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This has become clear to me in recent years from my reading of Iranian literature and journalism as well as conversations with Iranians—not least regarding my own books, which are banned in the country but, I’m told, sell briskly there even so.(Sadly, though I was born in Iran, and lived and taught there until 1986, today I can’t visit because of what some in the regime consider my support for the democratic movement.Amid heated discussion concerning the intentions of Iran’s leaders—Are they capable of real compromise over the country’s nuclear program? Are they permanent ideological adversaries of America?—quieter shifts in Iranian politics have escaped notice.His anxieties, it appears, are not just the paranoid fears of an authoritarian.The trend is perhaps most clearly visible in Iran’s popular culture.And yet it was Ahmadinejad’s second term, which was in many ways even more destructive than his first for Iran’s economy and status in the world, that helped bring about the election of the reformist Hassan Rouhani.No less importantly, Iran’s new politics was born of the clerical regime’s relentless effort—stemming from the Islamic Republic’s founding principle of , or rule of the Shiite jurist as the representative of Allah on Earth—to micro-social-engineer life and culture in Iran.

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One of the best-selling albums in Iran in recent months is called New technologies have expanded the reach of these small cells of resistance.This new politics was born, in part, from the recent defeats of the democratic movement, including the brutal suppression of peaceful protests following the re-election, widely believed to have been fraudulent, of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.The leaders of that movement have now spent more than four years under illegal house arrest.Among these are millions of Facebook users, despite the fact that the site, along with Instagram and many others, is officially banned in the country (leaders’ social-media accounts are exempt).Perhaps ironically from the perspective of conservative clerics, the spread of Islamic ideas via the Internet has in some ways facilitated religious openness and tolerance in Iran.In conversations with people in Iran, as well as the writings of leading Iranian religious thinkers inside and outside the country, I’ve observed a kind of respect for the ambiguities in the human condition that do not lend themselves to simple-minded dogmas.Prominent clerics have complained that even in Shiite seminaries, traditionally the most persistent peddlers of philosophical certitude in the country, a posture of relativism is in vogue.When a country’s rulers try to dictate everything from sartorial style to sexual ethics—as Iran’s Islamic conservatives have consistently done by, for example, mandating that women wear headscarves in public and pressuring men not to wear ties—then every one of those details of daily life becomes a potential flashpoint of resistance.The people of Iran have cleverly, and daringly, learned to turn these restrictions into tools for social and political resistance and change—so much so that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his conservative allies have repeatedly referred to what they call “culture wars” in the country.One crucial development in recent years has been digital archives making available, often for the first time, virtually every important religious book in the history of Islam.Laments of conservative clerics regarding lapsed pieties—which I’ve seen with increasing frequency in Iranian media over the past few years—hint that state-defined notions of subservience to religious dogma are on the decline among ordinary Iranians.


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