09/24/2014 12:32 EDT | Updated 11/24/2014 05:59 EST

Why Is Happiness a Crime in Iran?

Juanmonino via Getty Images

"It might seem crazy what I'm about to say;" dancing with joy is a crime in Iran.

Seven Iranian students have received a suspended sentence of up to 12 months and 91 lashes each. Their crime: they recorded a video signing Pharrell Williams' song, Happy.

A huge disconnect is obvious in Iran and Saudi Arabia where, in the name of Islam, varying degrees of orthodoxy is being enforced on the masses. The urbanized youth and the rural/small-town-based clergy in the Muslim world are in conflict on how one should live one's life. The more orthodox the regime, the more ridiculous are its proclamations; women are forbidden to drive in Saudi, and prevented from singing in Iran.

As the Muslim societies urbanize across the globe, rural-religious ethos battles with the freedoms of urbanization.

The Iranian video shows seven young students singing and dancing to the Happy song in Tehran. They are fully clothed. Men are even bearded. There is no "inappropriate" physical contact. They are acting not lewd, but silly. This does not even constitute a misdemeanor, let alone a crime punishable by 91 lashes.

I have been to Iran once in the early nineties. There I witnessed the conflict between the religiously inspired orthodox forces and the young urban Iranians. Couples walking in parks or at university campuses faced random interrogation and harassment by the moral police. In Mashhad, the youth would rather have a rendezvous at a shrine than in a park to escape pestering by the police. This was not the Iran I had imagined.

In 1993, I noticed that even after 14 years of revolution, war, and internal strife, Iranians had not lost their sense of humor. I watched a comedy Jib-Borha Be Behesht Nemiravand (pickpockets will not go to heaven), in a movie theatre in Tehran where the comedy began even before the movie started. Hanging from the walls in the movie theatre were oddly placed large photographs of religious leaders. The movie was equally funny.

Years later, Iran under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and others before him, regressed even further as civil liberties eroded and opposition was coerced into silence. His regime imprisoned celebrated moviemakers and journalists, banned publications, and tortured dissenters. The master moviemaker, Jafar Panahi, was arrested for documenting the resistance movement in Iran. He received a six-year sentence. Mahnaz Mohammadi, a famous Iranian documentary maker, was recently jailed for five years for "collaborating with the BBC." Several other documentary makers were arrested in 2011 when the charges were first laid.

BBC and other international news outlets remain banned in Iran. Several journalists are in jails for criticizing the government. In 2003, Zahra Kazemi, a Canadian freelance photographer of Iranian origin, died in an Iranian prison while being interrogated. A former Iranian military physician, who examined Zahra's remains, confirmed she was tortured to death. It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that the Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Iran the fifth most Internet censored country in the world. Saudi Arabia ranks fourth.

The urbanized Iran is as multifaceted, complex, and colorful as any other rapidly urbanizing society could be. Young Iranians are falling in love, getting married, and if it does not work out, getting divorced. Asghar Farhadi captures the intricate social and domestic tensions of the modern-day Iran in the 2011 movie, A Separation. The movie shows the struggles of a young family in which the wife wants to leave Iran, while the husband, who also looks after his ailing father, does not.

The movie portrays a pregnant housekeeper (who may miscarry by accident) and the widening gulf between the dueling couple as reflections of the ebb and flow of life in contemporary urban Iran that is too complex to be understood and appreciated by the religious police, who nostalgically crave a rural past.

Yet, it is not the police commissioner of Tehran, but Maryam Mirzakhani, who signifies the modern-day Iran. Professor Mirzakhani teaches at Stanford University and is the recipient of this year's Fields Medal in mathematics, which rivals the Nobel Prize. She is the first woman in 50 years to receive mathematics' highest honour.

Professor Mirzakhani, 37, and the seven students singing the Happy song grew up in Tehran. Just like the girls in the video, she also does not don a headscarf. She made Iranians proud. Even the conservative Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, felicitated her over twitter as he tweeted her scarf-free photograph.

The religious regime in Iran has to embrace urbanism and its byproducts: cultural and political freedoms. Any resistance to the change will backfire. President Rouhani recognizes that the change is imminent. When the students were initially arrested, he tweeted: "#happiness is our people's right. We shouldn't be too hard on behaviors caused by joy."

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