Popular Music, Politics and Social Criticism: Iranian Social Media React to a Lecture by Dr. Yousef-Ali Abazari

Raz Zimmt examines the discussion on Iranian social networks to the lecture given in December 2014 by the sociologist Dr. Yousef-Ali Abazari, which discussed the death of the Iranian pop singer Morteza Pashaei, who died the previous month.

On December 9, 2014, at a conference held by  the Sociology Association  at Tehran University, sociologist Dr. Yousef-Ali Abazari  gave a lecture that provoked stormy responses on Iranian social media networks,  which continued for several weeks. The lecture discussed reactions to the death of Iranian pop singer Morteza Pashaei, who died of cancer at the age of 30 the previous month. His funeral was the largest public gathering of Iranians since the popular protests in 2009.

Abazari, who is identified with the reformist opposition and supported President Khatami in the past, used his lecture to lash out at Iranian society, the country’s government, and its pop music scene. He complained that while the death of Pashaei evoked public emotion, Iranian society remains unmoved by other issues, such as the desperate situation of residents in Sistan and Baluchestan Province in southeastern Iran. Abazari noted that the public responses to the singer’s death is evidence of the cultural bankruptcy of Iranian society, which the government is encouraging. The December 2009 riots , he claims, evoked  mutual fear of the authorities and the public, and led to establishing an accord between citizens and the state for the de-politicization of Iranian society. On one hand, citizens are distancing themselves from political involvement, while on the other hand, the authorities are encouraging the trend by bringing artists, athletes and popular singers into politics, and encouraging ceremonies – like the funeral procession of the popular singer – that provide citizens with non-political channels for expressing their emotions. Abazari specifically attacked President Rouhani, contending that his policy is intended to distract citizens’ attention from sensitive political, economic, and social issues. He also expressed total disdain for pop music, calling it “the worst, vulgar, simple, stupid music” that represents the demise of society and encourages fascist thinking.[1]

Abazari’s controversial lecture was shared dozens of times on social media, and caused a public outcry. Some users praised the sociologist for his courage and willingness to express strong criticism in public. Supporters claimed that his words accurately represent the dismal situation of Iranian society, which is experiencing cultural and ethical decline.[2] However, most users condemned him vigorously, criticizing both the content of his comments and their style. First of all, they criticized his use of derogatory language, such as “idiots,” and made it clear that even if his criticism is justified, it ought to be stated more respectfully.[3]

In addition to the criticism of his style, the content of Abazari’s lecture was also the subject of lively online discussion involving hundreds of users, including sociologists, intellectuals, and prominent journalists. The discourse focused primarily on his claims regarding a process of de-politicization in Iranian society, his criticism of young people, and his disparaging attitude towards popular music. Exiled reformist activist Ali Alizadeh claimed that even if Abazari’s criticism reflects some truth about Iranian society, and even if the process of de-politicization is undeniable and encouraged by the government, there is no connection between it and the public mourning over the death of Pashaei, whose funeral cannot be considered the result of a government-directed policy. Indeed, the current government is hesitant about public involvement in politics, but it is not responsible for the de-politicization. Rather, de-politicization is the result of actions taken by conservative forces, law enforcement agencies, and the Revolutionary Guards, as well as the economic crisis that has plagued the country in recent years.[4]

Sociologist Mohammad-Reza Jalaeipour rejected the claim that the involvement of celebrities in politics and the encouragement of nonpolitical ceremonies are guided by the government. Rather, he claimed that these are an expression of the public will. The giant funeral of Pashaei‎ was, according to Jalaeipour, the result of spontaneous public organization via social media platforms and cell phone coordination. The government media reported the event only once its size became evident. Moreover, he rejected Abazari’s complaint that the public’s involvement in politics has decreased. To the contrary, he contended that the duration of the protest movement after the 2009 elections and the relatively high turnout in the recent elections are evidence of lively political involvement, both in comparison to the past and relative to other societies.[5]

Abazari’s criticism of popular music also aroused strident criticism. Many users claimed that music is a matter of taste, and no one has the right to define any musical genre as having less value than any other. They also claimed that there is no correlation between popular music and the decline of culture or morality, as demonstrated by the flowering of classical music in Nazi Germany. Jalaeipour noted that popular music was suppressed by both the Soviet authorities and the current Iranian regime. Furthermore, political involvement of young, urban Iranian people – who are considered the main consumers of popular music – is many times higher than that of those who prefer traditional music.[6]

The discourse on Abazari’s lecture expanded into a more fundamental discussion of the weaknesses of Iranian intellectuals in general and sociologists in particular. The sociologist Arman Zakeri claimed that conservative intellectuals like Abazari, who are disconnected from the public and prefer to critique the world rather than to work within it for change, are largely responsible for the de‎-politicization that he railed against. These intellectuals prefer to stay away from politics and continue their work in universities even when, as in recent years, students were  suspended for their political activities. This is further amplified by politically-appointed university administrators who lack the appropriate talents for the job.[7] Exiled journalist Fouad Shams claimed that Iranian sociologists are disconnected from the society they are studying, and recommended that they travel by public transportation rather than sit in their ivory towers and deal with theoretical issues.[8]

The criticism of Abazari also quickly deteriorated into personal attacks. One user wrote that no courage is necessary to show disrespect for a young singer who died of a serious illness. Conversely, it was said that if he were indeed courageous, Abazari would be serving time in Evin Prison.[9] Finally, Abazari’s words aroused such ire that opponents launched a Facebook page entitled, “We Hate Yousef Abazari.”[10]

The stinging response to  the lecture by Abazari again shows how social media have become the main platform for public discourse about processes occurring in Iranian society, including moral weaknesses, de-politicization, escapism and the lack of social solidarity. The emotional responses to the criticism voiced by Abazari express both the potential inherent in online platforms for lively dialogue, and the sensitivity of Iranian society to any criticism that it considers harmful, arrogant or degrading.