Meet the godfather of the Iranian online democracy movement
BY SARAH ELTON • Hossein Derakhshan had just said goodbye to his father and his cousin at Tehran’s MehrAbad airport after a visit home last year, when he was stopped by Iranian security. They wanted to talk to him about hoder.com, the bilingual PersianEnglish weblog he runs out of Toronto. Apparently, some opinions he’d expressed on it had offended someone—and broken Iran’s censorship laws. He was asked to produce a written apology for a variety of offences, including insulting the Supreme Leader. Five days later, after he had completed this task, he was permitted to board a plane back home.
Derakhshan, of course, is no ordinary blogger. A controversial figure who’s called the godfather of the Iranian online democracy movement by some, the 32-year-old started his own weblog, one of the first Persian-language blogs, in 2001, soon after emigrating to Canada with his now ex-wife. (She had suggested the move and he’d agreed. “I wanted to get out of Iran and see how the world is,” he says.) It was a step-by-step Persian-language guide to blogging he posted on hoder.com around that time that is credited with launching an online revolution. Within a month, there were more than 100 new Persian weblogs. Today, there are hundreds of thousands. A whopping seven million of Iran’s 69 million people are online and, with 80 per cent of the population being under the age of 30, the medium has the potential to wield a lot of power. Even politicians are trying to get in on the action. The former Iranian vice-president Mohammad Ali Abtahi started his own blog, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has one too, though he almost never posts.
Derakhshan uses his own Internet forum to expound on geopolitical issues, and his writings reveal a complicated man with complicated opinions—so complicated that, to some readers, it’s unclear where exactly his loyalties lie. Some suspect he’s funded by the CIA, while others believe it is Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself who supports him. Derakhshan claims to be a reformist who voted alongside many young people for Muhammad Khatami in 1997. He says he does not support Khamenei. But in an op-ed piece penned soon after former University of Toronto academic Ramin Jahanbegloo allegedly confessed to spying, he argued that the confession must have been genuine. Given the current political climate, he wrote, it makes little sense that the intelligence ministry would torture dissidents. His view shocked many in the Iranian diaspora who believe Jahanbegloo was unfairly imprisoned and abused by an oppressive state.
Derakhshan holds other counterintuitive
views. He thinks Iran should have nuclear weapons as a deterrent against foreign attack. He is anti-Bush while also being pro-Israel. A visit to that country last year—he said he was there to stop an Israeli attack on Iran— was covered by the media there.
In Toronto, Derkhshan has a second life as a Web designer, with clients in Canada and Europe—although, over the past two years, he has spent a lot of time overseas, conferencehopping and networking with others working for online democracy. He credits Canada with politicizing him. “If I had not left Iran, I would not have discovered blogs and become political,” he says. “If I were there now, I would have to leave.” Having been detained once, he dares not return. Meanwhile, he says he continues to push for change. He has another blog, called Stop Censoring Us, and last year, in a move toward what he calls wikiocracy, tried to get Iranians around the world to collaborate on a new constitution for the country, using Wikipedia as a model.
Derakhshan may be, as he admits, a political enigma. But there’s no question he’s a pioneer. “He tapped into a social movement that was ripe for that kind of facilitation,” says Ron Deibert, a professor at U of T and director of the Citizen Lab, which tracks the intersection of technology and human rights. “He had his finger on the pulse of what was going on.” His views have also appeared on the op-ed pages of newspapers such as the
New York Times, and in online versions of the Washington Post and the Guardian in Britain.
In recent months his cause has faced a new setback. Iran has one of the world’s most sophisticated Internet censorship systems with filters blocking access to all sorts of sites, including hoder.com. All ISP subscribers must sign a contract promising not to access “nonIslamic” sites, and a bill passed recently restricts access to high-speed Internet. Yet Derakhshan is optimistic. He believes the online movement will push Iran toward a democratic future. If in the process it also delivers a livelier blogosphere, who can complain? M
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