In 'Decadent' Tehran, Islam Cracks the Whip

Residents forced to shed Western ways as hard-liners make another political stand

The warning came as a phone call from a friend: Police were swooping down on her neighborhood, a Tehran woman was told; they were hunting illegal satellite dishes.

She rushed upstairs to the roof, dismantled her prized satellite dish, and hid it away in the nick of time. "Dr. Zhivago" was the last thing she had seen.

"Our government attacked us," she said later, tightening a veil around her face. "Things are not getting any better."

Such crackdowns against "decadent Western culture" are a periodic occurrence in Iran's capital, where conservative Islamic clerics wage political and social battles for influence over moderate colleagues.

Caught in the middle are the cosmopolitan people of Tehran, many of whose Western habits from before Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution have been hard to break, and where religious enforcement seems to be a function of the neighborhood.

In poor and crowded south Tehran, the volunteer Partisans of the Party of God are quick to question and briefly detain a foreign visitor whose translator is a well-covered woman.

But in wealthy north Tehran, flashy baubles and women wearing tiger-print scarves askew barely rate a second glance.

Both sides of town, however, can be subject to the reassertion of strict Islamic rules.

During the dish crackdown, many people were not quick enough to hide. In one month-long spree late last year, police nabbed 1,500 satellite dishes.

Authorities have created a junkyard of the mangled dishes just off a main Tehran thoroughfare. The pile is testament to a renewed official war against "cultural aggression," and also to the thousands here who boldly, secretly, set up and switch on CNN and BBC every night.

The fine is 1 million rials ($250). But for many, disillusioned by what they see as the self-serving rule of the mullahs, it's worth the risk. This crackdown happened to coincide with the first-ever Farsi-language transmissions of Voice of America TV.

But the fight against such "decadence" is widespread, according to a United Nations human rights report released last October that concluded that Iran's social climate "is becoming less tolerant." The UN report cited the banning of newspapers, the break-up of private meetings, and an increase in executions of criminals.

The current trend, Iranians say, may be a backlash by conservatives, who lost 90 seats in the 270-seat parliament in elections last spring and who wish to make a hard-line point before presidential elections May 23.

Iranians note a more stringent adherence to rules since Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, decried the "perverse resistance" of intellectuals to the Islamic Republic.

The dress code for women has toughened up (though Iranians counter that women, who are alone among Arab Gulf states in having the right to vote, have made strides).

"Un-Islamic" elements have reportedly been purged from the education system.

Newspaper editors have been imprisoned, and a prime-time TV show denounces intellectuals as Western spies, merging their faces with the image of a $100 American bill.

Even the newspaper of the Islamic Students Society, said to be backed by members of Iran's hierarchy, was suspended last year for criticizing officials.

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