Iran’s Culture Minister Says He’s Trying to “Transform” Conservative Clerics’ Views on Music
Before musicians can perform concerts in Iran without the threat of the authorities suddenly canceling them, someone has to convince conservative Shia Muslim clerics that music is not un-Islamic.
“Some of the things that have happened to these artists is because of the views expressed by some religious leaders,” said Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Abbas Salehi in an interview with the semi-official Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA) on December 4, 2017.
“We are trying to transform their views towards [becoming familiar with] those who are and were active in the field of arts,” he said. “We will continue our mutual deliberations, God willing.”
Since 2013, when President Hassan Rouhani was voted into office promising a more open society, numerous musicians and vocalists saw their concerts canceled at the last moment.
The vast majority of the canceled concerts had received licenses from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.
Religious conservatives have justified their attacks on musicians by quoting vague statements and decrees by senior religious leaders. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, has often warned about the alleged dangers of music, saying it will “lead people away from the path of God.”
Cancelations of concerts featuring female vocalists and musicians have also been particularly frequent since 2013.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, women are prohibited from singing or playing musical instruments solo. Some women who have attempted to perform solo have been harassed and forcibly removed from the stage.
In October 2015, Iranian newspapers revealed the names of 24 Iranian musicians who had been banned from engaging in their profession for allegedly collaborating with music distributors based abroad. That same month, then Culture and Islamic Guidance Minister Ali Jannati denied that artists in Iran had been banned from producing and performing their music for political reasons.
However, two years later, Jannati’s successor has admitted that many musicians cannot pursue their profession because of religious and political roadblocks.
Many Friday prayer leaders, appointed by Supreme Leader Khamenei, have objected to music being played on Iran’s state-funded radio and television stations. They have also criticized the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which operates under President Rouhani, for allowing musicians and singers to perform in Iran.
“Mashhad is a city of pilgrims, not a tourist center or entertainment attraction for revelry,” said Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer leader of the city of Mashhad, on August 12, 2016.
He continued: “The sanctity of Imam Reza’s shrine [based in Mashhad] does not end at its perimeter. We shouldn’t have to haggle with officials and the people about canceling concerts in Mashhad.”
After the authorities canceled a series of concerts in the summer of 2017, members of the House of Music, an independent association of musicians based in Tehran, urged President Rouhani to prevent religious conservatives from harassing them and canceling their concerts.
“Presently, the question is: Are the cancelations of lawful concerts not a clear example of the violation of the rights of musicians as citizens? Who is accountable for the trampling of these rights?” wrote the organization in an open letter in August 2017.
In an October 2017 interview with the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), formerly imprisoned pop singer Arya Aramnejad said he had been offered bribes and promised that the ban on his music would be lifted if he promised to apologize for his past activities.
“After Rouhani’s first government was formed [in 2013], I immediately contacted the guidance ministry to try to resume my work within a legal framework… I had three meetings with a ministry official who wanted me to give an interview and express remorse for my political views,” said Aramnejad.
“He said I was a good person and a national treasure who should not be held back by politics. He said that if I cooperated, my music production costs would be paid. Then he promised to organize a concert for me at Tehran’s Milad Tower. I told him I would not in any way express regret for my past songs and won’t give any commitments.”
On February 15, 2010, Aramnejad, 34, was briefly detained for his song “Ali Barkhiz” (Ali Rise Up!), a homage to Iran’s pro-reform Green Movement, which grew out of the peaceful protests against the disputed result of Iran’s 2009 presidential election.
Aramnejad was arrested again on November 8, 2011, for continuing to sing political songs and released after spending six months in the Intelligence Ministry’s detention center in Babol and 34 days in solitary confinement in Mati Kola Prison.
For the past decade, singer and songwriter Hossein Zaman has also been banned from performing and lost his university teaching post due to his political views. In an interview with CHRI in December 2015, he said he was unable to resume his career because he had publicly criticized state policies.
“I used to have a blog called Kabootar-e Ghasedak (Messenger Pigeon), which was blocked a few years ago, where I expressed criticisms about [various] political and social issues,” Zaman told CHRI.
“Then I continued on Facebook,” he added. “I was comfortable with being critical in my speeches and meetings as well. As a result, I ended up in court and lost my occupations.”