Following the arrest and release of six young Iranians who joined the Pharrell Williams “Happy” phenomenon by making their own video in Tehran, Azadeh Moaveni explains, the arrests had much less to do with a struggle between Westernized Iranians and their religiously conservative rulers than a contest within the regime’s political elites.
The police went after the Happy dancers, whose clip had been drawing attention on YouTube for a month, just three days after [President Hassan] Rouhani demanded Iran abandon its paranoid digital censorship and embrace the internet. “The era of the one-sided pulpit is over,” he said. The message of the Happy arrests was: if you seek to enact digital freedom, we will torment those Iranians who exercise that right. The head of the judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, declared this week that the internet was a swamp that must be cordoned off with barbed wire.
The question is whether the hardliners are pursuing this radical agenda on anyone’s behalf. The vast majority of Iranians – including the traditionally pious, the merchants, the working poor – are comfortable with a healthy measure of social openness. Iran isn’t Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. Even many deeply religious young people don’t believe in mandating observance for others. The children of senior officials post selfies of themselves wearing skinny jeans and heels on Facebook.
Most Iranians watch western films, hungrily consume Turkish soaps on satellite TV, and access the internet with filter-busting software. Every presidential candidate since the mid-1990s who has promised to relax social strictures has swept the board. Even Ahmadinejad, when he won roundly in 2005, scoffed at the importance of the hijab as a relevant issue during his campaign.
Through various acts of civil disobedience – from online activism to holding hands in a park or dressing fashionably – young Iranians from all social classes have shown where they stand on liberalism. Rouhani knows that, which is why he confidently tweeted in support of the Happy kids, a genuine exchange between a president and those who elected him.
The real battle is between popular politicians and an entrenched elite that is frightened by its electoral defeat. Cornered and nervous, it is striking back in any way it can.