Two Dramatically Different Reactions to Iranian Musicians

 

In the first place, Reuters reported upon an Iranian folk music concert that took place in Muscat, Oman on Thursday. Hundreds of locals reportedly visited the Royal Opera House to see the 14-piece Iranian band called Rastak. The band has toured the world in the past, but never before played a major concert in a Gulf country other than Iran.

The Reuters report refers to the group as “Iran’s accidental ambassadors” and claims that band leader Siamak Sepehri “said he firmly believed music could help normalize Iran’s relations with its neighbors,” even in the midst of current tensions relating to the expansion of Iranian influence in Yemen and other areas of the Middle East.

But Rastak can only serve its ambassadorial function by virtue of the fact that their music lacks any political undertones and their style is approved of or at least tolerated by Iran’s clerical leaders. Iran has had a fraught relationship with music since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The late Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at times banned all music in the Islamic Republic, and at times softened this position to allow styles seen as being part of traditional Persian culture.

But even today, religious leaders routinely express opposition to musical performance and broadcast. This trend has been especially prominent in recent months. Groups of religious hardliners have launched protests forcing the cancellation of concerts that they deemed “unlawful” according to Islam. In February, the supreme leader’s local representative called for greater restrictions on music in the city of Shiraz. And in April, Mashad’s Friday prayer leader Ahmad Almolhoda called for a blanket ban on concerts in the city.

Almolhoda also called upon religiously-motivated musicians and artists to assert dominance over secular artists in all fields. Such initiatives reflect the broader culture of censorship in Iran, in which journalists, filmmakers, and artists are banned from their professions and subjected to jail sentences if their work is deemed to be befitting of such charges as “insulting the sacred,” “insulting the supreme leader,” or “spreading propaganda.”

Ultra-conservative Iranians outside of the government may also threaten or attempt to repress Iranian artists who express political dissent. And this is likely to be tolerated by the regime. Both of these trends were illustrated in a report on Friday by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, which noted that the Aba Shohada website announced on May 1 that it was offering a 155,000 dollar reward for anyone who blows up the concert venues of Shahin Najafi, a popular Iranian musician who is based in Germany.

The site described a bombing as the “final answer to the insults” perceived in Najafi’s music. This reflects a fatwa that was previously issued against Najafi by Grand Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, calling for Najafi’s death on the charge of apostacy.

After being taken down from its original servers as a result of the threats, Aba Shohada re-launched with webhosting inside Iran, after which it re-posted its call for foreign terrorism and offered an even larger financial reward.

The International Campaign notes that the Iranian regime has been conspicuously silent in spite of the fact that Iran’s Internet Crimes Law bars “threats for bombing, instigating or inciting the public to war and killing each other, and persuading and encouraging individuals and groups to commit acts against the Islamic Republic of Iran’s security, reputation, and interests inside and outside the country.”

Given the international attention that this case has received, it seems unlikely that the Iranian government is unaware of it. It is therefore easy to conclude that the silence represents tacit approval.

The internet is heavily censored in Iran, where popular sites like Facebook and Twitter are banned outright. Regime officials have variously boasted of enhanced technical capabilities that would supposedly make internet censorship easier and more thorough. The current case suggests that the regime may be more inclined to direct these resources toward suppressing news and information than obstructing actual crimes and threats of violence.