Shahin Najafi fears for his life. He is currently in a secret location under police protection. Islamic clerics have accused the musician of blasphemy - a crime that, according to Islamic law, is punishable by death.
A few weeks ago, the 32-year-old rapper Shahin Najafi was just one of the many Iranians who live in exile in Germany. An artist and musician, he is best known in his former homeland for his lyrics, which are very critical of Iranian society. Now, though, events seem to have snowballed.
Najafi's nightmare began in early May, when he posted his rap song "Ay Naghi" on the Internet. It's an appeal to Ali al-Hadi, also known as al-Naqi, the 10th of the 12 Shiite imams, who lived in the ninth century. Al-Naqi is venerated by the Shia as a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.
Criticism of evils in Iranian society
"In this song I took a long hard look at Iranian society," Najafi said.
The song itself, set to an insistent beatbox rhythm, picks up the failings of the Islamic Republic: corruption, prostitution, religious hypocrisy, discrimination against homosexuals. Evils and injustices which - the musician ironically commented - only the Imam Naqi could end. And this is precisely what Najafi begs him to do.
"I did not insult the religion with one single syllable of this song," the rapper said. "I have nothing against the faith."
The al-Naqi story was just a pretext through which to touch on the sore spots of Iranian society, he said.
On the Internet Najafi linked it to a cartoon that showed a rainbow flag, the symbol of the gay pride movement, atop the dome of a mosque shaped like a woman's breast. Nonetheless, Najafi said he was taken by surprise by the Iranian clerics' furious reaction.
Provocation with consequences
Now the musician has to deal with death threats. The Iranian Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi has issued a fatwa, or religious decree, in which he declares that "whatsoever insult toward the lofty state of [Shia] Imams ... is regarded as blasphemy [if] the insulter is Muslim." And according to Islamic law, which is the basis for most legal sentences in Iran, blasphemy is punishable by death. Najafi is not actually named in the decree, but he fits the description of a "fugitive singer living abroad."
A similar fatwawas earlier made by another cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani, in which he explained the guilt incurred if someone insults or mocks the Imam.
"If they have disparaged or insulted the Imam, then it is blasphemy," he said. "God knows what is to be done." The Iranian press interpreted this as a death sentence. However, it has since become clear that this decree was made before the song was published, and so cannot refer specifically to the case of Najafi.
A price on his head
Grand ayatollahs do not impose death sentences in the legal sense, but to their followers their decrees are considered binding. The two ayatollahs are seen within Iran as leading figures whose instructions must be followed.
Najafi said he initially underestimated the situation.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "It was only when I saw on the Internet that there was a $100,000 price on my head that I really understood: this is serious."
The danger, as Najafi said, is that someone may feel called upon to carry out this judgment. He now lives in a secret location and is protected by the German police.
In 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of British-Indian author Salman Rushdie
Najafi's case is reminiscent of the Salman Rushdie affair. In 1989 Rushdie's novel "The Satanic Verses" prompted the Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwacalling for the author's death. For years Rushdie was forced to live under police protection. At the time, however, Khomeini was the most important ayatollah in Iran and the country's religious leader, so his decrees carried considerably more weight than those of lesser clerics.
Najafi himself said he sees "few parallels" between himself and Rushdie.
"The biggest difference for me is that Rushdie was still able to write books after he went into hiding," he said. "I can't hide forever. I'm a musician. I have to perform."
Author: Nils Naumann / cc
Editor: Sean Sinico