Towards the end of the Trump administration last year, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that two American citizens and one Pakistani citizen were charged with the federal crime of transferring US dollars to Iran on behalf of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2018 and 2019, though the Accused of ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which the year before had been classified as a terrorist organization, is said to have transferred funds for the purpose of Khums, a religious tax that is compulsory for Shiite Muslims. As a religious authority, Khamenei had a mandate to collect it and distribute it to charity. Hence, arguably, the charges were an example of America’s criminalization of an established religious practice.
That move was followed by the US Treasury Department, which imposed sanctions on Astan Quds Razavi, a Safavid-era religious foundation that manages the Imam Reza Shrine in the holy city of Mashhad, which attracts millions of visitors every year.
These desperate final acts were part of Donald Trump’s failed “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran a week before he left the White House.
Trump’s successor, President Joe Biden, tried a more diplomatic approach after his inauguration, with the stated intention of bringing the US back to the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA), something Iran insisted on can only become one-time sanctions canceled. However, Biden now faces other challenges. No longer confronted with a moderate Iranian president, he has to deal with hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, who will take office in August. Raisi is an elected president who is largely the product of US provocation and politics amid missed opportunities for dialogue with the moderate camp. The US return to the nuclear deal seems as unlikely as ever, not only because of Raisi but also because of the US government’s decision earlier this week to seize dozen of website domains associated with state-controlled Iranian media companies, including PressTV.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh condemned the US for undermining freedom of expression at the global level. “The current US administration has followed the path of the previous administration, which will only result in a double defeat for Washington,” he said. “The Islamic Republic of Iran rejects the illegal and harassing measure and will pursue the matter through legal channels.”
That was a fair assessment. These provocative measures by the Biden government do not make the dialogue with Tehran any easier, especially before Raisi came to power.
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The US has not only targeted Iranian websites, however; It confiscated members of allied movements in the region, such as Iraqi Hezbollah and Bahrain’s major opposition television network, as well Al-Masira, which belongs to the Houthi movement in Yemen. Despite Biden’s efforts to lift some of the Trump-era sanctions imposed on the Houthis, it is clear that the US is trying to censor the media narratives of Iran and its allies that focus on US interests in the region and those around them from Washington’s allies like Israel and the Gulf States.
These are belief based #Shia TV stations affiliated with the Iraqi Ayatollah Sistani. This includes a children’s cartoon network (!) And @AhlulbaytTV, UK-based, independent, viewer-funded, religious cable television channel.
Yes. Cartoons & Spiritual Shi’a Shows!
Did MBS compile the list ?! pic.twitter.com/nZH1Sr6HjR
– Sayed M. Modarresi (@SayedModarresi) June 23, 2021
What came as a surprise, however, was the seizure of impartial websites related to Shiite Islam in several countries, including Britain UK Ahlulbayt TV and Hidayat TV. Several have used social media to express concern and anger and accuse the US of Shiite phobia by weeding Shiite websites that do not necessarily have ties to the Iranian government. It’s a development that appears to have been picked up by Biden’s team in the Trump administration.
Such a securitization or criminalization of Shiite Islam seems to follow the example of Egypt and Malaysia. This suggests that the actions of the US authorities are not limited to curbing Iranian influence or representation, but represent a concern of US allies in the Middle East over the spread and spread of Shiite Islam.
On Thursdays, countless Shi’ites from around the world visit websites like Karbala TV and Ahlulbayt TV to watch livestreams of holy places they would like to visit and recite Dua Kumayl, a beautiful poetic supplication. The US government has denied them this religious practice. pic.twitter.com/mLs0CBmL7l
– Mohammad Ali Musawi (@malimusawi) June 24, 2021
This blurring of religion and politics is of course largely due to the definition of Iran as an Islamic republic, but Iran and Shiite Islam are by no means synonymous. This is why Washington’s decision, which reveals more about the US and its fear of Shiite Islam than anything else, is problematic. Why is this the case?
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It could have something to do with the inherent revolutionary traits that exist in Shiite Islam. It also has a lot to do with the fact that Shiism remains a mystery to the western world, as it has only received contemporary popular media and academic attention since the 2003 Iraq war. After the introduction in Shiaism, Resistance and Revolution by Martin Kramer, the “geographical bias” of Shiite Islam saved faith from being scrutinized and thus understood by the West. “While many of the major centers of Sunni Islam were in the Mediterranean and engaged in dialogue about war, trade and ideas with the West, Shiite Islam had become predominantly Asian and the lack of sustained contact with the West left Shiism much misunderstood.”
For Hamid Dabashi in his book Shiism: A religion of protest, the belief remained “youth-driven, insurgent and destabilizing for the status quo for much of its history”. This was particularly the case in the formative years of the Umayyad era, when several Shiite uprisings were experienced due to their anti-state character.
However, there was also a prolonged period of revolutionary deradicalization and political quietism that shaped Shiite Islam in later epochs. Such a revolutionary character was reactivated after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, which took advantage of the strong symbolism of Shiite Islam, which in turn enabled the clergy to make the revolution “Islamic” despite its secular origins. This revolutionary Shiite Islam is at the forefront of opposing US interests and those of its Middle Eastern allies, which is why the US is likely to have growing concerns, not least because of its ties to the Iranian state.
From a purely political point of view, the seizure of religious websites in different countries in different languages by the Biden administration makes little strategic sense. But ideologically – this is a revolutionary religion that relates heavily to what has been termed the “Karbala Paradigm,” which has a tendency to redefine Shiite identity and promote Muslim political activism against injustice – then appear such actions are more pragmatic than originally thought. That being said, it is important to recognize that while Iran has an important and enduring relationship with Shiite Islam, it does not have a monopoly on it, especially when it comes to rival clergy in Iraqi Najaf led by Ayatollah Ali Sistani who are more opposed to it Towards quietism.
Speaking of Iraq, one of the many mistakes made by the Bush administration was the unintended consequence of the unleashing of Iranian influence in the country following the US invasion and occupation in 2003. Much of this stemmed from ignorance of Shiite dynamics and centuries of cultural and religious ties between the two Countries, especially in the south. We can’t be sure how much US politicians have learned about Shiite Islam since then, if anything, but we tend to fear what we don’t understand. The effective censorship of Shiite Islam is a case in point.
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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policies of Middle East Monitor.