Internet Censorship and the Fog of Fatwas in Iran

The role of Fatwas in online censorship

Religion remains one of the driving forces in the filtering of online content in Iran, with websites that are critical of Islam widely blocked. In addition, Iranian authorities have unequivocally deemed social networking websites as morally corrupting and in conflict with Islamic values. Facebook, one of Iran’s most popular social networking platforms, is blocked within the Islamic Republic. However, with the substantial increase of Iranian Facebook users, Marjas, (the Shia equivalents of the Sunni Muftis), also known as the Grand Ayatollahs with the authority to make legal decisions within the confines of Shiite law, have been tasked with reviewing the religious relevance of social media and internet use, resulting in often inconsistent verdicts about participating in these social networks and the use of circumvention tools which are necessary to access them. Iran Media Program and ASL 19 take a look at some of the most recent and influential Fatwas concerning the use of circumvention tools and social networking in Iran.

In early Islam, Fatwas were moral decrees issued by distinguished religious scholars in order to provide guidance to other scholars, judges and citizens on how the subtler points of Islamic law should be understood, interpreted or applied, and have been expanded in present times to cover a wide range of matters, including issues of legal theory, theology, philosophy, and technology. Although Fatwas are considered to be non-binding by most Islamic scholars, devout Muslims, especially within the Shiite sect, often consider them to be the rule of law, as followers of a Marja have a moral and social obligation to obey the Fatwas issued by their chosen Marja, whether it pertains to his or her personal, social or professional life. Fatwas are typically issued when religious interpretation about new and pressing social, political, or moral issues is needed and is not already covered within the holy texts, with technology topics looming large in contemporary times. Marjas are not monolithically conservative or liberal in their interpretations of Islamic law, resulting sometimes in a range of extremely conservative to more liberal Fatwas existing simultaneously on the same topic.

From the perspective of judicial authority and enforceability, Article 167 of the Iran’s Constitution stipulates that Fatwas that are issued using reliable and authentic Islamic teachings can be rendered justifiable legal bases for delivering judgements in cases where codified laws do not exist. However, in certain cases where the ruling seems to contradict the general population’s attitudes towards the issue, this becomes problematic and presents challenges in the implementation of the Fatwas. For example, in the case of online censorship in Iran, it is seen by many to limit freedom of expression and as an unjustifiable tool to suppress political opposition.

Fatwas, Facebook, and Circumvention Tools

As previously noted, Facebook is blocked in Iran and therefore inaccessible to Iranians without the use of circumvention tools. Surprisingly, however, the majority of Marjas, including Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, allow followers to sign up for Facebook and similar social networking platforms under certain conditions, regardless of the practical ban on the site. Khamenei recently provided clarity about his views on Facebook’s permissibility, declaring that, “if membership on Facebook necessitates spreading corruption, debauchery, disseminating lies against the Islamic Republic, or acting in the interest of Islam’s enemies, it is not allowable. Otherwise it is permissible.” When Marja Safi Golpaygani was asked a similar question, he answered, “using cyberspace for the purpose of propagating religion, and in a way that does not lead to any kind of ethical immoralities, is not prohibited. However, websites that propagate immorality that could weaken religious belief are haram (sinful).” Many other Marjas such as Ayatollahs Makarem Shirazi, Sistani, and Sadeq Larijani, have also deemed Facebook membership permissible.

Fatwas on use of circumvention tools are especially inconsistent, and in some cases, are internally contradictory with the Marja’s own ruling on Facebook use. According to the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Makarem-e Shirazi, using Facebook is allowed, but the use of circumvention tools are only permissible when in line with written laws. According to Ayatollah Sadeq Rohani, it is forbidden to use anti-filtering tools with the intention of accessing immoral websites, but permissible for viewing ethical and proper content. Ayatollah Sistani however, has disallowed using circumvention tools in their entirety for his followers.

In addition to fuzzy Fatwas, Iran’s formal laws and regulations do not fully clarify whether or not using anti-filtering tools is an offense. The only mention of circumvention tools in Iranian law is Article 25(c) of Iran’s Computer Crimes Law which states that, “providing training in unauthorized access, surveillance, computer spying, disrupting and damaging data or computer and telecommunication systems is considered a crime.” However, although the Computer Crimes Law does not directly prohibit using circumvention tools, Iran’s former Minister of Information and Communication Technology, Reza Taqipour, as well as several other military, police and judicial authorities have repeatedly commented on the illegality of using anti-filtering tools.

Despite the filtering of online content, the absence of strict laws about circumvention tools and social networking websites, coupled with religious Fatwas that allow the use of these websites, have encouraged many well-known religious individuals to sign up for them. One of the most high profile examples is Naeimeh Eshraghi, granddaughter of Iran’s former Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, who is said to have the maximum allowable 5,000 Facebook friends.

When asked about her Facebook account and use of circumvention tools, Eshraghi said she is against breaking even unjust laws, but added that anti-filtering tools are not illegal. She later added to the complexity of the issue by stipulating that, “some Marjas, however, do not allow the use of anti-filtering tools, so the followers of those Marjas have an obligation to observe proper precautions.” To a certain degree, censorship ‘laws’ in Iran appear to be subject to religious interpretation by particular Marjas and the individuals who follow them.

Fatwas and the way forward

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been quite unsuccessful in forcing Iranian users to stay away from social networks and other filtered websites. For example, the Iran Media Program reports that 20% of Iranian Internet users belong to online social networks, while use among technologically-savvy youth is 68%. More specifically, according to another recent survey, 58% of Iranian Internet users use Facebook, despite censorship of the site. Partly aided by different religious rulings, anti-filtering tools are used as if they were in fact legally permissible.

It is highly unlikely that the authorities will launch a wholesale confrontation with social network users or anti-filtering tools in cyberspace, primarily because they have neither the sufficient legal nor religious justifications. The inconsistent Fatwas issued by different Marjas are a major obstacle to prosecution. Based on Islamic principles, a Marja’s followers cannot be held responsible for obeying his rulings, and similarly, a Marja may not be prosecuted for his Fatwas. This legal-religious loophole affords Iranians a slight opening to evade restrictions imposed by the government and use circumvention tools to access sites like Facebook.

The Iranian authorities do conduct occassional raids on VPN dealers and arrest people for all kinds of online violations, profiting from acting unpredictably because it keeps a segment of Iran’s Internet-using population anxious about their online activities. These demonstrations of force are regular reminders that the Iranian government is in fact seeking to be the ultimate authority over Iranian cyberspace.

This was originally posted to the Iran Media Program website.