Shahin Najafi’s “Salman Rushdi” moment?

According to numerous hardline media outlets inside Iran, a senior clergyman in Qom has declared Iranian poet, singer, and songwriter Shahin Najafi an apostate, a charge which potentially carries the death sentence.

Fars News Agency has reported that Grand Ayatollah Saafi Golpayegani has declared Shahin Najafi an “apostate” after the release of his latest track entitled “Naghi”, which refers extensively to the tenth imam of Shiite Islam. The release of the song follows the recent creation of a satirical Facebook group in Farsi entitled “The Campaign for Reminding Shiites of Imam Naghi”, which, as implied by its name, purports to seek to reacquaint Shiites with the obscure tenth imam of Shiite Islam. The campaign hinges on the fact that, despite the ubiquity of the twelve imams in the Islamic Republic, Imam Naghi is relatively unknown. Shahin Najafi may have drawn inspiration for his latest song from this online campaign.

Although Shahin Najafi’s song does not appear to be insulting toward the tenth imam, it has certainly been interpreted negatively by religious hardliners inside Iran. The song, which begs Imam Naghi to “return”, in reality touches on a broad range of Iran’s social, political, and economic ills including economic sanctions, financial corruption, political repression, and the impotence of the opposition and intelligentsia abroad. The cover art for the song shows the LGBT movement’s multi-coloured flag atop a woman’s breast that transitions into what some extremists claim resembles the dome of the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, Iran, a holy site for Shiite Muslims.

The consequences for Shahin Najafi could be serious. Although as of 09 May 2012 Grand Ayatollah Golpayegani’s official website has not uploaded the declaration of apostasy, according to Fars News a campaign calling for the execution of Shahin Najafi has already begun within Iran, and Mr. Najafi’s Facebook page has been flooded by messages for and against him.

The legal basis for the declaration of apostasy by Grand Ayatollah Golpayegani is Article 513 of Iran’s Islamic Criminal Law which, depending on the circumstances, can result in either execution or a lengthy prison sentence for blasphemy against “Islam, the prophets of God, the Twelve Imams, or Sadigheh-ye Tahereh [referring to the daughter of the Prophet Mohammad]”.

Is Shahin Najafi, who resides in Germany, experiencing his very own “Salman Rushdie” moment? The current episode bears some resemblance to the case of writer Salman Rushdie, who faced a similar charge by Iran’s first supreme leader the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 for the publication of his book “The Satanic Verses”. Khomeini’s fatwa (or religious decree), among other things, forced Rushdie underground for years due to fears for his safety and seriously soured relations between the Islamic Republic and the European Union, where Rushdie resided at the time. Although the fatwa was never retracted as a result of Khomeini’s death, the Iranian government in the mid-1990s quietly removed support for it as part of the thaw in relations with the EU.

At a time when the Islamic Republic is under enormous political and economic pressure by the international community for its controversial nuclear program, a declaration of apostasy against Shahin Najafi only compounds Iran’s problems. If Shahin Najafi is threatened or hurt as a result of this as yet to be verified declaration, it could lead to a crisis similar to the one that erupted over the fatwa against Mr. Rushdie.

What’s more, the present controversy is only bound to significantly enhance Shahin Najafi’s public profile and his song Naghi, which is going viral on social networks such as Facebook as well as traditional news media. Shahin Najafi is a leading young Iranian artist, immensely popular among Iranians for his eclectic style, high quality productions, and progressive views. The regime in Iran would be wise to put a stop to the vicious campaign being mounted against him by government-backed religious extremists.