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'Iran's Bob Dylan' Under Fire Over Koran Song

Mohsen Namjoo
Mohsen Namjoo
Mohsen Namjoo is Iran’s most popular, and controversial, musician.

He is known for fusing traditional Persian music with Western styles such as rock, jazz, and blues. He blends the verses of great Iranian poets, such as Hafiz and Rumi, with his own poetry and words.

Many see the 32-year-old Namjoo as a genius -- an avant-garde artist who breaks barriers. Others dismiss him as a lunatic. The fact is that no one can remain indifferent while listening to his songs.

Now, he is facing angry protests over a song that includes verses from the Koran.

His brother says the song was just an experiment not meant to be publicized, but angry Koran experts and religious figures say Namjoo should be punished for what they call an insult to Islam’s holy book.

The song is a mix of traditional Persian music with Koranic verses spoken by Namjoo, who reportedly used to be a Koran reciter during his childhood.

'Remain Silent And Listen'

Namjoo’s troublesome song was posted on websites several months ago. It all apparently happened without Namjoo’s knowledge and consent. The song didn’t get much attention among fans or become a hit like other Namjoo’s songs, but it made some people very angry.

Abbas Mohajerani, an Iranian-born Islamic scholar based in London, tells Radio Farda that music distracts the listener from “the word of God."

"When the Koran is being read, everyone should remain silent and listen," Mohajerani says. "If there is music playing, then the listener's attention is largely caught by the music.”

Namjoo performing "Tolou" by Siavash Ghomeyshi:

Abbas Salimi, a well-known Koran expert, was among the first to publicly complain about the song. In a recent complaint letter to Tehran Prosecutor Said Mortazavi, Salimi said that Namjoo had performed verses of the Koran in an insulting way and that he should be punished.

More complaints have followed, including by the Koran Council of Iran’s Department of National Health and by Tehran’s Koran Society.

And the anger against Namjoo seems to be growing. One Koran reciter has compared the case with the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses” and the crisis over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that appeared in a Danish newspaper last year. He called on all Iranians and Koran lovers to stand up and defend their “sanctities.”

'He Knows What He's Doing'

But a Namjoo fan in Tehran believes the musician hasn’t done anything wrong.

“No, I don’t mind it at all. I don’t think it is a bad thing because he’s also a Muslim and he knows what he’s doing," the fan says. "Many people recite the Koran. He has added some music to it.”

Namjoo, who is currently outside the country, said on August 26 in a letter posted on his website that the authorities told him about the dispute last year, but says the written explanation he gave them about the song was never published.

Namjoo’s brother, who says he is also the artist’s lawyer, has said that the song is an experiment in blending Arabic music with styles of other nations. He added in a letter published by Iran’s Koranic News Agency that on the day the lyrics were due to be recorded, the Arabic poems meant to be recited had been forgotten at home. Instead, Namjoo recited some verses of the Koran, which he knew by heart.

But Salimi and others are not convinced. And the list of protesters quoted by the Koran News Agency seems to be growing.

Salimi has said that instead of “justifying” his action, Namjoo should accept “his mistake,” ask God for forgiveness, and apologize. The judiciary so far has been silent.

Namjoo has said in the past that he fully respects the laws of the Islamic Republic.

Last spring, he spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Farda during a trip to Europe. He dismissed rumors that he wasn’t planning to return to Iran.

“If I were to leave [Iran] because of issues such as professional bad luck or not getting a work permit, then it should have happened several years ago because it's nothing new," he said. "[But] I have to say that I‘ve been satisfied about working in that environment. Whenever there was an opportunity, I would express that. I live in that country, I 'm committed to the laws, and I don't want to be seen as an anarchist or a troublemaker.”

In recent years, a number of writers, musicians, and artists from other fields have been forced or decided to leave Iran because of censorship and tight state control.

Observers say censorship and pressure on artists have increased since hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2006. Ahmadinejad has stressed the need to promote Islamic values. He also has ordered Iran’s state broadcaster not to play “Western and decadent music.”

Subtle Form Of Protest

Many see Namjoo as a rebel, a provocative poet, and composer who through his lyrics and music highlights problems in Iranian society.

There is hope and joy in his lyrics, but also sadness, pain, cynicism, and a subtle form of protest.

In one of his most popular songs -- called "neo-Kantian Ideas" -- he refers to the government of former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, calling it “apologist." He also refers to the losses of Iran’s national soccer team, a source of frustration in a football-loving nation.

"The New York Times" has described him as “a sort of Bob Dylan of Iran.” Namjoo rejects that label, however. He says he consider himself just a musician.

"I'd rather have no adjective in front of the word musician," Namjoo says. "I’m only a musician. That's all.”

RFE/RL Radio Farda broadcaster Amir Zamanifar and Radio Farda's correspondent in Cologne, Shahram Mirian, contributed to this report

RFE/RL Iran Report

RFE/RL Iran Report

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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

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