Toronto - As Tehran and Jerusalem exchange threats on a regular basis, a former Iranian journalist who is credited with having popularized Internet “blogging” in the Islamic republic is waging a campaign to defuse the tensions.
Hossein Derakhshan, a 32-year-old Iranian expatriate living in Toronto, files daily blog posts in his native Farsi and in English. Although the Iranian authorities attempt to restrict access to his blogs, Derakhshan says he has 20,000 Iranian readers who know how to circumvent the government filters or who receive the material via e-mail.
Last January, Derakhshan visited Israel for the second time in a year, drawing puzzled glances by wearing his “I love Tehran” T-shirt on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In addition to addressing a conference at Ben Gurion University in Beersheba, he enlisted a number of Israelis for online dialogue with Iranians.
The Tehran native wants selected blogs in Hebrew and Farsi translated for audiences in the other country, and he also plans on having an Internet chat room where the two peoples would communicate directly in English. Another of his ideas is that Tel Aviv disc jockeys would “remix” Iranian popular music with Israeli elements and play it at parties, while Tehran musicians would do the same for Israeli music sent to them over the Internet.
Derakhshan first decided to travel to Israel following Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory remarks calling into question the Holocaust and urging that Israel be wiped off the map. “After his stupid comments, I thought about how I could undo some of the damage he was causing,” Derakhshan said. “I thought that the only thing I could do as an independent citizen was to use my Canadian passport, go to Israel and tell people that he doesn’t represent all Iranians.”
Derakhshan wants Israelis to know that Ahmadinejad, though president, is not the supreme leader in Iran, and that the ruling ayatollahs have “never said anything close to” Ahmadinejad’s apocalyptic remarks. “Total rejection of the idea of Israel is not part of the intrinsic ideology of the Islamic Republic,” he said.
Critics of Iran have noted that in fact, Ahmadinejad was not the first prominent leader of the Islamic regime to raise the specter of a nuclear attack on Israel. In late 2001, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani did so, without explicitly advocating such an attack.
Even Iranian expatriates who applaud Derakhshan’s idea for online dialogue are not convinced of its likely effectiveness. Amir Hassanpour, associate professor of Near and Middle Eastern civilizations at the University of Toronto, said, “It’s a good idea that this kind of relationship between Iranians and Israelis gets under way in cyberspace, but it won’t change the reality on the ground.”
Derakhshan partly agreed. “The political system is quite distant from the views of ordinary people,” he said. “Part of this project’s aim is, in a way, already done. The Iranian people don’t have that hostility toward Israel. But the more important part is to work on the Israeli public, because that’s where the threat comes from. We have to stop the dehumanization process that the right-wing media are doing on both sides.”
The son of a rug manufacturer in Tehran, Derakhshan wrote a computer column for a reformist newspaper before immigrating to Canada in 2001. He now works as a Web site designer. He said that in 2005, when he visited his homeland, the authorities detained and interrogated him about his blogs, and forced him to sign an apology. He believes he will be arrested if he returns to Iran.
Derakhshan is a jumble of apparent contradictions. Although he is a professed atheist, he supports the concept of an Islamic republic in Iran — albeit a more enlightened one. Although an avowed peacenik, he favors Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons as a hedge against non-Israeli enemies. He does not view the country’s bid for nukes as a potential threat to Israel.
Though censored by the Iranian authorities, he also has made enemies in the Iranian Diaspora by blogging against critics of the Islamic regime. “I see some of these people who have left for the U.S. as having become part of the U.S. propaganda campaign against Iran,” he said.
Detractors, however, say that Derakhshan has not limited his attacks to expatriates.
“He consistently writes appalling articles against Iranian human rights activists which include individuals whose lives are in serious danger and under pressure from Iran’s intelligence and judiciary agencies,” wrote Nikahang Kowsar, a Toronto-based cartoonist and fellow exile, in his blog.
Derakhshan is also not an unqualified admirer of Israel.
“I have a problem with Israeli policies,” he said. “For example, they could have reacted differently to the Hezbollah attack last summer. But I have no problem with the existence of this democratic, diverse society.”