Iranian musician responds upright to death threats

24 October 2012

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This interview with Shahin Najafi and Günter Wallraff took place five months after a fatwa – a death sentence – was issued against the singer and rapper Shahin Najafi. It proclaimed him an apostate for recording the rap-song ‘Ay Naghi’ and sentenced him to death under Islamic law. The assault ensured that the name ‘Shahin Najafi’ is now better known around the world than that of many other Iranian musician in exile. But this wasn’t of any great help to his artistic career.


Shahin Najafi lives in hiding, primarily in Germany. For the interview he appeared out of nowhere. With a three-day-old beard, dressed in jeans, jacket and a stylish hat. He actually looked like Marlon Brando as ‘the young Don Corleone’ in The Godfather.

Najafi was accompanied by his mentor Günter Wallraff with whom he played a game of chess before settling down for the interview. Najafi was easy-going and candid, by no means a hunted victim. Considering what he has been through, this seems amazing.

What’s more, Najafi appears not to have lost his energy when talking about his past, his music and his political conviction. In conversation, he enjoys getting lost in philosophical and political eras, before returning to the original question.

He is ready to conquer new frontiers. He set off for a tour, his first concerts after the fatwa had been declared, which is taking him around the US.

Shahin Najafi was born in Bandar-e Anzali, a harbour town at Iran’s Caspian Sea in 1980, on the eve of the birth of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He was the youngest of eight brothers and sisters. His father died when Najafi was still a young boy.

Najafi spent his childhood and school days in Bandar-e Anzali where he finished secondary school. He then went to Teheran where he studied social science. Najafi recalls as a child been very fond of the call to prayer of the muezzin. By the age of 12, he was trained to be a Koran singer. Through out his teen years, he improved his skills and talent.

It was only during his military service that Najafi became more radical as he tried to deal with the political system of Iran. Since then he is in conflict with Iran’s regime which Najafi considers inhuman and bigoted.

Interviewer: Mr Najafi, it has now been more than five months since a ‘fatwa’ was declared against you and since then you have found yourself living on the run. How do you cope with it?


Shahin Najafi: I’m really convinced that the essential nature of all of us is to adapt ourselves to many diverse living conditions. Right from the beginning, after having seen what happened, I understood that my life had changed, completely changed. And I was ready to adapt to it.


How did you feel when you first stumbled on the fatwa on an Iranian webpage?


Najafi: Well, I just felt a lot of very conflicting feelings. Somehow it was paradoxical. On the one hand, the whole situation seemed totally ridiculous. On the other hand, I felt much anxiety. Frankly, I was desperate, wondering what would happen next? I felt strongly irritated, as I was very much worried about my family in Iran. And I also had a feeling that I had been literally attacked and wounded, like someone who had been shot or stabbed. So at that time I could feel it physically with much intensity.


Before the fatwa was declared have you ever felt threatened here in Germany with such intensity?


Najafi: No, never. There had always been threats against me on the Internet by people from Iran or from other people from abroad. But I always knew that they were not going to seriously get involved.


You are living in hiding and have to put up with a lot of security. Is there any sort of ordinary life for you? Can you go out at all?


Najafi: Sometimes, but it all depends on the security. I mean that I am protected from a lot of things that are happening around me. But I don’t exspect this situation to last very long.


Are you able to live without a sense of fear?


Najafi: It seems to be a bit paranoid but when I sleep in the night it seems that a film is happening, you know. I turn to the wall and slowly close my eyes and wait for someone to slit my throat. Then I laugh at myself and somehow fall asleep. If you call that fear then it does indeed happen that I occasionally have a laugh about been frightened.


Do you think that you get the support and protection you need from for instance your friends, by people from the local community?


Najafi: Yes, I get a lot of support. But I also want to say how important it is giving a political example for solidarity, you know. Because my case is not an isolated case. And that is a very important aspect. One has to understand that this isn’t meant just for me. It can happen to anyone, anywhere. It reminds me of a poem by Pablo Neruda, you know. The poem goes like this:

‘When the communist were arrested I wasn’t a communist.

When the protectors of the constitution were arrested I wasn’t a protector of the constitution.

When I was arrested there was nobody to defend me.’

So for me solidarity is very important and I rather wanted to get this kind of ‘protection’ off myself. I very much have this idea that the debate about human rights is purely academic, as long as there is no solidarity.


How much are the exiled Iranians really behind you?


Najafi: Well, I saw all kind of videos and commentaries on Youtube. And they obviously demonstrated in different places like Stockholm, Berlin, Amsterdam, London, even in Canada. It felt good to me. So it’s a sign of solidarity. It came as quite as a surprise to me, you know. Because in these times there are so many things for Iranians whom you better not speak publicly about. First of all, many of them have families in Iran. And the last thing they want to do is to cause problems for theirs families. As they want to go to Iran and meet theirs relatives, spend an ordinary time with them. About five million Iranians live abroad, you know. If spending a good time in Iran was less precious to them, I think the country would be better off today. I mean we saw the Green Movement, ten thousands of people in the streets and the fact that people protested all over the country. I think and I’m also worried that most exile Iranians living their life abroad have kind of lost their interest for the political development of Iran.


Some Ayatollahs called you blasphemous, but a lot of ordinary people also feel irritated by your songs. What is the reason that you give them such a sense of irritation?


Najafi: I really don’t know. Those people you are talking about are just part of a certain scene. They don’t care about human rights, they don’t care about what happens around them. They are part of the regime which feeds them.

And there are the others, you know. If you try to tell them what life is like for instance in the South of Teheran it looks to them weird. You understand that they really don’t know very much. And what’s more they don’t want to understand anything. People who believe in a sort of superior nation, where life is ok, except for the fact that the veil is compulsory. Blind men and women who shield themselves away from any criticism. I would very much like to send them to the Kurdish region of Iran, to Sistan or Belutschistan where I was. Make them see, for example, what living without running water means. And yes, let them see Khorramshahr, where millions of people died during the first Gulf war and where people still live today under indescribable conditions. Yes, that is Iran. And all that can be found in my songs, you know.


So that is one reason why others than the mullahs want to banish your songs, right?


Najafi: Yes, sort of


Günter Wallraff: Real art has through all times been objectionable, has been controversial, has encouraged resistance, has generally never been harmless. And especially under dictatorships and I’m thinking of Germany and the ‘Third Reich’. With the majority of the population who entertained themselves with folksongs while the holocaust was happening. These people just wanted to see the sunny side of life in order to be distracted about the horror that was occurring around them. And this is also the case with Shahin’s songs and his music, meeting exactly a central nerve. And if today he was applauded by everybody he would have to ask himself: What am I doing wrong? Why am I so misunderstood? But he is already actually understood!


Mr. Najafi, artists can create any type of work that their talent, means and imagination can come up with, whether it offends certain people or not?
Najafi: You know, if my music was forbidden because it was considered provocative then it would have something to do with my audience and their understanding of themselves and would have nothing to do with me as an artist. I create something but for a lot of people that is of little interest. Then I create something and loads of people take to the barricades. To give an example, some time ago I produced a song about people who we would in Iran call ‘bourgeois’. It was a type of satire. Their reaction was the same as the Ayathollas’ response to ‘Ay Naghi’ – ‘forbidden’! Because the so-called bourgeoisie felt they were made to look foolish. In fact, they aren’t really citizens in the sense that they participate in public life. All they care about is fun and a posh life. That they got so excited about my song, boiling over with such indignation which was grossly disproportionate. You would actually think, as they have a good life they would actually be above this. This was not the case, really wicked!



Let’s talk about your song ‘Ay Naghi’, a string of sardonic observations about Iranian society, topped by an Internet video that shows a mosque in the shape of a woman’s breast. Don’t you think that’s provocative? Did you mean to provoke?


Najafi: No, it’s not at all about that. You know it is actually about what is happening in Iran’s holy places…

[Najafi is vehemently being interrupted by Günter Wallraff.]


Wallraff: The opposite is the case. Who ever feels offended probably requires a kind of therapy. First of all the breast is a symbol, a feminine symbol which represents vitality and also eroticism. And then the gay pride flag, at the same time stands for minority rights. I mean to say the mosque in the shape of a woman’s breast topped by a gay pride flag could also be the best publicity ever for a form of Islam which evolved from absolutism to tolerance, to compassion, to peace, you know. But it’s probably a sort of utopia.


Najafi: Yes, really


Wallraff: And I must say I find your question quite objectionable. That you with your question imply that one must feel offended. I must say that you should analyse your real motif and intention… that you as a female feel provoked. True?


Concerning my own feelings this is not personal. You completely …


Wallraff: You didn’t mean that? Sorry. Misunderstood you!


…..completely misunderstood. It’s all about art. In art shape and design are open signs.
Wallraff: I mean art is always visionary. If it wasn’t, it would be a backward looking art form.


Let us just talk about art. Yes, and art is unequivocal. So everybody will individually decode signs and symbols. There is no objectivity in art, right?


Najafi: Yes, with art we have absolute freedom and can use all metaphors, symbols that exist within art and we can use them metaphorically. I mean to say, every subject is suitable for art. What matters is what the artist makes of it.


But that is not how things happen in Iran?


Najafi: Yes, but I am not trying to compromise on issues where there can be no compromise. The reflection of a piece of art work can be very conflicting. I mean a symbol like a woman’s breast and a gay pride flag are not offensive to me. But it gave rise to a lot of hatred. My view is, the problem is that the problem is other people’s perception.


Wallraff: Misogynists


Najafi: Yes, of course. Do you know what is actually happening in Iran’s mosques? What happens to children? Pedophiles that abuse them. Women who are sexually abused. The domes of mosques and holy places are a symbol for that, you know. The white dove that used to be on the dome is no longer there. Now there are black ravens, symbolic for the predicament of the country. And there is another thing not known in the West which takes place in these mosques. It is called ‘sigheh’ a kind of temporary marriage, sanctioned by sharia law that allows men to have as many sexual partners as they want but discriminates against women. The state does not defend women. In fact, the mosque in the ‘Naghi’ video stands for the rights of women in the sense that temporary marriage should no longer be sanctioned.


Wallraff: I mean it’s nothing but prostitution, isn’t it?


Najafi: Of course


Wallraff : And mullahs are pimps


Let’s stay with religion. How do you deal with religion that does not allow people who have a different view to them? That in the worst scenario punishes them with the death sentence?


Wallraff: Such a religion we should firstly detach from a belief structure that has a dogmatic terror nuance, religious fascism. That is what I call it: Iran is almost in its entirety a fascistic religious society. And religion is used to suppress others. So we have to make that known. We should not any more look at it with a considerate and religious aspect, but more as an instrument of terror to suppress and censure people and all those who deviate from their norms. With Islam no one can say: I want to have the right to choose another religion. I want to leave – he is then considered to be an apostate. My late friend Abu Zayd, a religious scholar who adhered to a liberal form of Islam, incidentally he was very devout was threatened with a fatwa and death. His happy marriage with a cosmopolitan, renowned sociologist was forcibly divorced. He had to immigrate to Germany. In those days, I had a lot of contact with him, got him membership to International PEN and then in Lejden in Holland he got a professorship. We need such people and they also need our protection and he was really a devout person.


Najafi: Whether it’s Turkey, Egypt or Iran. You have to look deeper. What is it really about? Is it really about religion or something else? A truthful believer behaves differently. He does not want death. Because that is not in Islam and also not in Shia. A true believer has religious obligations and does not demand the death sentence. And I mean to say it is about other priorities in certain scenarios. About power and control, you know. And as far as discussion is concerned with these people, it is not possible. They are radical politicians and Islamists. They don’t want discussion. You have to fight them politically. I mean, I’m concerned about free artistic expression. I want to use everything around me to express myself that develops tolerance and that is something that an Islamic society still has to learn. They have to finally understand that artistic confrontation with religion has nothing to do with insulting.


What began with the attack on Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ has become common. Many countries have become more and more censorious with works of art. Interestingly, to this day nobody bothers about lifting the ban on Rushdies ‘Satanic Verses’. Do you think the book should be available for instance in India, Pakistan or Iran?


Najafi: Yes, of course. It is a must, go!


Wallraff: I mean, it belongs there. It would have a liberating power and maybe bring people in those countries to a form of awareness, as fundamentalists who imagine themselves to be the holders of the absolute truth, who don’t understand fun who are deadly serious with their absolutist teaching. Literature does not spread that. It does not happen. Just, that there are no open public debates, only death – even in Turkey. So I would say, just like biblical societies spread the bible in countries where it was not allowed to be read, so you should also allow this book to spread behind the scenes in such countries.


I would like to return to art and the tension between art and religion. Art gives shape and form


Wallraff: And content also has relevance!


Initially there is design and shape. The content is essentially seen through the observer on a scale from ‘I like it’ to ‘It ought to be banned’. Can the artist say like Theodor Adorno: The bars are in the eyes of the beholder. What about the artist’s responsibility to society?


Wallraff: Which society?


The society, in which we live.


Wallraff: For goodness’ sake. Art would be dead. It would be the end of all art. Art is always, I would say in a utopian sense, a visionary sense sometimes possible, sometimes not. Design alone is often l’art pour l’art, when this particular art doesn’t transport anything. I don’t want to dispute that there is top quality abstract art also in music, with paintings. With literature it’s already there. I was myself impressed much by Dada. Influenced only up to a certain time, before it became mainstream. Then it became empty and increasingly academic and it lost its power. And when art gets stagnant and loses its bite especially in times of oppression, in dictatorial times, it’s I would say a renunciation, a disclosure. That happens to many who meander around. To lose afterwards their importance and then land on the scrap heap of literary history. And almost all art that worked in a certain time was controversial, was a form of intervention, had a structure. This of course should not be ignored and still today such social content is again transported. The artist is someone who either through cowardice, inertia or financial concerns comes to an arrangement. This is seen with certain individual cases, there are those who do not realise that they prostitute themselves and those who do. And from our perspective, art has a form of flexibility. Everything is possible and I would say this does not happen, when art is oppressed. It is a sort of yardstick.


Mr. Najafi, is the artist really free in the sense that every subject is suitable for art, as you implied?


Najafi: Yes, I think the artist is free, as far as I understand art. There are no boundaries. But like I said the artist as a human is influenced by his surroundings and the time he lives in. That has in turn an influence on art. Art can subconsciously and without hindrance establish borders. But how their size is measured that can make a difference. In view of this, my freedom is not boundless. But that only relates to me as a human being, it does not relate to my work. I, for instance, would never ever humiliate women in my work or portray them being humiliated. That is also the case with racial groups or ethnic minorities and for all the religions of the world. Whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian or Bahai, I would never make a caricature of a person based on religion. In that respect, I have made my borders. So what I am saying is that moral values relate to the artist, artistic values relate to the work.


Proceeding on the assumption that art in shape and form is absolutely free, don’t we then have to acknowledge this stupid little film that originated from America, probably far removed from being any kind of art. Don’t we then have to acknowledge that in principle a film like that has to be possible?


Wallraff: Yes, but we have to have a different approach. The entire Internet is full of this kind of stuff. We actually would have to get rid of the Internet. But the extremists will always find a pretext. I mean, it is no coincidence that it was churned out on the 11th September although the film was around for months. And this is the point: I would suggest, a tasteless, irrelevant story that is not of interest for any form of discussion, and people who want to ‘sex it up’ and pump it into a world event. With them, there is something not quite right. They have to ask themselves: Why do we take exception to it? Initiating this stuff into our heads. What kind of wrong understanding of God do we have? Such a person has to be therapeutically understood and has to be called to account, when all of a sudden this tastelessness is being pumped into a world event. But I have to say, if they are looking for a new cause they will find one straight away – tomorrow. But regarding this, as I said in an interview – it is of course a bit utopian – the entire media, all satirical magazines, all magazines, all newspapers should now produce all kind of high-quality caricatures, in abundance and flood the place with them as extremists can’t demonstrate every day. Some time or other it will be like what happened here with advertisements. Not long ago a lot of adverts that are found today in almost all magazines would have been forbidden as ‘pornography’. Today they are hardly considered obscene. For those who don’t want to see it they just to look away. The others stimulate themselves a little bit. And for the third party they just get a little bored.


Mr.Wallraff, surely not trashy is the work by Salman Rushdie. If you look at the developments – since 23 years he lives under threat, the fatwa has not been lifted and it looks like, that as of recent pressure has again been placed upon him. The bounty has been increased, as I read whilst doing my research. Why do you think this happened? What is the reason?


Wallraff: Presently an offensive is been carried out, you know, yes an offensive by Islamists, Salafists from these countries who need an enemy. They need a personified portrayal of an enemy. The Western world would be enough in this respect, but there is always a reason to bring certain individuals into focus. Presently, Salman Rushdie with an autobiography is in the public spotlight.


A sort of projected surface?


Wallraff: Yes, they try to do that. And an apology was not forthcoming. Salman Rushdie says it was the biggest mistake of his life, that he out of consideration for the security services he did not write a more challenging piece of work. Against this background, Shahin must be really, really careful. Fortunately he sees it like a sort of challenge. Salman Rushdie never used a disguise. It probably would have been a sort of self-abandonment, something that he couldn’t have done, which is understandable. So he always needed a huge amount of security. Shahin has a more playful dimension, is more enterprising.


Mr. Najafi, the politicisation of Islam actually began in the 1980s with Khomeini. Why do you think that pressure is placed on Salman Rushdie today, after he lived for many years seemingly without being troubled?


Najafi: I think that the reasons are purely political. The fatwa against Salman Rushdie had political reasons. And as a result his predicament was internationalised. Soon after, there were further cases like the death threats against Nagie from Turkey and some other poets and writers. In each of these cases the fatwa was politically motivated. It had as always nothing to do with religion and the violation of religious feelings. That is what we always have to remember, you know. We have to ask ourselves, what is really happening there? At the moment, we are witnessing the ‘Arab Spring’. Ok, they want democracy, they have the political attention and sympathy of the West. That must upset the religious powers in such countries. Why do they suddenly turn their attention to Salman Rushdie? His case was brought up to date. The bounty on his head was increased. The focus of simple religious people has been diverted. Concerning Salman Rushdie, what is the reason for the increased bounty other than what happened in the past? If they had wanted to kill Salman Rushdie, then they would have done it years ago. I think the whole thing is staged.


Wallraff: I think, it is also related to the politics found in Iran. Presently, there is at the moment an aggressive clique that tries to get their way which is also related to the atomic build up.


As a diversion?


Wallraff: Not only a diversion but also it reaches as far as the destruction of Israel which is constantly mentioned and threatened. It has not happened just once that there is now talk of a first strike. That they say that there they must be prepared for the destruction of their nuclear facilities. So a first strike capability should be kept. And we must not forget that the Iranian secret services massacred abroad 160 members of the opposition until 2006. In the country itself we don’t know the number at all – many thousands.


You have repeatedly stood for the cause of persecuted artists. What is your motivation?


Wallraff: That for me is a personal ideal. When a person is persecuted and threatened with death, naturally I stand up for them. I take them on board and do everything possible to bring them out of harms way.


And you mean to say that Shahin Najafi should also be very careful like the more well known Salman Rushdie. As Salman Rushdie is again the centre of attention Shahin Najafi should also be very careful?


Wallraff: Yes, the more he gets attention and that hopefully happens as an artist, the more he’s unfortunately in danger. Fortunately, we have here protection and security which I don’t want to talk about in detail. But he really has to take care. He is in great danger.


Elke Safaei-Rad is a German journalist based in Cologne. She began freelancing regularly for German, Austrian and French broadcasters in 1996. Since then, she has mainly reported from the Middle East and Africa on culturally and politically related issues. Elke Safaei-Rad’s report on the fatwa against Shahin Najafi was recently broadcasted on Austrian TV.

Courtesy of the author.

The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Freemuse.

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