Religion, Media and Conversion in Iran: Mediated Christianity in an Islamic Context 9780367436698, 9781032454351, 9781003004905

Religion, Media and Conversion in Iran studies the reception of Farsi Christian television channels by Muslim audiences

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Religion, Media and Conversion in Iran: Mediated Christianity in an Islamic Context
 9780367436698, 9781032454351, 9781003004905

Table of contents :
Cover
Endorsements
Half Title
Series Page
Title Page
Copyright Page
Dedication
Contents
Acknowledgments
Introduction
Outline
1. A background
The audience
Challenges to the meaning of religion in Iran
A review of literature
Media users
Media and the state
Audience phantasm
Media contextualisation
Religious conversion
Conversion career
Rational or irrational choice
Methodology
2. Religion and religiosity
Introduction
Section one: Religion or faith
Religious exclusivism versus inclusivism
Section two: Change of attitude towards religion in Iran
Revisiting the concept of apostasy
Conclusion
3. The channels
Introduction
An overview of the channels
Iran Alive Ministries: Network 7
Programming
Mohabat TV
Programming
SAT-7 PARS
Programming
TBN Nejat TV
The practice
Magic bullet
Non-religion-Christianity
Conversion of change of religion
Challenges
Conclusion
4. Participants and the message
Introduction
Section one: Church Seven
Programme description
Analysis
Presentation and performance
Content and interpretations
Section two: Prayer and Christianity
Programme description
Analysis
Presentation and performance
Content and interpretations
Approval or clash
Blasphemy: Mary Mother of God
Don’t say “hazrat”: Don’t remind me of my past
Section three: New faith, new language
Our experiences influence the way we meet Jesus
Conclusion
5. Route to ready – experimenting
Section one: An introduction to experimenting, negotiating and resisting
Section two: Experimentin
Agenda-based social experimenting
Christianity as a tool for “Westernisation”
Persuasive children
Spiritual experimenting
Religious shoppers
Religious visitors
Migration
A road to healing and meaning
Conclusion
6. Negotiating
Introduction
In the negotiating position
Negotiating with God and rewriting of their faith stories
Jesus Christ
Forgiveness
Fear and shame
Religious experience
Christian channels as a process and means
For learning and for evangelism
Christian channels as community
Relationship process
The conversion processes
Conclusion
7. Resisting
Disaffiliation, deconversion and resistance
The stories of deconversion and disaffiliation
Disaffiliation from the channels
Poor production and content quality
Exclusivism: A sense of superiority and dominance
House church affiliation
From resistance to affiliation and conversion
Downgrading to occasional audience
The influence of the regime
Programme quality
Active media users and the channels
Resisters
Atheists
Theist agnostics
Religious inclusivism and exclusivism
Conclusion
8. Mediatisation of religious conversion
Section one: A progressive journey
Seeking
The seven additional motivational elements
Through the channels
Mohabat TV
TBN Nejat TV
Network 7
SAT-7 PARS
Understanding the meaning of conversion
Transformation
Resistance
Section two: Divine power or magic bullet theory
The channels and the audience: Divine power or magic bullet theory
Demand
Mediatised religious conversion
Religiosity
Seeking continuation
Discontinuity
Cultural Christianity
Freedom of choice
Restoration of honour
Conclusion
9. Conclusion
Conversion as self-identification
Limitations and recommendations for future study
Final remarks: The growing gap
Index

Citation preview

“The contribution of visual media in the conversion of Iranians (or indeed more generally of Muslims) to Christianity has hitherto been assumed, based on an external grasp of both conversion and faith in life, rather than known. This brilliantly conceived, meticulously researched and tightly argued book more than makes up for this gap, both in its analytic approach to media and to the actuality of conversion, and will be of interest to a wider readership than its title suggests”. Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping, University of Edinburgh, UK “In this important book, Sara Afshari does a remarkable job in helping us understand ways that ordinary Iranian Muslim audiences of Christian media negotiate their belief system and become agents of change. I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in gaining a critical understanding of media, religion and culture in general, and the role of audiences of Christian media in relation to conversion processes to Christianity in Iran”. Prof Dion A. Forster, Director of the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology, Stellenbosch University, South Africa “Religion, Media and Conversion in Iran provides a fascinating glimpse into the complex negotiations of converts as they navigate their faith identities in relation to Christian broadcasting channels. It is an essential read for those interested in mediatised religion, the dynamics of conversion, or the impact of broadcasting”. Dr Jonas Kurlberg, Spurgeon’s College, UK

Religion, Media and Conversion in Iran

Religion, Media and Conversion in Iran studies the reception of Farsi Christian television channels by Muslim audiences in Iran: their motivations in viewing the Christian message, their methods of interpretation and negotiation with different media texts and their process of changing or altering their religion. Rooted in empirical research, it analyses three hundred narratives drawn from the audiences of four Farsi Christian satellite television channels between 2010 and 2015, investigating their conversion to Christianity through that medium. The research examines factors that influenced both their interpretations of, and negotiations with, the religious media message, and their process of changing, adding to or modifying their belief system, including their understanding of religious conversion. Drawing on Reception Theory, the book investigates the negotiations between meaning making and mediation and the process of faith transformation against the background of the sociology of religion and culture in contemporary Iran. By offering a unique insight into the way in which media and religion influence each other, this book is a great resource for any scholar of Religious Studies, Media Studies and Middle East Studies and will also be useful for religious media practitioners. Sara Afshari is Research Tutor at Oxford Centre for Mission Studies (OCMS). She is a co-founder and former Executive Director of SAT-7 PARS.

Routledge Research in Religion, Media and Culture Series editors: Jolyon Mitchell, Stewart Hoover and Jenna Supp-Montgomerie

Material Culture and Asian Religions Text, Image, Object Edited by Benjamin J. Fleming and Richard D. Mann Religion, Media, and Social Change Edited by Kennet Granholm, Marcus Moberg and Sofia Sjö Media and New Religions in Japan Erica Baffelli Religion and Media in China Insights and Case Studies from the Mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong Edited by Stefania Travagnin Creating Church Online Ritual, Community and New Media Tim Hutchings Digital Spirits in Religion and Media Possession and Performance Alvin Eng Hui Lim The Third Spaces of Digital Religion Edited by Nabil Echchaibi and Stewart M. Hoover Religion, Media and Conversion in Iran Mediated Christianity in an Islamic Context Sara Afshari Muslims, Minorities and the Media Discourses on Islam in the West Laurens de Rooij For more information about this series, please visit: https://www.routledge. com/religion/series/RRRMC

Religion, Media and Conversion in Iran Mediated Christianity in an Islamic Context Sara Afshari

First published 2023 by Routledge 4 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN and by Routledge 605 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10158 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2023 Sara Afshari The right of Sara Afshari to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN: 978-0-367-43669-8 (hbk) ISBN: 978-1-032-45435-1 (pbk) ISBN: 978-1-003-00490-5 (ebk) DOI: 10.4324/9781003004905 Typeset in Sabon by KnowledgeWorks Global Ltd.

In loving memory of my dearest nephew, Ahamed Afshari (Nov 1981 – Jan 2006) who taught me that life is a risk. & To my dearest friend Barbara Shaw – without her support and encouragement this book may not have been completed.

Contents

Acknowledgmentsxiii Introduction Outline 6 1 A background

1

11

The audience 11 Challenges to the meaning of religion in Iran 12 A review of literature 14 Media users 14 Media and the state 16 Audience phantasm 17 Media contextualisation 18 Religious conversion 20 Conversion career 22 Rational or irrational choice 24 Methodology 25 2 Religion and religiosity

38

Introduction 38 Section one: Religion or faith 39 Religious exclusivism versus inclusivism 41 Section two: Change of attitude towards religion in Iran 45 Revisiting the concept of apostasy 49 Conclusion 51 3 The channels Introduction 56 An overview of the channels 58 Iran Alive Ministries: Network 7 58

56

x  Contents Programming 59 Mohabat TV 60 Programming 61 SAT-7 PARS 62 Programming 63 TBN Nejat TV 64 The practice 65 Magic bullet 66 Non-religion-Christianity 69 Conversion of change of religion 72 Challenges 74 Conclusion 75 4 Participants and the message

80

Introduction 80 Section one: Church Seven 80 Programme description 80 Analysis 82 Presentation and performance 84 Content and interpretations 85 Section two: Prayer and Christianity 89 Programme description 89 Analysis 90 Presentation and performance 91 Content and interpretations 92 Approval or clash 92 Blasphemy: Mary Mother of God 93 Don’t say “hazrat”: Don’t remind me of my past 95 Section three: New faith, new language 98 Our experiences influence the way we meet Jesus 98 Conclusion 101 5 Route to ready – experimenting Section one: An introduction to experimenting, negotiating and resisting 104 Section two: Experimenting 107 Agenda-based social experimenting 109 Christianity as a tool for “Westernisation” 109 Persuasive children 112 Spiritual experimenting  113 Religious shoppers  113 Religious visitors  115

104

Contents xi Migration 116 A road to healing and meaning  117 Conclusion 118 6 Negotiating

122

Introduction 122 In the negotiating position 123 Negotiating with God and rewriting of their faith stories 124 Jesus Christ 126 Forgiveness 127 Fear and shame 128 Religious experience 129 Christian channels as a process and means 131 For learning and for evangelism 132 Christian channels as community 133 Relationship process 135 The conversion processes 137 Conclusion 141 7 Resisting

145

Disaffiliation, deconversion and resistance 146 The stories of deconversion and disaffiliation 147 Disaffiliation from the channels 149 Poor production and content quality 149 Exclusivism: A sense of superiority and dominance 150 House church affiliation 151 From resistance to affiliation and conversion 153 Downgrading to occasional audience 154 The influence of the regime 154 Programme quality 155 Active media users and the channels 157 Resisters 157 Atheists 159 Theist agnostics 160 Religious inclusivism and exclusivism 160 Conclusion 162 8 Mediatisation of religious conversion Section one: A progressive journey 165 Seeking 166 The seven additional motivational elements 169

165

xii  Contents Through the channels 170 Mohabat TV 170 TBN Nejat TV 171 Network 7 171 SAT-7 PARS 172 Understanding the meaning of conversion 173 Transformation 174 Resistance 174 Section two: Divine power or magic bullet theory 176 The channels and the audience: Divine power or magic bullet theory 177 Demand 177 Mediatised religious conversion 178 Religiosity 178 Seeking continuation 181 Discontinuity 182 Cultural Christianity 182 Freedom of choice 183 Restoration of honour 185 Conclusion 186 9 Conclusion

190

Conversion as self-identification 193 Limitations and recommendations for future study 194 Final remarks: The growing gap 196

Index

199

Acknowledgments

It is impossible for any author to succeed without the support and contributions of generous and kind-hearted academics, friends/family and participants. This is very true in my case. Therefore, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Professor Jolyon Mitchell and Dr Elizabeth Koepping for their tremendous supervision, academic support and valuable guidance, especially Dr Koepping, without whom I may not have been able to succeed in writing this book. Her incredible mentorship, generosity and encouragement made my journey richer and more meaningful. My research would have been impossible without my participants who willingly wrote their narrative stories of conversion and transformation, and also those who agreed to be interviewed despite their sensitive situations. Adding to this, I would like to thank all the Farsi Christian channels for their participation in my research, especially SAT-7 PARS, Mohabat TV (Dr Mike Amato) and Network 7 (Dr Hormoz Shariat). I would also like to express my sincere thanks to the two Iranian churches in Ankara, Turkey, for allowing me to conduct my focus group discussions on their premises. I also thank the participants in my focus groups who wonderfully participated in the discussions and helped me understand their views, frustrations and struggles. My grateful thanks are also extended to ScholarLeader International and Strategic Resource Group (SRG) who financially supported part of the field research. Finally, but by no means least, my heartfelt thanks go to my dear friends Mrs Barbara Shaw and Revd Hilary Thomas, who believed in me and stood by me through the stormy days and calm moments, kept motivating me and assisting me with my English.

Introduction

My interest in mediatised religious conversion goes back to the beginning of my work in Christian media in 2002,1 when we started receiving our first audience responses to our one-hour weekly programme block. My question then was: why should people watch religious television programmes when they have more interesting entertainment programmes and channels to watch? This question became more cogent when we received responses from audiences that spoke of their conversion to the Christian faith through our programmes. Although this was a desire on our part, but as yet an unwritten goal, it took me by surprise. Being a convert myself, I knew the path of religious conversion is not an easy one to travel. So how can one so easily and simply become a Christian by only watching television? Reports from other Christian ministries and broadcasters into Iran started claiming that more and more people were becoming Christian through Christian media channels. I anticipated that there must have been more behind the audiences’ conversion stories than merely Christian television programmes, especially given that many of the programmes were not designed for or contextualised to the needs of the audience. Most had been produced outside Iran, mainly in Europe and North America by producers, teachers and presenters who commonly had become Christians in the West. How could programmes alone convince a Muslim person in Iran to change their belief system? Respecting their claims, I become interested to know how viewers and users of Christian media in Iran or other Muslim countries interact with and interpret the Christian message. How did people, especially in countries like Iran where all Farsi churches have been closed, 2 claim that they converted to Christianity through media (methods)? How did it happen (process)? What were other influential elements, besides the Christian media, that played a part in their religious conversion decision? The interaction between elements, the mediatized Christian message and viewers/users – especially those who for whatever reason, were seeking conversion – become a captivating topic in such a way that I resigned my position as Executive Director of SAT-7 PARS to start researching this phenomenon. DOI: 10.4324/9781003004905-1

2  Introduction As Farsi Christian media ministries grew, the success stories mainly focusing on conversion of “Muslims” into “Christianity” grew too.3 Based on minimal scientific research, there have been numerous claims by both Farsi Christian media broadcasters4 and ministries, 5 as well as scholars such as Garrison (2014) and Bradley (2008, 2014), on the growth of Christianity among Muslim background people, especially Iranians in Iran, with Christian media being the main sources for such growth. This raises a number of questions, including: to what extent are their claims relevant or reliable? To what extent can religious media itself transform the faith of its audiences? Has it been the desire and the demand of their audience who had been searching for new ideologies from the beginning and for which Christian media has merely provided platforms for discovery? If this is true, then there is a need for detailed research to investigate questions such as – how do audiences use media to transform their belief system or worldview? What are the methods that they use to negotiate and interpret the message in order to get their desired outcomes? In relation to the concept of “conversion”: how does a Muslim understand conversion, since conversion to another religion is prohibited, and religion is viewed as a communal matter? Therefore, what do they mean by calling themselves Christians or “followers of Christ”? Are their self-declared life transformations religious conversion or simply forms of social affiliation, migration strategy and political resistance? In responding to the above questions, it is important to note that this book will not attempt to answer each question and that it is not about Farsi Christian media ministries, nor is it about the impact of media, although both these issues will, to some extent, be discussed and examined. The main focus of the research is the audience of Farsi Christian media mainly in four satellite channels; their motivations in viewing and engaging with the Christian message, their methods of interpretation and negotiations with media text and their process of religious transformation, using the concept of conversion as a tool of analysis. Although Christianity has a longer history in Iran than Islam, the arrival of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 pushed Christianity to the margins. All Christian missionaries had to leave the country, Christian activities were restricted and the majority of Farsi-speaking churches were closed down (Van Gorder, 2010). Despite the obstructions, Christianity remained as one of the four recognised religions within the Iranian constitution6 but it was reduced to an ethnic minority religion linked to Armenian and Assyrian ethnic groups, in order to exclude Farsi-speaking Christians. Therefore, by law, Christians (Armenians and Assyrians) are currently allowed to worship and keep their religious and educational institutions.7 However, all their religious activities are closely monitored, all their religious materials including the Bible are published and taught by the government’s appointed groups most of which are Muslim (Afshari 2021). Evangelising Muslims and allowing them to participate in Sunday church services are considered illegal by law.

Introduction 3 Additionally, the government’s version of recognised Christianity considers Orthodox and Catholic Christianity as “true Christianity”. Protestant Christianity is seen by the Islamic authorities as heretical, corrupt and “propaganda of the West against Islam”.8 As the result, the Iranian government agencies and officials have taken a hostile attitude towards and strict measurements against protestant, especially Farsi-speaking, churches. Therefore, one can observe that, in general, the majority of the authorities’ criticisms towards Christians are very much politically rather than theologically and doctrinally driven. Though apostasy is a crime, few Muslim background converts have received apostasy charges.9 Nevertheless, the pressure, persecution and discrimination against Christians and Christian leaders have forced many, especially protestant church leaders and experienced Christians, to leave the country. The above paragraph gives us a glimpse into the complex situation of Christians in Iran. The complexity also prevents us getting accurate statistics, news and information about the contemporary Iranian church, consequently the church has become almost invisible even in the writings of Christian scholars. Those who wrote about this issue, such as Bradley (2008, 2014), Van Gorder (2010), were mainly focused on pre-Islamic Christianity including encouraging accounts of the conversion of Iranians (Muslims) to Christianity and the growth of house churches in Iran without much verification, for example, Garrison’s book, A Wind in the House of Islam (2014). At the time of finalizing this book (May 2022), there were four 24/7 Farsi Christian satellite television channels and numbers of Christian media broadcasting to Iran. The history of Farsi Christian television starts in the early 2000s, although before that there were occasional programmes on secular and political satellite channels mainly from the USA, such as Petra Broadcasting Corporation.10 The first regular weekly Farsi broadcasting into Iran started in September 2002 by Iranian Christian Broadcasting (ICB) from Cyprus, which moved to being a 24/7 channel in 2006, with a new name SAT-7 PARS, on joining the SAT-7 family.11 The second channel, TBN Nejat12 TV, began in 2003 with regular weekly programmes on a secular channel from the USA. In 2006, it become a 24/7 channel. The third channel Mohabat TV also started in 2006. Last but not least of the channels is called Network 7, started in 2012, although the founder, Dr Hormoz Shariat, with his team had been involved in Christian television broadcasting and video production ministries since early in 2001. Religious media in whatever form were not a new phenomenon in Iran. The Iranian audience were familiar with religious media. Since the establishment of Islamic Republic of Iran (1979), all media platforms were used for religious purposes to strengthen the values of Islamic Revolution and to evangelise (Tablig – religious propaganda and promotion of the state’s religious and political ideologies). Therefore, decoding and interacting with religious programmes were familiar activities for an Iranian audience

4  Introduction except this time the message was Christian. While similar from the theoretical and contextual point of view, Farsi Christian satellite television channels, unlike the Iranian state religious media, has mainly been influenced by the evolving North American religious broadcasting and televangelism of the 1970s, 1980s and the contemporary climate.13 A key approach that the Christian channels employed was a charismatic theory of communication, using the “evangelical framework of ‘call and response’” (Coleman, 2004, p. 124) to encourage their audience to participate in the implication of the message. Yet, the question posed here is why should Iranian audiences, who have already been saturated and/or disillusioned by religious messages, engage and respond to yet another religious text? In this book, I argue that religious media especially television channels are not enough on their own, without the willingness and demands of their audiences, to affect a dynamic change in their audience’s belief system. I reason further that the idea – conversion through media – becomes more problematic, especially applying it to a largely theocratic Shia Muslim country such as Iran; where conversion is illegal, persecution is on the rise and programmes are produced outside the audiences’ region, context and culture. As mentioned, the key motifs of this research are the audience’s activities, motivations and engagements with religious broadcasts on the four Farsi Christian satellite channels. Therefore, the views of audience in this research are based on active audience theories which consider audiences as: active participants, users of media, seekers of new ideologies and agents of change (Biocca, 1992 and 2011; Livingstone, 2003; Shimpach, 2005). As Shimpach (2005) puts it: “becoming an audience is rife with responsibilities of entering into a category with culturally well-defined parameters, protocols, and relationships to cultural and political institutions”. Therefore, the view of this book is that audiences of religious channels, especially those who had been seeking or desiring to explore new religious ideologies through their practices, reproductions and distributions of media text, go beyond their duties as audiences to become agents of change and transformation, not only in their lives but also within their societies and communities. I will examine the extent to which other factors and elements might motivate some Iranian audiences to come to a decision to change or modify their religious belief system. To understand what happens when an Iranian audience encounters the Christian media message, one needs to analyse the interaction and negotiation of the audience with the media (message) and his/her apparent socio-political/religious and cultural context. It is particularly important to understand the viewers’ historical context, including their understanding of religion, religiosity and conversion: what they actually mean by “becoming Christian” or “following Christ”. Studying the interaction and negotiation of Iranian (Muslim) audiences with Christian message highlights the complex and interwoven relationship

Introduction 5 between media, religion and culture. It sheds light on new types of Iranian audiences, with cultural/political resilience that are shaped by their media and cross-cultural activities based on their religious conversion. This idea distinguishes this book in the area of Media Religion Culture studies. Moreover, from professional practitioners’ point of view, the predominate role of religious media has been viewed mainly as an extension to the Christian churches’ evangelism and mission.14 Nevertheless, the case of Iran, along with other majority Muslim countries in the Middle East, challenges this view. For, firstly Iran is an Islamic country with a desire to convert the whole world to Islam, mainly Shiaism (Khomeini, 1981). Second, the majority of Farsi-speaking churches and all Christian publications have been prevented from functioning. Third, any Christian activities and evangelism are considered a crime against the regime and Islam. Therefore, for many, Farsi Christian media, especially satellite channels, have been the main, if not the only, source of Christian information, education and community. Fourth, tension between the traditional understanding of religion (related to the whole being of a person) and the modern ideology of religion as a personal choice and a private matter is high. This means many people desire to exercise their freedom of choice and decision-making to choose their own belief systems (Fazeli, 2006; Holler, 2007). Therefore, the context has created demands for new ideological alternatives, demands to which Farsi Christian media especially television channels have responded. For the above reasons, the study of the reception of Christian television channels in Iran – Muslim country and Muslim audience – may well be an important one. Therefore, it is in this context that this book intends to contribute to the field of media, religion and culture studies of media reception, media and religion and sociology of religion. Going back to the concept of conversion, it is worth bearing in mind that although conversion is not the primary subject of this research, it might appear to the readers that it becomes one of the main topics. This is because since there is no equivalent translation of the term in Farsi or among the Muslims of the Middle East (Asad, 1996), there have been different perceptions and versions of conversion among the participants, depending on their agendas and worldviews. Their perceptions of the concept of conversion have greatly influenced their use of the mediatised Christian message and their process of life transformation. The two main questions on conversion will be: firstly, how have participants used the Christian message presented on Farsi Christian channels as an alternative ideology in order to process and bring about change and modification of their own religious worldviews. Secondly, I will consider how participants used their earlier life experiences and views of religion (negative or positive) to interpret and negotiate the process of religious change (conversion). The conversion element of the study has been influenced by Rambo’s seven-stage model (1993), Gooren’s conversion career (2008, 2010), Barbour’s deconversion theory (1994) and Stark and Finke’s rational choice theory (2000).

6  Introduction Furthermore, this study will not discuss the politicisation of religious conversion and its consequences for individuals and society, nor will it investigate the political implications of the Farsi Christian channels on their audiences and on state policy. Although both these issues are important and have, to some extent, influenced the participants’ journeys of negotiation and process of change (using conversion as a sign of political protest or for migration purposes), the length of this book does not allow such investigations. These issues among other topics will be recommended for future study. The data of this research comes from 300 selected, self-declared narratives from audiences of the four channels, who contacted one of the channels between 2010 and 2015 to report their conversion or they had said “the salvation prayer” as a sign of their conversion. Besides narratives, 15 viewers were interviewed in depth for a better understanding of the process of their conversion. There are two semi-structured focus group discussions to further our understanding of audience negotiations with and interpretations of the Christian message into their cultural context. In order to also include the motivations of those who resist the Christian message and/or do not watch Christian channels, a short telephone survey was conducted in Iran. The information about the channels is sourced from interviews with the channels’ directors and other published and unpublished documentation available to the author.

Outline Chapter 1, the Story, is an introductory chapter. It provides background to the socio-political and cultural situation, as well as the impact of globalisation in changing the meaning of religion from a communal matter to a private choice in contemporary Iran. The chapter also investigate the studies and theories that relate to and influenced my research, mainly concerning active audience response and the concept of conversion. It will familiarise the readers to some of Iranian scholars’ writings and studies, especially in media and sociology of religious studies of Iranian media and society. The last section of the chapter is dedicated to the methodology of the research, data collection, data analysis and interpretations, as well as stating the limitations of the research. In the light of Chapter 1, Chapter 2 with the title “Religion and religiosity” develops the issues concerning the audience’s religious and cultural background further in order to build the foundation of the research. Therefore, the chapter focuses on religion and religiosity of Iranian society, the meaning of religion and faith in Iranian religious worldview and the influence of globalisation and media on the meaning of religion (form an Iranian perspective). It also investigates the concept of “Islamisation of modernity” that was put forward by Motaheri in early days of Islamic Republic. The first section examines the understanding of religion (din and mazhab)

Introduction 7 in contemporary Iran and its relationship to the religiosity (mazhabi and dindari) of ordinary people. Exclusivism and inclusivism of religiosity in Iranian culture is discussed in order to understand the impact of participants’ decision and the conversion process, or how far they are merely adding to their pre-existing belief system. In the second section, I look at the impact of globalisation and modern media on Iranian society, culture and state, mainly from religious points of view. An overview of the media situation is provided and the challenges and impacts of satellite channels on both the state, as anti-global, and society, in the process of globalisation and modernity, will be briefly discussed. In Chapter 3, “The channels”, I will introduce the four Farsi Christian satellite television channels. Their practices and methods of evangelism and their understanding of the concept of conversion will be examined. The influence of American televangelism on the channels, their magic bullet theory and why television is still a preferred medium will be discussed and explored. Finally, some of the reasons such as “donors agenda” that cause the channels’ beliefs to differ from their practice will be examined. To argue that audiences are a living reality with power to change the meaning of the message Chapter 4, “Participants and the message”, investigates influential and preventive links within the channels’ programming – content and performance, culturally and religiously, based on participants’ interactions with the programmes. The chapter examines the focus group discussions on two programmes, one from Network 7 channel, called Church Seven, and the other from the SAT-7 PARS channel, called Prayer and Christianity. Of the two main questions of the chapter, the first is posed to establish which elements most influenced the participants’ interactions, interpretations and negotiation with the messages presented in each programme. The second question is on the obstructions that prevented participants from relating to the intended meaning of the messages and from relating the message to their context. Focusing more on participants’ faith journeys, Chapters 5, 6 and 7 under the titles “Experimenting”, “Negotiating” and “Resisting” examine and analyse the data to identify participants’ motivations, to understand their definitions of “change of religion” – conversion, to observe the process of their transformation including patterns and methods involved and, finally, to uncover the reasons of those who resisted the message or disaffiliated from the channels. The names of the chapters are based on participants’ positions and attitudes during both their viewing of Christian television programmes and their faith-seeking journeys. Following on, Chapter 8 presents and discusses the findings in response to the primary questions of the research: what do the participants reveal about the way audiences interact and negotiate with both religious text and their socio-political/religious context? Chapter 9, the conclusion, cites theoretical and practical implications and contributions of the study to both media reception and sociology of

8  Introduction religion, as well as pointing to the limitations of the research and recommending future studies. The final section of the chapter argues that Farsi Christian television channels by themselves are not able to cause any religious change. In addition, they did not create demand for religious ideologies or religious change, they only responded to the demands which were already created by the audiences’ contexts and circumstances – politically, religiously, culturally and technologically. For that reason, audiences, while viewing, already have their agenda and goal in mind. Therefore, their religious change, if any, is based on their cost and benefit calculations against their agenda and their own interpretations of the religious text using their past religious worldviews and experiences, both negative and positive.

Notes 1 As one of the co-founders and the Executive Director of Iranian Christian Broadcasting (ICB), we started broadcasting the first Farsi Christian programmes into Iran via satellite on 17 September 2002, with one-hour weekly programmes on a Christian Arabic channel, SAT-7. Four years later, we became a 24/7 channel, joined the SAT-7 family and changed the name to SAT-7 PARS. 2 The definition of a church among Farsi Christians in Iran is mainly based on Matthew 18:20 at the same time being part of the universal Church. 3 See reports on Mohabat TV website: http://heart4iran.com/about/the-change/ and Iran Alive Ministries (IAM), of which Network 7 is a part: http:// iranaliveministries.org/page.aspx?n=20& (Accessed: 30 June 2016). 4 The four main Farsi Christian channels are SAT-7 PARS; Mohabat TV; TBN Nejat TV and Network 7. 5 Such as Open Doors, Elam Ministries. 6 The other three religions within the Iranian constitution are Islam, Zoroastrianism and Judaism. Three seats in the Iranian parliament are reserved for Christians (one Assyrian and two Armenians), and one seat each for Jews and Zoroastrians. 7 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran (1979; as amended 1989), article 13. 8 Please see the link to Article 18: https://articleeighteen.com/news/7675/ that has a link to Iranian government’s response to UN experts letter: https:// spcommreports.ohchr.org/TMResultsBase/DownLoadFile?gId=35896 9 For example, Yousef Nadarkhani was sentenced to death for apostasy in 2010: “Yousef Nadarkhani sentenced to death for apostasy”, Article18, 6 December 2010. Available at: https://articleeighteen.com/news/3026/ (Accessed: 10 February 2021). After an international outcry his sentence was later quashed. 10 Petra Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) is a small group funded mainly by the founder Armond Simonian a businessman. In 2003, it strengthened its focus mainly on training and equipping house church leaders in Iran. At the beginning of ICB now SAT-7 PARS, in 2002, PBC cooperated with ICB but later on, because of denominational issues, it moved out. Its Farsi website is called kelisatv: http://www.kelisatv.com/. They do not have an English language website. 11 SAT-7 is a Christian satellite television network broadcasting and producing Christian programmes in three languages, Arabic, Farsi and Turkish: www. sat7.org. 12 Nejat is an Arabic word means salvation. 13 See Horsfield (1984, 2003), Hoover (2006 and 2016) and Hoover and Clark (2002). 14 The study of media, religion and culture is a reaction against this approach.

Introduction 9

Bibliography Afshari, S. (2021) ‘Marginalization and Negotiation of Boundaries: the Case of the Armenian Church in Iran,’ Journal of the International Association for Mission Studies, Brill, 38 (2), 278–296, doi:  https://doi.org/10.1163/15733831-12341794. Available at https://brill.com/view/journals/mist/38/2/article-p278_10.xml. (Accessed 2 December 2021). Asad, T. (1996) ‘Comments on conversion’, in Van Der Veer, P. (ed.) Conversion to Modernities: The Globalization of Christianity. London: Routledge, pp. 263–274. Barbour, J. D. (1994) Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press. Biocca, F. (1992) ‘Communication Within Virtual Reality: Creating a Space for Research’, Journal of Communication, 42 (4), pp. 5–22. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1460-2466.1992.tb00810.x/full (Accessed: 13 May 2017). Biocca, F. (ed) (2011) Television and Political Advertising. 2nd edn. London: Routledge. Bradley, M. (2008) Iran and Christianity: Historical Identity and Present Relevance. London: Continuum. Bradley, M. (2014) Too Many to Jail: The Story of Iran’s New Christians. Grand Rapids. Monarch Books. Coleman, S. (2004) The Globalisation of Charismatic Christianity: Spreading the Gospel of Prosperity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Fazeli, N. (2006) Politics of Culture in Iran. London and New York: Routledge Garrison, D. (2014) A Wind in the House of Islam. Monunment, CO: WIGTake Resources. Gooren, H (2007) ‘Reassessing Conventional Approaches to Conversion: Toward a New Synthesis’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 46 (3), pp. 337–353. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.14685906.2007.00362.x/full (Accessed: 15 May 2017). Gooren, H. (2010) Religious Conversion and Disaffiliation: Tracing Patterns of Change in Faith Practices. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Holler, M. J. (2007) ‘Freedom of choice, power, and the responsibility of decision makers’, in Marciano, A. and Josselin, J-M. (eds.) Democracy, Freedom and Coercion: A Law and Economics Approach. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 22–45. Hoover, S. (ed.) (2016) The Media and Religious Authority. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press. Hoover, S. M. (2006) Religion in the Media Age. London and New York: Routledge. Hoover, S. M. and Clark, L. S. (2002) Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media: Explorations in Media, Religion, and Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. Horsfield, P. (1984) Religious Television: The American Experience. New York: Longman. Horsfield, P. (2003) ‘Electronic media and the past-future of Christianity’, in Mitchell, J. and Marriage, S. (eds). Mediating Religion: Conversations in Media, Religion, and culture. London: T & T Clark, pp. 271–282. Khomeini, R. (1981) Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini, trans. Hamid Algar. Berkeley: Mizan Press.

10  Introduction Livingstone, S. (2003) ‘The changing nature of audiences: From the mass audiences to the interactive media user’, in Valdivia, A. (ed). Companion to Media Studies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 337–359. Rambo, L. R. (1993) Understanding Religious Conversion. New Haven: Yale University Press. Shimpach, S. (2005) ‘Working Watching: The Creative and Cultural Labor of the Media Audience’, Social Semiotics, 15 (3), pp. 343–360. Available at: http:// www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/10350330500310145?needAccess=true (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Stark, R. and Finke, R. (2000) Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press. Van Gorder, A. C. (2010) Christianity in Persia and the Status of Non-Muslims in Iran. Maryland, MD: Lexington Books.

1

A background

The audience Despite the heavy restrictions on access to global media and Western products by the Iranian regime, the majority of Iranians have access to satellite television channels and, through anti-filter software, have access to outside websites and social media. According to an Iranian News agency, Sharigh News, also quoted by BBC Persian,1 satellite viewership increased from 1 per cent of the population in 1995 to 71 per cent in 2013. Internet users had increased to over 91 per cent of the population at the start of 2022. 2 As a result, like the rest of the world, Iran has been influenced by global media as well as being a contributor. One can argue that global media has increased the tension between Islam and Western modernity and between the ideologies of globalisation and the religious claims of the Iranian authorities (Kazemi, 2008). However, the tension between Islam and modernity is not a new phenomenon. The debate over modernity in Iran has a much longer history than the emergence of globalisation and global media. One can trace its importance to the 1906 Constitutional Revolution (Jonbesh-e Mashruteh), which became a foundation for the 1979 revolution as well as constitution. After the 1979 revolution, a social transformation and radicalisation of Islam in Iran took place in order to bring about an Islamic “utopia” (Sadeghi, 2008). Islam became a political religion with the Vali-e Faghi (in the concept of Velayat Faghi, Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists) as the Supreme Leader. Ayatollah Khomeini, in his speech of 1979 at the Tehran Cemetery, described both the characteristics of and the need for an Islamic state: “the rule of divine law over the people”. According to this ideology, 3 the Guardians (Awliya) of the Islamic state are “appointed by God” and “have been given divine authority”, meaning the Supreme Leader and his team hold all power over people. Based on this view, there is no negotiation or compromise within the divine law; therefore, the people cannot participate in decision-making.4 As Kazemi puts it: “freedom is seen as ‘sexual freedom’ or ‘laic freedom’ [azadi-e lamazhabi].5 Democracy is interpreted as placing the people’s view above God’s view. DOI: 10.4324/9781003004905-2

12  A background Human rights contradict an individual’s duties and the divine foundation of right” (2008, p. 226). The Islamic state not only failed to fulfil its 1979 promises, but also brought a tougher dictatorship (theocracy) by using religion (Shia Islam) to legitimise its power.6 People’s disillusionment, frustration and anger with regard to their living standards and lack of freedom continued to grow, but “the Islamic revolutionaries ruthlessly eliminated their rivals” (Khalaji, 2008, p. 28). Nevertheless, the perceived and experienced lack of freedom arguably helped the underground market to develop and people to become more creative in ways of accessing or disseminating information that was banned or censored – after all, the 1979 revolution was nicknamed the “cassette revolution” (Semati, 2008, p. 57). The underground market introduced satellite7 channels and, later on, the Internet as a means of access to outside, uncensored news, views and information. Therefore, a window onto the globalised world came into people’s living rooms and smartphones. Many political opposition and religious groups, including Christians, took this opportunity and beamed their messages into Iran. These new technologies and ideologies, together with disappointment with the regime and some aspects of Islam, not only gave an opportunity to question the traditional understanding of religion and religiosity but also encouraged many to choose or even create their own religions and belief system. In this situation, Christians outside Iran became especially active in using media to spread their religious messages to disillusioned Iranians. However, the extent to which they did this, based on naïve and elitist assumptions of the uniformity of viewers’ attitudes and expectations, will be one of the points of research and discussion in this book.

Challenges to the meaning of religion in Iran Globalisation and global media have breached boundaries in uncontrollable ways. Through empowering individuals with voice and opportunities, they have created unexpected challenges and opportunities for the state, for culture in general and for religion in particular. This may be especially the case in countries such as Iran, which have a complex relationship with the developing processes of industrial modernity and post-modernity. According to a Gallup survey in 2009, 83 per cent of Iranians said that religion is an important part of their daily life.8 The 2020 survey of religious belief in Iran, however, revealed a significant shift in Iranian religiosity, with a dramatic increase in diversity of faiths and beliefs.9 Only 32.2 per cent explicitly identified as Shia Muslim and 5 per cent as Sunni. The survey confirmed that religion is still an important part of Iranian culture. Therefore, in order to understand contemporary Iranian society and culture, one needs to understand the relationship between society and religion in general. One might argue that the philosophical and theological meaning of religion beyond society and culture has been fading in

A background 13 contemporary Iran (Fazeli 2006). Although difficult to prove, it appears as though the traditional interpretation of Islam held by the government has been weakened, while the influence of globalisation and secularisation has increased the tension between religion, religiosity and culture. However, the Islamic state looks at this tension as merely a political issue and ignores its sociological importance. The result of this tension – the over-­politicisation of religion and the people’s unhappiness with the regime – has caused some to move away from Islam and affiliate with other religious ideologies such as Christianity.10 Furthermore, amid the influence of globalisation and modernity and with the politicisation of Islam and religion in general, Iranian intellectuals began to rethink and challenge the official traditional understanding of religion. Scholars such as Fazeli saw that changing the socio-political structure of the country required the transformation of the epistemological structure of society, by which he meant that the interpretation of religion should be changed in such a way that it is “compatible with all aspects of Iranian society” (Fazeli, 2006, p. 76). In this view, religion should cease to be dominated by politics, with a clear distinction made between faith, divine manifestation (din/faith), that is divine knowledge of faith, and religion (mazhab), that is human interpretation of din, which is a form of human knowledge and subject to criticism. This means, for example, there is only one Islamic din,11 yet there are different Islamic religions (mazhab) such as Sunni, Shia, Jafari and so on, which are the human interpretation of din-e Islam. This view takes religion out of the hands of clerics into the public domain. As Soroush (2000, p. 45) argues, “religion is too important to be left in the hands of the clergy alone”. Such intellectual arguments about the meaning of religion and the influence of globalisation, along with the unhappiness with Islam and the regime, have encouraged ordinary people to challenge the traditional, ascribed and communal practice of religion and take an interest in a more “personal faith” (iman-e shakhsi) which is different from the above understanding of din and mazhab and can be more related to the concept of religious conversion. Therefore, based on the above understanding, one can argue that disillusioned Iranians, at the same time as withdrawing from Islam (as understood by the authorities), may also be searching for a personal and private faith to exercise not only their religiosity but also their freedom of choice (Holler, 2007). Shojai-Zand (2008), an Iranian sociologist, claims that neither globalisation nor the Islamic regime made Iranians irreligious but, rather, both transformed the meaning of religion from a communal and ascribed identity to a private and individual choice. If Shojai-Zand’s argument is valid, therefore, one might conclude that Iranians have been looking for a personal religion, a faith-based alternative, that can also address their interests and their emerging understandings of the world and of perceived “others” (Fazeli, 2006, p. 43). Since the mediatised Farsi Christians were aware of the above tension, they introduced their commonly held

14  A background evangelical version of Christianity as “a personal and relational faith”, not a religion. This approach attracted the attention of some, especially those who may have suffered under by institutional religion, yet felt in need of the “divine hand”. Pressure and persecution of converts, which the government stirred up, became institutionally counterproductive, for society became more tolerant towards those who chose a different “personal faith” from Islam. Yet, the question of what it means to become a Christian through media in Iranian society was not adequately addressed nor reflected upon.

A review of literature There have been numerous studies done in both fields: the area of media reception and Christian evangelism such as Livingstone (2003, 2007), Horsfield (1997, 2003) and Hoover and Clark (2002, 2006 and 2016); and in the area of religious conversion such as Greil (1977), Straus (1979), Rambo (1993) and Gooren (2007, 2010b). The early days of televangelism also produced some significant studies on the influence of media on church growth such as Horsfield and Hoover. Majority of early studies focused on North American and European societies and Christian religion. There have been very limited studies on Christian media and Muslim audiences in majority-Muslim countries such as Iran. How Muslim audiences interact and negotiate with the Christian message coming into their context is a new question to explore. An overview of previous research would be helpful, partly because it provides a foundation for this book to build on and partly to make it clear in which areas this book is going to make a new contribution. Therefore, here I have provided a window on resources and studies held in both areas – media reception and conversion – in the context of the sociology of religion (both within Iran and outside), with a critical view of some of the theories referred to in this book. In regard to media reception, I will first look at resources and studies held in Iran, providing an analytical view of the Iranian audience’s relationship with media (mainly television and satellite channels). Secondly, I will review methods and theories which have been more helpful in expanding our understanding of the Iranian audiences to provide a framework to underpin the field research of this book. In regard to conversion, three theories will be examined: Rambo’s (1999) seven-stage model, Stark and Finke’s (2000a) rational theory and Gooren’s (2010b) conversion career. Barbour’s (1994) understanding of the deconversion process will also be discussed. Media users To understand the overall Iranian audience (mainly of mass media television including satellite channels), I consider the work of Iranian media scholars and researchers such as Bahonar (2008, 2009); Fazeli (2006);

A background 15 Mohsenianrad (2006, 2008, 2009a); Mowlana (1979); Bahar and Mohammadi (2012); Amoli (2006, 2007) and Amoli & Haji Jafari (2013) whose work and observations in the fields of media religion and culture and media have been significant. The fields of media and audience studies are a relatively new territory for many Iranian scholars and researchers, since the state’s restrictions on any scientific research relating to media and religion have caused the majority of the studies to focus on theoretical approaches, based on theories principally developed in Europe and North America, such as: “Uses and Gratifications” (Blumler, 1979); the encoding/ decoding model (Hall, 1997, 2001); and to some extent the media as a “market place” and the audience as “consumers” and products (Napoli, 2003). These active audience theories will be discussed in relation to the understanding of the Iranian audience. The crucial importance of religious propaganda, tabligh, has been one of the main elements of Iranian state media, for it is on this foundation that all policies and strategies have been developed and the structure of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) is defined (Bahonar, 2008; Mowlana, 1979, 2010). Underlying all these is the exercise of power and control by the regime through adapting a core communication strategy from the past, translating the old communication tool of the menbar (pulpit) into the electronic and digital media, the main focus being radio and television (Mohsenianrad, 2008; see also Hirschkind, 2006). This has functioned to reinforce their political and religious ideology, based on the assumption that their audience is the same as those hearing words from the menbar, ideally homogeneous and passive recipients (Bahonar, 1997; Horsfield, 2009; Khiabany, 2007). Mohsenianrad calls this the “audience phantasm”, because they focus on the theory of injection and think that media have similar functions and characteristics as the Menbar. This means the audience is treated as passive recipients, with the one exception that they can ask questions. However, they cannot interpret the message or create their own content, because the foundation of the media content is religion (Shia Islam) and the content of religion should be under the control of religious leaders, with the Supreme Leader as the head. Therefore, the media policymakers have generally continued to imagine the media audience as the audience of the pulpit (menbar), that is, passive recipients. The portrayal of Iranian audiences by some media agencies such as the BBC, CNN and others – at least until the 2009 presidential election and the Green movement12 – had paralleled the regime’s supposition of audience passivity. These media agencies also, without any validation from theology but with a good deal from their own assumptions about the “other”, saw Iranian audiences as homogeneous, passive recipients of words from government, media and mullahs. This image is beginning to change, yet the “simplistic generalisations” of the changes taking place, of the situation13 and of a romanticised notion of resistance, still hold. For example, a video clip which showed a group of young Iranians, including women, dancing

16  A background to Pharrell’s song, “Happy”14 overlooks the complexity of the Iranian audiences’ diversity and their participation in both the political situation of the country and the global world, including global media. The often diaspora-influenced or diaspora-sourced Farsi Christian media institutions also hold a similar position concerning the passivity of the audience, for they too, perhaps unconsciously, follow their own origins in assuming that their audiences are the same as those listening to sermons from an imaginary, if archaic, church pulpit and are thus equally homogeneous too. For that reason, the majority of their programmes comprise pulpit preaching and head-talk teaching. In reality, there is no homogeneous audience, but a complex and dynamic mixture of individuals with different agendas and goals, with diverse identities, gender, education, class, political and religious backgrounds and with different approaches to different types of media (Clark, 2005; Fazeli, 2006; Hall, 1997; Morley, 1980, 1992). Media and the state The IRIB is run under the supervision of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who defines the work of IRIB in this way: The IRIB should stand against and defy the propaganda of the enemy against revolution and react strongly to defuse their fabrications. View the IRIB as a university for teaching the principles of revolutionary Islam. This is our approach to the IRIB. (Taken from Khiabany’s book, 2009) The main focus of Iranian state media has been on two elements – religion (specifically Shia Islam) and politics. In a number of studies (Mowlana, 1979, 1996, 2007, 2014), Mowlana, an influential Iranian media scholar, has offered a model based on the “Iranian experience” for “Islamic communication”. He claims that the word “communication” does not have an equivalent in “Islamic literature”, for “the term takes a more technical rather than social connotation” (2007, p. 149). He argues that synthesising the traditional culture and styles of the country’s history with contemporary electronic media is problematic. Central to his analysis is the concept of tabligh (propagation), yet he warns that the understanding of tabligh should not be confused with the Western concept of propaganda. His notion of tabligh is very much in line with Christian (tel)evangelism. His concept of Islamic communication means primarily religious teaching or propaganda based on: monotheism (tawhid); guidance and action (amr bi alm’ruf wa nahy as munkar); Islamic community (umma); and piety (taqwa). He ignores the notion of audience, and its participation and reading of media text, because, for him, the centre of Islamic communication is the Deity, not the audience. The notion of culture in his model is simply an extension of the state and religion which determines the guidelines for

A background 17 community, political action and participation. He sees not only Iran but all Islamic communities as one homogeneous “Muslim society”. Although the IRIB structure is based on Mowlana’s model, it will be argued in this book that neither Mowlana’s model nor IRIB has portrayed the complex reality of Iranian audiences and society. In the same way, Farsi Christian television’s approach to media, even though not as limited as Mowlana’s model of tabligh, seems to be based on analogous assumptions, for they too do not portray the reality of Iranian audiences, their context, or their actual diverse and contested culture and worldviews, but a fictional one. Audience phantasm Audience phantasm means a fictional and imaginary audience. Mohsenianrad (2009) used the term to describe the nostalgia of the old communication tool “menbar” by the IRIB. He sees the roots of the concept of “audience phantasm” within the socio-historical and political structure of the country, not only during the current regime but also before the 1979 Islamic government. Pulpits were the most effective medium, not only for religious purposes but also for political reinforcement, especially since the Tobacco Rebellion (Nehzat-e Tanbacoo) in 1890–1892,15 which led to the Iranian Constitutional Revolution in 1906. Mohsenianrad’s “audience phantasm” is the same as the hypodermic needle theory (also known as the magic bullet, which emerged from the Marxist Frankfurt School in the 1930s), which considers the audience as a mass passive and powerless to resist the media message as a one-way system (Berger 1995; Blumler, 1979; Katz and Lazarsfeld, 1966). The current authority’s approach to media, he calls the “Illusion of Control”, is that the authorities imagine they have everything under control and that the audience interprets their text in the same way they intend, with little resistance. Against Mohsenianrad, another Iranian media scholar, Bahonar, suggests the adaptation of traditional religious communication for modern media. He argues that “holding political power and being culturally effective were mostly a result of traditional methods of communication rather than the modern ones” (2008, p. 245).16 He suggests that the state should integrate traditional media into the modern media. Like Mowlana, he gives little credit to audience participation, but instead gives it to “the fulfilment of the ultimate goals of Islam”, and from that position he describes the importance of the audience’s participation, not in terms of reinterpretation of the message but as being readily influenced and shaped by the Islamic media. The Mowlana and Bahonar models do not provide a picture of the realities of Iran or, for that matter, any Islamic country. First, there is no homogenous audience and no homogenous society or culture; and secondly, modern technology has empowered and provided audiences with numerous choices and alternative ideologies, leading to audiences being empowered

18  A background to reject, accept or alter their interpretations of the media text, including the state’s religious messages – theology. Looking into Iranian religious media history and its consequences, one can recall a survey done in 1985 that revealed that Iranian television channels had the highest number of religious programmes in the world, comprising mainly preaching and teaching, with Algeria being second on the list. For that reason, during the 1980s and 1990s, Iran became one of the highest consumers of video tapes, because audiences were discerning and a black market of video tapes became established for that reason. The coming of satellite and digital channels and the digital and social media has made the situation more critical because individuals felt that their freedom of behaviour and choices had been threatened or eliminated. The collective resistance against national media may have also led to unintended changes in religious and cultural traits, for example, the increase of individualism and religion as a private matter and personal choice. If this proposition is correct, it raises the question of whether the audiences of Christian media, especially the ones who appear to have chosen to change their beliefs, were unconsciously captivated by Christian television channels and the newness and attractiveness of the message and of whether any change in their belief may have been neither intentional nor perhaps, therefore, permanent. Contrary to the above propositions, this study suggests that audiences use media messages strategically and deliberately for their potential goal of personal transformation and/or lifestyle change. Therefore, there are more factors involved than a simple understanding of media literacy and limited choices of media channels. One can argue that, in their approach to media, the Farsi Christian media have taken a similar approach to tabligh, that is evangelism or religious propaganda – preaching and teaching the “fulfilment of the Kingdom of God” as an alternative to “the fulfilment of the ultimate goals of Islam” without acknowledging the importance of audience agenda, participation and interpretation of the media text. I will explain this more in Chapter 3. Media contextualisation Iranian audiences’ activities can be considered at two levels. First, they engage in the interpretation of the media text into their own context according to their own agendas, desires and worldviews; and secondly, through reproduction of that created text, they Iranianise the global media content according to their individual or sub-group perceptions of Iran and in relation to their local media text (Montazer Ghaem & Shaghasemi, 2009). In short, their interpretation and reproduction of text illustrate their resistance as well as their ability in contextualising the media text into their context. In their private space, they have the power to reject, accept or change the message. Therefore, the word “users” might be more appropriate than audience, even for viewers of satellite television channels (Livingstone, 2003).

A background 19 While taking a more nuanced, less “top-down” stance, Fazeli, although affirming the process of contextualisation, argues that the government’s tailor-made contextualisation does not work for Iranian audiences because, first, it is based on the political and religious agendas of the state not of the audiences; and secondly, the main contextualisation is done by the audience themselves. In their private space, they have the power to reject, accept or change the message. The two main points of Fazeli’s study, which can be helpful in this book, are “being audience focused” and that he sees the interaction and conversation between audience, media and culture as a process of interpreting, re-presenting and recreating meaning. However, the Iranian state view, which is based on the idea of a passive audience, led to a ban on satellite channels and foreign media.17 In so doing, it aims to protect “Islam, the regime and the people”. Its actions might have helped the regime, but they have had significant consequences for “Islam” and the people. The increase of satellite viewership from 1 per cent in 1995 to 74 per cent in 2021 and the increase of internet and social media users to 97 per cent (Maleki and Arab 2020) could be for four main reasons: the human desire for interactivity and participation with the outside world – to know and to be known; the ideological division in society between the state and the people; the organisational divisions within the state; and the ignoring of social and cultural interests of Iranian society by the state media (Azad-Armaki, 2008). The heavy censorship and restrictions created three levels of simultaneous activity: resisting, experimenting and negotiating. That is, resisting the government’s methods, experimenting with new ideologies and activities and participating in and negotiating with global media by producing their own media content, as well as actively contextualising, re-producing and re-broadcasting global media texts into their local cultures and communities. From the point of view of resisting, experimenting and negotiating, audiences go beyond their immediate needs and gratifications to their shared cultural worldviews and life experiences. Therefore, without effectively positioning an audience’s choices and readings within their socio-political and historical framework and their life experiences, media research cannot produce any reliable data on how Iranian audiences construct meanings from intended media messages (Morley, 1980; Hall et al., 2005 [1980]). This is because meanings are not simply for isolated individuals, for their uses and gratification, but they are rather shared and part of a pattern in cultural constructions. Therefore, the diversity and dynamic characteristics of Iranian audiences, which are complex issues, should not be crassly categorised in terms of political and religious dogma, but rather related to a wider understanding of human desires for interactivity with the outside world. This said, the implications of interactivity and active audience participation go beyond interactivity between media and individual audiences to being part of the process of transformation and reshaping of cultures, societies and religious interpretations (Hall, 2005 [1980]; Hoover, 2008; Morley, 1995).

20  A background Therefore, the concept of an active audience is not easily defined. For media to be effective, they need a degree of audience involvement and, while this may be hard enough to assess in a free-media context, it is much more difficult where watching only certain media is sanctioned by the state. Let us therefore take Biocca’s (2011, pp. 52–53) theory of involvement as a useful starting point. For Christian media, as religious media, to be effective and transformative, they need their audience to constantly engage with their message, not only to understand it but also to put it into practice. Biocca’s theory divides the degree of involvement into three stages: prior to viewing, “preactivity”, where the audience talk about and look forward to viewing the programme; during viewing, “duractivity”, when the audience engage with the text; and following viewing, “postactivity”, in which the audience will search for more about the subject and will potentially discuss and share it with others. Based on these stages, he offers five characteristics of audience activity: “selectivity”, where the audience are active in selecting media, programmes and the content; “utilitarianism”, which highlights the usefulness of “the process of choice”; “intentionality”, indicating the audience’s personality, motivation and cognitive processing structures of received information; “involvement”; and, antithetically, “imperviousness to influence”. One can argue that Iranian viewers are more involved in the “postactivity” stage in such a way that a secondary media (online and offline) can be created for which the producers, actors, directors and broadcasters are themselves the audience, with a new version of media text using media’s hidden codes, signs and language to express their wishes, needs and identities. The result of this can be seen in the creation of satires and new expressions among the youth, shared on social media platforms and other cultural forms in society. In this motion, the state and other powers cannot intervene in the secondary production of media text, in which people are in a sense creating and distributing their own media contents. Fazeli (2013, p. 61) calls this “public media” or “personalised media” in which the preferred authoritative readings of media text are rejected, resisted or negotiated and a new version of the text is produced. For example, a very serious programme, such as a televised religious ritual, might be turned into a comedy show, or a comedy programme could evolve into serious reflections. From this point of view, audiences go beyond their immediate needs and gratifications to their shared cultural worldviews, concerns and life experiences.

Religious conversion Religious conversion is a controversial concept. There have been a vast number of studies analysing conversion from different points of view, without any agreed definition. Many theories have been developed and challenged. Among these, one can mention Lofland and Stark’s (1965) conversion model, based on tension and problem-solving; Greil (1977) and Straus’s

A background 21 (1979) spoiled identity, focusing on social network systems in which seekers search to restore their identity and meanings; the religious movement/ market model of Gartrell and Shannon (1985); rational choice theory of Stark and Finke (2000b); the seven-stage model of Rambo (1993); and Gooren’s (2007, 2010) conversion career model. The majority of studies focused mainly on Western societies, the Christian religion and interdenominational conversion. Conversion from Islam to Christianity through the use of media in a Muslim-majority country such as Iran has not yet been studied. However, conversion is not a central subject of this research, despite the fact that the main topic of the data is transformation of religious views, mainly from Islam to Christianity. Rather, the concept of conversion has been used as a tool of analysis. Therefore, the main focus will be, first, on how audiences use Christian television programmes as an alternative ideology to process, bring about or justify a change in their lives and religious worldviews; and secondly, to address how audiences use their earlier life experiences and religious views to interpret and negotiate the process of change, as well as the meaning of the Christian message presented in the television programmes. Based on the above, this research has been influenced by Rambo’s seven stage model (1999), Gooren’s conversion career (2010b) and Stark and Finke’s rational choice theory (2000a). Since, in many of the narratives and interviews, participants claimed that they had left their previous religion, Islam, before they converted to Christian faith, Barbour’s (1994) theory on deconversion will also be described. Conversion is a confusion of categories and “it means just what a given individual or group wants it to mean” (Rambo, 1999, p. 3). It is a process of change and transformation based on individuals or group agendas, desires and perceptions. It is a method of integration and experimentation. The word “conversion”, although it has profound mystical meanings in English and in Christianity, has no equivalent word in Farsi or in Arabic (Asad, 1996, p. 81). Mystical encounters normally relate to Sufism and mystical spirituality – faith – rather than religion as mazhab because, as Alameh Tabataba’i explains, their extent is out of the reach of mazhab’s explanations (Tabataba’i, 1983). Another reason for the undeveloped concept of conversion in Farsi or in Arabic might be the fact that conversion from Islam to another religion is forbidden and is a crime, in many Muslim countries, punishable by death. The closest vocabulary to the word “conversion” in Farsi could be “change of religion”, yet this does not communicate the deep significance of the process, because such a change can apply to many things that are not spiritual, including lifestyle, ideology and so on. Even the mystical and divine encounters that are described in some of the narratives may not indicate conversion to Christianity, but rather Sufi exhilaration, especially since Jesus Christ has been highly honoured within Shia Islam and Persian literature. Or, it might be based on personal needs and environments of the person at the defining moment of conversion. Therefore,

22  A background Rambo’s seven-stage model and Gooren’s conversion career, which emphasise conversion as a process rather than an event and/or an immediate mystical turn, are particularly relevant in this book. Conversion career Rambo’s process model of conversion, which is holistic and open, combines insights from psychology, sociology, anthropology and theology. For him, every conversion is unique and contextual and influenced by “multiple interactive and cumulative factors” that are cultural, social, personal and religious (Rambo, 1999, p. 5). Based on that, he developed a seven-stage conversion model: context, crisis, quest, encounter, interaction, commitment and consequence – phenomena which have also influenced Gooren’s conversion career. For Rambo, context is the total environment in which potential converts live and conversion takes place. According to him, the context influences every stage of conversion and each stage also has an impact on the context. The crisis stage forces individuals to confront their limitations and find solutions to their problems, adjust to their new circumstances and/or find opportunities for transformation (Austin-Broos, 2003; Rambo, 1999). The quest stage is influenced by the individual’s emotional, intellectual and religious accessibility in seeking fulfilment. The encounter stage brings seekers into contact with people who want to provide these seekers with new alternatives and orientation (Gooren, 2007). This stage can also include encounters with “the divine” in visions and dreams (Garrison, 2014), as we will hear in some of the narratives. The interaction stage is about relationships and connections to the new option, which Gooren calls the affiliation stage (2010b). It is “an intensification of the process in which the advocates and potential converts ‘negotiate’ changes in thoughts, feelings and actions” (Rambo, 1999, p. 24). Commitment is the stage where people decide to commit their life to a new religious/spiritual orientation and meaning-making system. Gooren calls this stage confession (2010b, p. 8). The consequence stage is a first step towards transformation of life, with a sense of purpose and mission (Austin-Broos, 2003). It is in this stage that converts assess the effect of conversion: Is it what they had expected and desired? For many, the answer might be positive, so they continue the process of negotiation and construction of their new identity; but, if the potential convert feels that the new religious system is not suitable for them, that its cost is more than its benefits and it does not match their agenda, they may go through a disaffiliation process (Gooren, 2010). The majority of the accounts of conversions within narratives and interviews described in this research indicated that experimenting was the starting point of their journey: “First instrumentally combing for clues through their social networks and the mass media, gradually refining the nature of their quest, and experimenting with a certain religious group (Preaffiliation)” (Gooren, 2010b, p. 25). Therefore, the process is not as

A background 23 Rambo indicates, linear. Some converts may go through the first five stages of Rambo’s theory a few times before committing to the Christian faith. For that reason, Gooren’s conversion career (2007, 2010b) is of significance to help us understand the gaps, stops and restarts of the conversion process. Gooren’s conversion career is also a dynamic process with five stages: “preaffiliation, affiliation, conversion, confession and finally, if applicable, disaffiliation” (2010b, p. 8). Nevertheless, both Rambo and Gooren mainly highlight turning to and neither of them reflects much on the process of turning from. A significant number of narratives and participants’ interviews for this research, which are described later in Chapter 7, put greater emphasis on their turning from Islam. Barbour (1994) calls this “deconversion”. He defines deconversion as a conscious rejection of a former religious belief system, not as irrelevant but as incorrect – “as simply loss of faith” (1994, p. 3). For him, people may use their deconversion stories “as a metaphor or analogy to interpret some other experience of personal transformation” (1994, p. 2). That personal transformation could be turning to another religious ideology. Barbour sees four characteristics in the deconversion process: intellectual doubt and uncertainty; moral criticism; emotional upheaval; and rejection and disaffiliation from their communities. He explains: A version of deconversion involves the narration of the significant events that call a faith into question, an analysis of choices, and usually a rather dramatic reversal: One’s former faith is presented as not just irrelevant but as wrong and misguided (Barbour, 1994, p. 3). He argues that, like conversion to, conversion from also takes a long time and it is a process that involves crucial and painful recognitions, decisions and reconstructions of one’s life. However, he asserts that conversion from, similar to conversion to, rarely involves a total turnaround. Since the majority of narratives of conversions and participants’ interviews in this book indicate that they had left their former faith before even encountering the Christian faith, Barbour’s theory seemed appropriate for analysing the data. As James (1985, p. 64) rightly points out: “conversion is a process of struggling away from sin rather than of striving towards righteousness”. Therefore, according to James and Barbour, conversion to is not exclusively a religious phenomenon for the salvation of souls, but rather a process for personal transformation and problem-solving as, in James’s words, “secular equivalents”. That means that both conversion from and conversion to involve a notion of secularism and self-realisation as well as, in some situations, a notion of “divine intervention” (Asad, 1996, p. 266). Both conversion from and conversion to are rational choices, decisions that individuals, based on their rationality and consciousness, make. This brings us to the rational choice theory of Stark and Finke.

24  A background Rational or irrational choice The Stark and Finke theory was based on the economic principles of Iannaccone (1998). Rational choice theory assumes that individuals decide on an alternative that they believe will bring about personal transformation and social outcomes that improve their circumstances and address their preferences (Paterson, 2001). This means conversion or change of belief system is a personal and rational (or irrational) choice based on an individual’s agenda and needs. The Stark and Finke rational theory will help contextualise this research with respect to understanding the rationality, motives and ends or, in some cases, apparent irrationality of individual choices and decisions in changing their belief systems. Therefore, with this in mind, throughout this book I argue that change of religion is not simply a consequence of media or group influences, although that might be a starting point for some: rather, it is a result of decisions made by individuals in order to achieve their goals and bring about desired changes, on the basis that “within the limits of their information and understanding, restricted by available options, guided by their preferences and tastes, humans’ attempt to make rational choices” (Stark and Finke, 2000b). People act to get what they want based on a cost and benefit system (Gooren, 2010; Iannaccone, 1998). Individual decisions for religious choice are expected to be voluntary and stand on calculation of rewards and costs (Paterson, 2001). However, it is not always as clear cut as that seems, because availability of information and alternatives, as well as the influences of friends and social groups, can change religious preferences of participants to something they may not in the first place have desired. As Sherkat and Wilson state: Our choices are structured by what we know about alternatives. Rationality is inherently bounded by information. Decisions are made on the basis of not only what is desired but what is known about alternatives. (Sherkat and Wilson, 1995) Nonetheless, what is costly and what is profitable and what these words mean for an individual are difficult to analyse and comprehend. For example, one of the narratives of this research is the story of Rahman, a young man who had decided to become a Christian after his older brother was murdered by his fundamentalist cousins because of his conversion to Christianity. If we consider cost and benefit, how did Rahman calculate the cost and benefit of his conversion, knowing that he might be killed too? There are cases such as this among narratives of participants that might contradict Stark’s theory of cost and benefit. For example, the cost Rahman’s brother paid was the ultimate cost, yet Rahman, without even knowing what the benefits might be, decided to follow the same path as his brother, which might cost him his life too. Therefore, the issue of

A background 25 persecution, the death penalty and other forms of suffering, which converts sometimes go through, contradict a simplistic theory of material cost and benefit. Yet it does not contradict the freedom of choice theory (Holler, 2007), in which one accepts the consequence of one’s choices. Nevertheless, since this system of costs and benefits or rewards and punishments is also part of the Islamic system and the religious explanations of ordinary people, the audience of the Farsi Christian satellite channel has learnt how to deal with roles and calculations, including the consequences (Ebrahimi and Bahrami-Ehsan, 2013).18 Another aspect of rational theory is that people evaluate and selectively maintain religious explanations based on results (Stark and Finke, 2000a, 2000b). Therefore, in this theory, religious explanations are more about “ends” rather than means, although in many cases religious explanations enable seekers to make sense of their situations and help them to understand what it is that they want. If we consider conversion as a rational choice, and individuals as active seekers within a living reality, with unique experiences and processes of transformation, it is not possible to suggest any patterns of thought or behaviour that can be generalised to all participants. For this reason, the researcher avoids offering any “one-size fits all” stencil. Patterns are used only as examples. For instance, religious seekers first actively explore and search for clues through their social networks and the mass media; gradually refining the nature of their quest, individuals may then experiment with different religious groups and ideologies to see whether a particular religion is right for them and what benefits they may accrue (Stark and Finke, 2000b; Straus, 1979, pp. 158–159). Alternatively, individuals may first set their agenda and attainment goals, and then actively explore their religious options, a process which highlights the intrinsic heterogeneity of personal spiritual development and conversion.

Methodology The methodology for this research has primarily comprised a qualitative approach: narrative and content analysis, interviews including a telephone survey in Iran, two semi-structured focus group discussions and participant observation. The main data consist of 300 faith transformation narratives of audiences who have willingly written or told their stories to one of the four Farsi Christian satellite channels: SAT-7 PARS, Mohabat TV, Network 7 and TBN Nejat TV, during the period 2010–2015. Around 55 per cent reported that they have also used the Internet and digital media to print or download the Bible and other Christian resources, as well as participating in online and social media activities. The criteria for selecting the stories were based on, first, people who stated that they had become Christian through Farsi Christian media, with minimal connection to Christian churches or Christian communities; and secondly, those who have narrated their stories in some detail19 or have

26  A background given permission to publish their stories and also to call them back if required. Thirdly, they all appeared to be living in Iran. Of the stories selected, 156 women’s and 144 men’s stories were selected. 20 Around 230 responses come from 27 locations – 23 cities plus four remote villages in Iran. Tehran, Shiraz, Isfahan, Azerbaijan, Rasht (northern Iran) and Ahvaz each provided more than eight responses. For 26 of the respondents, it is unclear whether they lived in Iran. For security reasons, 17 responses requested that their cities not be identified. Eightysix respondents did not specify their age; of the remainder, 74 people were between 17 and 25 years old, 89 were in the range of 26–40 years old, and 51 were 41 years of age and above. The collection of data (narratives) was based on availability and accessibility of narratives from each channel and on participants’ permission. The researcher had more open access to SAT-7 PARS data. Therefore, based on the above criteria, 105 stories were selected from that channel, 63 male and 42 female – normally men’s responses to SAT-7 PARS were more numerous than those from women. The majority of responses to the channel had been narrated in the first person. The responses came from 20 different locations in Iran. A total of 70 narratives were selected from Mohabat TV, mainly taken from their website, comprising 34 men and 36 women, from 15 different locations. The narratives had been written from the channel’s perspective in a reporting format by the telephone operator and/or counsellor. Though the founder and director of TBN Nejat TV refused to be interviewed, their audience has been included and 80 narratives were selected, mainly those posted on the Internet, comprised of 20 men and 60 women, from 12 different locations in Iran – the majority of the viewers of this channel were women. Most of the narratives were very short, in the form of prayer requests for healing. The Network 7 channel provided 45 narratives, 15 men and 30 women, from 10 different locations in Iran. From the point of view of responses, similar to TBN Nejat TV, it seems that the channel receives more calls from female viewers than male. Another important fact from the narratives of this channel is that the majority of the stories indicated that they were calling on behalf of their “house church”, “house group” or were part of a Christian community linked to the channel. The narratives are reflective stories from the audiences, written by participants or told to the channels, about their situations, worldviews, their desires for change, their struggles for meaning, and the reasons why they have become a Christian. However, the interaction links between the participants, the religious media and their context were not well established. For example, statements such as “after watching your programmes I discovered that Christianity is the truth”, or “after watching your programme I felt that Christianity is a religion of love” do not make such contextual links, as it is unclear what such statements mean. In order to elucidate

A background 27 such meanings and explore how audiences interpret and relate media messages to their context, I have also conducted two, less structured, focus group discussions (one from a Farsi Anglican church and the other from a Farsi Pentecostal church, both based in Ankara, Turkey). I used two programmes, one from Network 7 and the other from SAT-7 PARS.21 The criteria for recruitment to the focus groups were: nomination by their pastors and voluntary participation; individual’s departure from Iran less than a year prior to the focus group discussions; having watched Christian channels while in Iran; and that they had considered or accepted the Christian faith while in Iran.22 Group A was affiliated with the Anglican church in Ankara, and the focus group meeting was conducted at their pastor’s home. Ten people were selected, seven adults aged 35–47 years old, four men and three women, and three teenagers aged 15–17, all girls. Group B was affiliated with the Farsi Pentecostal church in Ankara. Eight people, four men and four women, were selected. Almost all the participants of both groups, including the teenagers, were regular viewers of the channels and had accepted the Christian faith while in Iran – except one, a man in his mid-20s who had watched Christian channels while in Iran, yet made a decision to become a Christian while in Turkey. All the participants were asylum seekers, hoping to migrate to one of the European or North American countries. It was also noted that declarations such as “I have decided to follow Christ”, “I have become a Christian”, “I want to join Christianity”, “I have noticed that Christianity speaks the truth” were not clearly explained in narratives as to what they really meant. For example, is the phrase “following Christ” the same as “becoming a Christian” or does it mean just adding Christ’s teaching to one’s faith? Or was a statement like “I want to join Christianity” just a desire for social and cultural affiliation or does this indicate religious conversion? To clarify some of these ambiguities, and also to clarify the influence (negative and positive) of audience’s past religious views and their new one, I interviewed 15 people – seven men and eight women – in relation to their conversion process and their creation of meaning. 23 The issue of religion and religiosity, which will be discussed in Chapter 2, was noticeable in almost all the stories. Statements and expressions such as “following Christ”, “accepting Christ in my heart”, “Jesus told me that ‘I am the truth follow me’”, which can be seen in the majority of narratives, were clearly Christian expressions. However, there was confusion concerning the meaning and implications of such statements within the stories. This confusion was mainly around the meaning of religion and personal faith: Can someone have Islam as a religion and Christianity as a personal faith? This ambiguity could be seen in several of the stories. My theory was that, since Farsi Christian channels are influenced by Christian evangelical theology and American televangelism, with its emphasis on individualism – personal faith – and a view of salvation which includes

28  A background emphasis on the benefits here and now, this approach might have appeared to their audience to be a version of the Christian faith reduced to a spiritual ideology that one can practise whenever one needs to “feel good”. This may be especially the case for audiences who had been taught that Christianity is one of the Abrahamic and divine religions, hitherto practised in a collective Islamic manner. To examine this, I interviewed the directors of the three channels (SAT-7 PARS, Mohabat TV and Network 7) to understand their strategy, aims and goals as well as their social understanding of the religion and religiosity that they broadcast. The TBN Nejat TV director declined the invitation to participate. Although some of the interviews indicated the issue of disaffiliation from Christian channels, the data available did not provide much information as to why some people did not watch or had stopped watching Christian channels. Therefore, there was a need for further research that concentrated on resistance to and disaffiliation from Christian programmes. A random telephone survey in four cities in Iran – Greater Tehran (including Karaj, Robat-Karim and Ray), Kerman (southern Iran), Isfahan (central Iran) and Tabriz (north-west Iran) – was conducted to investigate the reasons and explanations of those who have resisted the Christian message and eschewed Christian media. The telephone survey was conducted by a researcher in the Science and Research branch of the Islamic Azad University of Tehran. The aim of the interviews was to learn why people refused to watch or had stopped watching Christian television programmes. The two main questions that were asked were: “Have you watched Christian satellite programmes?” If the answer was “No”, then the next question was “Why?” If the answer was, “Yes, but not anymore” the next question was: “What made you to stop watching?” If the answer was “Yes” to the first question, no further questions were asked. For security reasons, telephone conversations were kept short. One hundred telephone numbers were randomly chosen and called; 50 mobile numbers and 50 landlines. Twenty-five people refused to participate; 75 responded, comprising 42 women and 33 men. The reason that the number of women is higher is that the majority of people who answered the landlines were women. Of those that responded, 42 people came from greater Tehran, 15 people from Kerman, 10 from Isfahan and 8 from Tabriz. The age ranges were as follows: 33 of them were aged between 16 and 25 years; 25 between 26 and 39 years; 12 between the ages of 40 and 59; and 5 were aged 60 and above. All the participants were aware of Christian satellite channels: 35 stated that they did not or refused to watch; 21 claimed they had watched, but stopped watching; 10 people said that they were occasional visitors; only 9 claimed that they were regular audience. It is important to note that the main data for this research are the self-­ narrated stories; the interviews and focus group discussions have to be subsidiary to them. The data have been analysed and processed as a whole into three categories: experimenting, negotiating and resisting, although there

A background 29 has been substantial conceptual overlap. For example, many participants started with experimenting with the religious ideology of Christianity and, if convinced, they moved to a negotiating position with the Christian message, their identity and context and, in many cases, with their previous religious belief system. Some who were not happy during their experimentation period disaffiliated themselves and resisted watching Christian television altogether. 24 The definition of “change of religion” (conversion) in this book is not based on any particular Christian tradition or theological conviction. The validity of conversion is only based on the informants’ experiences, claims and decisions. Qualitative analysis is an “interpretative process”; therefore, the assumptions, preconceptions and worldview of the researcher are likely to influence the process (Lacey and Luff, 2007). In this case, it is important to declare my position, which might have influenced the processing of the data. First, as a convert from the age of 19, I am used to constantly interpreting the Christian message into my own context, or my worldview into my Christian faith, especially since we (my friends and I) also suffered from lack of Christian resources and leadership, although I was a member of an established church in Iran. Whenever I could not make sense of some Christian doctrine or other religious ideology, I used to go first to my knowledge of Sufism for a solution, or to New Age spirituality for its practice; and whenever I could not make sense of Christian practice, I used to turn to communism for an answer. Second, and more importantly, my 12 years of experience and observation with Farsi Christian media, from September 2002 to July 2014, needs to be taken into consideration. I am one of the founders of SAT-7 PARS, which started broadcasting Farsi Christian programmes in September 2002, first under the name ICB (Iranian Christian Broadcasting) until December 2006, when, as a result of joining the SAT-7 family, the name changed to SAT-7 PARS. I worked as the Executive Director and the main decision maker for the channel, including setting up the strategies, goals and agenda, having in mind that the SAT-7 PARS Board, the SAT-7 Executive Board and the SAT-7 International Council were the gatekeepers and policy makers. I was also part of all three main bodies. I used to travel to Iran’s neighbouring countries to meet and listen to some of our audiences and Iranian church leaders in order to understand their needs and their situation and to strengthen our network’s relationships inside the country. I also enjoyed good relationships with staff at the other channels, especially at Mohabat TV and Network 7. Therefore, my observations and experiences may be of assistance in analysing the data. My experience and assumptions may bring some risk of prejudicing the analysis and findings of this research, but having a clear methodology has helped to minimise that; and it is only this history of involvement that has made it possible to carry out this research.

30  A background This research has several limitations. The first one is within the data collections, mainly affecting the narratives. The narratives were selected first by the channels, and only secondly by the researcher (except for the SAT-7 PARS narratives, which were selected by the researcher). The channels’ manipulation of the data might have changed the original stories and the meanings that participants intended to communicate. For that reason, the 15 personal interviews and the two focus group discussions helped to establish a better understanding of the participants’ faith journeys. The second limitation is that it is difficult to verify participants’ accounts of conversion – that is, whether participants have truly experienced what they had narrated or whether their stories were to some extent a figment of their own imagination. Moreover, it has to be noted that, since narratives and interviews are personal encounters, the telling and retelling of them may vary depending on converts’ audiences – for example, if an individual told the same personal encounter to her family, it would likely be different from the version that was told to the researcher. The third limitation is related to the issue of translation of the data. Any translation is a representation of the original (Temple and Young, 2004). Therefore, translation is not the same as the original, for the translators themselves will become part of the process of the presentation of the data. For example, as mentioned above, all the narratives from the audiences had been translated from Farsi to English by the channels. Consequently, the telephone operators and counsellors who had translated the stories had the potential to alter the tenor of the audiences’ stories. That means their work became “part of the process of knowledge production” (Temple and Young, 2004). This issue can also, to some extent, apply to the researcher, since I have also transcribed and translated the data gathered from the focus group discussions and the interviews. However, in regard to the researcher being the translator of focus group discussions and interviews, it is an advantage to the study that the researcher knows the language of the informants fluently, which can help with the validity of interpretation, offering close attention to cross-cultural meanings and analysis of data. With this in mind, the researcher has tried to remain objective throughout the transcription and translation of the data.

Notes 1 http://www.bbc.co.uk/persian/iran/2013/12/131217_l39_satellite_ban_jannati. shtml (Accessed: 22 February 2015). 2 According to the Internet World Stats website, in 2022, Iran had the highest proportion of Internet users (with population penetration of 91.8%) in the Middle East: https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats5.htm#me (Accessed: 18 July 2022). In 2006, Iran’s satellite system enabled the government to provide cheaper wireless Internet connectivity to the country. The increase of smartphones has allowed more and more people (old and young) to access the Internet. On the other hand, tight security and control over all online and telecommunication

A background 31 activities by the government have made it difficult and unpredictable for many online Christian activities. The regular blocking of websites, emails, telephone and other types of media, except radio and satellite television channels, has been a great challenge to both Christian and other outside media organisations. 3 Based on this ideology, non-Muslims should convert to Islam, while Muslims are forbidden to convert to other religions, and conversion (apostasy/murtad) is seen as a crime against God and Islam because such actions delay the coming of the Shia Messiah. 4 Although people participate in voting for the president and members of parliament, they mainly vote for one of the choices of the Supreme Leader. 5 Lamazhab means infidel. Lamazhabi is the adjective. A literary translation is “freedom to practise infidelity”. 6 The Shia clergy and scholars (Ulama) have never ruled the country directly, yet they have held an important position in Iranian society since the Safavid dynasty (1501–1722). The secularisation under the Pahlavi dynasty (1924–1978) limited the power and authority of the Ulama. The year 1979 was the first time Muslim clergy ruled in the name of Islam directly. 7 Satellite dishes have been banned by Parliament since 1995, see the link: https:// www.iranfocus.com/en/news/special-wire/3400-iran-police-hunt-banned-­ satellite-dishes-2/ (Accessed 10 January 2021). 8 Crabtree, S. and Pelham, B. (2009) “What Alabamians and Iranians Have in Common”, Gallup, 9 February 2009. Available at: http://www.gallup.com/ poll/114211/alabamians-iranians-common.aspx (Accessed: 12 February 2015). 9 The Group for Analysing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN). (2020) “Iran’s secular shift: new survey reveals huge changes in religious beliefs”, The Conversation, September 10, 2020. Available at: https://theconversation.com/ irans-secular-shift-new-survey-reveals-huge-changes-in-religious-beliefs-145253 (accessed: 18 July, 2022). 10 Based on GAMAAN survey, around 1.5 per cent of Iranians said they are Christians. 11 For some Islamic philosophers and Sufis, such as Sohravardi (12th-century philosopher) and Rumi (13th-century poet, jurist and Sufi), there is only one din (Faith), and the Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam – are called mazhab (religion). For that reason, it is narrated that when Rumi died, all three religions were present at his funeral. 12 The Iranian Green Movement arose after the 2009 presidential election. The protesters called for the removal of Ahmadinejad. 13 A good example of this is a Facebook page called “my Stealthy Freedom” which shows images of various Iranian women without scarves in public places. It became a news event on the BBC, generalising it to all women in Iran: https:// www.facebook.com/StealthyFreedom/ (Accessed: 16 February 2021). 14 Saeed, S. (2014) “The West Loves the Story of Iran’s Jailed ‘Happy’ Dancers For All the Wrong Reasons”, Mic, 22 May 2014. Available at: http://mic.com/ articles/89827/the-west-loves-the-story-of-iran-s-jailed-happy-dancers-for-allthe-wrong-reasons (Accessed: 21 May 2016). 15 Tobacco Rebellion was a Shia cleric-led protest against the 1890 tobacco enterprise granted by the Shah to Great Britain. 16 He refers to the Tobacco movement in 1890; the Mashrute revolution (Constitutional Revolution) 1907; oil nationalisation in 1953; and the 1979 revolution. 17 The Iranian government and religious authorities’ approach to media and audience is still based on the passivity of audiences, seen as “mindless”, vulnerable and the victims of mass media. For example, Mesbah Yazdi, a member of the Council of Experts, in his 2012 speech, raised this concern over the Farsi Christian satellite channels, saying, “… these vulnerable youth have become the

32  A background prey of Christian evangelicals”. The 2012 speech of Mesbah Yazdi in FarsiNews.ir is entitled: “The house church and Bahai’s activities in Iran are a danger to the Islamic Republic”. Available at: http://www.farsnews.com/newstext. php?nn=13911017001444 (Accessed: 12 October 2015). 18 This issue needs further investigation separate from this research. 19 The majority of the responses were short, without much indication of their motives or commitment or the process of transformation. 20 There is also a claim by some Christian ministries such as Open Doors and Elam that conversion among women in Iran is much higher than among men. 21 My aim had been to have three focus groups – two for converts through media and one for non-Christians who had watched the channels and were familiar with them. Unfortunately, since the Iranian community in Ankara mainly comprises migrants who are seeking to move to Europe or America, the sensitivity and security issues did not help in building their trust in us. 22 Many of the participants had been baptised in Turkey. The majority of converts in Iran have not been baptised. The Iranian church and the satellite channels agreed that baptism is not necessary in times of danger and persecution for Iranian Muslims in order to become Christian. Heart confessions and personal declarations are enough for their entry to the Christian faith. 23 Three interviews were telephone interviews, three employed WhatsApp (mainly those from Iran), four were conducted via Skype and five interviews were conducted face to face. In order to include all the channels, two interviewees were from TBN Nejat TV, four from Mohabat TV, Four from Network 7 and five from SAT-7 PARS. 24 The narratives and all interviews, except the channel directors’ interviews, were conducted originally in Farsi. Narratives from the channels have been translated into English by the channels themselves. However, I have transcribed and translated the focus group discussions and interviews.

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2

Religion and religiosity

Introduction To understand the importance of religion and religiosity in Iran, one needs to examine the relationship between society, individuals, religion and the state. In the same way, to understand the interactions and negotiations with the Christian message of the Muslim audiences of Farsi Christian television channels, especially those who claim that they have become Christian through media, one needs to understand how the dynamics of relationships work: on the one hand, between society, individuals, religion and the state; and, on the other hand, between individuals and globalisation/modernity. In other words, one needs to understand how the process of a change of faith is connected with a person’s pre-existing reflections and experience between society, religion, state and globalisation. In the previous chapter, I indicated that beside the prohibition of change of religion and lack of clear terminology to describe one’s religious conversion, the major part of the perplexity in comprehending conversion to is related to the religion and religiosity of the Iranian audiences’ culture. In the first section of this chapter, I briefly examine the understanding of religion (din and mazhab) in contemporary Iranian society and its relationship to the religiosity of individuals. I will also briefly discuss the complexity of definitions, as well as the contrast between the state’s attempts at presenting a homogeneous view of religion and the work of Iranian scholars and thinkers demonstrating multiple voices, concerning religiosity in Iranian culture, that indicate the important elements of exclusivism and inclusivism. From this perspective, firstly, I will briefly look at the approach to religiosity within Iranian society – the complexity of the religious situation and the elements of religiosity. In order to explore how the understanding of religion and religiosity within Iranian cultures and worldviews influences the participants’ viewing habits, decisions and conversion process, or the extent to which they add to their pre-existing meaning-making and interpretive framework, I will illustrate religion as a significant source of meaning-­making by analysing one of the narratives. DOI: 10.4324/9781003004905-3

Religion and religiosity 39 In the second section of the chapter, I will, briefly, address the impact of globalisation and global media on Iranian society, culture and the state, mainly from religious points of view. The importance of this section to the research is that it helps us examine the question of whether there is a link between conversion to Christianity and conversion to modernity, separate from religion, with respect to lifestyle, change of social networks and worldviews.

Section one: Religion or faith My aim is not to define religion or religiosity but to give an overview of the complexity of an Iranian understanding of religion (din and mazhab) and religiosity (dindari and mazhabi). Religion and religiosity are ambiguous terms. There has not been any agreed definition among scholars, either in Iran or anywhere else, because definitions are bound by history, culture, worldviews and political and social situations of societies, groups and nations (Fazeli, 2006; Serajzadeh & Ghasabi, 2012). Therefore, one definition cannot be applicable to all situations and cultures. For example, as Al-Azmeh says, “there are as many Islams as there are situations that sustain it” (1993, p. 1). In the case of Iran, the multiple religious influences, such as Islam (mainly Shia Islam), Sufism, Zoroastrianism and Mithraism, have added to the complexity of the understanding of religion and religiosity in society. Therefore, if one types the words “religion” and “religiosity” into an English-Farsi dictionary,1 one gets definitions such as this: mazhab: “religion”; and mazhabi: (religiosity) “being religious, especially in an extreme or flamboyant, moralistic way”. In the context of contemporary Iranian society, in which religion has been used and misused, the term religiosity can also have a negative connotation. On the other hand, if one types din and dindari into a Farsi-English dictionary, one can get: din: “faith”; and dindari: “religiousness; piety”, which has still kept a positive connotation within Iranian society. So it can be said that religiosity relates to religion (mazhab) and dindari relates to faith (din). Although my aim is to discuss dindari (religiousness), I will use the term “religiosity” in a non-pejorative manner as we examine both religion and faith. The complexity of the understanding of religion, faith (din) and religiosity in contemporary Iran is the result of several factors; religion (Shia Islam) became the main player after the 1979 revolution and the establishment of the Islamic Republic based on the “Vilayat-e Fagih”, the Guardianship of the Jurists, ideology developed by Khomeini (Mowlana, 1979). In this way, there is no separation between politics, religion and spirituality, private and public, for sovereignty belongs to God not to the people: the state therefore became an Islamic state and the constitution was based on Islamic shari’a law (Khiabany, 2007; Mowlana, 2014). However, that is only one side of the story, and it was not the end of the story, because the society did not agree on a homogenous view of religion and politics. Although people

40  Religion and religiosity were expected, without questioning the religious motives of the government, to be in agreement with the government’s religious agenda and policy, the results show otherwise: there has been disappointment, disillusionment and frustration among many Iranians. The influence of modernity and globalisation added to the complexity of the understanding of religion and religiosity in Iranian society by introducing, within one’s religion, two concepts: private/personal religion and the concept of freedom of choice (Holler, 2007). It offered new alternatives and brought to the surface other possible definitions and interpretations of religion and religiosity. In this complex and depressing Iranian situation, there has been no strong leading opposition voice that society could rely on, but rather multiple competing and controversial voices. Nevertheless, the earlier generation of leading scholars such as Shariati (1933–1977), Motaheri (1919–1979) and Soroush (1945–) have been influential in debating religion and religiosity, although their theories may not be applicable to the present situation in Iran. Scholars such as Shariati, with his daring writings and demands for the reformation and reinterpretation of Islam as an ideology rather than a traditional religion (“Protestantisation” of Islam), still inspire many modern university students and scholars. Motaheri’s ideology, on the other hand, has been more influential within the Iranian government and amongst clerics associated with the government. For them, Islam is unchangeable and it is modernity that should be shaped by Islam: the Islamisation of modernity. According to Motaheri, the religiosity of society should be shaped by the unchangeability/immutability of religion (Islam), yet in a more rational and scientific way, because for him Islam is a rational religion and everything can be explained from a scientific point of view. His ideologies were, in fact, one of the foundations of the establishment of the Islamic state in 1979. Soroush, another leading contemporary, advocates that religion should not dominate politics in Muslim societies and “should not be left in the hands of clergy alone” (Vakili, 1996). He, like Shariati, suggests that clerics should not be part of the political establishment; yet the government should represent the religiosity of the society. Similar to Motaheri, he argues that religion is unchangeable, but the interpretation of religion and religious knowledge (ma’riafat-e dini) are time-bound, therefore “Muslims should reconstruct their religious interpretations in accordance with the changes in their society and in the world”. None of the above scholars speaks about freedom of religion, moving from communal and inherited religion to a private choice, or reshaping of religion by individuals. Their areas of discussion have been more general and theoretical. Moreover, one can argue that the worldview of Iranians is, in terms of religiosity, very liturgical; therefore, the limits on reproduction and reinterpretation of religious symbols and values have made it difficult for ordinary religious people to relate to the current situation of their society. Alternatively, people might search for other religious replacements and

Religion and religiosity 41 liturgies as their source of meaning-making and interpretation. From this perspective, for instance, Nasr (2006) argues that to understand religion and the religiosity of Iranians we need to move behind the merely philosophical, theological and traditional viewpoint of religion, to the sociology of religion, in order to include society’s struggles not only in their understanding of modern forms of religiosity but also in its religious practices. Yet, studies of the sociology of religion have yet to gain influence, since any research that deals with religion or the religiosity of people is controlled and the data are kept by the government (Serajzadeh & Ghasabi, 2012). 2 The restrictions on religious issues, as well as the government’s monolithic and authoritarian view on religion and their propaganda on the religiosity of society, have reduced the position of religious sociologists in a way that is akin to being stuck in the 18th and 19th century of Europe. For example, Mohadesi (2008), an Iranian religious sociologist, argues that parts of Iranian society remain traditionalist even though Iran is becoming an industrialised nation, and it is thus suffering from a duality (clash between tradition and modernity) affecting various aspects of individuals’ lives.3 This in turn is affecting the development of people’s values, especially among the youth of the nation. He argues that, though religion has been fused with all aspects of people’s lives, other institutions, especially electronic, digital media and social media, have challenged the religious values of society. One of the aspects of religiosity that has been challenged is its exclusive nature propagated by the government, despite the fact that for centuries the inclusivism of “faith” (din) has been promoted through Sufi writings and poetry as part of the divine manifestations of God’s grace for all. Religious exclusivism versus inclusivism Studying religious inclusivism and exclusivism within Iranian society and worldviews can help us to understand whether turning to Christianity means a total breakaway or simply adding to one’s religious system. Multiple religious influences and factors have persuaded Iranian culture and society to develop a more complex and to some extent a fluid understanding of religion and religiosity, which is at the same time both inclusive and exclusive. A combination of inclusiveness and exclusiveness in religion and religiosity is not a new phenomenon within Iranian cultural history, for it has been part of the religious culture for many centuries. Religious scholars, theologians, Sufis and poets have written about this issue mainly from the perspective of separating religion (mazhab) and faith (din). The Quran did not speak of mazhab, but of din. The Quran in chapter 16 verse 52 says that “and to Him belong the faith [din] …”4 Therefore, Faith belongs to God and people should not have a monopoly on it. The common ideology that sees faith as an innate matter has dominated most religious and Sufi

42  Religion and religiosity scholars, directly and indirectly. For example, Motaheri argues that God has put into the human soul a desire for din. This means that, since din belongs to God, the human soul from the moment of birth starts searching for the divine, not necessarily for Islam or Christianity. But there has not been any agreed definition of what din really means. There are several attitudes towards the concept of din. Here, I will examine only two general approaches to din in relation to inclusivism and exclusivism ideology, one of religious Islamic approaches and the other of the Sufis such as Rumi and Hafez. The Islamic view of humankind is that humans are creatures that carry God’s spirit within them and are the custodians (khalifatullah) of God’s divine message (Motaheri, 2006). Allameh Tabatabai (1904–1981) sees the existential value of humankind in Islam as resting on a number of foundational concepts that God has attributed to humans from the time of their creation, such as being God’s representative on earth (khalifatullah, Quran 2:30–33), being taught by God and given greater knowledge (Quran 2:31), being created above angels, carrying the spirit of God and having the power of intellect and free will. Another approach is that human beings are like a small world alongside the big world (Tanhai and Shekar-Bigi, 2009). How this small world relates to the bigger world and to the divine has been a captivating question, not only among the theologians and religious scholars, but also to the sociology of religious and ethics academics such as Tanhai, Motaheri and Shariati. Their enthusiasm has been mainly limited to conceptualising the Islamic dreamland and ideal society (in Christian terms, the Kingdom of God), rather than the reality of what religion and society are in Iran and how they interact with each other. Other views include that of Serajzadeh and Ghasabi (2012), who takes a general view of din as divine encounters, with religion as the specific interpretation of the divine encounters. In this view, any din to come into existence needs a chosen prophet to whom God would give his divine message, for example, Moses in Judaism, Christ in Christianity and Mohammad in Islam. Based on this view, din is a central connection between the human world and the divine. The only people who can reach the central connection are the prophets who are called to be God’s mediators between the human and the divine (the unknowable God). In contrast, mazhab comprises human interpretation of the divine encounters, based on the social, historical and political circumstances of a society or a nation. Taking this view, religious leaders such as Khomeini see themselves as custodians with the full authority of mazhab. For example, Khomeini spoke intensely about the expediency of religious decisions and laws based on circumstances, saying in 1981 that, “if it is vital for the Islamic government, you are allowed even to whittle the unity of God (Tawhid)”. Therefore, religion is seen as an exclusive authoritarian alliance with its own structures, hierarchies and power.

Religion and religiosity 43 Contrary to the above view, Sufis such as Rumi and Hafez, mainly through their poetry and writings, argue that there is only one din and that belongs to God (Quran 8:39). To understand God’s manifestation, one needs to establish a relationship with him and move beyond any religion. This door is open to whosoever is willing to enter. Nevertheless, according to Hafez, many have gone wrong and shown their inability to see the truth. As he says: The wrangle of seventy-two sects [all religions] establish excuse for all When truth they saw not, the door of the feeble they beat.5 The inclusive approach of Sufi writers and poets and the search for unity with and in God has in fact influenced Iranian Shia theology, culture and society deeply. Both approaches (exclusivism and inclusivism) are, however, noticeable within the society, especially after the inception of the 1979 Islamic state in which the regime tried to promote exclusivism and widen the gap between “us and them”. This also reflects on the majority of narratives and interviews of the participants, especially those who are in a negotiating or resisting position. Even those who have been converted to Christianity through their negotiations and interactions with Christian texts and Islamic ideologies and also with Sufi poetry and writings, attempt to form a new understanding of their Christian faith and of religion in general. A sense of uncertainty about Christian doctrine can also be seen throughout the stories, which indicates a clash between their new and their pre-existing worldviews as well as the exclusiveness message of Christian broadcasting. Moreover, throughout the data, one can observe that what has been the central point of reconciliation of a convert’s old “self” to their new “self”, in relation to religious ideologies, is the notion of a monotheistic divine God influenced by the concept of Tawhid. This will be explained more in Chapter 5. Do people with a long history of religiosity differentiate between religion and faith? Understanding religion and faith is not only theologically complex but also a social ambiguity. The difference between them may not be obvious, especially with ordinary people. Yet, sometimes one can see clashes between religion and faith, especially if two people with inclusive and exclusive ideologies meet or when they speak of religious doctrines. For instance, if faith means “believing in unseen world” then it is possible to have a religion without faith or faith without religion because, for some Islamic theologians such as Motaheri, religious experiences, for example, Sufi or spiritual encounters, are normally seen as beyond the reach of religion. People who cannot understand the logic behind faith, the unseen world, may choose to be religious without believing, because they can rationalise religious customs, values and rituals and their importance for a society, but they cannot rationalise the unseen world. Against this view is the view that speaks of the importance

44  Religion and religiosity of faith, for example, Allameh Tabatabai (1983) and Shariati. Interesting sayings from Shariati include: Those who become religious through the prophet are shallow people with no depth; religion stays in the surface of their soul like a little moisture on the soil from a passing rain; the inside soil is still dry and the moisture will dry quickly. (Shariati 1989 [1972], book 33, 610) Therefore one can say that the first step to religiosity is belief; and belief, according to Tanhai (1997), has two stages: belief and conviction. You can believe, but you may not have been convinced. To reach the conviction stage is a process. This is very much the case with many of the narratives of change of religion in this research. The participants tell the story of their struggles, for example, to understand Christian doctrine and theologies which are in contradiction to their pre-existing faith, and at the same time affirm that their conversions to Christianity have been sincere. Sometimes, in many cases, it leads them to a supernatural conviction: Christ reveals himself to them through dreams and/or visions – connected with faith in the unseen world – rather than through intellectual conviction. Although for some Islamic theologians and scholars, as mentioned above, “belief” and “conviction” can be separated, in Christianity both belief and conviction are fundamental and central to faith (for example, Hebrews 11:1-4), even if they are not always evident in “ordinary” believers. Sufism argues that to reach the conviction stage you need to go beyond mind and intellect, through constant meditating, seeking and searching. In this regard, religiosity has also been defined as a search for meaning and significance in ways related to the sacred (Zinnbauer et al., 1999). Within this framework, of the search for meaning, one can study religion in two ways: intrinsic and extrinsic religiousness (Park, 2010; Park & Edmondson, 2008). Park argues that intrinsic religiousness is “motivation to be religious for its own sake, while extrinsic religiousness refers to being religious as a way to gain other ends such as comfort or social standing”. However, extrinsic religiosity can also become intrinsic, and some people may have both motives. These distinctions and motives can be useful in understanding the religious motivations of Iranian converts through media. Although it is difficult to determine the religiosity of individuals, as Asad (1996, p. 265) says: “we cannot know how converts really thought and felt, but we know something of what they said and did”. Through observation, one can evaluate and rate which side of the scale (intrinsic or extrinsic) is the more dominant. Yet, in both, religiosity is seen as a quest for meaning. In conclusion, understanding the difference between din and mazhab can be a helpful study, especially for those Christian evangelicals producing Farsi television channels who are critical of legalistic religion (mazhab) and shari’a law (religious traditions). Din and dindari ideologies can be a useful

Religion and religiosity 45 link to understand converts and the ways they construct their new faith and identity. One of the challenges with this approach, however, might be its inclusivism and pluralistic nature, since din might open up other possibilities of God’s revelations through history and other contexts, whereas Christian channels are preaching an exclusive message. In this, one can argue that, to avoid misunderstanding of religious traditions, one needs to grasp the expression of faith within them which indicates that all religious traditions are fluid. Some of the participants’ narratives indicate this fluidity throughout their interpretation of their new faith and their experimentation with different religious ideologies without longer-term commitment to any. In countries such as Iran, with limited Christian activities and church buildings and with conversion being illegal, leading to heavy restrictions on converts attending any churches or being part of a Christian community where they can practise their faith, the complexity and fluidity of the issue of religion (din and mazhab) and religiosity become more noticeable, especially since many converts have had to hide their new faith. In this situation, the concept of personal and private faith (iman-e shakhsi) becomes an important issue. Having no community with which to practise and share one’s faith, a personalisation of faith and religion can take place based on a person’s previous religious experiences and worldviews (negative or positive) and their future agenda and goals. With Christian channels promoting an individualist version of Christianity, one can still ask where does “personal faith” (iman-e shakhsi) stand in relation to din and mazhab and religiosity (dindari)? If din (faith) means engagement with the divine, can “personal faith” be a customised personal engagement with the divine based on the social self’s agenda? Can it therefore be placed under the category of spirituality rather than religion? If so, can Sufism be a link between din and Christianity, as “personal faith” regardless of doctrinal differences? If the answer to this is yes, then one can argue that Iranian converts to Christianity, especially those with inclusive ideologies, do not need to entirely change their source of meaning-making and interpretation of life and its purpose, but rather to add a new system or perspective into the old. The data will also be examined against this possibility. Moreover, other factors which have encouraged, to some extent, religious pluralism and multiple religious conversion within Iranian society are globalisation and global media. The next section will address this factor.

Section two: Change of attitude towards religion in Iran In this section, my aim is not to see how Iranian society encounters globalisation, but rather to create a link between Christian conversion through Farsi Christian media and the bigger process of conversion of Iranian society into modernity and globalisation, by analysing the impact of globalisation upon the state and certain media.

46  Religion and religiosity Although a recent (2020) survey exhibited a dramatic shift in Iranians’ attitudes towards religion, religion in contemporary Iran is still viewed as a primary factor behind the shaping of society, individuals and the political worldviews of the country.6 Some scholars, such as Nasr (2001 and 2006), argue that modernisation and modernity did not weaken the religion or religiosity of the society and individuals, but rather have transformed and reinterpreted both from being ascribed and communal, to private and a matter of personal choice. However, this reformation has not been an easy journey, with constant conflict between modernity and religion, globalisation and tradition and religion and politics. The complexity of the situation has also influenced the mainstream media reporting on Iranian society. The portrayal of Iran in mainstream media is mainly focused on the religious and political agenda of the Islamic state. The general picture is of a theocratic and fundamentalist country led by a “handful of Islamic clerics”, with limited freedom (Semati, 2008). After the launch of the Green Movement in 2009, the mainstream media started presenting a limited picture of Iranian society and its struggles for freedom, yet those representations have again been reduced to issues the wider world can understand and relate to, for example, “dancing to Pharrell’s song ‘Happy’”7 or “My Stealthy Freedom”.8 The political developments in the Middle East – the rise of Islamic State (IS), Al-Qaeda and other Islamic fundamentalist groups, and the tragedy of Syria, Iraq and Yemen – have made world powers, out of necessity, rethink and reassess their policies towards Iran. One of the major breakthroughs was the issue of the Iranian nuclear programme. However, when the Trump administration came to power, the cold war between Iran and America accelerated and the sanctions returned. The continuous uncertainty and restrictions have in turn impacted the life of Iranian society and individuals. However, despite Iran being regularly on the news, the global media lack in-depth knowledge about Iranian society. Focusing only on the political situation and the Islamic government’s agenda has led the global media to underestimate the importance of Iranian society and culture. Limiting the portrayal of Iran only to her political situation “masks the unique ways in which Iranian society has engaged with modernity and the current wave of globalisation, and how it has managed contradictory forces and tendencies” (Semati, 2008, p. 3). For example, experimenting with different belief systems among some of individuals in Iran can be seen as a sign of engagement with globalisation and modernity on the one hand and a sign of protest against the Islamic regime on the other. One of the definitions of Iranian society is its religiousness and the tension between Western modernity and religious traditions, between secular and religious claims of authority (Fazeli, 2006; Semati, 2008). Globalisation and media have intensified these tensions and challenged previous definitions. Conversion, or change of religious belief system, among some of the Farsi Christian audience is in fact linked to a range of factors, Christian

Religion and religiosity 47 programming being only one of many alternatives, of which the impact of globalisation and modernity is another. Therefore, the process of their transformation cannot be analysed without understanding the relationships between media, religion (including culture and politics) and globalisation in Iran. For example, if we assume that many Iranians today are in transition – from the point of view of lifestyle and worldview – to a globalised modernity, it is possible to say that shifting to modern life involves removing old traditions and replacing them with new possibilities and alternatives. Therefore, one can argue that becoming a Christian is just one among those possibilities and alternatives? For over four decades, arguments in Iran have concerned the duality of “us” and “them”; tradition and modernity; the West and the East; and consequently solutions have been based on a “neither, nor” approach (Mohammadi, 2003).9 Such an approach has made Iran a very complex country, clearly seen in the approach to globalisation and modernity, including the use of media. As has been mentioned previously, the progress of globalisation in Iranian society should be studied together with its geopolitical situation, not only domestically but also internationally (Mohammadi, 2003). For example, after tough sanctions during the Ahmadinejad period, Rouhani was elected in 2013. Soon after his call for more openness, including with the West and on the nuclear issue, the first products allowed to enter the Iranian market were Apple products and communication technology equipment, despite the fact that sick people were suffering from lack of medicine and medical equipment. As Obadia and Wood (2011, p. 479) say, “the relationships religions assume with globalisation actually provide the intellectual basis of (or are shaped by) globalism. These vary significantly from one another by national and local context”. Moreover, the views, approaches and experiences of globalisation among Iranian society and the state are different. For the government, globalisation is a project, a project of Western nations for the “cultural invasion” of Islamic countries. But for society and independent researchers and sociologists, globalisation is an extension process of modernity (Semati, 2008). While the Iranian government is against globalisation and many aspects of modernity, contradictions arise in their actions. On the one hand, heavy restrictions on the use of Internet and social media together with fierce control of the press and other print and film publications, as well as the banning of satellite channels, all point to their anti-globalisation views. On the other hand, their intense use of new communication technology for their religious and political purposes, domestically and internationally, is contrary to their ideology on globalisation, modernity and “cultural invasion” concepts. For example, according to the IRIB website, Iran owns eleven satellite channels and several online TV channels in ten languages; their radio and Internet programmes include nearly 30 languages.10 Hence, Iranian society is not a stranger to the ideology of modernity, nor to the use and the power of communications technology. The debate on

48  Religion and religiosity modernity and the democratic state goes back to the 1906 Constitutional Revolution that led to the 1979 revolution (Khiabany, 2007; Semati, 2008). The contribution of media, such as audio cassettes and leaflets, leading to the success of Khomeini’s leadership in 1979 is known to many (Khiabany, 2009). The power of media in the mass mobilisation of people during the Iran and Iraq war is another significant element in Iranian media history. The intense use of Twitter, blogs and other social media platforms during the 2009 uprising (Green Movement) is not only significant in Iranian history, but also in the study of the political power of social media (Morozov, 2009; Parmelee and Bichard, 2012). Therefore, the conversion of Iranian society into modernity in fact started long ago, for globalisation is part of the process of the development of modernity (Semati, 2008). Yet the process has been eventful, the 1979 Islamic Republic being, of course, the main event. After establishment of the Islamic regime, the government’s major concern was how to Islamise all aspects of the public and private lives of people and society, including economics, politics, education and so on. National broadcasting became the main agent for this mission. The Supreme Leader made IRIB responsible for promoting the values and politics of the Islamic revolution, which means, as one of the members of IRIB said in an interview with Mohammadi (2003, p. 32), “we should not concern ourselves very much with the view of the public. We should look at what is useful for the revolution”. Although there was not much clear policy on how they were going to achieve their goals, Mohammadi states: “Islam-nab-Mohammadi was the answer to everything without providing any strategies or plan”. The codes of general policy and objectives of programmes of IRIB describe their policy thus: “the rule of the Islamic revolution and its constitution should dominate all programmes within the framework of the slogan of independence, freedom and the Islamic Republic”. The Vilayat-e Fagih’s (Supreme Leader) extended strategy was to globalise Islam (revelation) and bring about an Islamic utopia, although Islamic globalisation had a different meaning from the modern sense, unless modern globalisation is religion-led (Amoli, 2006). Yet it has brought fundamental changes to religion and religious organisations, not only in Iran but worldwide, including Khomeini’s approach to globalising Islamic revelation. The recent increase of publications on globalisation and religion attests not only to religious proliferation in the world but also to the rapid changes in religious practices (Haynes, 1999). For instance, on the one hand, we are witnessing the rise of fundamentalism in countries with secular states and in other Islamic states, on the other hand, people are moving away from traditional religions or changing and adding to their religious affiliations, especially in countries that are ruled by religious governments such as Iran. The media are at the centre of all these changes and transformations: as Stolow (2015) says, “there is no way to talk about religion

Religion and religiosity 49 and globalisation without at least implicitly invoking the middle term of media”. Similarly, it is difficult to talk about religion, media and globalisation without considering the local socio-political context of a society. In relation to the Iranian situation, the questions that can therefore be raised here are: is there any relationship between modernity and globalisation in Iranian history? Are modernity and globalisation two separate issues within Iranian scholarship? Has globalisation intensified the process of modernity in “non-Western” countries? Why are some Iranian scholars and some reformers, who are part of the government system, against globalisation yet embrace modernity? Although our aim is not to investigate the above questions, the results of this research confirm that the historical complexity of the issue and the rapid changes of the society and politics, including their approach to religion and religiosity, have challenged Iranians’ attitudes towards religion and their understanding of belief systems (Maleki & Arab, 2020).

Revisiting the concept of apostasy The paradox between accepting and rejecting modernity and globalisation has created disagreement and confrontation not only among different groups of intellectuals and politicians but also within society itself. For instance, the conservatives are against modernity and globalisation, viewing it as an anti-Islamic movement (Khiabany, 2009). The religious reformists, and those whose desire is to reconcile Islam with modernity, see it as an opportunity to re-examine the meaning of religion and its relationship to society and politics and also to open a dialogue with other religions and civilisations (Jahanbegloo, 2013). This view has even softened the voices of some clergy regarding the concept of apostasy;11 for example, for some reformist clergy such as Montazeri (1922–2009), conversion to Christianity, if done with knowledge and proper research into both faiths, is not apostasy and should be respected. Mohsen Kadivar (2011), a leading dissident intellectual cleric, also challenged the death penalty for apostates and supported change of religion if one chooses. He developed his argument against the death penalty and persecution of apostates, upon the Quran chapter 2:256 and relied on verses 10:99 and 11:28. Kadivar argued that oral traditions prescribing the death penalty for apostates are not reliable. For him, the oral traditions should not be the basis for Islamic jurisprudence on the issue. Despite strong support for the death penalty and for persecution of the apostate in Islamic tradition, debates on anti-apostasy law and freedom of religion have increased in modern Iran among some independent scholars, Islamic cleric and thinkers and on social and digital media. This movement on the one hand has improved religious openness and attitudes among Iranians, on the other hand has toughened the authorities’ rules and strategy on apostasy charges.

50  Religion and religiosity Going back to the issue of globlisation, an Iranian scholar, Amoli (2006, 2007) has attempted to bring more clarity to the concept, especially when it comes to the state position. He sees globalisation in two dimensions: hardware and software. The hardware dimension of globalisation depends on global technology such as the Internet, telephone, radio, satellite and televisions that everyone around the world can have access to, own and use during their own leisure time. In his view, the Islamic regime not only does not have any problems with this dimension of globalisation, but they embrace it. The software dimension of globalisation is related to content and data that the hardware carries with it around the world, and it is in this dimension where all the problems and concerns of the Iranian state lie, because, “the influence of media has moved beyond mere technology: they have become mirrors of identities and cultures” (Amoli, 2007, p. 45). Amoli argues that globalisation-as-a-project relates to this dimension and points to a pre-planned movement towards Americanisation. According to this view, various Islamic as well as Iranian scholars, mainly those associated with government ideology, see globalisation as a Western phenomenon for the Islamic world, being a Western question put in front of the Muslim world. For example, Al-Hail (2000) says: “thinking about globalisation in the Islamic world, means that we want to refuse the imposed Western answers for this phenomenon. For the imposed Western response is not localised nor contextualised for the Islamic world”. Therefore, based on this ideology, one can argue that Iran is one of many developing countries that struggle (at the same time in the process of transformation) with the outcome of globalization. Jahanbegloo (2013, p. 11) describes this in this way: “[movement towards modernity] has been occurring slowly but surely at the depths of Iranian society. This trend can be described as a one-directional, measured progress toward modernity, with no indications of reversing”. In other words, Iranian society has adapted to modernity; their struggle now is simply to adjust to and improve their new, modern life style. Moving away from religion, or changing or adding to their belief systems, can also be part of exercising their choice and experimenting with new ideologies and lifestyle in their modern world. In this process, the global media has generally been the most powerful and influential, yet confusing, participant. For example, Azin & PirMohammadi (2008) consider that placing youth in front of various media channels, with a massive flood of information in different genres and forms, each with their own cultural, religious and political connotations, would not only result in them being introduced to cultures and worldviews that are different from their own, but would also give them a new interpretation of themselves and their environment, including religion and religiosity. The information enables not only new interpretations, but also new alternatives and choices that each youth can make and experiment with. As a result, we are witnessing cultural change and innovation, lifestyle and behavioural changes as well as changes in religious ideology and practice. Azin and

Religion and religiosity 51 Pir-Mohammadi call this “mediatised life” and argue that Iranians, from a cultural, religious and educational point of view, were not prepared for a mediatised life and therefore face an identity crisis. Thus, one of the consequences of global media for unprepared societies is a crisis of identity and meaning. Nationalism, religious fundamentalism and limiting access (censorship) to global media are a few of the methods and strategies that some developing countries have taken in order to protect their social, religious and national identities. The strategy of the Iranian government was not only ineffective but also backfired and has created in people a greater desire to participate in global media. Thus, people have become more receptive towards media messages and alternative choices outside the country, including being attracted to other religions (conversion) and migration. In this regard, one can argue that conversion to Christianity might also be seen as conversion to Western modernity. As one of the participants said: “when we became Christian the first thing we did, we bought a set of sofas, thinking now we are Christian, we should live like in the West, sit on sofas not on the floor”. To some extent, this might be true. However, to consider this as the only reason for Iranian conversion to Christianity would be to underestimate not only the power of religious messages but also the religiosity and spirituality of Iranian society and culture, discussed in section one. Moreover, what has intensified and encouraged conversion or change of faith to Christianity and/or to modernity among some Iranians has been the influence of satellite television channels, since the early 1990s. Although Internet and social media platforms have taken the place of satellite television, especially among the youth, free to air, hard-to-control satellite channels have not lost their place in the media market of Iranian society.

Conclusion In this chapter, I have briefly portrayed the complexity of Iranian society, in its understanding of religion (din and mazhab) and religiosity, as a religious society and in its encounters with globalisation and modernity. I have also argued that, although some Iranians may have been practising, through the influence of Sufism, religious inclusivism, traditional religious ideologies that see religion as exclusive and hereditary can be in conflict with universal religious ideologies of inclusivism and pluralism. Yet there are differences between the religious inclusivism of Sufism and the religious pluralism that globalisation and modernity offer. The latter might lean more toward secularism than spirituality, or it might, for example, maintain the essence of religion (din) but destroy the appearance, the “skin” (mazhab). In order to reconcile the global world with religion, some scholars such as Malekian (2010) suggest shifting our thinking and our understanding about religion and the world. By this he means that, as society modernises, so should our understanding of religion and religiosity.

52  Religion and religiosity I have also explained that the modern understanding of religion and conversion (through personal choice) has not only developed out of the religio-political problems of Iran, it is also the result of progressive modernity and globalisation, as well as individual encounters with different religions and cultures. Therefore, some audience conversions should be considered as having a cultural and religious, as well as a political, agenda. Although one can argue that conversion to Christianity may have emerged from society’s conversion to modernity, the influence of pre-existing ideologies and worldviews on religion and religiosity is still an important issue and has been very much part of participants’ change of religion stories (Van Der Veer, 1996). The influence of globalisation and media, especially satellite channels, has added more complexity to the understanding of religion and religiosity in the Iranian community, especially in areas where the views of the majority are different from those of the government. The shift from understanding religion as ascribed to religion as achieved has been taking place in modern Iran, with other religious or non-religious alternatives slowly taking the place of a traditional understanding of religion: inheritability of religion is shifting to personal choice. From this web of potential opportunities, including global and Farsi Christian media, the opportunity has emerged for the audience to shift their thinking and adopt a more global approach. Nevertheless, global thinking does not reject nor dismiss local worldviews, but rather transforms and interprets them into new meanings. Yet, religious leaders are concerned about and uneasy over this shift: Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi for example, insists that youth are moving away from religion and become irreligious and “prey in the hands of Western propaganda”, with Christian media being an example of this “Western propaganda” (Quoted by Voice of America Persian Service, 2012).

Notes 1 Farsi Dictionary. Available at: www.farsidic.com (Accessed: 12 March 2015). 2 Studies of sociology of religion in Iran have been mainly from a theoretical point of view, with very minimal field research – mainly on a small scale. It is because research is still heavily in the hands of the government and there are not any independent theological research institutions in Iran. 3 Mohadesi’s understanding of duality is a clash between tradition and modernity; between, on the one hand, the government’s view of religion and, on the other, the global media view of religion and religiosity. 4 The majority of dictionaries have translated din into “worship” but the correct translation of din, in Farsi, is “faith”. 5 The Divan-i-Hafiz, translated and edited by H. Wilberforce Clarke, 1997. 6 On June 2020, a survey was conducted online by an independent group, GAMAAN (The Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran), titled “Iranians’ attitudes toward religion” to investigate Iranian attitudes toward religion. Participants responses to the question on their religious beliefs and faith demonstrated a huge shift in religious diversity in Iran. Only one-third identified themselves as Shia Muslim, 1.5 per cent described themselves as Christian.

Religion and religiosity 53 7 “Iran: Happy video dancers sentenced to 91 lashes and jail”, BBC News, 19 September 2014. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east29272732 (Accessed: 25 April 2015). 8 Saul. H. (2015) “Iranian women discard their hijabs for ‘stealthy freedom’ Facebook page”, Independent, 31 March 2015. Available at: http://www. independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/iranian-women-discard-theirhijabs-for-stealthy-freedom-facebook-page-9361388.html (Accessed: 29 April 2015). 9 One might argue that, in the first place, it is a religious approach, especially in traditional religions such as Christianity and Islam, and in a secondary place it is a political approach. This “neither, nor” approach can be also seen in the conversion process of some of the audience to Christianity. This will be explained later, in Chapter 3. 10 http://worldservice.irib.ir/ (Accessed: 14 May 2015). 11 There is no agreed understanding among clerics and Islamic scholars on what actually constitutes apostasy. Therefore, some Islamic clerics consider it a hadd (crime) and others tazir (literal meaning to punish). Since Khomeini in his book, Toozia al-masal, refers to apostasy as tazir the IPC did not set a standard punishment for it. The issue has been discussed in parliament several times, including recently in 2015, to enter the apostasy code into IPC. Yet the parliament did not come to a full agreement and it is therefore an ongoing debate.

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3

The channels

In this chapter, I aim to introduce briefly the four Farsi Christian channels and examine their work, addressing the following questions: What is their task? How do they interpret their task? And how do they put it into practice? The channels’ views and relationship with their audiences will also be examined. The main sources of data for this chapter are the interviews with three directors of three of the channels (Mohabat TV, SAT-7 PARS and Network 7) as well as the available written documentation on their strategies and theologies. One of the channels, TBN Nejat TV, did not wish to participate in the interviews, although basic available information about the channel has been included.1 It is important to note that for sensitivity and security reasons, I will not provide detailed information about the channels and their associates. Since the above questions are inter-related, material on the channels will initially be presented separately, then collated. First, I will briefly explain the background of the channels and their context, including an introduction to the main tasks of the channels. Second, I will give a brief overview of each channel and its programming. Third, since there are more similarities between channels than differences, I will analyse and compare their practices and the methods that describe their evangelism, explaining the influence of American televangelism on the channels and their “magic bullet” theory. Fourth, the issues of religion and religiosity of the channels and their claims that Christianity is “not-a-religion” will be examined. Fifth, since, the channels can be interpreted as being the result of a growing religious market in the global world, I will study their approach to religious conversion. Final, some of the challenges which the channels face will be addressed.

Introduction Iranian Christians in the diaspora, along with their non-Iranian counterparts, have found that electronic and digital media, as well as social media, provide a means of “going back” to Iran and Iranian homes with the Gospel. This becomes a vital tool for Mohabat TV in attempting “to fulfil the Great Commission”, for Network 7 to bring about “the prophesy DOI: 10.4324/9781003004905-4

The channels 57 of Jeremiah 49:38”, 2 for TBN Nejat TV to deliver Iranians from the hands of Islam and for SAT-7 PARS “to make God’s love visible” and the Gospel known to all Iranian homes. However, the channels did not create demand, but rather responded to the demands that were created, on one hand, by the political and religious situation of Iran along with the influence of globalisation and global media, and the desire for new ideologies and religious alternatives and, on the other hand, by the evangelical Christian donors and supporters (especially in North America) who aspired for the people of the Middle East, especially Iran, to embrace Christianity. Looking back to the 1960s–1980s era of religious broadcasting history in the USA (Hendershot, 2004), one might sense that their work is history repeating itself, but this time in Iran instead of the United States. In similar fashion to their televangelist counterparts in the 1960s–1980s, the Farsi Christian media ministries perceived the opportunity brought by satellite channels through an eschatological view of the fulfilment of Biblical prophecies to bring about the Kingdom of God in the Middle East – as an opportunity to preach the Gospel to all corners of the Middle East (Bailey and Redden, 2011; Horsfield, 2003). Therefore, the fundamental goal (written and unwritten) of all Farsi-speaking Christian channels, by default, became the conversion of their Muslim audience to Christianity. Nevertheless, although there was a vision, expertise from the points of view of both the media methodologies and the understanding of audiences was lacking, and few were trained in media technology and television production. Accordingly, they made the prior assumption, similar to the Iranian government’s view, that their audience were the same as those in front of the church pulpit – passive recipients. They anticipated their audiences’ understanding of conversion or change of faith and interpretation of religious experiences to be the same as theirs. The Iranian Christian channels’ understanding of the power of media and its control over the message (and its theology) was also exaggerated, with little, or very limited, reflection on or investigation into factors and methods which their audiences might use to interpret and decode their message. Therefore, the issues of audiences’ cultures and religious worldviews, as will be investigated in this chapter, were taken for granted: They assumed the audiences’ religious worldview was that of the government. Stories of success have been primarily based on reports of conversion of their audiences resulting from the power of their message, rather than the audiences’ agenda and other motivational factors, which will be explored later in this book. Soon after the start of their broadcasting, the channels claimed success, mainly through the number of responses they received from their audiences, a few of whom indicated that they had become Christians. The only way they reported their impact was the presentation of quantitative statistics that happened to match their donors’ desires and requests. As a result, the main approach towards Christianity in Iran and the Middle East in general became quantitative rather than qualitative, conversion being the key: How many have

58  The channels said the salvation prayer or claimed that they have accepted Christ, regardless of their audiences’ religious views or agendas towards Christianity. Nonetheless, this pattern with ambitious goals and top-down approach was not unique to the Farsi-speaking Christian channels: The Edinburgh World Missionary Conference in 1910, whose motto was “the Evangelisation of the World in This Generation”, also used the same language and, especially through Pentecostal church movements around the world, this approach became standard into our 21st century (Horsfield, 2015). Moreover, since the Farsi Christian television channels depend financially on foundations and donors, the quantitative approach to “salvation” has become the main focus of their reporting systems. For example, TBN Nejat TV states on their founder’s website that “three to five million Iranian Muslims have come to Christ as a result of TBN Nejat Television”. 3 According to that report, it means 4–7 per cent of Iran’s population became Christian through TBN Nejat TV. This pattern of reporting remains common among many of the televangelists and Pentecostal church broadcasters and preachers (James and Shoesmith, 2007; White and Assimeng, 2016). Although the Farsi Christian channels may have been exaggerating their “success”, their importance for Christianity in Iran should not be ignored. For instance, the closing down of almost all Farsi Christian churches and house churches, and restrictions on Armenian and Assyrian churches in Iran, has meant that Christian television channels have played a vital, constitutive role as a virtual church and a virtual community, while also supporting house churches through television and online, and planting churches through their underground operations and partners inside the country. Another part of their significance is the fact that the channels, through their representations of Christianity, were reintroducing and reminding their Iranian audiences about the forgotten, long history of Christianity in Iran, which, although longer than Islam, was unknown to the majority of the population.

An overview of the channels Iran Alive Ministries: Network 7 Network 7, based in the USA, is part of Iran Alive Ministries (IAM) founded by Dr Hormoz Shariat.4 Although it is the newest Farsi Christian channel, started in January 2012, the founder Dr Shariat and IAM have been active in Christian media since 2001. After moving out of Iranian Christian Broadcasting (ICB, later SAT-7 PARS), where he served as an executive board member, he started his own broadcasting and production ministry under the umbrella of IAM, his existing ministry. Later on, in 2006, he joined a group of Church leaders to launch a Farsi channel called Mohabat TV. Three years later, he moved out of Mohabat TV and started his own television channel called Network 7. Network 7 carries on the same mission

The channels 59 as IAM, that is: “to transform Iran into a Christian nation in one generation according to God’s promise in Jeremiah 49:38”. Although TV is the main medium for evangelism, IAM does not define itself as a media ministry, but rather as a church planting ministry using media to accomplish its mission. The majority of their productions are studio based and are produced in the USA, with very few commissioned programmes due to lack of funds. There has been no production from Iran, with very limited acquired (nonFarsi, dubbed or subtitled) programmes. Nevertheless, according to Shariat, 40 per cent of their programmes are provided by their partner ministries. For Shariat, the purpose of Network 7 is “to plant churches through the vehicle of satellite TV”. In 2014, they claimed 30,000 converts who had declared their faith through their channel, or their programmes broadcasted on other channels, since 2001. They estimated their viewership between 3 and 5 million (weekly). The highlight of their programming is Church Seven, which is a virtual church on the television screen and online “into the safety of the homes of Iranians”. Shariat defines the strategy of Church Seven in this way: “Church Seven provides a lifeline support for believers who have no other option for church of any kind … it is a church for a nation”. Within this strategy, converts who have said “the salvation prayer” or declared their faith in Jesus Christ can become members of this church. Their website states: “one million believers in Iran consider this media church as their only church”. The overall goals of Network 7 are: To reach millions; create positive attitudes toward Christ and Christians; encourage, connect and strengthen persecuted believers; help plant new house churches; teach obedience-based discipleship and deeper Biblical concepts.

Programming The televangelism methods of Network 7’s programming strategy have been influenced mainly by the American electronic church and megachurch movements. Two charismatic evangelists who have influenced Shariat’s theology of evangelism are Joel Rosenberg, 5 in relation to the channel’s theology of “end-times” (eschatology), and Joel Osteen, in regard to positive and prosperity thinking (Sinitiere, 2015). Although the term “electronic church”6 might have become redundant with the advent of online, digital and virtual church concepts (Campbell, 2012; Hutchings, 2015), its use, together with the concepts of digital and virtual church, is very much alive in Christian evangelism to non-Western countries and cultures, including the Middle East and Iran (White and Assimeng, 2016). For example, in the case of Network 7, although Church Seven’s worship and preaching segments are broadcast live, the audiences (members) are encouraged, if possible, to register online to participate in online Christian communities and teaching. In this member-only forum, there can be baptism (generally a

60  The channels preacher or pastor would guide candidates to baptise themselves in a bathtub in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit), communion and even ordination services. This is a distinctive characteristic of Network 7, compared to the other three channels. As mentioned earlier, the characteristics of the Network 7 programmes are similar to the American electronic church and megachurch approach: personality-driven, sensational, using everyday language, providing a simplified linear message focusing on audiences’ immediate needs and concerns, highlighting prophecy and prophetic voices, including the telling and retelling of religious experiences (Hendricks, 1984; Jenkins et al., 2013; Kyle, 2010). Accepting Christ is presented as the main solution to all problems and needs. The approach to salvation is based on Stark and Finke’s cost and benefit theory (2000a, 2000b); that means, a promise of a better, happier future. The programmes give secondary focus to eternal salvation and salvation from sin. Therefore, the programmes tend to place more emphasis on people’s emotions and feelings, with limited emphasis on theology and doctrine (Hendricks, 1984). In brief, one can argue that the aim of Network 7 programmes is to be the central part of their audiences’ religious experience and practice, with evangelism and conversion at its heart. Religious topics dominate, even when dealing with social and political issues. The topics of salvation, being born again, sin, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Bible cover at least 80 per cent of the content of Network 7 programming. Social issues such as marriage, family, drug addiction, death and dying are discussed mainly from a Biblical point of view. Mohabat TV Mohabat TV [meaning “agape love” in Farsi] is another Farsi Christian satellite television channel, which started broadcasting to Iran in 2006. A group of like-minded Iranian church leaders with their associates saw an opportunity to broadcast the Gospel into Iran and Afghanistan. Their first approach to evangelism was a confrontational one. But they soon realised this strategy not only would not work for Iran, but also might increase persecution and harm the Church. Therefore, they had to revisit their methodology. Therefore, three years later, they revisited their mission statement to make it more relevant to the Iranian situation. Theologically and methodologically, Mohabat TV and Network 7 are similar, their main aim is the conversion and transformation of their audiences for Christ. The channel revised its mission and vision statement to the fulfilment of the Great Commission: Evangelism: giving everyone a chance to hear the Gospel at least once; Scripture distribution: a Bible for every person in Iran; and Church planting: a house church in every city, town and neighbourhood.

The channels 61 At the core of their mission statement were media and the power of partnership. As Dr Mike Amato, the director of the channel, said: “A partnership of nearly 50 ministries helps to fulfil three critical elements of the Great Commission”. Most of those 50 ministries have been given airtime to broadcast their programmes on Mohabat TV, which manages and monitors audience responses, feedback and requests for all their programming partners. Other ministries are involved in following up on audiences’ requests, especially with those who declared their conversion to Christianity. Their partnership strategy is unique to the channel. Mohabat TV followed an approach to conversion that is similar to that of Network 7. In addition, they broadcasted and highlighted a programme called House Church, to create an on-screen house church as well as planting house churches through their partners. Unlike Network 7, they do not define themselves as a church. Asked why, Mike Amato responded: “We provide follow-up services to over thirty ministries from different denominations; it is difficult to call ourselves a church, but our aim is to encourage and help establish house churches that would be led by the viewers themselves”.

Programming The majority of Mohabat TV programmes are produced in Farsi and in partnership with other ministries. The partnership strategy of the channel has created greater sustainability and visibility for the channel, because its partners also fundraise for their programmes and promote the channel to a wider audience. However, this independently produced content has affected the channel’s programming, because Mohabat TV partners, being independent, normally have their own agenda and goals and produce programmes based on their vision and mission with limited coordination with the channel’s scheduling department. As a result, many programmes look alike, with similar format, content and topics, which is a disadvantage to the channel and may cause audience dissatisfaction. Mohabat TV has also followed a similar approach to SAT-7 PARS (discussed later), which is to be more holistic; therefore, they occasionally broadcast non-religious topics. Their current affairs programmes, although lacking proficiency, made them the only Farsi Christian channel that discusses political issues directly. Their approach to evangelism, theology and conversion was similar to Network 7, which means, focusing on immediate results, they annually publish the number of converts that they claim have become Christian through their channel, as a way of estimating their success. Church planting is another activity in which Mohabat TV had been involved, through its partners. For example, in their 2014 report, they claimed: “41 new house churches were started in the last quarter of 2014”.7 A programme called Our house, our church was designed and developed exclusively to support the growth of house churches, with worship, teaching and Bible reading segments as a model for their house churches.

62  The channels Because of the partners’ contributions, Mohabat TV’s work could be denominationally diverse, but in reality, it is not. For the theology of the majority of their partners is similar to Mohabat TV and so their programmes are similar that assert the Bible as the central authority; espouse individualism; emphasise God’s love, election, personalisation of the message, God as problem solver and belief in miracles; hold an anti-evolution philosophy; use conversion theology captured in phrases such as “born again” (Hendricks, 1984, p. 60). Moreover, in the majority of programmes, the audiences have been encouraged to experience “the divine encounter” – religious experience – by “giving their hearts to Christ”, “praying in the name of Christ” and “accepting Christ in their life”. This points to the channel’s view of salvation, which is more conversionist than sacramental in nature (Hendricks, 1984). SAT-7 PARS SAT-7 PARS had a written programming policy and ethos, with a distinct definition as a media ministry. The channel clearly stated that they did not give away or sell airtime to third-party ministries, in order to have better control over their programming schedule and grid. Their mission statement was as follows: To provide inspirational, informative, and educational television services for Farsi speaking peoples that will faithfully and clearly present Christ in a way that is appropriate for the cultural, religious and political climate of the region; and to provide the churches and Christians of the area an opportunity to grow in their Christian faith, develop their leadership and ministry skills. (Revised SAT-7’s Programming Policy, 2007) SAT-7 PARS had adopted SAT-7’s policy and ethos, which emphasises a holistic approach in presenting the Gospel to the Middle East and North Africa, their work being “to support Christians in the ME; be an interdenominational ministry; be sensitive socially, politically and religiously to the situation of the Middle East”. Contrary to their programming ethos and policy, and similar to the other channels, Sat-7 PARS’s view of their audience is based on assumption. Besides their programming policy, their content policy covered a wide range of issues and topics related to the Christian context, social-cultural context, human context, and the evangelical dimension of the channel. In relation to conversion, it was clearly stated: The channel shall not practise any form of proselytism to the advantage of one Christian church over another. SAT-7 PARS will refrain from any coercive attempts to change people’s faith. Its programmes, however,

The channels 63 are written to share the good news of Jesus Christ. Throughout its programmes the channel will respect the freedom of the viewers to reach their own conclusion. (Revised SAT-7 PARS’s Programming Policy, 2015) SAT-7 PARS did not claim to calculate or publicise audience numbers who assert that they become Christians through their channel. Although satellite television is the main medium (for all the channels), SAT-7 PARS had a significant presence online and on social media, yet there was no written strategy on how to integrate other media platforms into their TV programming. As part of the bigger strategy of SAT-7, SAT-7 PARS had developed a strategy called “TV Everywhere”, which stated: “to deliver television services to viewers in all geographies in the way that they want to consume it and at a price that is viable for SAT-7”. This strategy had enabled them to reach audiences outside their satellite footprint who do not watch TV via a TV set or satellite. Despite a better and clearer working strategy, SAT-7 PARS was behind other channels in establishing a sound network relationship with their audiences in order to create loyal supporters.

Programming SAT-7 PARS programming and content came somewhere between televangelism and religious media. By this I mean, on the one hand, that there was a growing demand for evangelism from two directions: their donors’ demands and their audiences who seek religious alternatives; these had pushed the channel to adopt semi-televangelism methods. On the other hand, the influence of SAT-7 and the leadership of its first Executive Director and co-founder had initiated the programming strategy also to take the direction of religious media. By religious media I mean, borrowing from Hosseini (2008), “the utilisation of media, through its unique identity, to achieve religious objectives, ultimate goals, and divine aspirations, rather than monopolistic teachings and beliefs of religion”. That means SAT-7 PARS in its programming attempted to recognise and respect religious diversity and also to achieve the ultimate objectives of religion, the channel had been open to produce and broadcast non-­ religious (but not anti-religious) programmes. SAT-7 PARS programming policy states: SAT-7 PARS recognises the many different cultural, ethnic, and religious groups that live in Iran, Afghanistan, and other Farsi language regions. SAT-7 PARS is committed to harmony between all people and social transformation through mutual understanding and respect. […] SAT-7 PARS aims to serve the whole human person […] to enrich his or her spiritual, social and personal life.8

64  The channels To implement this, the channel had been producing and broadcasting non-religious programmes that did not contradict Christian values and teachings, which had created a variety and diversity of programmes from the point of view of genre and content. For example, SAT-7 PARS broadcast six hours of children’s programmes daily, including live shows and programmes on topics such as cooking, crafts, sports, technology and environment as well as movies and documentaries dubbed into Farsi and drama series commissioned from freelance producers. Their evangelism methods were based on a “come and look” approach; the programme content policies of the channel, under a section on the evangelical dimension, stated, “SAT-7 PARS programmes will witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. Throughout its programmes, the channel will respect the freedom of the viewers to reach their own conclusions”. For that reason, discipleship programmes were at the centre of the channel’s evangelism. In 2007, the channel developed a series of discipleship and in-depth theological teachings under the name Seminary on the Air, in order to allow their audiences, if they wished, to study Christianity comprehensively. The Seminary on the Air ended in 2017. TBN Nejat TV TBN Nejat TV is another televangelist Farsi Christian television broadcast service based in the USA. The mission of the channel is “to reach Muslims for Christ”. The channel similarly follows the American televangelism methodology, mainly the TBN model, with prosperity gospel teaching and its personality-driven approach. Reza Safa, the co-founder, is the face of the channel and the main preacher/presenter and teacher. According to their website, Reza Safa started broadcasting Christian programmes in 2003 on an Iranian secular channel. In 2006, with the support of TBN, Reza Safa made his four-hour weekly broadcasting operation into a 24/7 television channel and called it TBN Nejat TV, (Nejat means “salvation” in Farsi.) On his website and in his book Blessings in the Light of Our Redemption, he claims: “According to some research, three to five million Iranian Muslims have come to Christ as the result of these Christian broadcasts [TBN Nejat TV]”.9 Besides Reza Safa’s programmes, some of TBN’s programmes were simultaneously translated into Farsi: these mainly concerned sin, healing, being filled by the Holy Spirit and salvation. In his healing programmes, Reza Safa claimed that God was speaking through him directly. He believed “we should not pray for healing, we should command in the name of Jesus Christ for the illness to leave”. He was also encouraging his audiences to put their hands on the TV screen, a place where they can touch him while he prays for them to receive the Holy Spirit or healing. Speaking in tongues is encouraged, trained and practised on screen. Most of the audience feedback was also related to their healing programmes.

The channels 65

The practice The influence of American televangelism, especially on the theology and practice of those channels operating from the USA, can be summarised in three areas: the concept of salvation, the meaning of eschatology and commodification and marketing of religion and conversion. In relation to the concept of salvation, all channels mainly focus on immediate conversion rather than the doctrine of salvation, which is the restoration of creation and humanity from sin, which becomes possible through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (McGrath, 2011). Based on their programming, all channels perceived salvation as being saved from the problems in this world, which is a manifestation of a form of self-help, with preachers and evangelists making claims and giving promises such as belief in Jesus Christ would bring them favour in God’s eyes so their diseases will be healed, financial situations will be restored and success will follow. The TBN Nejat TV and Network 7 views on the End Times – eschatology – are strongly based on the state of Israel, the destruction of Iran (Elam) “in the last days” and the establishment of God’s throne in Iran as foretold in Jeremiah 49:34–39 (Salus, 2008). SAT-7 PARS, on the other hand, is against such views and had broadcast programmes to contest the concept. The third area is the commodification and marketing of Christian faith and conversion. Although commodification of religion has had a long history, perhaps as long as the concept of religion itself, many see this new form of commodification and marketing of religion as a product of globalisation and global media. However, commodification of religion, increased by televangelism, reduces religion to a product that can be personalised, packaged and purchased (Kitiarsa, 2008). The commodification of the Christian faith also promotes individual choices over collective obligations (Murdock, 2004, p. 34). It aims to create a personalised faith that is experientially validated, with individuals deriving their knowledge of truth and God from their personal experience in prayers, healing, dreams and visions. With the marketing of religion also comes the entertainment element of media, which had become part of the rituals, especially in worship and preaching segments. For instance, the entertainment part of the worship in Network 7 is not for the sake of entertainment but is part of the act of worship. This approach has created a clash with Iranian audiences’ worldview on the concept of honouring God in worship, which will be discussed in the next chapter under the title “Analysis of the Church Seven programme”. So much for the background. The channels have given Christianity a visibility and a voice and the opportunity for Iranians seeking an alternative religious view to join and practise, if they desire. In this regard, one can state that Christian channels, on the one hand, serve the religious marketplace, with the Christian message being their product (Roof, 1993, 1989; White and Assimeng, 2016). On the other hand, they have become a

66  The channels link to and a means of participation in religious globalisation in a country where Christianity and other religions, except Shia Islam, have been marginalised. Their message has attracted large audiences, which has caused the government so much concern that the top government authorities, such as the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei (October 2010) and Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi (July 2012), have openly spoken against them. To conclude on the channels’ practice in evangelism and their distinctive characters, one might start again from their similarities. Mansour Khajehpour, former SAT-7 PARS Director, explained this by saying that at the beginning there is the Gospel and at the end there is a restoration and result, “the Gospel is the same, the solution is the same. That is why the channels look similar. Proclaim the same message: God loves us and He sent His Son to die for us… by accepting him our lives will be different”. How “different”? The word “different” indicates not only “problem solving” of issues that viewers face, but also differentiating channels’ methodologies and presentations. For example, although they all used mass and proclamation evangelism focusing on content, words and Scripture, Network 7 focused more on social and relational evangelism, meaning they paid more attention to the background lifestyle, ideologies, and community (social networking) of their audiences’ daily lives and talked to them where they are – a relational Christianity (Armstrong et al., 2005; Kitiarsa, 2008). Mohabat TV deployed multiple methods, since nearly 50 independent ministries collaborate to produce their programmes. However, the channel’s evangelism method was more towards a socio-political application, for example, programmes such as Pejvak10 were a good example of their evangelism method, which was created by the channel director himself, dealing with contemporary socio-political issues of Iranian society. TBN Nejat TV had a confrontational, prosperity gospel method, with faith-healing evangelism (Denson, 2011). SAT-7 PARS had a holistic approach, presence evangelism, Christ’s presence in the culture, summed up in SAT-7’s motto: “making God’s love visible”.

Magic bullet The practice of all four Farsi Christian television channels comprised a “top-down” model. That means, first, the channels were primarily in the hands of male pastors. The main theological voices on the screen were male and authoritarian in nature. Secondly, the views on audiences’ religious cultures and worldviews were based on assumption with very limited attention to day-to-day experience of religion among ordinary people. Thirdly, the approach to conversion also started from a pre-set understanding of mystical and “Damascus Road Conversion” (Buckser and Glazier, 2003, p. 136), which involves modifying the converts’ narratives, rather than using converts’ narratives to change their own pre-set understanding as a “bottom-up” approach. That means “the top-down” approach

The channels 67 spends more time on “aspirational goals” and the bottom-up approach has “aspirational aspects” (Rappoport, 2010). In the top-down approach, the converts’ narratives are the fulfilment of the channels’ tasks and goals, rather than a reflection on how (such as interactions, participations, negotiations and compromises) and what it means to become Christian or to change one’s religion in a religious dominated country such as Iran. The Christian channel approach to their audience had resurrected the “hypodermic needle theory” or “magic bullet theory” rooted in 1930’s behaviourism (Blumler, 1979). Yet, their magic bullet depended not merely on media power but, as Amato (Mohabat TV) said: “on the power of the Holy Spirit working through programmes that speaks to the hearts of audiences and convinces them otherwise”. In brief, all channel directors expressed a similar opinion that programmes were made based on hope and faith that God would speak to individuals through programmes in such a way that they would trust the channel and pick up the phone to find out more, leading to their conversion. Therefore, their two powerful means were media and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit, which can be interpreted, as Coleman (2004) calls it, as the “charismatic theory of communication”. Coleman argues that media practice is constituted not only by the deployment of technologies but also through a charismatic theory of communication. That means, for Farsi Christian channels, the reproduction of worship or prayer programmes maintains the performative efficacy of the offline (live) church which, once recorded, “retains their power to affect the material and spiritual world” (Coleman, 2004). Amato explained this by using the Last Supper as an example, which has been repeated since the resurrection of Christ while keeping its essence and power. Therefore, in the charismatic theory of communication, two elements – technology and the Holy Spirit – go hand in hand to create the magic bullet effect, part of the belief of media evangelism from the beginning (Horsfield, 2003). The magic bullet theory of the channels did not dismiss the importance of audiences’ participation in all programmes, which is in fact the key for the Christian message to be effective. The constant invitations on the screen, phrases such as “open your heart”, “pray in the name of Christ”, “put your hand into the hand of Christ” and “read this passage of the Bible”, all indicate the importance of audience participation during, before and after broadcasting. So the channels aimed not only to provide personal religious gratification, but also to create a real sense that they were participating in a broader global Church. In other words, programmes challenged their audiences’ worldview and allowed them to enter a virtual world in which they can experience and participate, especially programmes on prayer, worship, Bible readings and testimonies. Despite their limited online and social media activities, all channels encouraged their audiences to form house churches and be part of each channel’s virtual community. This was more evident with Mohabat TV and

68  The channels Network 7. In that sense, one can agree with Coleman in talking about the potential of Christian media and the fact that there is a virtual world of Christianity, which Christian media have created and which is symbolically rich and expandable, having no borders and with different theological approaches and interpretations. However, this “borderless Christianity”, with its different and to some extent contradictory theological approaches, is not without consequences, especially when one enters into the context of Iranian Muslim audiences with limited access to Christian resources, where all Farsi-speaking churches have been closed, and there are no theologically strong offline communities where new converts can voice their doubts and ask their questions. So how can multiple voices and debatable teaching methods help those new members of Christianity not only to understand their new belief system but also to put the teaching into daily practice and redefine their new identity? Or does it simply, as Amato (Mohabat TV) puts it, “contribute to the entropy of chaos within Iranian society and culture”? To respond to the shortcomings of borderless Christianity, channels used two methods. The first, borrowed from televangelism, is their personality-­driven approach, emphasising on-screen presenters/evangelists in order to strengthen relationships between the audience, the channel and its teachings. A good example of this is Network 7 and Hormoz Shariat’s teachings – for example, there were house churches established through Network 7 that called themselves Hormoz Shariat’s house churches. In this way, the channels hoped that their teachings might create a sanctuary of faith with its practices evident in the audiences’ day-to-day lives. The second approach was more abstract; Amato (Mohabat TV) puts it this way: “the word of God, […] the strength of our programmes and even the reason for our existence is our content, the Word of God, rather than visuals”. That means, in borderless Christianity, the channels were hoping that the Word of God alone can create and shape borders as they transform individual lives. This relates to their magic bullet effect – the power of the Holy Spirit. In this argument, Farsi Christian channels also justified their studio-based head-talk formats. For it was the word that “became flesh and lived among us”. Therefore, at any opportunity, every presenter/preacher or telephone/online counsellor was encouraging their new believers to pass on to others the message that they had received.11 In this process, there is a potential and a desire for words (mainly the Scriptures) to turn into experience and become living words (Coleman, 2004). That is to say, the perceived power of Scripture and other forms of expression, such as self-narrative and the dramatisation of audiences’ conversion or healing stories, can also be interpreted as a religious act that transforms “words” into “flesh”. Therefore, viewers were encouraged to tell and retell their encounters with the divine and the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, which has several effects: converting words into action or, as Coleman puts it, “embodiment of words” and “word made flesh”,

The channels 69 as well as life transformation. This emphasis by Farsi Christian channels on the power of words was for two purposes: internalisation and externalisation. Internalisation – giving life to words – means a person saying the “salvation prayer”, or responding to an on-screen invitation to pray in the name of Jesus Christ, in this way the spoken word becomes reality and life, in the same way that “the word became flesh” (John 1:14). Externalisation means to bring physical transformation and change in both individuals and societies (Coleman, 2004; Stromberg, 1993). That means, since the spoken words become actions – having life given to them – the actions of individuals not only result in the transformation of their lives but also, through them, influence their cultures and societies. How to communicate “the word” in such a way that it becomes “flesh” brings up the issue of the forms of language that the channels adopt. Although all the channels used Farsi as their main broadcasting language, their cultures, theologies and worldviews had made the language alien to their audiences. The channels assume, as Stromberg (1993, p. 2) puts it, that the idea that “language points to an independently existing reality that can be used to describe that reality in terms that convey, without fundamentally distorting its characteristics, […] is incorrect”. As Stromberg argues, language only becomes meaningful, especially in creation of meaning to audience, when it reflects a situation, worldviews or events beyond speech to which the audience can relate. In that situation, language or “word” can also create a situation with meaning in the event of broadcasting. By this I mean the language of the channels normally carries the culture and worldviews of the content producers, or the “cultural reality” of the methods that have been adopted. For example, Church Seven programmes on the Network 7 channel represented the reality of American megachurch, which reflected American popular culture rather than the reality of their audiences’ situations and worldviews. Therefore, entering into Iranian cultures and worldviews, the language may create unintended meanings, such as blasphemy, and can clash with their worldviews on the concept of God and worship. This problem became apparent in the focus group discussions, which are explained in chapter four.

Non-religion-Christianity To the question why do you promote a non-religion-Christianity, Shariat responded: “Iranians are tired of religion [mazhab] and religiosity [mazhabi] and that is why a not-religion view of Christianity attracts them”. It was not only Shariat who considered this, but all the channels’ directors. With their top-down methods of practices, however, they contradict this view. For example, following on from their assumption that Iranians do not like mazhab, Amato explains that this is “because religion and religiosity (mazhabi) have been a tool that has been used to oppress others and to exercise power”, therefore it is better not to associate Christianity

70  The channels with such perceptions. Religiosity (mazhabi) has been criticised as hypocritical, employed to get positions within the government – “playing the government’s game”. If the channels’ claim is true, that the “irreligious” aspect of their Christian message proved to attract some of their viewers to Christianity, then it raises concern: for example, does not-religion-­ Christianity reduce Christianity to a feel-good-spiritual therapy, in which case, once feeling better, they may not need Christian faith? Moreover, in the mind of Iranians, Christianity has always been an Abrahamic religion, therefore reducing it to “Christianity-is-not-a-religion”, might be interpreted by some audiences as a New Age concept, an ideology and spiritual experimentation that can be added to one’s religious worldview. In fact, such thinking can be observed in some audiences’ narratives, which will be analysed later in this book. Concerning the above, all the channels’ directors agreed that Christianity is not an ideology or New Age spirituality but a divine faith, yet none of the channels gave a clear explanation of how they could avoid reductionism when promoting it as “not-a-religion” to Iranian audiences. Shariat (Network 7) admitted that he believes that “Christianity is a religion and more, because it brings into it, as the essence of Christian faith, God’s relationship and his love for humankind”. For him, as he puts it: “The word ‘religion’ could mean different things to different people. We are religious with a different definition”. However, not only would he not use religion to describe Christianity, but he also speaks against religion (mazhab) on-screen, because, as he explained: “I don’t want to confuse the audiences”. In reality, reducing Christianity to an irreligious faith is confusing to the Muslim audience. The channels’ views of religion were limited to religious laws, Shari’a – dos and don’ts, without bringing the element of faith and interpretation of divine encounter into it. That points to the fact that the channels did not give due consideration to Iranian religious history, worldviews and meanings of religion, faith and religiosity (dindari), beyond the teachings and practices of shari’a by the state. Their (the channels) understanding of faith (din) as divine intervention was mainly limited to organised Sufi ideologies rather than to the ordinary day-to-day practice of Iranian religiosity, dindari (Soroush, 1993, 2000). Although the ideology of din is respected by all, it is theologically at the same time rejected by all as too close to organised Sufism “to avoid confusing their audiences”.12 In understanding how then the channels communicate their message of “relational Christianity” to their audiences, Amato explains this mainly from a rather obscure theoretical point of view. “It is not easy, it is a process. First, a relationship with the Father and the living Son, Jesus Christ, needs to be established, after that the concept of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity will be explained”. Although, all theoretical and vague, he further explains and acknowledged that many Iranians, especially youth, while open to the Christian message, are pluralistic in their views and practices and like to experiment with new ideologies, saying: “for example the youth have their

The channels 71 Ahoramazda [divine being; name of God in the Zoroastrian religion] on their neck, while they fast [Islamic roozeh], they watch Christian channels, and in the evening they party and drink, and in their spiritual practice they call to Krishna”. According to Amato, that is the reality of religious practice among the youth in modern day Iran. Considering his view, one can argue that defining Christianity as “relationship with the divine”, whatever that means, may sound, as said above, like another New Age spirituality, becoming just another idea next to Krishna and other spiritual ideologies to experiment with, not to commit to and follow. Is “not-a-religion” Christianity a political term? Although the issue of religion and politics was not one of the main topics, its influence could be seen throughout interviews and discussions, as well as within the narratives of the study. For example, even calling Christianity “not-a-religion” has more of a political than a theological connotation. The politicisation of Islam in Iran has caused the politicisation of religion in general in such a way that talking about religion always carries with it political implications. For example, even to ordinary Iranians, Christian channels are linked to “the West” and to the Western political agenda; at the same time, their conversion has also been seen by themselves and the government as a political act and statement. Moving away from politicisation of religion, Shariat (Network 7) seeks to justify his “not-religion-Christianity” by saying that any religion or religious act, in Christianity or Islam, that points to human works and deeds as the centre for salvation of souls is a problematic ideology: If faith and relationship with the Divine God are not at the centre of a religion, it cannot be from God. His argument echoes Heyward (2010, p. 10), who explains: “a mutual relationship between God, Creation and humankind … God is truly god only in relation to a creation/humankind that is itself only in relation to God”. Shariat sees religion (mazhab) from two points of view: one is the production of shari’a that seeks human’s works in return for paradise and the other is built on a relationship with the divine which evokes grace and guarantees salvation of the soul. This is the view of religion, according to Shariat, that Network 7 attempted to proclaim under the term “relationship with God”. Nevertheless, he raised his concern over the concept of individualism that the term projects, saying: “although Christianity in Iran is growing, the spirituality side of faith is very weak because, in reality, it is more about making people feel good, so among many converts a relationship between God and the person has not yet been established”. He sees several reasons for this, the very individualistic nature of modern media, society and even modern Christianity itself being among them. He adds: Christianity in Iran is right now: growing as an individualistic [my/I] faith; most people just have their link to media without any accountability to a community or a church. The communal side of personal

72  The channels faith has not been experienced much, and some converts don’t even see a need for it. Though they may have experienced change, feelings, healing and peace, in that sense, the personal side of faith is strong, but the community part is weak. To explain why the channels were promoting an individualistic faith, Amato and Shariat used the concept of fardgarai (individualism) within Iranian culture, claiming that Iran is an individualistic (fardgara) nation and personal choice is a sign of power and rebellion for the youth. Their argument fails to persuade, but this idea might have long-term negative consequences for the underground, marginalised and very young Farsi church, for Christianity has been built on the concept of community – community with God and with one another.

Conversion of change of religion What is conversion for the channels? Given the fact that religion has been the lifeblood of Iranian culture, one can then state that, despite the influence of globalisation and global media and the growth of secularism and atheism (mainly among the young), the disillusioned Iranians may still need a religious system – though fluid and flexible – to ponder on the fundamental questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? Christianity, being available, becomes one of their alternative places to search for an answer. Khajehpour in response to the question what is conversion said: “when it comes to understanding conversion, SAT-7 PARS is the most clear and easy organisation that I have ever worked with. Conversion is a personal declaration and is between God and the individual. What is happening between God and a person we don’t know”. Into this question, Shariat cited: “good news attracts people but does not necessarily convert them, even if they think they are converted”. Conversion for him is a change of heart which results in the transformation of behaviour, action and value system. Conversion happens when there is a change of mind, commitment and comes with repentance and confession. Unless there is an obvious change of behaviour and action, Shariat does not consider the person converted. Yet he agreed that the situation has made it difficult if not impossible to observe and assess changes in a convert’s life. To deal with this issue, Shariat encourages new converts to reflect on and assess their faith and to check whether what has happened to them is conversion or simply attraction to the Christian message. He gives them a checklist: Have they submitted their hearts to Christ? If so, do people around them see a tangible and visible life change in them; in their speech, attitude, their relationships etc.? Are they being “productive”? By productive, he meant living an exemplary life: “Do people see Jesus in them? Are they evangelising, serving others, giving financially? If the responses to all these questions are positive then

The channels 73 converts are just beginning their faith journey”. Despite his view, Shariat claims 30,000, mainly self-declared, converts over the past 13 years of their media ministry. Amato’s response to the question of how the channel (Mohabat TV) defines and practises its ideologies on conversion starts in this way: We were doing things wrong. We were under the assumption that if somebody calls us and prays with us and gives their heart to Christ they have received, as we used to call it, “salvation”. Last year [2014] and this year [2015] we have started changing our method and even language and terminology. For example, I changed “salvation” to “decision for Christ”. Because nobody really knows whether their decision is salvation. Salvation is a personal thing between them and God. So we realised that it is not a good way to measure our impact. To what extent did his view impact the practice of his channel? Responding to this question, Amato, like Shariat, explained the situation of Iran, the isolation of new believers, the remote communication and lack of face-to-face contact and the persecution that has impacted on the implementation of their strategy and practice. Consequently, it had been difficult for the channels to substantiate or validate their efforts. In this challenging situation, Amato explained: “the best way is just to leave the rest to the Holy Spirit to do the work”. Yet it seems simply leaving it to the Holy Spirit was not a satisfactory conclusion for Amato. Therefore, at the beginning of 2015, the channel decided to call all the audiences who had contacted them during the previous year, 2014, and had declared their change of faith, to see whether they had remained in their faith. The result was “shocking” according to Amato, because a significant number of so-called “converts” said that they made a mistake and their decisions were only emotional ones: they were no longer Christian. A percentage refused to talk to them and asked the channel not to contact them again, saying: “We have nothing to do with you”. Amato thought that this might be because of fear of the authorities, knowing all telecommunications were monitored and controlled in Iran. Or they might truly have abandoned their Christianity – disaffiliation (Gooren, 2010a, 2010b). Nevertheless, a percentage expressed their happiness and gratitude towards the channel and confirmed that they were strong in their faith despite the struggles, difficulties and persecution they were going through.13 Amato used the parable of the sower and the seed (Matthew 13:1–23) to explain their system further. The seeds were programmes scattered in different lands: To make the seeds bear a hundredfold needed better and careful gardening. Mohabat TV felt that their strategy should be to contact viewers multiple times and follow them through their faith journey for at least one to two years. Despite this, Mohabat TV still claims a high figure, 4,268 converts during 2014, emphasising: “no extrapolation, but actual names and addresses”.

74  The channels None of the channels referred to audiences’ religious context, worldviews and their practice of change of faith, or even the understanding of Christianity and of Jesus Christ that was already held among Iranians. Another problem was the fact that none of them talked about post-­ conversion plans, the focus being on evangelism with immediate results. Furthermore, they appeared unconcerned about the fact that audiences are the main interpreters and translators of their messages, not based on the channels’ theologies and aims but based on their own religious worldviews, personal experience and agendas (Mohsenianrad and Sepanji, 2010).

Challenges There were several challenges that Farsi Christian television channels faced. The first one was mediatised Christianity. Shariat called that “one-­ dimensional Christianity”, in which audiences only hear or watch the preached word, mainly from a positive perspective. The practical implications of Christianity are absent. He called converts through the channels “TV believers”, for the media only shows a glamorous Christianity where everybody and everything looks good and feels good (White and Assimeng, 2016). The second challenge was the fact that their programmes mainly touch the surface of what true Christianity is. There was not much critical evaluation of real-life issues and problems. That means their mediatised Christianity may be separate from real life. In this way, a convert may adopt Christianity without much adaptation of their life or influence of Christian teachings and values on their engagement with the surrounding culture and society. Amato and Shariat stated that there had been many requests, but limited rootedness, commitment and growth. Amato gave an example: For every 49 viewers that call, only one person makes a decision to follow Christ; for every 250 contacts, one person requests a Bible; for every 260 contacts, one person is connected to a church; and for every 5,049 contacts, one house church has been started. Conversion as migration strategy has been another concern (Akcapar, 2006). Moreover, those who did not intend to leave Iran after conversion found that fear of persecution and a hope for a better life encouraged them to migrate. Confirming this, Amato said: “The average house church leader has been in faith for six months to a year: When the leaders and believers become mature in their faith they normally leave the country”. For that reason, the church in Iran is still a first-generation, mediated church (Afshari, 2013). The third challenge was related to the fundraising market and donor agenda. Even the unrealistic vision and mission statements, including idealistic expansion of ministries of the channels, were the result of the pressure

The channels 75 of the competitive fundraising market and donor agenda. This had in fact set back the formation of the channels’ identities and branding in both the media world and mission work (Einstein, 2008; Kitiarsa, 2008). This issue needs to be studied separately.

Conclusion This chapter has introduced and analysed the work of the four Farsi Christian television channels, with their main task being evangelism and conversion. I have demonstrated that, theologically and ideologically, there are more similarities between the channels than they otherwise admitted. “Conversion” is based on the audiences’ declarations and/or repetition of the “salvation prayer”. For all the channels, though the medium is powerful, the strength of their particular magic bullet theory lies in both the concept of the power of media and “the Holy Spirit’s conviction of the hearts”. That means their magic bullet theory is not the same as14 the magic bullet theory of the Frankfurt School, where audiences are passive recipients of the media’s message (Blumler, 1979): rather, for their message to be effective, a high degree of audience participation and engagement was needed. Although television will continue to play a crucial role in Christianity in Iran, consumption of television programmes and the nature of viewing and participation of audiences might change, based on advances in technology and the political situation of Iran – lack of freedom versus more freedom (Lotz, 2014; Mohsenianrad, 2008). Given the lack of Farsi churches and Christian communities, with conversion and evangelism being illegal, along with Christian media being the main source for converts, the media has turned Farsi Christianity into a mediatised religion, which has become a concern even to the channels themselves (Hjarvard, 2008). As Shariat said, the channels were not only encouraging people to become Christian, but would also “define what Christianity is; what God is; what Church is; what Christian life looks like… we do not show them, we tell them”. The concern over the mediatisation of Christianity has mainly been over the one-dimensional approach: preaching the word mainly from a positive and feel-good point of view, while real life and practical Christianity was lacking. White and Assimeng (2016) stated that television can make people and ideologies appear more attractive and beautiful than they really are. In a normal setting, televangelism serves as a marketing and promotional tool for offline churches doing their evangelism (Denson, 2011); but, in the case of Iran, the channels are having to serve both functions, but without much face-to-face activity or contact with seekers. Additionally, this chapter has examined some of the channels’ beliefs and practices, as well as their challenges. It also concludes that, in some areas, the channels’ beliefs contrast with their practice: for example, although in relation to conversion all of them believe that conversion is a process and can take one to two years, they all appear to aim for immediate conversion

76  The channels in both their programming and their fundraising reports. In regard to the challenges they face, I stated that the demands and agendas of the donor market, the evergrowing spiritual marketplace and the increasing number of disillusioned Iranians who dislike any form of organised religion and religiosity have posed challenging questions to Farsi Christian channels to stay relevant and truthful to their ideologies – the Christian faith – while attempting to establish an effective identity and branding model in the religious market.

Notes 1 It has to be noted that there are more Farsi-speaking Christian media ministries broadcasting their messages online and via satellite – buying airtime. However, the focus of this chapter primarily concerns the four 24/7 satellite channels that are considered below. 2 Jeremiah 49:38 says: “I will set my throne in Elam and destroy her king and officials” (NIV). Network 7’s interpretation of this verse is that Elam is Iran and the Jeremiah prophecy is for this generation. One can argue that, based on this prophecy, the Iranian government has to be destroyed first and after that God “will set [his] throne in Elam”. Therefore, applying the Jeremiah 49:38 to the current situation of Iran seems to have more political implications than religious. 3 http://rezasafa.com/store/founder/ (Accessed: 27 September 2016). 4 For more information visit this website: https://hormozshariat.com/tag/church-7/ (Accessed: 23 June 2020). 5 Joel Rosenberg is a writer and an evangelical, born-again Christian, who calls himself “a Jewish believer in Christ”, and the host of Epicentre, a documentary with his end-times theology, believing that “Israel is the epicentre of human history”, focusing on the violence in the Middle East with Iran being the main threat. 6 The term was created by William Fore in 1979. 7 The 2014 Mohabat TV confidential annual report was presented to their supporters on 15 May 2015 in High Wycombe, UK. 8 SAT-7 PARS Ethos and Polices updated 2015. 9 http://nejattv.org/farsi/ (Accessed: 18 October 2016). 10 The show brings in controversial issues in society, politics and even in Christian faith, in order to point to the truth of Christ. 11 The channel directors also emphasised the tight financial situations, lack of media professionals for their radio talk format and poor quality programmes. 12 By organised Sufi ideology I mean Sufi groups and denominations rather than its influence and practice among ordinary people who are not part of any organised Sufi groups (Faali, 2009). 13 Amato did not share the actual statistics with the researcher. 14 The hypodermic needle model, also known as magic bullet theory, is rooted in 1930s behaviourism of the Marxist Frankfurt School that argued for the uniformity of audience and the direct effect of mass media. It suggested that media messages are like bullets fired from the “media gun” into the audiences’ head. The model suggested that audiences are passive and vulnerable to the media message. Among prominent scholars, one can name Paul Lazarsfeld and Herta Herzog, who disapproved of the theory and introduced the two-step flow of communication (Katz and Lazarsfeld, 1966).

The channels 77

Bibliography Afshari, S. (2013) ‘An examination of the growth of Christianity and the contribution of Farsi Christian media in contemporary Iran’. Available at: https://www. academia.edu/17464014/An_examination_of_the_growth_of_Christianity_ and _ cont ribution _ of _ Fa rsi _Ch ristian _ med ia _ in _ contempora r y_ I ran (Accessed: 13 May 2017). Akcapar, S. K. (2006) ‘Conversion as a Migration Strategy in a Transit Country: Iranian Shiites Becoming Christians in Turkey’, International Migration Review, 40 (4), pp. 817–853. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ j.1747-7379.2006.00045.x/full (Accessed: 15 May 2017). Armstrong, R. N., Hallmark, J. R. and Williamson, L. K. (2005) ‘Televangelism as Institutional Apologia: The Religious Talk Show as Strategized Text’, Journal of Media and Religion, 4 (2), pp. 67–83. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/ doi/abs/10.1207/s15328415jmr0402_1 (Accessed: 13 May 2017). Bailey, M. and Redden, G. (eds.) (2011) Mediating Faiths: Religion and SocioCultural Change in the Twenty-First Century. Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Co. Blumler, J. G. (1979) ‘The Role of Theory in Uses and Gratifications Studies’, Communication Research, 6 (1), pp. 9–36. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177 %2F009365027900600102. Buckser, A. and Glazier, S. D. (eds.) (2003) The Anthropology of Religious Conversion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. Campbell, H. A. (ed.) (2012) Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. London and New York: Routledge. Coleman, S. (2004) The Globalisation of Charismatic Christianity: Spreading the Gospel of Prosperity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Denson, S. (2011) ‘Faith in Technology: Televangelism and the Mediation of Immediate Experience’, Phenomenology & Practice, 5 (2), pp. 96–122. Available at: https://journals.library.ualberta.ca/pandpr/index.php/pandpr/article/ view/19847/15371 (Accessed: 22 May 2017). Einstein, M. (2008) Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. London and New York: Routledge. Faali, M. T. (2009) Religious Experience and Sufi Meditation. 3rd edn. Tehran: Publishing House of Institute for Islamic Culture and Thought. Hendershot, H. (2004) Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Hendricks, W. (1984) ‘The Theology of the Electronic Church’, Review & Expositor, 81 (1), pp. 59–75. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/ abs/10.1177/003463738408100106?journalCode=raeb# (Accessed: 15 May 2017). Heyward, C. (2010) The Redemption of God: A Theology of Mutual Relation. 2nd edn. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. Hjarvard, S. (2008) ‘The Mediatization of Religion: A Theory of the media as Agents of Religious change’, Northern Lights, 6 (1), pp. 9–26. DOI: 10.1386/ nl.6.1.9_1 Horsfield, P. (2003) ‘Electronic media and the past-future of Christianity’, in Mitchell, J. and Marriage, S. (eds.) Mediating Religion: Conversations in Media, Religion, and Culture. London: T & T Clark, pp. 271–282.

78  The channels Horsfield, P. (2015) From Jesus to the Internet: A History of Christianity and Media. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell. Hosseini, S. H. (2008) ‘Religion and Media, Religious Media, or Media Religion: Theoretical Studies’, Journal of Media and Religion, 7 (1-2), pp. 56–69. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15348420701838350 (Accessed: 9 January 2016). Hutchings, T. (2015) ‘Christianity and digital Media’, in Brunn, S. D. (ed.) The Changing World Religion Map: Sacred Places, Identities, Practices and Politics. Dordrecht, NL: Springer, pp. 3811–3830. Available at: http://link.springer.com/ chapter/10.1007/978-94-017-9376-6_201 (Accessed: 15 May 2015). James, J. D. and Shoesmith, B. P. (2007) ‘Masala McGospel: A Case Study of CBN’s Solutions Programme in India’, Studies in World Christianity, 13 (2), pp. 170–191. Available at: http://www.euppublishing.com/doi/abs/10.3366/ swc.2007.13.2.170 (Accessed: 15 May 2017). Jenkins, H., Ford, S. and Green, J. (2013) Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture. New York: New York University Press. Katz, E. and Lazarsfeld, P. F. (1966) Personal Influence: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communications. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers. Kitiarsa, P. (2008) ‘Introduction: Asia’s commodified sacred canopies’, in Kitiarsa, P. (ed.) Religious Commodifications in Asia: Marketing Gods. London: Routledge. Kyle, R. G. (2010) ‘The Electronic Church: An Echo of American Culture’, Direction: A Mennonite Brethren Forum, 39 (2), pp. 162–176. Available at: http://www.directionjournal.org/39/2/electronic-church-echo-of-american.html (Accessed: 22 February 2016). Lotz, A. D. (2014) The Television Will Be Revolutionized. 2nd edn. New York and London: New York University Press. McGrath, J. F. (2011) Religion and Science Fiction. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications. Mohsenianrad, M. (2008) ‘The Pathology of Audience Phantasm in Iran in the Fields of media, Globalisation and Post Global Village age’, Iranian Journal of Cultural Research, 1 (3), pp. 79–113 (in Farsi). Available at: http://www.sid.ir/fa/ VEWSSID/J_pdf/47213870304.pdf (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Mohsenianrad, M. and Sepanji, A. (2010) ‘Passive Audience or Selector Behind the media? Comparative Study in Communication theories’, Iranian Journal of Cultural Research, 4 (1), pp. 27–47 (in Farsi). Available at: http://fa.journals.sid. ir/ViewPaper.aspx?ID=129037 (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Murdock, V. (2004) Religion and spirituality in gerontological social work practice: Results of a national survey. Paper presented at the 50th Annual Program Meeting, Council on Social Work Education, Anaheim, CA. Rapoport, A. (2010) ‘We Cannot Teach What We Don’t Know: Indiana Teachers Talk about Global Citizenship Education’, Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 5(3), pp. 179–190. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/ pdf/10.1177/1746197910382256 (Accessed: 22 May 2017). Roof, W. C. (1989) ‘Multiple Religious Switching: A Research note’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 28 (4), pp. 530–535. DOI: 10.2307/1386582. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1386582.pdf (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Roof, W. C. (1993). ‘Religion and Narrative’, Review of Religious Research, 34 (4), pp. 297–310. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3511969.pdf (Accessed: 16 May 2017).

The channels 79 Salus, P. H. (2008) ‘Ontology and Teleology’, The American Journal of Semiotics, 8 (3), pp. 107–115. DOI: 10.5840/ajs19918319. SAT-7 PARS, (2007) ‘SAT-7 PARS program Policy document’, Available at: https://www.sat7pars.com/en/content/about-us/mission-and-vision (Accessed: 20 November 2022). SAT-7 PARS, (2015) ‘SAT-7 PARS Programming Policy’, Available at: https:// www.sat7pars.com/en/content/about-us/ethos-policy (Accessed: 25 Dec 2022). Sinitiere, P. L. (2015) Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity. New York: NYU Press. Soroush, A. (1993) ‘Religiosity and intellectuality’, Kyian Journal, 3 (12), pp. 7–20. (in Farsi). Available at: http://www.ensani.ir/storage/Files/201205140942187066-61.pdf (Accessed 13 December 2014). Soroush, A. (2000) Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush. Translated, edited and with a critical introduction by Sadri, M. and Sadri, A. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. Stark, R. and Finke, R. (2000a) ‘Catholic Religious Vocations: Decline and Revival’, Review of Religious Research, 42 (2), pp.125–145. DOI: 10.2307/3512525 Stark, R. and Finke, R. (2000b) Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press. Stromberg, P. G. (1993) Language and Self-Transformation: A Study of the Christian Conversion Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. White, P. and Assimeng, A. A. (2016) ‘Televangelism: A Study of the ‘Pentecost Hour’ of the Church of Pentecost’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 72 (3), a3337. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/hts.v72i3.3337. Available at: http:// www.scielo.org.za/pdf/hts/v72n3/33.pdf, (Accessed: 16 May 2017).

4

Participants and the message

Introduction The aim of this chapter is to examine the focus groups’ discussions of two programmes, one from Network 7 called Church Seven, and the other from SAT-7 PARS called Prayer and Christianity. The two main questions are to establish elements that most influenced the participants’ interactions, interpretation and negotiations with the messages presented in each programme and to discern obstructions preventing participants from relating to the message and relating the message to their context. Responding to these two questions, the chapter has been organised into three sections: section one analyses participants’ responses to the Church Seven programme, with section two focusing on Prayer and Christianity. Both sections include a background description of the selected programme with the analysis of presentations and contents relating to the questions; the third section collates issues and identifies common themes. Before proceeding allow me to remind readers of the focus group methodology: two focus groups were formed from two different church denominations, Anglican and Pentecostal, both located in Ankara, Turkey. All participants from both groups were converts to Christianity through media: one of them had converted in Turkey although he had started his search while in Iran, the rest had converted in Iran, including the three teenagers. The duration of each focus group discussion was an hour and a half, equally divided between watching the selected programme and discussion.

Section one: Church Seven Programme description Church Seven programme was an electronic church with online activities and was the main flagship programme of the Network 7 channel. The aim of the programme, according to their website,1 was to provide “a lifeline for the estimated 2 million believers who have no other option for church of any kind”. Dr Hormoz Shariat described Church Seven as “a church DOI: 10.4324/9781003004905-5

Participants and the message 81 for all nations: a megachurch for Iranian believers”. He claimed to have 30,000 members, mainly those who had confessed their faith to the channel. Church Seven had the same characteristics as the American electronic and megachurch, with everyday language of life and marketplace and positive religious experience, “with God being problem-solver and rewarder” (Kyle, 2010), belief in “physical events of eschatology” and nostalgic ecclesiology (family of God), with a “conversion view of salvation”. As Hendricks puts it: “the electronic church has devised ways to simplify and cinch the beginning of salvation and the end of salvation (eschatology)”. That means the electronic Church Seven’s emphasis was on immediate conversion and fast results (Kyle, 2010). Moreover, Church Seven was personality driven, entertainment oriented, with a focus mainly on audiences’ emotions and feelings, with positive thinking, positive confession and psychology of empowerment and affection. From a teaching point of view, the interpretation of the Scriptures was normally conditioned and influenced by the needs of the moment (Kyle, 2010). That means, for example, the two Bible passages that were read during the Church Seven programme were interpreted based on the needs of the channel and of the moment. One of the Bible passages read during the programme, Mark 10:13-16 – “The little children and Jesus”, was used as a prophetic voice interpreted to the needs of the programme – encouraging viewers “not to change the channel and let their children also watch the programme”. The second Bible reading was to encourage audiences to support the channel financially. This recalls the American definition of an electronic church, with religious programmes distributed beyond their local area and supported by their audiences (Ward, 2015). Church Seven was not part of a local church although, according to Shariat, IAM of which Network 7 was a part, is a church planting ministry and uses media to support and develop the house churches they planted in Iran and among Iranians around the world. The duration of the programme was one hour and a half, precisely 1.29.30. Only 45 minutes of the programme was viewed by both focus groups. The programme was aired on 30 October 2015 and uploaded to YouTube on 31 October 2015.2 There were six presenters (worshipers), three men and three women, their average age being between 38 and 50. The studio was very small, simply decorated with mock stained-glass artwork. The programming introduction was the Church Seven logo with a church bell ringing in the background. The start of the programme showed enthusiastic presenters around a table, bodies swaying, punching the air saying “our hearts are beating with excitement because we are going to worship God. What about you?” After that comes a promotional film, encouraging the audience to register with and participate in online activities. The programme had three segments: worship, preaching and positive testimonial messages. The worship leader was a woman. Throughout the worship programme, she kept smiling and her voice was high pitched.

82  Participants and the message Although the programme was live, there was no live singing, all the songs being lip-synced. The first song was very high, with a dancing feel to it, the rest of the songs being more meditative and calmer. The worship leader was dancing and encouraging the rest of the team to do the same. Between each song, the worship leader prayed and invited the audience to pray with them. There was some hesitation on the presenters’ parts, for example, there was a sense of uncertainty among them as to when to close their eyes and when to open them during prayers, and some of the presenters occasionally checked their mobiles. Halfway through the worship, one of the presenters gave a prophecy from Mark 10:13-16; “there is a dear one sitting in front of the TV, this is for you. These verses tell you not to prevent your children from watching this programme. Jesus is telling you that he wants to bless your child. Don’t just bring your child, but also bring yourself … I knew you really wanted to change the channel, but the Lord wants you to stay and listen to this prophesy”.3 The preacher, Hormoz Shariat, started with thanking the audiences for their support, prayers, encouragement and most of all their financial support. Then he moved on to give a report on his trips and talked about the purpose of his trips “introducing Iran and raising funds for the ministry”. He encouraged viewers to support the channel financially by saying, “when you go to heaven, God, who is a good accountant, will bring a few people to you and say ‘it was because of you and your generosity these people were saved.’ God says if you give a glass of water to a thirsty one I will not forget”. The sermon was on Luke 19:1–10 and the story of Zacchaeus was illustrated with a clip from the Jesus Film. At the end of his talk, Shariat encouraged audiences to give their hearts to Christ. After the sermon, each presenter gave positive accounts of their own religious experiences or someone else’s that they had been in touch with. There was only one telephone call at the end of the programme. Analysis Since the main aim of the programme was to be an electronic church for Iranian converts and audiences, the first question to the participants of the focus groups was whether this could be their church. The majority of participants in both groups rejected the idea. However, 50 per cent of women from both groups would consider the programme as their church in the absence of other choices. Three women claimed that they used to worship with Church Seven in Iran. Mona said: In Iran, I used to worship with this programme, but my situation was different, I had no other choice. I was in a house that would not allow me to go to a church or be in touch with any Christians. Even after my marriage, my husband prevented me going to church; I didn’t even have a Bible. The only windows to Christianity were these programmes

Participants and the message 83 [Christian channels], and that is how I could worship with them. But I think that in those days, their programmes were much better. This one [the one we watched together] was very [with a laugh] Arabic [meaning a belly-dancing mood in it], and their happiness was quite fake and exaggerated. Mona did not have any connection to any actual church while in Iran, therefore, had no model to compare it with: what she watched on Church Seven was the representation of a Christian church. She had moved to Turkey less than a year before in the hope of migrating to America, joined a church and noticed the differences between the electronic church of Church Seven and her offline conservative Anglican church, which led to her disaffiliation from the channel. Bahareh, from a Pentecostal group, enthusiastically responded to the question: I could worship with this programme and could connect to it, to what they said, their songs, their prayers and the sermon. I even, if you noticed, was singing with them. I think it was great! In Iran I used to follow this programme and worship with them. But my problem was with the sermon… Another lady, Nasteran, said that she used to watch the programme but not as a church, as a normal programme, by saying: I used to watch all the channels; one after another. Generally, everyone has a view how to worship God. For example, I interpret this programme differently. For, we have four Gospels, each with their own understanding about Jesus Christ. People do the same. Our experience influences the way we meet Jesus and the way we worship him. For example, some like to worship God in a simple way, another group with dance, clapping and happiness. I personally, don’t see this programme as a church, yet I watched it, and I think there are people who prefer that kind of worship. While women were supportive and accommodative towards the channel in general, the programme found no or minimum support among men. All the men rejected the programme as “their church”, even if there was no alternative. Only one of them, Matthew, within the more conservative group, said he would worship with them, not on screen but in a physical and offline church. He explained his reason this way: I may not have enough knowledge to talk theology, but I liked this worship and this type of ‘church’ environment. Maybe, I am coming from a very strict Muslim family, from a gloomy religious background of

84  Participants and the message misery and tears and sadness. … what made me attracted to Christian channels was their joyfulness. I saw them worshipping God with joy and happiness, music and songs, not with tears and fear. And that also attracted me to the Christian faith. His reference to the Shia ideology of worship and prayer, in which a sorrowful heart and a tearful soul are required, triggered more discussions on the topic which will be discussed later. It is important to point out that continuous references to and comparison with Islam and revisiting of past memories were observed throughout the discussions in both groups. Presentation and performance Questions on presentation and performance created more resistance and conflicting responses in both groups. Issues such as over-enthusiasm, the entertainment aspect of worship including the lip-syncing of the songs and lack of coordination among the presenters were at the centre of their critical evaluations. The majority of the participants in both groups felt that the presentation and performance were offensive to God, some finding the poor quality and unpreparedness of the presenters an insult to the audience. For many, the worship was “over-exaggerated” and “unreal”, the entertainment element making it look like a “house party”. Another person, Amin, said: What I saw was good for a party. … but the problem is that, in a country where everything is forbidden, these types of worship programmes become more attractive. Exactly what our [Islamic shia] eulogists have started doing; with their “‘ssin. ‘ssin”4, they managed to bring all even criminals and hippies back to hiat [The society of Ashoura]. But it did not attract me because I was not searching for a party, I am searching for God. All the participants agreed that because Shia Islam emphasises sadness of souls and the Iranian regime has restricted people’s happiness and social life, a joyful programme has potential to attract many. On the other hand, the Elam group, who were Pentecostal by nature, the same denomination as in Church Seven, did not talk about the over enthusiastic side of the performance, but rather their lack of coordination which made their performance unreal. Koroush says: There was no coordination between them; one person was laughing, another checking her mobile and another playing with a piece of paper in his hand. No one seems to be concentrating on the worship … Why do they need to lip-sync their songs? They could have live music worship.

Participants and the message 85 All the discussions raised two important issues, belittling of the audience’s intelligence and discourtesy to God. Amin said: I became Christian here in Turkey, but in Iran I heard a lot about Christ and Christianity from my wife and the channels she used to watch. But none of that information was like what I saw now. If I wanted to watch this programme and become a Christian, exactly, I would have done the opposite thing, that is I mean, I would have gone and encouraged everyone to turn back to Islam! The issue of honouring God and worshipping Him with reverence was part of both group discussions that also continued to the next programme from SAT-7 PARS channel. Sam, from the Pentecostal group, expressed his opinion in this way: Just imagine! I am in Iran; and I am in Mashad [Iran’s most holy city] and from a very devout Muslim family. What do you expect? Although I watched some of the Christian TV programmes, I never went to a church in Iran, I never saw a church. If they show us and then say that is how a church service look like. I perhaps would have laughed! In this respect, Alireza the worship leader of the Elam group said: I could sense a lack of spirituality in connection to relationship with God. I know they work very hard to make these programmes for us. They are trying to serve God … Worship comes from our lives and our experience and walk with God. It might be a concern for people who never saw a church or Christian worship, to see this as a church or an example of Christian worship. For some, lack of focus and preparation was deemed to cause confusion, not only among the presenters but also among the audience as well. Content and interpretations The Church Seven programme is intended to encourage the audience to accept it as a church and not only to worship with them but also gain religious experience (connecting the believers to the divine) and for those, non-Christians, to accept Christ as their Saviour. To achieve this, the programme employed language, symbols, rituals and the medium of television as their main tools. Based on observation of both the programme’s language and performance, and participants’ language and expressions, one can argue that the programme was not able to achieve its aim for its intended audience. The central focus of both (programme and participants) was the issue of “religious experience”, the presenters’ performance and

86  Participants and the message language (dance, gestures, prayers and prophetic messages) aiming to connect its audience to the “Divine/Christ”: the audience was also aiming to interpret the message through their pre-existing religious worldviews and personal religious experiences. Since the tools of presenting (programme) and interpretations (participants) were coming from two different contexts and situations, one can see clashes between the two views: for example, the presenters may have been worshipping “the Lord” joyfully, but from the perspective of the participants’ (Islamic/Sufism) religious views, “the Lord” was not honoured. It may be helpful to revisit Islamic expectations of worship, for that, unconsciously or not, frame many participants’ views. Despite the fact that participants emphasised the importance of personal experience and religious worldviews – in their case an Islamic/Iranian worldview – many Islamic scholars, such as Faali (2009), do not approve of religious experience as a means of communicating to the divine for several reasons. One being the fact that one cannot rationally verify them, though he considers Sufis’ experiences as real and rational yet mystical. The second, and the main reason for his rejection, is that he sees that the contemporary understating of religious experience in Iran has been influenced by protestant Christianity. Faali’s proposition is debatable, since religious experience and rituals have always played a significant role in Iranian Shia’s lives whether the religious leaders rejected or approved of them. It was the same here in the focus group discussions: participants’ experiences of life and their religious conversion were at the centre of all the interpretations and discussions, it is because as Wolff (1999) puts it, “experience and language are intertwined”, symbols and their meanings are also being connected to “lived experience” which in turn connects to cultural environments and the situations of individuals. Thus, participants’ interpretations of worship on the screen, including swinging bodies and gestures, as well as the use of language, all link to their previous and current religious experiences, worldview and culture. The concept of God was at the centre of all the discussions, because through Him they attempt to express and bridge the meaning of their past and present “self”, as well as connect to the meaning of the programme. To explain this further, one can bring back the concept of Tawhid – the oneness of God – not from a theological but an ethical point of view “as oiem” (To God we belong), and “be soi-e oiem” (to Him we return)5 (Ahmadi and Ahmadi, 1998). This is not only a progressive concept – a journey of becoming – but also highlights the issue of hierarchy between God and people, between their old life and their new life, between pastors and their congregations. For example, one of the reasons that the majority of the participants felt that Church Seven did not honour God was because hierarchy was absent: as one of them said: “… when two ordinary people are invited to a dinner, they respect their host through their behavior – [for example] they don’t stretch their legs out and they avoid unpleasant things in front

Participants and the message 87 of their host … but worship in Christian channels is undignified and shallow, showing no respect whatsoever”. Another person said: “We need to remember that God is not our cousin”. That means for many participants (converts from Islam), the experience of hierarchical relationships between God and his people (even his children) is essential in worship. Conversely, one can argue that the hierarchy system was kept and that there was an order and structure within the programme, and God was honoured because all the worship was about Him, to him and for Him. However, since the programme was produced in a form based on an unfamiliar system, culture and language (though in Farsi), beyond the participants’ culture and experience, they could not recognise and relate to it. The lack of introduction or explanation to questions of what, how and why at the beginning of the programme made participants conclude that “the worship was undignified” and the programme “was disorganised and confusing”. For the channel, there was more to the programme than the worship, for it attempts to negotiate three things with its audience: first, that their audience becomes their regular viewers and “allow their children to also watch the programme” – this was done through a claimed prophecy “God gave me a message”. Secondly, the programme encouraged the audience to join their mission and support the channel financially by promising them rewards in heaven: “when you go to heaven, God … will bring a few people to you and say ‘it was because of you and your generosity these people were saved’ …”. Thirdly, the positive and uplifting accounts of the religious experiences of the presenters were demonstrations to negotiate conversion to Christian faith. Nonetheless, all three negotiations were marked by the participants as “interpretation based on the channel’s agenda”. For example, statements such as “it was not a prophecy, she was told to say that”. Or “This passage does not mean that … she just said it to fit her agenda …” and “… even the choice of Bible reading was based on their agenda to ask for money”. These statements represent a gap between the channel and their audiences’ understanding which nullified their negotiations. Analysing the statements, one can say that the issues of trust and language (including worldview and culture) might be the main reasons for the gap.6 In general, Iranian audiences, like many others around the world, do not trust a satellite channel raising funds on air: if that occurs at the beginning of their programmes, the channel may lose credibility. In the case of Church Seven, there were three issues involved: their on-air fundraising and their culture and the language of performance were problematic to the participants. As mentioned earlier, Church Seven adopted both their on-air fundraising and their performance language from their American electronic church counterparts. The channel assumed that their audience not only accepted their method but also participated in giving financially. But the focus group demonstrated otherwise. As Kyle (2010, p. 163)

88  Participants and the message puts it: “the electronic church and televangelism mirrors American cultural characteristics”, the Iranian audiences’ cultures were missing throughout the programme. In this, one can argue that the religious cultural performance of Church Seven was judged abnormal by Iranian religious culture. Presenting this to an Iranian culture with its rich spirituality and immeasurable admiration for God, in whose presence there is no “I” but Him, might create contrasting responses. Individuals might enjoy the entertainment side of the programme as well as the upbeat messages but refuse to accept it as a worship programme to “the Most High”. For instance, Mona from the Pentecostal group said: I think, through our worship we want also to show respect and tell people what a wonderful God we have [in contrast to how wonderful we are] that is why our worship should be with reverence and the highest possible respect, a kind of respect our God deserves. The programme assumed that their audience are familiar with their culture of worship and can connect to it. Therefore, at the beginning, they provided no introduction or guidelines to help their audience. Since most of the content was based on such external assumptions as well as the needs of the channel, many of the participants felt that the centre of worship was not God but a few enthusiastic individuals. To demonstrate their point, both groups pointed to “a preconception interpretation of the Scriptures” both during “the prophecy” and the sermon. The start of the sermon with a call for financial support from the audience dominated the discussions. The issue of money made the participants think that the programme lost its spiritual value and its purpose. For instance, Kamyar said: “It was all about money, and even the Bible passage was deliberately chosen to ask us for money…” Alireza from the Pentecostal group said: I agree, it has to be there, they need support, but it should not be at the beginning of a programme and at the beginning of a sermon. The noteworthy point was that throughout the discussions, several people in both groups referred to Ashoura ceremonies (the most important day in the Shia religious calendar), comparing the mourning of Ashoura with the exuberance of Church Seven. For example, Kourosh from Anglican group said: … for example, I remember. I was a Muslim, I was so desperate to know God that is why I was part of Hiat Ashoura, joined in sina-zani [beating one’s chest], ghameh-zani [beating one’s head with a dagger]. But now what I learn is that for example when you are desperate you do whatever comes in your way without questioning it; that is why many

Participants and the message 89 people will accept and watch Church Seven programmes because they are desperate. Although one might be surprised at seeing a Church Seven programme being compared with an Ashoura ceremony, the participants’ point of comparison was from both Ashoura’s sensational speeches and songs as well as their fundraising methods. In conclusion, Church Seven programmes found scant approval from participants in either group, for their understanding of worshipping God was different from the channel and the low quality of production made the participants feel that the audiences’ intelligence was belittled. Only one person felt she could consider the programme as her church because she “felt spiritually connected” to the programme, the rest eschewing the idea.

Section two: Prayer and Christianity Programme description The SAT-7 PARS programme was titled Prayer and Christianity, part of the Baham (Together) Live show series intended to give audiences an interactive live programme that is “entertaining, educational and social”. It ran from Monday to Thursday every week, until the series ended on 30 June 2016. The Monday show was on social issues such as drug addiction and prostitution. The Tuesday shows were for evangelism, the Wednesday shows were for families, and the Thursday shows, of which Prayer and Christianity were part, were on Christian teachings, aimed for more educated audiences and whoever desired more in-depth Christian teachings. The show comprised a studio-based, talk-show format with a few inserts, including their theme song. The show had two presenters, Miltan and Sally, and Keyvan Cyrus, a theologian as a guest speaker. The show had two sets. The main set was occupied by the main presenter, Miltan and Keyvan, with a wooden desk in front of the presenters which was decorated with the logo of SAT-7 PARS. Behind the presenters, the area was decorated with geometric shelves with oriental and Persian objects. The second presenter, Sally, was in the second set with a high chair and a high table, with a large flat-screen TV, intended to represent audiences at home. Sally’s main role was to encourage the audiences to send their questions and comments, and presented them (sometimes), critically conveying them to the guest speaker. The media platforms that audiences were encouraged to use for their communication with the programme were Skype, Viber, Email, Facebook, Tweeter, What’sApp and Text Messaging. The call-ins were monitored in a separate telephone operator room. After greetings, Miltan introduced the guest speaker, Keyvan, and gave an introduction to the show including a short informative clip of

90  Participants and the message what was discussed in the previous week’s Thursday programme. The programme was about prayer. Keyvan, influenced by Anglo-Catholic theology and teachings, introduced the understanding of prayer, including different types of prayers, which are normally heard within traditional Catholic and Anglican traditional churches. The speaker and presenter (Miltan) informed the audiences of the importance of the day (8 September) that was marked in the church calendar of some traditional churches as the birth date of Mary, Nativity of the Theotokos. Keyvan called Mary “the mother of God”, “our lady”, and gave her the title hazrat (holiness) that is used in Iran for all the Islamic saints: she is Hazrat-e Maryam, though not among Protestants or Pentecostals. The speaker used formal language with frequent use of theological terminologies much of which he did not have the Farsi equivalent for, so he used the English version instead. Analysis This programme was a big contrast to the first one. The first programme was Pentecostal denomination-orientated, influenced by North American megachurch worship style, with minimum reference to Christian theology. The second programme was closer to oriental Christianity, with some familiar religious rituals and terminologies such as the concept of hazrat (holiness), while keeping a religious hierarchy system in place – a great admiration for God and for Mary. At the start of the discussion, both groups demonstrated their appreciation of the programme’s structure, performance and presentations that led to the appreciation of the channel with comments such as this from Nasteran, from the Anglican group: In general, this channel is good. Whether the teachings we just watched are correct or not, that is another issue. My comment is more about the channel. Whenever I want to watch good Christian teaching, I go to this channel. Or Bita from the Pentecostal group said: I like the programmes of this channel. Their presentations and the depth of their teachings is much higher than other channels … for example, sometimes they give you a clue saying if you want to know more, go after it and you will find more. They send you to look into your questions. In order to do that you need to follow other programmes. Two people, one from each group, asked for the link as they wanted to watch it again later. However, very soon, their positive approach turned

Participants and the message 91 into negative responses, the main reason being the fact that the programme reminded them of their former faith and “painful” past memories, especially, the use of the word “hazrat” and mother of God for Mary. Both groups were wrestling with their past memories and Christian doctrine. The discussions in Pentecostal group were more intense than in the Anglican one. Presentation and performance In general, both groups appreciated the presentation and the performance. They considered it, in comparison to the first one, more professionally produced. The discussions around presentation and performance were short. A few from both groups mentioned that the style of the show was similar to Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) family talk shows and, for that reason, they did not like the style because it reminded them of Iranian state TV. The speaker was wearing a clerical outfit and the presenter wore a tie – two different symbolisms, one presented tradition and the other modernity.7 One of the issues within the presentation and performance that was criticised was the frequent use of English words. For example, Amir from the Pentecostal group said: It had too many English words, seven to eight words out of every 20 were English, and very difficult English words that I had never heard before. It didn’t help me to concentrate on the show. I didn’t like it. Or another person, Matthew, from the Anglican group said: There were a lot of new words in this programme, not only the English ones but also phrases such as ‘we’re filled with the spirit of God’ or ‘reconciliation with God’. I still don’t know what they mean. But I liked them because they were new. As Matthew and Amir highlighted, the educational level of the content of the programme was higher than the average audiences’ knowledge. People of both groups indicated that the show should not have been a live show but a pre-recorded one and with a clearer introduction to their target audience. Nonetheless, they appreciated the introductory clip at the beginning, which made them curious and motivated to watch to the point that made some to decide to watch it later again. Isaac from the Anglican group said: In comparison to the previous programme and the sermon, the first few minutes made me keen to watch more. It made me excited to go home and find the show and watch it to the end.

92  Participants and the message The discussion on presentation and performance, though short, was helpful in creating space for more reflective and in-depth conversation. Content and interpretations The teacher was very biased, and showed his prejudice clearly. For example he used ‘hazrat’ for Maryam. Even the presenter called her hazrat-e Maryam. But Maryam is not hazrat. The above sentence was one of the first sentences that set the conversation tone, especially for the Pentecostal group. The content of this programme generated three issues for discussion: approval or clash with the participants’ church teachings; the theological issue over understanding of “mother of God” – Christian doctrine and Islamic monotheism: is it blasphemy to call Mary the mother of God? – and lastly the psychological and emotional issues behind the concept of “hazrat” that brought back their past memories of old self and old religion which led to a resistant attitude – “don’t remind me of my past!” The last issue dominated over the first two. Approval or clash The focus group from the Anglican church felt the teachings were closer to their church teachings than the second group. For example, Kamyar with excitement expresses his joy this way: This was good, my faith started with teachings like this. Those teachings are still within me, I can even now taste and feel them … it is like ghormeh sabzi [one of Iran’s national dishes] that my mother used to cook; the taste and the memory makes it unique, so no ghormeh sabzi can take its place … that is the teaching I had and my faith has been influenced by it. From the beginning I was discipled this way … I know the taste and joy of it. I loved it! On the other hand, the reaction from the Pentecostal group was different: for instance, Bahareh with a displeased and resistant tone said: I cannot accept it, I have a few theological problems with this programme. Firstly, he said “not everything should be in the Bible”, this programme is not acceptable because we have been taught that everything is in the Bible. Only God’s word! And now he says differently. Secondly, what is “mother of God”? That I cannot accept. Although others from the Pentecostal group indicated that the teachings they heard from the programme were different from their own church teachings, the group did not point to differences. Yet one can, through

Participants and the message 93 observation and examination, identify some of the differences such as emphasising the reliability of the Bible as the only reference for Christian life, the status of Mary in Christian teachings and the issue of prayer (Anderson, 2013). The Anglican group also did not make any comparison or reference to their church teachings. However, both groups acknowledged that their connections to the divine through prayers were influenced by their experience and the process of their conversion journey more than the knowledge provided by the programmes. For example, Amin from the Anglican group said: To come to this point where I am now, took time and effort. For example, it was difficult for me to even accept prayers or to be prayed for. I watched the Jesus film and I meditated on it. I saw him in his environment and with his disciples; slowly, slowly, it helped me to understand and comprehend why I need to kneel down and pray. Bita from the Pentecostal group, after observing resistance from her group, contributed this: I think we all have experienced the fact that most of the time we accept new things after examining them. For example, he [the speaker] tells me I should repeat the Jesus Prayer. I don’t know what it is. And again, I used to repeat my prayers in my previous faith all the time without any conviction, why should I do the same thing again? With regard to this, Alireza who knew Keyvan from Iran, when Keyvan was a very strict charismatic Pentecostal, added that Keyvan moved from one extreme to another based on his own experience. In general, participants in both groups indicated that their religious experiences, including their conversion journeys, had influenced the ways they pray and connect with God, and, as Alireza mentioned, this might have been the same for Keyvan leading him to move from one extreme to another. This is similar to what Rambo (1999) in his seven-stage model suggested: the context of the converts has a greater influence on their journey than theological teaching. Blasphemy: Mary Mother of God “Accepting Jesus as God was difficult let alone, now, Maryam as mother of God”. To analyse the discussions on the issue of the mother of God, one needs to search beyond the topic itself into the Islamic/Sufism concept of monotheism, Tawhid. Every Iranian child from primary school is taught to recite “la ilaha illallah” – “there is no God but Allah”, and also chapter 122 of

94  Participants and the message the Quran which says: “Say: He is Allah, the One! Allah, the eternally besought of all! He begetteth not, nor was begotten. And there is none comparable unto him”.8 Monotheism – Tawhid, if not theologically, then morally – is at the heart of the religious culture of ordinary Iranian people which has also been influenced by Sufism, expressed as the only absolute reality yet in diversity. That does not mean “everything is God” rather it means “God is everything”: “everything” indicates the manifestation of the divine in the world. Part of this concept is the idea of “as oiem” (we belong to him) and “be soi-e oiem” (we return to him) as part of the ideology of the absolute oneness of God (Motahhari, 2006). Therefore, it is a struggle for an Iranian convert to accept the concept of Christology that Jesus Christ is God. However, it becomes more challenging when the concept of mother of God is added into the complex Christology – a human gives birth to God. As one said: “in my ear, it sounds like blasphemy”, and another: “How can God have a mother? I come from an Islamic background, so even saying it is difficult for me, let alone believing it. It sounds like blasphemy”. Another person said: “I cannot accept Maryam as mother of God. She obviously should be respected because she received God’s blessing to carry His son, Jesus Christ. That is all!” The main problem of the programme was that neither the speaker nor presenter made any attempt to link the issue, or acknowledge the religious background of their audiences and the difficulties and confusion his teaching might cause. Therefore, one can argue that the programme did not speak to the mentality of its audiences. Instead, by adopting the language of Roman Catholic theology, as well as employing too many English words, it made the issue of the divinity of Christ and Christian monotheism more convoluted, increasing participants’ resistance and doubts. One interesting example is the conversation below: Kamyar:  I accepted that Jesus is God, I have an atheist friend who whenever I talk to him says “you have given yourself to a God that has a father and mother; what kind of God is that?” So when I heard ‘mother of God’ I didn’t have a good feeling! Amin:  That is true, in Iran, people make fun of Christians that their God has a mother. Kamyar:  It is a conflicting issue, when we want to talk to people about Christ, sometimes they just push this weak button. Mathew:  … for example they say, ‘you follow a God that has a mother, our God is one’. And then they move to the Trinity and insult the Trinity. We cannot understand the Trinity, but we believe and trust in it. This conversation not only showed the clash between Christian and Islamic theologies of doctrine of God and monotheism but also the struggle that converts go through to understand their new faith and communicate it to others. The second issue that even created more resistance was the use of the title hazrat (holiness) for Mary.

Participants and the message 95 Don’t say “hazrat”: Don’t remind me of my past Mary or Hazrat-e Maryam, is, in fact, a figure common to Christianity and Islam, being honoured in the Quran and Islamic traditions. Her piety, her submission to God and her miraculous conception have given her “the highest category of human beings in the Quran” (Heo, 2013). Quran chapter 3:42 says: “O Mary! Lo! Allah hath chosen thee and made thee pure, and hath preferred thee above (all) the women of creation”.9 Despite all the above connections, the majority of participants in both groups objected to the title, hazrat. Bahareh from the Pentecostal group said: “… but Maryam is not hazrat”. When she was asked what is she then? She responded “an ordinary woman like me”. Bahareh’s resistance also indicated her church’s teaching, the objections to the use of hazrat were mainly from two points of view. The first one is the influence of evangelical theology, regardless of denominational labels: this could also be the result of the influence of Christian media (Afshari, 2016). The concept that all Christians are saints, despite their imperfections, was another reason behind rejecting Mary as hazrat. As Bahareh said: “[Mary is] an ordinary woman like me”. This is a sociological shift as Gordon-McCutchan (1981) explains it: “rejecting the directions of traditions in favour of self-reliance upon the inner gyroscope of the Holy Spirit”. Yet some of the participants considered the meaning of the word culturally: …. but I think hazrat is a word that indicates purity, greatness and blamelessness. I don’t have a problem with it. And Venous, who was the quietest person in the Anglican group, reminded the group of a cultural issue of calling people by their first name saying: I think it was ok, it shows respect. It is important for me to respect the mother of Jesus and not just call her Maryam. For example, [turning to Nasteran] I cannot call you only ‘Nasteran’, I feel it is disrespectful to call you [by your first name] Nasteran, so I call you Nasteran khanom (lady), or Nasteran jan (dear). Jesus’ mother is above us all, why do we call her only [by her first name] ‘Maryam’? I like to call her Hazrat-e Maryam or Maryam moghadas (Saint Mary). A similar idea was also brought by some of the participants in the Pentecostal group. Until one person said: “it is not about ‘hazrat’. It is about what ‘hazrat’ reminds us of”. And Amir said: It is not about respect or disrespect. It is about the word itself ‘hazrat’ that takes us to our unpleasant past and into the Iranian regime and state TV.

96  Participants and the message Indeed, all the discussion turned to their past memories of their old faith and Iranian regime. It became more a sociological and psychological issue than one of theological interpretation as in the conversation below: Amin: [with a smile] when I heard it [the word hazrat] I wanted to say ‘salavat’ [praise and greeting to God, Mohammad and his descendants]. This word took me back to Tehran and those old days. Kourosh:  It reminded me of Hazrat-e Mohammad. Nahid:  I didn’t like it at all. Because I don’t have a good memory about this word. Amir:  We fled from all those titles and hazrats. So, we dislike everything connected to those things. Only two of the teenagers in the Anglican group indicated that the word brings them nice memories so they liked it, indicating the strong links between likes and dislikes to their collective and personal memories. Another interesting conversation emerged in the Pentecostal group: Bahareh:  In my opinion, if we refer to the Bible, we don’t need to do any comparison with Islam, Catholic or Orthodox. The Bible is sufficient for us. We don’t need to distress ourselves over calling Hazrate Maryam, holy Maryam or just Maryam. Amir, feeling irritated:  Firstly, normally comparing our new faith with our past happens involuntarily. Secondly, you need to know the Bible well in order not to allow mental distress. Many of us don’t have it yet. We are just taking our first steps. Amir’s remarks on “involuntary comparison” and contextual Biblical knowledge or contextualisation of their conversion that might prevent them from “mental distress” are worthy of note. It made some of them acknowledge their need for a new language (a theology) that is neither Islamised nor copied from North American or European theologies. This will be discussed later in section three. Moreover, it can be argued that the interpretations and interactions of participants with both programmes were conditioned firstly by the participants’ worldviews, past memories and religious cultures in which they had been brought up and secondly, to a lesser extent, to their church denominational teachings. Both groups’ discussions end with a negotiating and bargaining attitude with the one aim in mind that Christianity in Iran should acknowledge and consider their (converts’) faith journey while writing its own theology, language and ecclesiology (Afshari, 2013). By faith journey, they did not mean only the moment of their conversion to Christianity, but all the stages of their stories and their struggles including the time when they were Muslims. As one of them said: “I don’t want to criticise Islam, but that is my story”. Their deconversion process from Islam is the most emotional part of their stories. As one of them said: “we don’t want to be reminded of our failed love” or statements

Participants and the message 97 such as “we are not ready”, “we need time to digest [what happed and the new doctrine]”, and as another person said “we need a new language” to express their new faith. Bahareh said: All of us come from an Islamic background. From childhood they (Islam) trained us to follow some customs, traditions and values; now still as Christians some of those traditions and customs are within us: they have become like eating habits … you have to do this in this way, you have to say this in that way; you have to think along this path; this place is holy; that place is not; and so on. We used to do all these without mental or heart conviction. Now we think about things more critically. For example, I cannot digest “Hazrate Maryam” or ‘mother of God’, it brings back my Islamic memories, which I don’t like. I say to myself, if I start again to use the same words, similar traditions, and do things without heart conviction, what is the difference? Why did I become Christian? I think my new faith should be different from my previous one. Saying that, I know God is the same God, even if I don’t use titles for him. Bahareh’s contribution is rich with religious and cultural issues as well as the psychological struggles which most converts go through. Nevertheless, the last statement about God can be interpreted as a bridge, reconciliation and a healing link between the past belief system and the new faith of participants to start a negotiation and move forward. God as a reconciliation point can also be seen through narratives and interviews. It seems the converts need that link, not only for their understanding of their new faith but also for healing and reconciliation with their past. Amir from the Pentecostal group illustrated it beautifully: Getting separated from past memories, let me explain it simply. It is like a love story. What do I mean? It is a story of a broken love, a failed love [divorce]. For example, a person has spent most of his life with someone. All those years that was his life, his dreams and his everything. And now he is brokenhearted. He feels betrayed! Everything has ended! All past memories become painful. He does not want to drive the same car, or go to the same restaurant, or to the same places, because he does not want to remember his past love. He likes to stay away from even the people he used to be associated with, and to keep himself away from all those things. He wants to start a new life without any trace of his past life. That is our story, we want to flee from whatever reminds us of Islam, or we criticise it harshly. Is turning away from Islam, especially for those coming from more religious backgrounds, like turning away from their first love? Gooren (2010) would call it disaffiliation, yet his term does not convey the psychological struggles and pain the converts had been facing: Amir’s term, “separation”

98  Participants and the message or divorce, seems more suitable to describe converts’ separation from their past belief system. Sam responded to Amir saying: “I think we need time”, Amir continuing with: “I think we may need to create new vocabularies, and even a new mentality”. This conversation leads us to the final section of this chapter, the problem of language.

Section three: New faith, new language Our experiences influence the way we meet Jesus One of the issues that participants struggled with was the issue of language in creation of new meanings and religious concepts. Although both programmes were produced in Farsi, participants claimed that they did not relate to or understand the language that was used in either. The cultural trappings carried by both programmes became barriers between the participants and the meaning that the programmes intended to deliver. These barriers also made managing and maintaining relationships with the audience (participants) more challenging for the channels. Meaning associated with word/language or/and symbol is constructed by viewers’ creative mind through their interpretation in the process of decoding the message using their cultural and religious experiences and worldview. That means the meaning of a text that is sent and received between the audience and sender depends on the audience’s prior experiences, as well as cultural and worldview backgrounds to accept, reject and negotiate (Hall, 1997). A text is a product that “must pass under the discursive rules of language for its meaning to be realized” (Hall et al., 2005 [1980], p. 119). Fairclough (1989, p. 24) also argues that a text is a product, the outcome of a production process, and the process of interpretation is bound to social and individual conditions which he refers to “as members’ resources (MR) which people have in their heads and draw upon when they produce or interpret texts”. Alireza’s statement “we need time to digest” and “we need to create our own language [expressions]” also pointed to the process of interpretation and creation of new meanings. The focus groups’ discussions indicated that in order to make sense of a religious media text or even religious experience one needs to visit into one’s past cultural and socio-religious experiences. This requires modifying and interacting with the language, cultural and worldviews including the social conditions and symbolic metaphors that the converts have experienced. The focus group discussions, throughout both programmes, revealed the struggles and challenges that the participants were going through to understand and relate not only to the language of both programmes but also to link the meaning to their experiences to make sense out of the text and their conversion. The result of their determination was an unsettling acknowledgment of inadequate language (tools), not only that used by the programmes but also understood by themselves. That means while discussing, participants noticed that even their own expressions and representations of their new

Participants and the message 99 “faith” and “self” did not describe and demonstrate who they have become and what they want ‘to be’ as Iranian converts. Thus, Amir in the Pentecostal group, at the end of his illustration of a broken love story, concludes, “…we may need a new language and even a new mentality”. Indeed, a new language that can both present their experience as well as connect them to the divine and church teachings is needed, a language that can redefine their stories and their new selves, to liberate and reconcile them with their past and make their future paths brighter. The new language has to come from their stories, the process of their narratives that links to their religious culture and worldview with God being at the centre. The languages that both programmes used, although very different, were unfamiliar to the participants: both were borrowed from European and North American Christianities. In the SAT-7 PARS programme on Prayer and Christianity, although the topic was Oriental, the theological language was borrowed from the Roman Catholic church with an overwhelming complexity of English and technical words and phrases. In the case of the Church Seven programme, although the language was simple and borrowed from daily life, the structure and the performance were borrowed from American Pentecostalism and televangelism. Neither of the languages spoke to the participants and their worldviews, because they had come from a Sufi-influenced religio-cultural background with an immense admiration for God, the absolute Deity. The electronic church was perceived as degrading to the Almighty, as one said: “We came to worship not to insult”. Prayer and Christianity also did not do justice to the simplicity of the “Jesus Prayer”,10 nor to the place and the role of Mary within Christian faith, which caused more disappointment and confusion about the concept of monotheism in Christian faith among both groups. Statements such as “accepting Jesus as God has been challenging let alone Maryam as mother of God” and signify their doubts on the divinity of Christ. However, since all participants were committed to their Christian faith, and also their desire to develop their faith, it led them to suggest forming a new language (theology and worship), new expressions – “vocabularies”– and a new culture – “mentality”. For example, one said: “I think we should create our words and language that can speak the voices of our hearts and relate to our thinking”. One can interpret this as a negotiating position. Through the telling of their stories and their admiration for God, one could hear voices that were asking the Church, including Christian channels, to be more empathetic to their faith journeys, especially when a church or programme presents a theological issue or performs worship, to consider their faith journeys and experiences (past and present). To do this, they advocated the formation of a new language, a new framework which they can also be part of (Schreiter, 2015). For example, Kamyar said: TV [Farsi Christian channels] should be very careful how they present some issues to us [converts], even if they are Biblically correct. It is not

100  Participants and the message always about correctness, it is about how people perceive them. For example, the issue of “mother of God” might be Biblically correct but I don’t like it, I think it is wrong to call someone, a human being “God’s mother”. So they shouldn’t use it. Or Amir said: I think we shouldn’t use certain words, phrases and topics, because we are emotionally still not ready. They would make us confused, and … bring back the pain … I think when we cut off ourselves from the past we have to let everything go until we are ready again. The above voices are not only expressing views about a new language and framework, but also requesting time for healing, restoration and understanding. More comprehensive research into this issue is needed, given that this research could only look at one dimension of the topic and that is the participants’ negotiations with the Farsi Christian channels and with their Christian faith. Both programmes, Church Seven and Prayer and Christianity, assumed that through their language – performance and words – they have communicated Christian faith to their audiences and a link to the Divine God that would strengthen the converts’ relationship with Him. The channels, as Stromberg (1993, p. 2) argued, “assume that language points to an independently existing reality and that it can be used to describe that reality in terms that convey without fundamentally distorting its characteristics”. The participants’ interpretations suggested otherwise. That means language transmits the cultural background of its origin and presents its reality, not the audiences’. For instance, borrowing American electronic church or Roman Catholic church language to perform or present worship or a theological issue to an audience from a different cultural background means you are also presenting the speaker’s culture and their reality. Through the audiences’ interpretations, the meaning and characteristics of the given message became distorted at the moment of encoding (Hall, 1997). For that reason, neither of the languages of the selected programmes managed to establish or connect to the reality of the participants’ faith journeys. Furthermore, the focus group discussions demonstrated that not only audiences’ experiences were different from those of the presented messages, but audiences’ perception and theology of worship and of God also differed from the media texts. Therefore, the language of the Church Seven programmes only represents, describes and shapes the channel’s reality. For that reason, Hormoz Shariat’s claim that the electronic Church Seven is a church for all nations might be a desire rather than a reality. The same issue applies to the SAT-7 PARS programme, Prayer and Christianity. Though they claimed to be audience-centric, their understanding of their audience was mainly based on assumptions – audience phantasma

Participants and the message 101 (Mohsenianrad, 2009). To be effective, both programmes should ideally have developed an alternative language, with the participation of their prospective audience, in which they could enter into a negotiating position, their experience of conversion, their social and religious conditions and perception and interpretation of the divine.

Conclusion Although for many of the participants of focus groups, the Farsi Christian channels were part of their conversion stories; the majority of them, especially the men, tended to dismiss the significance of the channels after their disaffiliation from them and their affiliation to a church. Women, on the other hand, were more reflective and appreciative over the positive impact that the Christian channels had on the start of their Christian faith. They often would give positive references to the programmes of “the old days”. Despite their criticism, 50 per cent of the women stated that they still watched Christian channels, although not regularly. Men, on the other hand, were less supportive of Christian media. Despite the fact that the focus group participants were from different church backgrounds (Anglicans and Pentecostals), their responses (conceptually and theologically) to both selected programmes were very similar. Their collective memories of Islam and their social and political conditions while in Iran, and their past belief system concerning the concept and theology of God, Tawhid, influenced their interpretations of and interactions with the programmes’ messages more than their church teachings. Their rejection or acceptance was heavily linked to their emotional past. Their negotiating attitudes, on the other hand, were more connected to their hopeful futures: discussions on future issues were rational rather than emotional. Although both programmes were presented in the Farsi language and by Iranians, the participants felt isolated, with their reality and worldviews not represented by either programme. Consequently, both groups indicated a need to form their own “language” that could express their experiences as converts from Islam and as Iranians: a language that could at the same time liberate them from and re-connect them to their past (Fazzino, 2014), as well as connect their experience to the divine and to each other. As Nasteran explained: “our experience influences the way we meet Jesus”. And Sam expressed it in this way: “… we create an image of our faith through our relationships and connections [to God and to others]”. Thus, what connected both groups of participants to come to similar ideas and discussions were their shared assumptions from their religious culture on the interpretation of religious and spiritual values and God and their deconversion experiences from Islam. This was particularly the case for those who had been brought up in strict religious families. In conclusion, the audiences’ religio-cultural background and pre-existing worldviews and their deconversion from Islam had more significant impacts

102  Participants and the message on their interpretations of programmes than their own churches’ denominational teachings. It also affirms that there is a gap between the channels and their audience from the viewpoint of culture, linguistics (meaning-making), religious experience and the understanding of the audiences’ needs and desires. Lastly, the audiences’ past religious memories (collective and personal) with their deconversion from Islam posed challenging questions on the theologies (languages) of Christianity that were presented in both channels (Sanneh, 1989). For these reasons, it is argued that the channels may need to rethink and construct a new theological language that induces converts’ stories and relates to their context, conversion experiences, socio-­ cultural practice and situational worldviews.

Notes 1 “How Do You Provide Church for 2 Million Believers In Iran?”, Hormoz Shariat, 16 September 2014. Available at: https://hormozshariat.com/tag/church-7/ (Accessed: 24 June 2016). 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkM5oyTZPUo (Accessed: 23 June 2016). 3 The researcher has translated all the Farsi materials of this chapter into English. 4 Referencing to Imam Hossein, the third Shia Imam and indicating that the Islamic Shia eulogist have also brought a flavour of entertainment through adapting some elements of pop-music. 5 Reference to the Quran 2:156: “we are Allah’s and lo! Unto Him we are returning”. Available at http://www.sahih-bukhari.com/Pages/Quran/Quran_english_ arabic_transliteration.php?id=2 (Accessed: 5 July 2016). 6 The issue of trust is discussed briefly in Chapter 6. 7 A tie in Iran represents Western modernity and secularism. 8 http://www.sahih-bukhari.com/Pages/Quran/Quran_english_arabic_­ transliteration.php?id=112 (Accessed: 5 July 2016). 9 http://www.sahih-bukhari.com/Pages/Quran/Quran_english_arabic_­ transliteration.php?id=3 (Accessed: 6 July 2016). 10 The Jesus Prayer is a short prayer within the Eastern Churches also used in the Catholic Church: “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner”. It is one of the oldest prayers within the Eastern Churches. It has its roots in three Bible verse3s: Phil. 2:6–11, Luke 1:31–35 and Luke 18:9–14.

Bibliography Afshari, S. (2013) ‘An Examination of the Growth of Christianity and the Contribution of Farsi Christian Media in Contemporary Iran’. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/17464014/An_examination_of_the_growth_of_ Christianity_and_contribution_of_Farsi_Christian_media_in_contemporary_ Iran (Accessed: 13 May 2017). Afshari, S. (2016) ‘Christian Media in the Middle East: An Introduction’, Christian Orient, 5 August 2016. Available at:  https://www.christian-orient. eu/2016/08/05/christliche-medien-im-nahen-osten-eine-einfuehrung/?lang=en (Accessed: 30 March 2017). Ahmadi, N. and Ahmadi, F. (1998) Iranian Islam: The Concept of the Individual. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Participants and the message 103 Anderson, A. (2013) Media, Culture and the Environment. London: Routledge. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315798448 Faali, M. T. (2009) Religious Experience and Sufi Meditation. 3rd edn. Tehran: Publishing House of Institute for Islamic Culture and Thought. Fairclough, N. (1989) Language and Power. Essex: Longman Group. Fazzino, L. L. (2014) ‘Leaving the Church Behind: Applying a Deconversion Perspective to Evangelical Exit Narratives’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 29 (2), pp. 249–266. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/ 13537903.2014.903664 (Accessed: 13 May 2017). Gordon-McCutchan, R. C. (1981) ‘The Irony of Evangelical History’.  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol.20. No. 4, pp. 309–326. https://doi. org/10.2307/1386180, https://doi.org/10.2307/1386180, (Accessed: 23 June 2017). Gooren, H. (2010) Religious Conversion and Disaffiliation: Tracing Patterns of Change in Faith Practices. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Hall, S. (ed.) (1997) Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage Publications. Hall, S., Hobson, A. L. and Willis, P. (eds.) (2005 [1980]) Culture, Media, Language: Working Papers in Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge. Heo, A. (2013) ‘The Virgin Between Christianity and Islam: Sainthood, Media, and Modernity in Egypt’, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 81 (4), pp. 1117–1138. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/jaarel/lft066 Kyle, R. G. (2010) ‘The Electronic Church: An Echo of American Culture’, Direction: A Mennonite Brethren Forum, 39 (2), pp. 162–176. Available at: http://www.directionjournal.org/39/2/electronic-church-echo-of-american.html (Accessed: 22 February 2016). Mohsenianrad, M. (2009) ‘Pathology of “Audience Phantasm” in Media: Globalization and the Era of After Global Village”, Global Media Journal, 8 (14). Available at: http://search.proquest.com/docview/2391071?pq-origsite= gscholar (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Motahhari, M. (2006) Ensan va Iman (Human Beings and Faith): An Introduction to Islamic Worldview. 27th edn. Tehran: The Cultural Studies of Shahid Motaheri’s Foundation. Rambo, L. R. (1999) ‘Theories of Conversion: Understanding and Interpreting Religious Change’, Social Compass, 46 (3), pp. 259–271. Available at: http:// journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/003776899046003003 (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Sanneh, L. (1989) Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture. New York: Orbis Books. Schreiter, R. J. (2015) Constructing Local Theologies. 2nd edn. New York: Orbis Books. Stromberg, P. G. (1993) Language and Self-Transformation: A Study of the Christian Conversion Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Ward, M. (ed.) (2015) The Electronic Church in the Digital Age: Cultural Impacts of Evangelical Mass Media. V2. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO. Wolff, J. (1999) ‘Cultural Studies and the Sociology of Culture’, Contemporary Sociology, 28 (5), pp. 499–507. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/ 2654982.pdf (Accessed: 16 May 2017).

5

Route to ready – experimenting

This chapter is divided into two sections. The first section is an introduction to three conceptual positions of experimenting, negotiating and resisting that have been developed as a result of the fieldwork and the data analysis of this research. The concepts have been used as a framework to demonstrate how audiences used Christian channels as a route to prepare their self-guided conversion journey. In this section, after an overview of the data and participants’ motivational factors, I will define the above terms and their relationship to the research as the positions that audiences might take during their encounter with the Christian message. I shall then, in the second section, embark upon the discussion that further investigates the experimenting position of the participants. Chapters 6 and 7 will examine the other two positions: negotiating and resisting.

Section one: An introduction to experimenting, negotiating and resisting The main focus of the following three chapters will be on how participants used Christian television channels as an alternative ideology to process, bring about or justify a change in their lives and religious worldviews. I will study their motivations that led them to experiment with media message and their negotiations that (re)defined the meaning of change within their accounts and declarations of conversion to Christianity. The process of their transformation including patterns and methods involved, which had been part of their previous religious and cultural worldviews and ideologies, will also be examined. Some of the questions that will be investigated in the following three chapters are: what are the main motivational factors that encouraged participants to watch a Christian message, experiment with it and respond to it by considering the Christian faith? What did they mean by “becoming Christian”, “accepting Jesus Christ”, “I gave my heart to Christ” and “I decided to follow Christ”? Are their stories about faith transformation (conversion) or adding to their religious system or an attraction to Christianity? What other factors have influenced their negotiation with their context, their interpretation of a religious message and DOI: 10.4324/9781003004905-6

Route to ready 105 the process of their decision-making? And lastly, why do some people resist watching Christian channels? Experimenting, negotiating and resisting are positions and attitudes that participants have taken during both their viewing of Christian television and also their faith-seeking journey. Although they do not represent a process, formula or procedure, some participants might have gone through two or all of the three stages. For example, while seeking and exploring a new ideology and meaning, they might experiment with the Christian message and associate with it. Their affiliation and commitment to Christianity might create a desire to redefine themselves and to follow and implement Christian values and teaching that would lead them to a negotiating position, which, if successful, might help them commit to the Christian faith: otherwise, they may resist the message and disaffiliate themselves from the channels. The two common categories are experimenting and negotiating. The majority of participants have experienced these two positions. Resisting is a more complex position, since it also relates to their intellectual doubt and deconversion from Islam (Barbour, 1994). What do experimenting, negotiating and resisting mean in this research? Based on Oxford English Dictionary Online,1 to experiment is “an act for the purpose of discovering something unknown or trying out new or known ideas and methods”, depends on a set of conditions and goals (desires, wants or simply curiosity) and with a degree of control over procedures. I have also interpreted the control over procedures as part of the power of decision-making and freedom of choice that will be explained later. “Negotiating” is a form of interaction that happens through dialogue between two or more parties (Devine and Deneulin, 2011), or inner dialogues between two faiths or, for example, between participants and the Christian message; between participants and their cultures and worldview and between participants and their societies and communities, in order to revise their past, reconstruct their identity and worldview and to obtain space in their societies and cultures (Cohen, 1994, 2000). Most religious negotiations and dialogues are inner events, within the individual’s mind: generally, only what people vocalise or otherwise demonstrate can be analysed. “Resisting” has several meanings, but here it is used as: taking a deliberate decision to avoid something, in our case, to avoid watching Christian media; refusing to accept or comply with the Christian messages presented on Christian media; resisting the dominant meaning of the message by interpreting programmes in such ways that suit their anti-religious or religious ideology; and disaffiliating from Christian media or from the Christian religion after failed affiliation and experiment (Gooren, 2010a, 2010b). With this overview, we now proceed to analyse the data for first position: experimenting. Before proceeding to analyse the data for each position, it might be helpful to provide readers with a brief summary of participants’ perceptions that

106  Route to ready are highlighted in their narratives and interviews which act as a framework for their positions and attitudes. Studying the narratives and interviews one can suggest that decisions to accept Christian faith have been influenced mainly by participants’ hope for a better and freer future and their negative experience with Islam, mainly the views of the Iranian regime. Sixty-five per cent of stories indicated that they had lost their faith in Islam before starting to watch Christian television. Many of them stopped practising Islamic rituals and had disaffiliated themselves from Islamic societies and communities since their early teens and, for some, in their early 20s. Many did not pay attention to any Islamic teachings at school either. Therefore, their familiarities with Islamic teachings were very limited. All of them, however, remembered two things: the “dos and don’ts” of Islamic religion that were imposed on them by the government and/or their families, and the description of hell and paradise linked to fear of God, especially among those who had come from devout Muslim families. Their hope for a better future was typically related to modernisation, migration, better and higher education, change of lifestyle and finding modern/secular social groups to belong to and participate in. Two main theological/ethical issues within the narratives were the love of God versus the judgment of God and reaching an ability “through grace” to forgive others. 2 Salvation through Jesus Christ was perceived mainly as exercising freedom of choice, visibility (“I was no one, but Christ saw me”) and redemption from their uncertainty, unhappiness and despair. The participants’ faith transformation processes have also been influenced by two main, if contrary, factors: their traditional religious worldviews and religiosity and globalisation.3 Both concepts of God (the judgmental God and the loving God – influenced by Sufism) have been at the centre of their religious worldview, through which converts also interpret their religious experience and their encounter with the Christian faith. Their set framework, although very ambiguous and complex, has helped converts in at least two ways: it has enabled them to form a new understanding of their Christian faith that would link them to their past history, and it has provided them with a way to make peace with their Muslim family and friends. Globalisation has influenced the participants’ set framework and process of transformation, for it has offered them, besides freedom of choice and opportunities, individualism, personalisation/privatisation of their faith, a liberal view of life, faith and religion.4 It has also shifted their thinking from religion as hereditary (or ascribed) to religion as an achieved choice. Therefore, there is a sense of satisfaction for participants when they talk about their “own decision” to change their faith, which has become “my faith” – a sense of power – rather than a communal “our faith”. Thus, at the heart of 85 per cent of the narratives is the story of “I” that exercises her/his freedom of choice and enjoys the power of decision-making regardless of the consequences of their actions (Holler, 2007). Their rejection, or resistance, is also based on their decisions, the ways they have

Route to ready 107 interpreted religious texts, and their personal experiences and religious worldview. With this overview, we now proceed to analyse the data for the first position: experimenting.

Section two: Experimenting … as soon as I realised that Islam only infuses hopelessness and fear in people, I moved away and started searching for a new faith. I tried Zoroastrianism and some other New Age spiritualties and even Buddhism. None of them made me happy and brought me peace. Until I found your channel … after that I read the Bible. I felt Christianity is a faith that I want to have and belong to, and the heavenly Father is the God that I want to worship. So I surrendered myself to this God. (Sharareh’s email to SAT-7 PARS, 2013) Sharareh’s narrative story points to several issues regarding her search and, in a wider scope, religion and cultural change in modern Iran. First of all, she openly criticises the authority of her previous religion, Islam, and through her action – moving away from Islam (disaffiliation) and joining another faith (affiliation) – she challenges the traditional, communal and hereditary side of religion. Moreover, the heart of her story, as a religious seeker, is her need for a new meaning-making system that links to a faith – a new religion. Therefore, she decided to shop around and search for a belief system that could fit her modern ideology and agenda (Einstein, 2008; Gooren, 2010b). She experiments with different religious and spiritual practices until she finds a new alternative, namely Christianity as presented through media, which “fitted her mind-set” and agenda. She became interested in the Christian faith and felt at home with its ideology and doctrine of God, so decided to give it a chance by “surrendering” herself to its teachings and its God. Whether she will stay in the Christian faith, or continue to shop around and experiment with different religions and spiritualties, is not a question here, but noteworthy is her position as experimenter and religious shopper. The purpose of experimenting is to discover and try something unknown that matches the participants’ conditions in order to achieve their agenda and goals. During the process of experimenting, one can observe that there is a desire to control the procedure and even direct the course of the experimentation to achieve preferred outcomes. If we go back to Sharareh’s story, one might see that underlying her story is an aspiration that led to an action, breaking through the traditional understanding of religion in her society; her action, in fact, empowered her in her search to experiment and practice ideologies new to her. Based on her rational choice, her individualistic approach and worldview (desires and wants), she decided to choose Christianity as her faith without having a “Damascus road conversion”, meaning there was no radical life change but a rational choice was made,

108  Route to ready and a continuing journey which started with religious shopping and experimenting has emerged. Religious shopping in modern Iran has become more noticeable especially using digital media to purchase new religion or spiritual identity or create their own personal practice. There is no consensus among scholars on definitions of consumerism and religious shopping, nor on motives that drive a person to shop for religious materials and ideologies (Rittenhouse, 2013). Here, I shall demonstrate some of the motives of participants for religious shopping and ways they experiment with Christian faith. The starting point of religious shopping among participants is linked to existential problem, borrowing from Rittenhouse (2013, p. 14) “of securing the meaning of one’s life lies at the root of every individual’s moral motivation”. Rittenhouse uses “moral motivation” to express the “existential commitment” in which a person embraces a new style of life and/or a new direction for their particular desires. He argues that these existential commitments may be “unconscious, fractured, fragmented or over-determined” and revealed through a person’s actions and words, which are also linked to their free will and freedom of choice. Furthermore, moral motivations are mainly linked to the individual’s meaning and purpose in life; if a person’s framework of meaning has been threatened or lost, a new universe of discourse must be accomplished – a more suitable ground of meaning – in order to direct their new life. Therefore, this study sees participants as seekers, including experimenters and religious shoppers, and central to participants’ multi-religious experimentations is a search for meaning in whatever form or frame. Adding to that, religious change or conversion, among the participants, is a rational choice with semi-controlled procedures and a pre-planned agenda (Gooren, 2010a, Richardson, 1985), which is more about individuals’ needs for transformation than Christian faith. For that reason, it starts with experimenting including multiple conversions.5 The experimenting stories are divided into two groups: social experimenting and spiritual experimenting, although some of the narratives might overlap. Social experimenting could be for a change of lifestyle (modernisation, belonging not believing) (Cragun et al., 2011); for migration to the West (Akcapar, 2006); as a sign of protest (political or anti-­A rabisation); or through persuasion by their children who have been attracted to the Christian faith through watching Christian children’s programmes. Spiritual experimenting can also be divided into two groups: spiritual/religious shoppers or “eclectic seekers” (Gooren’s term) and “truth seekers”. Some of the spiritual shoppers may have experienced multiple conversions, such as Sharareh. Truth seekers are more linked to their internal and external struggles and spiritual quests, often spiritually seeking restoration and redemption of their dignity and self – linked to the issue of shame and honour within Iranian/ Islamic culture. These kinds of quests can be seen mainly among prostitute women and drug addicts, seeking solutions to their life crises as well as

Route to ready 109 restoration of their honour and their meaning-making framework. Below, I analyse some of the narratives for each group. Agenda-based social experimenting In general, the characteristics of this group are as follows: they are not religious, the majority of them are from middle class families, from bigger and cosmopolitan cities with better education, better economic situations and better-quality access to media that has exposed them to a sophisticated understanding of modernisation and globalisation ideologies. Many of them do not want to be affiliated with any Islamic cultures or Islamic groups, and their understanding of Islamic teachings and the Quran is very limited. People in this group normally blame Islam and Arabs for forcing the country backwards; they look up to the West and see Christianity as a reason for the modernisation of the West, so they wish it for their country and/or they desire to live in the West (migration strategy). Their decision to become Christian is more a political, anti-Islamic statement as well as a change of lifestyle, rather than religious conversion as such. They use Christianity as a tool to achieve their goals and disaffiliate themselves from Islam and affiliate with the West (Gooren, 2010a, Rambo, 1999). The majority of them may not regularly watch Christian media: for many of them it took just one time watching to make a decision. Their commitment to Christianity is not based on religious teachings or doctrinal convictions, nor on emotional/spiritual experience but rather built on their political views on Islam and their affiliation to the West. Yet, they are quick to learn and use the language of conversion and Christianity. They are also more open to pass “the word” around and communicate their new findings to their friends and families and encourage them to join them (Rambo, 1999). Therefore, some of them have been swift even to establish a “house church”, which sometimes can be perceived as a social group. However, later on through a process of engagement, a number of them may become more committed and, therefore, may move to the negotiating stage. The majority of the stories in this category are very short, sometimes just a paragraph or a few lines long. Christianity as a tool for “Westernisation” Participants in this section did not initially seek religious conversion but rather a change in lifestyle and/or finding a like-minded social group. For many of them, Christianity was a social religion with a modernised ideology of individualism, pluralism and secularism. For instance, Reza, a 19-year-old man from Shiraz, said: I am from the scavenged Iran in the hand of Mullahs. They want us always to be mournful and miserable. In the name of religion they

110  Route to ready dictate to us even how to live our private lives. I was arrested just because I was wearing a short sleeved T-shirt on a hot summer day. I am tired of all these dos and don’ts. I decided to become Christian because Christians are open-minded and advanced. It is not only about that: Christianity is also about love, kindness, peace and joy. In Christianity you have it all. (Reza told his story to Mohabat TV channel) Reza’s story is about personal freedom, advancement in life and tolerance. His desire “to have it all” led him to disaffiliate from his inherited religion and join another religion, which might grant him his wishes. Another similar story is the story of Zohreh from Isfahan in her early 30s; her desire to look modern, strong and confident encouraged her to become Christian. Her attraction to a preacher on Network 7 channel made her change her religion. I became a Christian through Joyce Meyer6 programmes. The way she dresses and talks attracted me. I felt I wanted to be like her, a modern, strong and confident woman without being judged. Although in the last two decades Iranian women have shown healthy signs of progress in society, including occupying 65 per cent of university places in the country in 2017, their desire to be in control of their lives has become very noticeable in all activities, in which one can also interpret their conversion to Christianity as part of their growth in independence. For example, many Iranian church leaders stated that there have been more women becoming Christian than men, and that the majority of house church leaders in Iran are women (Bradley, 2014). One also can see this as a result of pressure and restrictions that have been imposed on women’s lives in the name of Islam by the regime. That is why Zohreh refers to her longing for equality, growth and more freedom that she might achieve by becoming Christian.7 The issue of “Western modernity” is a popular issue among the participants conversion stories. Although it is a desire for many, there is a sense of solidarity and pride in Iranian culture and traditions which sometimes clashes with “Western modernity” ideology. One example is Shabnam’s story, a woman in her early 20s from Tehran, to SAT-7 PARS. She writes her story this way: I lost my path; I lost my faith in Islam and God. I felt everything was meaningless and I didn’t belong anymore to my family and my people who were keen to follow their religious duties. I asked myself, if I don’t belong to these people then where do I belong? It was a depressing situation … I met a friend, she told me about Jesus and about your channel. I started watching your channel. … Later on my friend took

Route to ready 111 me to her house group. I felt happy because of belonging to a group. …I decided to become Christian so I said the salvation prayer. But there was something within the group that I didn’t feel comfortable with. I felt they are trying to live their lives like … I don’t know … Western people? It was more about fashion, make up, boyfriends and girlfriends than about God and intellectuality, although we did pray regularly and studied the Bible. I stopped going there; but I do love Jesus Christ and I like to continue following him. So, I made the TV channel my only resource and community. The significance of Shabnam’s story is two-fold: on the one hand, it indicates her search for meaning, modern identity and a community to belong to; and, on the other hand, it points out a clash between her culture and so called “Western lifestyle”. As has been said earlier, one of the misconceptions of Christianity in Iran, as in many other Muslim countries, is in its perception of it “being a Western religion” that carries with it “Western cultures”. Although some Farsi Christian channels had been trying to challenge this by broadcasting a few programmes on the history of Christianity in the Middle East and Iran, it seems the influence of European and North American cultures and theologies in the majority of programmes on all channels have encouraged audiences to come to this conclusion as well.8 Some participants’ stories indicated that they see European and North American cultures as foundational for their new Christian life, thus imitating some of the aspects of Western cultures is a symbol of their affiliation. For example, Ladan, a 26-year-old woman from Tehran, narrates her observation in this way: … I was invited to a dinner by a Christian couple. When it came to serving the food I noticed there was no spoon on the table, only forks and knives [Iranians eat with a spoon in their right hand and fork in their left]. I thought, they had forgotten. So I asked. To my surprise they said: ‘now we are Christian, we should live like Christians, eat our food with knives and forks’. I felt like a traitor to my culture. Conversion to Christianity versus conversion to Western modernity has been briefly discussed in Chapter 2, in which I argued that for many Iranians, especially those who come from more secular backgrounds, their conversion to Christianity is also conversion to “Western” modernity. Therefore, Christianity becomes an agent of (or justification for) modernisation of their personal lives and worldviews. The first outcomes of their conversion appear in their lifestyle, mainly from a sociological point of view. For instance, Yahya in his 50s, from Khozestan, in the west of Iran, said: “when we became Christian the first thing we did was to buy a sofa set for our house”. Until then they had led a traditional lifestyle, sitting on the floor with cushions around their living room.

112  Route to ready Besides modernisation, Ladan and Shabnam’s stories are also about a desire to belong to a social group: as Gooren argues, that religious affiliation is the person’s association with a religious group. When potential converts desire to associate themselves with a particular religious group, if the criterion of membership is conversion, then they may consider it, although they may not know what it means, and what consequences it might bring. However, both adopting a modern lifestyle and affiliating with a social group can be the first steps, for some, in the process of their conversion. For example, Shabnam moved out of the group (disaffiliated) yet she kept her affiliation with Christianity and the channel.

Persuasive children At least 10 per cent of SAT-7 PARS narratives report on the influence of children on their parents’ decision making in accepting the Christian faith. Some of children audiences’ parents reported that they saw their children’s interest in Christian teaching, songs and prayers. Therefore, they decided to try Christianity and to bring up their children as Christian since they themselves had also been enthusiastic. This might also link to a social issue and a concept of farzand-salary, child-driven, which one can observe in modern Iran. Dr Mahdavi (2002), based on his field research, argues that Iranian families have become more and more child-driven, although for him the concept of child-driven, farzand-salary, is different to the concept of child-centred family in the West. He argues that “child-driven” is an analogous concept to patriarchal or matriarchal societies. A child-driven family means that children are at the centre of all the decisions of the family, directly or indirectly, and all the family issues centre around the children’s needs, wants and agendas. That means in contemporary Iran, children have become more influential in changing the structure of the traditional family and families’ decision-making processes. For example, Parvaneh called SAT-7 PARS to talk about her seven-year-old daughter, who regularly watched the channel’s children programmes. She loved to pray and encouraged her parents to join her praying in the name of Jesus Christ, as it is done on the channel. Her actions persuaded Parvaneh and her husband to consider Christianity and bring their daughter up as a Christian. In relation to the channel’s influence on the children, one interesting story was reported by SAT-7 PARS’s dubbing team in Iran. The channel used to dub its children’s animations in Iran to have similarity with the voices of the Iranian state dubbed animations. A few years later, the dubbing team were arrested for working with a Christian television satellite channel.9 Since they were very careful in hiding their identities, they asked their interrogators how they found them. They were told that they had a call from the Education Department that primary school teachers were complaining that “their children had become more interested in Jesus Christ than the Prophet Mohammad”. Their investigations led them to the team.10

Route to ready 113 Most of the families, however, have stated that they have been facing difficulties from schools and neighbours since their children do not know how to keep their faith secret. For that reason, many of them have been thinking of migrating to the West. Going back to Mahdavi’s theory on the child-driven family (2002), one can see indications of his theory in all the above stories. Although as he has also stated, this method clashes with Islamic/Iranian views of the family, the question that can be raised here is, if the children lose their interest in Christianity and move to new ideologies, what will happen to their parents’ new religion? Will they also move out with them? This issue deserves a comprehensive study separate form this research. Spiritual experimenting Studying the data, one can suggest that the majority of the conversion stories of Iranians start from this position, spiritual experimenting. The presence of Jesus Christ, in their religious culture, as one of the greatest prophets of Allah11, gives them confidence to look into Christian faith and experiment with its ideology. For that reason, the majority of the stories are about Jesus Christ: following Him, trusting Him and accepting Him in their lives. Examining the data, one can debate the absence of Christianity as a religion within the majority of the narratives, although there might be references to the West and modernity, against the strong presence of Christ. This creates the question whether for many participants, Jesus Christ and the Christian religion/faith are two different things. Can one accept Jesus and reject Christianity? Or does the audience accept Jesus Christ first and their conversion to Christianity comes later? In the next chapter, the stories on negotiation respond to some of these questions. Below, I briefly look at the ways that spiritual experimenting has been used by participants in order to achieve their goals and agenda while remembering Gartrell and Shannon (1985) who argued that individuals are rational actors experimenting with conversion to see if “one gains more by changing religious affiliation than by not doing it”. I will investigate this under two topics: religious shoppers (tourists and pilgrims of religion and spirituality; “eclectic seekers” using Gooren’s term) and spiritual seekers (searching for healing, dignity, acceptance, meaning and solutions for life crises). Religious shoppers I come from a fanatic Muslim family and my father was an Islamic Judge and Mullah. So I was brought up as a practising Muslim but when I got to my teenage years, I was not happy with my religion … and after doing a lot of research and trying many things, I realised that Christianity is the way I want to choose and follow. (Abootaleb told his story to Mohabat TV channel)

114  Route to ready The above story is from Abootaleb a man in his late 20s living in the south of Iran. He is a religious seeker and consumer. The unhappiness which resulted from his intellectual doubts with his religion set him on a spiritual search (Barbour, 1994), the media market providing him with numerous choices that he could experiment with in the hope of finding something that suited his agenda and mentality. Although his narrative story does not clearly tell us any of the issues behind his motivations and agenda, or on how Christianity fits his purpose, the clear point of the story is his search for new religious alternatives that he could practise and belong to. The main sources that Abootaleb used for his research were media platforms, mainly satellite channels, and his social network group who also obtained their information from media. The existence of the religious market that offered him numerous spiritual ideologies inspired him to experiment and also facilitated his deviation from his family and society’s traditional religious norms. That means although his family is from a clerical background, he perceives religion to be a choice to be made, not an obligation or inheritable. The condemnation of religious affiliation being inborn is a common theme in all the narratives. To characterise religious shoppers, one can observe that they enjoy a variety of different religious practices. They do not mind being eclectic in their religious taste (mix and match). They create hybrid religious identities for themselves. They may go through multi-event conversions which means they try out a series of religious alternatives at the same time. In many of the converts’ pre-conversion narratives, they had tried several other religious and spirituality alternatives, sometimes concurrently. For example, the story of Mohammed, who said that after watching a programme called Trusting God, he decided to “give it a try” to trust God regarding an issue in his life. The result surprised him, saying: “God rewarded me for putting my trust in Him. That was the best faith experience I have had in many years”. Although Mohammad does not say that he was necessarily looking for a faith, as a media consumer and spiritual shopper, he decided to experiment with the ideology – “give it a try”. This also points to the fact that the accessibility as well as the availability of religious television channels might influence individuals’ preferences and decisions (Stark and Finke, 2000b). The issue of religious guilt, linked to the concept of blasphemy, is also evident in some of the narratives. For example, Hossein – in his early 20s – felt angry and upset with what he was hearing on a Christian channel (SAT-7 PARS). He emailed the channel to criticise them and accused them of blasphemy, “brainwashing the youth and twisting the truth”. Three months later he called back with more questions and a confession by saying: The truth is that all the questions I have been asking are because I am confused and struggling. I want to know which religion is better for me … I saw a dream of Jesus last night in which he was showing me the

Route to ready 115 way and asking me to follow him. When I woke up this morning, I was convinced that this was the right way to follow. (Hossein told his story to Mohabat TV channel) The underlying narrative of Hossein’s story was his confusion and feeling of guilt that he was struggling with over leaving Islam and searching for new religious alternatives (Barbour, 1994; Fazzino, 2014). Although he was not happy with his multi-religious experimentations, his dream of Jesus Christ helped him to make his final decision to join the Christian faith. It is important to note that the majority of participants emphasise their multi-religious experiences during their experimentation period as their main gate to entering the Christian faith with more confidence, rather than a set of beliefs or religious teachings that were presented on the channels. Those with lesser experience yet desiring more meaningful encounters asked for support, for instance, Rasoul in his mid-20s writes: … I am uncertain about my faith. Can you please guide me? I want to experience Christ and through my religious experiences to solve my problems and issues. Rasoul’s motivation in “experiencing Christ” is to find ways (gain power) to solve his problems. Although he does not explain how his “experience of Christ” can help him find solutions to his problems, the way he formed his request suggests that he has been influenced by other spiritual ideologies. Religious visitors Earlier in this section, I briefly mentioned that the presence of Jesus Christ in Iranian religious culture has been an advantage for the Christian message to be welcomed. This has created another set of audiences for Christian channels that I call religious visitors or pilgrims, borrowed from Helland (2012). These people are sincere in their faith in Islam and normally have a lower educational background. Visiting shrines and participating in rituals are very common among this group of people and among Shia Muslims in general. Jesus Christ, being one of the five greatest prophets in Islam, is described in the Quran as “the Word of God” (Quran 4:171) and “the Spirit of God” (Quran 5:110), from a virgin mother, Maryam, who is also introduced in the Quran as the greatest woman in creation (Quran 3:42), both of them (Jesus and Mary) deserve a visit and are to be praised. To them, watching a Christian television or praying in the name of Jesus Christ (and sometimes Mary), or even giving their hearts to Jesus Christ is, in fact, honoring the prophet Isa and Mary. It is like paying a visit to a saint, especially since pilgrimage is a common religious rite among Shias. Putting their trust in him indicates the sincerity of their hearts to their faith – Islam. To many of these people belief in Christ also means a state of spiritual security.

116  Route to ready As Ramadan (2010, p. 39) reminds us: “the very word for faith – iman – expresses not the idea of ‘faith’ but a state of security, well-being and peace”. Therefore, people from this group are not searching for a religion but rather a strengthening of their “faith” – their state of security. This can also be one of the explanations for why many people who had accepted Christ through the Mohabat TV channel during 2014, later when the channel called them back to follow up, denied their conversion and did not want anything to do with Christianity: there was no conversion in the first place but admiration for Christ that was misinterpreted by the channel as conversion. A devoted Muslim who has been influenced by Sufi poetry may have a sincere heart for Christ. For example, Mehran from Ourimiyah describes his devoted Muslim mother’s opinion on Christian channels this way: … although my mother is a very devout Muslim, she follows Christian programmes and whenever she sees her friends, she encourages them to watch the programmes as well. If her friends complain that this channel [SAT-7 PARS] is a Christian channel, my mum tells them ‘it is all about Jesus Christ the son of Maryam, don’t be narrow-minded, pay him respect’. Mehran’s mother by watching a Christian channel pays respect to Isa (Jesus), son of Maryam. Her action can be interpreted as a means to gain a state of spiritual security, well-being and peace. Contemplating in such actions, one might ask: is there a place, for some individuals to consider this a dual faith, accepting Islam and Christianity as an integral whole (Cornille, 2010)? Migration A comprehensive body of literature has been written on the relationship between religion and migration (Hagan & Ebaugh, 2003; Saunders et al., 2016), mainly from the perspective of religion being an integrating agent during the migration process. The use of conversion as an intentional tool for migration has been overlooked by scholars. Many Iranian converts who have been seeking migration to the West have used Christianity as a tool of migration and socio-cultural adaptation to host countries (Akcapar, 2006). My aim, however, is not to discuss the above-mentioned topic, though important, but rather to point to the issue as one possible motive for becoming a Christian. The majority of such stories have not been documented by the channels, because they do not serve or represent the issues that the channels stand for and many in the audience hide their agendas and motives when contacting channels. According to a UNHCR official based in Turkey in a speech in London in 2013, 14 per cent of Iranian asylum seekers in Turkey are Christian converts from a Muslim background.12 Questions and requests from audiences such as “I want to go to America; I heard Christian cases have a better chance; how can I become a

Route to ready 117 Christian?” might have been noticeable to the channels, though they have not all been recorded. Stories such as Davoud’s, a man in his 30s from Karaj – a city near Tehran – who had become Christian simply by watching Christian programmes a year prior to his phone call to the channel, is one such example. He was planning to migrate to the West when his motives were challenged by the channel (SAT-7 PARS), he then reasoned: “here in Iran I cannot go to church. If the government finds out about my Christian faith they would kill me”. He claimed that there are many people like him in Iran, whose aim is to leave the country so they become Christian. He asked the channel to broadcast programmes on the UN and UNICEF services for refugees and migrants and to provide information and advice on procedures and how to apply for asylum. Besides being used as a migration strategy, conversion has also been employed as a tool for “sociocultural adaptation” for those who were planning to leave the country (Hagan and Ebaugh, 2003). For many Iranians who do not want to be associated with Arabs and Islam, conversion to Christianity prepares them for an easier cultural integration and acceptance by the West. A good example of this is Mehdi’s story. He stated that he had become a Christian through Christian television channels with all his family. Now they are planning to migrate to the West, because they want their children to be educated in a Christian country. In Iran, their lives are in danger. So he asked for a conversion certificate for his family. A road to healing and meaning If we put aside the social experimenting of narratives, the rest of the narratives are about journeys to healing and quests for meaning, often linked to crises, conflicts and tensions of an emotional/spiritual, psychological, social or even ideological nature. The participants are seeking solutions to their unsolved life problems. Many of them think that they have been abandoned by hope, by the divine and by their societies. To find solutions and restoration, they are willing to experiment with whatever comes their way: even if conversion is part of the package, they are prepared to accept it. Mehdi, a 35-year-old man from Iran, tells his story in this way: I came to Christ two years ago after investigating for many years. I was a drug and alcohol addict for 17 years. The drugs affected my health and I ended up with liver failure and was seriously ill. … When I was really hopeless and devastated, I prayed to God saying: “God whoever you are, if you really exist, please help me and show me the way. I will do whatever you ask me to do”. … Meanwhile I found a Christian channel and I started praying to Christ. After a while Jesus Christ showed himself to me in a dream and he gave me the strength to be free from my addictions. After quitting my drugs, I decided to surrender all my life to him as I had promised him.

118  Route to ready Mehdi made a deal with God: “if you heal me, I will do whatever you ask me to do”. When God did his part by granting him his request, Mehdi felt he needed to honour his side of contract. In fact, this is also an Islamic worldview about faith (“iman”), that was explained in Chapter 2 section one, that the voluntary element of faith (believing and trusting) is based on an individual’s situations, needs and circumstances. After finding a solution to their problems, individuals might think of paying their debt for what they have received, or want to do whatever they promised in the time of negotiation with God: that payment could be, in the case of healing through Jesus Christ, accepting the Christian faith or adding it to their existing religious system. However, if their problems were not solved, they may search somewhere else with no obligation, or simply go back to their previous religion. For example, a man in his 60s explained that his late wife suffered from cancer. Whatever he could do to save her life he did, including going to America for treatment, where he took her to a Christian healing ceremony and they even converted to Christianity but “God didn’t keep his part of the contract” and his wife died. Therefore, he did not feel any obligation to remain Christian. For him, the act of conversion was mainly based on their desperate situation, otherwise, as he said, “I am not a Christian”. This confirms Stark and Fink’s (2000a) cost and benefit theory that was discussed in Chapter 1 that audiences calculate their benefits – what they gain if they become Christian. Another example of experimenting is through simulation to a character or a situation that has been described or shown on television. For example, Haleh from Rasht, a city in northern Iran, in her mid-30s, accidentally watched a Christian programme in which Jesus healed a woman with a bleeding problem (Luke 8:43–48). Since she had a similar problem, she thought if Jesus healed that lady, he could heal her too. Therefore, after the show she knelt and prayed to Jesus Christ to heal her. A few days later, to her surprise, her bleeding stopped, which she interpreted as an answer to her prayers. For that reason, she decided to follow Christ. Or the story of Yahya a drug addict who after watching a live show in which the presenter, an ex-drug addict, was telling his life story and how Christ saved him from his past life. Yahya felt that the presenter’s story was his story, but not yet complete because he was still in prison of his addiction. He said to himself: “If God could help the presenter so he should be able to help me too”. He prayed to Christ and also contacted the presenter, gave up his addiction and “gave his heart to Christ”.

Conclusion Although many of the participants, especially the spiritual seekers and explorers, start their journey with experimenting and testing different religious practices, if they succeed, that means if their prayers were answered, their problems solved and they were reconnected to the divine,

Route to ready 119 or the new religious ideology and practice had matched their criteria and desires, they may then move to the next stage which is a negotiating position in order to reconstruct their identities, redefine their purpose and put Christian teachings into practice. In this, based on Farsi Christian channels practice, one can arguably say that the task of Farsi Christian media has been to preach Christianity, and it has been the job of seekers to put into practice those teachings and instructions. To bring a preached religion to a lived-faith, especially for those who have come from different religious worldviews with very limited connections to churches or Christian communities, requires a long and constant process of interpretation, experimentation and negotiation between participants and the Christian media message, between participants and their cultures and worldviews, and between participants and their societies and communities. In the next chapter, I will discuss the negotiating positions of the participants.

Notes 1 For more information visit: http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/66531?redirected From=Experimenting+ - eid (Accessed: 12 September 2016). 2 The bases of Iranian culture are not guilt but shame and honour. Taking revenge or qesas is the first thing that a badly-treated Muslim in Iran (loss of honour) thinks of. It is also the basis of Islamic law, especially in the case of murder, the law allows victims or their families to participate in punishing or pardoning murderers. This is also about restoration of honour which will be discussed later in Chapter 6. 3 The Iranian religious worldviews and religiosity have been influenced by multiple religions such as Shia Islam, Sufism and Zorastrianism (Soroush, 2000). 4 In Chapter 2, we have discussed the issue of globalisation and modernity in contemporary Iran. 5 Therefore, for many Iranians who are experiencing freedom for the first time – a freedom which is not given by the government but by their own conviction – to choose their religion, Christian media has provided a competing religious alternative. 6 Joyce Meyer is an American evangelist and author. Some of her preaching programmes have been dubbed into Farsi and have been broadcast on Mohabat TV and Network 7 channels. 7 The issue of gender and conversion should be researched separately: why do more women become Christian in Iran than men? 8 Chapters 3 and 4 discussed this issue. 9 Working or even communicating with any outside media especially satellite television channels is illegal and considered a crime in Iran. 10 Besides the state television channels, SAT-7 PARS was the only satellite channel that broadcasted daily children’s programmes. 11 The five greatest prophets of Allah also known as ululazm prophets. They are: Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad. 12 Akcapar (2006) has done a study on “conversion as a migration strategy in a transit country: Iranian Shiites becoming Christians in Turkey”. The majority of asylum seekers after rejection of their cases in Turkey convert to Christianity and reapply. Since conversion is illegal in Iran and it may lead to the death penalty for individuals, they cannot be deported back to Iran.

120  Route to ready

Bibliography Akcapar, S. K. (2006) ‘Conversion as a Migration Strategy in a Transit Country: Iranian Shiites Becoming Christians in Turkey’, International Migration Review, 40 (4), pp. 817–853. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ j.1747-7379.2006.00045.x/full (Accessed: 15 May 2017). Barbour, J. D. (1994) Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press. Bradley, M. (2014) Too Many to Jail: The Story of Iran’s New Christians. Grand Rapids, MI: Monarch Books. Cohen, A. (1994) Self Conciousness: An Alternative Anthropology of Identity. London: Routledge. Cohen, A. P. (ed.) (2000) Signifying Identities: Anthropological Perspectives on Boundaries and Contested Values. London: Routledge. Cornille, C. (ed). (2010) Many Mansions? Multiple Religious Belonging and Christian Identity. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. Cragun, R. T., Hammer, J. H. and Hwang, K. (2011) ‘Extending Religion-Health Research to Secular Minorities: Issues and Concerns’, Journal of Religion and Health, 50 (3), pp. 608–622. Available at: http://link.springer.com/ article/10.1007/s10943-009-9296-0 (Accessed: 15 May 2015). Devine, J. and Deneulin, S. (2011) ‘Negotiating Religion in Everyday Life: A Critical Exploration of the Relationship between Religion, Choices and Behaviour’, Culture and Religion, 12 (1), pp. 59–76. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14755 610.2011.557014. Einstein, M. (2008) Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. London and New York: Routledge. Fazzino, L. L. (2014) ‘Leaving the Church Behind: Applying a Deconversion Perspective to Evangelical Exit Narratives’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 29 (2), pp. 249–266. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080 /13537903.2014.903664 (Accessed: 13 May 2017) Gartrell, C. D. and Shannon, Z. K. (1985) ‘Contacts, Cognitions, and Conversion: A Rational Choice Approach’, Review of Religious Research, 27 (1), pp. 32–48. DOI: 10.2307/3511936. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3511936 (Accessed: 15 May 2017). Gooren, H. (2010a) ‘Conversion narratives’, in Anderson, A. et al. (eds.) Studying Global Pentecostalism: Theories and Methods. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, pp. 93–112. Gooren, H. (2010b) Religious Conversion and Disaffiliation: Tracing Patterns of Change in Faith Practices. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Hagan, J. and Ebaugh, H. R. (2003) ‘Calling upon the Sacred: Migrants’ Use of Religion in the Migration Process’, International Migration Review, 37 (4), pp. 1145–1162. DOI: 10.1111/j.1747-7379.2003.tb00173.x. Helland, C. (2012) ‘Ritual’, in Campbell, H. A. (ed.) Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 25–40. Holler, M. J. (2007) ‘Freedom of choice, power, and the responsibility of decision makers’, in Marciano, A. and Josselin, J.-M. (eds.) Democracy, Freedom and Coercion: A Law and Economics Approach. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp. 22–45.

Route to ready 121 Mahdavi, M. S. (2002) ‘Child driven’, Scientific Research Journal, 35, pp. 85–116 (in Farsi). Available at: http://www.noormags.ir/view/fa/articlepage/4532/85/text? q=%D9%81%D8%B1%D8%B2%D9%86%D8%AF%20%D8%B3%D8% A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B1%DB%8C%20%D8%AF%DA%A9%D8% A A% D 8 % B 1% 2 0 % D 9 % 8 5 % D 9 % 8 7 % D 8 % A F % D 9 % 8 8 % D B % 8C&rowNumber=1&score=768.7276 (Accessed: 15 May 2017). Ramadan, T. (2010) The Quest for Meaning. Developing a Philosophy of Pluralism. London: Penguin. Rambo, L. R. (1999) ‘Theories of Conversion: Understanding and Interpreting Religious Change’, Social Compass, 46 (3), pp. 259–271. Available at: http:// journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/003776899046003003 (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Richardson, J. T. (1985) ‘Studies of conversion: Secularization or re-enchantment?, in Hammond, P. E. (ed.) The Sacred in a Secular Age: Toward Revision in the Scientific Study of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 104–121. Rittenhouse, B. P. (2013) Shopping for Meaningful Lives: The Religious Motive of Consumerism. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books. Saunders, J. B., Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Snyder, S. (2016) Intersections of Religion and Migration. New York: Springer Nature. Soroush, A. (2000) Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim Soroush. Translated, edited and with a critical introduction by Sadri, M. and Sadri, A. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. Stark, R. and Finke, R. (2000a) ‘Catholic Religious Vocations: Decline and Revival’, Review of Religious Research, 42 (2), pp.125–145. DOI: 10.2307/3512525 Stark, R. and Finke, R. (2000b) Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press.

6

Negotiating

Introduction In Chapter 5, I discussed the issue of experimenting with religious ideologies, suggesting that testing and practising different religious teachings may not necessarily aim for conversion, although might lead to it. I have also demonstrated that people’s motivations and gratifications are at the heart of their experiments: for this reason, if a new religious practice corresponds successfully with their motivations, they may begin negotiating. At this point, individuals may engage in a more serious dialogue with the Christian message and their religious worldviews on the one hand, and with the Christian message and their own agendas and needs on the other hand. This stage can also be interpreted as a process of conversion which also includes re-evaluation of one’s agenda and purpose. This chapter aims to analyse the narratives and interviews of participants’ negotiation with Christianity and the Christian television channels through the lens of their past religious worldview, personal experience and agenda. Questions that I will investigate in this chapter include: how did participants relate to the Christian message presented on the four Christian television channels? How did they translate it into their context? If they say that they have become Christian, what does this mean? Is there any difference between their affiliation to the channels and their conversion to Christianity? How much of their religious background and their context (political, social, economic and their life circumstances, including globalisation and modernity) have influenced their interpretation of Christian faith and of their conversion? To investigate the above questions, I will firstly look at the characteristics of audiences in the negotiating position; secondly, I will highlight recurring themes relating to the audiences’ religious backgrounds and contexts, such as the question of God and rewriting of their faith stories, Jesus Christ, forgiveness, fear and shame and the place of religious experience in the process of conversion. Thirdly, I will study the use of channels as a resource and as a community, as well as their relationship process with the channels. Fourthly, I will examine their conversion DOI: 10.4324/9781003004905-7

Negotiating 123 process against their religious background, their socio-political context and the influence of globalisation. To analyse the data introduced in this chapter, I have employed Rambo’s seven stage model (1993), Gooren’s conversion career (2010) and Stark and Finke’s (2000) rational choice theory.

In the negotiating position The characteristics of people in this position, like the experimenting position, are diverse, fragmented and dynamic. The main differences with “experimenters” are firstly in the nature of their commitment to the Christian faith, although their commitment might not be conversion, but rather an obligation to a sincere inner and external exploration; secondly, in the stability and maturity of their narratives and their decision-­making process evidenced by a firmer sense of direction and control in both interviews and narratives; and thirdly, their activities have taken them to a deeper level of self-understanding. The experimenting position mainly focuses on the interpretation of media text into their context, based on their agenda and goals. In the “negotiating” position, participants’ engagement becomes more focused on the restoration of their lives and redefinition of their purpose and self. Together with retelling their lives’ transformation stories, they created a new production of the Christian media message, which is innovative and contextualised. For example, the story of Hossein, brought up in a strict Muslim family who in his teenage years drifted away from Islam and lived what he perceived as an immoral life. In his early 20s, he decided “to repent” and return to Islam.1 He sent a letter to a mullah (Islamic clergyman) in his local mosque confessing his sins and asking a way for him to come back. Meanwhile a friend introduced him to the SAT-7 PARS channel, and he watched a programme showing an episode on the story of a woman caught in adultery (John 8:1–11). He admired the way Jesus dealt with the situation, because he identified himself with the woman. The next day, he received a response from the mullah in the mosque telling him that he needed to hand himself over to the police, serve his sentence (6 months in prison and 75 lashes) then he could repent and return to Islam. He compared both answers to his situation, and therefore started comparing Islam with Christianity, which lead to him becoming a Christian. After that he started to tell his story, an innovating version of Mary Magdalene story, to other people in order to encourage them to consider Christianity. Like Hossein, negotiators through reproduction of the Christian message, explained how the offered message from Christian channels helped them to solve their problems or restore their self. One can also observe that the process of rewriting and retelling of their stories had also helped them to revisit their perception of God and faith, their ties to their communities,

124  Negotiating their past faith and self (Snow and Machalek, 1984). In this process, their interactions with Christian media became more meaningful, strategic yet complex. Negotiating with God and rewriting of their faith stories There is a great desire among many participants to know God, and for God to know them, especially among people with a deeper religious-Sufi background. In fact, some of the reasons for rewriting their stories were to express their longing for God, to see His footsteps in their lives and to come to grips with the fact that God had created them with a purpose in mind and their conversion to Christianity was part of such purpose. For example, Mahmoud from northern Iran wrote to SAT-7 PARS: “… my life became meaningless, I felt my life or death wouldn’t change anything in this world. So I decided to commit suicide … in Christ I found that my life matters to God and he created me with a purpose I was not aware of …” In this narrative, one can see two theological points: the issue of worthiness and purposefulness in Christ and the Iranian Islamic ontology in relation to the concept of God. To explain it further, in the context of God and human relationships there are at least two dominant perceptions: one being a dichotomy of God (Lord) and servant – a judgmental and unapproachable God – the other one perceiving God as an absolute being, the source of life itself “as oiem” (he is our source), as Ahmadi and Ahmadi (1998, pp. 36–37) explain it “the principal point is the relationship between lover and beloved”, with a returning destination in mind – “be soi oiem” (we return to him). Both concepts (Lord and servant, lover and beloved) can be observed in the participants’ narratives and interviews on their views of God and their relationship (existence) with him. Their longing for God is related to the lover and beloved concept, and their unworthiness – in the sense of being forgotten by God – would appear to come from the concept of Lord and servant. For instance, Hamid, a 24-year-old man, one of Mohabat TV viewers, said “God had been preparing me for that moment to believe in Jesus Christ. He had a purpose for my life but I didn’t know it. I saw only his judgment”. In addition, based on the Christian concept of God being a loving Father who manifests himself in Christ to strengthen his relationship with humankind, the participants also tried to trace God’s footsteps from childhood to the moment of their conversion. For instance, the story of Bahaneh, in her early 30s from Mashhad, who in an interview said: “the pastor on the screen said ‘your Father (meaning God) is worried about you’. That means, I was already a child of God [before she even knew about Christ] … When I look back through, despite difficulties in my life, I do see this loving Father’s protections all through…” For many participants, this is a point of reconciliation with God and a healing of their anger and bitterness, especially for those who had felt that God had abandoned them.

Negotiating 125 Again, through the repetition of their stories, participants aimed to restore and reconstruct their identity while expressing their desire for continuity – although those with strong anti-Islamic views preferred a complete discontinuity from their past. Yet for those who seek continuity, God (not Christ) once again becomes the main link between their past, present and future. In this process of reconstruction of their life and their identity, converts were in constant negotiation with the past while rewriting their purpose and hopes for the future. One of the ways in which they demonstrated this is through comparison between their experiences in Islam and the Christian message they watched on the channels – a judgmental God (heaven and hell) and a possibility of becoming a child of God. On the concept of God – Lord and servant – one can see an immense stress on the fear of an authoritarian and merciless God, who is constantly waiting for his servants to make a mistake in order to punish them and send them to eternal hell. For example, the story of Maria who when she heard on Mohabat TV that “God is love” was surprised, because: “I had very different picture of God, there was no love but ‘do’s and ‘don’ts’, hell and heaven, and enormous fear of him, fear of his hell and his wrath”. She called the channel to find out more about this. Instead, she was persuaded to say the salvation prayer. When after the prayer, she was told that she had now become a Christian, she was terrified because she felt that she had sinned against God. She said: “after putting down the telephone receiver, a new fear was added to my life. I felt by agreeing with her [the lady on the phone from Mohabat TV] and repeating something, I didn’t know what it was. I had sinned and, especially if she was right, I had changed my religion, then I was a murtad (apostate) and I would go to hell. I had now an additional fear I had to deal with”. Yet there was a strong desire within her to know this loving God, and that is why she continued her search despite her fear. Rewriting and reflecting on their experience can be also seen as a way of reconciliation with their past, including their culture, society and families. Although Jesus Christ (not yet as God) had been the centre of their stories, the concept of God was at the centre of their reconciliation and restoration process. Onsia, a 30-year-old woman with very anti-Islamic ideology, was trying to reconcile with her devoted Muslim parents through their common ground, God. She said: “the God I worship is the same God as my parents”. She saw her position as a faithful Christian as the result of her father’s prayers, who had prayed constantly saying “Oh, God, don’t let the lawful bread I have provided for my children be wasted. Lead them to your righteous path”. In response to the question as to why she is then anti-­ Islam, she answered: “Islam is a mazhab that manipulates those godly men and women with a wrong doctrine of God. The God I worship is the same God as my parents’, but Islam is at fault”. The phrase “the same God” also refers to the Islamic concept of Tawhid, the oneness of God. How does then Jesus Christ perceived by Farsi participants in relation to the absolute being (beloved and lover) (Ahmadi and Ahmadi, 1998)?

126  Negotiating Jesus Christ For the Farsi participants, Jesus Christ is the Messiah, Son of Mary, the Judge of the Day of Judgment, the Miracle Maker2 (moshkel gosha), the Word of God (kalamatollah) and the Spirit of God (Rouhollah).3 His Divinity, as God, was not comprehended nor reflected upon. His Sonship is understood mainly in the same way a convert becomes a child of God, not much as God’s incarnate Son. The concept of the Trinity is sometime seen as “a weak button of Christianity”. As Amir said: “when we talk about Christianity to people, sometimes they just push this weak button – the Trinity”. They attribute any positive things that have happened in their lives, such as their dreams and visions, their healing, their answers to their problems and the restoration of their souls, to Christ. One of the fascinating observations was that many of the participants normally take their needs to Christ, yet their worship is to God. For example, Amir is in his early 30s and had become Christian one year prior to his interview (October 2015) from a very devoted Muslim family. He himself was also a devoted Muslim. He describes his relationship with Christ in this way: Those days [when I was a Muslim] I enjoyed talking to God. But when it came to my needs, … I used to go to the Islamic Imams. Maybe it is because of our upbringing, for example we were told if you shed a few tears for Imam Hossain, he forgives all your sins and answers all your prayers. So since I was serving them and doing a lot for them, my expectation was that I should take my needs to them; a kind of give and take [bede-o bestoon]. [with a laugh] Still I do the same, whenever I want something I go to Jesus Christ. But worshipping God is something different: it is full of joy. There are two main highlights in this story: first, God and Jesus were two different persons, with a hierarchical system in place within the divine realm, and secondly, faith was understood as a contract between God and the believer. In Chapter 2, I discussed the issue of faith and religion in the light of the Iranian religious system based on Allameh Tabatabai and Motaheri’s views, that the heart of the communal characteristic of faith lies in being private, voluntary and a personal covenant/contract between the believer and the sacred. That means “if you believe – your safety is guaranteed”. In other words, the believer’s proclamation of their belief and the sacred proclamation of their safety and security is guaranteed, in Christian terms, “salvation”: a convert proclaims her faith in Jesus Christ, Son of God, and God proclaims her as a member of his divine family. Therefore, her needs require to be dealt with.4 The voluntary element of faith was likely to be based on an individual’s situations, needs and circumstances. For example, “O Christ, if you heal me, I will follow you”, which makes the active verb “to follow” look like a conditional payment towards what the

Negotiating 127 individual gets out of their covenant with Christ. One can observe many such attitudes towards Christ in narratives, most of the time in the form of reports. For instance: “Christ healed me therefore I decided to follow him”.5 The issue of the divine hierarchy, demonstrated in Amir’s story, relates also to the same idea. For Amir, Christ and God have two different levels and therefore two ways of relating to them within the covenant of faith. The majority of narratives indicated great difficulties in seeing Christ as God or as at the same level as God. Yet, he is the one to whom they can take their needs, wants and pains, a practice which is once again part of the participants’ past religious worldview. Furthermore, the idea of Jesus Christ being the Lord (judge) of the Day of Judgment – also part of Shia Islam – and a strong belief in the Judgment Day and life after death among the participants, had made it easier for many to transit from Shia Islam to Christianity, although many still struggled with the concept of original sin. The issue of eternal salvation from sin had not been understood, therefore to the majority of them salvation mainly meant redemption from their problems and assurance of a higher hope and a better future. Consequently, eternal salvation had been pushed aside and the redemption of their misery in this world had taken its place. Forgiveness One of the surprising recurring themes was the issue of forgiveness – more specifically, gaining ability to forgive those who caused hurts in one’s life. There has not been much research in the area of forgiveness and its link to the shari’a law of retaliation – qesas – from the victim’s side which is very much interconnected in Iranian culture of shame and honour.6 Although Hascall (2011), in her article Restorative Justice in Islam, argues that “qesas should be considered as a form of restorative justice”, sometimes revenge may be perceived as a sign of strength and forgiveness as a sign of vulnerability in some cultures if the honour was not restored. For that reason, some of the narratives of this research indicated that the main reason for them to be attracted to Christianity, particularly to Christ, is because “through the prayers in Jesus Christ’s name” they had gained an ability to forgive those who had caused them injuries – shame. They portrayed this as a sign of self-empowerment and strength. The extreme example of this is the story of Masoumeh, a lady from Isfahan. In 2012, she told her story to SAT-7 PARS in this way: When my son was killed a few months ago, my heart was filled with hatred and revenge in a way that paralysed my life. The only thing I was thinking all the time was to take revenge. However, when I heard about Jesus’ crucifixion on the cross and his prayer for the people who killed him and persecuted him “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing” I became speechless and perplexed… I asked him to

128  Negotiating give me the same strength to forgive the murderers of my son. I cried and prayed the whole night. He helped me. He took away my burden. I was so changed that I went and hugged one of them and I told him that I had forgiven him. People couldn’t believe what they were seeing, because they knew me as a vengeful woman. When everyone asked me what happened to me, I started telling them about Jesus who changed my life and helped me to forgive others as he forgives us. In Masoumeh’s story one can observe the central themes of both religions: love in Christianity, and justice in Islam (Rosen, 1989). Under the law of justice, Masoumeh would seek revenge and retaliation – qesas – for the murderers of her son, but what she saw in Christ, who was also killed unjustly, was forgiveness and love – “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing”.7 At that moment, she prayed for peace and an ability to forgive the murderers of her son as Jesus did. Moreover, her forgiveness also resulted in reconciliation between the murderers and herself, which also meant possible restoration in the murderers’ lives. Hascall (2011) argues that in Islamic justice, qesas, victims are also encouraged to exercise forgiveness, which is not only an aspect of reconciliation but also “a goal of restorative justice”. Hascall’s focus is mainly on legal issues, rather than personal and spiritual restoration of victims and perpetrators as we read in Masoumeh’s story. Masoumeh reported her experience, she didn’t speak of her conversion to Christianity. Her religious experience empowered her not only to forgive her son’s murderers, but also to show love as she said: “I went and hugged one of them and I told him that I had forgiven him”. Similarly, her action gave her strength to break out of her isolation and depression and to tell people, especially those who had suffered similar pain to her, about her encounter with Jesus Christ. Fear and shame Two interconnected recurring themes are fear and shame. Some of the narratives, both those written by converts and those reported by the channels indicate the fear and the taboo of changing religion among some converts, especially among devoted Muslims and those who live in smaller cities and rural areas. This can be categorised into three areas. First, the fear of God’s wrath and his hell resulting from murtad (apostasy) in which the shedding of one’s blood is halal, permitted by anyone. Secondly, fear of persecution: that is mainly fear of the anger of the Islamic government and the threat of the death penalty, and also any type of persecution and discrimination such as imprisonment or loss of job. Thirdly, the issue of shame and honour has also created fear: fear of destroying one’s honour, of rejection and being portrayed as betrayer of culture (nationalism) and religion (Herzfeld, 1980). For example, putting aside the political statements of some converts

Negotiating 129 who openly talked about conversion as a political sign, in many narratives, participants were happier to see Christianity as a spiritual path rather than a religion. Therefore, instead of saying “I became Christian” they rather say “I have accepted Christ into my heart”, “I decided to follow Christ” or “I gave my heart to Christ”: such accepting of Christ can be another type of religious affiliation rather than conversion. At least ten per cent of narratives point to this issue. Their decision has also been, indirectly, backed up by the channels. For example, when a caller to any of the channels hears that they do “not need to change their religion because Christianity is not-a-religion”, this gives the audience more courage to accept Christ without becoming Christian. The story of Shabnam, a woman in her 20s, from Chaloos, northern Iran, and the Mohabat TV negotiation with her illustrates this well. “I am a devoted Muslim and I pray 5 times a day and I try to do my religious laws but when I started to watch your programmes, I got very interested in them. I just realised that although you are Christians, you talk about God in the best way; and I really like your teaching programmes … I know that if I convert to Christianity, I will be rejected by society and I will be persecuted but I would like to know more”. We [the telephone operator team] told her that Christianity is not a religion: coming to Christ, means accepting him into her heart and it is not a change of religion but a way of life. She called a few more times and eventually she gave her heart to Christ and said that she had a renewed feeling and she was very excited. A similar story is that of Ibrahim a viewer of Mohabat TV and SAT-7 PARS, who despite giving his heart to Christ, continued his Islamic prayers, namaz, for another one and half years, thinking “accepting Christ in my heart is enough to make me a follower of Christ”. The reason for stopping his namaz was not his Christian belief but the fact that namaz is in Arabic and he could not understand it. Therefore, what Ibrahim was seeking in Christianity was an encounter with Jesus Christ – gaining religious experience – through which he could develop his spiritual self into “a better person” and overcome “his fear and his shame”. Religious experience Gaining religious experience is another repeated topic of narratives. As was discussed in Chapter 5, many participants demonstrated that they were spiritual seekers, not necessarily looking for a religion, but religious experiences that could bring them peace or help them with their life situations. Therefore, their religious experiences and their life events, including their agendas, are at the centre of their narratives. The majority of the narratives suggest that Christian teachings and doctrine may not have played as important a role in converts’ life transformation as the channels hoped, but

130  Negotiating their own encounters with Christ and with Christianity. Cimino and Lattin (1999, p. 62) describe it well: It’s a religious expression that downplays doctrine and dogma, and reveals indirect experience of the Divine – whether it’s called the “Holy Spirit” or “cosmic consciousness” or the “true self”. It is practical and personal, more about stress reduction than salvation, more therapeutic than theological. It is about feeling good, not being good. Cimino and Lattin’s (1999) emphasis on the psychological nature of converts or seekers’ journeys is very relevant to the participants’ stories, for they too had been searching for a religious experience that would bring them healing or a solution to their life problems, or help them to find their “true self”, whatever their true self might be from their point of view, as Roof (1993, p. 167) puts it “the psychological is the mode of the religious today”. The channels are similarly aware of this situation and see it as a danger to Christianity being reduced to a therapy or to a religious experience. Some Shia Islamic scholars see the popularity of religious experience among Muslims as the result of the influence of Christianity. For example, Faali (2009, pp. 25–27) in his book, Religious Experience and Sufi Meditation argues that contemporary Christianity has confused actions of faith with religious experience. He sees religious experience among Iranians as an influence of Christianity on Islam – mainly the practice of ordinary people. The main religious experiences one can observe through narratives and the interviews are miraculous healings, dreams and visions. However, converts from Sunni background relates to religious experience differently than converts from Shia background. This requires a separate study. The majority of narratives claimed that Jesus had visited them in their dreams and visions in order to heal them, to approve their new faith or to remove their uncertainty. Most of the dreams ended with phrases such as “I am the truth, follow me” or “I am Jesus Christ, believe in me”. The pastors and church leaders and the Farsi Christian channels mainly attributed these dreams and visions to the work of the Holy Spirit and the manifestation of Christ in individual lives. Nevertheless, if one analyses participants’ dreams and visions through the lens of their religious culture, one can see inner negotiations with self, struggles for answers, fear of being wrong and a desire to make sense of their new faith and finding a way to put an end to their uncertainty, that is why their dreams normally ended with statements such as: “I am the truth, follow me”.8 Dreams and visions are also the beginning of a new stage in a person’s religious transformation (Amanat, 2011, p. 126). The best example of this is Mahmoud’s story, a man from Lorestan, in his 30s, told to SAT-7 PARS in 2012: I came across your channel a bit more than two years ago. I felt you were blasphemers, deceivers and enemies of Islam. …So I didn’t stay

Negotiating 131 long on your channel and flipped to other channels. Yet there was something within me which made me keep going back to your channel. Maybe I wanted to prove to myself that you were wrong. After a while I felt confused and lost, frequently asking myself “Can it be true?” I became restless, until one night I was really psychologically and emotionally in a bad state and I couldn’t sleep. I prayed to God and begged him to show me the way and the truth. So I had a vision where Christ came to me and said “Yes, I am the truth, follow me”. That night I gave my heart to Him. I feel blessed that the reason [for my conversion] was and is Christ himself not your channel. Yet I feel I am like a baby who doesn’t know how to walk, where to go and what to do. Mahmoud’s dream helped him to make his decision “to follow Christ” and end the uncertainty which he was struggling with (Barbour, 1994). Psychologists Hobson et al. (2014) argue that self-conscious experience “has a fundamental relationship to the altered state of consciousness that we experience in dreaming”. Therefore, dreaming might have been the result of their self-conscious struggle of mind and negotiation with self. But to participants and the channels, dreams are mystical and a divine experience with a prophetic voice or “the work of the Holy Spirit” (Bradley, 2014, p. 45). For that reason, some individuals such as Mahmoud did not want to link their conversion to a Christian television channel, but to the higher power of Jesus Christ. They see their conversion as a mystical experience, which is also a further step towards constructing their new religious identity (Amanat, 2011).9 To be brief, religious experience, in whatever shape or form, strengthens the individual’s faith journey and helps them to make sense of their world, self and faith, which might lead to the reconstruction of a new identity. Individuals feel empowered through dreams, visions and healing experiences because they see the manifestation of God in their daily lives. As Faali (2009, p. 7) says: “if we say, our confidence is in God, that means we have made him our spiritual patron; if we say, we have our assurance in God, that means we find peace in him; and if we say our trust is in him that means we have put our burdens on him”.10 Christian channels in many ways facilitate and encourage religious experiences in relationship with God and Christ, while interpreting them as the work of the Holy Spirit. What about negative religious experiences such as dreams that prevent a seeker to become Christian?

Christian channels as a process and means In chapter three and four, I discussed the fact that some of the channels, such as Network 7 claimed that their Church Seven programme is “a church for all nations” and is providing community for Christian converts in Iran. In this section, I will examine the use and views of Christian channels by

132  Negotiating participants against the claims of the channels. The questions will investigate the following: do the participants see the channels as resources for learning and evangelism, or as their church and Christian community? And finally, how has the relationship process between the channels and their audience been portrayed in participants’ narratives and interviews? For learning and for evangelism The issue of loneliness and a desire for community and belonging can be seen throughout the narratives and interviews, especially among those who have become Christians. The data indicated that the need to share one’s faith and the desire for community on the one hand, and the fear of rejection and persecution on the other, have created a perplexing situation for newly converted individuals. Many participants, especially from SAT-7 PARS, indicated that while fear of persecution and rejection had caused them to keep their faith secret, yet a desire to share and be part of a bigger community had challenged them to break out of their fear and talk cautiously about their new faith. Their first step has been promoting the channels to their family and friends, in order to find like-minded and sympathetic people. For example, Zahra, a 21-year-old woman from northern Iran, explained that her family were against her new faith. She was not able to argue with them but instead, as she put it, “just left the TV on SAT-7 PARS to let them hear about my faith for themselves”. On a few occasions, her family deleted the channel, but each time, she persisted and brought it back. One of her oppressors was her mother but one day while the channel was on and a video clip was showing, she saw her mother “standing at the door listening to the song with tears running from her eyes. She cried hard for an hour after the song. Since then she has become one of my companions to watch your programmes and pray together.” In this way, Zahra used the channel as a way to tell her family and relatives about her faith which resulted in her finding a companion, her mother, who was one of her strong opponents. Some stated that they had created a house church or a house group by just promoting the channels and inviting people to “come and watch” with them. To many of these people, the channels did not have the ability to become their community but rather provided a resource to develop a community and promote their faith. For instance, Liyla, an educated 33-yearold woman from south-eastern Iran, saw Christian channels, especially SAT-7 PARS, as “a safe environment and place” in which she had managed to sustain and strengthen her faith. She explained it in this way: My time of watching coincided with the closing down of churches and threats to house churches and house groups. Everyone was under surveillance. A few were arrested. In that situation it was hard for us to meet and worship together. Having Christian channels helped us to

Negotiating 133 sustain our faith. For example, if we didn’t have it, many of us might had lost our faith or moved on to other things. Or our faith may have faded away gradually, or we would have just become indifferent. Liyla was very grateful to the Christian channels, yet she did not see them as a community or a church, only as a resource and a process for “strengthening her faith”. Whenever she had questions or doubts, she would turn to the SAT-7 PARS channel for answers. The channel was also more instrumental in transforming and shaping her Christian identity than the church and a house group that she used to go prior to finding the channel. As she described it: … I found a kind of unshakable reassurance in my heart. In the church you may have this shaky ground because of other Christians’ behaviours or other issues that might question the truthfulness of Christian faith … or pastors who did not have much time to talk to us … and you might feel lonely and left out … or for many other reasons sometimes you may even go through a disappointing period … but when I was watching the channels, I felt each time my faith was getting stronger and stronger; because it was not about individuals but God himself. Nevertheless, Liyla had moved away and reduced her viewing significantly from the channels and she explained her reasons in this way: “they have become repetitive, and do not have much to offer me anymore. I think they have changed a lot. They are not the same anymore … I just don’t feel satisfied anymore”.11 Going back to the topic of community, in general, over 50 per cent of narratives and all of the interviews, mainly drawn from SAT-7 PARS, Mohabat TV and Network 7, had voiced the channels’ inability to become their church and expressed their desire and need to be part of a church or Christian community. Yet the channels were significant in helping them to create and sustain their house group (church) communities. Christian channels as community In general, digital media have shifted our understanding of community from traditional face-to-face sharing and interaction to a notion of digital network shared systems. Campbell (2012, p. 57) describes it as “the shift in the conception of community is, notably, linked to a networked understanding of community rather than notions of shared geography and familial ties”. In the light of this view, one can argue that digital media have created and sustained religious communities, especially for scattered believers (Campbell, 2012; Ward, 2015). Yet as Campbell asks, to what extent and which group of people who interact and engage with media text can be considered a community? And an even more important question for this research is whether Christian television channels can become

134  Negotiating community for scattered converts in Iran, few of whom have experienced a Christian community in their entire lives? While the questions above are significant and worth separate research, in this chapter, I mainly analyse participants’ views and use of Farsi Christian media as community along their faith journey. Although individualism, fardgarai (mainly from shame and honour point of view),12 might be at the heart of the narratives, at the same time, one can identify in the majority of them a desire for community and a willingness to emotionally and physically invest in it, even if that community is a virtual one, because virtual communities can also be “passage points for collections of common beliefs and practices that unite people who were physically separated” (Stone, 1991, p. 81). The establishment of house churches, house groups and even promoting Christianity and Christian channels to family members, friends and relatives all are indications of participants’ longing to belong to a community, maybe not a community in the traditional sense, but a fellowship and a network sharing and interaction, where their new reality and faith can be expressed, practised and shared (Einstein, 2008). Moreover, the participants’ characteristics of a good community were not restricted to locality, language, culture or nationality but were also global and very much linked to individuals’ agenda and motives. Therefore, although the participants appeared to be individualistic in their views, they were in need of knowing and belonging – a place of “a common understanding of a shared identity” and a shared agenda (Muniz and O’Guinn, 2001). Having this view in mind, one can see four types of communities within the data: house church or house group communities; practising Christianity with family members and friends; virtual communities and individuals who have very limited communion with other Christians and have mainly kept their faith secret: their main fellowship is with the channels. The first three groups seemed to have a better chance of growing in their faith and reconstructing their identity than those who practise their faith alone or just with the Christian channels. Some of the participants who were alone in their faith at first found that their faith became real only after joining a house group or a house church. For example, Nahid had committed to Christianity with all her family (her husband and three children) but for the first few years their conversion did not change anything in their views or day-to-day life. As she explained, “After baptism, we had a good feeling but not a feeling that we had become a Christian. It was an experience, not a change of religion, until we moved to Tehran and met other people and eventually found a house church. There I understood what Christianity really meant and how to practice my new faith”. Another event in Nahid’s faith journey that strengthened her faith was when two of her sisters-in-law also became Christian. She continued, “it was a joy because whenever they visited us we prayed together and talked about Christian faith openly and encouraged each other in our new journey. We taught our children to pray

Negotiating 135 every night before going to bed and many other things”. She also emphasised that watching Christian channels (Mohabat TV and SAT-7 PARS) also became part of their family traditions. Most nights, as a family, they would watch a programme or movie together and discuss the implication of Christian faith in their daily lives before going to bed. Some house churches, especially those connected to a house church network system outside of the country, discouraged their members from watching Christian channels for denominational reasons. Other house churches would provide guidelines on how to view Christian programmes to get the best result from their viewing. For example, Nahid said about her house church: Our group used to encourage us that before watching any of the Christian programmes, we should first focus on an issue that is of concern to us, a problem in our lives, or questions related to our new faith, then pray about it that God would speak to us through the programme. With that intention I used to prepare myself before turning the TV on – bringing my problems or questions to God and asking him to answer me through television programmes. God always answered me in this way. In addition to Nahid’s way of using the channels, people like Onsia, one of Network 7’s viewers, who did not fit into any house church structures, or those who could not find a Christian group or, for security reasons, were fearful of joining a group, used the channel as their church community. Onsia explained her situation in this way: … I tried one or two house churches. But to my surprise, their moral and ethical standards were very low so I could not be part of any of them. So once again I took refuge in the Christian TV channels. They became the only window to the Christian world for me; they became my community … I used to sing with them, pray with them, worship with them … I felt I was there with them. As we have noticed, there have been some people who used the Christian channels, mainly as a last resort, as their faith community and a place of belonging although virtually,13 but the majority used the channels more as a resource to create a community of their own. Relationship process Reading through the data, one can see two parallel procedures: one is a relationship process with the channels and the other is a conversion process. Sometimes they overlap. In both cases, indications of change and transformation of lives can be traced. I have observed three stages that

136  Negotiating can describe the relationship process of participants with the channels: pre-viewing, during viewing and post viewing. Pre-viewing: audiences recognise their problem (spiritual awareness),14 then they search for information, alternatives and solutions. In this stage, seekers might discover a Christian channel, accidentally, through a friend’s recommendation or other means. During viewing, they become visitors to a Christian channel, evaluating the message, theologically, socially and morally, against their agenda and needs, including comparing it with Islam. At this stage, they might also contact the channel for further information or evaluation (pre-affiliation with the channel). Based on their attraction, agenda and desire to experiment and the channel’s encouragement, they may practise the rituals (praying in the name of Christ, “saying the salvation prayer”, “giving their hearts to Christ”, acquiring a copy of the Bible, or reading the Bible).15 If, after that, they see any results, then they might commit to the channel (affiliation and informal membership).16 Post viewing includes interaction with the channel and promoting its message (evangelism) to others. Evangelism is one of the main activities of new members. In fact, the individual becomes the channel’s representative in their society. That means, they promote the channels to friends, family and relatives, and some participants indicated that they promote the channel they affiliate with and Christianity even on the streets and to strangers. During this stage, the relationship between a Christian channel and an individual becomes crucial for both parties because both sides have their own plan and strategy and engage in a variety of tactics during their encounter with each other (Rambo, 1993, p. 66). For example, to the channels, every viewer is a potential convert and advertiser of their message. Therefore, the channels assess their audiences’ motives to “formulate persuasive tactics”. However, the audiences’ motives, agenda and tactics are more complex and dynamic than the channels’. They too seek to enhance their own agenda and interests; their two questions then can be: “what do I gain?” and “what do I lose?”: cost and benefit calculation are always on the audiences’ agenda. Consequently, for audiences to find answers to their questions and for the channels to encourage them to convert to Christianity, it is crucial to build stronger relationships, especially for the channels that seek fast results for the purpose of their fundraising. Thus, the relationship process between the channels and their audiences might develop faster than their conversion process. Although the channels interpret this development as conversion, the audience might see it as starting point of something new. Until this stage, it is more about the channels and the audience than Christian faith or conversion as such. The next stage might be “relationship with Christ”. That means, even after praying in the name of Jesus Christ and meditating on his teachings and work, they may not comprehend Christianity but simply have a spiritual encounter with Christ himself

Negotiating 137 again not as God but an upgraded version of the Islamic Messiah. Most negotiators admitted that they did not know much about Christianity or change of religion, but rather had come to “faith in Christ”. As a result, it can be seen that seekers may start their religious shift with converting to “faith in Jesus Christ”; yet, not Jesus Christ as a Divine God, but as the living Miracle Maker. Their faith in Christ might later expand to Christian faith, especially when they find and join a group. For example, Kourosh said: … When we found a house church, there we realised how wrong we were about Christian faith and our practices. Although we called ourselves Christians, [jokingly] our house church leader had to detox us first before even starting to teach us … Yet, it may, as Amir another participant said: “[take] ages to get to a place where I am comfortable with my Christian faith”. That means change of faith is a process and it takes several stages until converts not only feel at home but also get familiar with their new faith. Shifting from one religion to another takes time, maybe years (Austin-Broos, 2003). Constructing a new religious identity takes even longer (Gillespie, 1991). Demonstrating Christian faith by converts, especially those who have only seen Christianity on television screen, and putting their faith into practice, has been a challenge because of lack of interaction and shared community. Einstein (2008, p. 83) says: “Identification is supported by interactions with other individuals. Being part of a community that supports your belief system is what is most likely to keep you believing”. All the above indicates that conversion to a new religion through media can happen and is happening, but for conversion to take root, it cannot rely solely on a channel or any virtual groups outside of the convert’s context, because the audiences (new converts) need intense and consistent interactions with guidance and stable leadership. Therefore, conversion to a religion is not like conversion to a product or a label through advertisements that the consumer can simply purchase from the market but a lifelong process and reflection.

The conversion processes I started namaz when I was nine years old. My family were strict Muslims. My mother and grandmother were Quran teachers. My uncles were part of the community of Ashoura and Tashoua, very strict. I too was a God-fearing person … my desire was to live with God and please him … I always was sick and depressed because I always thought I was not doing my religious duties well … slowly, slowly doubts hovered over my heart. I lost my faith … and my depression got worse. I used to cry day and night. One night accidentally I found Mohabat TV.

138  Negotiating The programme was about salvation and redemption. They were saying that God is with us, we just need to go to him to be redeemed. I felt I needed that so I prayed to receive that redemption. (Golnosh, aged 39, from Rasht) As discussed in Chapter 3, understanding the concept of conversion is simplified by the channels and limited only to the audience’s self-­proclamation and repeating of a salvation/repentance prayer: although, in theory, all channels agreed that conversion is a complex process, no one knows when and how it happens. Studying the conversion stories of the participants one can notice that there is not a fixed formula or procedure that one can apply to all converts’ faith journeys. Moreover, the Biblical meaning of conversion as metanoia also cannot be applied to the majority of converts’ stories in this study: that involves repentance, rebirth, a mystical phenomenon, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ being accepted for salvation of individuals from sin. At the early stage, “converts” lack knowledge of salvation and of doctrine. The narratives indicate that conversion is more an individual and personal process based on their agenda, being chronological rather than phenomenal (Rambo, 1993), a social action derived from individuals’ needs and wants, and linked to the religious media marketplace. As has been argued, the conversion stories of this research indicated cumulative factors and motives and that is why this research adopted Rambo’s seven stage model. For him, every conversion is unique and contextual, influenced by “multiple interactive and cumulative factors” (Rambo, 1993, p. 5). Conversion or finding a new religion for many participants had been a way of solving problems, creating meanings and finding higher purpose. In fact, as Rambo argues, in the word conversion, there is a “universe of possible meaning”, it can mean “whatever one chooses it to mean” Rambo (1993, pp. 3–4).17 The political and social context of participants had been the most influential in sending them to search for religious alternatives. Over 80 per cent of the narratives and all of the interviews indicated that unreasonable “religious” demands by their families, as well as the actions of the government in the name of Islam, had created doubt and uncertainty about their belief system – Islam (Barbour, 1994). Consequently, they had turned away from religion in general. At first, they felt happier and free but this happiness did not last long. Soon it was replaced with feelings of uncertainty, depression and confusion, which for many led to drugs, and for some, cults. The main struggles were related to life being meaningless and empty without any purpose to life. Rambo calls this crisis stage. Their desperate situations (physically and psychologically) impelled them to search for something or someone, mainly religious and spiritual ideologies, to restore purpose and meaning in their lives – the quest stage. In this stage, they were prepared to experiment with whatever indicated a sign of hope and peace for a better and healthier future. Some of them had even

Negotiating 139 experienced multiple conversions. Then came the encounter stage. Since Christianity offered them more opportunities such as migration, global religious identities,18 identification with the West, modern lifestyle, religious solutions to their problems, relationship with the Divine God and an easier “life after death” ideology, Christianity became a more attractive religion than other available alternatives. The next level is interaction: through their interactions with the Christian message, if it fitted their agenda, then they might move to the next stage of commitment. However, if the Christian faith did not fit their criteria or their problems were not solved, they might disaffiliate themselves from it. And once again, they may go back to the crisis stage and continue their search somewhere else. This cycle might be repeated for some time until they get what they were searching for. If their attraction to the Christian faith became stronger than their attachment to their agenda, they might revise their agenda to fit Christian ideology. That means, individuals’ needs may not be met by religious groups, they may be shaped to religious purposes. At this stage, participants might be ready to commit themselves to the journey of conversion. Maria’s story is one of many who had to go through a few cycles of affiliation and disaffiliation with both Christian channels and the Christian faith until she, at an event in her life, committed herself to the Christian faith. Maria’s story is a long one, yet in order to demonstrate stages, it is important to present most of the story in her words. It was just after my marriage … I was very lonely and depressed … So as I was going through the channels my eye caught on the name of a channel “Mohabat” I stopped there. It was also written “God is love”. I was interested to know what they meant by this. I had a very different picture of God, there was no love but “do’s” and “don’ts”; hell and heaven … and enormous fear of him, fear of his hell and his wrath. While I was watching the channel and thinking about the belief I was brought up with, for example whatever we do there is an element of sin in the act … so there is no chance of being with God and there is not much hope for heaven either. Secondly, how can He be love when He puts me in hell for a thousand years just because a small amount of my hair was showing? … So I asked myself, how can then God be a God of love? What does it mean? So I kept watching to know more… … I picked up the phone and called the station. There was no answer; I left them my number on their answering machine. After a week, I received a call from them. After talking for two or three minutes, the lady on the phone asked me if I wanted to receive Christ, if so I could repeat a prayer after her. I didn’t know what it meant but I said ok and I repeated it after her. At the end she said “now you are a Christian”. The whole conversation lasted only five minutes. I was so confused and said to her, “just like that”? …. She said, ‘you don’t need to do anything, just continue watching our programmes’. It felt a bit unreal…

140  Negotiating …. [After the telephone conversation] the only thing that changed or was added to my life was a new fear. I felt that by agreeing with her and repeating something I didn’t know what it was, I had sinned and especially, if she was right, and I had changed my religion then I am murtad (apostate) and I will go to hell. So this fear also added to the rest of the fears that I was already struggling with. That event passed … a few days later, I forgot about it. I even didn’t watch the channel anymore. And I forgot about Christ and Christianity. Until one day, once again I had a big problem, a marriage problem. I knew the only person who can solve it is God, so I needed a miracle. I remembered Christ and the loving God. So I prayed to Christ …. Miraculously, my problem was solved. I search for the channel again and started watching it more and I started praying in the name of Jesus Christ from that time. So the direction of my life changed … (Maria, interviewed on 26 May 2015) As we see from Maria’s story, conversion is not an event but a process, a deliberate decision influenced by multiple factors and groups. As Rambo (1993, p. 1) indicates, “all conversions are mediated through people, institutions, communities and groups”. The context for Maria, the crisis situation in her life and her quest directed her to the available religious alternative on media, with which she had experimented once before. In fact, her personality and problem-solving perspective, which was based on religion, was the main factor leading to her decision to choose Christianity. Moreover, like Maria, people seek to maximise their growth, opportunities and resources that would enhance their life purpose and life’s meanings and to solve their problems. Therefore, the quest stage is an on-going process. It will greatly intensify during times of crisis as indicated in Maria’s story. The crises are normally introduced as reasons for their search and for their conversion. Most of their dialogues with, and analysis of, the Christian faith or of Christ are based on their quest. In fact, their quest, together with their context, shapes, structures and constructs their conversion. For example, in the story of Abootaleb, a man in his 20s, from Kerman, whose father was a mullah (Islamic clergy) and a judge, he was exposed to the regime system and the things he observed made him question his Islam. Gradually, he lost his faith, and started a search for other alternatives until he found Christian channels. After watching Christian programmes for a few months, he felt comfortable with the Christian faith, because it “fitted all the criteria he had for a faith” and “after careful consideration” he decided to commit his life to Christ. After commitment, converts go through an on-going negotiation and dialogue between their past belief and their new commitment to Christianity as described in Chapter 4, the focus group discussions. Their negotiations and engagements were mainly demonstrated in the form of comparisons between Islam and Christianity, mainly “what Islam did to them” and

Negotiating 141 “what Christ has given them”, little knowledge of religion was evident in almost all narratives and interviews. Their comparisons are mainly based on personal experiences and generalisations based on their life events, their past stories, their present situation and their hope for future. During this time, converts desire to share their new faith with others, yet may face consequences. Rambo rightly calls this stage, “consequences”; Gooren (2010) calls it “confession” and Einstein (2008) prefers to call it “evangelism”, the moment at which “the member, from his or her own belief, wants to share that belief with others”.

Conclusion In this chapter, I argued that conversion is a more complex procedure than the channels presumed. It involves multiple stages with cycles of negotiations and dialogues with the Christian message and their religious worldview on the one hand and between the Christian message and converts’ agenda and needs on the other hand (Cohen, 1994, 2000). Through the analysis of participants’ narratives and interviews, I demonstrated audiences’ relationship with the channels and the importance of community in which new converts can make sense of their new faith. Through examining recurring themes – the concept of God, the person of Jesus Christ, the issue of forgiveness, the topic of fear and shame and religious experiences such as dreams and visions and miraculous healings – I demonstrated the influence of participants’ past religious background and their socio-political context while interpreting and engaging with the Christian message. For example, what it means to become a Christian or to become a follower of Jesus Christ are two different issues: one might mean a change of religious affiliation and the other adding to an existing religious system. In the relationship process section, in explaining the two parallel processes of relating to the channels and the conversion process, I have argued that participants’ relationship with the channels and their encounter with the Christian faith may not necessarily mean conversion or change of religion, although for some it might have overlapped with their conversion process, especially at the last stage, post-viewing, when participants increased their interaction with the channel and promoted the channel and Christian faith to others. In the next chapter, I will analyse the disaffiliation and resistance stories of participants against Christian channels and the Christian message.

Notes 1 “Repentance” is also an Islamic term that is used often by both repentant and religious leaders. It means to return in a physical sense (Stern, 1990). Hossein’s story above is a good example of Islamic repentance ideology. 2 There are substantial attributes to Christ’s miracles within Sufi and Shia religious stories.

142  Negotiating 3 The Quran introduces Jesus Christ as “the word of God” (Quran 4:171) and the spirit of God (Quran 5:110). 4 Tabatabai, a 20th century Shia scholar, whose proclamation results in an inner revolution and turning point in the person’s life – conversion. In Sufism and Orthodox Christianity terms, participating in the divine (deification) brings about the transformation of individuals; it could be through dreams or vision or even physical healing. 5 It might be also interesting to say that the name Jesus has almost always been accompanied with Messiah, both in their narratives and in their interviews. It is a sign of respect and honour, which is rooted in the culture as well as religious worldviews. I will discuss this more in Chapter 7 where I analyse focus group discussions. 6 Qesas is an Arabic term means “legal retaliation” in which the perpetrator of the crime is normally punished with the same injury. Quran 2:178 and other verses has also given guidelines to the law of qesas. The interesting point in the law of qesas is the fact that victims are given the choice to participate in sentencing the perpetrator as well as “a choice as to the punishment that will be imposed. They may choose to forgive the defendant and demand no punishment at all, or they may demand a payment known as ‘diyya’, as compensation for the crime … or may also demand retaliation in kind: an eye for an eye, a life for a life” (Hascall, 2011). 7 Luke 23:34. One can also read about the concept of forgiveness in the Quran 15:85 and 39:54. 8 This could be a fascinating research topic in the area of both psychology and cultural anthology, but the scope of this research does not allow the analysis of dreams and visions of audience. 9 Nevertheless, we only hear dreams of individuals where Christ confirms his truthfulness to them, we do not hear much about the dreams that rejected Christ’s divinity and/or approved the individual’s current religious belief systems. 10 Translated by the researcher. 11 The issue of disaffiliation and dissatisfaction are discussed in Chapter 7 under: the title Disaffiliation. 12 One can argue that the individualism within Iranian shame and honour culture is horizontal and based on person’s value in personal uniqueness within the collective. Competition and comparison are integral for gaining personal honour. In this view, people speak more about dignity (hormat) than honour (namous). However, the collectivism side of shame and honour is vertical that means people as a group give greater emphasis to ascribed honour than achieved ones, for example, Persianism among Iranians in diaspora, many of them called themselves Persians without being ethnically Persian. 13 The Network 7 electronic church, Church Seven (Kelisa-e Haft), was introduced in Chapter 4. Its aim has been to create a virtual church with stronger and friendlier relationships for those individuals in Iran with no church connections. 14 Many of them may not have specifically thought of seeking a religious or a faith alternative, but instead it had come to them through media. At this stage, they become seekers/explorers of the new ideology. 15 The channel might help them to experience the Christian faith in two ways: the soft approach, offering them prayers and advice to solve their problems and encouraging them to experience for themselves by praying in the name of Christ. Some of the channels, especially Mohabat TV, have taken a second approach, a more progressive approach, by asking them on their first call to convert to Christianity by just repeating a prayer. Indirectly telling them, if they are seeking Christ’s healing, that they first need to convert to Christian faith. Some channels use a combination of both.

Negotiating 143 16 Some channels like Network 7 have created a formal membership through their Church Seven programmes. 17 The seven stages are context, crisis, quest, encounter, interaction, commitment and consequence. Based on this model, we examine audience claims of conversion. 18 Participants are aware of global religious identities, which is something that the regime has been promoting as seeing themselves as the leaders of Islam (Shiaism as global religious identity). For many to replace that identity with another global religious identity (Christianity) and being part of a global religious network is a political gesture. This also relates to their historical issues with Islam and Arabs.

Bibliography Ahmadi, N. and Ahmadi, F. (1998) Iranian Islam: The Concept of the Individual. London: Palgrave Macmillan. Amanat, M. (2011) Jewish Identities in Iran: Resistance and Conversion to Islam and the Baha’i Faith. London and New York: I. B. Tauris. Austin-Broos, D. (2003) ‘The anthropology of conversion: An introduction’, in Buckser A. and Glazier S. D. (eds.) The Anthropology of Religious Conversion, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, pp. 1–12. Barbour, J. D. (1994) Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press. Bradley, M. (2014) Too Many to Jail: The Story of Iran’s New Christians. Grand Rapids, MI: Monarch Books. Campbell, H. A. (ed.) (2012) Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. London and New York: Routledge. Cimino, R. and Lattin, D. (1999) ‘Choosing My Religion’, American Demographics, 21 (4), pp. 60–65. Available at: http://adage.com/article/american-demographics/ choosing-religion/42364/ (Accessed: 4 July 2016). Cohen, A. (1994) Self Conciousness: An Alternative Anthropology of Identity. London: Routledge. Cohen, A. P. (ed.) (2000) Signifying Identities: Anthropological Perspectives on Boundaries and Contested Values. London: Routledge. Einstein, M. (2008) Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. London and New York: Routledge. Faali, M. T. (2009) Religious Experience and Sufi Meditation. 3rd edn. Tehran: Publishing House of Institute for Islamic Culture and Thought. Gillespie, V. B. (1991) The Dynamics of Religious Conversion. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press. Gooren, H. (2010) Religious Conversion and Disaffiliation: Tracing Patterns of Change in Faith Practices. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Hascall, S. C. (2011) ‘Restorative Justice in Islam: Should Qisas Be Considered a Form of Restorative Justice?’, Berkeley Journal of Middle Eastern Islamic Law, 4 (1), pp. 35–78. Available at: http://heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/ bjme4&div=7&g_sent=1&collection=journals (Accessed: 15 May 2017). Herzfeld, M. (1980) ‘Honour and Shame: Problems in the Comparative Analysis of Moral Systems’, Man, 15 (2), pp. 339–351. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/ stable/2801675 (Accessed: 15 May 2017).

144  Negotiating Hobson, J. A., Hong, C. C.-H. and Friston, K. J. (2014) ‘Virtual Reality and Consciousness Inference in Dreaming’, Frontiers in Psychology, Vol. 5, Article No. 1133. Available at: http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/ fpsyg.2014.01133/full (Accessed: 15 May 2017). Muniz, A. M. and O’Guinn, T. C. (2001) ‘Brand community’, Journal of Consumer Research, 27 (4), pp. 412–432. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/319618. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/jcr/article/27/4/412/1810411/Brand-Community (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Rambo, L. R. (1993) Understanding Religious Conversion. New Haven: Yale University Press. Roof, W. C. (1993). ‘Religion and Narrative’, Review of Religious Research, 34 (4), pp. 297–310. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3511969.pdf (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Rosen, L. (1989) The Anthropology of Justice: Law as Culture in Islamic Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Snow, D. A. and Machalek, R. (1984). ‘The Sociology of Conversion’, Annual Review of Sociology, 10, pp. 167–190. Available at: http://www.annualreviews. org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.so.10.080184.001123 (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Stark, R. and Finke, R. (2000) Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press. Stern, M. S. (trans.) (1990) Al-Ghazzali on Repentance. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers. Stone, A. R. (1991) ‘Will the real body please stand up?’, in Benedikt, M. (ed). Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 81–118. Also available at: http://sodacity.net/system/files/Sandy_ Stone_Will_the_Real_Body_Please_ Stand_Up.pdf (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Ward, M. (ed.) (2015) The Electronic Church in the Digital Age: Cultural Impacts of Evangelical Mass Media. V2. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

7

Resisting

The establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 changed the way Iranians thought about religion and its relationship to modernity. Ayatollah Khomeini’s mass mobilisation of Islam should also be interpreted as a mass (re) conversion of Iranians to Islam. However, over the years, there have been waves of protests and crackdowns, and recent studies (Maleki and Arab, 2020) indicate significant resistance among Iranians in relation to both the political system and institutional religion. For example, as per Tamimi Arab and Maleki and Tamimi Arab’s survey in 2020, only 40% of Iranians identified as Muslims (in contrast to the 99.5% claimed by Iran’s census), 20% did not believe in anything, and 9% identified as atheists. Therefore, one can argue that resistance towards institutional religion has increased in Iran during the past two decades. However, the aim of this chapter is not to discuss resisting religion in contemporary Iran, but rather to investigate why some Iranians resist the Christian message. Two meanings of resisting have been used in this chapter: the first relates to the deliberate decision to avoid something – in this context, refusing to accept or comply with the Christian message as presented on Christian channels; and the second relates to deconversion (moving away) from Islam. This chapter, therefore, aims to investigate some of the factors that might have affected audiences’ views and decisions to avoid or stop viewing Christian programmes, including both those who had affiliated with the channels at first, but later disaffiliated, and those who opposed viewing them altogether. The issue of disaffiliation and deconversion from Islam, their previous religion, will also be studied. The chapter has been divided into four sections: section one studies the terms disaffiliation, deconversion and resistance; section two examines some of the narratives of those who resisted the channels and the Christian message at first, but later converted to Christianity; section three responds to the question of why some people become occasional visitors to a Christian (religious) channel; and the final section discusses those who keep their distance from all Christian (religious) media. DOI: 10.4324/9781003004905-8

146  Resisting

Disaffiliation, deconversion and resistance The main focus of Christian media ministries to Muslim countries is on three issues: people who watch their programmes; people who accept their message (conversion); and, to a much lesser extent and mainly based on assumption, factors that might lead some people to watch Christian programmes or convert to Christianity. There has not been much research on why some people resist watching Christian programmes and, more importantly, why some, after association with the Christian message, disaffiliate from Christian channels. Similarly, scholars have tended to be more interested in religious conversion in whatever form and meaning than in religious deconversion and disaffiliation (Barbour, 1994; Fazzino, 2014). Although, during the past few decades, there has been growing research on the concept of disaffiliation and deconversion, most of the research has been based on North American or European societies, mainly addressing denominational disaffiliation – with some exceptions, such as Fazzino’s work on disaffiliation from Christianity to atheism. What is disaffiliation? What is deconversion? Studying the data of this research, one can observe some differences between denominational “disaffiliation” and “deconversion” from one’s religious system. For example, Gooren’s (2010, p. 49) concept of disaffiliation mainly refers to particular actions or practices, mainly disaffiliation from “a former involvement in an organised religious group” seen as a social act. I use his term mostly for those who affiliate to Christian faith and, after that, for some reason, disaffiliate from it. The term deconversion in the studies of Barbour (1994) is more appropriate for those participants who have left Islam – their entire way of life – in such a way that one can still observe from their narratives “feelings of grief, guilt, loneliness and despair”. I have also used the term “divorce”, inspired by participants’ interviews, as one of them described his deconversion from Islam as, “It feels like separating from one’s first love”. The deconversion (divorce) narratives of those coming from devoted Muslim families are normally longer and more emotional, with painful feelings of loss of identity, separation from families and communities, longing to belong and desperation for new meaning and purpose in their lives. Although the aim of this chapter is not to analyse the participants’ deconversion process from Islam or their disaffiliation from their religious society, it is important to acknowledge the process because, firstly, the majority of participants have experienced deconversion and disaffiliation at least once, which means it might happen in a seeker’s life again (Gooren, 2010); secondly, the experience of deconversion shapes seekers’ new faith-based values and religious identity, which one can see in narratives when participants explain what values of Christianity replaced their lost faith (Barbour, 1994), for example, a “loving God” replaces a

Resisting 147 “judgmental God”; finally, it can be argued that there are more people who resist conversion than people who convert, even among those who have disaffiliated from their religious belief system (Fazzino, 2014). It is, thus, important to understand the deconversion process of some of the participants. Some of the decisions to disaffiliate from the Christian faith and the channels after a period of association, both psychologically and socially, relate to participants’ memories of Islam and the regime and their painful deconversion process. For example, Kourosh, one of participants who first affiliated with Christianity presented on the channels, but later on disaffiliated from them, commented on his disaffiliation in this way: “They [Christian channels] become a Christianised model of Ashoura, yet a happy-clappy version. Why do I need to be part of another hiat [Ashoura’s fan club] again?” Another person described Christian pastors on the television screen as “mullahs [Muslim clergy] with ties”. However, as important as the topic of disaffiliation is, it is difficult, if not impossible, to investigate reasons why some people who have affiliated with or converted to the Christian faith then move away, for we do not have access to the majority of these people. For that reason, disaffiliation of people from Christian faith after their commitment will be discussed only in relation to the Farsi Christian channels and will mainly be based on the accounts of those who have chosen to tell their stories. Therefore, it cannot be extrapolated to all conversion dropouts. Although there are some stories of disaffiliation from the Christian channels, mainly within the interviews, the data did not provide much information as to why people did not watch or stopped watching Christian channels. To address this resistance gap, a random telephone survey in four cities in Iran – Greater Tehran, Kerman (southern Iran), Isfahan (central Iran) and Tabriz (north-western Iran) – was conducted to investigate some reasons and explanations of those who have resisted the Christian message and Christian media,1 as discussed in the introduction of this book. The stories of deconversion and disaffiliation As has been mentioned earlier, religious disaffiliation can have two patterns. People disaffiliate from one, because they chose to affiliate to another (Albrecht and Bahr, 1983), disaffiliation being like switching from one religious product to another or non-religious products, especially with a vast range of alternatives in the religious market. To this, Fazzino (2014) adds, “As the cultural and social milieux change, so do people’s religious preferences, allowing the emergence of a robust ‘spiritual marketplace’ for religious consumers that both represents and supports mobility in a pluralistic society”. The spiritual marketplace has legitimised movements in and between religions and spiritual ideologies (Albrecht and Bahr, 1983; Fazzino, 2014). Therefore, the first pattern or disaffiliation is that many

148  Resisting religious disaffiliations and re-affiliations occur as the result of religious experimentation, practices and the desires of the moment. For example, as one of the participants said, “I tried it; it wasn’t for me”. The second type of disaffiliation can be described as deconversion. The way Fazzino (2014) portrays deconversion sets a tune for this research as well: “De-conversion is both a dynamic multi-stage experience of transformative change marked both by liberation from and opposition against religion and a repertoire of symbolic meaning that supports a rapidly growing secular culture”. In this understanding, as McKnight and Ondrey (2008) argue, every deconversion can be seen also as a potential conversion to or movement towards conversion. For instance, the majority of the participants’ narratives and interviews speak expressively and painfully of their deconversion from Islam, at the same time as their moves towards Christianity. Therefore, at the heart of most of the conversion stories is a story of deconversion. For Barbour (1994), deconversion, like disaffiliation, is a conscious choice of rejecting one’s religious belief system, not merely based on being “irrelevant, but also incorrect”. Building on Barbour’s ideology, one can argue that the deconversion journey is not only part of the process of conversion, but also the most influential segment in formation of the new values and identity of converts. Barbour (1994, p. 2) sees four descriptions in most of the individuals’ narratives of deconversion: “intellectual doubt, moral criticism, emotional suffering and disaffiliation from community”. Although Barbour’s theory is helpful, one can argue that not all deconversion narratives include all four elements. This depends mainly on the socio-religious culture of individuals and their agendas. For example, the two first elements, intellectual and moral criticism, are mainly explained from political and psychological points of views in the majority of narratives and interviews for this research, rather than from a religious point of view. However, emotional suffering can be observed mainly in the narratives of those who were very much involved in religious practice, perhaps because they were brought up in fundamentalist and devoted Muslim families. In contradistinction to the first groups, the stories of this group are not specifically related to the political situation, but they relate to doubt and the erroneous methods of Islamic teaching, leading to loss of trust in their faith. Golnosh, a 39-yearold woman from Rasht, northern Iran, mentioned in Chapter 6, is a good example of this. Going back to Golnosh’s story, one can see that she went through all of Barbour’s four categories. She rejected her belief system (Islam), disaffiliated from her community, yet a “longing-for-God” in her heart did not vanish until, aimlessly flipping through channels on her satellite receiver, she found Mohabat TV. The programme, according to Golnosh, was about “salvation, redemption, God’s love and his presence”. She says, “… that moment a light started shining in my heart” – to her that was a sign of hope for an establishment of a new relationship with God. Therefore, she

Resisting 149 started to go through the process of conversion. Her deconversion from Islam was a separate process from her conversion (Barbour, 1994). Her conversion to Christianity was a replacement for what she had lost through her deconversion process. It is important to note that, while going through the deconversion process, Golnosh was not aware of the fact that a change of religion was possible and an option for her.

Disaffiliation from the channels In contrast to Golnosh’s challenging deconversion journey, the stories of disaffiliation from the Christian faith and Christian channels are commonly presented in sociological terms, as making choices, experimenting with and being open to other spiritual alternatives on offer in the religious marketplace (Einstein, 2008). Nevertheless, if we examine the stories of converts – especially of those who do not wish to leave the Christian faith, but who disaffiliate from Christian channels – one can observe intellectual and moral criticism as well as a sense of frustration and disappointment with the channels. Examining the stories of disaffiliation from the channels in this competitive spiritual marketplace, one can see four reasons for their decisions: the first and main reason was the low quality and theologically and intellectually poor programme content; the second was exclusivism and supremacism projected by the channels’ presenters and teachers; the third was commercialisation of Christianity, that had made Christianity “look like a show”; and the final factor related to those who had joined a house church with a different denominational affiliation and codes of practice, which had discouraged them from watching programmes other than those of their own. The four factors now will be analysed using participants’ responses.

Poor production and content quality Comments on the content of programmes (theological and intellectual) were one of the main themes among both Christians and non-Christians and both regular and occasional audiences. Bahaneh, a woman from Mashhad, a viewer of Network 7 and TBN Nejat TV, responded to the question, “Why did you stop watching?” by saying: There wasn’t anything there for me anymore. They just repeat the same content over and over again without giving a convincing argument, asking the audience to accept Christ. That is good; I became Christian. But what about after conversion? [She jokingly added] There is life after conversion, isn’t there? Although she tried to be calm, one could sense a frustration and disappointment in her tone over the content of programmes. The same

150  Resisting perspective can be seen in the story of Koroush, a man in his 30s, a viewer of Mohabat TV: I used to be very excited, every evening, when I came home: The first thing I used to do was switch the TV on to get energised. But after a while, I felt everything became monotonous, with the same old stories, over and over again. They became like another state [IRIB] channel. I stopped watching them altogether. Liyla’s response is also noteworthy. She is from southern Iran and had been a regular viewer of SAT-7 PARS since 2009: As a new believer – as I was – with many questions and doubts in mind, I didn’t know what kind of step I should take next. What should I do for certain issues? I even had doubts about my own identity – what I was becoming or not becoming. The channel was an answer to my many uncertainties. I could get many of my questions answered. But later I felt all the channels became the same. I feel there is not much strong teaching that would satisfy me anymore. And their poor quality of programmes also made them into lousy shows … I stopped watching them. The audience demanded the channels to grow with them and develop further in their content and production quality. Their slow (or lack of) growth and innovation become a disappointing factor to some of their devoted audience which caused disaffiliation from the channels.

Exclusivism: A sense of superiority and dominance Ali’s response illustrates this reason. He is in his late 20s and from Tehran. He commented: They say, “The Holy Spirit just told me this or that, to tell you that …”, “God put in my heart to read to you this passage”, or another of them shouts, “Hussein! God just told me that you are suffering from back pain and he wants to heal you, put your hand on the TV”. There is no logic behind all this … they want to tell us that they have a direct line with God and we don’t … I just don’t get it and don’t like it. The messages that have been presented on all four channels encourage exclusivism: “The only way to God is through Jesus Christ – Christianity”, or, “being a child of God”, which have created a moral objection and doubts. The sense of exclusivism that some participants spoke about might be as the result of the influences of American theology and culture of chosenness (Brueggemann, 2015), especially by teachings from Pentecostalism

Resisting 151 and the prosperity gospel, which give ready-packaged answers to everyday situations wrapped in the feel-good message: Every problem can be answered by accepting Christ in one’s life (Anderson, 2013). Readers may remember Dr Mike Amato, the director of Mohabat TV, insisting that one of the strengths of his channel was in their effective recruitment criterion for audience follow up: applicants must have an excellent knowledge of both scriptural verses and their interpretations for everyday problems, so that they can apply them to viewers’ every situation. Participants’ unenthusiastic observations in this area belay his assumption. A we-know-it-all approach creates a cultural and religious gap between the audience’s religious worldview and the channels, generating doubt about the ability of the channels’ presenters and telephone counsellors. For example, the frustrated Onsia, who used to admire the channels and see herself as belonging to one of them, has now not only ceased to watch but has disassociated herself from them: Presenters speak in such a way that they know-it-all … they have more gifts than us. They get revelations from God, but we don’t. They are more righteous than people like me. Whereas, they have no clue, no understanding of what we have been going through; they cannot even imagine how we reach this stage of faith, that we are in now … Therefore, the sense of superiority and exclusivism from the channels and their policy of providing ready-made answers to even life’s difficult circumstances and situations may have caused some audiences to think that the contents are not real. In Chapter 3, I briefly talked about the mediatisation of Farsi Christianity, linked to consumptions and negotiations of the meaning of life and faith in the reception of the religious marketplace of Farsi Christian channels. However, the criticisms of some among the audience, who have disaffiliated themselves from the channels, have also included the commercialisation of religion in a modern, entertainment sense (Moore, 1995). For example, Zahra, a woman in her mid-30s, from Tehran, a viewer of Network 7 and Mohabat TV, said: I feel they [the channels] have changed a lot. They used to be much better. Presenters used to be more down to earth. Now it has become a kind of show … too commercial … it has become too much about money … it doesn’t feel real anymore.

House church affiliation The last reason was mainly related to joining a denominationally focused house church network. Despite the increase of persecution and limitation on Christian missionary activities and a ban on evangelisation of Muslims

152  Resisting in Iran, one can observe the spread of different Christian denominations and cults across Iran. Reports show that many underground house churches have been established (Bradley, 2014). Besides the mainstream Christian denominations, groups such as Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus Only churches are also active in converting Muslims to their own faiths (Bradley, 2014; Van Gorder, 2010). There are three main issues as to why most house church networks would like to keep their members away from other networks, including Christian channels: the issues of security, funding and denominational theology. Many house church leaders encourage their group to refrain from watching Christian channels in order to teach and train them in their own way of Christian life and discipline. One example of this is the response of Reza, a man in his 30s, who moved to Turkey in 2015 in the hope of migration to the USA. He said: Though I did start my Christian faith with them (Christian channels), when I joined a house church, I realised all the teachings I received from them about Christianity were totally wrong. So our pastor encouraged us, for the health of our faith, not to watch any Christian channels. These issues were raised by those who had disaffiliated from the channels. There will have been a significant number of converts who also disaffiliated from the Christian faith, but unfortunately, we do not hear from them and have no access to their stories in order to find out their reasons for disaffiliation. While it is difficult to know the number of people who converted through Christian channels, it is even more difficult to find out about those who drop out. Anecdotal data shows dropout numbers among people who have converted through channels are higher than those who converted face to face. For example, Mike Amato, the director of Mohabat TV, stated that Mohabat TV called all the people in their records who converted to Christianity through their channel in 2014 (a total of 4,268). The result was “alarming”. A significant number of the audience denied their conversion; some even did not want any relationship with the channel; others said that their decision was an emotional one and they didn’t mean it; and others refused to talk to them. Only a few thanked them for calling and following up with them. 2 Looking back to Barbour’s (1994) observation and description of four elements of the deconversion process, one can argue that the audience’s disaffiliation from Christian television channels and/or the Christian faith is only remotely related to intellectual doubts and emotional suffering. It is more linked to experimentation, freedom of choice, the vast array of alternatives available, the active religious marketplace and the audiences’ agendas and needs. Chapter 5 saw that the purpose of experimenting is to discover and try something new and unknown. It is a temporary position for many members of the audience, to examine and experience new ideologies without wholeheartedly committing to them. If a new religious ideology

Resisting 153 fits their agenda and helps to achieve their goals, whatever those might be, individuals might consider affiliating with it temporarily and even experience conversion (Gooren, 2010). Nevertheless, after experimenting with the idea, if the product is unsatisfactory to the individuals then they may move away from it – disaffiliation. However, the opposite of this scenario can also happen – moving from resistance to affiliation and conversion.

From resistance to affiliation and conversion Another type of resistance can be seen in the story of participants who initially resisted the channels and the Christian message, but whose curiosity kept them going back to the channel and the Christian message. Some wanted to find the shortcomings and “corruptions” of the Christian message in order to prove that their faith (Islam) is “the perfect revelation” from God, while others wanted to understand what Christian faith was about and how they can relate it to this “cultural invasion” (see Chapter 2). Both types of people were exclusive in their faith and understanding and convinced of the truthfulness of their faith (Islam), in which they had put their trust. However, after watching for a while, their doubts about Islam started and increased rapidly. As Mahmoud explained it: There cannot be two truths … if Jesus Christ is the truth, then what about Prophet Mohammad? If Prophet Mohammad is the truth, then what about the truth of Jesus Christ? This issue paralysed my life and I felt depressed and sick. In fact, before that, Christian channels for Mahmoud were all about “blasphemy”, “twisting the truth” and “brainwashing the youth”. What convinced Mahmoud to join the Christian faith was his dreams. As he recalled: One night I was so distressed, I couldn’t sleep; and I was in pain … I prayed to God to show me the truth … that night I had a vision. Christ came to my dream and said to me ‘I am the truth, follow me’. Mahmoud’s dream convinced him that Jesus is the truth. That moment was “a happy moment” for him because, as he put it, “… it was not the Christian programmes that convinced me, but Christ himself”. Mahmoud did not want to give any credit to Christian channels for his conversion, but only to Christ, for he did not want to be seen as “a weak person” who was “brainwashed” by Christian channels into changing his faith. Similarly, Morteza of the Revolutionary Guard perceived Christian channels as part of “Western cold war propaganda” against Islam and the regime, whose purpose was “to prey on the youth and destroy their faith in Islam”. He watched the channels for his information and also “to put more

154  Resisting blame on them for their wrong teachings”. However, what he heard made him more perplexed about his own faith. He called SAT-7 PARS, starting from a defensive attitude; yet, after few times of calling and talking to some of the Bible teachers, Morteza was encouraged to convert to Christianity. In contrast to Mahmoud’s claim, Morteza saw Christian programmes as the reason for his conversion, for they provided him “with a convincing argument”. Mahmoud and Morteza’s experiences of their deconversion from Islam and conversion to Christianity happened side by side and intertwined, although one was more emotionally based and the other more intellectually based.

Downgrading to occasional audience In this section, there will be an examination of some of the reasons given in the random telephone interviews with those who were indifferent to Christian channels and the Christian message, yet occasionally had viewed them for reasons such as “curiosity”, “paying a visit to the Prophet Isa”, for peace and spiritual refreshment, for “lack of enough choices in Farsi programming”, or as an escape from political discussions and conflicts. Their explanations as to why they stopped watching will be studied – reasons such as fear of persecution, local jamming, poor quality production, monotony, not being convincing, exaggerated and overstated contents, a one-way system, poor use of social and new media, being “mullahs with ties” and “all about conversion and brainwashing”. Their responses have been put into three categories: the influence of the regime; the poor quality and exclusive message; and difficulty using social and digital media.

The influence of the regime In this category, three issues were highlighted: fear of persecution; local jamming; and the fact that satellite dishes were still banned. Some of the narratives have indicated that, after contacting a Christian channel, they had received a text message that gave them a warning, saying something like, “You have communicated with outside television channels that are against the regime and Islam: If that happens again, we will cut off your telephone line”. Another viewer of SAT-7 PARS, Majid, from Tehran, claimed that he was called and investigated by the authorities as to why he had been in touch with outside television channels. He denied the allegation, but, to his surprise, they pulled out his telephone bill and showed him the times, dates and duration of his calls to the channel. He was given a warning and asked not to contact the channel again or watch the programmes, otherwise next time he would lose his job. Despite the warning, Majid communicated his story to the channel, “to show his solidarity with the channel” and also for the channel to warn their audience of the government hacking into their telephone numbers and system.

Resisting 155 The Iranian government is equipped with sophisticated, powerful technology systems, which enable them to monitor citizens’ landlines, mobile and Internet activities and conversations. Reuters.com in 2012 published a report stating: “A Chinese telecommunications equipment company has sold a powerful surveillance system capable of monitoring landline, mobile and internet communications, interviews and contract documents display to Iran’s largest telecom firm”. The report continues quoting Mahmoud Tadjallimehr, a former telecommunications project manager in Iran, who said, “the ZTE [China-based ZTA Corporation] system supplied to TCI [Telecommunication Company of Iran] was ‘country-wide’ and was ‘far more capable of monitoring citizens than I have ever seen in other equipment’ sold by other companies to Iran … its capabilities included being able ‘to locate users, intercept their voice, text messaging … emails, chat conversations or web access”.3 The majority of Iranian people are aware of the government’s monitoring system. Many take a cautious attitude, but some, like Majid, despite all the restrictions, continue their communication with the outside world. The two last issues – local jamming and satellite banning – are in fact interrelated. A few people, mainly from Tehran, indicated that they used to watch the channels, but local jamming in their area had made it difficult to continue. All kinds of broadcasting media in Iran are officially under state control. Satellite television is banned and prohibited by law, yet, according to government statistics in 2013, 71 per cent of the population have access to satellite channels (Tavakoli and Fateminia, 2013). The state police occasionally conduct raids, confiscating dishes from rooftops and homes, but satellite jamming has become more common, despite its danger to citizens’ health and interference with other telecommunication and hospital equipment (Tavakoli and Fateminia, 2013). Local jamming is a form of censorship. Many international organisations and governments, such as the United Kingdom, United States, France and the European Union, had condemned this act and raised their concerns. In 2015, some Iranian MPs raised their concerns and asked the Parliament to stop local jamming. Since the opposition to local jamming did not provide Parliament with enough evidence on health issues, the decision was postponed.

Programme quality The programme production and content quality of the channels were the main topics raised by most of the interviewees. It is difficult to measure quality. Mulgan (Dex and Sewell, 2001) describes seven types of quality: “producer quality and professionalism; consumer quality and the market; television’s aesthetic; television as ritual and communion; television and the person; television ecology; and diversity”. The participants’ criticisms cover five of these dimensions plus the extra dimension of programming content. Nonetheless, on a positive note, some participants expressed their appreciation for the ethical, moral and devotional approach of most of the

156  Resisting programmes, with statements such as, “At least they are safer channels for our children to watch”, or “When I need a bit of peace and meditation, I go there”, or “Ethically, they have good teaching”. The noteworthy point within the participants’ criticism was their constant comparison with Iranian state television channels (IRIB), mainly from the points of view of presentation (teaching) and genre (talk show styles of programs). I will examine their criticism in four categories. The first category is professionalism. Many participants in a random telephone survey, as well as some converts who were regular viewers but, at the time of interview, had disaffiliated themselves from watching, pointed to the issue of poor production quality of programmes, including camera work and lighting systems, as well as directing. One topic that emerged frequently was about the talking-head and one-man show programmes. Two interviewees referred to them as “the mullah type programmes” and another person’s comment was: “Like mullahs when they go in the pulpit, it is difficult to bring them down”. This issue was also one of the dominant issues within the focus group discussions examined in Chapter 4. The second category is related to rituals and communion; I will also combine this category with “television and the person”. Both of these issues relate to the content and to the theological and religious approaches of the channels. For many participants, channels like TBN Nejat TV and Network 7 deal with the issues of the sacred nature and holiness of God “light-­heartedly, not with full respect and reverence”. Some converts even raised their concerns about such things as sensational dancing during the church worship services on Network 7 and the way TBN Nejat TV describes God. For example, one participant said, “The God that he introduces is even smaller than me”. Another person said, “It seems God is his cousin”. Another issue that was frequently commented on, but mainly in amusement, was the way the evangelist on the screen of TBN Nejat TV would call some individuals by name, telling them of God’s plan to heal them. Another participant said, “It seems God doesn’t have anything else to do, except to sit there with him, gossiping and playing with names”. In relation to this, they brought up the issue of “belittling the audience”. One person said, “It has to be one of these two reasons: They don’t know anything, or they think their audience are stupid”. Most of the criticisms in this area were general and without giving any names. The last two categories are consumer quality and the marketplace and diversity (Dex and Sewell, 2001), which has been discussed earlier in this chapter. Despite criticism of the low quality of production, for some viewers, Christian channels are another form of commercial television. For instance, a few participants pointed to the fact that TBN Nejat TV and Network 7 ask for money on the screen. Therefore, to them, it is more about money than Christian faith, so it is a challenge for them to accept their sincerity.

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Active media users and the channels This issue was more commented on and discussed by the younger audience, aged between 17 and 30, who desired more interactive and participatory programmes (eight interviewees). Two of them claimed that they normally watched TV programmes on their computer screens. For them, the joy of technology lies in its participatory nature. They preferred to engage in a discussion rather than to be preached at (Horsfield, 2009). In Chapter 2, active audience theory described that audience desire to participate in the production of a media message; whereas linear communication systems limit immediate feedback and the contribution of the receivers (Wood, 2007). The participants, like a majority of the audience, did not want to be only receivers, but also senders and co-­ producers – they demonstrated this in their post-viewing stage (Fazeli, 2013; Mohsenianrad, 2008). Moreover, younger participants enjoyed moving freely between media layers and platforms. Using different media platforms helped them to gain more freedom and to choose their viewing habits as they pleased. Observing the channels’ social media and Internet activities, despite the desires of their audience, there was not much development. Two reasons were given by the channels: lack of funds; and lack of professionals who could utilise the system strategically. The issue of control was the underlying concern. Social media require a new way of thinking, producing and presenting, as well as a new pattern of relationship and distribution of the message, in which the audiences are more in charge than the content providers – pastors and content producers. This moves the providers away from an authoritarian position, with the sole ability to distribute religious instruction and doctrine, to a flexible and participatory community with open sources (Einstein, 2008; Jacobson et al., 2013). This issue was of concern to some channels and church leaders. The Iranian government has also blocked many websites, including all the Christian websites. Social media activities are monitored. Nevertheless, one of the participants said, “Nowadays, everyone in Iran knows how to bypass the filters”. In relation to the channels’ websites, another person commented, “Even my personal website is more professional than theirs”.

Resisters The main question of this section is, given the numbers who do watch Christian programmes despite the difficulties, why do some people in Iran resist? The Iranian audience has already experienced religious programmes and some of them have also experienced some form of religious conversion, to more radical Islam under the leadership of Khomeini in 1979, which deeply impacted the social, economic and political lifeway of the nation. Since the regime did not fulfil its promises and exercised a tougher

158  Resisting dictatorship under the name of religion, many disillusioned Iranians moved away from the regime and from Islam (Fazeli, 2006; Semati, 2008). Therefore, this prior and – as it turned out – negative experience may well be one of the main reasons for resisting religious programmes. The main purpose of this section is to analyse the responses gathered from a telephone survey in Iran. The responses have been divided into three groups. The first group are those who have been disillusioned by religion and religiosity and call themselves atheists. The second group are those who are more theist agnostics and see religion as something that “creates unnecessary mental challenges”. The third group are those who follow an exclusive religious ideology, who have also been warned by their religious leaders, including government indoctrination, against the teachings of Christianity and other faith ideologies. Each of these groups will be examined in this section. Why are people not willing to watch religious programmes? This has also been a challenging question to Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Nonetheless, state studies in this area are mainly limited to the programming quality of IRIB and the growing demands of the youth, because of the global media environment. In Chapters 1 and 2, in relation to active audience theory and audience phantasm, I argued that the state model of broadcasting, as well as state-sponsored media research projects, have mainly focused on the religious/political content and the desired impact of media on “an imagined or imaginary audiences”, rather than the actual Iranian audiences, much less on their needs and gratifications (Mohsenianrad & Spanji, 2010). More than 80 per cent of the interviews and narratives indicated (directly or indirectly) that, besides the influence of globalisation and global media, their resentment against religions and religious programmes was related to what the Iranian regime had been doing in the name of Islam. Statements such as, “For forty years, these people have been sucking our blood in the name of religion”, and, “The only things we received from religion are pain and limitations. Why do we need another one”? Globalisation and new media technology have provided the majority with new ideological alternatives, whether religious or non-religious – and also with a platform for their voice to be heard. In this respect, Basmenji (2013, p. 2), a satirist and writer, says: Thank God that with the growth of liberalism, fun-loving and dandyism, and with the spreading of moral deviations and social corruptions, the present generation is corrupt and not terrorist … Thank God that with the death of the reforms, people’s remaining hopes of religious intellectuals have faded away, so that they are now seeking a personal religion, and a social life based on rational and human-rights principles, and are not willing to sacrifice their lives for their religion or country.

Resisting 159 The research data also confirm that significant numbers of people, especially among the youth, may have pushed religious ideology away from their lives. For example, 47 out of 75 respondents expressed that they do not wish to watch religious programs. Only nine people (three Shia and six from Sunni background) claimed that their religion, Islam, does not allow them to watch Christian channels – the rest being disillusioned by religion.

Atheists Fifteen interviewees indicated that they do not believe in God or any religion. They called themselves atheists – khodanabavar – comprising 20 per cent of total respondents. What does atheism mean for Iranians, whose cultures, worldviews and identities have been influenced so heavily by religious ideologies? Is it really atheism, or more the rejection of official and organised religions? Is that a reaction against the Islamic government, or the result of their personal search? In 2016, the Facebook page of Iranian Atheists and Agnostics had over two hundred thousand members, with constant discussions among the members.4 Observing their discussions, one can see a sense of anger against God and religion, rather than denial of God’s existence. The growing number of social media platforms, weblogs, websites and online publications indicates the growth of an “atheist” ideology in Iran. There are also a number of websites that offer free downloads of Farsi-translated books on atheism and agnosticism5 although, to the best of the author’s knowledge, there has not been much research on why atheism is on the rise among Iranians. Another noteworthy observation is that a significant number of people who claimed that they were atheists came from religious families (Basmenji, 2013).6 Some Iranian sociologists and scholars, such as Fazeli (2006), say that this phenomenon is in fact a reaction against what is happening in the country, a protest against the regime’s social, political and cultural policies. For them, Iranians in cyberspace present their real identity, ideology and lifestyles which they believe in, although most of the time with fake names – whereas in their day-today lives they have to suppress and deny or hide their real “self” because of pressure and their fear of the government. A few quotes from the interviewees shed more light on this issue. One respondent said, “We haven’t seen any charity from Islam, [meaning Islam did not stand for us] why do we need Christianity or any other religion for that matter?” Another one said, “For forty years, these people have been sucking our blood in the name of religion. I think we have had enough of religion”. Similarly, another person said, “After so many years of pain and suffering, I kissed religion, said goodbye to God and faith, and put them away”. A noteworthy point here is that all the above comments are from men. Women’s comments were softer and more general, such as, “I don’t believe in religion”, or, “I don’t waste my time with any religious programmes”.

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Theist agnostics The second group, who stated that they do not watch religious programmes, are people who claimed that they believe only in the existence of God. I call them theist agnostics. Although believing in the existence of God, they do not like to follow a set belief system (Le Poidevin, 2010). For example, one said, “I only believe in God: Religion creates an unnecessary mental challenge, so I do not wish to watch religious programmes”. For him, it is unnecessary and a waste of time to enter into challenges that cannot be proven or cannot have a certain conclusion. This group tends to be more educated and therefore their approach is more rational and analytical, with respect to every claim of religion. The agnostic views among the participants are of two kinds: One group are the people who have de-converted from Islam, yet kept their belief in God and still occasionally watch some devotional programmes that promote “peace” and “love”. The second group are more inclined towards secularism – they also de-converted from Islam and are now religiously unmotivated and disinterested in any religious ideologies. They choose to believe in the existence of God as long as they are not requested to follow any religious teachings “blindly”. Looking at some of the statements made by interviewees makes this issue clearer: One person said, “These people [the regime] have proved that religion is really dangerous for all human kind”. Another one said, “Why should I go after something that I cannot prove? Besides, that something has given us more suffering and pain than joy; even our freedom has been greatly limited”. Another participant said, “Today’s world is the world of growth and believing in our own abilities. Religion limits us and restricts our talents”. Therefore, once again, their theist agnostic approach is also very much linked to the social and cultural situation of their society, rather than the ideology of agnosticism.

Religious inclusivism and exclusivism All religions point to God; Islam or Christianity – it does not matter, as long as they make you closer to God. (A Muslim lady, in her mid-30s, from Tehran, 2015). Twenty-four people expressed some kind of religious inclusivism. On the other hand, only nine participants indicated that their religious views do not allow them to watch any religious programmes beside their own; six of them were Sunni Muslims and three Shia. This brings us back to the issue of religious inclusivism and exclusivism, of din (faith) and mazhab (religion), which was discussed in Chapter 2. Iranian audiences, like most of the world, are fragmented, diverse and dynamic. As is usual, they belong to different social-cultural groups or subgroups and, within their religion (Islam), to different religious and political ideologies (Fazeli, 2006). Religious inclusivism is more common among Iranian Shia Muslims. This is,

Resisting 161 as Soroush (1997) indicated, the result of multiple religious influences such as Islam, Sufism, Zoroastriansim and, to a lesser extent, Manichaeism and Mithraism, as well as Western modernity. There is an old Farsi proverb, showing inclusivism, that says, “Jesus with his faith, Moses with his own”. In the south of Iran, in Kerman, their version of this proverb makes the meaning clearer, saying, “Jesus and Moses are brothers; each one has their own faith”. Although Jesus and Moses are not brothers, the point of the proverb is that there might be different religious views even within a family, but, as long as they believe in one God, those differences can be tolerated. Therefore, religious inclusivism should be respected and accepted. This ideology has been promoted within the culture mainly through Sufi poetry and writings. Interestingly, this proverb was recited three times by different interviewees, indicating respect and acceptance of Christian programmes and Christian faith. Another point that was mentioned by the religious inclusivists was the fact that Jesus Christ (the Prophet) was also honoured and loved by them, therefore their occasional visits normally relate to their devotion to Jesus Christ. The third point was more related to the Sufi approach, and the ideology of din (faith), divine manifestation, and mazhab (religion), as an interpretation of the divine manifestation. For example, a man said, “As long as programmes point to God, the rest is ‘the wrangle of seventy-two sects’”.7 Contrary to this, after 1979, the regime promoted religious exclusivism and absolutism, based on the interpretation and guardianship of the Ulama, religious leaders under the leadership of the Supreme Leader: whoever follows them should not affiliate with any other religious teachings. Nonetheless, six out of nine religious exclusivists were Sunnis. It has to be noted that the responses from the exclusivists group were more from a disinterested and indifferent position towards the Christian channels and Christian message, rather than hostility or intolerant behaviour. In the exclusivist approach of the Iranian regime and many other Muslim countries, although this approach is very much politically oriented, the issue of otherness is the key concept of their political theologies. As Ghobadzadeh (2014) puts it: “defining who falls within the category of true believers and who remains outside has proven to be a key concern for advocates of Islamism”. It is common for a radical Muslim to avoid participating in any teachings of other religions or even to be in fellowship with any “infidels”. Although there has not been any scientific research in measuring the tolerance of otherness by Shias and Sunnis, some would like to conclude that Shia Muslims are generally more welcoming than Sunnis towards the Christian faith and Jesus Christ. For example, Sassan Tavassoli, in his book Christian Encounters with Iran: Engaging Muslim Thinkers After the Revolution (2010), reports on Iranian Shia perspectives on Christianity, identifying ever-increasing positive engagement with Christianity since 1979. Yet religious exclusivism is present among all faiths, even within Christianity. In reality, all of the Christian channels preach and encourage religious exclusivism.

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Conclusion In this chapter, I have examined some of the ambivalent and negative responses of participants: those who affiliated with the channels, yet later on disaffiliated themselves; those who were occasional visitors; and those who refused to watch the channels. The findings were multifaceted. I have argued that, although globalisation and global media, with their multiple choices of ideologies and alternatives, were one of the reasons for their disaffiliation and disillusionment with Islam and the regime, for some, it was their deconversion, from Islam in general, that played a more significant role in pushing religion away from their lives. For example, responses from those who called themselves khodanabavar (atheist), and those who only kept their belief in God and “nothing else”, all started with a negative remark about their previous belief (Islam) and experiences with the regime, which indicated their painful and emotional deconversion memories. I have also argued that, in general, responses from those who disaffiliated from the channels were similar to those who were occasional visitors. For example, they raised issues such as poor production and content quality of some of the programmes, including repetitive and monologue messages, commercialisation of Christianity and exclusive ideology. The influence of the regime and the fear of persecution had also played a part with some respondents in avoiding Christian channels. Furthermore, I have suggested that, although the channels present an exclusive message, the majority of religious people among the respondents expressed an inclusive religious ideology and respected diversity of religions by showing their appreciation of Christian faith and their respect for Jesus Christ. Only nine people indicated religious exclusivism, yet without any objections to Christian channels or Christian faith. Their response was mainly, “We don’t watch, because our religion does not allow us to”. In conclusion, responding to the question as to why some people resist or do not watch Christian channels, one needs to go beyond the Christian channels and Christian faith, into the audiences’ context, religious/political history and experience of religion and religiosity, as well as the influence of globalisation and the religious market.

Notes 1 The survey was conducted by a research student of the Science and Research branch of the Islamic Azad University of Tehran. A hundred random telephone numbers (50 mobile and 50 landline) were chosen. Twenty-five refused to participate, 75 people participated. In Chapter one, I have explained how the randomisation was contacted. 2 Although Amato did not share their actual report and statistics with the researcher, he indicated there has been a high number of dropouts among converts and enthusiastic seekers through media. 3 Stecklow, S. (2012) “Special Report: Chinese firm helps Iran spy on citizens”, Reuters, 22 March 2012. Available at: http://uk.reuters.com/article/us-iran-­ telecoms-idUSBRE82L0B820120322 (Accessed:12 May 2016).

Resisting 163 4 https://www.facebook.com/Iran.Atheist.agnostic/?fref=photo (Accessed: 14 May 2016). 5 https://rdawkins.com/category/rd_articles/; http://iranianatheistsagnostics.blogspot.co.uk/ (Accessed: 19 May 2016). 6 Sadrzadeh, A. (2013) “Turning away from Shia in Iran: ‘A Tsunami of Atheism’”, Qantara.de, 7 February 2013. Available at: https://en.qantara.de/content/ turning-away-from-shia-in-iran-a-tsunami-of-atheism.   “Iranian Atheists: Waiting to Come Out”, Sputnik News, 22 February 2013. Available at: http://sputniknews.com/analysis/20130319/180108603/IranianAtheists-Waiting-to-Come-Out.html (Accessed: 19 May 2016). 7 A Hafez poem saying “The wrangle of seventy-two sects [all religions] – establishes excuses for all … When truth, they saw not, the door of the feeble they beat”.

Bibliography Albrecht, S. L. and Bahr, H. M. (1983) ‘Patterns of Religious Disaffiliation: A Study of Lifelong Mormons, Mormon Converts, and Former Mormons’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 22 (4), pp. 366–379. Available at: http:// www.jstor.org/stable/1385774?seq=1 (Accessed: 13 May 2017) Anderson, A. (2013) Media, Culture and the Environment. London: Routledge. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315798448 Barbour, J. D. (1994) Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press. Basmenji, K. (2013) Tehran Blues: Youth Culture in Iran. London: Saqi. Bradley, M. (2014) Too Many to Jail: The Story of Iran’s New Christians. Grand Rapids, MI: Monarch Books. Brueggemann, W. (2015) Chosen?: Reading the Bible Amid the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. Dex, S. and Sewell, R. (2001) ‘Considerations of Quality in British Television Production: A Bayesian Statistical analysis’, Research Papers in Management Studies, University of Cambridge, WP 21/2001. Cambridge: Judge Institute of Management Studies. Einstein, M. (2008) Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. London and New York: Routledge. Fazeli, H. (2013) ‘Discourse of Imam Khomeini and Problem of Identity: Mysticism Fiqh, Authenticity of Ummah and Credibility of Nation’, National Studies (Iran), 13 (4), pp. 33–59. Fazeli, N. (2006) Politics of Culture in Iran. London and New York: Routledge. Fazzino, L. L. (2014) ‘Leaving the Church Behind: Applying a Deconversion Perspective to Evangelical Exit Narratives’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 29 (2), pp. 249–266. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/ 13537903.2014.903664 (Accessed: 13 May 2017) Ghobadzadeh, N. (2014) Religious Secularity: Shiite Repudiation of the Islamic State. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Gooren, H. (2010) Religious Conversion and Disaffiliation: Tracing Patterns of Change in Faith Practices. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Horsfield, P. (2009) ‘The language of media and the language of Faith’, in Geybels, H., Mels, S. and Walrave, M. (eds.) Faith and Media: Analysis of Faith and Media: Representation and Communication. Brussels: P.I.E. Peter Lang, pp. 23–35.

164  Resisting Jacobson, H. L., Hall, M. E. L. and Anderson, T. L. (2013) ‘Theology and the Body: Sanctification and Bodily Experiences’, Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 5 (1), pp. 41–50. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0028042. Available at: http:// psycnet.apa.org/journals/rel/5/1/41/ (Accessed: 15 May 2017). Le Poidevin, R. (2010) Agnosticism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Maleki, A. and Arab, P. T. 2020. Iranians’ attitudes toward religion: A 2020 survey report. Published online, gamaan.org: GAMAAN. Available at: https://gamaan. org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/GAMAAN-Iran-Religion-Survey-2020English.pdf (Accessed: 13 August 2022). McKnight, S. and Ondrey, H. (2008) Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press. Mohsenianrad, M. (2008) ‘The Pathology of Audience Phantasm in Iran in the Fields of Media, Globalisation and Post Global Village age’, Iranian Journal of Cultural Research, 1 (3), pp. 79–113 (in Farsi). Available at: http://www.sid.ir/fa/ VEWSSID/J_pdf/47213870304.pdf (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Mohsenianrad, M. and Sepanji, A. (2010) ‘Passive Audience or Selector Behind the media? Comparative Study in Communication theories’, Iranian Journal of Cultural Research, 4 (1), pp. 27–47 (in Farsi). Available at: http://fa.journals.sid. ir/ViewPaper.aspx?ID=129037 (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Moore, R. L. (1995) Selling God: American Religion in the Marketplace of Culture. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. Semati, M. (ed.) (2008) Media, Culture and Society in Iran: Living with Globalization and the Islamic. London and New York: Routledge. Soroush, A. (1997) ‘Perception of freedom’, Cultural Development Journal, V. 28, pp. 7–20 (in Farsi). Available at: http://www.ensani.ir/storage/Files/ 20120614181353-9164-265.pdf (Accessed 9 Feb 2014). Tavakoli, H. and Fateminia, A. (2013) ‘Satellite Penetration in Tehran and audiences’ Evaluation of Their Programs: Sociology of media studies’, Global Media Journal, 21 (16), pp. 96–123. Available at: http://www.noormags.ir/view/fa/ articlepage/1064661 (Accessed: 26 April 2015). Tavassoli, S. (2010) Christian Encounters with Iran: Engaging Muslim Thinkers after the Revolution. London: IB Tauris. Van Gorder, A. C. (2010) Christianity in Persia and the Status of Non-Muslims in Iran. Maryland, MD: Lexington Books. Wood, H. (2007) ‘The Mediated Conversational Floor: an Interactive Approach to Audience Reception analysis’, Media, Culture & Society, 29 (1), pp. 75–103. Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0163443706072000 (Accessed: 17 May 2017).

8

Mediatisation of religious conversion

What do the self-narratives and interviews of the Farsi Christian satellite television audience reveal about the ways these Muslim viewers interact and negotiate with both the Christian message and their socio-political/ religious context? This chapter presents and discusses the findings of the two main topics of the research: the users/audience of religious media; and religious conversion (Islam to Christianity) through media. The questions that will be studied include: What are the motivating factors that led the audience firstly to watch Christian channels and secondly to change or to add to their religious belief system? How did the process of faith transformation happen according to their stories? What do they mean by statements such as “I became a Christian”, “I decided to accept Christ”, and “I decided to follow Jesus”? This chapter aims, first, to highlight some of the findings concerning the above questions and, secondly, to discuss the results. In the first section, I present the findings in a descriptive format and by using charts. In the second section, I will analyse and discuss the results, which are mainly responses to the research questions under the headings: the channels and the audience; the audience and religiosity; and the audience and restoration.

Section one: A progressive journey This section highlights the fact that this research has been a starting point for a progressive, longer journey of research into religious (Christian) media reception in the multi-faceted Muslim majority world. It also emphasises the continuing journey of religious seekers, such as the participants in this research who through media decided to change their religious views or transform their lives. For the above reasons, the results of the research cannot be extrapolated and generalised to all Muslim converts to Christianity through media. Even if one were to do the same research with the same participants, different results might be obtained, because religious views are not static: as people and their situations change, their views change too. DOI: 10.4324/9781003004905-9

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Figure 8.1  Participants’ motivations.

The findings related to questions about the participants’ motivational factors, that led them to watch Christian programmes and respond to the messages, revealed that participants’ actions were closely linked to their agenda, needs and desires. On this basis, the study recognised two main factors: crisis factors and depression. These factors have also been mentioned in Gooren (2007, 2010) and Rambo’s (1993, 1999) studies on conversion. In the majority of cases, the two factors overlap; for instance, in many cases, a crisis situation led to depression. Therefore, it might be more practical to combine both into one category of crisis. Within the crisis situation of the audience, the study identified eight motivational elements that encouraged them to watch Christian programmes and, in some cases, to consider either joining the Christian faith or simply changing and transforming their lives. These were: seeking or exploring; physical or mental healing; searching for help with their drug addictions; depression and suicidal feelings; searching for a way out of their financial struggles, including finding a job; seeking solutions to their life problems, such as family issues; having been sexually abused and needing to talk about it; and, finally, needing a sense of belonging to community, whether virtual or physical. Figure 8.1, below, shows the percentage of each element. The four main elements (seeking, healing, drug addiction and depression) make up 62 per cent of respondents. Although there were significant overlaps between categories – for instance between drug addiction and depression and between healing and seeking – the categorisation done is based on the main focus of the narratives and interviews.

Seeking The narratives in the seeking and exploring category showed three types of seeking: spiritual seeking; seeking modernity, including migration; and religious shoppers. The majority of spiritual seekers were people who came

Mediatisation of religious conversion 167 from a religious background, or themselves had been religious. The narratives of these categories pointed to three groups. First, people who had left Islam, yet were in need of a divine hand. For example, the story of Siavash reported by Mohabat TV (2013): Siavash lost his faith in Islam, so stopped praying namaz, yet he believed in God, he wanted to know the truth, and to know who Jesus is. We [Mohabat TV] explained to him. Later on he gave his heart to the Lord … Secondly, those who were still Muslim, yet started doubting the truthfulness of their faith, illustrated in the story of Milad reported by Mohabat TV (2013): Milad, a young man watched an Islamic channel and ours [Mohabat TV] and kept calling and asking questions. He compared Christianity and Islam, and finally one day he called and said, “I came to this conclusion that Christians tell the truth and the mullahs are wrong”. He prayed to receive Jesus. Finally, those seekers who were just spiritually curious and wanted to know about the Christian faith; for example, a male viewer, Saeed, wrote to SAT-7 PARS in 2013: Tonight was the first night that I watched your programme fully. Before, every time when I flipped the channels and I would come to your channel, I would laugh at Christians and I would change the channel. As a Muslim, I did not have any respect for other religions. Tonight I was flipping channels; when I saw your channel again, I stopped. Miltan was the speaker. I was very impressed. It really touched my heart. I think I am so lost, I didn’t know about it. I am sure that what you believe and teach is right. I would like to know more about it. The curiosity of participants in many cases had turned to uncertainty about their own faith (Islam). Barbour (1994) has also pointed out such a situation, calling it “intellectual doubt, moral criticism, [and] emotional suffering”. The study observed a similar pattern within the majority of those seekers’ testimonies and interviews. After watching Christian programmes regularly for a week or two, they started questioning their own religion, with “intellectual doubt” turning to uncertainty followed by confusion. The majority of such cases reported a decision made after a dream or vision of Jesus Christ, who reassured them of “his truthfulness” and asked them to follow him. The opposite could also be true: In times of uncertainty and emotional suffering, some might have had dreams of their

168  Mediatisation of religious conversion own religious saints that reassured them of the truthfulness of Islam. But there was only one such case – a husband talking about his wife’s conversion, saying that her conversion took longer than his because, as he put it jokingly, “She had a dream of Hazrat Abbolfazel [one of the Islamic saints] that threatened her not to become Christian”. The second type within the seekers’ category were people who were “seeking non-religious Christianity” or “cultural Christianity”. In this, one can again identify three groups of people. First, those who were planning to migrate to the West and using Christianity as migration strategy; for example, Amir called SAT-7 PARS in 2013, saying: I heard that the cases [asylum cases] of people who converted to Christianity had a better chance of acceptance. I want to become Christian. Can you tell me what I need to do? The number of these people is much higher than reported by the channels. This can also mirror the growth of Christianity among Iranian migrant communities around the world. Akcapar (2006) has done some brief research in this area, mainly among Iranians in Turkey, who were seeking asylum using their conversion to Christianity as their reason. This issue deserves further research especially in Europe. The second group were mainly youth who were searching not necessarily for religion but for a change of lifestyle, modernity, a new community and a social group to join and to affiliate with. Examples of this can be observed more on all the channels’ social media platforms, especially those of Network 7 and Mohabat TV. Some cases, such as Yahya, in his 50s, demonstrated conversion to Christianity as conversion to modernity and “western lifestyle”; as he said, “When we became Christian, the first thing we did was to buy a set of sofas; thinking that, now we have become Christian, we should live like Christians in the West”. The last group were those whose approaches to Christianity were more from a political and nationalistic point of view, demonstrating their disaffiliation from the regime and from “Arabs” (and Islam) and affiliating to “the West” (and Christianity); for example: Hussein was watching Mohabat TV and called to accept Jesus. He said, “Please pray for me. I am so tired of Islam and all its deceit. I want to know Christian faith better …” (from Mohabat TV, 2014) Another discovery, beside the issue of modernity and lifestyle, was related to the spiritual experimentation that appeared common among youth aged 17–25. They had already left Islam and they enjoyed affiliating with various different groups. The data indicated that the people of this group did not have a strong attachment to any religion. They enjoyed

Mediatisation of religious conversion 169 experimenting with different religious and spiritual ideologies at the same time – multi-conversion experiences – with no long-term commitment to any specific one. Yet the data also revealed that the people from this group were more outspoken about their new spiritual experiences and encouraged others to join them.

The seven additional motivational elements The second popular motivating element – to which 17 per cent of the narratives pointed – was the issue of healing. These narratives were typically in the form of a description of a life situation involving illness and often ended with either a prayer request for healing, or a report of healing after people had prayed in the name of Jesus Christ, or encountered him in their dreams and visions, during which he healed them and asked them “to follow him”. The religious language of the narratives indicated that these types of responses were normally from religious people in a desperate situation and with an inclusive religious ideology. Many knew about Jesus Christ as a miracle maker or healer, as referred to in Islamic traditions and in the Quran. Influenced by their religious worldview and Shia tradition, when such people received an answer to their prayers in the form of miraculous healing, remuneration was normally made as a token of appreciation in the form of dedication of one’s life to the saint – in this case, Jesus Christ – who had granted their wish. Tabatabai (1983) explained this as part of faith and commitment (contract) to the divine. Therefore, the conversion – dedication of their lives to Christ – of some of these people might be interpreted also as payment or a token of thankfulness for what they had received. For example, Maryam (SAT-7 PARS, 2014) said, “When Jesus healed me, I gave my heart to him”. The narratives also suggested that much supernatural healing was linked to dreams and visions of Jesus Christ. The third major motivational element was related to drug addiction. At least 50 per cent of this group indicated that the main reason for them starting to use drugs was related to spiritual and psychological issues such as “being betrayed by Islam and the regime”, “loss of faith in a deity” – deconversion, “lack of purpose and meaning in life”, and depression. Two channels, SAT-7 PARS and Mohabat TV, had a deliberate focus on addiction, including offering phone counselling to those who were seeking to overcome their addictions. It is also worth noting that Iran has one of the largest populations of drug addicts in the world, mainly among its youth.1 The fourth common motivating factor was the issue of depression and suicidal feelings, which was two-thirds higher among women than men. The study also suggested that, while depression among men commonly led to drug addiction, among women it normally led to attempts at suicide, as

170  Mediatisation of religious conversion suggested by Kikhavani et al. (2013). An interesting example of this is from a viewer of Network 7, a woman contemplating suicide, who by accident found the channel and called Hormoz Shariat’s live show. Hormoz Shariat explained the situation in this way: “I struggled to convince Roghiyah that death was not the answer. She was actually more afraid of converting to Christianity than death!” The fifth motivational element was economic, relevant to 11 per cent of respondents, which encouraged them to make contact with Christian channels and led to their conversion to Christianity. Some of the financial issues described were unemployment, lack of cash for their daily food, need of housing and need of funds for university tuition fees, a car or paying a hospital bill. The methods of reporting on this issue, from both the channels and the respondents, normally projected the channels’ theological approach to the issue of prosperity and divine providence. The sixth motivational element that the data pointed to was problem solving, mainly general life problems. Most of the issues mentioned were related to relationships in marriage and the family. The seventh factor that encouraged some of the audience to get in touch with the channels was the issue of sexual abuse – for seven per cent of them. Mainly, these respondents were women, although there were some men as well, one response being from a family whose teenage son was raped in prison. The final motivating factor was relevant to Christians who were expressing their need for a church community, or reporting the start of their house church or their membership of a specific electronic, online church. Although the percentage in this group was 11 per cent, most of these narratives had been written on behalf of a whole group of people rather than by a single individual, with a minimum of three and one narrative spoke of forty people in their house church.

Through the channels Reports from the channels on audience responses highlighted their programming strategy, agenda and focus, demonstrating the motivational elements of each channel. I will explain this further. Mohabat TV Based on reports from Mohabat TV, the three main elements (57%) that motivated the audience to contact the station and “changed their religious views” through the guidance of the channel were seeking/exploring (22%), physical or mental healing (19%) and depression (16%). After that, were addiction, problem solving and joining or starting a house church (see Figure 8.2).

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Figure 8.2  Mohabat TV.

TBN Nejat TV The data gathered from TBN Nejat TV showed that over 70 per cent of narratives did not specifically indicate their change of religion, but rather their need to solve their life problems, even though they had “repeated the salvation prayer”. Figure 8.3 shows that the strength of TBN Nejat TV was in their healing programmes (30% of the responses); after that came the financial struggles of respondents (16%) and the issue of depression (15%). TBN Nejat TV had the highest percentage of viewers reporting sexual abuse, mainly women. Network 7 The data from Network 7 demonstrated the popularity of their flagship programme Church Seven. Twenty-nine per cent of responses were from people who were members of the electronic church associated with the

Figure 8.3  TBN Nejat TV.

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Figure 8.4  Network 7.

Church Seven programme. The narratives indicated that not only had the respondents become Christian through the channel, but also they worshipped with the channel, prayed with them and got their teaching from them. Some even participated in their online activities; a few (three narratives) indicated that they had started their own house churches. The second motivational element, like the other channels, was from those who were seeking a religious alternative and wanted information on Christianity. Narratives on economic struggles and healing mainly demonstrated the outcomes of their conversion to Christian faith, which resulted in God’s answering their prayers and solving their problems. SAT-7 PARS Figure 8.5, below, exhibits the results gathered from SAT-7 PARS data. The two main motivating factors of SAT-7 PARS audiences were seeking information about Christian faith (21%) and needing help to overcome their drug addiction (18%). The narratives related to exploring Christian faith

Figure 8.5  SAT-7 PARS.

Mediatisation of religious conversion 173 were linked to the channel’s Seminary of The Air (SOTA) project, which was an on-going series of systematic teaching programmes aimed at seekers, at an audience who wanted to know about the Christian faith. The narratives on drug addiction were linked to the channel’s popular on-screen presenter-pastor, Miltan Daniel, an ex-drug addict, and his weekly live shows. Miltan also followed up with respondents individually for a period of time, to help them to give up their addictions. The channel’s regular children’s programmes had also become a motivational factor for some parents to call in, and later on to change their religion, because of their children’s interest.

Understanding the meaning of conversion Moving to the more explanatory results from the data, the first question is related to the participants’ understanding of statements such as, “I became a Christian”, “I decided to accept Christ”, or “I decided to follow Christ”. The findings brought to light at least four types of understanding of faith transformation and development. The first one is related to the participants’ attraction to Christian faith and/or adding it to their existing religious practice. This was exhibited more within the narratives that described healing “in the name of Jesus Christ”, which indicated adding into their religious practice the teachings of Jesus Christ, perhaps not as the Son of God, but as the prophet of God and miracle maker, moshkel gosha; for example, the story of Ibrahim on SAT-7 PARS, who claimed that he had become “Christ’s follower” two years prior to his phone call (2013), yet he stopped his Islamic prayers, namaz, just four months ago. His decision to stop his namaz was not based on his faith in Christ, but on the fact that namaz was in Arabic and he did not understand it. The second result, suggested by the study, is related to non-religious Christianity or cultural Christianity. The phrases that this group used to describe their conversion were phrases such as “I became a Christian” or “I decided to join Christianity”. These responses normally came from participants whose aim was largely to migrate to the West, and those with nationalistic and anti-Arab views, and who affiliated themselves to “the West” by adopting Christianity, while not committing to Christian teachings and doctrines. For example, a mother told SAT-7 PARS channel that her family is planning to migrate to a European country. She heard that affiliating to Christian faith would make life easier for her children in school and protect them from Islamophobia. That was the main reason for them to become Christian. The third type of understanding was of Christianity as an alternative spiritual ideology (experimenting with New Age spiritualties). This is more among the youth and religious shoppers. The last, but not the least, was Christianity as a living faith. This group demonstrated more in-depth negotiations and engagement with the

174  Mediatisation of religious conversion message through their process of telling their stories, which will be discussed in the next section. Transformation Moving on to the data gathered from interviews and focus group discussions, one can identify the processes of faith transformation, which varied according to the participants’ agendas and the level of their religiosity. The data showed that people with a secular background tend to affiliate to Christianity more easily than people coming from a stronger religious background. People from a stronger religious background, on the other hand, were inclined to negotiate more often between both religions, Islam and Christianity, and between their past memories and their present faith. The focus group discussions and the interviews also highlighted that people from a stronger religious background, especially those who had left Islam before accepting Christianity, may have developed an anti-Islamic attitude, yet maintained an inclusive Islamic/Sufi monotheism (Tawhid), which acted as a bridge between the past self and present self, as well as a way to reach out to families and friends whom they may have lost when they became Christian. For example, in an interview, Onsia, from Mohabat TV, spoke about her devoted Muslim parents: My parents are God-fearing people. They worship the same God that I do. But, sadly, Islam teaches them the wrong doctrine of God. It is Islam that is at fault, not them. The same God who hears my prayers and listen to my needs also hears their prayers. The focus group discussions also suggested that the participants’ previous religious worldview was more influential than their Christian denominational affiliations, in the way they interpreted Christian messages presented through media. It has also been pointed out that the interpretation of their new religious experience in worship, especially among men who were coming from stronger religious backgrounds, was built on and compared with their past religious experience and memories. Women, on the other hand, were more reflective – in dialogue with their inner self (their emotions and feelings, rather than their past religion) while interpreting worship.

Resistance The result of the study on those who refused to watch Christian programmes confirmed that the majority of people were aware of the existence of, or watched briefly, Farsi Christian channels. The main reasons for their resistance were: their anti-religious views; the similarity of the channels to IRIB state television channels; the poor quality of both content and

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Figure 8.6  Participants’ approach to religion.

production; and the exclusive nature of the channels’ view on religion – for example, some of the audience did not like statements such as, “The only way to be saved is through Jesus Christ”. Figure 8.6 shows the religious or non-religious background of participants who resisted Christian channels, and Figure 8.7 illustrates their reasons for resistance. The interesting finding that the 32% of participants expressed some kind of religious inclusivism and diversity; the reason for not watching was not their anti-Christian approach, but other reasons. The highest percentages of negative comments were from those with anti-religion and anti-regime views. Comments such as, “mullahs with ties”, and, “we have already been beaten by religion”, were recorded. Figure 8.7, below, displays the responses of those who were aware of Christian channels or had watched them before but did not want to watch them again.

Figure 8.7  Reasons for avoiding watching Christian programs.

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Section two: Divine power or magic bullet theory The results of this study showed that the audience interact and negotiate with the Christian religious message mainly from three points of view: their agenda and goals; their religio-cultural worldviews; and their personal experience and life stories. The study also confirmed that, since engagement with programmes had been a deliberate choice by viewers with purpose and agenda – to develop something new – the viewers’ interactions and negotiations went beyond the media text into their self-development plans. In this view, the audience had become the users – borrowing Livingstone’s (2003, 2007) term and producers. The study also confirmed Gooren’s (2010) and Rambo’s (1999) views that conversion and self-transformation are a process and are personal, depending on the level of an individual’s commitment and purpose. The data also revealed that, since the channels’ main goal was to convert their audience to Christianity with immediate results, such converts were having to work out their own process of conversion and transformation, with very limited instruction and one-to-one support, given the lack of Farsi Christian communities and offline churches in Iran. Another interesting result, that should be noted, is the deconversion (divorce from Islam) narratives which indicated “intellectual doubts” and “emotional suffering” (Barbour, 1994, p. 2). The issue of deconversion process or disaffiliation from a religion had been neglected by scholars (Fazzino, 2014; Gooren, 2007, 2010). Yet this study indicated that the deconversion stories of participants, depending on how difficult and painful their journey had been, significantly influenced the type of conversion, the level of commitment to their new faith and the level of on-going subscription to their former religion. This issue will be discussed further, later in this section. Since every individual had developed their own methods of transformation, influenced profoundly by their personal aims and agenda more than by Christian teachings, it is important to note that the findings of this study cannot be extrapolated to all converts through media. In general, the study suggests three main patterns among those who claim conversion through media: those who added Christian teachings to their existing belief system and created something new; those who became culturally Christian without the belief; and others who, through a process of research and negotiation, adopted the Christian faith as presented by the channels. Majority of cases indicated that the Christian teachings and doctrines of the channels had not been very influential in persuading people towards Christianity, as the channels claimed and hoped – promises of a better life, gaining God’s favour (mainly in this world) and restoration of one’s self-image being more effective. Therefore, conversion or affiliation to Christianity had been mainly a social act with religious components.

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The channels and the audience: Divine power or magic bullet theory Analysing the channel directors’ views on the influence of their programs, two elements needed to work hand in hand for their message to be effective: an active audience, to engage and put the channels’ teachings into practice, and an element of mystical power – the power of the Holy Spirit. Although beyond verification, it is also the belief of all Pentecostal televangelists that the power of the Holy Spirit touches the hearts of their audience (Lee and Thomas, 2012; White and Assimeng, 2016). Most conversion narratives also contained some elements of mystical influences in their conversion, components such as dreams and visions or miraculous healings being common. The story of Hossein, as told to SAT-7 PARS, is a good example. According to Hossein’s narrative, he was anti-Christian. His main reason for watching Christian channels was to prove that Islam was the best. After watching Christian programmes for a few days, he became confused. He asked himself, “Which one is the truth, Islam or Christianity?” He was perplexed and started praying and asking God to show him the truth. Jesus in a dream told him that the channels were right and he is the truth. Hossein’s engagement with the media text, including his comparison of Islam and Christianity, led to intellectual doubt and inner struggle which was projected into his dreams, where he received a confirmation from Jesus Christ himself, who called him, “Follow me”. Stromberg (1993) calls this “self transformation and increased commitment to a religious system”, and Darling et al. (1993) call it “development of self-reflection”. Hashemi (2003, p. 25), an Iranian Muslim scholar, based on his understanding of the Quran, interprets visions and dreams as “a window to knowledge about self and the divine” as well as “a medium to receive guidance and revelation from above”. Both the Bible and the Quran address dreams and visions as a medium through which God speaks to people (divine power). That is also the interpretation of the channel directors, when they speak of the power and work of the Holy Spirit.

Demand Moving away from divine power to audiences’ power, the study of participants’ motivations and agenda indicated that the channels did not create demand, but responded to the demands which already existed by their audiences and through political and religious turmoil in the country, globalisation and global media and the life crises and breaking down of the meaning-making systems of the audience. This finding was consistent with that of Einstein (2008, p. 20) when she argues, “you cannot create demand where it does not already exist”. In this regard, one can argue that the significance of the Farsi Christian channels cannot be and should not be evaluated without considering their audiences’ demands for change

178  Mediatisation of religious conversion and transformation in their lives and religious worldviews. Based on that argument, the question may arise: What if the demand changes? When desires and needs for religion among the Iranian audience change, how might the channels respond to these new situations? Would they still be needed? Though they had no clear strategies for any possible changes, they all agreed that responding to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19–20) will always involve the use of media and as long as there are Farsi Christians so will be a need for Farsi Christian media. While the channels did not have any strategy for possible change of demand in Iran, the study suggested that the audience, mainly those who had converted to the Christian faith, despite persecution and hardship, had been active in attempting to maintain the demand inside the country, through their reproduction and distribution of the Christian message, the establishment of house churches and the development of their own network system, independent of the channels. The majority of such house churches disaffiliated themselves after connecting to a local network of like-minded groups. This is why the significance and the impact of Farsi Christian channels should be analysed together with their audience’s participation, reproduction and distribution of the Christian message and creation of communities and networks. The channels claimed the numbers of self-declared converts as their own success, but this study contradicts their approach because, for viewers who had become Christian or considered Christianity, their decision was mainly based, not on the channels’ teachings, but on their own agendas and needs, using the channels to achieve their goals. One can call that an unexpected result, because Farsi Christian television channels were not for entertainment purposes, nor did they have higher quality programmes and content in comparison to other Farsi and non-Farsi available satellite television channels. Yet their contribution in transforming their audience’s lives, and through them the religious dynamic of Iranian society, is worth noting and deserves further study.

Mediatised religious conversion The majority of participants reported that they felt lonely during the process of their conversion, for the channels did not provide them with appropriate resources and tools to go through the procedure. Depending on their agenda, in order to make sense of and respond to their mediatised conversion, many of them had to use their past (negative or positive) religious experiences – religiosity, experiment with their freedom of choice and fixing their eyes on the concept of hope (mainly from restoration of honour point of view). Religiosity All the channels’ directors expressed their dislike of any type of religious ritual and liturgies. They justify their position by saying that Christianity is

Mediatisation of religious conversion 179 “not-a-religion” but “a relationship with God”. They did not explain theologically what they meant by “not-a-religion” nor did they clarify how an Iranian audience from a highly ritualistic religions background (Shia and Zoroastrianism) could go through the process of conversion and put their new faith into practice without rites. Contrary to what they said, presenters and preachers on all channels constantly encouraged viewers to gain religious experience as well as to practise their Christian faith in the methods of telling and retelling of their conversion stories, passing the message to others, praying in the name of Jesus Christ and establishing a relationship with God the Father. A majority of preachers and presenters – ritually – end their programmes in the form of an invitation to their audience to “give their hearts to Christ and repeat the salvation prayer” after them. More dramatic actions, such as encouraging the audience to put their hands on the screen of their TV or training the audience to speak in tongues, were also seen, mainly in the TBN Nejat TV channel. The call for participation indicated the importance of constant active engagement with and throughout the programmes. What is surprising is that, although for many scholars television might have been perceived as a one-way system encouraging passivity, the study revealed that the participation and engagement of the audience with Farsi Christian television texts had been more effective than their online and social media activities in relation to Christian faith. Indeed, television as a social medium had encouraged the audience to take the message to their family members and neighbours by inviting them to “come and watch” with them. In fact, their online engagement with the Christian faith had been mainly complimentary to their participation in television. The question can be raised here is that is this going back to the old question of whether television and online religious engagement can provide their participants with profound religious meaning and self-transformation, or is it that, as Helland (2012, p. 25) says, “people ‘point, click and surf’ their way through cyberspace [or satellite channels] like virtual tourists [and pilgrims], observing but not engaging with religious activity”? The study indicates that the audience did not only “point, click and surf”, or switch and watch, but they also participated in and practised the teachings and rituals the channels offered, especially if the rituals promised success – the achieving of their goals, healing of their broken lives and solving their problems. In every participant narrative account and interview, there were stories of failed pasts, unfulfilled needs and wants, spiritually, physically, mentally or socially. Therefore, participation, interpretation and engagement became an important key to both the channels and their audience. The audience’s engagement and participation were very much linked to their agendas and purposes (what to gain), therefore their interactions were for the purpose of enabling changes they desired to make in their social and private lives, rather than for their religious needs. For that reason, the data showed that their religious change, if any, could be seen primarily as a social act, even if one requires some sort of engagement in religious

180  Mediatisation of religious conversion rituals and practice, such as saying the salvation prayer. Despite this, however, one should not overlook the significance of religious engagement within the data. This is because religion, in a general sense, is the foundation of the audience’s identity and meaning-making system. It is a familiar resource, easy to use, even if they have been frustrated by it. The first religious act had been their participation in prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, and the second, their willingness to say or repeat the “salvation prayer” and to “surrender themselves to Christ”, whatever that might mean to them. The research suggests that most of audience’s religious engagement and experience happened in their private lives without much direct one-to-one communication with the channels. Their direct communications mainly happened when they were in crisis, or a new crisis appeared, or when reporting a miraculous healing or their fear of reverting to their past. For example, Shabnam called SAT-7 PARS in 2012, two years after her conversion through the channel, to tell her conversion story and her reason for calling, asking, “… please pray for me. I have flashbacks to my past and my depression is coming back”. For Shabnam, having been a drug addict and prostitute, flashbacks to her past meant temptation to return to her past lifestyle, which she was concerned about and was the reason for her contacting the channel and asking for help. The story of a lady from northern Iran, with a bleeding problem, is also one example among many. While she was watching a programme on Mohabat TV that talked about Jesus’ miracles, one of which was the healing of the woman with a bleeding problem (Luke 8:43), she identified herself with the character. Therefore, she participated in the prayer in the name of Jesus (a ritual) that was offered to the viewers at the end of the programme. According to her story, a few days later, her bleeding stopped. She therefore contacted the channel to tell them about her experience of both praying in the name of Jesus Christ and receiving healing. Although she did not know of the possibility of changing her religion, she was surprised, yet participated in saying “the salvation prayer”. In a similar vein, many participants indicated that their prayers in the name of Jesus Christ had some sort of supernatural power to heal them or to solve their problems or accomplish what they were not otherwise able to achieve through their human ability (Helland, 2012). As has been discussed earlier, the study confirmed that the former religious worldviews of participants (mainly those who converted to Christianity), the emotional separation from Islam (mainly among religious people) and their past memories were more instrumental in interpreting, analysing and evaluating the Christian message than the Christian teaching they had received. Studying their negotiations with the Christian message and their context, one could find three categories: those who desired continuation with their past religious identity; those who wanted a complete break from their past religion; and those who were seeking “cultural” Christianity and leaving religion behind altogether. Below, I will analyse each category.

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Seeking continuation In the first category, were those who came from a religious background influenced by Sufism. They negotiated to preserve some of their past religious worldviews, such as the concept of monotheism, Tawhid, while constructing their new identity. For some, the concept of the Trinity seemed to be a disadvantage of their new faith. For example, for Amir, the concept of the Trinity was something he was struggling with and, in comparison with Tawhid, he found it difficult to comprehend. The narratives and interviews of this group demonstrated that their de-conversion from Islam had been a painful journey with a sense of loss, pain and homesickness that was still present in their stories. Their revisting their past self to include an interpretation of their new understanding of God as “love and a Heavenly Father” who had been with them from birth. Almost all of them believed that “God is the same [in Christianity and Islam], but had been introduced to them [by the Iranian regime] wrongly”. To explain this further, I use the story of Behnaz, a lady who was transformed by watching TBN Nejat TV. In her interview (2014), she said: It is like discovering a new world, a new self. Everything changes, even your past … going back, I feel God was always with me even through my pain and suffering, but I didn’t know him…. He was worried about me every day and I didn’t know it. For Behnaz, conversion was not in fact conversion to Christianity, but discovering “the hand of the loving God” in her life. This continuity, in fact, gave meaning to her life and brought about her transformation into a new person. Therefore, her negotiation to and interpretation of Christianity were very much linked to her interpretation of her past memories. For many of them, the concept of time become non-linear through revisiting and reliving the past. As Behnaz said: Maybe at first you don’t have any idea what is happening … any idea that you are converting to another religion … or changing your religion; in my case, that was not the purpose … At the beginning, it wasn’t about religion or faith. So that is why I could not say I was converted to Christianity. Now I can, because I know what it means. But at that time, no. I had no idea, although I have become a new person … a transformed one. Behnaz’s story also indicated the process of her transformation, which, a few years later, led to her conversion to Christianity. The study also found that, for the participants in this group, continuation is a key for their new faith to survive and to grow. It also can have an opposite effect: a temptation to fall back and reconvert to Islam. For

182  Mediatisation of religious conversion people in this group, accepting Christ in their lives was a new level of self-­ awareness and a new mindfulness of the divine hand working in their life. This new discovery introduced them to a loving God who is not only restoring their past but also willing to forgive them each time they repent. This group holds an inclusive approach to their faith.

Discontinuity This group desired complete separation from their past, including from anything that had any resemblance to their past faith. In addition to this, anything that limited their freedom of choice also had potential to create resistance to the Christian message. Based on their narratives, this group of participants mainly came from a political-religious background – although some of them may not have been religious themselves – who had followed the regime’s interpretation of Islam, or their families and relatives were part of the government systems. To this group, accepting Christian faith, along with their anti-Islamic approach, was more a socio-political action and statement rather than a religious one. For example, Abootaleb from south-eastern Iran, whose father was a Muslim clergyman and a judge, claiming that he had seen many unfair and unpleasant things done in the name of Islam, which caused him to run away from Islam. For him, there was nothing positive about Islam, though he didn’t know much about Christian faith. That means his conversion to Christianity might have been merely a political act, rather than a religious one. This type of resistance against Islam was more obvious throughout the focus group discussions, see Chapter 4. For this group, their freedom of choice and being in control of the development of their new religious worldview were essential.

Cultural Christianity The third group were those who had come from a less religious and more secular background, influenced more by globalisation, global media and the idea of modernity. The narratives of this group showed that they were willing to experiment with and practise new ideologies. Despite their struggle with some Christian teachings, such as Christ being the Son of God, they were not prepared to speak openly about it. For example, Reza said, “It is difficult to understand some of the doctrine, but we don’t need to understand everything. I think we should experience them first”. However, the focus of this group is more on the social and cultural side of Christianity (affiliation), rather than theological or spiritual commitments. For example, Jamshid said, “It is good to be part of a civilised religion”. In the same way, joining or leaving a house church was normally related to the social dynamic of the group rather than to its teaching and theology. For example, the main reason for Pegah to become a Christian was to find a like-minded group to join. However, when she joined a house church, she felt their

Mediatisation of religious conversion 183 values were different from hers, so she did not fit into the social dynamic of the group. Thus, she moved out and decided to continue her relationship with the channel instead. The data also revealed that disaffiliation from Christian faith or the channels was higher among this group than among the other two. The issues of past, present and future were also significant among all three groups. During the discussions and in telling their conversion stories, remembering the past created or aroused tensions, anger and resistance within the group or individuals. Bringing the present time into the discussions, one could normally sense a feeling of uncertainty, vulnerability, frustration and longer silence, yet a calmer tone. Talking about the future normally created more positive, optimistic and unifying tones, including a change of language from “they should” to “we should” and willingness to participate in creating positive changes. For example, the discussion around a need for a new language (theology) that could serve converts’ needs better created more unity, acceptance and accountability among the group. In general, hope for a better future for themselves and for their children had been one of the main driving forces in their conversion process. From a religion point of view, it should be noted that, for all the participants, “a better future” did not mean life after death, but their life in this world, here and now. In fact, the idea of a better and prosper future was a persuasive factor for a significant majority of participants in exercising their decision-making ability and adopting or considering the Christian faith. Freedom of choice The issue of freedom of choice was another significant discovery that was highlighted throughout the data. The participants’ freedom of choice and actions related closely to rational choice theory based on cost and benefit calculations, as outlined by Stark and Finke (2000), discussed in Chapters 2 and 6. The first issue that the data manifested was that, to many participants, it was important for their freedom of choice and actions to be acknowledged in the light of the lack or limited religious freedom in Iran. To speak of freedom of choice of religion for an Iranian audience living in Iran may seem controversial, given the fact that change of religion, apostasy, based on Iranian constitutional law, articles 220 and 289, is considered a crime against Islam and against the regime (Nayyeri, 2012). However, one can argue that freedom of choice is different from religious rights. Freedom of choice is more closely related to an individual’s opportunities and exercise of decision-making; religious freedom, on the other hand, is constitutionally based (Dowding and Van Hees, 2009). To explain the importance of this issue further, based on the government’s constitution as well as religious teachings (Islam), people who were born Muslim are not allowed to change their religion. Therefore, their freedom of choice and actions were also constrained by the government,

184  Mediatisation of religious conversion religious leaders and, for many, their families. The phrase “you were born Muslim, you die Muslim” was noticeable within the data as something that participants were reminded of by their families. Some narratives indicated that, in their first contacts, participants were surprised to hear that change of religion was an option and a choice. Therefore, exercising their freedom of choice can be interpreted as a rebellious act not only against the authorities, but also against their religious traditions. Statements such as Mojtabah’s were common within the narratives: “despite persecution from the government and opposition from my family, I decided to become a Christian”. Another issue that can be added here is the fact that the religious authorities have been portraying their audience as vulnerable, incapable of making decisions, who can easily become “prey in the hand of Western propaganda”. 2 The study suggested that for the participants to call for acknowledgment of their decisions and actions was a demonstration of their decision-making power and an act of political resistance. Moreover, choosing one’s own religion also meant to a significant number of participants the opportunity and ability to have a faith they had chosen for themselves. Therefore, statements such as “….watching your channel led to my decision to become Christian”, “I chose to follow Christ” and “I didn’t know that I can choose my religion” are common expressions throughout the narratives and interviews. The study also proposes that the practice of freedom of choice by participants might also be related to the increase of diversity and religious plurality of worldviews within Iranian society, as discussed in Chapters 2 and 6. Contrary to the approach of the channels, although Farsi Christian satellite television channels provide an alternative religious ideology and have contributed to the practice of religious diversity and plurality in Iranian society, in reality they promote and preach an exclusive faith much as does Islam. Their exclusive approach and one-way interpretation of Christian faith had developed a sense of resistance even among some of their loyal and regular audience, for they had felt their freedom of choice was being violated once again. Another significant issue that should be pointed out was related to the consequences of their decision. The data suggests that the consequences of their choice were normally based on the level of their exercise of freedom of choice. For example, there are those like Ibrahim, who decided just to add Jesus Christ’s teachings into his Islamic belief system, the consequences of which were less than for Rahman, whose brother was murdered by his cousins because of his conversion to Christianity, and who himself lost his job because of his brother’s faith. Yet, he was determined to become Christian, knowing he too might be killed. For Poneh, on the other hand, becoming Christian was more about her choice of lifestyle and ability to choose her network of friends and that “no one judges her”. Moreover, the study shows that a desire to choose was also related to the exercise of power and control over one’s life, even if it brought with itself

Mediatisation of religious conversion 185 greater consequences. Therefore, the issue of power and control refers to decisions and decision-makers more than the consequences of their actions. Restoration of honour Honour (abrou) and preserving one’s reputation is at the heart of the concept of honour and shame within Iranian culture and sociology of religious emotion. Abrou literally means “sweating as the result of shame” and tends to be used in connection with a decline in reputation or dignity. One can see three main functions within the concept of abrou (honour): complying with social norms or social conformity, which is usually expressed in terms of “preserving reputation”; receiving social approval in society, which is usually expressed as “earning reputation”; adhering to moral and religious principles and having firm beliefs and fundamental values, usually expressed as “dignity” (Mohammadi 2012). Hence, in an honour-based society such as Iran, losing one’s reputation is a great concern, not only from a religious and spiritual point of view but also in relation to financial and social status. In this regard, for some participants conversion to Christianity may have been perceived as a disgraceful act, while others used their newfound faith as a way of restoring their reputation. At the start of the research, the issue of honour and shame was not considered in relation to participants’ choice of faith. However, as the study progressed, it became more obvious that honour was part of the participants’ unspoken agenda in choosing their new faith. Herzfeld (1980) describes honour in terms of conforming to societal expectations in relation to domestic behaviour. This also includes the economic, social and cultural performance of the person’s life in their community and society. In this regard, underlying the majority of the narratives and all of the interviews was a desire to restore honour broken through different means, such as prolonged illness, drug addiction, wrong choice of lifestyle, not being able to provide for family, or – mainly for those who had supported the regime – betrayal by religious leaders and authorities. For some, their national pride had been disgraced internationally under the Islamic state. In these situations of broken honour, Christian media offered them an alternative religious ideology that had the ability, through affiliation, participation, negotiation and interpretation, not only to restore their reputation but also to restructure their identity and sense of self. The topics of restoration of honour and identity deserve a separate and more in-depth study: this research just indicates their importance and influence on participants’ decision making, negotiations and reinterpretations of media text. One of the examples is the narrative of Peyman, a man from Iran, told to Mohabat TV. Payman’s wife, Shabnam, betrayed him with another man. He aimed to kill himself, yet instead, he called the Mohabat TV channel. The channel’s counsellor talked and prayed with both of

186  Mediatisation of religious conversion them for three weeks. After that, Payman and Shabnam’s life together was restored. Payman forgave his wife and started anew. For him, his honour was rebuilt, as he himself put it, “Only by God’s grace! Satan wanted to destroy my life, but Jesus not only restored it, but also saved my wife from a wrong choice [shame] and myself from suicide [disgrace]”. Their conversion to Christianity has also been a means for restoration of their image in their society and community by promoting the positive change that happened in their lives. In Payman’s story, there was no “repentance”, nor a need for eternal salvation from sin, but the “grace of God” in social restoration of their broken honour.

Conclusion In conclusion, the primary focus of the research has been the (mainly Muslim) audience’s interactions and negotiations with the Christian text presented on Farsi Christian television channels that had resulted in, according to the data, the transformation of their lives and their ways of thinking and their conversion to Christianity. The study demonstrated that the audiences of Farsi Christian television channels watch programmes with their pre-set agenda, goals and purpose. The interactions and negotiations with the Christian message had been influenced greatly by their motivations, religio-cultural worldviews and their experience – mainly experiences related to their former religion (positive and negative) and the political situations of the country. Their interpretations and engagements were influenced by globalisation and modernity in the forms of agenda-­ setting, freedom of choice and power of decision-making. The findings related to the channels indicate that it was not the channels’ teaching and doctrinal programs that persuaded their audience to consider Christian faith, but their programmes on prayer and healing and motivational talks that promised the audiences greater hope that, if followed, their goals could be achieved and their dreams could come true. The study also suggests that the audiences’ former religious worldviews, of belief in divine power, miracles, dreams and visions from above, had also contributed to them achieving and, in some cases, exceeding their goals. The channels’ interpretations of events pointed to the work and power of the Holy Spirit; the findings, on the other hand, indicated that Farsi Christian channels just responded to the demands that had already been created among people disillusioned by Islam and the government, in the context of globalisation and global media. Nevertheless, the significance of the findings is that the strength of the channels was not their programming, but their audience, especially those who had become Christian through the media: many of them had become ambassadors for the Christian message through their reproduction and distribution of the message, establishing house churches and house groups and inviting their family members, friends and neighbours to come, watch and join the Christian faith.

Mediatisation of religious conversion 187 In relation to the former religious identity of participants, the findings suggest three types. First, those who sought continuation with their past identity, who were commonly influenced by Sufism’s inclusive approach to faith and desired to see their Christian faith as a continuation of their developed self. The second group were those with unpleasant memories of the government and their religious leaders, who were more interested in an anti-Islamic and exclusive approach, with a desire for complete discontinuity from their past religious identity. The third group were those who were influenced more by secularism and modernity; for them, their conversion was more to cultural Christianity, with limited or no religious belief. At the heart of all participants’ narratives and interviews was the notion of freedom of choice and the power of decision-making. Their freedom of choice was mainly interpreted socially, politically and religiously as an act of rebellion and an exercise of power. In that sense, although persecution had created fear and uncertainty, very few reported regretting their decisions. That might be linked to another interesting finding, which is the issue of the restoration of personal hope and honour. For many of them, Christianity had restored their hope for a better future and had also restored their broken honour, through finding solutions to their life problems, healing their wounds, solving their financial problems and, especially for drug addicts and prostitutes, giving them a new status in society.

Notes 1 “Drug addiction in Iran: The other religion”, The Economist, 17 August 2013. Available at: http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-­africa/21583717why-so-many-young-iranians-are-hooked-hard-drugs-other-religion (Accessed: 27 February 2017). 2 Javanonline.ir has reported on Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi speech in April 2010, Voice of America, Persian Service News website has quoted Khamenie’s speech (2012).

Bibliography Akcapar, S. K. (2006) ‘Conversion as a Migration Strategy in a Transit Country: Iranian Shiites Becoming Christians in Turkey’, International Migration Review, 40 (4), pp. 817–853. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/ j.1747-7379.2006.00045.x/full (Accessed: 15 May 2017). Barbour, J. D. (1994) Versions of Deconversion: Autobiography and the Loss of Faith. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press. Darling, M. et al. (1993) ‘The Pattern of Self-Reflectiveness in Dream reports’, Dreaming, 3 (1), pp. 9–19. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/h0094368 Dowding, K. and Van Hees, M. (2009) ‘Freedom of choice’, in Anand, P., Pattanaik, P. and Puppe, C. (eds.) The Handbook of Rational and Social Choice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 374–392. Also available at: http://med.ces.free.fr/ pdf/vanHees.pdf (Accessed: 4 September 2016).

188  Mediatisation of religious conversion Einstein, M. (2008) Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age. London and New York: Routledge. Fazzino, L. L. (2014) ‘Leaving the Church Behind: Applying a Deconversion Perspective to Evangelical Exit Narratives’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 29 (2), pp. 249–266. Available at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080 /13537903.2014.903664 (Accessed: 13 May 2017) Gooren, H. (2007) ‘Reassessing Conventional Approaches to Conversion: Toward a New Synthesis’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 46 (3), pp. 337–353. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-5906.2007.00362.x/ full (Accessed: 15 May 2017). Gooren, H. (2010) Religious Conversion and Disaffiliation: Tracing Patterns of Change in Faith Practices. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Javanoline.ir, (2010, April) Report on Ayatollah Yazdi’s Speech in April 2010. Available at: http://www.javanonline.ir/vdciq5a5qt1azu2.cbct.html (Accessed: 11 June 2013). Hashemi, S. H. (2003) ‘Dreams and Vision in the Quran’, The Journal of the Science of Quran and Hadith, 152, pp. 14–18 (in Farsi). Available at: http:// www.noormags.ir/view/fa/articlepage/3025/‫قرآن‬-‫در‬-‫رؤیا‬-‫و‬-‫?خواب‬q=%20‫و‬%20‫خواب‬ %29%20%3‫ها‬%20%28‫پدیدآورده‬%20‫قرآن‬%20‫در‬%20‫رؤیا‬A%20%20‫سید‬%20،‫هاشمی‬ ‫&حمید‬score=2064.622&rownumber=1 (Accessed: 15 May 2017). Helland, C. (2012) ‘Ritual’, in Campbell, H. A. (ed.) Digital Religion: Understanding Religious Practice in New Media Worlds. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 25–40. Herzfeld, M. (1980) ‘Honour and Shame: Problems in the Comparative Analysis of Moral Systems’, Man, 15 (2), pp. 339–351. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/ stable/2801675 (Accessed: 15 May 2017). Kikhavani, S., Chatripor, F. and Seidkhaninahal, A. (2013) ‘Comparison Between Suicidal Thoughts and Depression Among the Suicide Committed and Healthy Individuals Among Ilam Province People Between 2011 and 2012’, Journal of Ilam University of Medical Sciences, 21 (1), pp. 53–47 (in Farsi). Available at: http://sjimu.medilam.ac.ir/ browse.php?a_ id=1000&sid=1&slc_ lang=fa (Accessed: 17 June 2017). Lee, P. and Thomas, P. N. (eds.) (2012) Public Memory, Public Media and the Politics of Justice. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan. Livingstone, S. (2003) ‘The changing nature of audiences: From the mass audiences to the interactive media user’, in Valdivia, A. (ed). Companion to Media Studies. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 337–359. Livingstone, S. (2007) Making Sense of Television: The Psychology of Audience Interpretation. 2nd edn. London and New York: Routledge. Mohammadi, B. (2012) ‘Semantic Ethnography of the Cultural Model of Honour and Prestige: Its Meanings and Applications’, Iranian Journal of Sociology. 10 (17), pp. 162–132 (in Farsi). Available at: https://www.sid.ir/fa/journal/ ViewPaper.aspx?id=289523 (Accessed: 29 August 2020). Nayyeri, M. H. (2012) New Islamic Penal Code of the Islamic Republic of Iran: An Overview. Tehran: Human Rights in Iran Unit. Available at: http://www.sx.ac. uk/hri/documents/HRIU_Research_Paper-IRI_Criminal_Code-Overview.pdf, (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Rambo, L. R. (1993) Understanding Religious Conversion. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Mediatisation of religious conversion 189 Rambo, L. R. (1999) ‘Theories of Conversion: Understanding and Interpreting Religious Change’, Social Compass, 46 (3), pp. 259–271. Available at: http:// journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/003776899046003003 (Accessed: 16 May 2017). Stark, R. and Finke, R. (2000) Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion. Berkeley: University of California Press. Stromberg, P. G. (1993) Language and Self-Transformation: A Study of the Christian Conversion Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Tabataba’i, S. M. H. (1983) Al-Mizan: An Exegesis of the Qur’an. Farsi Trans. Sayyid Saeed Akhtar Rizvi. V12. Tehran: World Organization of Islamic Services. Voice Of America Persian Service News, (2012, June 23) ‘Christianity in Iran: A Political-Security Crime’, In Farsi. available at: https://ir.voanews.com/a/ iranian-converts-to-christianity-increase-house-churches-threat-islam/1246195. html. Accessed, 12 June 2015. White, P. and Assimeng, A. A. (2016) ‘Televangelism: A Study of the ‘Pentecost Hour’ of the Church of Pentecost’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 72 (3), a3337. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/hts.v72i3.3337. Available at: http://www.scielo.org.za/pdf/hts/v72n3/33.pdf (Accessed: 16 May 2017).

9

Conclusion

Farsi Christian satellite channels have been mainly aimed at Iran, a Muslimmajority country where conversion and evangelism are considered a crime against Islam and against the regime, resulting in prison and a possible death sentence. Satellite dishes are banned and any contact with outside media institutions is illegal by law. Although the aim of this study was not to research the political implications of this situation (which would be a significant topic for research), nor the work and strategy of the channels in such a situation (another interesting topic for future study), the questions for this study were why and how the audience of Farsi Christian channels in such a threatening situation decided not only to watch the channels but also to negotiate and engage with the message to become Christian in Iran. This research, therefore, was conducted in the light of the complex situation of the Iranian audience – mainly those who decided to become Christian through media, whatever that might mean to them, and participated in spreading the message to others by inviting them to come, watch, join and practise. The theoretical and practical implications of this study concerning both media reception and sociology of religion – mainly the concept of conversion – are several. First, we will consider the theoretical implication for media reception. The majority of the audience of Farsi Christian television satellite channels (over 98 per cent) are non-Christians, mainly from Muslim backgrounds; and yet this non-Christian audience had chosen to watch Christian channels, despite knowing that their acts could be considered illegal by the authorities. Given that Christian channels are not for entertainment purposes and, compared to the majority of Farsi and nonFarsi available satellite channels, have lower quality of production and professionalism, it is remarkable that these audiences not only choose to watch them but also to interact and engage with their programmes and put into practice some of their teachings. In that sense, this study discovered that, although the audiences of Farsi Christian channels are the same as other Farsi satellite channels, in reality they have developed different viewing habits, especially those with aims and an agenda such as to transform their lives, change their religious views, find solutions to their problems or find a DOI: 10.4324/9781003004905-10

Conclusion 191 new social network to belong to. The same audience might be less active in watching other television channels. Therefore, this study suggests that the audience should not be defined based on the medium that they use, but on being people – as Ang (1996) described it, a “lived reality” – with complex life experiences, geo-political and socio-cultural contexts and with the ability to set agendas for their own viewing and to create distinct frameworks for their interpretations of media messages. My research also suggested that the passive connotation of terms such as media consumer and media audience (Laughey, 2007; Shimpach, 2005), though both involve broad concepts, did not do justice to the wide range of activities, culturally, socially, politically and even psychologically, that participants were involved in. This study, therefore, agrees with Livingstone (2003 and 2007) and suggests that the word “user” can be a possible replacement, even for a television audience, for she too emphasises the action of involvement. Another interesting term that the findings suggest, for such situations as this, is the word “seekers” – using Shimpach’s (2005) term, that can also indicate the audience’s desire for change. Adding to Shimpach’s argument, the audience or users of Farsi Christian channels were not only actively involved with the message, but also deliberately transforming their everyday practices and beliefs – in other words, their lives, their religious views and their identity. They also went further through their establishment of house churches and house groups and inviting their friends, family members and neighbours not only “to-come-and-see” but also to participate in changing their lives. They had been actively and deliberately engaging in the transformation of their society and culture. Thus, through their actions, using Christian media as a medium and the concept of conversion as transformative tool, they are changing the religious and cultural dynamic of Iranian society (see, Maleki and Arab, 2020). This raises questions about the nature of the audience in relation to media studies. Similar to the discussion above, there is a suggestion that audience should not be studied as a category within media studies. For, as Einstein (2008) argues, the audience are those who not only create demand for media messages – especially religious messages – but also contribute to the sustainability or change of demand. Further, the concept of “audience” as a category of media study does not address users’ or seekers’ involvement and contribution to the sustainability of television, as well as the ways in which the television text is used, reproduced and distributed. For example, a significant number of participants in this study mentioned that they recorded and distributed some of the programmes even to strangers in the street, some even distributing hand-written Bible verses and the channels’ frequency addresses. Others indicated receiving such materials from friends or even from strangers in the street. Therefore, this study proved that the audience of a religious channel are not a simple category or collection of individuals, but people with purpose, aim and methods for how to use media text to their own advantage.

192  Conclusion The results might further indicate that viewing a channel about a religion other than one’s own religion is fraught with responsibilities and practical implications, which include consequences. Shimpach (2005) uses the term “labor” to describe the audience’s responsibilities – one could say being an active agent – in relationship to power structures and agenda setting, because, although the channels produce their programmes, it is the audience’s decision what to do and how to use the offering to their best advantage. As Shimpach (2005) says, “… being an audience is tantamount to being a citizen”. The implications of the study for the Christian channels in the Muslim majority world are also related to the understanding of the audience’s methods and techniques which they use to interpret and negotiate with the message and their motivational factors that might lead them to make a decision in changing or adding to their religious system. The study suggests that it is not the channels’ content that persuaded some of their audience to convert to Christianity, but, rather, it was the ways the content had been used, appropriated and manipulated by the audiences, through which a new meaning emerged which had been more instrumental in helping the audience to make a decision than the meaning intended by the channels. Among their three activities as audience – pre-viewing, during-viewing and post-viewing – their pre-viewing (such as the process of deconversion from their religion and their agenda-setting activity) and post-viewing (for example, experimenting and practical engagement with the media message) have been more instrumental than their “during-viewing” activity. Their experience of their former religious worldviews and socio-cultural upbringing had been more instrumental in the way they interpreted the Christian message than the Christian message itself. Another implication for the channels is that, through the lens of globalisation and modernity, this audience of converts appeal for a more inclusive religious message in which they can at the same time experiment with other religious ideologies, including their former religion, Islam, without losing their affiliation with Christianity. The result of the study also indicates that turning the audience, mainly self-declared converts, into numbers to acclaim success by the channels might be a violation and devaluation of audiences/seekers freedom of choice and decision-making. Therefore, mission statements such as that of Network 7 – “transforming Iran into a Christian nation in this generation”, meaning converting nearly 80 million Iranians to Christianity in roughly 25 years – underestimate the power of the audience as active agents and the power of locally held beliefs and practices. For that reason, the study suggests that the channels should shift their understanding of the audience from a fictional and imaginary one to this reality – that they are active agents and users of the channels’ content. The study also advocates more research: into the audience’s understanding of conversion or change of belief system; into ways that their audience use and manipulate media messages to achieve their

Conclusion 193 goals; and into ways that audiences form their own process of conversion, with limited support from outside sources.

Conversion as self-identification The research also provided important insights into the process of negotiation and conversion (see Chapters 4 and 6). At least four directions for every negotiation were identified: between the converts’ agendas and the Christian message (what is the gain?); between converts and their cultural context, worldview and community (what might be missed?); between two belief systems, Islam and Christianity (what to change, what to keep and what to let go of?); and between converts and their political and religious rules and security, in the light of possible persecution (what are the consequences or punishments? Is it worth it?). In the end, their agenda and the outcomes of their negotiations guided their conversion decision, concerning at what level they could convert to Christianity – that is, should they add Christ’s teachings into their Islamic ideologies (I call that “Shia Christianity”)? Or should they just accept cultural Christianity without Christian faith (change of lifestyle and affiliation with Christians)? Or should they accept Christianity as a continuation and development of their past self? Or should they cut themselves off totally from the past and restart with a totally new faith? Additionally, the data revealed that their considerations on the level (i.e., altering or changing religion) and version of conversion (such as Shia Christianity or cultural Christianity) related to the increase of religious pluralism, government restrictions, levels of education and religiosity of individuals and the availability of religious messages through media. This research has also extended our knowledge of the Muslim understanding of conversion. There is no exact translation for the word “conversion”, with its profound mystical sense in Farsi, and, as a matter of fact, “in some great religions of the world” including Muslims in the Middle East (Asad, 1996, pp. 265–266), any equivalent words or phrases used by participants had their own particular connotations, consequences and implications. For example, phrases such as, “I decided to become a Christian”, “I accepted Jesus Christ in my heart” or “Jesus Christ asked me [in a dream] to follow him”, each had different meanings, consequences and implications for individuals. Yet the channels and even scholars interpreted them as conversion without differentiating between them. This research, however, highlighted the fact that not every narrative story of change is a conversion story. Another significant issue was the concept of relationship with God in Islam and Christianity; for example, the concept of “Lord and servant” in Islam (with a sense of being forgotten by God, fear of God and fear of hell) helped seekers to accept belief in “the loving Father” and relational God of Christianity. The second Islamic/Sufi concept of God as “beloved and lover”

194  Conclusion helped some converts not only to be reconciled with their past but also to modify the concept of the Trinity through the lens of Islamic monotheism, Tawhid. In this light, the person of Jesus Christ, to all participants, was not God or equal to God. Yet he is the miracle-maker and problem-solver – that is, all their problems and prayers were taken to Christ and all their worship to God (see Chapter 4). The recurring religious experiences were dreams, visions, miraculous healings and finding peace and courage after praying in the name of Jesus Christ to solve one’s own problems. The examination of data, especially the interviews, revealed that the issue of deconversion from Islam had created painful memories for many converts to Christianity to such an extent that this had overshadowed their conversion to process and made the process look like a political protest rather than a religious one. Most of their strong anti-Islamic views were linked to their emotionally painful “divorce” from Islam rather than to their intellectual doubts. For that reason, their deconversion processes had been a dynamic, multi-stage experience of transformative change from liberation to depression and loss and then to seeking and finding. Their journey also guided their conversion to and set their expectations of their new faith, Christianity. Therefore, their deconversion was, as Fazzino (2014) puts it, “marked by both liberation from and opposition to religion and a repertoire of symbolic meaning”. My research, however, argued that the deconversion experiences of converts had not only influenced their conversion to, but also guided their conversion process, including reducing exposure to the Christian message by modifying Christian teachings for their own purposes and removing any similarities or unwanted religious experiences that reminded them of their past painful experiences (see Chapter 4). Therefore, to understand the process of conversion from Islam to Christianity, one needs first to study the process of deconversion. Nevertheless, the findings support the theory that there is increased religious pluralism and diversity within Iranian society. For example, Ishmail, a convert from a Muslim background, who is now a Christian pastor, said, “My parents and one of my brothers are committed Sunnis, one of my sisters is an activist communist, the other sister and I are Christian, two of my brothers do not believe in anything except God”.

Limitations and recommendations for future study The limitations of this study are flagged, firstly, as indications and recommendations for future research and, secondly, to avoid any unjustified extrapolation and generalisation of the findings. The first issue is that this study was limited in scope. The narratives that were selected had been pre-selected by the channels. For several personal and security reasons, many details had been omitted from narratives. For this reason, the 15 in-depth interviews and focus group discussions have been considered

Conclusion 195 with a degree of critical distance. Moreover, in this study, to narrow the research, I deliberately excluded the political implications of the politicisation of Christianity and conversion by three parties: the channels; their audience, for their political and migration purposes; and the Iranian government, to emphasise their anti-Western ideology. Therefore, the politicisation of Christianity by the channels, their audience and the Iranian state is an interesting topic for future research, along with the use of conversion as a migration strategy among Iranian migrants. Since this study was in the area of media reception, there was no detailed discussion of the work of the channels, their programming strategy, the political and theological influence of their donors on their strategy, or their plans for the future. For example, the study has acknowledged the influence of American and Pentecostal televangelism and prosperity gospel theology on the channels, yet the significance and impact of this were not discussed. This topic is another recommendation for future study, including the possible impact of reducing Christianity to a religionless (not-a-religion), spiritual ideology for the establishment of Farsi Christianity in Iran (as opposed to Armenian and Assyrian Christianity in Iran) by both the channels and their audiences (Afshari, 2013). Another limitation of the study, which was caused by lack of data, was the issue of the viewing space, virtual space (the frame, the screen and the medium) or physical space (living room, bedroom; alone or together with friends and family) in which the audience interacted and negotiated with the message. For example, a number of narratives indicated that the audience changed their religious view several months – in some cases two or even three years – prior to their first call to a channel. In what setting did the event happen? Is there any difference between conversion through television and conversion through other media platforms? Moreover, the narratives and even interviews indicated that their online and social media activities were not particularly significant in their process of making decisions. A question for future research could be to consider: what other factors besides restrictions and controls from the government on Internet and social media activities of the users, geographically, culturally and educationally, were involved in relation to preferred viewing space and media platforms for seekers? In relation to conversion and resistance, although a chapter has been dedicated to the issue, the results of the telephone survey from Iran, which for security reasons were very limited and brief, only dealt with one of various relevant questions: why some people didn’t watch Christian programmes. Other issues of resistance, such as deconversion, disaffiliation and dropping-out, were not investigated in detail. Questions related to the tension between the authority of the state (expressed through IRIB, schools and other forms of government-controlled education) and the authority of the individual in relation to decision-making were also not investigated. Therefore, these issues need further research.

196  Conclusion

Final remarks: The growing gap The importance of this research lies in three areas in particular: media, religion and culture, mainly by illuminating the audiences’ interactions and negotiation methods with the channels, religions (Islam and Christianity),and with their political-cultural context (Hoover and Clark, 2002); media reception (largely of religious television); and sociology of religion and culture, mostly from the point of view of conversion as self-­ identification. The findings established that it is possible for some seekers to use television in order to shift, modify or add to their religious views, while the interpretation and meaning of religious messages might change based on the seeker’s agenda. I call this “mediated religious conversion”. For that reason, programmes focusing on discovery, recovery and restoration of self had been more popular than the teaching programmes on doctrine and theology. In addition to mediated religious conversion, the findings raised, though briefly, the issue of the mediatisation of Farsi/Iranian Christianity which was discussed in Chapter 3, that has resulted not only from conversion through media but also from the lack of Farsi churches and Christian communities, with television channels and other digital media platforms being the main sources of both knowledge and community for some converts. The main finding of this study, of which the channel should take note, is the issue of mediatisation of Farsi Christianity that has been “one-­ dimensional approach”: preaching the word mainly from a positive and feel-good point of view, while real life and practical Christianity has been lacking. Additionally, the growing gap (contextually, culturally and from the point of view of worldview and language) between the audience and the channels’ programming content might have created unwanted interpretations of the Christian message by the audience. Therefore, this research suggests that the channels may need to change their views of audience as passive recipients, like pulpit audiences, and give more time to researching and understanding their audience as real intelligent beings, with goals and agendas, and complex methods of engagement with media texts. It has also been suggested here that, in their programming content, there is a need for the channels to revise their theological views by reducing the influences of North American Christianity and prosperity teachings in both their performance and teachings and introducing a more contextual understanding of Christianity, using their audiences’ circumstances, cultural and religious contexts and worldviews, including converts’ faith journeys, in order to introduce Christ and Christianity into Iranian/Islamic culture. While the conclusions of this research can assist Christian media also in other Muslim-majority countries, especially in the Middle East, the findings on the conversion process of individuals should not be extrapolated and generalised. The in-depth interviews and focus group discussions, however, were very constructive in expanding our understanding of ways and

Conclusion 197 methods which some audiences have used to negotiate with the Christian message in order to bring about their desired changes, to retell their process of deconversion, to construct their relationship with the channels and to reconcile their theological struggles with the Christian message and their religious worldviews. In relation to the medium, although television together with other media platforms will continue to play a crucial role in Christianity in Iran, consumption of television programmes and the nature of viewing and participation of audiences will almost certainly continue to change, based on the advancement of technology and the political situation of Iran – especially whether people are permitted increasing or decreasing levels of freedom. In conclusion, this study has been about the audiences’ interactions with and participation in Farsi Christian satellite television channels and especially about those who had told their stories to one of the channels and had, according to their statements, accepted or considered the Christian faith. Many of them indicated that their participation in the Christian message went beyond the channel’s message into their society and culture in such a way that they encouraged others to “come, see, join and practise”. In that respect, the development from being an ordinary audience to becoming an agent of change has been one of the surprises that have contributed to the evolution of my thinking about television audiences. These small movements of change indicated a possibility of the emergence of Farsi Christianity (as opposed to Armenian and Assyrian Christianity) and a possible change in the fabric of Iranian society and culture. In this, the surprising issue, that has enhanced my thinking, is the power of the audiences’ past religious and cultural worldviews in the process of interpretation, negotiation and conversion, which made the Christian message secondary in the process of life changes that can be directed and personalised. Therefore, the concerns that have remained are: can Farsi Christian media in general, operating from outside of their audiences’ cultural contexts and circumstances, sustain and direct those new movements of change within Iranian society? With the limited Christian churches, house churches and communities, what “unwanted” changes might converts make to their faith and to Farsi Christianity in general? What impact would that reshaping of Christianity by converts and media have on the future of the Iranian Church? Therefore, this research has opened up more topics for additional studies.

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Index

Note: Italicised folios refers figures and “n” notes. active media users 157 affiliation: with Christianity 192; and conversion 153–154; denominational 149; experiment and 27; house church 151–153; Islam and 109; religious 112, 113, 114, 129, 141; resistance to 153–154; social/cultural 27 Afghanistan 60, 63 agenda-based social experimenting 109 Ahmadi, F. 124 Ahmadi, N. 124 Ahoramazda 71 Akcapar, S. K. 119n12, 168 Al-Hail, A. 50 Al-Qaeda 46 Amato, M. 61, 68, 71, 73, 151–152, 162n2 Amoli, S. R. 15, 50 Anglican church 27, 80, 83, 92 Ankara, Turkey 80; Anglican church in 27; Farsi Pentecostal church in 27; Iranian community in 32n21 apostasy 53n11, 128, 183; antiapostasy law 49; Nadarkhani, Y. 8n9; religion 49–51 Ashoura 84, 88–89, 137, 147 asylum seekers 27, 116, 119n12 atheists 148, 158, 159 attitude: anti-Islamic 174; negotiating/ bargaining 96, 101, 105; religion in Iran 45–49, 52n6; towards Christ in narratives 127; towards din 42 audience 11–12; belief system 4; as consumers 15; conversion 75; cultural/political resilience 5; disaffiliation from Christian

television channels 152; dissatisfaction of 61; dramatisation of 68; engagement and participation 179; Farsi Christian satellite channel 25, 38, 190; feedback of 64; hypodermic needle theory/magic bullet theory 67, 177; involvement 20; Iranian 4–5, 14, 15–17, 19, 31n17, 58, 65, 68, 82, 157, 179; Muslim 5, 14, 38, 57, 68, 70; negotiations 6; occasional 154; phantasm 15, 17–18; pre-viewing 136; religio-cultural background 101; religious cultures 66; religious views or agendas towards Christianity 58; SAT-7 PARS 172; self-proclamation 138; target 91 Azin, A. 50–51 Bahar, M. 15 Bahonar, N. 14, 17 Barbour, J. D. 5, 14, 21, 23, 146, 148, 152 Basmenji, K. 158 Biocca, F. 20 blasphemy 69, 93–94, 114, 153 Blessings in the Light of Our Redemption 64 borderless Christianity 68 “bottom-up” approach 66–67 Bradley, M. 2, 3 Campbell, H. A. 133 Catholic Christianity 3 challenges: channels 74–75; religion in Iran 12–14

200  Index change of religion 21, 29; consequence of media 24; conversion of 72–74; narratives 44 channels 56–76, 157; challenges 74–75; conversion of change of religion 72–74; Iran Alive Ministries (IAM) 58–59; magic bullet theory 66–69; Network 7 58–59; nonreligion-Christianity 69–72; practice 65–66; programming 59–64 charismatic theory of communication 4, 67 child-centred family 112–113 children see persuasive children Christian Encounters with Iran: Engaging Muslim Thinkers After the Revolution (Tavassoli) 161 Christianity 2; borderless 68; conversion to 21; evangelical version of 14; in Iran 57, 71–72, 197; in Middle East 57; not-a-religion 71; recognised 2; relational 70; relationship with the divine 71; religious ideologies 13; religious views/agendas towards 58; as tool for Westernisation 109–112 Christians 2; faith 115, 162; in Iran 3; outside Iran 12; values and teaching 105 Church Seven 59, 69, 80–89, 171–172; analysis 82–84; content and 85–89; interpretations and 85–89; presentation and performance 84–85 Church Seven (Kelisa-e Haft) 142n13 Cimino, R. 130 Clark, L. S. 14 Coleman, S. 67–68 commitment 22, 32n19, 140; affiliation and 105; to Christianity 109; faith and 169; growth and 74; repentance and 72; spiritual 182 Constitutional Revolution (Jonbesh-e Mashruteh) 11, 48 content quality 149–150, 155, 162 conversion 5, 173–174; affiliation and 153–154; career 5, 22–23; Christian faith and 65; Damascus road 107; defined 23; processes 137–141; religious 20–25 cost and benefit theory 60 cultural Christianity 168, 182–186 cultural invasion 47, 153 Cyprus 3 Cyrus, K. 89–90

Daniel, M. 89, 90, 173 deconversion/de-conversion 96, 146–149; defined 23; and disaffiliation 147–149; narratives 146; process of 194; theory 5 see also conversion demand: change of 191; for evangelism 63; mediatisation 177–178; reformation and reinterpretation of Islam 40; willingness and 4 din 6, 13, 39, 41, 42–44, 45, 51, 70, 160, 161 dindari 7, 39, 44, 45, 70 disaffiliation 97, 101, 146–149, 195; affiliation and 139; from channels 149; from Christian programmes 28; and deconversion 145, 147–149; process of 22; rejection and 23 discontinuity 125, 182, 187 divine power 176–177, 186 dominance 150–151 Einstein, M. 141, 177, 191 email 89 emotional suffering 176 evangelism 141; negotiating and 132–133 exclusivism 150–151; religion and religiosity 41–45; and religious inclusivism 160–161 experimenting 104–107; agendabased 109; purpose of 107; stories 108 externalisation 69 Faali, M. T. 86, 130, 131 Facebook 89 Fairclough, N. 98 faith: participants 98–101; in religion 39–45; stories 124–125 fardgarai (individualism) 72, 134 Farsi Christians 2, 3, 25; churches 58; in Iran 8n2; media ministries 57; satellite television channels 4, 6, 25, 38, 58, 60, 66, 74, 131–137, 190, 197; television broadcast 64 farzand-salary 112 Fazeli, N. 13, 14, 19, 159 Fazzino, L. L. 147–148, 194 fear 128–129 Finke, R. 5, 14, 21, 24, 60, 118, 123, 183 forgiveness 127–128 freedom of choice 183–185

Index 201 GAMAAN see Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran Garrison, D. 2, 3 Gartrell, C. D. 21, 113 Ghasabi, R. 42 Ghobadzadeh, N. 161 ghormeh sabzi 92 globalisation 12, 106, 158; global media and 11–12, 39, 45, 57, 65, 72, 158, 162, 172, 186; modernity and 40, 45; and secularisation 13 global media: crisis of identity 51; globalisation and 11–12, 39, 45, 57, 65, 72, 158, 162, 172, 186; Islamic government 46; re-producing and re-broadcasting 19 Gooren, H. 5, 14, 21, 97, 112, 146, 166; conversion career 5, 22–23, 123 Gordon-McCutchan, R. C. 95 Great Commission 60 Green Movement in 2009 46 Greil, A. L. 14, 20 Group for Analysing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran (GAMAAN) 31n10, 52n6 guardians (Awliya) 11 hadd (crime) 53n11 Hafez 42–43, 163n7 Haji Jafari, M. 15 Hascall, S. C. 127–128 Hashemi, S. H. 177 hazrat (holiness) 90, 95 Hazrat-e Maryam 90, 92, 95 healing 117–118 Helland, C. 115, 179 Hendricks, W. 81 Herzfeld, M. 185 Herzog, H. 76n14 Hobson, J. A. 131 honour (abrou) 108–109, 119n2, 134, 142n12, 185–186 Hoover, S. M. 14 Horsfield, P. 14 Hossein, I. 102n4, 114–115, 123, 141n1, 177 Hosseini, S. H. 63 house church 26, 60, 61, 67, 68, 74, 81, 109, 110, 132, 134–135, 182; affiliation 151–153 House Church 61 hypodermic needle model 76n14 hypodermic needle theory 67

ICB see Iranian Christian Broadcasting inclusivism 41–45, 160–161 individualism 134, 142n12 influence of regime 154–155 intellectual doubts 176 interaction stage 22 internalisation 69 Internet 11 Internet World Stats 30–31n2 interpretative process 29 involvement, theory of 20 Iran 2, 111; Christianity in 57, 71–72, 197; Christians 3, 5, 12; culture 119n2; Farsi Christians in 8n2; freedom 119n5; Gospel into 60; government against globalisation 47; government and religious authorities 31n17; Muslim in 119n2; religion in 12–14; religious shopping in 108; understanding of religion 39 Iran Alive Ministries (IAM) 58–59, 81 Iranian Christian Broadcasting (ICB) 3, 8n1, 8n10, 29, 58 Iranian Constitutional Revolution 17 Iranian Green Movement 31n12 Iran war 48 Iraq 46 Iraq war 48 irrational choice 24–25 Islam 2, 39; interpretation of 13; politicisation of 13; social transformation and radicalisation 11; and Western modernity 11 Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) 15, 16–17, 47–48, 91, 156, 158, 195 Islamic Revolution 3 Islamic State (IS) 46 Jahanbegloo, R. 50 James, W. 23 Jeremiah 76n2 Jesus Christ 21, 60, 64–65, 70, 113, 115, 118, 161, 167, 169; negotiating 126–127; salvation 106 Jesus Film 82 Jesus Prayer 102n10 Kadivar, M. 49 Kazemi, A. V. 11 kdin 42 Khajehpour, M. 66 Khamenei, A. 66 khodanabavar 159

202  Index Khomeini, A. 11, 39, 42, 48, 157 Kikhavani, S. 170 Kyle, R. G. 87–88 Lamazhab 31n5 language 20, 30, 81, 85–86; Farsi 63; participants 98–101; trust and 87 Lattin, D. 130 Lazarsfeld, P. 76n14 learning and negotiating 132–133 legal retaliation 142n6 Livingstone, S. 14, 176, 191 Lofland, J. 20 magic bullet theory 56, 66–69, 76n14, 176–177 Mahdavi, M. S. 112, 113 Malekian, M. 51 mazhab (religion) 21, 42, 69, 125, 161 mazhabi 39, 69, 70 McKnight, S. 148 media and the state 16–17 media contextualisation 18–20 mediatisation 165–187; conversion 173–174; cultural Christianity 182–186; demand 177–178; discontinuity 182; divine power 176–177; freedom of choice 183–185; magic bullet theory 176–177; Mohabat TV 170, 171; motivating element 169–170; Network 7 171–172, 172; progression 165–166; religiosity 178–180; religious conversion 178–180; resistance 174–175; restoration of honour 185–186; SAT-7 PARS 172, 172–173; seeking 166–169; seeking continuation 181–182; TBN Nejat TV 171, 171; transformation 174 media users 14–16 mental distress 96 Messiah 142n5 metanoia 138 Meyer, J. 119n6 Middle East 5, 111, 196; Christianity in 57; political developments in 46 migration 116–117 Miracle Maker 126, 137 Mithraism 39 modernisation 46, 106, 108, 109, 111, 112 modernity: cultural invasion and 47; globalisation and 40, 45, 46, 47, 49,

51; Islam/Islamisation and 11, 40; religion and 46; secularism and 187; Western 110–111 Mohabat TV 25, 26, 29, 58, 60–61, 73, 116, 124, 142n15, 148, 150, 152, 167, 170, 171 Mohadesi, H. 41, 52n2 Mohammadi, A. 48 Mohammadi, B. 15 Mohsenianrad, M. 15, 17 Montazeri 49 moral motivation 108 Moses 42, 119n11, 161 moshkel gosha 173 Motahhari, M. 40, 42 motivating element 169–170 Mowlana, H. 15, 16, 17 mullah (Islamic clergyman) 123, 140; with ties 154 murtad (apostasy) 128 namaz 129, 137, 173 Nasr, S. V. R. 41, 46 nationalism 51 negotiating 104–107, 122–141; characteristics of people in position 123–131; Christian channels as community 133–135; Christian channels as process and means 131–137; conversion processes 137–141; evangelism and 132–133; faith stories 124–125; fear and shame 128–129; forgiveness 127–128; with God 124–125; Jesus Christ 126–127; learning and 132–133; relationship process 135–137; religious experience 129–131 Network 7 3, 25, 26, 29, 58–59, 76n2, 80, 131, 143n16, 149, 171–172, 172; electronic church 142n13 New Age 71 non-Christian audience 190 non-religion-Christianity 69–72 Obadia, L. 47 occasional audience 149, 154 see also audience Ondrey, H. 148 Orthodox 3 Orthodox Christianity 142n4 Osteen, J. 59 Our house, our church 61

Index 203 Pahlavi dynasty 31n6 participants 80–102; approach to religion 175; Church Seven 80–89; faith 98–101; language 98–101; motivations 166; Prayer and Christianity 89–98 Pejvak 66 Pentecostal church 80 Pentecostalism 150 personal faith (iman-e shakhsi) 13, 45 personalised media 20 personal transformation 23 persuasive children 112–118; healing and meaning 117–118; migration 116–117; religious shoppers 113–115; religious visitors 115–116; spiritual experimenting 113 Petra Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) 8n10 Pir-Mohammadi, K. 50–51 poor production 149–150 post viewing 136, 141, 157 Prayer and Christianity 89–98; analysis 90–91; approval or clash 92–93; blasphemy 93–94; content and interpretations 92; hazrat 95–98; presentation and performance 91–92 pre-viewing 136 programme quality 155–156 programming 59–64 progression 165–166 public media 20 qesas 127–128, 142n6 Quran 95, 109; Jesus Christ 142n3 Ramadan, T. 116 Rambo, L. R. 5, 14, 21, 22, 23, 93, 123, 138, 166 rational choice theory 5, 21, 24–25, 123 relational Christianity 70 relationship process 135–137 religion and religiosity 38–52, 178–180; apostasy 49–51; change of attitude in Iran 45–49; conversion 20–25, 178–180; exclusivism versus inclusivism 41–45; experience 85, 129–131; faith in 39–45; identities 143n18; inclusivism 160–161; in Iran 12–14; shoppers 113–115; visitors 115–116

Religious Experience and Sufi Meditation (Faali) 130 repentance 72, 138, 141n1, 186 research methodology 25–30 resisters 157–159 resisting/resistance 104–107, 145–162, 174–175; active media users and 157; to affiliation 153–154; to affiliation and 153–154; atheists 159; channels 157; content quality 149–150; conversion 153–154; deconversion 146–149; disaffiliation 146–149; dominance 150–151; house church affiliation 151–153; influence of regime 154–155; occasional audience 154; poor production 149–150; programme quality 155–156; religious inclusivism and exclusivism 160–161; resisters 157–159; sense of superiority 150–151; theist agnostics 160 restoration of honour 185–186 Restorative Justice in Islam (Hascall) 127–128 Rittenhouse, B. P. 108 Roman Catholic 94 Roof, W. C. 130 Rosenberg, J. 59, 76n5 Rumi 43 Safa, R. 64 salvation 8n12, 23, 27, 58–60, 62, 64, 65, 71, 73, 75, 81, 106, 125, 127, 138, 186 SAT-7 International Council 29 SAT-7 PARS 3, 8n10, 8n11, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 57, 61, 62–63, 64, 65, 72, 80, 85, 99, 110, 123–124, 129, 150, 154, 168, 172, 172–173, 180 secularisation 13 seeking 166–169; continuation 181–182 Seminary of The Air (SOTA) 64, 173 sense of superiority 150–151 Serajzadeh, S. H. 42 seven-stage model 5, 123, 143n17 shame 128–129 Shannon, Z. K. 21, 113 Shariat, H. 3, 58, 59, 68–70, 71–72, 80–81, 82, 100, 170 Shariati, A. 40, 42, 44 Sharigh News 11 Sherkat, D. E. 24

204  Index Shia clergy and scholars (Ulama) 31n6; ideology of worship and prayer 84; Islam 21, 66, 84; Muslim 4, 12 Shiaism 5, 143n18 Shimpach, S. 4, 191, 192 Shojai-Zand, A. 13 Simonian, A. 8n10 Skype 89 social experimenting 109 sociocultural adaptation 117 sociology of religion in Iran 52n2 Soroush, A. 13, 40 spiritual experimenting 113 spiritual marketplace 147 Stark, R. 5, 14, 20, 24, 60, 118, 123, 183 Stolow, J. 48 Straus, R. A. 14, 20 Stromberg, P. G. 177 Sufi ideology 76n12 Sufi poetry 116 Sufism 21, 39, 142n4, 187; religious inclusivism of 51 Sunnis 194 Syria 46 Tabatabai 142n4 Tabataba’i, A. 21, 42, 44 tabligh 15 Tadjallimehr, M. 155 Tanhai, H. 42, 44 Tashoua 137 Tavassoli, S. 161 Tawhid 43, 86, 93–94, 101, 181, 194 tazir (punish) 53n11 TBN Nejat TV 3, 25, 26, 56, 57, 58, 64–65, 149, 156, 171, 171, 179 telephone survey 28

televangelism 4, 65 theist agnostics 160 “the top-down” approach 66–67 Tobacco Rebellion (Nehzat-e Tanbacoo) 17, 31n15 transformation 13, 174; conversion and 60, 176; narratives of audiences 25; opportunities for 22; personal 18, 23, 24; physical 69; religious 130 “true Christianity” 3 Trump administration 46 Trusting God 114 TV Everywhere 63 Tweeter 89 Vali-e Faghi 11 Van Gorder, A. C. 3 Viber 89 viewing 20, 38, 49, 75, 133, 136, 145, 192, 197 Vilayat-e Fagih’s (Supreme Leader) 48 Westernisation 109–112 Western lifestyle 111 Western modernity 110 What’sApp 89 Wilson, J. 24 A Wind in the House of Islam (Garrison) 3 Wolff, J. 86 Wood, D. C. 47 Yazdi, A. M. 52, 66 Yazdi, M. 31n17 Yemen 46 Zoroastrianism 39