- Blogging from Qom, behind Walls and Veils
The Internet first entered the lives of urban middle-class Iranians in the late 1990s. It expanded only after 2001, when the Unicode system made typing in Persian possible and when owning a computer and connecting to the Internet became economically and technically more affordable for most of the middle class. Hundreds of Internet cafés have opened in Tehran and in other cities in Iran, and dozens of Internet service providers offer prepaid connection cards that are available in local corner shops and newspaper kiosks. This accessibility has meant that the number of Internet users has grown rapidly, from almost 1 million users in 2001 to 18 million in August 2007. With a rate of penetration of 25.6 percent, Iran is the fastest-growing site of Internet users in the Middle East, with a growth of 7,100 percent between 2000 and 2007.1
Even before the middle-class population had any access to the Internet, many theological schools had dozens of computers, with which they were digitizing religious texts and publishing them in the form of compact discs. From the first years of the Internet’s entrance into Iran, the Howzeh Elmiyeh-ye Qom (Religious School of Qom) became the first religious center to develop an Internet center for its students (talabeh) and to provide them with computers and high-speed Internet. After a while, the Astan-e Qods-e Razavi in Mashhad also joined Qom, and both offered their low-priced services to the whole country.2 Early on, many grand ayatollahs opened virtual offices (beyt-e majazi) in multiple languages on the Internet, where they and their staff answered the questions of ordinary people. The Bassij (Islamic militia) also opened several Internet centers for its young bassiji members to connect to the world Wide Web under the center’s supervision. The Internet, quickly showing its benefits for Islam, became for a while one of the most important tools for the spread of Islam, Shiism, and the ideas of the Islamic revolution. An astonishing amount of religious and political content, including the Koran, various propaganda, articles, religious and political texts, and even prayers, was digitized and put online in different languages. The Internet became a new space to be explored by clerics to propagate their words: "In religious missionary terms, the internet has also provided the Islamic state with a new means to promulgate the Shi’a ideology. The internet, according to several clerics, is a ‘gift to spread the word of the prophet,’ and its potential benefit for Islam is immeasurable.”3 [End Page 235]
However, even in Qom and Mashhad the Internet did not remain limited to propagating officially sanctioned religious and Islamic thought. Despite the effective filtering and control of the Internet (including the blocking of many international and national sites), young religious students, like others of their generation, were interested in many other sites and chat room forums where they could discuss a variety of subjects with different people. This interest of religious youth made the Internet a new challenge in religious schools. Through the Internet, religious students had access to multiple sources of information that allowed them to have new perspectives and even to criticize their professors and their way of teaching and to ask new types of questions. Even more important, it permitted them to slip beyond the visible boundaries of the religious social community, encountering other people with different points of view, including members of the opposite sex, to discuss and to be part of a world that until then had been inaccessible to them and to their elders. From different religious resources and a variety of political news Web sites about Iran and the world, from chat forums, and, later, from blog writing, online talabehs and religious youth were experiencing a new world that was very different from what they had been able to experience in their physical spaces.
Facing these new challenges and the success of the Internet among youth (religious and nonreligious), the Iranian government implemented a sophisticated filtering system on the Internet to block all Web sites that could endanger the morality and the...