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Open Letter from World Shia Forum to the Directors of UMAA

The editors and bloggers at World Shia Forum are writing to the directors of the Universal Muslim American Association to express their increasing concern at recent developments at UMAA.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Asalamu alaikum.

The editors and bloggers at World Shia Forum are writing to you to express their increasing concern at recent developments at UMAA. Whilst we support, encourage and admire much of the work UMAA does, we are worried that the organisation is in danger of losing its sense of direction.

As you will be aware, WSF bloggers write anonymously due to the fact that several of our writers have been killed or threatened by Deobandi, Wahahbi and Salafi extremists. We therefore regret that we cannot put our names to this letter, but the opinions expressed herein represent the broad consensus of our thoughts.

In the past, UMAA has made some dubious political judgments such as the decision to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq and to give one of its chief architects, Paul Wolfowitz, a platform to speak. This was a political and strategic error of considerable magnitude and on from which UMAA has thankfully moved on. However, it risks repeating similar mistakes with its attitude to the Syrian conflict and in particular in its decision to invite Al-Jazeera journalist Mehdi Hasan to speak at events discussing Syria.

Hasan has used his credentials as a Shia to consistently push a damaging narrative of equivalence regarding the Syrian war and the broader conflict between those set on imposing extreme takfiri Wahabi ideology on the Muslim world and those who want to see a pluralistic and tolerant Islam. It is difficult not to see the influence of Al-Jazeera’s Qatari backers on his editorial line.

In particular:

  • Mehdi Hasan has stated that the conflict is not sectarian but instead a geopolitical struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. To outsiders, this has made the conflict seem like a tit-for-tat between equal powers when it is, in fact, a persecution with the far stronger side committing aggression the weaker.

Even at the height of sectarian attacks against Shias in Iraq and the destruction of one of Shia Islam’s holiest sites at Samarra, the most respected Shia cleric alive today, Ayatollah Sistani issued fatwas against retaliation –in stark contrast to the response of the Saudi Imam of Mecca, who has encouraged violence against Shias and other minorities in the Arab world.

For Hasan to compare the sporadic retaliation undertaken by Shia groups acting on their own with 50 years of officially sanctioned and ideologically driven genocidal violence suffered by Shias and other minorities at the hands of Deobandi, Wahabi and Salafi extremists is not only intellectually dishonest, it actively fuels the conflict by giving cover to outside powers intervening on behalf of the extremists.

  • By painting the conflict as a geopolitical struggle between Iran and Saudi, Hasan also diminishes the suffering of other minority groups such as Christians, Yazdis and Sunnis who refuse to give in to Wahabi extremism (for example the 700 members of the Nimr tribe wiped out by ISIS). The oppression of such groups does not fit the Iran/Saudi analytical framework that Hasan has fabricated and by obscuring the reason that they are being persecuted (i.e. Wahabi extremism not Iran/Saudi rivalry)
    he is complicit in allowing their suffering to continue.
  • He has consistently promoted the narrative that there is a ‘moderate opposition’ in Syria and that the Syrian uprising retains a fundamentally pro-democracy and anti-tyranny spirit. This has in turn given political cover to regime change by encouraging the arming of groups like Al-Nusra, who are using those weapons to prolong the conflict and inflict indiscriminate slaughter on civilians.
  • He has mainstreamed extremism by refusing to name the fringe ideology (and recent innovation) of Whahbism and its Saudi and Gulf supporters as the source of the violence, thereby forcing ordinary Sunnis to shoulder the blame for the actions of a tiny sect-within-a-sect.
  • Used his credentials as a Shia to promote this insidious narrative within our own community thereby promoting fitna that has undermined our ability to act as a cohesive bloc to protect Shias and other minorities against the threat of takfiri violence.

By giving Hasan a platform where he can pose as a radical, pro-Shia and anti-establishment voice whilst at the same time espousing arguments that are disingenuous at best and actively serve the aims of those instigating the violence at worst, UMAA is (albeit unwittingly) doing Shias and the broader Muslim community a great disservice.

We therefore ask that UMAA review its speaker policy with regards to Hasan. Ideally we would like to see that he is not longer given a platform, however, if he is to speak again at an UMAA event, it is imperative that he is challenged on the underhand rhetorical and argumentative tricks he uses to obscure his true argument – that the persecuted are as much to blame for their persecution as those who are killing, raping, robbing and maiming them.

UMAA has been an undoubted force for good for many years. However, as the landscape changes, UMAA must adapt or risk being left behind.

At this critical time for the Muslim community in the USA, we would like to see a more muscular form of activism from UMAA. As such we were pleased to see that you have recently brought a lawsuit against Donald Trump’s Muslim ban for specifically targeting Shias. This is the form of activism that we would like to see in future but it is not consistent with giving an uncritical platform to apologists for Wahabi sectarian violence like Mehdi Hasan.

The North American Shia community is increasingly assertive and politically aware. They are no longer happy to stand as part of a ‘unity coalition’ with other Muslims when that unity involves turning a blind eye to the supporters and funders of takfirism and terror. Fifteen years of failed unity policies have taught today’s media-savvy, internationally connected generation that we cannot engage with our fellow Muslims or the rest of the world from a position of weakness or embarrassment at our sacred history and practices.

The WSF Team


About Ali Teymoori

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