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On Censorship, Cultural Destruction and the Power of Music

August 31, 2016
Shima Shahrabi
9 min read
On Censorship, Cultural Destruction and the Power of Music
On Censorship, Cultural Destruction and the Power of Music
  • Iranian musicians praised President Rouhani after he spoke out against music censorship in Iran’s provinces.

  • The war on music continues, with protesters disrupting a concert in Yazd province on August 25.

  • Top musician Keyvan Saket calls for recognition of the key role music plays in Iranian culture and heritage.

  • Saket calls for musicians to take a stand against attacks on them — including arrests and violence at the hands of extremists.

  • The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must do more to protect musicians, says Saket, because it’s crucial to society’s wellbeing. 


President Hassan Rouhani has lashed out at music censorship in Iran’s provinces after a string of attacks on live performances.

Speaking on August 22, the president reminded local officials and the clergy that they had no remit to grant or deny permits for music. It was not right, he said, for just anyone who objects to a cultural event to “wake up in the morning and set [his own] laws."  By law, he said, only the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has the power to approve or reject applications. 

But just days after Rouhani’s comments, protesters launched a fresh attack. On Thursday, August 25, popular musicians Shahram and Hafez Nazeri were due to perform in the town of Taft in Yazd province in central Iran. A group campaigning against the concert appealed to its supporters on Telegram, inviting the “faithful” to show up to the venue to protest. People clothed in burial shrouds surrounded the concert hall, blocking members of the orchestra from entering the hall for close to an hour. Although the concert went ahead, members of the audience repeatedly interrupted the performance by loudly reciting prayers.

The last couple of years have been difficult times for Iranian musicians. It has become routine for authorized music concerts to face cancelation in response to local pressures, leading to a major power struggle between ministry officials and local authorities. In one instance, the ministers for culture and the interior had to personally intervene, arriving at a concert hall to ensure a performance went ahead. 

The wave of cancelations began in early 2015, and in April 2015, hardliner cleric and Ahmad Alamolhoda called for a ban on live music in Mashhad, where he is also Friday Prayers leader. 

Alamalhoda tends to run the city as his personal fiefdom, and seems to give little consideration to the legality of his actions. Following his call for a ban on live music, Friday Prayers leaders in other cities followed suit. They too announced they did not want music concerts in their towns.

On August 7, 2016, Culture Minister Ali Jannati expressed his frustration over the recent crackdown, though he failed to answer why he has continuously allowed his ministry’s powers to be undermined. “They say that Mashhad is a holy city and has its own special requirements,” he told reporters. “Well, okay, no concerts there, but why do they interfere in concerts in other towns in Khorasan province?” 

Also on August 7, the conservative, straight-talking MP Ali Motahari — known for regularly rubbing hardliners up the wrong way — declared: “Iran is not a federal country,” pointing out that provinces cannot behave as though they are autonomous regions and set their own laws.

Rouhani’s decision to speak out was welcomed by many, with some musicians who had previously remained silent on the subject publicly thanking him in an open letter. 

Following President Rouhani’s statement, on August 23, Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh, head of Iran’s musicians’ association, wrote to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei for his support.

Unsurprisingly, both Rouhani and Nourbakhsh came under fire from hardliners, who accused Rouhani of trying to draw public attention away from his poor management of the economy.

Keyvan Saket, veteran musician and the leader of Vaziri Ensemble, signed the letter to President Rouhani. IranWire talked to him about recent events, and about the situation for Iranian musicians today.


Recently, several concerts have been canceled and people have spoken out against live performances. What is your view of these events?

Music has been one of the most important cultural elements of any civilized society throughout history. The style of music, how it is performed and its constituent elements reflect how a certain people think and feel. If you look at Iranian music you will find that Iranian people are a mild-tempered, patient and emotional people. Iranian music is an emotional music, not a martial one.

Those who are against music in general, and Iranian music in particular, are either ignorant or demented people who have no understanding of art or have bad intentions and want to destroy Iranian culture. There is a poem by Saadi that says that all nature understands music and that you are not a human if you don’t understand it. Besides, music satisfies a social necessity. If we do not satisfy this need with our own music and our own poetry that originate from our own culture, then young people will inevitably be drawn to music with elements that might not agree with Iranian culture.

A cursory glance at history shows that Iran has been invaded time and again — by the Turks, the Arabs, the Mongols, and so on — but the Iranian language, culture and music have survived. Countries like Egypt or those in Mesopotamia were all subjugated by invaders because, although they were great civilizations, they were not culturally rich enough. What kept Iran alive was not its civilization per se, but its culture. Music is a vital building block of Iranian culture.

So those hostile to music, who insist that music or anything that moves people to joy is harmful, are either fools who do not understand the consequences of what they are talking about or who consciously want to destroy Iranians and Iranian culture.

What stance should musicians take?

Musicians can protest by signing and sending open letters to the government, and of course we have done this several times. We have sent letters to the Minister of Culture, to agencies in charge of music, and to the president. Unfortunately the culture minister took a position of weakness, but fortunately, Mr. Rouhani adopted the right position and said that we have one law for the whole country. So we wrote a letter and thanked him for what he had said.

Earlier, 100 of us musicians wrote a letter to the minister of culture about the ministry’s Auditing Council. The letter questioned the reason for auditing works of music. If the goal is to prevent the publication of works that go against moral and social principles and to observe the regime’s red lines, then it does not work — because you can easily find any illegal CDs on street corners. So what is the use of auditing? Besides, most decision makers in this council are not artistically qualified the make these decisions. The absolute majority of artists do not find them acceptable.

Do you believe writing letters is enough?

What more a musician can do? What can you do when they raid a concert and beat up the singer? What can you do when they threaten, arrest, and break your instrument?

These thing have happened many times. A few years back I had a concert in Babol [in northern Iran]. The city’s Friday Prayers leader was sick. Fortunately nothing bad happened and the concert took place. But a few days later the Friday Prayers leader died and 20 days later another group came to have a concert inside the same hall. A group attacked them and broke their instruments. Mr. Vahid Taj had a concert in Yazd but they invaded the concert hall and pushed the singer off the stage. I myself had a concert in Semnan and head of its Culture and Islamic Guidance Bureau ordered that my name and picture be removed [from the billboard] because the music that I and my group wanted to play was not a repeat of the usual monotone, tedious and depressing music, and was lively and full of passion. Salar Aghili was the other participant in the concert. Now imagine a big billboard with the picture of Salar Aghili and next to him a blurred picture of mine with the caption: “Concert by Master...”

Some critics say that artists have put up with too much, agreeing to go on stage even if they face criticism, censorship or threats — and as a result, the situation has worsened. They say musicians have not complained enough when concerts are canceled. For example, you performed in that concert even though your photograph and name were removed from the poster.

People want the concerts. We make a contract with an individual sponsor, a producer or a company, and then others come and prevent it from taking place. What are we supposed to do? Once in Babol, they canceled a concert on the night it was due to take place. Or, in Neishabur, we had a few nights of concerts to mark the occasion of Omar Khayyam’s Day, and the president of the university shut them down to curry favor with somebody, out of fear or for some illogical and unethical reason. I had made plans and had canceled other concerts for that event.

When they shut down concerts, what can we do? We need support. It is the duty of the ministry of culture to support us —because this ministry has no meaning without artists and their work. They are not rulers of the arts. Their duty is to protect the arts and artists and to safeguard their artistic dignity. Six months out of the year we cannot do much work because [of various religious mourning periods and Ramadan], and the other six months they either cancel concerts or somebody gets out of bed and starts talking [against us].

Besides planning and financial consequences, these events can also harm the professional life of an artist.

What each person learns depends on his profession and his professional capabilities. For example, a boxer learns to disregard the punches he receives and to not mind them, because that is what being a boxer requires. The artist learns to be sensitive. That is what art requires. An artist is hurt psychologically when he is insulted and his concert is canceled. An artist needs support. People have always supported artists. In these current social conditions, some people say things out of ignorance, which hurts artists.

Canceling concerts is like a story by Saadi. A man is sitting on a limb while sawing it off. When the lord of the garden observes this he says, “if this man is doing wrong, then the wrong that he does is not to me but to him.” They are ignorant and don’t know that the wrong they are doing to art will in reality bring down the cultural foundations of society.