. Self-expression – all of these things. If Shirin Ebadi wants to be more active in Iranian politics, with the help of the international community, she can have an important role. That’s why I suggested she run for president. I think if they let her in the system, she could be the most popular Iranian president in Iranian history. The fact that the leader and the conservatives don’t trust her will maybe stop her from being what she wants. So the same thing that happened to Khatami, the reformist president, would happen to her as a President, or even worse.
JE: It sounds like the state is not so repressive about her. Is this because of her international prominence?
Hoder: Defenitely. The time has passed when Iranian officials didn’t care about the world. Now, they care really about the international community. After all, they have such strong economic ties with Europe and other places that they can’t just ignore them.
This is another sketchy theory of mine: If the government wants to establish a relationship with the U.S., it is, again, only the conservatives who can finally do it. Simply because the have the trust of the Supreme Leader, Khamanei. Therefore, they’ll have more things to lose if they don’t want to obey the international community. They’d be more vulnerable in terms of their human rights violations, their nuclear activities, etc. For example, in the case of nuclear program, if it was not for their strong economic relationship with the EU, they surely wouldn’t have done it. So if they have another major relationship, they’ll have more ties to care about. This is why I am suggesting a moderate-conservative government. Only a conservative President can re-establish a relationship with America.
JE: We’re often told that the Palestinian issue is an underlying factor for anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East. Is this the case in Iran?
Hoder: I don’t think so. It’s different now. Maybe twenty or thirty years ago that was the case. I think I can explain it this way. The more Iranians have identified themselves with Islam, the more they’ve cared about the Palestinian-Israeli issue. We can simply see that Iranians are not talking about this issue as much as they used to, in twenty years ago. That’s because they’re not as “Muslim” as they used to be. (A few years ago, Mohammad Ali Zam, an influential cleric published some shocking news about the rate of the regular prayers among young generation, the amount of alcohol and drugs being used in Tehran everyday, the lowest average age of prostitution – 15 years old, etcetra.) The new generation actually doesn’t care about this as a religious thing. They might be concerned about it in terms of human rights.
I think this is one of the issues that the Iranian government has lied about to the whole world. They have portrayed Iran as a country who is very concerned with the Palestinian problems and have displayed it as a strong opponent to the Middle East peace process. They have been helping Hamas, the radical Islamic group that is against the peace process in the Middle East for a long time, even since I was a teenager. I think the fact that Iran supports them should not fool the international community into thinking that all Iranian people support Hamas and others, as well. One of the polls that was conducted by the reformists last year showed that there is not a majority of Iranian people supporting the policy of the government towards the Middle East. They think that it’s not their problem. It’s the Arab countries’ problem and we should not tie our whole political fate and foreign policy to just one thing that actually has nothing to do with us.
JE: Do you think there is room for stronger and better ties between Iran and Israel?
Hoder: Absolutely. I personally think that Iran and Israel could, strategically, be very close friends. I don’t mean the Sharon government, which is very right-wing, but the Israeli left and the Iranian left could be best friends in the region for many strategic and geo-political reasons. It will happen in, maybe, twenty, thirty years anyways. This is the only way that Iran can balance its power in a very Arab-dominated region. We have some very important problems with some of the Arab countries to the south of Iran, like about a few islands the UAE claims they belong to it. Moreover, they all, even Palestinians, supported Iraq during our eight year war with them in the 1980s. We’ve always had problems with them and I think the only thing that can establish a balance in the region is for Iran to be a close friend to Israel government – it doesn’t happen as long as right-wing governments are in power in both countries though.
JE: And they would then probably have better relations with the U.S.?
Hoder: Yes, for sure. One of the biggest obstacles of the Iran-US relationship is that Israel does not want it and strongly lobbies against it, at least as long as the radical, hard-line Islamic regime exists. I think if the problem with Israel were resolved, many of the international problems of Iran would be resolved immediately.
JE: Let’s talk about your candidacy.
Hoder: Okay. I think that I have a good opportunity to use this audience that I’ve built up with difficulty over time, to raise some important issues in my own opinion.
JE: How long have you been blogging?
Hoder: I’ve been blogging for more than two years – virtually every single day. I started when almost nobody had any idea about weblogs in Iran. I started with maybe a hundred visitors per day and now have over 5,000, even despite the censorship. If I hadn’t been so serious, it wouldn’t have been like this now.
I think I can use this audience for a political campaign, not about myself but about the ideas that many other intellectuals or ordinary people have about the future of Iran. They don’t dare talk about them, because the media, the newspapers and radio are governed or at least heavily controlled by the hard-line Islamists. I think that weblogs can perform a great role in that respect.
I thought that if I announced my candidacy, I could draw the attention of some international observers and, at the same time, get the officials inside Iran to see what the new generation of Iran really cares about. I want to break some taboos like Constitutional change, Israel, the Hijab (the Islamic veil) – which is not even in the constitution but which the hard-liners actually imposed on Iranian women.
I just want to raise my voice as an ordinary member of the young generation of Iranians to shape a whole new debate about these new issues. And, to show that when the Reformists say that people do not vote for them–at all– it doesn’t mean that they do not care about their future. It means that people don’t feel that they have real choices because based on the elections law, nomination is only accepted for those who believe in Islam and fully practice it, the Islamic regime, and the absolute power of its leader. So all other people cannot find a representative so they just don’t vote.
I want to show that if you have a radical program – for radical change – but in a non-violent framework, people will vote – although I know the radical Islamists don’t let those kinds of people in. I want to encourage other people to do the same. I think, for example, if a hundred or a thousand Iranians came up with their own campaign and platform, symbolically or not, for the future of Iran, it would provide be a great picture for the whole world and for Iranian officials to see – way beyond the mainstream borders of political map.
So a few friends and I are building a website so people can announce their candidacy – or at least symbolic candidacy. They put up their picture with their real name, if they want, a brief biography and their platform. I think this would create an interesting story and it would get some considerable publicity both inside Iran and outside. It would be a vehicle for political change and freedom of expression.
JE: Do you think you’re the Howard Dean of Iran?
Hoder: If I really wanted to go into politics, yes. I could be. If I were, for example, 40 years old and I’d finished my education and I wanted to go back to Iran and actually start a political career, I would definitely go for a real and intense campaign. I would definitely try to do my best to, first, be qualified for the election and then to run a huge campaign, a successful one. But the fact is that the election laws haven’t changed in the past 20 years and it now , as I said, only allows people who believe in Islamic rule and the Islamic regime and in the principle that the supreme leader has unlimited political and religious power to stand for election. This limits the potential candidates almost to those who are already in the political arena right now. It stops fresh blood from coming into the legislation system and then to the government.
Even if I really wanted to register to run for parliament, I wouldn’t be qualified because I’m not a practicing Muslim at all. I don’t pray, I drink, shake hands with women, don’t fast in Ramadan, heavily listen to Western music – and sometimes smoke pot! How can I prove that I’m a practicing Muslim?
JE: You suggested already that you wouldn’t feel safe returning to Iran, particularly after announcing your symbolic candidacy. Someone has said they think you would be killed if you returned to Iran. Do you believe that?
Hoder: No, I don’t think they would kill me or anyone else that easily! Especially after the bad thing that happened to Zahra Kazemi, the Iranian-Canadian journalist who went to Iran and was beaten to death in Prison. I’m sure that they would detain me or want me to answer some questions, and probably would keep me in jail for a few months and take my passport.
JE: You’d be arrested?
Hoder: Yes, I would definitely be arrested. But, I don’t want to be like many of the traditional opposition groups in Europe and North America. They are kind of “underdogs”. They always exaggerate the threats against them and they always exaggerate their popularity. Part of it is because they usually badly need asylum and the money: welfare. I neither think I’m so popular and so important that the government cares about me, nor think that they are as brutal and as irrational as the opposition portrays them. They used to be very brutal like in 10, 15 years ago – maybe because they didn’t have this kind of international acceptance. But now, it’s completely different. They’re much more rational than before.
JE: So, you think that the human rights situation has improved?
Hoder: Compared to 10 or 15 years ago, yes. At least now everything that happens is transparent. Also even conservatives and radicals try to find a legal justification for it. Although the result has not changed much, the methods have changed a lot. Radical Islamists might not be very comfortable with losing some of their power and with this transparency, but I know that they can’t do anything about it and sometime they are under a lot of pressure from their own big bosses to a reasonable justification for their actions. They couldn’t continue like that and they had to start doing things in cleaner ways. Now they can’t do whatever they want, however they want. They don’t do physical torture anymore as they used to do. They used to do nasty things in nasty ways, now they do nasty things in a relatively justified fashion, which some might say it’s improvement, some not. I personally am not quite sure
JE: Let’s go back to the Howard Dean campaign. Are you the most popular Persian blogger?
Hoder: Based on my visitors, perhaps I guess so. Of course we don’t consider some erotic Persian websites that are hosted by blogging services. Some of those are very popular. Part of it might be because the Iranian government has filtered ours, but not the erotic ones.
JE: They filter your blog and prevent Iranians from seeing it?
Hoder: Yes, for maybe about three months, they had heavily blocked my whole domain (hoder.com) and many other websites on that IP address such as Sobhaneh, a Persian news filter. But then some ISPs opened it up, but still as far as I know – and you can’t imagine how hard it is to make sure about these things from far away – some major ISPs such as Pars Online haven’t opened it yet. But I’m really not sure, because I’ve seen some versions of the blacklist with hoder.com in it. But many people now are using some anonymizer-type websites that the U.S. government and some other companies have established to access filtered websites. So, I can’t really say how big my real audience is.
JE: Back to the Iranian vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, the blogger, what else can you tell us about him?
Hoder: I can say he is a total populist. He wants to satisfy all possible political groups in his weblog. But I guess he’s the coolest politician in Iran in that level. He is also a reformist, very close to the president who himself is a nice and easygoing man and he used to be very popular, but not any more, because he has failed to live up to his promises.
JE: There’s no commenting feature on his blog. What do you think about that?
Hoder: I think he’s going to have it, eventually, because of the expectations and the pressure of his readers. But even if he doesn’t, it’s understandable. I like his weblog. He talks about hip things like SMS, mobile phones, mobile pictures, weblogs etc. He uses a lot of jargon and some pop culture references to make himself cool for his young audience–I guess he cleverly intends to use his blog to maybe run for Parliament or something like that. Anyway, the fact that he’s risked a lot by doing this, means that there might be some other politicians that can enter into this blogosphere. This is very good because it gives us a kind of legitimacy in the government’s view that we’re not doing something subversive and bad or nasty. This is one kind of medium that everybody can use. It can even be used by hard-liners, by Islamists, by reformists – by everyone.
JE: It opens up lines of communication?
Hoder: Yes, and actually make all these factions closer. Because then they can see the common human parts of each other’s personality and it makes helps reduce hate.
JE: That’s the end of our prepared questions. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Hoder: Hmmm… the Canadian media. The Canadian media has been totally ignorant about the importance of blogging, especially in the developing countries as a cheap and effective way of promoting democracy, freedom of speech, education, etc. Canadians defend freedom and democracy more than in America. Why haven’t they got blogging yet? For example, in Zahra Kazemi’s case, blogging could be one of their centers of attention. Because weblogs are about human rights and freedom of expression and journalism as much as Zahra Kazemi’s case was, they had a common theme. I think Canadian media should take weblogs more seriously and even start to promote it in the diverse society of Canada. Weblogs can make bridges which are very useful here in Canada, too.