Free Thought and Social Change: Lessons from Iran

Over the last few days the world has paused to watch the protests against the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Political figures speaking out against the government’s iron fist have been muted. Iranian football players making statements by wearing green wristbands during the FIFA qualifier have been retired. In addition to threatening, attacking, arresting, and detaining protestors and opposition supporters, the Iranian government has tried to block access to the internet. However, people in Iran are finding increasingly innovative ways to get their views known to the outside world. Academic institutions like Tehran University continue to be hotbeds of free expression. Social media tools like Facebook, Youtube, BlogSpot and Twitter are being used by the Iranian people to get around the internet blockade to broadcast their views on the election and images of the protest. Young Iranians are documenting the events with cell phones and cameras.The actions of those in power in Iran highlight a global problem of censorship and disrespect for freedom of expression. The Arab world is not exempt from this problem, with those in power in the region violating the individual’s rights to free thought and free speech everyday. Against the backdrop of Iran’s youth struggling to have their voices heard, the need for an environment that respects free thought to enable social transformation becomes clearer than ever.

The issue of censorship of free thought has motivated social entrepreneurs throughout the Arab world to protect the right to free expression. They are creating a safe environment for people to exercise their inalienable right to free speech so Arab societies can be transformed from within, just as the Iranian people are using their voices to express their desire for change. Emad Mubarak’ s organization, The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, is working to establish academic freedom as a right in Egypt, where the system of higher education is constrained by governmental and nongovernmental censorship. Emad’s strategy targets students by educating them about their freedom of expression. He also helps professors pursue research and teach without interference. These grassroots efforts to encourage healthy dialogue help combat injustice and give confidence to the next generation of leaders in Egypt.

The current situation in Iran shows us that social media and digital technology play a significant role in the struggle for change. Ashoka Fellow Ranwa Yehia is partnering with citizen sector organizations (CSOs) in Arab countries to hold Arab Digital Expression Camps that train young people in creatively using digital technology. Ranwa recognizes the importance of the internet in facilitating social change and free thought in the otherwise tightly-controlled public space in Middle Eastern countries. Through her camps, Ranwa is empowering youth by giving them the tools and the skills to use modern technology to communicate their opinions and to connect with others who share their views.

Ranwa and Emad, along with a number of other Arab social entrepreneurs, are helping young people see the value of their opinions and breeding strong leadership through their social ventures. Many thanks are owed to the brave people in Iran, who, instilled with the spirit of social entrepreneurship, risk their lives to tell the world their stories. Citizen leaders are helping people in the Arab world and across the globe to take a stand; these Changemakers are defending the right of every person to speak and to know the truth. When controversial views are stifled, people lose faith in their ability to change the status quo. Where freedom of expression is oppressed, the need to support social entrepreneurs that promote free thought and protect the individual’s right to speak differently is ever stronger.

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