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Importing the Sectarianism That Drives the Conflict in Syria - The Case Against the Sectarian Preacher

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About three weeks ago, we were contacted through the TELL MAMA project by a member of the British Shia Muslim community who then went onto send us three links on a Saudi Imam called Mohammed Al-Arifi. (The TELL MAMA project supports victims of anti-Muslim prejudice and we also support victims of intra-faith hate incidents whilst registering and logging them so that the police may prosecute perpetrators based on the evidence we collect).

What happened that evening was nothing short of a 'Road to Damascus' moment. My team on TELL MAMA then received a further call later in the evening and the caller asked colleagues to transcript the links and he subsequently went onto help with some of the translation. What we started to hear was not only shocking, we were taken aback to hear that this individual had landed in the UK and was to undertake a series of meetings and sermons with key organisations who work with British Muslims. What we had been let into was a world of sectarianism that is rife and growing stronger in the Middle East with the very preachers promoting intra-faith hate landing into the UK to provide spiritual assistance to young British Muslims. This was something that we had to act on but only if the information panned out.

The following day, we found that Al-Arifi, a fiery and influential Saudi religious scholar and professor at King Saud University was reported to have defended Bin Laden on Al-Jazeera in early 2013. According to Al-Arabiya News in February 2013 he was purported to have claimed that Al-Qaeda "does not tolerate bloodshed" and he went onto suggest that Al Qaeda was the victim of poor public relations because it had become associated with being a 'bad ideology.' Al-Arabiya then went onto claim that in a television interview, Al-Arifi allegedly went onto claim that Osama Bin Laden, whom he referred to as a 'Sheikh', was the victim of a "wide-level character assassination." He went onto suggest that many opinions, thoughts and values attributed to Al-Qaeda are not reflective of the group itself. Possibly knowing that he may have overstepped the mark, he then made clear that he was not defending Al Qaeda though suggested that it was important to be just, (when explaining matters).

We then found out that in May 2013, Al-Arifi was banned from entering Switzerland and all European Union countries according to a Swiss official. Reported in the Jeddah based English language Arab News, the piece quoted a 5 year ban on Al-Arifi who also has a large Twitter and social media following, totalling over 2 million people. The article stated that he was due to speak at the second annual meeting of the Swiss Islamic Council. The Schengen restrictions on his entry would not however, stop his entry into the United Kingdom. The Arab News article also cited Al-Arifi as having said that a "daughter should not sit alone with her father because she might tempt him into lusting after her."

So the trail of information about this Saudi national started to unravel. We then conducted a professional translation of the three links provided to us. Here are some of the quotes from the following link. The sermon was given in Saudi Arabia in January 2010. It has been watched over 30,000 times.

"Those who knelt before Ali - these Shi'a - have raised themselves above all human beings and stand in the way of Sunni and unity. They try to stand in the way of the Sunni people. We do not forget what the Shi'a have done throughout history...they plant seed for disunity........they have co-operated with forces of corruption and destruction, for example in this land (Saudi Arabia) and in Iran."

Al Arifi goes on to state in this YouTube film:

"Look at what happens to our Sunni brothers in Iraq and Iran at the hands of these Shi'a who are corrupting them.....They (the Shi'a), commit the worst crimes and do not even relieve children of their cruelty. They boil children in water and they beat them. This happens to seven or ten year olds. And it does not stop there. They destroyed Islam and Sunni's throughout history."

Anyone reading the previous statement cannot help but reflect that the statements are very similar to the blood-libel that has been targeted for millennia against Jewish communities. The only difference here was that it was being targeted against other Muslims by a well-known Muslim preacher in Saudi Arabia, knowing full well that the Eastern peninsular of Saudi Arabia is made up of Shia communities many of whom are second class citizens in their own country.

The sermon goes onto state that the Shi'a are infidels and he rails against Iran for allegedly attempting to influence the Yemeni Government against Saudi Arabia. Al-Arifi therefore subtly moves from a religious sermon to a deeply politicized rant against Shi'a communities, under the cover of providing a religious sermon of solace. He even gives a 'general command' to Sunnis on the South of the Arabian peninsula to fight the Shi'a Houthis and regards those that do as Mujahideen or holy warriors. Al-Arifi was clearly providing religious sanction to those in the South of the country on the Saudi / Yemen border to fight and kill the Shi'a Houthis, in the hope that any insurrection could be crushed and which he regarded as a real threat to the two holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. Al-Arifi cleverly weaved in the deep affection that Muslims have for the two holy religious sites of Mecca and Medina and suggested that they are under threat. This was frankly, far from the truth, since the Saudi army is one of the most well equipped armies in the world. In fact, if anyone knows this, we do since UK Plc has been a major seller of arms, eavesdropping and surveillance equipment to Saudi Arabia.

The second link provided to us by the caller was a Friday sermon from the Amr Ibn Al-Asas Mosque in Cairo. It took place on the 14th of June 2013 and was a sermon provided just before Al-Arifi landed in the UK to undertake a round of community engagement events. Al-Arifi sets the scene of Damascus being a key city within Islamic history and also refers to the religious reverence for Christians. Due to the importance for Islam and Christianity, he suggests that Syria must be protected at all costs.

He then sets the scene as one which is Shi'a against Sunni. A religious sermon once again is carefully crafted to become a rant against Shi'a communities and this is highlighted in the following statement:

"In Syria they kill their children and violate their women and kill their men and nobody stops them except the brave men that fight for the righteous cause of protecting their people. (Here Al-Arifi is referring to the Syrian opposition, which is mainly made up of Sunni groups). He who walks in Syria cannot bear to step on the sands of the places that have witnessed these crimes and bear the blood of children and martyrs; this is how sever the crimes are."

He goes onto state that:

"Idlib, Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Qusayr....brave Syrian people, the time has come for the regime to pay its debts; that Al-Assad and everybody around him start taking responsibility for what has been done at their hands. Syrians, God will reward you with victory in your lands......These Shi'a are killing their own sons and shaming their women. They are corrupted."

This is followed by another clear reference to Shi'a being perpetrators of crimes against humanity. In this Cairo sermon he once again caricatures Shi'a communities as being heartless and 'the other':

"The pictures of children who have been slaughtered.....a child who is two or three years old gets murdered with a knife. What did this child do? And the stories of the women raped before they are thrown away like garbage. These pictures that show us what the Safawi (a perjorative term for Shi'a) and the Rawafidh (a collective term meaning deserter used by Sunni Muslims in reference to Shi'a Muslims) do, even in houses of God. Once in a few years they attack houses of God and attack hundreds of pilgrims. If not for the security during every pilgrimage, you would see many more crimes by these Safawi."

We within TELL MAMA wrote to a contact at the Home Office and passed these details on in the third week of June. It is clear that Al-Arifi is a preacher who preaches sectarianism and who has been clearly influenced by the Syrian civil war. The latter is not the issue, the former is, especially when he comes to the UK to meet with British Muslim organisations. Whilst we do not suggest in any way, that he may have preached such sectarianism in the UK, (we simply do not know), allowing such an individual into the UK runs the risk of irritating good community relations between Sunni and Shi'a communities. This is even more acute given that Anjem Choudhary and his motley crew attacked a young Shi'a man on the streets of Edgware Road in May 2013. TELL MAMA staff met with the injured young man who had suffered over 8 assaults and a serious cut to the head by followers of Choudhary.

The last thing we need is to import sectarianism into our country. Al-Arifi may have done us all a favour by coming to the UK since it has focussed on the need for better due diligence to be undertaken and to make us all wake up to the fact that whilst Syria may seem a long way away, its impacts can so easily affect our community relations in our small island. It has been suggested that Al-Arifi will be coming back to the UK again. This time we hope that the Home Office bars his entry as it did Pamella Geller and Robert Spencer. The Home Office was right then, let's hope it does the right thing now.