Shaikh Mohammad Tawhidi hits all the right notes as the ideal Australian Muslim media darling: a website full of condemnations of ISIS; a friendly visage at rallies, vigils and in the media; and a smattering of criticism from militant Sunnis. He has expressed opposition to unregulated madrassahs (Islamic schools), and says he "doesn't want burqas running around." He also insists that Muslims in the West should assimilate, saying that had his father known "so many extreme Muslims" would one day be in Australia, he would never have moved there. He says all of these things while wearing a robe and beard, providing a veneer of legitimacy so appealing to Westerners eager to hear these words in a suitably "Islamic" package.
So, is Tawhidi the imam we have been waiting for? The one who sincerely seeks to advocate for critical thinking within the "house of Islam," who will work to abolish sectarianism, promote gender equality, combat anti-Semitism, and bring about the reformation many have discussed – but so few have meaningfully supported?
In a word, no. In a few more words: not even close.
Let me be clear: I wish he were. I would welcome such an imam, and offer him my full support. I would use every platform at my disposal to promote his views, and pass the mic to him and his colleagues whenever and wherever possible. I wish I were readying myself to do just that, rather than coming to the unfortunate conclusion that I must instead ask that he be denied this empowerment.
The unfortunate reality of this instantly famous imam seems to be something more than simple opportunism. Rather, things seem much more sinister: Tawhidi may not be the reformist imam of our dreams – but rather simply a radical of a different flavor. Rather than espousing the radical ideology of ISIS, which draws from an extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam, Tawhidi subscribes to its reflection – a nefarious interpretation of Shia Islam. And because the West is so hungry for figures such as the one he appears to be, they are none the wiser.
Archived tweets made by Tawhidi reveal extreme views held by a minority of Shias with regard to the Prophet Muhammad's family: in them, he calls Aisha (Muhammad's wife) a "b*tch," talks about her "experience with semen," and other vulgarities. He has not only called for a "review" of Islam – but specifically the banning of most Sunni teachings. His is not a reformist project: it is a sectarian project. He is troublingly quick to jump on far-right bandwagons – not because he agrees with their concerns about Islam as a whole – but because aiding them would rush the end of Sunni Islam. His religious and educational programming originates in Bashar al-Assad's Syria and radical Shia strains in Iraq and Iran. It should cause significant pause that his criticisms extend only to Sunni Islamists – never the Islamists within his own community – and never the regimes of Iran and Syria, the heart of radical Shi'ism.
If Tawhidi wishes to prove his reformist bona fides, we urge him to indicate his clear support for the Muslim Reform Movement declaration, retract his hateful comments that stoke sectarianism, and issue swift, thorough and regular condemnations of Shia radicals and their movements by name as well. He must disclose and sever any ties with the Iranian and Syrian regimes or their supporters in Iraq, commit to the active opposition of sectarianism, and embrace the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
There's a distinct reason that our work at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) is directed at the need for reforms against all forms of Islamism – "political Islam" and all its attendant permutations of an Islamic state mentality. At AIFD, our work is blind to Sunni or Shia with a clear universal mission statement to defend liberty through the separation of mosque and state. Whether Sunni or Shia, all forms of the Islamic sharia state and its admixture of Islamic law and state are doomed theocracies and plagues upon humanity. It makes no difference whether Islamist theocracy has a Sunni or Shia flavor, it is a theocracy and thus supremacist. Tawhidi's positions, while appealing to many in the West as an apparently bold and courageous "Muslim cleric" against Sunni Islamism, is grotesquely and conveniently unilaterally anti-Sunni Islamist.
Understanding this whole dynamic is, if anything, a distinct teaching moment.
The defeat of Islamism and its movements will never happen if one side of the Sunni-Shia sectarian battle of the Islamists is favored over the other — with the ends justifying the means. The only path towards modernity and defeat of all radical Islamism in Muslim communities is the advancement of liberal ideas against both cancers of Sunni and Shia Islamism. Anything short of that is an exercise in deceptive sectarianism, which will actually only continue the cycle of global Islamism. As the old adage goes, Australia's Sheikh Tawhidi proves once again that if something is too good to be true, it often is.