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Iranian Establishment Makes New Social Media Foray With Imam Site

The Iranian regime has made repeated attempts to use social media to influence the country's youth. is Iran’s latest foray into the social media sphere, the domain of young, middle-class Iranians that's often reserved for poking fun at state policies and religious rulings.

The new social-networking site is devoted to Imam Naghi, a Shi'ite saint. Employing a basic layout, it features a collection of quotes attributed to the imam and posts by members who express their love and devotion to the ninth-century figure.

Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency says the site, which will be officially unveiled on May 23 by Iran's Culture Minister, is a reaction to "insults" against the imam.

But critics, including many ordinary Iranians, say the site will likely join the list of previous, largely unsuccessful attempts by the establishment to make use of social networking.

Many young Iranians say they are unlikely to be interested in the new site.
Many young Iranians say they are unlikely to be interested in the new site.
Mehr's mention of "insults" toward the imam appears to be a reference to a popular Facebook page titled, "The Campaign to Remind Shi'ites about Imam Naghi," which satirizes political and religious sayings and attributes them to him.

The page says it was launched to eliminate "superstitions" from Iranian society with humor. It is also a reaction to a rap song titled "Naghi," which has been deemed insulting. The song was widely shared on social networking sites.

Hard-liners have blasted the satirical page as highly offensive and vowed to take measures against those behind it.

Death Threats

Last year, hard-line blogs published the names and pictures of some of those who had liked the Facebook campaign in order to force them to quit the page.

Recently, prominent Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi has faced death threats over his new song, named after Imam Naghi. He told RFE/RL it was inspired by the Facebook page.

The song, in which Najafi calls on Naghi to return and save the world instead of the Shi’ite messiah, Imam Mahdi, has been deemed heretical. Several senior clerics have reportedly issued fatwas calling Najafi an apostate and justifying his killing. Iranian officials have not publicly commented on the fatwas.

The new social-networking site, however, demonstrates that they have taken note of the controversy and are now trying to strike back with the same tools used by young Iranians.

But even before its launch, critics said the initiative was destined to fail.

Nima Mina, a lecturer at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, notes that the same material on Imam Naghi can be found on scores of religious websites and on the state-controlled media's religious programming.

“I think those who like [the satirical Facebook page about Imam Naghi] are exactly running away from [the content] that is offering," he says. "Recent data shows that Internet users are usually middle-class Iranians living in cities, most of whom loathe this repetitive talk. They’re looking for something else [online].”

Mina, who studies Iran’s blogosphere, predicts that the social-networking site will soon join other unsuccessful online initiatives promoted and launched by the Iranian establishment.

Conquering Cyberspace

In recent years, Iranian officials have encouraged hard-liners and pro-government activists to become active online to counter the "soft war" they claim Iran's enemies are waging against the Islamic republic.

Officials have also claimed that thousands of members of the Basij force are ready to conquer cyberspace.

In practice, extensive filtering of sites and the harassment and arrest of bloggers and online activists have been the government's weapons of choice to fight the free flow of information and discussion of taboo subjects online.

Some hard-liners have admitted in recent weeks that their online activities have been fruitless. “The Society of Hezbollah Bloggers failed and the Society of Muslim Bloggers failed. The Coordination Committee of Cyber Activists of the Islamic Revolution failed,” wrote prominent hard-line blogger Mohammad Saleh Meftah earlier this month.

In 2010, a social-networking site was launched in Iran that was devoted to the followers of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The site failed to attract many members and two years later, it does not exist. is likely to have the same fate, a young man in Tehran who did not want to be named told RFE/RL recently.

"I haven’t 'liked' the Imam Naghi campaign on Facebook because of the sensitivity of the issue, but every now and then I visit the page and have a good laugh," he said. "I think it helps freedom of speech.", he said, had zero attraction for young Iranians like himself.
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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.

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.


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