Shirin Saeidi, The European Centre for the Study of Extremism
Many people involved in the cultural production of Iran’s conservative right describe themselves as “Hezbollahi.” Although its origins can be traced back to the pre-revolutionary period, the Ansar-e Hezbollah (Partisans of Hezbollah) movement was formed in the years following the 1979 Iranian revolution. The term Hezbollah is Quranic, ambiguous, and at its root, utopian, making it a difficult concept to pin down. Iran’s Hezbollah claims to embody the ideology that helped form the more widely known Lebanese Hezbollah movement, established in 1985. For instance, Shahid Mostafa Chamran, who helped train fighters in Lebanon and was later killed during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), is one of the ideologues of Iran’s Hezbollah movement. Iran’s senior Hezbollah cultural activists are in communication with their counterparts in Lebanon. They meet Lebanese Hezbollah affiliates regularly to exchange ideas and experiences, and are often fluent in Arabic and English. A steadfast opposition to the Israeli state, a dedication to Iran’s Supreme Leader, and an individual commitment to pious behavior are central to the framework of both movements.
The real time cultural activism of the official Hezbollah front in Iran is understudied, in part because it has been impenetrable for Western researchers and journalists. As a doctoral student, I met influential leaders of the Hezbollah movement during fieldwork in Iran, because they also happen to be experts on the Iran-Iraq war, the topic of my dissertation. When I returned to Tehran in 2012, I noticed that the small Hezbollah cultural institutes that had existed during my 2007 to 2008 doctoral fieldwork, were now significantly larger. Additionally, the middle-aged men interested in the history of the 1979 revolution and Iran-Iraq war were less visible. In their place, there were ambitious male and female students, sometimes in their late teens, often from Iran’s top universities, who felt personally responsible to revive the ideals of the 1979 revolution. Intrigued by this change, I decided to study the transformation of Iran’s Hezbollah movement. Admittedly, I was surprised when, as an American citizen, I was given access. Without extensive ethnographic research within these cultural institutes, the propaganda produced is difficult, if not impossible, to decipher.
Iran’s Hezbollah does fall within the loose coalition of the “right” due to its conservative understandings of religion. Historically, the “left” in Iran has been associated with “social justice,” and a critical stance towards the West – all political dispositions to which Iran’s Hezbollah is also devoted. However, the Hezbollah faction is closer to the “right” in Iran today due to its commitment to the absolute rule of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It should be acknowledged that these categorizations are all inexact and fluid in Iran, like elsewhere. Nevertheless, Hezbollah cultural products are not intended for mass consumption by Iranian youth or even the conservative right. These products are not distributed haphazardly to international organizations. In other words, the cultural artefacts are for the use and reproduction of what the Lebanese Hezbollah has identified as the “society of resistance” (Lamloum, 2009). The society of resistance in the Iranian context is understood to be those who are committed to the notion of Islamic government, and in post-2009, it is led by individuals that stood with the Supreme Leader during the contested presidential election. Located in Tehran, but with offices and affiliates throughout the country, Hezbollah cultural institutes also manufacture and distribute media productions made specifically for a transnational audience.
The gap between factions in Iran should not be exaggerated. Hezbollah leaders and followers have a working relationship with official organizations throughout the country. For instance, it is common for activists to receive funds for their projects from Hozeh Honari (an official cultural organization within the conservative front), but to participate in Hezbollah film festivals and receive awards for their films and animations from the Hezbollah faction. Similarly, activists based in Hezbollah cultural institutes may work on collaborative projects with official state organizations. Indeed, their Hezbollahi identity may be a reason why they are called upon to give their analysis on a particular issue. Nevertheless, Hezbollah cultural activists differentiate themselves from other artists and intellectuals in the country due to their willingness to undermine the political boundaries of both reformists and conservatives, all while remaining obedient to the Supreme Leader.
The establishment of Hezbollah cultural institutes was part of the post-2009 state’s effort at resurrecting the 1980 to 1983 cultural revolution. The post-1979 and post-2009 cultural revolutions sought to materialize the state’s vision of Islamization. One of the tasks entrusted to Hezbollah cultural institutes is the depiction of an ideal Hezbollahi citizen. Activists are to produce films, animations, documentaries, memoirs, and to participate in other Islamization projects, such as the anti-feminist movement. In the process, activists undergo a self-transformation, while at the same time, creating cultural and media products that will reproduce the regime’s revolutionary core. Importantly, further pluralization of social identities is to be combatted with a return to an authentic and homogeneous Islam.
What distinguishes Hezbollah cultural products from other official-state or religious production is their greater appreciation for unconventionality. For instance, Hezbollah cultural institutes are the creation of pious activists with little or no previous experience in the arts. Young people are given the opportunity to develop their interests and skills with limited intervention from senior leaders or even the non-governmental organizations that fund their activism. Such an environment, which essentially refuses to be bounded by the state’s larger bureaucratic form, is rare within conservative cultural spaces in Iran. Informal or shadow cultural institutes that identify as Hezbollahi and are funded by non-governmental centres of power, multiplied in extraordinary numbers following the disputed 2009 presidential election.
Studying cultural artefacts that are defined by their makers as propaganda, demands that political scientists re-engage with qualitative methods. I utilize a method called “surface reading” to capture the nuances of Hezbollah films (Best and Marcus, 2009). Employing the suspicious gaze of an academic meant that I missed the unintentional spillovers of propaganda. My critical move in this moment, then, entails a laidback orientation that sees the (re)positioning of words and images thoughtfully but also “alongside” the film (Bewes, 2010, p. 4). As such, I illustrate a novel method for studying films that are understood by their makers and financial sponsors to be propaganda. I insist that we should not only use our historical knowledge to explicate the production tactics and political gestures of these artefacts, but also contemplate the overflow of unintended, unrehearsed or mixed messages visual propaganda, in all its forms, sends to its targeted spectators. The assertion that viewers interpret art according to their own experiences has been made. I demonstrate a different argument here: propagandists make mistakes and have hidden aspirations, and the boundaries between these two realms are not always clear, but are nonetheless consequential.
This memo relies upon evidence gathered during several consecutive years of fieldwork in Tehran. In particular, I will discuss two different Hezbollah film festivals that I attended between 2012 to 2014. I also depend on discussions with activists during and after these festivals to develop my arguments. Ultimately, I argue that the state’s investment in the formation and distribution of cultural products for its closest allies yields unintended outcomes that, at times, dramatically remake state-sanctioned religiosity.
Iran’s Hezbollah and the cultural production of the right
Like much of Hezbollah’s inner workings, the exact amount of funding devoted to Iran’s Hezbollah cultural institutes is considered confidential information (Saad-Ghorayeb, 2012). It can be acknowledged that President Rouhani’s government prefers not to support them. Although institutes, events and organizations that may identify or operate as Hezbollahi do receive governmental funding, the Hezbollah cultural institutions that I frequented are not supported by the current government. The growth of conservative cultural production in contemporary Iran, however, has been well documented. For instance, Bajoghli (2017) argues that since 2007, pro-regime filmmakers began to recognize the need to create media productions that Iran’s post-revolutionary youth would find entertaining. Nevertheless, the public records of cultural spending costs are limited. The state’s non-governmental centres of power, which fund the Hezbollah cultural institutes I studied, do not make their financial contributions to cultural projects transparent. Furthermore, even when governmental funds for an organization are made public, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Broadcasting, the overall number alone does not reveal which channels, ideas, projects, and individuals are influential in the real-time distribution of that budget.
Hezbollah cultural institutes, then, are politically significant centres of power in post-2009 and part of the larger shift in Iran’s cultural policy framework that has taken hold since the Ahmadinejad presidency (2005-2013). At times, cultural institutes that were understood to be Hezbollahi pre-2009 were replaced in post-2009. For instance, when some employees of an influential cultural institute were seen participating in post-election demonstrations in 2009, the institute – which had produced many acclaimed war documentaries and war studies experts – lost a significant amount of its financial support. In its place, over ten Hezbollah cultural institutes were established with extraordinary resources: incorporating pious students studying in Tehran who were either too young or apolitical before the transformations of 2009.
The different shades of Hezbollah
This section and the following show how one unintended outcome of propaganda is that conservative depictions of the ideal Hezbollahi citizen are blatantly disrupted. This point can be illustrated through an example from a Hezbollah film festival which I attended regularly between 2012 to 2014. During one evening session, the showing of Armita Mesle Pari (Armita like an Angel) was accompanied by a discussion with the filmmaker and the martyr’s family. Darioush Rezaeinejad was an electrical engineering student who had been connected with Iran’s nuclear energy program when he was assassinated in the summer of 2011; Mossad has allegedly accepted responsibility for his death. The documentary, however, focuses mostly on the relationship between Rezaeinejad’s five-year-old daughter, Armita, and the Supreme Leader in the period following Rezaeinejad’s death. During the question and answer session, a debate emerged among several participants. Some argued that the documentary should have focussed more on the martyr. Others stated that Armita is charismatic and that her mother should not apologize for that characteristic, which many lack. Moreover, it was reiterated that Armita witnessed Rezaeinejad’s death, since she was in the car with her parents the day he became a martyr. Several viewers that evening insisted that most, if not all, martyrs’ children have never endured such an experience. Therefore, at least a segment of the audience that evening, including Rezaeinejad’s family, felt the extensive national attention the young child received was legitimate, although not necessarily healthy for a child of her age.
These explicit arguments depart from expressions of piety I have witnessed among other wives of martyrs, especially those from the Iran-Iraq War (Saeidi, 2010). Wives of war martyrs place emphasis on the grace that accompanies the loss of loved ones in the path of God. They take solace in sharing the same fate as other families of martyrs, including Shi’i martyrs more broadly. They rarely ask for national recognition, at least not as public celebrities and not through a language of loss. The argument that being the center of attention is an orphan’s right lends support to a politics of self-care, where the loss of life, whether in the path of God, hardly relieves society of the responsibility to care.
In particular moments, the film contests the state’s formal narrative of Shi’ism. The film spends a large amount of camera time trying to transform Shohreh, Rezaeinejad’s widow, and Armita into ideal Hezbollahi citizens. The unedited and uninterrupted camera shots seem determined to “prove” Shohreh and Armita’s Muslimness (at one point even following Armita into the restroom as she prepares for her prayers). The film thus unsettles the state’s formal and reformist narratives of martyrdom, not only by eclipsing the martyr, but also by failing to “fit” Shohreh and Armita into conventional categories of martyrs’ relatives. In an effort to convince us that Shohreh and Armita are sufficiently Muslim, and sufficiently familiar, to be part of the state’s elite core, the martyr, and values typically attributed to martyrdom, are not only neglected, but also problematized. This may indeed have been intentional on the part of the film crew. Given the rise of celebrity culture in Iran, drawing attention to two young women may have been a bid for mass appeal. Nevertheless, observation and interviews reveal that this approach is frowned upon by a faction of senior Hezbollah leaders, as well as those funding such projects.
The film also overturned the conventional depiction of an ideal Shi’i woman, for both reformists and conservatives. For decades, the optimistic figure of the martyr’s wife has told the Iranian public that she instigated her husband’s martyrdom – but such a figure is oddly missing here. Shohreh’s “political depression” and insistence on securing a bright future for her daughter in light of the state’s inability to protect her family resonates with an audience beyond the Hezbollah faction (Cvetkovich, 2012). She becomes every mother who has struggled to thrive with the odds stacked against her, and a woman who has risked vulnerability. In the process, she becomes a “Hezbollahi” for the women associated with the movement (or not) who share her ambition, resilience, and search for liberation or solidarity.
The director appears to depend on the visual integration of Ayatollah Khamenei, instead of the martyr himself, to reinsert the sacred into the screen. It is common for state elites to visit families of martyrs in Iran as a show of respect and solidarity. Khamenei had visited the family shortly after Rezaeinejad’s death. The filmmaker relies on this previously filmed material to borrow moral support from the Supreme Leader. Ayatollah Khamenei, then, represents the ideal Hezbollahi, and the climax of the film. Yet even the presence of Iran’s Supreme Leader cannot dispel the astonishment in Shohreh’s eyes, or the nervousness with which Armita fiddles with her hair. For instance, Shohreh tells us that Armita stops whatever she is doing when she hears the Supreme Leader’s voice coming from the television. Despite her mother’s insistence, Armita appears uncomfortable with her objectification. She talks fast and makes sarcastic jokes. Importantly, during his visit to their home, which we see replayed in the documentary, Khamenei makes no effort to be a father figure. Viewers see that the Supreme Leader asks what the little girl’s name is, suggesting that he has been busy with other responsibilities prior to his arrival at their home. He asks if the photo on the table next to him is the martyr, to which Shohreh swiftly replies, “Yes.” Khamenei’s own behavior implies that he is visiting the family as part of his professional duties, with no intention of redefining what has happened to them. He lectures the family on the importance of science for national progress. He is then interrupted by Armita who moves closer to him with a child’s demand for love and attention – which he offers and examines Armita’s drawing of her father’s assassination. Rezaeinejad does not “count” as Hezbollahi enough from the perspective of the filmmakers, and in his place the Supreme Leader’s professionalism as a kind politician takes center stage. At times, we are forced to wonder if Armita’s capacity to speak truth to power at a young age makes her a member of God’s party too. Nevertheless, attempts to depict Khamenei as a Hezbollahi by showing him as a father figure to families of martyrs, and Armita as his disciple, fall short. Khamenei’s professionalism and Armita’s audacity introduce us to formal expressions of being a Hezbollahi that some state ideologues have sought to undermine since the establishment of an Islamic Republic in Iran.
The filmmaker’s decision to replay clips of Ayatollah Khamenei’s visit to Shohreh’s home deserves further consideration, because it disturbs the conservative faction’s gender ideology. Once Khamenei enters the family’s home, Armita, wearing a red dress and with her long hair perfectly brushed, plays around the beloved guest as a child would when her nightly routine is pleasantly disrupted by excitement and new faces. However, this playfulness contradicts the norms and obligations concerning piety that are attributed to female relatives of martyrs. Being a shrewd politician, Khamenei quickly states that, like a wife of the prophet, Armita’s hair is long “like a pari.” Pari translates as “angel” or “beautiful woman.” This clip was used by the filmmaker to support the Supreme Leader’s intervention, which aligns Armita with Islam and the nation, despite her family’s lack of association with the forms of religiosity encouraged by the Hezbollah faction.
When publicized on the screen, however, one interpretation of the scenario is that Islam is linked to the young girl’s physical appearance, which is exploited to strengthen the Hezbollah movement. Another possible reading, which the filmmaker subscribes to, is that the title is a subtle response to those Hezbollahi citizens who oppose Armita’s status as a martyr’s child. A strong faction within Hezbollah argue that Armita’s name, which does not come from the Quran or other religious texts, suggests that the family was not religious prior to the assassination. Therefore, they should not be given a sacred place within the nation. Whichever interpretation one finds convincing, we are introduced to becoming a Hezbollahi through the “conceptual intervention” of social flesh (Beasley and Bacchi, 2012, p. 107). The fleshy entanglement of different lives that are given unequal, and ultimately unconvincing, individual attributes disrupts the state’s preferred forms of religiosity. The state’s gender ideology is destabilized, as are its depictions of martyrdom.
The arrival of new heroes
In other instances, Hezbollah cultural activists are unexpectedly pushed into physical performances of propaganda in real time. I learned about this theatrical use of propaganda during the 2013 Fajr Film Festival. The Fajr Film Festival is held annually on the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian revolution. It is a celebration of the artistic progress Iran has made since the establishment of an Islamic Republic in the country. A Hezbollah cultural institute, operated by youth mostly in their early twenties, was to hold a parallel film festival as a tactic for “promoting the ideals of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.” Initially, then, the goal was to Islamisize the Fajr Festival. However, given the Iranian artistic community’s boycott of cinema following the 2009 crisis, the parallel festival had to be reworked. The revised plan, which was rather rushed, was to integrate Hezbollah cultural activists into the Fajr Festival in an attempt to “save face” for the state with a celebration of Iranian cinema. Some in the Islamic Republic feared that the crisis of the state would become nationally and internationally visible through the silence of an industry that serves as a source of national pride for many Iranians both in the country and abroad. While still carrying out a separate and parallel festival, the cultural activists associated with this institute were encouraged to support filmmakers who continued to work and engage with the state after 2009.
One evening, the film Hush! Girls Don’t Scream, directed by Pouran Derakhshandeh, was shown by this cultural institute in a cinema complex in Northern Tehran. The film addresses the gender biases of the legal system in Iran and the lack of national conversation regarding the sexual abuse of children. Interestingly, the film includes highly Islamophobic scenes, the likes of which have rarely been displayed by even the harshest internal critics of the state. Nevertheless, it was artistically celebrated by a faction of the state, simply because Derakhshandeh did not boycott the festival or filmmaking during that sensitive period.
Some Hezbollah activists from the cultural institute were invited to the question and answer session with the filmmaker herself. There had been no coaching before the event, and activists were not told how to behave. Some of the older activists simply argued that praising the film constituted a defence of Islam because so many critics had stopped engaging with the state. However, there were indications of a complete breakdown of communication between those funding the event, senior activists, and junior activists. Several young female activists, for instance, shocked everyone by standing up, not only to praise the film, but also to point out how it accurately addressed a nationally taboo topic, the pervasive sexual abuse of children in Iran. Activists were to celebrate the film, but they were not supposed to do so with a language that supported the substance of Derakhshandeh’s work, especially since the film holds a critical stance towards efforts at preserving an Islamic state. According to the norms I witnessed in similar contexts, activists should have drawn attention to Derakhshandeh’s solidarity with Iran-Islami (Islamic Iran) in recent years. Within this context of ambiguity and confusion, Derakhshandeh became a symbol of “Islamic resistance.” Derakhshandeh was given a hero’s welcome at the session, by which she appeared to be as perplexed as many in the audience. Several activists argued that Derakhshandeh would soon marginalize Tahmineh Milani from Iranian cinema. When I asked what the difference between the two women’s work was, one activist stated that it lay in timing. Milani, it was argued, makes films at exactly the right moment to lend her support to the reformist movement, and “Derakhshandeh just proved that she will do that for us.” This interlocutor believed that Derakhshandeh’s decision to work with the Islamic Republic after 2009, made her an ally of the Hezbollah faction. At the same time, my conversations with activists revealed that Derakhshandeh’s daring selection of a topic resonated with female and male viewers regardless of how institutional elites framed her work.
The diversity that has emerged in Hezbollah cultural activism largely seems to support the state’s efforts at reproducing itself in innovative ways. However, the leaders of this movement had not anticipated the innovations this activism would generate in the remaking of previously established forms of religiosity. The description of the film Armita Mesle Pari illustrates that the filmmaker either intentionally or unintentionally departed from a depiction of martyrdom as a life-long project that one strives towards. Instead, in the process of depicting the transformation of Shohreh and Armita into “true” Hezbollahis, the documentary draws our attention to the possibility that God’s selection of a martyr may at times be incomprehensible. The film expands the subjectivity of a Hezbollahi and suggests that he or she can come in many different forms. Crucially, this is done by borrowing prestige from the Supreme Leader himself. A micro level view of a young widow and an orphan’s body re-entering the nation through the state’s Islamization project also unearths national sentiments about the exploitation of vulnerable women. In other instances, the national boundaries are more vividly marked, but also fail to clarify who qualifies as a real Hezbollahi. The second case study demonstrates that the theatrical and performative spectacles in support of Iranian cinema coincide with the state’s shifting policies and the sense of pleasure and passion among young people who seek to infuse new conversations into national debates. In sum, the state’s propaganda efforts may have engendered a creative approach for reproduction of the state’s most sympathetic followers. In moments, though, the project also remakes state-sanctioned religiosity, and, subsequently, further mystified who qualifies as an official Hezbollahi.
Bajoghli, Narges. 2017. The Outcasts: The Start of ‘New Entertainment’ in Pro-Regime Filmmaking in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Middle East Critique, 26:1, 61-77.
Best, Stephen, and Sharon Marcus. 2009. “Surface Reading: An Introduction.” Representations vol. 108, no. 1: pp. 1-21.
Beasley, Chris and Carol Bacchi. 2012. “Making Politics Fleshly: The Ethic of Social Flesh.” In Engaging with Carol Bacchi, edited by Angelique Bletsas and Chris Beasley. Adelaide: University of Adelaide Press, pp. 99-120.
Bewes, Timothy. 2010. “Reading with the Grain: A New World in Literary Criticism.” differences 21, no. 3: 1–33.
Cvetkovich, Ann. 2012. Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press.
Lamloum, Olfa. 2009. Hezbollah’s Media: Political History in outline. Global Media and Communication, Volume 5(3): 353–367.
Saad-Ghorayeb, Amal. “Hezbollah’s Iran Money Trail: It’s Complicated,” Al Akhbar English, July 31, 2012. http://english.al-akhbar. com/node/10553.
Saeidi, Shirin. 2010. Creating the Islamic Republic of Iran: wives and daughters of martyrs, and acts of citizenship, Citizenship Studies, 14:2, 113-126.
Many thanks to the participants of this workshop for thoughtful criticism of my work. Omid Azadibougar, Jordan Cohen, Salvador Regilme, and Paola Rivetti provided valuable comments on earlier drafts of this memo.