Freedom of Speech in Iran

by Anoosh Djavaheri

The terms “freedom of speech” and “Iran” aren’t commonly associated, nor used in the same sentence, unless to show polar opposites. This very-much-so Islamic country is not what many would call a nation with much freedom of speech, or even freedom of will, with strict laws against women, marriage, divorce, sexual preference and religion. Indeed, any discussion of Iran often leads to thoughts and connotations of nuclear weapons, terrorism and corruption. It is fair for one to take this view of Iran in the modern world; however, not many know of Iran’s past.

Iran was once a thriving, heavily western-influenced society. It was a monarchy under the “Shah” Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who often met with United States officials: President John F. Kennedy in 1962, President Richard Nixon in 1971, and even Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong in 1969. Women were given the right to vote as of 1963, and Iran was most definitely embracing Western culture. However, the change from the old regime to the new, present-day government came when there was a backlash against the westernisation of Iran, social injustice, and failures in the economy.

The Shah was often viewed by the people as a “puppet” of the United States (a non-Muslim, Western power), which was not well accepted by some of the people. Ruhollah Khomeini was the first to lead a political movement against the Shah’s regime, and what he called the Shah’s “White Revolution.” He was arrested after describing the Shah as a “wretched miserable man” who had “embarked on the destruction of Islam in Iran.” Khomeini, who was once quoted as believing “America is behind all that’s gone wrong,” was eventually released, inevitably overthrowing the Shah and taking control of the country. Ever since then, Iran has remained an anti-Western state, holding onto its core Shia Islamic beliefs.

The opinion on freedom of speech within Iran varies depending on whom you speak to: people who were, and still are, supporters of the monarchy, and people who support the current government. Both groups will say that there was no freedom of speech, free press and freedom of expression during the Shah’s time in Iran.

Over the past 70 years or so (with the exception of the two year period before and after the revolution, when there was, indeed, an element of freedom within Iran) there has never really been any freedom to speak out against the government in the country.

The main difference in freedom of speech in Iran in the present day as opposed to in the old, monarchic state is the inability to speak freely against religion. Religion is essentially the core of Iran—so to speak out against it would be to insult and disrespect the government in addition to the religion of Islam itself. Religion was simply not of great importance during the Shah’s time—the country was considered much more moderate.

The fundamental issue regarding freedom of speech in Iran is this: you could never, and still cannot, speak out against the government. In modern-day Iran, you cannot speak out against religion or the government; the two are effectively one as Iran’s government is based upon Islamic law. In the old, monarchic regime of Iran you could not speak out against the government. People often compare the two regimes, commenting on one being better than the other; however, when talking of freedom of speech, they are, noticeably, similar.

Anoosh Djavaheri is a first-year Philosophy student from Surrey.

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