Iranian Rapper Shahin Najafi Faces Death Threats for Song Deemed Insult
A German-based Iranian is in hiding after his single was deemed an insult to a Shia Imam. In an interview, the artist says Tehran is instigating outrage—and he fears a fatwa.
By Omid Memarian (originally published in the Daily Beast)
Just days after the release of a song that led to heated reactions in Iran and a bounty on his head, German-based Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi told The Daily Beast that he is not going to apologize for his provocative work, as he does not see it as an insult. He accused Tehran’s “ruling system” of stirring up religious outrage.
Now one of the world’s most controversial Iranian artists, Najafi, 32, moved to Germany in 2005 and has released four albums. Each has focused on everyday life in the Islamic Republic, and his work has earned him more than 212,000 fans on just his Facebook page. But the release of his last song, “Naqi,” the name of the 10th Shia imam, may have launched him into a life-threatening whirlwind similar to that faced by author Salman Rushdie. Najafi told The Daily Beast that perceiving his song as an insult is “a 100 percent misinterpretation.”
Since the song came out May 7 and drew death threats against Najafi, the German government has provided a safe house for the artist, who worries the security is insufficient. “I’m living in a secret place now and I don’t have any bodyguards. My daily life and work have been derailed,” he said in an interview. “Naturally, I continue my own way, but this didn’t make me happy. I have nothing against people’s beliefs. I do my own artistic work.”
In the song, which is “apparently tongue-in-cheek,” the lyrics appeal to the imam to react to a series of controversial events and scenarios, often involving Iranians, says Drewery Dyke, Iran researcher at Amnesty International in London. “None of the lyrics incite to violence or make any direct comment on the personage referred to, Imam ‘Alī an-Naqī, or ‘Alī ibn Muhammad ibn ‘Alī, as he is ‘called on,’ metaphorically, to take action.”
Nonetheless, Shia-Online announced Thursday that it had allocated $100,000 for the killing of Najafi. The hardliner news website claimed, “A benefactor of an Arab country in the Persian Gulf region has promised to give this money as the reward on behalf of Shia-Online to the killer of the derogatory singer.”
All week, conservative news websites were viciously attacking Najafi, including Baztab-Emrooz, which accused him of having become communist and singing controversial and “derogatory” songs just to get asylum, even though he is already a German resident.
Najafi said he never thought about the consequences. “I didn’t want things to reach a point where some people would be upset,” he told The Daily Beast from his safe house. “And for some who have direct ties with the ruling system in Iran to abuse these upset feelings, they are the ones that derailed public opinion and are somehow abusing people’s religious feelings.”
On Wednesday, Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency, which is known for its ties to the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit, wrote that a ranking ayatollah, Safi Golpayegani, had issued a fatwa about Najafi’s alleged apostasy, meaning that his killing would be “necessary” according to Sharia law.
After news of the alleged fatwa was released, a Facebook page started signing up volunteers or assassins ready to kill the singer, which received more than 600 likes before Facebook removed the page from its website.
The fatwa, however, was dated two weeks prior to the release of Najafi’s song and did not mention any names, including his.
In fact the ayatollah, in response to a question on what would be the punishment for those who insult the ninth and 10th Shia imams (two of the 12 imams Shiites follow), without naming anybody he said: “If they insult and impertinence the holy imam, they are apostates.”
After news of the alleged fatwa was released, a Facebook page started signing up volunteers or assassins ready to kill the singer, which received more than 600 likes before Facebook removed the page.
When asked whether he takes the death threats seriously, Najafi told The Daily Beast, “Absolutely!” And asked whether he believes the Iranian government might hire assassins to kill him, he said, “That won’t be necessary at all. They have supporters among other nations who could pay me a visit. They can easily hire people and later deny that they have done it.”
“Their aim is to create fear, intimidation, and terror among people and for me, so that I don’t continue with my work and people become fearful that they could be persecuted for listening to my music. Rest assured that if they can do anything against me they would not hold back,” Najafi added.
Amnesty’s Dyke echoed Najafi’s fears. “Amnesty International is dismayed at this so-called ‘offer’ and condemns it,” he said. “Clearly intended to intimidate and threaten, it remains the case that there are those who will act on the apparent offer, just as there were, in the years that followed the issuing of the ‘bounty,’ a range of instances which targeted Salman Rushdie … The offer can be seen as incitement to murder and must be taken seriously.”
A journalist in Tehran told The Daily Beast that when talk about religion gets risky, even nonreligious intellectuals become conservative. “In Iranian society, we are trained to fear God, so speaking directly against religious representations is not totally accepted, even if we lack belief in our hearts,” he said, on condition of anonymity for security concerns.
“In Najafi’s case, the situation won’t have the same proportions as the Salman Rushdie case, as the cleric behind Rushdie’s case was Ayatollah Khomeini,” the journalist added.
Rushdie, a British-Indian novelist, became the center of a heated controversy in many Muslim countries after the publication of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988). In 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa requiring Rushdie’s execution.
Referring to the Iranian government’s brutal crackdown against the 2009 post-election protesters, which resulted in the killing of dozens in the streets and several individuals inside detention centers, Najafi said, “My question to those who insult and swear and issue fatwas against me is: why didn’t they make a peep when our youth were being raped inside the Iranian prisons?”
Asked about whether a critical approach to religion is something exclusive to him and his work, or is a trend among the Iranian youth, Najafi said, “This subject exists in multiple levels inside the Iranian society. I have the possibility to do my part through my voice and my guitar. Someone else may write on his or her Facebook page. Someone else may write a poem. I believe there is a constant flow that becomes bolder in some areas. We face a rebellious crowd which is pouring out its rebellion in different forms … I would say that they won’t be able to divert public opinion by creating waves like this. Under the skin of the Iranian society, things happen that are extremely horrific. Iran’s daily talk is about the epidemic drug addiction, prostitution, child abuse, and divorce.”
Under Article 226 of Iran’s Penal Code, committing intentional murder incurs a sentence of “retribution” (qesas-e nafs)—in other words, execution—“provided the murdered person did not deserve to die (mahdour al-dam) in accordance with Islamic Law.” Individuals accused of murder have often used this defense, claiming in court that their victim deserved to die. The existence of fatwas calling for the killing of an individual could be used as the basis of such a defense. This provision is, however, absent from the Penal Code Iran approved in 2012, though apparently not yet signed into law.
“Iranian judicial authorities should spell out that that the concept of ‘deserving of death’ cannot be used as a justification for murder; and that anyone suspected of inciting, planning, committing or aiding murder, whether the killing takes place in Iran or elsewhere, [should be] brought to justice in a trial which fully meets international fair trial standards, without recourse to the death penalty,” Dyke said.
In addition to Iran’s religious and pro-government extremists, some regime critics and political activists outside Iran have also called Najafi’s song insulting and have accused him of extremism, insulting sanctities, and providing an excuse for Tehran to further suppress artists. However, many believe that the way Iranians react to this song could be a good indication of their respect for the principle of freedom of expression.
“I have never liked Shahin Najafi’s music—it’s neither art nor music—but I can understand that this is a result of thirty-some years of religious pressure [after the 1979 revolution], the regime’s use of religion as a tool, and the unchecked crackdown on any cultural dissent in Iran,” Mehdi Jami, an Iranian cultural critic, told The Daily Beast. “What Shahin Najafi has done is like exiting a religion that leaves no room for other people to breathe.”
“Just as I believe religious views must not question and pressure nonreligious views, as a nonreligious individual, I am not allowed to insult those who hold religious views. But we must define what constitutes an ‘insult,’ ” Najafi says. “What I did in the lyrics of my song ‘Naqi’ should not be called an insult. We used the name of one of the imams in order to express the cultural, social, and political problems inside Iran.”
“An insult is something that can be pursued in the legal system; a religious authority cannot single-handedly call this or that expression or artistic creation ‘blasphemy,’” says Reza Moini, head of the Iran Desk at Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. “Blasphemy is a relative thing in most societies … Undoubtedly, individuals and media outlets that published the fatwa and the execution ruling are voices of terrorism and violence and, using international law, they must be confronted.”
When asked whether he would change the song if he were to sing it again, Najafi told The Daily Beast that he would not. “I might have added new things to it,” he said jokingly.
Unsure of how this controversy might end, the singer said, “If something should happen to me, they will say simply that it was carried out according to the fatwa. I mean, they will justify it according to Sharia.”
Omid Memarian is columnist whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. He was a World Peace Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2007-2009 and the 2005 recipient of the ‘Human Rights Defender Award’, the highest honor bestowed by Human Rights Watch.