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Accusations of Sabotage and Calls for Elimination: Iran's Month in Hate Speech

March 8, 2024
Saleem Vaillancourt
5 min read
IranWire's hate speech monitoring expert, Awat Pouri, said that the use of the word "elimination," rather than the more conventional "kill," was meant to dehumanize Israelis and Jews
IranWire's hate speech monitoring expert, Awat Pouri, said that the use of the word "elimination," rather than the more conventional "kill," was meant to dehumanize Israelis and Jews

Hate speech may start with words but it can end in more than just tears – it can end with violence and even death. IranWire's "Iran's Month in Hate Speech" series tracks Persian-language social media posts and articles targeting religious groups in Iran with derogatory language, conspiracy theories and calls for violence. Our tracking is not exhaustive: we focus on influencers and websites with large followings and wide reach. The series is designed to inform the general public and to help social media companies exercise their responsibility to monitor and remove hate speech on their channels.

Antisemitic hate speech posted in Persian by news sites affiliated with the Islamic Republic, as well as social media influencers, called for the "elimination" of Israeli soldiers over the past month, according to IranWire's tracking, which found that violent rhetoric continued even as the overall volume of hateful posts had decreased from recorded posts in previous months.

IranWire's hate speech monitoring expert, Awat Pouri, said that the use of the word "elimination," rather than the more conventional "kill," was meant to dehumanize Israelis and Jews.

Pouri said that official news outlets of the Islamic Republic published "thousands of posts and articles" using the violent term.

Jews continued to be the primary target of Persian-language hate speech.

More than 23,000 posts were tracked in February, with 72 percent of these, or 17,000 posts, containing antisemitic content. The proportion matches the same levels recorded last month.

One alarming change observed this month was an increase in hate speech posts targeting Zoroastrians in Iran.

"We monitored about 1,000 posts targeting Zoroastrians," Pouri says, "with the majority of them spreading conspiracy theories claiming they influence, along with Baha’is and Jews, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting network on television and radio."

The Iranian government and its clerical establishment have for decades, and even generations, tried to spread unfounded claims that religious minorities work together in the country to undermine Islam and control society.

Previous IranWire reports on hate speech showed that antisemitic conspiracy theories are used to "distract" people from tangible domestic issues and even to call for genocide.

IranWire has previously reported on an online group of conspiracy theory peddlers and social media influencers called "Restart," that concentrates its ire, propaganda and hateful posts against the Baha'is, Jews, and Zoroastrians.

"The group produces and spreads conspiracy theories about these religious minorities," Pouri says. "Influencers associated with Restart tried, in their posts, to pit these three minorities against Shia and Sunni Muslims, while also pretending to defend Islam and Iran against these three 'demonic' forces."

A second IranWire source, whose identity needs to be withheld for security reasons, says that Restart "claims to be an opposition [political] group, but over the past two years they have been trying to blame religious minorities, especially Baha'is and Zoroastrians and to some extent Jews, for the misfortunes of Iran and thus whitewash the regime."

The source also shared with IranWire several hashtags (one, two and three used by the Restart group in hate speech against religious minorities.

Slurs against Armenian Christians also caught IranWire's attention over the past month. Pouri says that, in his monitoring, he saw the resurgence of "a phenomenon on Persian social media where some influencers use the words 'Armenian dog' as a curse or an insult and to humiliate others, without it being relevant, when there are no Armenians involved or anything to do with other religions."

Calling someone an "Armenian dog" is a common and idiomatic curse in Iranian cultural history – one intended to humiliate both Armenians and the targets of the slur.

"What is significant is that we see this increase on social media," Pouri says. "We tracked 277 posts in February that used the term 'Armenian dog,' whereas it was at 240 in January and 180 in December. The growing popularity of this term, which offends Armenian Iranians, is dangerous and some commentators have said that it may show an emerging anti-Armenian sentiment."

One small point of relief that IranWire observed over February was a decline in online hate speech targeting Sunni Muslims. "We monitored about 1,400 posts targeting Sunni Muslims, which is a decrease from the previous month," Pouri says. "The term 'Wahhabi,' which had been used in the past by hate speech actors to label Arab region leaders as Islamic extremists, did not appear in any posts over the month. But we will see if that continues into March."

Baha'is continued to receive large volumes of hate speech online, however, with about 3,000 posts representing no decline over IranWire's January tracking. And one element that did increase was the number of accounts involved in disseminating conspiracy theories and violent hate speech against Baha'is.

"We also saw some dangerous anti-Baha’i content published in official outlets against Baha’is," Pouri says, noting that this has been the case every month since IranWire's tracking project began. "For example, in an article by the Young Journalists Club," Pouri says, referring to a media outlet affiliated with the Iranian government, "we saw accusations that Baha’i women try to seduce Muslim men to increase the Baha’i population. The same group also published articles claiming that Baha’is use Iranian universities to seduce and corrupt impressionable young Iranians, despite the fact that Baha’is are in fact barred from higher education institutions in Iran."

A separate article also said that alleged saboteurs in Iran were also Baha'is and were responsible for the wave of poisonings of schoolgirls in the country and recent gas line explosions that were seen by many as intentional attacks. And the ever-reliable government-aligned Fars News claimed in an article that the "Woman, Life, Freedom" slogan was in fact a Baha'i invention.

Pouri also observed in his tracking a more subtle trend of anti-Baha'i sentiment.

Many activists and influencers online tend to denounce all religions in Iran, he says, with a sentiment along the lines of "F**k all religions, they’re all the same, I don’t care about them, it’s their fight, not our fight."

The danger with this message is that "we can’t put the Baha’is in the same basket as the other religions," Pouri says. "The Baha’i faith is not just a religion, but a civil movement, a cultural movement, that at significant moments in Iran’s history has played positive roles to help modernize Iranian culture and society. And the Baha’is are deprived of everything in Iran. The 'fight' isn’t equal."

Equating Baha'is with other religious minorities runs the risk of erasing their unique plight, Pouri adds.



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