By Edward Carney
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported upon what it described as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s recurring “hobby” of using social media to voice criticisms of domestic affairs in the United States. Leading social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are banned throughout the Islamic Republic, yet various leading officials maintain their own Twitter accounts, often using them to reach global, English-speaking audiences. Many Iranian citizens also have such accounts, but in their case this is the result of technical workarounds for the regime’s blockage, such as the use of virtual private networks.
Khamenei has grabbed headlines with his English-language tweets in the past, as when he co-opted hashtags for the discussion of police shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, in order to suggest that the US government has a poor record on domestic human rights and has no standing to criticize the Islamic Republic of Iran. His more recent tweet, highlighted by the Post, was similar, using the hashtags #Charlottesville and #WhiteSupremacy in order to make himself visible to Americans discussing last Friday’s clash between white nationalist demonstrators and counter-protestors, during which one person was killed and 19 other injured when a white nationalist drove into a crowd with his car.
Khamenei’s post was accompanied, without context, by an image of himself as a younger man, holding a dark-skinned child. The Post describes this as a “ham-handed attempt to portray Khamenei as a more tolerant leader” than US government officials, whom he urged to “better manage their country” and “tackle #WhiteSupremacy rather than meddle in nations’ affairs.” Perhaps related to this latter remark is the fact that Khamenei’s tweet was issued about a day after the US State Department issued its annual report on human rights and religious freedom issues throughout the world.
Agence-France Presse notes that the Iranian Foreign Ministry explicitly rejected the findings of that report as they relate to Iran. The same is true of certain other countries that were specifically named in the report, including Iran allies like China. In fact, the language used by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying was highly reminiscent of that employed by her Iranian counterpart Bahrem Qassemi, as well as by Khamenei and other Iranian officials. Hua urged the US to “manage its own affairs” rather than “using religion to interfere” in the affairs of other countries.
Meanwhile, Qassemi’s statement took the familiar line of accusing the US of spreading “Islamophobia.” Tehran has frequently employed this language as part of its strategy of deflecting and simply dismissing international criticism of its widely-recorded human rights abuses. Accusations of cultural imposition have been used by the Islamic Republic to excuse direct violations of international norms on human rights, as in the case of the execution of offenders who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes.
Last week, one such offender, Alireza Tajiki was executed on the basis of his conviction for male rape at the age of 15. Then, this week, the Iranian judiciary moved to implement the death sentence for a man who was convicted of murder at the age of 17. It was not immediately clear whether the second execution was carried out on Wednesday as planned, but the rapid movement from one case to the other may be indicative of deliberate rejection of “imposed” standards. Four other minor offenders have been confirmed as being executed earlier this year, and the Islamic Republic is only one of about a half dozen countries that still carry out such killings with the approval of the judiciary.
But in contrast to minor executions and certain other issues, Qassemi’s statement on the State Department report – and Khamenei’s possible allusion to it – did not acknowledge and defend relevant Iranian behaviors but instead ignored them completely in an apparent effort to refocus the conversation upon the US alone. “It is clear that religious and racial discrimination, Islamophobia, and xenophobia are a widespread and frequent phenomenon among American politicians,” Qassemi said, adding that Muslims appeared to face frequent violence and discrimination within the United States.
But even if one accepts this criticism, there are substantive differences between the difficulties confronted by Muslims in the US and the issues cited by the State Department regarding the rights of religious minorities in Iran. No matter how prevalent anti-Muslim discrimination may be in American society, this cannot historically be linked to the actual policies of the US government, which has codified freedom of expression and separation of church and state in its law and constitution since the nation’s founding.
The constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, founded after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, technically enshrines equal protection under the law for religious minorities, but only for certain specifically-identified ones. And even on this point there is a long history of that equal protection being undermined by officials in the highest reaches of Iranian government. For instance, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini, issued fatwas early in its history declaring the Baha’i religious minority a threat to Iranian society and establishing the framework of persecution that continues to this day, including the denial of Baha’i access to higher education and the arbitrary obstruction of Baha’i commercial ventures.
AFP notes that the State Department report described the Iranian government – and not just individual Iranian officials or non-governmental entities – as continuing “to harass, interrogate and arrest Bahais, Christians, Sunni Muslims and other religious minorities.” Furthermore, the release of this report coincided with the publication of an article in IranWire that explained how these human rights issues were so deeply embedded into the ideology of the Iranian regime that those same issues were being exported to Iran’s foreign affiliates and proxies, and to the regime’s areas of foreign influence.
IranWire specifically points to the growing plight of the roughly 2,000 Baha’is living in Yemen, where Iran has supported the Shiite Houthi rebels in an insurrection against the elected government of President Abed Rabu Mansour Hadi, dividing the country into two distinct enclaves of political power. Even before assuming power and taking control of the capital city of Sanaa, the Houthi had already adopted Tehran’s attitudes toward the Baha’i faith and begun spreading conspiracy theories regarding supposed connections to Israel and a desire to partition areas of Yemeni territory into exclusively Baha’i enclaves. But now that the Houthi have authority over much of the country, they are beginning to be exposed to institutionalized persecution.
At least seven Baha’is have been imprisoned for their faith by Houthi authorities so far, and the IranWire report focuses on the case of one who is also a widely respected tribal leader, Sheikh Walid Saleh Ayyash. After his unexplained arrest, other tribal leaders demonstrated before Hurdaydah Prison and called for his release, only to be rebuffed in the strongest terms when prosecutor Rajeh Zayed met the protestors, addressed nearby soldiers, and said of the Baha’i “kill them and don’t leave anyone behind.”
Although Iranian authorities continue to defend themselves against international criticism by insisting that much of that criticism is based on “Islamophobia,” reports like these make it clear that the Iranian regime has been instrumental in spreading contrary phobias not only within but also beyond its borders. At least in the case of the Baha’i, this rhetoric risks inciting violence from Shiite militants, but the wrath of the Shiite theocracy has been directed against a wide range of other religious minorities, to one degree or another.