Iran: Ayatollah’s Anti-Internet Fatwa Highlights Broader Trends

These latest reports emphasize that the pronouncement came in reply to a question posed on the cleric’s website by a group of conservative activists opposed to the expansion of internet service in the country. These individuals were responding to news that the Ministry of Communication was considering granting additional licenses to mobile service providers.

The conservative activists presumably made Shirazi a very deliberate target for their inquiry, because this is by no means his first pronouncement on the topic. He is in fact an outspoken critic of internet service and a proponent of censorship.

In their broader context, Shirazi’s comments demonstrate several notable trends. They indicate that there is a highly vocal minority among the country’s citizens that supports the restrictive measures of the clerical leadership. Hardliners in both the government and the civic society are recognizably threatened by increased access to information, even in spite of the vigorous censorship efforts already undertaken by the government.

Plans are underway to erect an entirely self-contained “National Intranet,” which would include only information that the leaders of the Islamic Republic deem appropriate. Shirazi’s remarks recommended preventing access from 3G until that apparatus can be set up. The inquiry that spurred his comments seemed to suggest the same recommendation, saying that Iran currently lacks the structures necessary to prevent so-called harm associated with access to undesirable information, images, and other media.

Yet the sentiments expressed by this inquiry and this response do not rise to the level of across-the-board opposition to internet access, as both the activists and Shirazi recognize the expedient roles it can play for government officials. Shirazi’s latest remarks acknowledge that the government stands to gain financially from the expansion of internet service, but councils them to consider the issue from the standpoint of “religious intellectualism and academic freedom” at the same time.

Last year, in statements decrying the use of video calls and social networking, Shirazi admitted that these things were not actually forbidden by Islam. While implicitly encouraging the government to pursue its current policy of using social networking technologies at the same time that it bans them among the citizenry, Shirazi also linked these services to conspiracy theories about the West which are quite common among Iranian government officials and clerics.

“Social networking sites are originally developed by the Western governments for reasons other than communications,” he said. This sentiment was repeated in the message from his supporters that spurred his latest fatwa. As well as mentioning immoral materials and the “weakening of family structures,” the conservative activists mentioned “spying and the sale of the country’s confidential information” as a likely consequence of allowing Iranians to have access to mobile internet.

This dialogue between citizens and cleric may be seen as posing a chicken-and-egg problem, raising the question of which came first – the clerical pronouncement against the internet, or the support for those pronouncements that has been voiced by conservative activists. Whatever the answer, there does appear to be a relationship of mutual re-enforcement between statements like Shirazi’s and the anxiety of that minority of Iranians who believe them.

Some of the coverage of this incident gives fair evidence for the claim that those supporters are indeed a minority. There has been significant backlash against the remarks from all across Iran. Of course, this has especially come from persons who have the means to get past government restrictions in order to use Facebook and Twitter.

At the beginning of 2013 government officials admitted that there were about two million Iranians who were using Facebook in spite of government blocks. This number has certainly increased considerably in the past year, especially amidst as yet unrealized expectations of lesser restrictions under the Rouhani administration. Defiance of restrictions comes in spite of government monitoring that has sent dozens of people to prison for online posts in recent months.