25-year-old Iranian contributed to Facebook page insulting imam
Yashar Khameneh says his father was arrested for his Facebook activities
He says government has demanded passwords in exchange for freedom
But Khameneh says he doesn't manage the page and cannot take it down
How many young people have gotten in trouble for something they’ve posted on Facebook? Maybe a party picture or an offensive comment compromised their chances at a job.
But a 25-year-old Iranian says his Facebook activity has led to his father’s detention in a notorious prison in Tehran. And now he’s struggling to find a way to free him.
“I want my family to forgive me,” Yashar Khameneh said. “But I believe what I believe in.”
A year ago, while studying at a college in Holland, Khameneh joined a Facebook page that made fun of a top Shiite Muslim imam, Ali al-Naqi al-Hadi. Naqi is one of 12 imams considered successors to the Prophet Mohammed. Called “Infallibles,” the imams are protected by law in Iran from ridicule or even frivolous comments. One can be arrested for insulting them.
The Facebook page, dubbed the “Campaign to Remind Shias about Imam Naqi,” features a robed man, presumably Naqi, with a face like Charles Manson’s, flanked by a camel wearing sunglasses and the donkey from “Shrek.” It also shows a picture of a Shiite tomb that has been pooped on by a flock of pigeons.
With more than 21,000 likes, the page explains, “Our goal is to use satire to take out the superstition from religion.”
“We believe that everything and everybody could be the subject of a joke,” Khameneh said. “Nothing and nobody is too holy to be funny. At the beginning it was not that serious because it was a joke.”
Khameneh didn’t know who the manager of the site was. They both used nicknames, as did many people who posted, Khameneh said. In the early days, though, Khameneh posted links to his personal Facebook page, which had his real name.
“I feel like that is how the authorities knew to come after me,” Khameneh said.
During that time, Khameneh said, he wasn’t thinking too much about someone in the Iranian government seeing the page. It seemed unlikely: one page out of so many on Facebook. The thought did cross his mind a couple times that if it did become popular, it would probably upset some people back in Iran, where his father, mother and sister lived.
But he kept posting on the page out of principle, he said.
“From the beginning, I knew that it could be dangerous, but the thing is this: Taboos should be broken,” he said. “I knew that it could be sensitive (for) Muslims and Iranians worldwide, but here in Europe, jokes are made – jokes of Jewish stories or Christian – and nobody is threatened or killed. This is how it should be.”
A page’s overnight fame
Khameneh took comfort, he said, that the page had a small number of followers.
That changed this spring. Traffic skyrocketed in mid-May, when an Iranian rapper living in Germany made international headlines, Khameneh said.