Beyond Blasphemy: Why Two Iranian Newspapers Were Closed Down

Beyond Blasphemy: Why Two Iranian Newspapers Were Closed Down - Civic Space

Iranian men look at newspapers displayed at a kiosk in central Tehran on March 1, 2012 on the eve of a parliamentary election. Iran's 48 million voters are being called on to decide their next parliament on March 2 in elections whose turnout will be weighed to give an idea of support for the Islamic republic's regime. AFP PHOTO/ATTA KENARE (Photo credit should read ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)

The attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo has reignited the debate on freedom of speech, particularly in the Islamic world. Iran, a country that imposes severe restrictions on its press, is a prime example of how a state can employ a religious framework to exert control over the media and stifle dissent. It is very important to note that religious restrictions go well beyond blasphemy laws, and a publication could be closed down for running articles that may seem benign. In the past two years two newspapers, Bahar and Aseman, have been shut down for publishing articles that were deemed contrary to Islamic values. While closures of Iranian newspapers are often mentioned in the foreign media, the details are seldom reported. But what did these newspapers actually print that made them targets of the authorities’ displeasure?

The article that led to Bahar’s closure and the arrest and imprisonment of its author, Ali Asghar Gharavi, argued that when the Prophet Mohammad declared that Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, was to be the Muslim community’s spiritual leader after his death, it did not necessarily follow that he appointed Ali to be the community’s political leader as well. Rather, Gharavi stated, political leadership could only be bestowed through popular consensus. Furthermore, Gharavi pointed out that Ali never considered the caliphs who preceded him as usurpers of his position.  But while this argument conflicts with the conventional Shi’a point of view regarding the Prophet Mohammad’s succession, it can hardly be construed as blasphemous. In fact, Sunnis, who comprise the vast majority of Muslims, also believe that the Prophet Mohammad did not appoint a political successor.

It appears that Bahar was closed due to the article’s implicit challenge to the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader. By arguing that spiritual leadership was not tied to political leadership, Gharavi was seen as posing a challenge to the Islamic Republic’s foundational political theory, which holds that a senior cleric, known as the Jurist-Guardian, should lead the Muslim community until the appearance of the Twelfth Imam. As a result, an article that on the surface discussed historical events in seventh century Arabia became relevant to contemporary political discourse. It follows that the state had an interest in censoring a point of view it considered at odds with its own.

Aseman, originally a weekly magazine, was closed in 2014 just six days after it began operations as a daily newspaper. The swift action taken against Aseman was due to a perceived attack on qisas, Islam’s eye-for-an-eye approach to cases of murder and severe bodily harm. But Aseman’s article did not criticize qisas. It merely quoted a law professor who, in turn, had discussed how the National Front of Iran had referred to qisas as an inhumane practice when it was reinstituted in 1981 (Ayatollah Khomeini labeled the leaders of the National Front of Iran as “apostates” following the group’s 1981 statement). Aseman’s managing editor stated that he had removed the term “inhumane” from the article, but that an earlier copy of the article was published by mistake. Nevertheless, the ban on Aseman was not lifted.

The closure of Aseman demonstrates the extent to which the Islamic Republic is concerned about any criticism of its interpretation of Islam. Any remark deemed to be slightly critical of Islamic laws is not tolerated. As a result, real debate about the many problematic provisions of Iran’s penal code is effectively off limits. Under Iranian law homosexual acts can be punishable by death and a thief’s fingers can be amputated. Yet, since these provisions are derived from Islamic law, no one can mount a serious challenge to them despite the fact that they are in clear violation of Iran’s own international human rights commitments.

Insulting the Prophet Mohammad, which could include drawing his caricature, is punishable by death in Iran. However, as indicated earlier, the range of speech that can be curtailed due to perceived opposition to Islam is by no means limited to speech that is offensive to the Prophet Mohammad. Sunni Muslims and even Shi’a Muslims whose views differ from those of the governing clergy face severe restrictions in expressing their religious views. Thus, while the Iranian government pledges to protect “Islamic values,” its definition thereof is limited to elements of those values that reinforce its own authority, and it is simply engaged in the same policing of dissent that is characteristic of all authoritarian states.

Shahin Sadeghzadeh Milani obtained his J.D. from Howard University School of Law and his LL.M. from Vermont Law School. He is currently a legal analyst at the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC). He has been the principal author of two IHRDC reports entitled Denied Identity: Human Rights Abuses against Iran’s LGBT Community and Apostasy in the Islamic Republic of Iran

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