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THE election of Mohammad Khatami as president of Iran in May 1997 launched what many of his supporters hoped would be the most ambitious attempt in the Islamic world to bridge the divide between the public and private spheres. In the years since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the conservative clerical establishment had systematically eliminated almost all traces of the democratic pluralist currents that had helped feed the original rebellion against the U.S.-backed shah. What is more, they fortified Iran’s traditional political despotism with an equally despotic reading of the Shiite Muslim faith, forcing dissent, debate, and differences of opinion to take refuge behind closed doors. Now the progressive movement that first began to take shape in the early 1990s and which later chose Khatami as its leader aimed to break the conservative clerical establishment’s monopoly on public discourse. The slogans and themes that emerged from the Khatami election campaign—and came to dominate his presidency—reflected many years of discreet discussion in reading circles, on the boards of small specialty journals, and in the halls of the religious seminaries . Their debut on the public stage, in the run-up to the election , was the opening shot in a struggle to reshape society and the state. At first, they decided to run only as a way of introducing their ideas to the public at large. Among their most prominent slogans were promises to introduce the “rule of law,” to foster “tolerance ” for competing ideas and to create a true “civil society” within the Islamic system. SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Fall 2003) Media and Information: The Case of Iran GENEIVE ABDO These goals were extremely ambitious considering Iran’s history of some 2,500 years of autocratic rule. Whether it was clerics in charge of the state, or the elites under the Pahlavi dynasty and its predecessors, public opinion had no role to play in influencing state affairs. Different elements of society did indeed create an otherwise unlikely alliance around Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to bring about the 1979 revolution. But this coalition of nationalists , liberal Islamists, secularists, and leftists was soon sidelined as the clerics began to rule the state. The Khatami experiment was designed to address the imbalance between two competing visions of Islamic Iran that emerged in aftermath of the revolution. Was it an Islamic state ruled by the clerics, or a religious republic ruled by the people? In other words, the 1997 election was a resounding vote for enlarging the public sphere at the expense of what had become the private preserve of the ruling conservative clergy. Even in mundane ways, society expressed its desire to come out of hiding. Young men and women began socializing together in restaurants, cafes and parks—which was illegal. Rather than the chador, women began to opt for a more modern form of veiling—a long overcoat and headscarf—and the headscarves began slipping farther and farther from the forehead, revealing more and more hair. But despite society’s readiness to embrace a reform movement, the Khatami effort to establish republican rule was short-lived. Among the many myths about Iran in the United States is the notion that the level of public discourse that occurs—generally criticism of the Islamic state—could never be achieved in an Arab country. The lively debate in Iran, often on display in the press, gives the misleading impression that the potential for a free society is far greater than in most Arab societies. For example, there have always been opposition voices to varying degrees in the Iranian press since the revolution. And there were never official state newspapers such as Soviet Russia’s Pravda. But the roots of ultimate clerical control over the press date back to the Constitutional Revolution of 1906-1911, when the senior clergy secured 878 SOCIAL RESEARCH for itself final say over freedom of expression in the name of religion . In fact, public discourse in Iran today has vast limitations and in no way compares to the kind of discussion we now see on al-Jazeera television and on other independent Arab networks and web sites. One reason is that it is easy to circumvent state...


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