Maziar Bahari is an Iranian-Canadian writer and filmmaker who has reported for Newsweek and produced several documentaries, including Football, Iranian Style and Greetings from Sadr City. In 2009 he was jailed in Evin Prison, which the BBC has called “Iran’s most notorious jail”, for reporting on the uprising that followed the presidential election. Upon his release he left Iran and now works as an activist in exile. His family memoir Then They Came for Me will be published by Random House in June.
Masoud Golsorkhi Just after you went to jail, lots of people asked me to write about the Twitter Revolution. But I don’t think Twitter was really central to the way things were organised.
Maziar Bahari I agree – you might as well call the Russian Revolution the Gutenberg Revolution because they used leaflets and books. But what all those social networking tools have done is allowed Iranians to be in touch with the outside world, and that is what’s scaring the regime.
MG How do you think the regime reacted to the blogger explosion of the 1990s?
MB At that time, they didn’t take it seriously because it took a little while for bloggers and civil society groups working in the blogosphere to have tangible results – which was the demonstrations. But what is particularly amazing about Facebook and Twitter is that it liberates the message itself. So it can not only eventually liberate people, but it can liberate people from revolutionaries. And that is the beauty of the revolution in Egypt, that there is no one that is prominent, and that’s the beauty of what is happening in Iran.
MG How are people responding to the fact that repressive regimes are becoming more adept at using surveillance and control and disinformation online?
MB I think it is very similar to how the markets adapt to government control. The market is always one step ahead. It takes a lot of the government’s time to keep up.
MG What about the idea that because you have to have a mobile phone and internet access to be involved in this new kind of social activism, you basically have to be middle-class?
MB I think that’s bullshit. In Russia in 1917, or in France during the revolution, how many people could read and write? I think it was a very small percentage of the population. But those are the leaders; those are the people who are the decision-makers.
Emily Speers Mears You talk about people wanting reform, or there being a kind of leadership vacuum in Egypt – I’m curious to know what leaderless movements’ actual political wishes are. Is there a role for politics in the revolutionary movement?
MB I think if there is a vacuum it is a good thing. Because what happens in the democratic revolution is that you don’t have revolutionary leaders who become tyrants themselves after the revolution. The difference between Iran and the other countries in the region is that Iranians have a collective memory of a revolution 32 years ago. And so they are not as keen to stage another revolution for things they don’t know. They are more interested in reform.
MG Do you think that will always be a major handicap for Iranians wanting change?
MB No, I think it’s a strength, actually. A sudden change in the system means only that you have gotten rid of the symptoms. So in term of politics, people are very reluctant to take action. People are procrastinating because of that collective memory.
MG So it’s a fear of change as much as a desire for change...
MB Exactly – fear of the unknown, fear of what’s going to happen next. Because people had really high hopes before the Iranian revolution. And [Ayatollah] Khomeini promised all these things. He said that even the Communists would be able to express themselves, women will be free, Iranians will enjoy free oil… so after 32 years, I think people are suspicious of everything.
MG So they don’t take anything at face value?
MB No, and they are tired of heroism and martyrdom. In 1979, martyrdom was really celebrated, but right now martyrdom is the last resort.
ESM How does violence fit in?
MB The regime is actively violent against the opposition, and some opposition is actively violent against the regime. But we should learn that nonviolent movements have always had better results and they have not led to tyrannies after the revolution. So people should peacefully resist this violence on the part of the regime.
ESM I want to talk about humour as well. You’ve had some funny escapades, if that’s the right way of putting it.
MB When anything becomes so evil, it becomes ridiculous and you see the humour in it and you see the craziness in it. And like all classic evil characters, the regime has a bit of humour in it, and I think a lot of Iranian humour comes out of that. And usually the opposition is given ample material by the rulers. For example, on Iranian television they’ve made a film called The Monster Called Facebook, in which Mark Zuckerberg is portrayed as the person behind Obama’s election, and Facebook has been designed by the CIA to undermine revolution around the world rather than as a site for picking up girls.
ESM I suppose that’s kind of true. Obama was able to harness a lot of support using social media.
MB Yes, but Obama also used books and pen and ink.
ESM I can imagine it becomes difficult to ban things outright when they are actually quite useful for you. Does the regime’s own use of the internet have the potential to change anything?
MB That’s the difference between Iran and China. The Chinese were clever enough to create a national intranet from the beginning, so they could control everything. A lot of Iranian governmental functions are dependent on an open internet – so when they shut down the internet to prevent information being spread, they also shut down the banking system and the ministries. But they are moving towards creating an intranet after the Chinese model. That’s why I’m urging Western governments to help Iranians with their infrastructure for communication. For example, satellite internet, filter busters, video and audio compression methods. It’s a lot cheaper than building warships and jet fighters and bombing countries.
MG You have to be incredibly cynical about Western governments standing up for democratic values.
MB Definitely. But I think in the future you will see Western governments move increasingly towards supporting democratic movements. I think what happened in Egypt was a surprise for everyone – for the revolutionaries, but more than that, for Western governments. They never expected something like that to happen.
MG I wanted to talk more about people’s movements – whether you can effect change without politics or classical political institutions such as parties and leaders.
MB It’s extremely difficult – I think it allows Qaddafi to say, “If I go, it’ll be Al Qaeda that overtakes me.” Of course it’ll be chaos temporarily. But civil society can have a substantial presence in cyberspace. That’s what happened in Iran.
MG But if your social institutions and civil society groups are only fully formed and functioning in cyberspace, aren’t they incapable of effecting change in the real world?
MB I don’t think that’s going to happen. It just means that you have different means of organising yourself. In Egypt, as the price of bread went up, the Facebook activists helped people in poor neighbourhoods mobilise to stage demonstrations. That’s very similar to a lot of revolutions. Khomeini lived in Iraq and he was communicating with revolutionaries inside the country through cassettes and photocopies; Lenin lived in Switzerland and communicated through telegrams and pamphlets.
ESM What would previous generations of your family, who were also activists, think of what is happening now?
MB It would be very difficult for my father and grandfather’s generation to accept what’s going on now, because it’s so irreverent and non-ideological. They came from a generation that needed prophets, leaders, clear messages. The new generation doesn’t have that, which I think is a beautiful thing.
ESM But if there are no leaders, where do you end up once you’ve toppled the regime?
MB In Iran, if the regime crumbles, there will be a democratic process. And one of the questions that Iranians are asking themselves is: who are we going to replace this regime with? And if we have names in mind, why? Why are they so deserving of this position of power?
ESM So the irreverence comes from a suspicion of strong leadership.
MB Cynicism, yes. I think 32 years of this theological leadership makes you cynical and makes you doubt everything, even religion, even God. §