The satirist who mocks Iran's ayatollahs

Ayatollah Tanasoli's Facebook page Image copyright Facebook / Ayatollah Tanasoli

What Iranian would dare mock his country's religious leaders online?

He runs a Facebook and Twitter account in Persian using a fictional character to parody the religious politics of Iran's imams and mullahs. BBC Trending spoke to the man behind Ayatollah Tanasoli - which can be translated as "Ayatollah Genitals" or "Ayatollah Penis."

Tanasoli has 20,000 likes on Facebook and 7,000 followers on Twitter - not enormous numbers but significant for Iran, where many people are afraid of openly aligning themselves with scathing satire and criticism.

His persona is that of a ridiculous and hypocritical hard-liner who seems to completely lack self-awareness.

  • "We condemn any sort of violence, except for the violence we commit ourselves."
  • "If they had Islamic democracy in France, just like ours, those cartoonists wouldn't have been assassinated; they would have been hanged ten years earlier."
  • "Islam values women's rights, especially the rights of those women who give birth to male children."

It's broad-brush satire and Tanasoli says he gets into debates with government supporters and also ordinary Iranians who object to his humour. He wouldn't reveal his real identity or location (inside Iran or outside), so we have not been able to verify who he is. But he did tell us that he's in his 30s and employed. BBC Trending asked him a few questions on our weekly radio programme and an edited version of the transcript is below:

Why did you first start the Ayatollah Tanasoli accounts?

It's 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 every day for like a couple of hours so. It's a brainwash process. The stuff they say about the West, the internet, satellites and all this, is so absurd and crazy that it just makes you laugh. And it's 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 I would just go on and imitate being a mullah, and that mullah became very popular. So I thought that maybe I could bring it to social media.

Your avatar is an image of a mullah with one eye?

Yes that image is actually a real Ayatollah from the revolution in 1906, and I just put one eye instead of two because he only sees things his own way - they know everything and everything they know is right and you don't question it.

Can you give us an example of something you've tweeted quite recently?

I just tweeted something about the 1979 revolution, and I told them that this is what people deserve. I said that "In 1979, people got what they deserved." It has two meanings. First it means that people fought for the revolution but at the same time it means that what happened was a punishment. And people really liked that and started retweeting it…

How many times?

Seventeen times - which is a big number because in Iran people are scared to retweet.

Are your followers in Iran?

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, people trusted each other and they found friends through Twitter and started creating groups - you know, it was like a gang. But eventually the government managed to infiltrate the groups. That's when it became very dangerous and I decided to create a [fictional] character. I don't usually answer people or do direct messages. I block anybody that I feel is not safe, anybody who leaves a comment I don't like I block - I just think it's safer that way.

On your feed you are mocking religious leaders and are against the government. Are you not worried for yourself?

I am worried. Everybody is worried.

And are you worried that some of your tweets are going to upset other Muslims?

That's my intention. I want them to be upset. Not because I want to upset them to take revenge or anything - I want them to think.

What response do you get?

I don't want to brag but I get a lot, a crazy amount of feedback from people. Like on Facebook everyday I get more than 5 or 6 emails from people who are old, like 60 or 70 - or far from Iran - and they all say 'we love what you're doing'. I realised that a lot of people are thinking like me.

Have you received any negative reaction or any threats, or official threats?

Oh yes, especially on Facebook. I get a lot of email contact, a lot of them at first contacted me and said, ok you're good let's become partners, give us your address, things like that. I told them no, I'm not doing that. And then they offered me money and I said no I'm not selling my page. And then they started harassing me - sending me emails, very threatening, "we'll kill you, we'll find you." 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'll find you and we will rape them and we will kill you." And things like that to make you scared. But I know they're lying.

And do you think they're from the government?

Most of them are because I go back and I check their profiles- and I know about fake profiles. (laughs)

One Iranian Facebook user - Soheil Arabi - is currently in prison in Tehran where he's been for the last year. He's now been charged with insulting the prophet Mohammed - which carries the death penalty. Have people been supporting him online?

No. Because people who are inside Iran, people who are active on the internet, they're very scared. They don't want to associate with him.

Do you think you'll see a day when you can reveal your identity?

I truly hope so. I'm not doing this to be famous or anything, I know that if I was in any other place because of the humour I would probably at least be paid as a writer. And yeah I hope someday people can be who they are, who they want to be and say what they want to say.

Interview by India Rakusen

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