Disses and Death Threats Rapper in Germany Fears for Life after Fatwa

Cologne-based rapper Najafi has drawn the wrath of Shiite Muslims after publishing a song that appeared to make fun of the 10th imam. Following a fatwa by an Iranian ayatollah, he has received death threats, and there is a $100,000 bounty on his head. Now he is under police protection but insists he will keep making music. By SPIEGEL Staff


It's every rapper's dream: You stick it to the world, not caring what people think or say about you. If they hate you, they should go ahead and diss you, the more the better. No one can tell you what to do. After all, isn't that what rap is all about?

That dream came true last week for an Iranian rapper living in exile in Cologne. But in the tough reality of life, the dream has turned into a nightmare for Shahin Najafi. Najafi rapped about a man who has been dead 1,143 years: the 10th imam, Ali al-Hadi al-Naqi. He implored the imam to return to modern-day Iran to sort out the regime there. Of course, to a certain extent he also poked fun at the imam -- the sort of thing a rapper does in a world that's becoming more and more difficult to provoke. Najafi also designed an image for YouTube: a dome of a mosque in the shape of a women's breast, with the nipple at the very top.

He wanted to be provocative. It was rap, after all. The song's message was hard-hitting and crass.

What he provoked, however, was not the usual outcry on the Internet, but a response from the Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani in the Iranian city of Qom. It was a religious opinion, one that Persian newspapers have turned into headlines, albeit with a few weeks' delay. The ayatollah expressed himself in broad terms, not even mentioning Najafi by name. But anyone who wants to can easily interpret the ayatollah's opinion as a call to murder. And that is now Najafi's problem, because there are many who want to read it that way.

The Next Salman Rushdie

Hardly anything can become as emotionally charged in the cultural struggle between the enlightened and the orthodox as an apostasy fatwa practically asking for somebody's execution. Hardly anything is as capable of stimulating emotions and the masses. And, for this reason, hardly anything is more likely to be used as justification for a propaganda war where both sides are convinced they are right. The West wants to defend freedom of expression, while the radical religious culture wants to defend its faith.

Whether or not this was indeed the intention of the ayatollah from Qom, Najafi has been a target since last week. He is the next Salman Rushdie. He must now fear for his life and give up his old way of living. He is the next supposed heretic against whom hatred can be channeled and who can be used to stir up hatred. And he is the next living martyr for fundamental liberal values, the freedom of art and the tolerance of dissenters. Last week, after the Iranian media had taken up the case on such a large scale, the American and the Israeli media followed suit.

Last Friday, Najafi was under police protection in an undisclosed location in Germany. Officials at the Interior Ministry of the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia said tersely that the situation is seen as "very serious."

Three days earlier, the musician had gone to the police in Cologne and filed a criminal complaint against the grand ayatollah, for incitement to commit murder. The police launched an investigation and advised Najafi to go into hiding overnight. What followed was a telephone marathon among various police and intelligence agencies discussing how serious the perceived threat was, always with the same outcome: that Najafi needed personal protection immediately. He has been under protection since then and is only accepting phone calls at prearranged times set up by his manager.

Bounty on the Internet

"My security is being taken care of," he says, speaking with a strong Persian accent, but notes that there is nothing more he can say about the issue. He is now living in an exile within an exile. At least he managed to take along his guitar, although now he can only play it for himself. He was forced to cancel his planned European tour.

"At first I thought it was nonsense. I couldn't believe it. Only when I saw the $100,000 (€77,000) bounty on my head on the Internet did I truly understand that this was serious," he says. One can tell by his voice how stunned he is.

The song that has turned his life into a nightmare has been making the rounds among young people in Iran for weeks. It's being secretly passed on by those who had pinned their hopes on the green movement three years ago, hopes for an end to the regime and an opening to the West. When those hopes were dashed, all that these people had left was the underground culture. It's where Najafi has a name and where his audience comes from, even though -- or perhaps because -- he left his country in 2005, after singing a satirical song called "I Have a Beard." But the mullahs weren't laughing, and they sentenced Najafi to three years in prison and 100 lashes. But he managed to escape before the sentence was carried out.

And now this song. It's called "Naqi," in reference to the name of the 10th imam, Ali al-Hadi al-Naqi, born in Medina in 829. According to legend, he died in 868 after being poisoned. For devout Shiites, the 10th imam is a model of virtue, wisdom and the willingness to make sacrifices. Like all of the so-called Twelve Imams, he is seen as a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. An incident on Feb. 22, 2006 shows how holy his memory is to the Shiites. On that day, Sunnis in the Iraqi city of Samarra blew up the mosque containing the grave of the imam. It marked the beginning of the Iraqi civil war, which claimed more than 10,000 lives.

When it comes to the imam, the fanatics are not to be trifled with. Nevertheless, Najafi clearly relished calling upon the imam in his song, which is perhaps comparable with one of the most famous songs in pop history, Janis Joplin's "Mercedes Benz," in which the singer asks the Lord to buy her a Mercedes Benz. In the Western hemisphere, it's a great line. But for many a devout Muslim, it's a display of the sort of nonchalance that deserves death.

Global Death Sentence

Najafi's lyrics are ambiguous, which is typical of Persian writings, jokes and poems, which are filled with innuendo and double or even triple meanings. At first, "Naqi" sounds like an appeal to the 10th imam, a plea for help. At the same time, the verses blend the sacred and the profane in such a disrespectful manner that it quickly becomes clear that the author is taking neither the imam nor the religion seriously.

In his verses, for example, Najafi pokes fun at a "cardboard Khomeini" and swears by everything under the sun, from Viagra to pita bread to national pride and honor. He throws it all into a pot, mixes it up and ends up with an all-encompassing critique of the regime -- not just of the mullahs and the state religion, but also of everything that, in Najafi's view, is going wrong in Iran.

From the regime's perspective, however, the only one who is in the wrong is Najafi. On April 23, the 93-year-old cleric Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani was asked in Qom what his judgment was of "a few people who consist primarily of anti-revolutionaries living abroad" who were "insulting and disparaging" the imam. Safi Golpayegani is one of the country's 19 grand ayatollahs, a man who issues decisions on religious controversies, but who is also a loyal supporter of the Islamic revolution in Iran. He replied: If they have disparaged and insulted the honored person, they are apostates.

If, the ayatollah said. He didn't say that Najafi had done such a thing. In fact, it isn't entirely clear whether he was actually thinking of Najafi when he made his pronouncement. Nevertheless, an apostate can be subject to the death penalty. And sure enough, the video accompanying the song had hardly appeared on YouTube in early May before Iranian newspapers loyal to the regime suddenly remembered the ayatollah's vague declaration -- and turned it into a death sentence, one that is valid worldwide.


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