For Islamophobes, Mohamad Tawhidi is something very close to a godsend. A Shia Muslim cleric, raised in Australia and educated in Iran, Tawhidi presents himself as an Islamic reformer who embraces and amplifies far-right warnings that immigration by his fellow Muslims poses an existential threat to Western civilization.
“He’s a hero,” the former New York Assembly Member Dov Hikind said last month, introducing Tawhidi to an audience of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. “He is a super-special individual that God has introduced to this world.”
Tawhidi immediately repaid the favor by suggesting that Muslims, at least those from the majority Sunni sect, are mistaken to consider Jerusalem a sacred site. “Muslims who are fighting for Palestine are absolutely confused,” he said. “Palestine is Jewish land.” Tawhidi went on to call political Islam “a disease,” and accused America’s first two Muslim women in Congress, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, of “bringing a Hamas agenda to the U.S. Congress.”
Hikind, who is leading a campaign to force Omar from the House Foreign Affairs Committee over her comments about Israel, was delighted by Tawhidi’s baseless claim that the two Democrats are secret agents of the Palestinian Islamist movement.
“Why are you bringing a Hamas agenda to the US Congress?!” pic.twitter.com/sBvyoTpogM
— Dov Hikind (@HikindDov) May 23, 2019
The remarks in Brooklyn echoed Tawhidi’s near-obsessive criticism of the two Muslim congresswomen on social media, a stance that has earned him a loyal following among their detractors in the United States.
The cleric’s American fans apparently include Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who seized on one of Tawhidi’s tweets in April as evidence that Omar was insufficiently critical of the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.
The virulently anti-Muslim founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, misinformed fans of his YouTube channel last year that “Imam Tawhidi is one of the world’s leading imams and a highly regarded scholar of the Koran and Islamic history.” Neither claim has any basis in reality, but Robinson prefaced an interview with Tawhidi by adding that the man who gave himself the nickname “Imam of Peace” is “known for his outspoken and honest discussion of the culture and ideological problems within the religion.”
Tawhidi’s skyrocketing status in far-right circles in America and Britain comes two years after he was largely discredited in Australia. As a deep dive into his background by Bronwyn Adcock, a reporter for the Australian public broadcaster ABC, revealed, Tawhidi is a fringe cleric with no academic credentials, no mosque, and less than a handful of followers in the real world. His public profile stems not from any work within his faith community, but from his willingness to play a concerned Muslim reformer on TV, on social media, and in a series of high-profile interviews with far-right YouTube personalities.
Even a cursory review of his Twitter feed undercuts the idea that he is focused on the reform of Islam or the pursuit of peace, since it is devoted mainly to reinforcing the prejudices of right-wing trolls and nativist politicians, echoing their racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric. To take a recent example, Tawhidi mockingly shared a sixth grade yearbook photo from Minnesota, in which a white boy is surrounded by the children of black Muslim immigrants, which had surfaced on a racist 4chan board.
He has also recently shared video of himself telling conservative activist Candace Owens that the Muslim mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is corrupted by a “Pakistani mentality,” mocked the Muslim feminist Linda Sarsour for an act of civil disobedience against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, saluted the anti-Muslim blogger Robert Spencer, called for the restoration of the monarchy in Iran, and penned an ode to Fox News host Jeanine Pirro.
When Tawhidi was first cited as an authority on Islam by Australian tabloids, he was dismissed by fellow Muslims in Australia and then the United States as something of a joke — and a symptom of how easily duped the right-wing media can be. Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Arizona, even compared him to a creation of the satirist Sacha Baron Cohen.
— Imraan Siddiqi (@imraansiddiqi) July 25, 2017
But the sectarian cast of Tawhidi’s harsh criticism of Sunni Muslim beliefs and practices has increasingly alarmed not just Sunnis, but also members of Tawhidi’s Shia sect. Again and again in interviews with non-Muslims, he has made incendiary comments about the beliefs of the majority Sunni sect, calling for one of their most holy books to be banned, and insulting a revered wife of the Prophet Muhammad.
Tawhidi’s rock-star status in far-right social media circles matters because it has recently been weaponized by mainstream politicians. In Australia, Tawhidi has been used as a character witness by the anti-immigrant politician Pauline Hanson. In India, he won applause at a gathering of Hindu nationalists by deriding Pakistani Muslims and asserting that “Kashmir is Hindu land.” He has recently been photographed with figures like Doug Ford, the far-right premier of Ontario; Nikki Haley, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and Reza Pahlavi, son of the last shah of Iran.
And in April, his tweet falsely accusing Omar of downplaying the 9/11 attacks set off a firestorm when Crenshaw, the U.S. representative, somehow came across it.
Tawhidi’s tweet, which went viral after Crenshaw shared it, included edited video from the Daily Caller of Omar referring to the attacks during a CAIR fundraiser. Omar’s remarks had previously garnered little attention, but the cleric’s inaccurate caption for the video — “Omar mentions 9/11 and does not consider it a terrorist attack” — propelled it into the mainstream news media.
First Member of Congress to ever describe terrorists who killed thousands of Americans on 9/11 as “some people who did something”.
— Dan Crenshaw (@DanCrenshawTX) April 9, 2019
Tawhidi’s false claim about what Omar said, along with another lie — that she sought “to justify the establishment of a terrorist organization (CAIR) on US soil” — then formed the basis for a segment broadcast into the White House during the Wednesday morning edition of the president’s daily briefing, aka “Fox and Friends.”
In fact, CAIR is a civil rights group for American Muslims and does not support terrorism, but Tawhidi frequently cites, uncritically, the fact that the repressive monarchy that rules the United Arab Emirates added the American group — and Muslim civil rights groups in seven European countries — to a list of terrorist organizations in 2014. Those designations, which were backed by no evidence and were not adopted by the U.S., were widely seen as the monarchy’s attempt to discredit civil society groups that were perceived as threats to its rule by associating them with genuine extremists. The UAE list included community groups that the monarchy previously funded — as well as the Serbian student group that organized the peaceful protests that forced Slobodan Milosevic from power — but excluded the armed Islamist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, which have carried out terror attacks.
Tawhidi’s public career began, as he recently told “intellectual dark web” star Dave Rubin, when he “was discovered” by a producer for a tabloid news show on Australia’s Channel 7. “I got a call from Channel 7,” Tawhidi told Rubin, “and apparently they Googled ‘imam,’ ‘Adelaide,’ ‘Muslim,’ just to get a comment.”
“So they came in wanting a three-minute comment on a certain issue and I gave them a 30-minute talk about the Muslim community,” Tawhidi continued, “and the director gets in touch with me and [said], ‘We can do a lot with what you’re saying.'”
That interview with Tawhidi was the centerpiece of an alarmist episode of the Channel 7 tabloid news show “Today Tonight,” which claimed that Muslim immigrants were secretly plotting to establish “a caliphate” in Australia.
“Sadly my religion, in the current situation, is an absolute mess,” Tawhidi told Channel 7. “I come from a lineage of Islamic leadership. When I am worried about what’s happening and what I see from my community and religion, trust me that there is something going on.”
Later in the program, Tawhidi claimed that “extreme Muslims” planned to set up a state within a state and impose sharia. “I believe that there needs to be a new government body that investigates everything regarding the Muslim religion in this country, starting off with the leaders of the communities,” Tawhidi said.
Following that appearance, reporters derailed Tawhidi’s media career in Australia; they found that he was the leader only of an Islamic association in Adelaide that he had set up himself and had lied about his academic credentials and training in Qom, the center of Shia Muslim study in Iran.
In the wake of those revelations, Tawhidi was subjected to a dose of public mockery on Australian television that temporarily halted his momentum in the mainstream press — although he has remained a go-to source for tabloid newspapers there.
Despite that debunking in Australia’s mainstream media, Tawhidi’s appeal to far-right Islamophobes soon spread through far-right social media to the United States. Tawhidi “just started showing up on my Twitter timeline two years ago, saying things that are counterintuitive to any Muslim that’s out there,” Siddiqi of CAIR told The Intercept.
Even though “he’s so cartoonish,” Siddiqi notes, “he’s getting called on to these mainstream talk shows, like Dave Rubin.” Through his appearances on popular talk shows of the “intellectual dark web,” Siddiqi observed, Tawhidi could now be “influencing a completely different audience than let’s say, a Fox News.”
“That really is sort of the unknown frontier of Islamophobia: Who is being indoctrinated by this sort of misinformation?” Siddiqi asked. “He’s being brought from the far right to these folks as some sort of credible source, a peaceful imam who denounces terrorism, but he’s coming from a completely absurd position.”
Cartoonish or not, Siddiqi is chilled by the thought that Tawhidi is reaching millions of followers of the popular Islamophobe video bloggers and activists who interview and promote him.
In just the past year, Tawhidi has had friendly interviews with Candace Owens, who was the communications director of Turning Point USA until she offered an off-the-cuff defense of Adolf Hitler’s nationalism; Jack Posobiec, an anchor at the Trump-endorsed One America News who helped promote the PizzaGate hoax; Brittany Pettibone, anti-Islam vlogger, white supremacist, and Pizzagate truther; Dave Rubin, YouTube talk-show host and “intellectual dark web” star; James Delingpole, Breitbart London’s editor; Pauline Hanson, an Australian nativist politician who said in 2016 that Australia was “in danger of being swamped by Muslims” and needed to ban all immigration by followers of that “so-called religion”; and Tommy Robinson, who got Tawhidi to trash the Prophet Muhammad’s wife Aisha and agree with him that Muslims immigrants to Britain who have many children are engaged in “population jihad.”
Some Muslims suspect that Tawhidi is at heart a sectarian agitator, trying to weaponize the hatred of Islamophobes as a way of attacking adherents of Islam’s majority Sunni Muslim sect. But according to Siddiqi, the Australian’s bizarre social media presence has baffled and appalled American Muslims of all sects. Shias and Sunnis “are in full agreement” on at least one thing, Siddiqi told me: “that this guy is just completely unhinged and not a part of any sort of theological tradition.”
However, a close reading of Tawhidi’s most incendiary pronouncements on Islam does lend credence to the theory that his mission might be less about reforming Islam than promoting the Shia sect by tarnishing the image of the majority Sunni sect.
There is evidence for this theory in a bizarre section of Tawhidi’s interview with Owens. When she asked him about the chances of reforming Islam, Tawhidi stated flatly that Islam could “never, ever, ever be reformed.” As evidence, he cited not any difficulties he or other supposed moderates have encountered recently, but the fact that the man he identified as the original reformer, the Shia saint Imam Hussein, had been brutally murdered by Muslims who contested his claim to the caliphate. Tawhidi gave a blood-curdling account of the death of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who was killed in battle near Karbala, Iraq, in the year 680 — a defining event in the schism of early Islam that divided Muslims into Shias and Sunnis.
Karbala also happens to be where Tawhidi got his first media training. In 2014, he hosted programs on Imam Hussein TV, a satellite network controlled by followers of the Grand Ayatollah Sayid Sadiq Hussaini Shirazi, the Shia Muslim cleric in Iran who ordained Tawhidi. He also presented an English-language YouTube series, “Islamic Answers,” which aimed to give guidance to young Muslims in the West about how to navigate modern life in accordance with the teachings of Shia Islam.
Last year, an Iranian news agency reportedly accused the network of television channels associated with the Shirazi movement of promoting sectarian conflict and working to “ignite the fire of war between Sunni and Shia.”
A brief video message broadcast recently on Shirazi’s official television channel even suggested that Islamophobia in the West was entirely the fault of Sunni terrorists, and the problem could only be solved when all Muslims embraced the Shia interpretation of Islam.
— Marjaeyat TV (@marjaeyattven) March 25, 2017
“Today, we as Muslims should change the non-Muslim world’s negative view of Islam,” the broadcast quoted Shirazi as saying. “And this is possible only through the introduction of the genuine traditions of the Holy Prophet of Islam and his pure family,” a clear reference to the martyrs revered by Shias, Imam Hussein and his father Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.
The notion that Tawhidi might still be working with or for Shirazi stems from the fact that he opened a short-lived Islamic association and Shia Muslim seminary in Adelaide in 2016 with the backing of the ayatollah.
At the time, the ayatollah’s Facebook and Twitter feeds boasted that the school, which appeared to have less than two dozen students, would be run by Tawhidi “based on the instructions laid out by his Eminence, the Respected Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Sadiq Hussaini Shirazi.”
Shirazi’s office also stated the Islamic Association of South Australia, set up by Tawhidi at the same time, would “primarily focus on the instructions of his eminence, the Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Sadiq Shirazi.”
— Ayatollah S. Shirazi (@SadiqShirazi) February 18, 2016
Australian Muslims who were appalled by Tawhidi’s inflammatory comments in his initial interview with Channel 7 noticed that a photograph of Shirazi could be seen in the background of the cleric’s office.
Shirazi’s support for Tawhidi’s projects in Australia reinforced suspicions among Australian Sunni Muslims that he might still be serving his spiritual leader by joining forces with far-right figures in the West to smear them as dangerous extremists.
Tawhidi’s fans in the West appear unconcerned or unaware that his project might be sectarian in nature, but if it is, the cleric’s relationship to the Islamophobes who promote him might have something of a hall of mirrors about it. While Tawhidi’s far-right interlocutors think they are using him to smear Muslims, he could be using them to inflame sectarian tensions between the two rival branches of Islam.