Published October 27, 2005
TEHRAN, Iran – There won't be any liquor-swilling God-denyers on the Iranian silver screen any time soon. Drug takers, secularists, liberals, anarchists and feminists are out, too.
That's what a committee of Islamic clerics, led by new hard-line President Ahmadinejad (search), ruled earlier this week when it banned foreign films. The clerics singled out in the ban elements of Western culture that were judged as affronts to the government's vision of Iran's Muslim culture.
With the decision, Iranians felt one of the first cultural reversals of the opening to the outside world they enjoyed under their former reformist President Mohammad Khatami (search).
And the ban, designed to wipe out what clerics call "corrupt Western culture," is not going down well with many in Iran.
"It's not right to fight other cultures. Imposing censorship is not the logical way to resist Western culture, at any rate," said Ali Reza Raisian, head of the Iranian film directors association. "If Westerners were to treat us the same way, we also would not be able to reach them through film with our messages and way of thinking."
The ban aims to distance the Persian state from the open cultural policies undertaken by Khatami that encouraged cultural coexistence and dialogue among civilizations. But many experts and officials say the ban will only cause Iranians to turn to the black market for western video tapes or to foreign satellite television broadcasts.
The Supreme Cultural Revolutionary Council (search) said the banned films "damage and humiliate eastern traditions and culture" and promote "arrogant powers," a propaganda term Iran's government uses to describe the United States. The move follows on the Ahmadinejad campaign promise to promote Islamic culture and confront what he called the Western cultural invasion.
Raisian said the ban would have little effect on cinemas where few Western films play, but it could dramatically change television, where all channels are controlled by the state and overseen by religious hard-liners.
State-run television had shown foreign films after censoring many scenes deemed immoral or offensive. Films considered hostile to the Islamic values preached by the ruling establishment were already banned altogether.
"This new ban appears to be part of a campaign to push Iran back to the 1980s and to impose the same restrictions that were only just eased under Khatami. But it will be impossible to take Iran back to '80s again," said political analyst Davoud Hermidas Bavand.
Under Khatami, Iran's 70 million people, of which more than half are under 30, enjoyed many social and political freedoms and were exposed to Western popular culture through satellite television. The dishes are officially banned but tolerated by authorities. Many residents in Tehran hide them under tarps or disguise them as air conditioning units.
Western music, films and clothing are widely available in Iran, and hip-hop tunes can be heard on Tehran's streets, blaring from car speakers or from music shops. Bootleg videos and DVDs of films banned by the state are widely available in the black market.
"A policy of censorship never works. Hard-liners don't understand that they can't tell the people what to watch and what not to watch," said cinema fan Hasan Jamali.
The clerical council has not said what a film must contain to be ruled as promoting secularism or liberalism, meaning decisions will be made on an ad hoc basis.
"It's a useless decision. It gives a sword to people to act based on their personal interpretations," said Ahmad Pournejati, a former member of the council.
Pournejati said terms of the ban were so vague that they may apply to any Western film. Members of the council could not be reached for comment. They are hand-picked by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters.
Pournejati said the ban won't prevent the spread of Western liberalism and undermines what Khatami did to promote tolerance and understanding among different cultures.
Khatami's policy of tolerance and dialogue among civilizations opened Iran to cultural exchanges with the outside world, even allowing Western plays to return to the Iranian stage.
In 2003, plays by William Shakespeare (search) returned to an Iranian stage for the first time in 25 years. They were modified to suit conservative Iranian tastes. Embraces between male and female members omitted from performances, for example.