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Iranian Mobile Provider Under Fire For Insulting Sunnis

''Which judge was deceived by the devil during the time of Imam Ali?'' Irancell subscribers were asked in a quiz question sent to them.
A text message has landed one of Iran's largest mobile providers in legal trouble after it was indicted for insulting a caliph revered by Sunni Muslims.

A prosecutor from Sistan and Baluchistan Province, an impoverished area that is home to a large Sunni community, last week filed charges against Irancell in the wake of protests over a quiz question sent to the company's subscribers. ''Which judge was deceived by the devil during the time of [the first imam of Shi'a] Imam Ali?'' subscribers were asked in a text message.

Participants in the contest could choose from two possible answers, one of which was Omar, whose role in Islam is hotly disputed among Shi'a and Sunnis. The suggestion in the text message that Omar could have been deceived by the devil could be cause for offense to Sunnis.

Omar was the second caliph to succeed the Prophet Muhammad and one of the four "righteous caliphs," along with Ali, to found the Rashidun Caliphate. Shi'a believe that after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, only Ali was the rightful successor to lead the Muslim world and the first three caliphs were not legitimate.

The SMS led to anger among members of Iran's Sunni minority, who launched a campaign to boycott Irancell.

Sunni Outrage

There are no official figures on the number of Sunnis living in Iran. According to some estimates they make up about 10 percent of the country's population. Sunnis have long complained of discrimination and marginalization by the Iranian establishment.

Those protesting against Irancell said the quiz question insulted Sunni religious beliefs. "Irancell's insult against His Holiness Omar is not just an insult against a figure that is respected by Sunnis," read one statement posted on the "Campaign to Boycott Irancell" Facebook page. "It is an insult to Iranian culture and civilization which has been, for centuries, away from such ugly behaviors."

Some citizens in Sistan and Baluchistan Province and another prominent Sunni region, Kurdistan Province, reportedly destroyed their Irancell SIM cards in protest.

Several Sunni figures also launched protests against the mobile operator and called for an apology. Molavi Abdolhamid, the spiritual leader of Iran's Sunnis and the Friday Prayers leader of Zahedan, has called for Irancell to apologize not only to Sunnis but also to Shi'a because, he argues, insult to any religious belief is unpleasant for all people.

Sunni lawmakers also protested against the company and called on the judiciary to take "serious" measures against it. "We, the members of the Sunni faction of the [Iranian] parliament , consider any damage, insult, and bad behavior against Sunni beliefs to be a direct targeting of Mohammedan Islam, and we strongly condemn it," some 18 Sunni lawmakers said in a statement that was read before parliament on July 18.

Is Apology Enough?

Irancell reacted to the controversy by saying that the company that prepared the quiz questions was responsible for the content and legal implications. The company, Golden Key, said the controversial question was an "unintended mistake." The company called on all Muslims to accept its "sincere" apology.

Golden Key manager Javad Zamanzadeh Darban told the semi-official Fars news agency that the mobile operator stopped the contest as soon as it received complaints from Sunnis. He said his company is now planning to hold a contest on "unity in the Islamic world."

He promised that the mistake would not be repeated.

The apology, however, did not prevent the judiciary from taking action. On July 18, Mohammad Marzieh, the prosecutor of Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan Province, announced that Irancell had been indicted for insulting Sunni religious beliefs and disturbing the public.

Marzieh was quoted as saying that Irancell violated unity between Sunnis and Shi'a. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's "fatwa clearly states that insulting the sanctities of Sunnis is haram and a violation of the law. Therefore, if proven, Irancell's action will be considered a crime and a violation of the law," Marzieh was quoted as saying by Iranian news sites.

It wasn't immediately clear what punishment Irancell could face.

In a statement, cleric Abdolhamid thanked the prosecutor for the indictment and called on his followers to accept the apology, which he described as a "very good achievement" by those campaigning for the boycott of Irancell, including lawmakers, clerics, and officials. He said the apology should serve as a reminder to others, including companies, media, and organizations, to be careful not to insult people's beliefs.

On July 19, the Facebook page of the Campaign to Boycott Irancell said the indictment and also the apology were among the "positive results" the campaign had managed to achieve. The campaign said it was ending its activities in respect to the call by Abdolhamid.

"Islamic behavior," the site said, requires accepting the apology by Golden Key and also efforts by Irancell to compensate for "the insult." "What made this campaign successful was the spirit of peace and solidarity and abstinence from violence," it added.

Iran's Sunni areas, including Sistan and Baluchistan, have been the scene of violence and bombings in recent years. The government has reacted by increasing security measures through crackdowns and executions.