Print        

Iran’s Soft Power and Masters of Traditional Music

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Dr. Mahmoud Reza Golshanpazhooh
Executive Editor of Iran Review

Active Image1. Soft power is currently a major arena for confrontation among countries. India is progressing in Afghanistan on the strength of its soft power capacities, including Bollywood movies, and has taken over other countries, especially those whose troops are present in Afghanistan. China is trying to present the world with a better model of economic development and a peaceful image by banking on teachings of Confucius in order to attract countries which are fed-up with other international powers. The United States is currying favor with Muslims and is trying to mend its marred image in Muslims’ mind by giving the go-ahead for the construction of a new mosque close to Ground Zero in New York, producing films which depict Washington as protector of Muslims against foreign powers (such as Salt which is currently on screens), and through presidential addresses like the one Obama delivered in Cairo. South Korea is promoting its famous brands and makes families take, at least, one of its products into their homes while spending time to watch Korean soap operas which bring Korea’s history and traditions to their television screens.

Iran’s foreign policy approaches in the past years have proven that Tehran is also well aware of high importance of soft power. A recent report by the American Enterprise Institute on Iran’s soft power advances in Africa is an example to the point. The report admits that Iran has been pursuing subtle goals in Africa in the past decade. It has pointed to measures taken by the Islamic Republic of Iran in Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Gambia calling them manifestations of Iran’s new soft power approach while warning the American officials that they should do something to curb Iran’s flourishing influence in Africa.

Iran’s spiritual and economic clout in Iraq as well as essential steps taken in Afghanistan attest to Tehran’s intent to make the most of its soft power capacities. Of course, as I previously pointed out in another article, Iran’s Untapped Soft Power Potentials(1) , we have still a long way to go in view of our immense soft power potentials.

2. In March 1956, a 19-member jazz musical band set off for South Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East from the United States. The group was construed a goodwill jazz tour launched by the US State Department. The main goal of the State Department (which was perhaps unknown to the musicians) was making it possible for people in those regions to have a firsthand grasp of the American pop culture. The choice of geographical regions was totally purposeful as people in those regions usually hold a negative image of the United States in their minds.

Perhaps, there was nothing weird about that initiative, but under their outer cover, such moves, which are now known as “cultural diplomacy,” are launched and supported by artists and cultural figures in order to introduce attractions of their local cultures and help their official diplomatic apparatus achieve their goals more smoothly.

The reality, however, was quite different:

A) The troupe consisted of African Americans as jazz is basically a musical genre created by African Americans in an effort to remember their African roots. In fact, this musical genre has its roots deep in the African traditions despite being a purely American musical style. A musical tour presenting American players of African descent by the State Department at a time that African Americans were victims of racial discriminations in US was a calculated measure to depict a totally democratic picture of the United States. It would tell the world that the United States was a free country for free men. It would also inspire audiences with an unconscious sense of trust in Washington by believing that what they saw on the stage represented true America.

B) Almost all musical players in the band were opposed to US policies. Artists are generally known as people who hold independent views and present those views through their art. Therefore, people have accepted that there is no powerful relationship between arts and politics. This view was also in line with US policies in 1950s and 1960s. American artists are generally considered to be averse to their government’s bullying and warmongering policies. The jazz tour proved to be among the most successful tours of US cultural diplomacy as it paved the way for similar tours by the most famous American singers like Louise Armstrong and Duke Ellington in later years.

C) Owed to its singers and players, due to the way it is performed and also as a result of its origins, jazz music is taken to mean “absolute freedom.” Those listening to jazz in Eastern Europe, China and some Middle Eastern countries, who rocked their heads or beat their feet to its rhythm, were unconsciously listening to enemy’s music and whispered its liberating tunes. In fact, it left its mark on mental conceptions of youth and adolescents in Russia, East Germany, Poland, China and Hungary.

At present, people’s love for Obama is not a scale for measuring international popularity of US culture. Entities like McDonald and Hollywood movies now shoulder the onus of responsibility for promoting US policies. As put by Joseph Nai, it is much less expensive and more lasting than the traditional carrot and stick policy.

Active Image3. “Art and culture” constitute one of the most lasting and influential aspects of soft power. In fact, art and culture leaves a more pleasant, satisfactory and profound impression on the minds and souls of audiences. A person having an Iranian carpet at home; keeping an Iranian handicraft at his room; enjoying taste of the Iranian pistachio as one of the most delicious kinds of pistachio; reveling in pleasant memory of Persepolis, Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque or Choghazanbil Ziggurat; and relishing spiritual implications of the traditional Iranian music will be more impressed by the Iranian culture and civilization and will feel more sympathy with it compared to any effect that may be produced by a political address or official statement. This is one of the most important manifestations of the hidden potential in the world’s public opinion which should be tapped through foreign policy approaches of a given country in specific historical junctures to achieve its predetermined goals and become more popular with the world people.

4. Unfortunately, we have been undermining certain aspects of our soft power capacities in music. Everybody is apparently waiting for an opportunity to brutally attack that music master, excommunicate him and raise all kinds of charges against him and his fans.

Regardless of domestic disputes about this issue, I only wonder whether we know what havoc we are wreaking to one of the most powerful aspects of our soft power capacities. A friend told me a couple of years ago about a Japanese lady who had taken part in a seminar in Tehran. When she heard the prayers call song by the late Mo’azzenzadeh Ardebili, the lady was so impressed by the spiritual air of his voice that she started shedding tears without even knowing what he was saying. She had asked my friend to record the prayers call so that she could take it to Japan and listen to it whenever she felt sad. Now, doesn’t the spiritual tone in Shajariyan’s voice match up to that of Mo’azzenzadeh?  Aren’t such great music masters as Eftekhari, Nazeri and many more, goodwill ambassadors of the Islamic Republic of Iran whose overseas performances can totally reverse the hostile propaganda which is in full gear against Iran and its Islamic system? Don’t they work better than the official foreign policy apparatus, due to nature of their art, in showing to their audiences that the Islamic Iran is a glorious name which has been purposefully tarnished by the western media?

5. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) has been quoted as saying that “the faithful are smart.” However, we sometimes do things whose apparently short-lived impacts devastate the image and power which has been built up in long years and easily strips the country of God-given blessings.

Notes:

(1) http://www.iranreview.org/content/view/5526/37/

طراحی و توسعه آگاه‌سیستم