The Erratic Career of Western Music in Iran
by Daniel Pipes
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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, seemingly addicted to making inflammatory statements, today announced the banning of Western music from Iran's radio and television stations. "Blocking indecent and Western music from the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting is required," came a laconic statement from on the Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council which he heads.
Various forms of Western music, from classical to rap, have appeared in Iran in recent years, so – should it be implemented – this will come as a wrenching cultural change. (And will it, I wonder, prohibit the sugary-sweet Western-music nasheeds such as "Gives Thanks to Allah" or those sung by Cat Stevens – previously, a favorite in Iran?) Not only does the decree hark back to the early days of Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution but it also touches a deep chord within Muslims, something I wrestled with in some detail in a 1998 article, "You Need Beethoven to Modernize," where I made two points: to many Muslims, Western music symbolizes the whole of Western culture; and therefore mastery of Western music serves as a proxy in for mastery of Western, i.e., modern, culture as a whole.
It's one of my more original articles and I commend it as background to Ahmadinejad's decree. (December 19, 2005)
Dec. 20, 2005 update: An immediate follow-up report finds Iranians less than impressed by the new edict. "Don't take this man seriously," said Pari Mahmoudi, 25, as she drove through Tehran with the Eagles' Hotel California blaring from her car speakers. Mohammed Reza Hosseinpour, while browsing through a music store in the Iranian capital, declared "This president speaks as if he is living in the Stone Age. This man has to understand that he can't tell the people what to listen to and what not to listen to." A guitarist, Babak Riahipour, predicted the ban would fail: "Mr. Ahmadinejad maybe doesn't know his society well enough ... especially among the youth. We can still get the music we would like to listen from somewhere else. We can get it from the Internet, we can get it on Tehran's big black market, anywhere."
Others worried that the ban, which affects only state-run television and radio, could be the first step toward the universal ban on all popular music, Western and Iranian alike, imposed right after the revolution. "We are concerned about the cultural policies of this government," says Hamid Vafaei, the director of a music school in Tehran. Akram Azizi, a housewife, fretted that music programs "were beginning to improve, and now the authorities are getting cold feet. If such a ban is in effect, state TV and radio will not have an audience anymore."
Dec. 28, 2005 update: Christopher Foley of the "The Collaborative Piano Blog" has this wry observation on the Ahmadinejad ban on Western music: "With the apathy that many classical musicians habitually bear in the course of their musical pursuits, it's almost comforting to hear that some people are genuinely offended by the music that we make."
Feb. 4, 2010 update: In an unusually critical piece about the Islamic Republic of Iran, "The Sour Notes of Iran's Art Diplomacy," Michael Kimmelman looks at Tehran's sponsoring the Tehran Symphony Orchestra on a tour across Europe. Reporting from Geneva, he writes:
Kimmelman attended a concert in Geneva, where tickets were
Then he goes after the music itself, reaching heights of eloquence:
And a final word on the bedraggled Tehran Symphony Orchestra, which Kimmelman writes was once "an exemplar of Iranian cultural excellence":
Comment: Ahmadinejad came to power and banned Western-style music (see the Dec. 19, 2005 entry, above); what happened that his regime is now proffering its own version of Western music, however awful it might be? What happened that the TSO has become not just acceptable but an export item?
June 1, 2010 update: As ever, music is a political football in Iran, reports Ali Sheikholeslami for Bloomberg. Now the issue is music instruction at the country's 16,000 private schools, where 1.1 million students attend classes:
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