Iranian authorities are as afraid of artists as they are of the political opposition

A well known Iranian newscaster was recently suspended by his state television network after more than 30 years on the air.  The sole cause for that suspension was a series of comments on Instagram in which the presenter expressed his fondness for the music of a long exiled Iranian pop singer.

This is telling, given that the newscaster's career largely consisted of repeating Tehran's official propaganda with a veneer of authenticity.  Some critics of that propaganda may laugh at the prospective firing and suggest that it is exactly what any state media employee deserves.  Others may simply focus on the underlying message of the regime's backlash, which seems to be an acknowledgment of how deeply the regime is threatened by any challenges to the fundamentalist culture of the Islamic Republic.

Numerous singers, musicians, and other artists were forced to flee their homeland in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, while others remained and were barred from public performance.  Performers who had been popular prior to the revolution were purged from the national culture.  Institutional sex discrimination led to the separation of men and women in public spaces and to a blanket ban on most types of female performance.

Naturally, Iranian artists balked at these efforts at social control, which quickly revealed the mullahs' dictatorship to be even more repressive than that of the Shah.  But for many, this revelation was not even necessary in order to formalize their opposition to the theocratic system.  Their typically liberal attitudes made artists and intellectuals gravitate much more strongly toward the vision for Iran's future that was laid out by groups like the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran, also known as Mujahedin-e-khalq or the MEK.

The MEK was and remains the leading advocate for a democratic system to replace Iran's current religious fascism.  Today, it stands at the head of a coalition known as the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which has held major international gatherings of Iranian expatriates among its activities.  The Resistance community has helped many thousands of Iranians to find homes for themselves throughout the world during the 41 years the mullahs have been in power.  Among them are the artists and musicians forced to flee the Islamic Republic.

Tehran's wholesale rejection of those people tends to drive them farther into the arms of the organized Resistance movement.  Many have contributed their own activism, lending their voices and longstanding popularity to the NCRI.  Songs have been written in Farsi under titles like "Time for Regime Change" to inspire hope in Iran for the expatriate community's eventual return to their homeland.

Sadly, as the years have passed it has become clear that certain long exiled performers may never be able to sing in their homeland again.  In fact, earlier in June, the expatriate community lost a cherished singer by the name of Shahla Safi Zamir, better known as Marjan.  As well as singing the aforementioned Resistance songs, the 71-year-old's biography was a prime example of the regime's persecution of artists and of their heroic defiance in the face of that persecution.  Prior to fleeing the country, she served time as a political prisoner, during which time she deepened her commitment to the MEK and established lifelong connections with other jailed supporters.

Marjan was eager to highlight the relationship between her past singing career and her role as an advocate for freedom and democracy in her homeland.  "My voice is my weapon until the day our fellow compatriots are free," she once told a Los Angeles magazine. "And I would prefer to use my voice not in concerts but in the conventions of the National Council of Resistance, against the mullahs ruling my country."

That voice will surely be missed as Iranians are planning a gathering of tens of thousands of Iranians throughout the world.  Given the corona-imposed restrictions, the meeting will be online.  Other voices will take up the same songs.  While some of them have spent four decades singing about the Iranian people's desire for democracy and about their own hope to one day return home, others have taken up that cause much more recently, having been born long after the revolution.  The MEK and NCRI have continued to attract supporters throughout the life of the clerical regime, both inside the Islamic Republic and among those who have lived their entire lives as expatriates.

Anyone who wishes to hear the views of those who have been driven out of Iran in recent years can do so at the major gathering in July.  Anyone who needs more incentive to listen should remember that some of those views may be expressed in song.  The gathering is a showcase not just for the political alternative to the current regime, but also for the rich artistic culture that Iran will be deprived of for as long as the mullahs remain in power.

Given the continued tumult in Iran, Iranians believe the time for regime change is getting near, and it might not be too long before Iranian artists can perform in Iran again.