I caught this on the World Service programme BBC Trending. It starts at 9:35
Ayatollah Tanasoli, is an Iranian, whose pseudonym translates as “Genitals” or “Penis”. He writes in Farsi but here’s one of his tweets:-
invenTION OF iSLAMIC tWITTER ayatollah TaNasoli will tweit in England now womane dont come
From the interview:-
India (presenter): …the man behind the page started this Facebook less than two years ago and he’s got 20,000 likes. He’s also got about 7,000 followers on Twitter. That might not seem that big, … but it is for an Iranian account and lots of the followers are from Iran. It is a country where many people are afraid of aligning themselves perhaps with satire and criticism. …
He pokes fun at their teachings, the sermons, their fatwahs. Here’s a flavour of some of the tweets:-
Islam values women’s rights, especially those women who give birth to male children.
We condemn any sort of violence, but the violence we commit ourselves
If they had Islamic democracy in France as we do, those cartoonists would not be assassinated like that, but they would be hanged 10 years earlier.
In our governing system, the more illiterate you are, the more progress you make.
India interviews Ayatollah T, using an actor’s voice so he won’t be identified:-
AT: It is mandatory for Iranian boys to go to military service after they graduate from high school or college and basically you don’t have any training, they just want to keep you there but they don’t know how to fill your time so they bring in all these mullahs to talk to you. They just gather you in these mosques and soldiers just sit there for a couple of hours or so. The stuff they say about the West, the internet, satellites and all this is so absurd and crazy that it makes you laugh. It is really easy to make fun of so that;’s what I did during my breaks in the army. I created this character. People would come to me, and they’d say, give us a sermon, give us a speech, and that mullah became very popular.
[G]rowing up in Iran and going to a school… they brainwash you at a very early age not to make fun of the government or religion and you grow up and you reach a point where you realise why am I listening to this. For Iranian young people the only place we can express ourselves is on line and even that is dangerous. There is no free newspaper, there are no gatherings.
India:- Are you in Iran?
AT: I don’t want to answer that.
India: Your followers, are they in Iran?
AT: Some of them are, and some of them are not. Let me give you what has happened in the past two years in social media. At the beginning, it was very good when people trusted each other and they found friends through Twitter, it was like a gang, but eventually the government managed to infiltrate the groups and when they started arresting users on Facebook and Twitter that’s when it became very dangerous and I decided to create a character.
India: On your feed you are mocking religious leaders and you are against the government. Are you not worried about yourself?
AP: But I am worried. Everybody is worried.
India: And do you not worry that some of your tweets are going to upset other Muslims?
AP: That’s my intention. I want them to be upset. I want them to think. The first thing that people in the Middle East and Iran should understand is that nothing is offensive, nothing is sacred, nothing is supernatural, and when they understand that then I think a lot of problems will be solved.
India: What sort of response do you get to your tweets?
AT: I don’t want to brag but I get a lot. On Facebook every day I get more than five or six emails and they all say we love what you’re doing. I realise that a lot of people are thinking like me, and they think okay, he said what we wanted to say.
India: Have you received any negative reaction or any threats?
AT: Oh yes, especially on Facebook because the Sepah, the Revolutionary Guard right now they’re on Facebook and not so much on Twitter. I get a lot of emails, contact. They just want to make you scared. They say, we know where you are, and your mother is a whore and your sister is a whore and we will find you and we will rape them and we will kill you but I know they are lying. And they think that that way I will stop and I won’t tweet any more but that doesn’t work for me.
India: Do you think they are from the government?
AT: Most of them are because I go back and I check their profiles and I know about a fake very fast.
India: Do you think what you are doing is jeopardising other people who have a voice on line? [The “provocative” and “responsible” gambit.]
AT: No. I think what they do is jeopardising what I do. After I started this other people created similar characters and some of them tried to contact me saying, Oh let’s start a hashtag or create a campaign, and I said to them, don’t contact me because it’s dangerous. Wherever you are, good luck and keep doing this. Trust no-one.
India: Here he’s talking about a Facebook user called Soheil Arabi. He’s currently in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran where he’s been for the last year. His posts were quite political. They were criticising the Islamic revolution for example. But he has now been charged with insulting the Prophet Mohammad, which carries the death penalty. So I asked the man behind the Ayatollah Tanasoli account what he thought about what’s happened.
AT: This is a tragedy. This is so against everything that humanity stands for. We have to defend freedom of speech. And then the nuclear thing and all other stuff will follow. If you forget about this basic thing, you are going against the direction of history and I cry sometimes at night thinking about it. I’m sorry. I don’t know. People don’t understand how tragic this is.
India: You must feel quite powerless to do anything because you write and publish on social media too.
AT: Well, it’s like other people are laughing at my jokes, but when you are not allowed to tell people who you are, you are in a solitary prison with no windows out and you are screaming. And you are happy because you are so loud but nobody can hear you and it doesn’t change anything.
India: Do you think you will see a day when you can reveal your identity?
AT: I truly hope so. It’s just the fact that we do all this and we are forced to be hidden from the government. It makes you feel that you are different from the rest of the world, like you’re not part of the world. And yet I hope some day people can be who they are, Be who they want to be and say what they want to say.
(I suppose that would seem very naive – sorry unnuanced – to a certain kind of Westerner. Will Self, one of our most prominent intellectuals, drawls that free speech is like a sexual fetish. I don’t know if anyone made such a howl of longing for sado-masochism and cross-dressing as this man does for liberty.)
I transcribed this piece thinking it was one small thing I could do.