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The leader and founder of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, waves from a Tehran balcony during the country's revolution, in February 1979.

A friend of the Imam asks him, "Would you like to drink vodka or tequila?" Outraged at the indignity, the pious Imam slaps the man in the face.

"What's wrong with homemade aragh sagi?" he asks.

This knee-slapper, which mocks Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fierce rejection of alcohol and his promotion of domestic production (aragh sagi is a home-distilled liqueur), is among hundreds of "Imam" jokes making the rounds via text messages and social media in Iran.

And while the anecdotes may seem harmless enough, Iranian conservatives say they are an insult to the founder of the Islamic republic.

On September 3, Iranian police chief Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam warned that action would be taken against those insulting Khomeini.

“The fact that our streets are open and there is freedom in our country doesn't mean that drivers can drive at the speed they want in the streets," he was quoted as saying by the hard-line Tasnim news agency. "These insulting acts are considered a crime."

Ahmadi Moghadam flatly added that those who fail to respect "the limits of freedom" and violate the country’s laws will be dealt with.

Ayatollah Khomeini is a revered figure in the Islamic republic, where he is commonly referred to simply as "the Imam." Iranian state media generally portrays him as religious, knowledgeable, insightful, kind, merciful, and deeply caring about his countrymen.

The recent slew of jokes largely mocks those traits.

He is depicted drinking alcohol, making fun of others, cursing and using crude language, and as uncompassionate, merciless, and mean-spirited.

Some of the jokes appear to reflect common criticisms of Khomeini, while others highlight unfulfilled promises he made to Iranians, including his pledge to provide them free water and electricity.

"The Imam comes home and sees bills for water, electricity, and gas on the ground. He asks, 'Weren't these free?'" The joke concludes: "Forgetfulness was one of Imam's weaknesses."

Another is about a man who complains to the Imam that there is often no electricity and he has to eat his dinner in the dark.

"Imam suggests he use an oil lamp," goes the punch line, capped by the reminder that "bringing oil to people’s tables" was one of Khomeini's main characteristics.

London-based Iranian Internet researcher Nariman Gharib says the jokes first appeared on the instant messaging app Viber and later on Facebook.

One Facebook page, titled "Imam's Distinctive Characteristics," has received more than 20,000 "likes." The page administrators wrote that the page was created "only for a bit of fun and laughter" and that it didn't belong to any political party.

Iranians are no strangers to making jokes about their leaders, including Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. The Guardians Council head has been targeted over his advanced age and his more-than-three-decade presence on the country's political scene.

But jokes about Khomeini were relatively rare, at least until recently. But the power of social media to inspire trends and memes have helped spread the Imam jokes like wildfire.

Mocking Khomeini, Gharib says, has become "normalized."

"I think [conservatives] are angry because ayatollah Khomeini has lost his grandeur and making jokes about him has become very easy for people,” the researcher concludes.

Earlier this week, prominent Tehran-based political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam suggested that the jokes were being spread by hard-liners in a backhanded effort to put pressure on the government of President Hassan Rohani.

Rohani has promised Iranians more freedom, online and offline. But he's met with resistance from hard-line opponents who criticize his policies, including in the cultural sphere.

"[They want to say], 'Why is the Culture Ministry not acting against these behaviors? Therefore Rohani's government is to blame," Zibakalam was quoted as saying on September 2.

He suggested that hard-liners could also be using the jokes to oppose the introduction of high-speed Internet by the government and the potential halt of filtering of some social-networking sites.

Zibakalam said hard-liners could argue that considering the fast spread of Imam jokes even with slow Internet and blocked social media sites, the situation would get much worse once speeds rose and filters were removed.

The government recently granted licenses for 3G services to two major mobile operators, drawing criticism by hard-liners who claimed faster Internet would facilitate the sharing of un-Islamic content.

Amid the spread of the jokes, an image of a "secret letter" emerged online bearing the logo of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. It called on Communications Minister Mahmud Vaezi to filer social-networking sites by which the jokes are being spread.

Vaezi on September 4 was quoted by state media as saying that the letter was fake.

He added, cryptically, that those who attempt to put pressure on a government body in order to further their aims should know that they have not chosen "the right goal."

A leading conservative cleric in Iran is worried about the "negative features" of high-speed mobile Internet and 3G services.

A senior Iranian hard-line cleric says high-speed mobile Internet and third generation mobile services are "un-Islamic" and violate "human and moral norms".

Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi said Iranian authorities should introduce measures that would prevent access to the "negative features" of high-speed mobile Internet and 3G services before making them widely available.

Makarem Shirazi, a Shi'ite source of emulation, said expanding Internet services hastily can result in the spread of corruption including the access of young people to anti-Islamic movies and other content.

Makarem Shirazi made the ruling in response to an enquiry by a group of online activists.

In a statement posted on his personal website, Makarem Shirazi wrote that authorities should consult with the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), which formulates and oversees Iran's Internet policies including its tough online censorship.

"Authorities should not merely think about the financial earnings of this program, and consider it as a type of religious intellectualism and academic freedom," Makarem Shirazi wrote.

The ayatollah added that Iranian judiciary officials should also not remain "indifferent" regarding this "vital issue."

The online activists had written in their enquiry to Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi that Iran's Ministry of Communication has announced it will soon give more mobile providers licenses for high-speed Internet services.

One company, mobile operator Rightel, had exclusive rights to provide 3G services in Iran, but in recent weeks two other mobile providers have also obtained 3G licenses. Yet 3G subscribers still account for only a tiny share of the overall mobile market in Iran.

The activist group added that Iran does not have the necessary structure to prevent the "harm" that could result from such services, including "access to immoral movies and photos," "the weakening of family structures," and "spying and the sale of the country's confidential information."

The exchange highlights the pressure President Hassan Rohani faces from hard-liners in implementing his promises to lessen online censorship and give Iranians greater access to information.

Rohani is the chairman of the SCC, the Internet body that Makarem Shirazi advised the government to consult. But the Iranian president is not the sole decision-maker in the SCC, which is dominated by conservative and hard-line members including the head of Iran's judiciary, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp, and the head of state broadcasting.

The oversight body was established in 2012 following a decree by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who said Iranians should be protected from the "damage" caused by the spread of information and communication technologies.

Earlier this year, Rohani said that the Internet should not be seen as something that should be feared.

"We ought to see [the Internet] as an opportunity. We must recognize our citizens' right to connect to the World Wide Web," Rohani was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency on May 20.

Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi
Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi

The enquiry to Makarem Shirazi and his ruling, however, demonstrate that, for hard-liners, the Internet remains a cause of concern which they see as a threat to morality and national security, despite Iran's strict censorship, which leads to the filtering of thousands of websites and social media.

It's not the first time Makarem Shirazi has weighed in against 3G. Last year he spoke against video calls, saying they had more downsides than benefits.

His latest ruling has sparked criticism online.

"We're already facing filtering. What else do you want? What kind of nonsensical question is this?" wrote an Internet user in the comments section of one of the websites that posted Makarem Shirazi's ruling.

"The Internet is as necessary as water and food," wrote another user, while someone else maintained that the Internet should be seen as a tool for progress.

"In our backward country we see only the negative sides. According to this [argument] grapes should be considered haram because they can be used to produce wine!!!" the user said.

The ayatollah's ruling was also criticized on social media by some Iranians who said the cleric should not issue statements about issues he's not familiar with.

"You shouldn't speak about things you know nothing about," wrote a young man on Facebook.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

NOTE: On September 3, days after this story was published, Ayatollah Shirazi said his comments regarding 3G services had been distorted. The cleric said he is not against technology while adding that Western technologies are like muddy unclean water. "Water is the source of life yet when it is dirty it must be refined," the cleric was quoted as saying on his website.

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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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