Iranian Sunnis responsible for successful social media campaign against Irancell

Written by ASL19 researchers for the Iran Media Program.

Iranian Sunnis extracted a formal apology from Iran’s second largest mobile service provider Irancell for a religiously offensive quiz question sent to subscribers. The quiz asked subscribers to choose between Sharih Qazi, the Sunni arbiter of Kufa city, and Omar bin al-Khattab, the second Muslim caliph, in response to the question “Which judge was deceived by the devil during the time of Imam Ali (the first Shi’a Imam)?” This was viewed by Sunnis as an insult, as Omar is the second most important Imam to Sunni Muslims, while he is largely seen by Shiite Muslims as the usurper of Imam Ali’s rights to the caliphate.

Following the release of the quiz, Sunni activists launched a media campaign on social media outlets such as Balatarin and Facebook to boycott Irancell, which led to a formal apology from the largely state-run company and becoming one of Iran’s most successful social media campaigns in recent history.

Coverage of the story originated from the Sistan and Baluchestan Province, which has a small Sunni community. The province’s Tayab website was the first news source to break the news of the objections to Irancell. Following this news, the ‘Campaign to Boycott Irancell’ quickly formed which urged Irancell subscribers to “throw away Irancell SIM cards and not top up accounts.”

The campaign’s Facebook page emphasized the boycott’s importance both as a protest against the company, Iran’s state run media, and federal budgeting policies that often place Iran’s Sunni dominated provinces and regions at a financial disadvantage.

Beyond the immediate goal of asking the company to formally apologize for its actions through official media outlets, the campaign was meant to make a statement about the costs associated with insulting the beliefs of Iranians from various ethnic, racial, and religious backgrounds.

During the Friday Prayer in Zahedan, Molavi Abdolhamid, the spiritual leader of Iran’s Sunnis, condemned Irancell for insulting Omar and urged the company “to apologize to all Iranians because insulting any religion upsets people of all religions.” Abdolhamid also advised all corporations to “avoid discord and dissatisfying the public,” and insisted that the “judiciary system should safeguard against other companies insulting people’s beliefs in the future.” Several other Sunni leaders also condemned the quiz.

Iran’s mainstream media largely omitted coverage of the Sunni community’s objections to Irancell, but the conservative Jomhouri Eslami newspaper reported on Abdolhamid’s statements and the Facebook campaign, writing that, “Sunni protesters intend to continue their protests in a non-violent, peaceful, and legal manner until Irancell apologizes.”

Iran’s Sunni’s are represented in government with fewer than 20 members of parliament. MP Representative of Bukan and Western Azerbaijan Mohammad Ghasim Osmani made a point of denouncing the Irancell’s actions, and asked other MPs to reflect on the case. The deputy speaker of Parliament, Mohammad-Hassan Aboutorabi Fard, also asked that the incident be reviewed and resolved by authorities.

When the protests expanded in scale and duration, Irancell was forced to issue a response five days after the campaign was launched, apologizing for the insulting content of the quiz and reassuring Iranians that the company is “committed to respecting the unity of Muslims, and all divine religions.” In a public statement, the company emphasized that the controversial question was an “unintended mistake,” by the Golden Key Company who prepared the quiz, and called on all Muslims to accept their sincere apology.

Despite this, Zahedan prosecutor Mohammad Marzieh filed a complaint against Irancell for insulting Sunni religious beliefs and disturbing public opinion. Marzieh also stated that such actions are against the Supreme Leader’s fatwa that encourages Iranians to stay united regardless of their religious beliefs.

Irancell is the second largest mobile operator in Iran and has two shareholders: the South Africa-based MTN Telecommunication Company (49%) and the Iran Electronic Development Company (IEDC) (51%), which includes two main stakeholders: Sina Company, affiliated with the Mostazafan Foundation of the Islamic Revolution (an influential and wealthy organization supervised by the Supreme Leader) and Iran Electronics Industries (IEI), known as SAIRAN (a branch of the Ministry of Defense). Irancell began operation in 2005 and is currently providing GSM, SMS, and WiMax Internet services.

Although Irancell has previously faced other complaints, its powerful shareholders have helped shield the company from repercussions. The success of this particular incident is therefore a milestone in the history of social movements in Iran. The majority of Sunnis live within the most impoverished and underdeveloped provinces in Iran, with often heavy forms of censorship on their media activities. For example, no Sunni owned publications have been given licensing privileges within Iran and many Iranian Sunni websites are either taken down or filtered. The success of this campaign demonstrates the ways in which this minority community was able leverage social and unofficial media to draw attention to their cause, largely ignored by traditional media and without access to their own minority- run media outlets.