Muharram 2016: The Events of the First 10 Days

The following information has either been fact checked by multiple sources or gathered first hand. I understand that, especially between some of the parties directly involved, there are sensitivities to these events which have caused a lot of hurt and broken relationships on both sides. In circumstances when there should have been a united front, there were different sides, which is one of several mistakes that were made. No one involved will say that overall these incidents were handled well, though they have different reasons why that is the case. I believe everyone involved has a lesson to learn about what they should do differently if there were such circumstances again. Many community relationships have been strained or damaged by these events. Where this has happened, I sincerely encourage parties reach out, sit around a table, and just talk it through.

In a polarised space, an attempt to collate the information in the way that I have may leave no side 100% “happy” or in agreement. I would hope that they do not turn this in to a rehashing of minutia but rather try and understand some of the broader points being made. Though I began this process reluctant to go in to this detail, over time it has become clear, that this rupture cannot be avoided because it still exists. These details are being related here, not to get stuck in a pedantic or counterproductive debate about the particulars, which I urge people not to do, but because collectively they tell several significant political stories that we must engage.

One is that, ultimately, these events were an exercise in damage control, with each stakeholder, and other individuals who became involved, presenting their opinion on how to maximise that damage control without compromising on red-lines and principles.

These events also show that there are stark differences of opinion on what those principles are and where those red lines are drawn.

Given this, it becomes important to assess those involved, who had an opinion on these principles and red lines; who are they, what expertise do they have and what political position are they anchored in? Most crucially, where did ICEL leadership decide to place itself on that spectrum?

BREITBART BREAKS THE STORY

The first night of the programme, Monday 3rd October 2016, went ahead without any incident.

The Breitbart article was released on Tuesday 4th. The Ahlulbayt Islamic Mission (AIM) say they “were conscious that there could be coverage because of what happened to Sheikh Sekaleshfar and because Sheikh Hamza Sodagar had previously been targeted.”

On that day, Sheikh Shomali contacted the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC). IHRC say they advised that ICEL should disassociate itself from the unfolding events, the Iranian School should clarify that they were only renting the space for a third-party event and that IHRC will then work in coordination with AIM and Sodagar to take a stand on the issue, and be a buffer to facilitate communication and safeguarding.

IHRC say that Sheikh Shomali was reluctant about this plan and felt that something needed to be done; that “we need to go for Sheikh Sodagar by clarifying that he has misinterpreted Islam.” Within those same initial hours, sources inside ICEL have also stated that Sheikh Shomali made similar comments about Sheikh Sodagar to them. IHRC advised against this approach and ultimately Sheikh Shomali decided to go ahead with IHRC’s original advice. However, IHRC say that this was the only time they communicated with Sheikh Shomali, who subsequently made it clear that he was taking advice from elsewhere and had changed strategy.

That same day, AIM contacted a human rights lawyer with over 21 years of experience, who has a background in successfully challenging government Islamophobic policies in court, has successfully represented high profile Muslims who have been charged under anti-Muslim extremism laws and who has dealt with high-profile media campaigns against these individuals prior to and after arrest.

As events unfolded, the legal advice that AIM was given by this lawyer remained the same; that there was no case for deportation based on the media coverage and it was highly unlikely that there would be any traction beyond some increased media and political rhetoric. The government would understand that any action taken to arrest Sheikh Sodagar for deportation would result in an immediate appeal that would prolong the issue beyond his short 10 day stay. The government would also be considering any significant political fallout with Iran if there was any arrest or deportation. Additionally, the lawyer said that each round of appeal is costly to the government and they would not be willing to pay for a legally weak case that they know they will lose. Instead, the legal assessment was that the government would allow Sodagar to complete his stay and then once he had left, likely not grant him any entry to the UK in future.

INITIAL REACTIONS TO THE STORY: CONCERNs AND STATEMENTS

The following day, Wednesday 5th, AIM had a phone conversation with Sheikh Shomali.

They say Sheikh Shomali was concerned about the article and asked what AIM were doing about it. AIM say they explained that they were not speaking to the Press, would be releasing a statement later that day and were increasing security at the event in case there were any protests, a concern that both AIM and Shomali had.

The same day; there was a telephone conversation between AIM and a community member whose profession is in mainstream PR and consultancy who offered his advice and services to help draft statements for AIM and Sodagar separately.

Also on Wednesday, another community member had contacted AIM. Though this brother, in his mid-20s at the time, has no relevant political expertise or experience, he does run a popular Shia social media platform and is a social media consultant. He also offered two separate statements for AIM to use.

AIM decided to release their own statement that said:

The far-right had launched a “malicious campaign to misconstrue the positions of Islam and dehumanise Muslims” and that it “was saddened that the UK media is able to publish materials that clearly follow a right-wing extremist agenda.” On Sheikh Sodagar’s remarks they said, “decontextualized excerpts…were used by right-wing media to suggest that Shaykh Hamza was calling for ‘the beheading and burning of homosexuals’. This is untrue and a mischievous and malicious accusation to make.”

Although the statement highlighted the key political factors at play, it was too long, allowing the media to cherry pick a quote from it and the defiant tone was not in tune with what was needed at the time. If it were worded more succinctly, AIM and Sodagar would have had a clearer voice when quoted in the media. Overall, a better statement could have been put out.

REMOVAL OF SHEIKH SODAGAR

 Sheikh Hamza Sodagar

Sheikh Hamza Sodagar

The following day was Thursday 6th, the fourth night of Muharram. After the programme Sheikh Shomali called the head of AIM to a meeting at ICEL. There, AIM were told that Sheikh Shomali had decided to remove Sheikh Sodagar from the podium. There had been no consultation with AIM or Sheikh Sodagar. The head of AIM said he expressed disagreement and was told by Shomali that he did not have enough experience to have an input. AIM say they suggested that Sheikh Shomali should discuss this with Sodagar directly. Shomali rejected this.

At the same time, the PR consultant and a journalist from the Shia community (who works for international news and does have expertise on the news cycle and its related politics) went to see Sheikh Sodagar after he had finished that evening’s lecture. They say that when they arrived, a member of the Shia social-media platform previously described and another young brother who has trained as a solicitor but has not practised law, were also present. This brother, a business person in his mid 20s, has no significant political background, though he is heavily involved in a successful Shia religious outreach campaign. They say that they did not plan to turn up together and were not working as a coordinated group, but because they happened to be there together, they ended up talking to Sheikh Sodagar collectively. They say they found him to be wilful and single-minded in general, but particularly when one person present kept focusing the conversation on having to apologise, shutting down scope for any other conversation.

In the UK, like in many Western Muslim communities, there is often a vacuum of proper indigenous political understanding and leadership that leaves individuals like this to try and fill the gap. Some present had relevant expertise. Others who got involved were young men who do highly commendable socio-cultural outreach work in the community; but this does not automatically translate to sophisticated political expertise or experience. They may have had the best of intentions but that does not make up for an inadequate grasp of the situation’s complexities or the lack of ability to properly analyse or act upon them.

This inexperience of dealing with politics was evident in how much weight some of these individuals gave to the unfolding news coverage itself; which was panicked and overstated. It can also be seen in the type of unprofessional content that was shared online, including petty and personal social media posts by all sides. More broadly, it could be seen in the unsophisticated manner that these groups of, mostly young men, fell into sides dependent on personal social circles more so than political analysis.

But most significant of all was that instead of having community leadership guiding these individuals, it seemed it was these individuals who were able to steer community leadership in a particular direction.

Meanwhile, Mustafa Field was in communication with Sheikh Shomali, via the business person, who was also arranging other meetings where Field would show up. This has been confirmed by three sources. Field himself also claims that this was happening and that he was coordinating “behind the scenes.” This will be discussed in more detail later.

PUSHING FOR AN APOLOGY

The following day Friday 7 October 2016, in emails seen by the author, the business person emailed Sheikh Shomali and the head of AIM with two suggestions for a Sodagar statement that he wanted published the same day. One version included an apology whilst the other omitted the parts in bold below:

The suggested statement read:

"I am a theologian. My job is to talk about complex issues to audiences who have some familiarity with Islamic law. I am vulnerable, therefore, to tabloid attacks that maliciously misconstrue my words. But I recognise that the relationship between homosexuality and the Abrahamic faiths is a subject that deserves to be treated with sensitivity and nuance. I used unscholarly language to talk about a complex subject, and in doing so I let down my own community, allowing it to be unfairly targeted.  I apologise for the hurt my words have caused. Coming from a minority group myself, I know what it means to be discriminated against. I want to reassure those who took offence at my words that incitement to violence and prejudice of all kinds is against my faith. My hope is that we can all work towards achieving a more tolerant and respectful society together."

Sheikh Shomali agreed to an apology, and suggested his own shorter statement, that included the sentences in bold, and added strong support for LGBTQ rights. His suggested statement was:

"I apologise for the hurt my words have caused. Let me be clear - I strongly support the protection of minority rights. The incitement of violence towards any community is unacceptable and against my faith. My hope is that we can all work towards achieving a more tolerant and respectful society together."  

Sheikh Sodagar refused to make these concessions and rejected the statements.

These emails also clearly allude to the fact that there had already been separate advice and private discussions held with Sheikh Shomali on the matter. This matches the experience of IHRC who say they were sidelined very early on for alternative expertise.

It also contradicts Sheikh Shomali’s reported remarks to AIM that they were too inexperienced to have an input, given that the author of the emails has far fewer years of community and political experience. Therefore it is unclear by what measure Sheikh Shomali was seeking advice from one and not the other.

A BREAKDOWN IN TRUST AND TIES

By this time, there was not a united front in dealing with the unfolding events with countering claims of unreasonable behaviour. AIM went into defensive mode and closed off. One person who had tried to outreach to them said “they were treating friends as if they were enemies.” AIM say they "had information about Mustafa Field's involvement and did not feel it was suitable to maintain contact with certain individuals at the time".

Meanwhile, different individuals were stepping forward to be involved but they did not have a cohesive approach as to what they wanted done. Some were arguing the case of how Islam should deal with LGBTQ, some were saying apologise, some were saying don’t apologise.

But whose responsibility was it to manage a cohesive approach? It is the job of leadership to manage a situation, even a difficult highly charged one like this. This simply didn’t happen. Instead of pooling all these limited resources to facilitate a cohesive community response, Sheikh Shomali chose factionalism; because by this point he had refused to communicate or coordinate with Sheikh Sodagar, had made no attempt to send any message of behind-closed-doors reassurance or friendship by other means if this communication was not possible, had held no group meeting with all parties involved to discuss a collective strategy, had sidelined and stopped communicating with IHRC as an interlocutor, whilst simultaneously communicating with Mustafa Field. Those at the heart of the incident say all this left them feeling isolated, ignored and unsupported. In fact, on Friday, Sheikh Sodagar had asked Sheikh Shomali repeatedly to meet and had been repeatedly rejected.

Emotions were heightened when AIM, unhappy with the treatment of Sheikh Sodagar, decided not to attend the programme. They say they withdrew because they “couldn’t maintain support for a programme that had succumbed to a government agenda that would censor the pulpit of Imam Hussain (as). Future generations would hold us accountable for allowing this to happen.” This caused significant fallout. The programme continued without them. For the remaining days of Muharram, Sheikh Sodagar did not lecture and refused to put out a statement or apologise.

On the weekend, Sheikh Shomali held a meeting for the programme’s volunteers, some of whom had stopped cooperating with the event. Having spoken to several people in attendance and having heard parts of the conversation that were recorded by concerned attendees, Sheikh Shomali told volunteers that they had to control their emotions and support his decision. He referred to AIM repeatedly as a “teenage child that gets angry”.  He also said:

“When reputation and honour is taken nothing remains and that there is no point of taking them [the papers] to court when you have been destroyed. I don’t think there has been any case of a Muslim individual or organisation taking them to court. When you are finished and damaged what is the point. I cannot take the risk of taking our community in to such risk. I cannot accept this. When it comes to honour and reputation we have to be very cautious.”

He was asked about working with Mustafa Field, to which he openly laughed to suggest that it was a ridiculous question, though he later acknowledged that he had in fact had communication with Field.

It is worth noting that Sheikh Shomali is incorrect to say that there are no cases of Muslims taking action against misrepresentation. There have been cases of Muslims who have won complaints against the media and also of those who have won court cases against Islamophobic laws and discrimination. In fact, the reversals in law described in the previous sections were often won on individual cases taken up by Muslim victims in the courts.

On the last night of the Muharram programme - “sham e ghariban” – having still heard nothing from Sheikh Shomali, Sheikh Sodagar and two senior AIM members attended the ICEL programme in the hope of meeting with him. They were stopped by security who told them they had been instructed not to let the group in. Shomali was witnessed in the hall. One of the group approached Sheikh Shomali’s deputy and asked to speak to Shomali. The deputy went to inform Sheikh Shomali. Sheikh Shomali left the building.

Sheikh Sodagar left London on his originally planned date of Friday 14th October 2016. No police officer or government official made any contact with Sheikh Sodagar throughout his stay or on his departure.