The lifeless body of a famous young TV host was found in her apartment in the Sa’adat Abad district west of Tehran on Friday, and Iran’s social media are now awash with speculations, gossip, conspiracy theories and, lamentably, hate speech and celebrations over the mysterious death.
Authorities have been considering different possibilities, including suicide and manslaughter, but investigations are still under way at this writing and nothing is confirmed conclusively.
Azadeh Namdari was a 37-year-old television host who enjoyed popularity among some segments of Iranian society, particularly religious traditionalists, for her vocal advocacy of the Islamic hijab and trying to be the voice of the country’s pious young women.
Of course, she had her detractors among secular-minded Iranians who reviled her because she advocated a lifestyle they deemed to be the government-prescribed preferences aimed at indoctrinating youth.
In July 2017, furtively recorded videos circulated on social media showing MsNamdari in a park in Switzerland without the traditional hijab while drinking a bottle of beer. A raging controversy ensued, with many Iranians taking to social-media platforms to decry her perceived “hypocrisy,” while others came forward to defend her right to privacy.
The argument of the critics was that a TV personality who had taken up the cudgels for a specific strand of ideology, was on record saying unambiguously that she was proud of the hijab, particularly in the form of black chador, and also had waived her right to privacy by disclosing stories of her personal life could only be branded duplicitous and two-faced when abandoning her cherished dress code while traveling abroad, even if not knowing she was spotted by paparazzi thirsty for candid, headline-making snaps.
The opposite group retorted that like every human being, a TV personality, however celebrated, is entitled to his or her life choices, deserves to be afforded a degree of privacy and remoteness from the press, and at any point in time may decide to revise his or her standpoints and norms, so to indict a TV host for removing her hijab while traveling overseas based on a photo taken secretly amounted to encroachment upon the personal rights of a citizen who would be ultimately responsible for the consequences of her choices.
These debates about the lifestyle and relationships of celebrities are more or less common everywhere in the world, and social media in recent times have functioned as the incubators of such conversations by giving people from all walks of life the opportunity to raise critical questions, make conjectures, deduce conclusions and share opinions, especially when it comes to personalities we are used to seeing on TV and cinema screens.
There is nothing inherently wrong in this, even though in Iran, the discussions are usually blended with vestiges of ideology due to the unique nature of the society.
But these days, in the Persian-language social-media sphere and within online crucibles that facilitate people’s interaction and communication, from Twitter and Facebook to Instagram and Clubhouse, an ugly phenomenon is rearing its head, which needs to be addressed before it is too late: ethics sinking at a record pace.
Iran’s social media, mirroring the demeanors, dispositions, language and behavior of the Iranian people, are being precipitously disemboweled of ethics and standards of proper conduct and communication, and this alarming trend is sharply distinct from the ordinary citizens indulging in celebrity gossip or rejoicing at yellow, tabloid journalism.
There is outright hate speech, exchange of expletives, violation of manners, defamation and accusation, circulation of fake news and even, in less frequent cases, encouragement of violence.
In the case of Azadeh Namdari, many users celebrated her death because she was described by them as a pawn of the establishment on account of her affiliation with the state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, and there were those who wished other anchors and commentators of Iran’s state TV misery and death. This is plainly horrible, and I doubt many similar examples can be found in other countries.
Others were less severe in reacting to Namdari’s enigmatic death, postulating that she would not be remembered as a hero because of the duplicity they said she represented.
As strange as it sounds, there were those who opined that the government orchestrated her death because it wanted to divert popular attention from the 25-year strategic partnership deal it had inked with China on Saturday, which according to them was a humiliating agreement for Iran offering generous concessions to the East Asian powerhouse Tehran sought to conceal from public scrutiny.
Add to these numerous vulgar memes and jokes about the tragic death of the young TV host in which she was openly denigrated and insulted.
What is of substance and what I wish to highlight is not the quality of public reactions to the death of the TV personality, or the sort of religious dogmas with which she is identified, passing value judgments on what she espoused and what she stood for. What is at stake is the perturbing free fall of ethics on social media, which reflects the broader pattern of the Iranian society’s morality and values.
Bad statecraft and mismanagement of relations between generations, ethnic minorities, religious communities and continued insistence on the polarization of the society along partisan lines in recent decades by officials have resulted in a country that is not tolerant, is not ready to embrace dialogue and rebuff altercation, is reeling from a fragmentation of its different demographic groups hostile to one another to the point that they wish death for their rivals, and is inhabited by people who are apathetic to human suffering and devoid of empathy.
Indubitably, the catalogue of toxic reactions elicited by the death of Azadeh Namdari on social media is not an overnight outpouring of malign sentiments.
It should be blamed on the Iranian government’s sustained proselytizing of rhetoric and policies over the past four decades that have been steeped in rejection of dialogue and interaction with the international community and its craftsmanship in concocting numerous enemies on the global stage, which have translated into its people developing resentments and grievances that they look for opportunities to pitch at each other when they don’t have an outlet to project externally.
There is unanimity on the governments’ ability to change and formulate citizens’ behavior, and in the case of Iran, people have inherited habits from their statesmen that one can be hardly proud of.
Yet it is not only the government that is culpable in this crisis of ethics. Families’ negligence in educating their children who are exposed to the information and misinformation on social media and sometimes find themselves in the middle of adult conversations they shouldn’t ideally be part of is another determining factor.
Many Iranian parents have not taught their young people the etiquette of online communication and the broad ramifications of their words they sometimes casually toss at interlocutors on e-forums.
I sometimes find myself left red-faced while reading the comments sections of Iranian news websites or debates on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, discomfited at the crudity with which my fellow citizens address one another and the rudeness with which they trade insults over a political triviality or a social issue.
In a society in which relationships among different strata of people and the government-people relationships are standard and healthy, behavior, language and communication in real settings or online spheres are not so indecorous and abusive.
Sometimes, easy chores in Iran become too complicated to deal with. For a population that is highly educated and sarcastically pleased with its brain-drain pestilence, it should be easy to recognize that insulting a deceased person is an intrusion into the shock and grief of his or her family members and simply without virtue.
There are plenty of ways to communicate and exchange ideas about different political, social, cultural or economic fault lines without causing offense to other parties and undermining their dignity. But for many reasons, Iranian society is not there, and is afflicted with a grave moral decline conundrum. This is sad, but true.
Kourosh Ziabari is an Iranian journalist and reporter. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow. Kourosh was named a finalist in the category of Local Reporter of the Year in the 2020 Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism. He is an alumnus of East-West Center’s Senior Journalists Seminar Fellowship.