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Iran's mullahs 'stop the music' -- and 50 years of culture

When Tehran's mullahs, taking their "campaign against sin" to the point of absurdity, recently began moving in on shops selling music cassettes, the shopkeepers took the cassettes off the shelves and display windows and went in a delegation to see President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr.

Either they should be allowed to continue with their trade, they said, or they should be given an alternative means of livelihood.

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Mr. Bani-Sadr smiled and told them he knew the Muslim religious teachers were acting unconstitutionally, but shrugged and said there was nothing he could do about it.

There are two sides to the story. It illustrates, first, the weakness of Iran's elected President against fundamentalist clergymen, with whom he is currently engaged in a subtle struggle for power.

Second, it shows that the mullahs are serious about stamping out completely the culture that has developed in Iran over the last 50 years and replacing it with a model of their own.

But there also is a third aspect, to be seen between the lines. Iran's clergymen know only too well the significant part played by cassette tapes in spreading the word of revolutionary leaders during the struggle against the Shah.

The cassettes, distributed underground, beat the Shah's censorship of the press and radio.

With the media in Iran once again tightly controlled, this time by the mullahs, dissidents have begun playing the game the mullahs themselves played so well. They have begun distributing cassette tapes of their speeches among Iranians who are tiring of the rule of the clergymen or had feared it from the start.

Cassettes of speeches by such leaders as self-exiled former prime minister Shahpour Bakhtiar and the leaders of the Komaleh Party (Maoist) have shown up on the underground market.

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To stop this, the mullahs must first stamp out the flourishing trade in music cassettes, which sell like cakes on Tehran's sidewalks.

The mullahs have tried several times in the past to stop the cassette peddlers, many of whom have set up crude sidewalk kiosks. Others do not have even that. They simply spread their wares on a mat placed on the sidewalks.

The minute the Pasdars (revolutionary guards) come around to clear the sidewalks, word spreads rapidly and the peddlers hurriedly gather up their wares and disappear around the corner until the danger has passed. Then they return and spread their wares out once again, and business goes on as usual.

Finding them too elusive, the mullahs have decided to move on the more regular music shops, selling both cassettes and records, on the theory that the peddlers' ware originates in the shops.

They now have given the shop owners till the beginning of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan (July 14) to change their trade.

Meanwhile, President Bani-Sadr is facing similar difficulties in other fields as well. In Urumieh, in northwestern Iran, for instance, the Friday prayer leader, Hojatolislam Gholam Reza Hassani, issued a stern warning in his last Friday sermon that if women did not wear the hejjab (Islamic veil) in the city as of now, he would take appropriate action against them.

Government officials in Urumieh, already involved in an intense struggle with Kurdish guerrillas, were shaken. The Friday mullah's "last warning" could touch off ugly incidents against women in the city, particularly since there is much controversy among the Iranian public about what constitutes an Islamic veil.

The more moderate interpretation is that it means a woman must be modestly dressed. The fundamentalist interpretation is that a woman must wear a chador, a garment that covers her from top to toe, leaving only her eyes and part of her face bare.

Women government workers in Tehran faced a choice between wearing Islamic dress or losing their pay. Most of them were complying with the new dress code -- in some cases because they could see no alternative.

Meanwhile, the authorities could not arrest Gholam Hassani, a pistol-packing mullah who carries three guns in his kamarband (waistband), and heads a private army of about 1,000 men. Even if he did not have such backing, government officials in Iran today do not dare arrest clergymen, particularly for remarks they have made in Friday sermons.

Back in Tehran, a deputy to the Islamic revolutionary prosecutor general heads the Bureau for the Campaign Against Sin. He has at his disposal a squad of pasdars who swoop down on scantily clad women (though not scanty by Western standards), alcoholics, restaurants serving alcohol, mixed bathers on beaches, and take them before an Islamic court.

The court hands down sentences of flogging, which may range from 25 to 100 lashes with a whip. (Whether sin can be flogged out of people does not even come up for public debate.)

But some foreign correspondents who have spoken to the ardent men involved in the campaign say they often have used the same methods used previously by the police to track down women of easy virtue -- posing as customers and hauling them off to court on the first confirmation of their profession.

Brothel keepers and madames who go about the business in an organized way, of course, are not simply lashed. They die by firing squad.

Correspondents were shaken a few days ago by reports from the Caspian Sea coast that vigilantes of the bureau had arrested a woman recently and awarded her 25 lashes for bathing on a beach reserved for men. But reports from Bandar Anzali (formerly Bandar Pahlavi) say that the local people there defy the pasdars and beat up mullahs who interfere. Mixed bathing there is open and defiant.

In other parts of the Caspian coast, there are plans to build walls between beaches reserved separately for males and females.

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