Sekaleshfar & Sodagar: The Strategy of Targeting Pro-Iran Shia Scholars

We have documented how a growing network of far-right, anti-Islam media outlets across North America and Europe funnel information to each other and push stories out in to mainstream news and political agenda and how most of these “alt-right” outlets are funded by mainstream political donors and figures with aspirations to capitalise on current political instability.

Central to this network is Breitbart which the Hope Not Hate report concludes is not a news website but “a political project, with a specific political agenda.” The same report documents that “a central tactic of Breitbart’s writers is to create headlines that de-contextualise information and quotations to present false, misleading or inflated claims”.

The following two examples will demonstrate how this network operates; from local extreme Islamophobes identifying and targeting local Muslim communities, who pick up local stories that are funnelled via Breitbart in to national and international media and politics.

It is significant that both of these examples target English-speaking pro-Iran Clerics discussing homosexuality in the West. This reflects a multi-pronged political approach; primarily as part of the anti-Iran neocon agenda currently at the heart of American politics, that Breitbart and the far-right want to export to the UK. But also the purposeful focus on LGBTQ, as a sensitive topic that will be difficult to garner left-wing sympathy and allyship with.

To be able to properly analyse the UK case study, it is important to identify and understand the different interlockers that have been described in the previous sections. The events on the ground in the UK are a culmination of the crossover of several interlockers; the anti-Iran neocon agenda of Breitbart and American politics, that is starting media attacks such as Muharram 2016;  but also a British Prevent policy against the Muslim community that is gathering intelligence and identifying “radicals” through its funding of individuals such as Mustafa Field, who are also colleagues with pro-Zionists through their interfaith institutions and who want to silence pro-Iran and pro-Palestinian activism.


SHEIKH SEKALESHFAR AND THE ORLANDO SHOOTING

 Alt-right media targeted Sheikh Sekaleshfar and cunningly tried to link him to the Orlando attack

Alt-right media targeted Sheikh Sekaleshfar and cunningly tried to link him to the Orlando attack

The United West is a local Florida anti-Islam, pro-Israel, Evangelical outfit. There “mission” is to “defend the US Constitution, Defend Israel, Defeat Islamic Jihad, Defeat the Left”. Their website writes about the “global clash of civilizations... they are at war. We better be too”. They go on to explain that “this war against Shariah Islam, whether propagated by the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, the local Imam at the “peaceful” mosque, or a writer at the New York Times is above all else an information war” and that they have a “passion for confrontational engagement”.

It is the kind of extreme, radical “patriot” language boosted by Donald Trump and that was in full swing by the end of March 2016 as Trump, boosted by Breitbart coverage and donations by the Mercers, was on the cusp of winning the Republican Primary.

As part of their “information war” outfits like United West monitor local Muslim activity closely, either researching speakers for anything that they can use against them and then timing coverage of their “findings” to coincide with local events or the opposite; by using local events to identify and research invited speakers to target local Muslim communities.

At the end of March 2016, United West’s regional coordinator in Orlando, Alan Kornman did one of those two thing, when he monitored that Sheikh Farrokh Sekaleshfar would be speaking at The Husseini Islamic Centre of Sanford.  

Kornman cherry picks a few soundbites from an extensive 1 hour 20 minute lecture Sekaleshfar had given about homosexuality three years earlier in April 2013. He takes his findings to his local news station.

Channel 9 News Orlando run the “story” as an exclusive. Dubiously, in a move lacking journalistic integrity and professionalism, they present Kornman as “concerned resident” worried about the mosque event and completely ignore his controversial role in The United West.

In the news item Kornman  - “the local resident” - is interviewed saying that “he couldn’t believe what a simple google search turned up about the man speaking at the Islamic Centre.”

On April 6th, United West post a Youtube video of the news report with Kornman.

Breitbart news picks it up the same day and several other alt-right outfits in the network cover it too.

This is a good example of the alt-right network at work. United West is one of many “feeder organisations” in a network that Breitbart either monitors, coordinates with or funds to push stories out in this way. Breitbart will pick a story up from local outfit, then the rest of the network will in turn cover the story or editorial from Breitbart. It’s a cycle from local to the national and back down to other locals within the alt-right network.  In the same way, mainstream media monitors Breitbart for stories they think can make it in to the mainstream cycle; a cycle from alt-right to the mainstream to the alt-right, and from national to global to national coverage.

Two months later, on 12th June 2016, the Orlando Shooting took place. The next day, Breitbart re-ran the same Sheikh Sekaleshfar story. The mainstream media picked up the story instantly.

 The media storm caught up with Sekaleshfar who was speaking in Australia at the time prompting him to leave the country

The media storm caught up with Sekaleshfar who was speaking in Australia at the time prompting him to leave the country

Sheikh Sekaleshfar was in Australia at the time. Within three days, he decided to leave the country after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordered a review of his visa, and the immigration minister threatened to revoke it saying it would be “very difficult, if not impossible for him to return”. 

The BBC headline at the time ran “Anti-gay preacher linked to Orlando leaves Australia” and incorrectly reported that the comments – made in 2013 – were actually made just two months earlier in the same area as the Orlando shooting Florida. The implication was that the comments and the attack were somehow linked.

Here was the BBC co-opting the “central tactic of Breitbart’s writers to create headlines that de-contextualise information and quotations to present false, misleading or inflated claims”.

The task of the network was complete; a local Islamophobe from a local extremist patriot group in the US went through local TV news, and then Breitbart; who ran – held – and reran a story, that was then picked up by global mainstream news and ultimately addressed by the Prime Minister of Australia.

Every objective was achieved; pushing extreme Islamophobia in to the mainstream narrative, demonising local Muslim communities, silencing English speaking lecturers and banning pro-Iran Islamic voices from the Western sphere.

Mission Accomplished.

SODAGAR: FROM ORLANDO TO EUROPE

Four months later, the same tried and tested formula was implemented in Britain, though its roots were the same June 2016 Sekaleshfar incident.

 Nima Dervish, an Iranian-Swedish journalist and ex-Muslim activist was lobbying media outlets for 3 years to take his content about Sheikh Sekaleshfar and Sheikh Sodagar

Nima Dervish, an Iranian-Swedish journalist and ex-Muslim activist was lobbying media outlets for 3 years to take his content about Sheikh Sekaleshfar and Sheikh Sodagar

Starting on June 16th 2016, just four days after the Orlando shooting, Nima Dervish, an Iranian-Swedish journalist and ex-Muslim activist wrote several blog posts about Sekaleshfar linking his views to the Orlando shooting and highlighting that he had also visited Sweden in April.

Nima Dervish’s social media is mostly filled with anti-Iran and anti-Islam content that seems to pander to the Islamophobic Right and Left. In this Facebook post he states “now I’m just wondering, where do I buy my f**k Islamism shirt so that I can fight the regimes in Iran, Saudi, turkey.”

In another Facebook post he says “sometimes I've been asked why I care about Israel. Actually, I don't care much about Israel. No more than I care about Belgium, Colombia, Mongolia or Benin. It is about journalism, proper reporting, principles, honesty…and truth [that] I recognise from my first trip to Israel 2005….Islamic Republic of Iran lied…[In Israel] you can put your kids in good schools and dine at good restaurants. It’s fine if you’re gay. Your chances of being beheaded on YouTube are slim. …”

Recent tweets also mock Iran and support Israel. In one he says “Iran is enemy with the countries it should be friends and benefit from (Israel, US). Instead it is ally with countries like N.Korea, Yemen, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Syria…”

There is a theme of “liberal Islamophobia” and mocking of veiled women in Europe in other posts. 

Dervish seems to have a background in mainstream Swedish newspapers such as and Stockholm City and Aftonbladet where he is used as a similar character to Majid Nawaaz in the United Kingdom.

He has a long-standing focus on pro-Iran clerics preaching in Sweden and has spearheaded a campaign against Sheikh Hamza Sodagar since at least early 2013 when Sheikh Sodagar was invited to speak in Sweden on 25-27th February 2013. At that time Dervish posted a (now private) blog and video about Sodagar, specifically comments he made about homosexuality in a 2010 Q&A that had been posted online.

The content of his blog posts are documented elsewhere. He writes; “the question now is what action will Järfälla municipality take against Imam Ali Islamic Centre? And when will we have a serious debate about Sweden supporting Cultural Muslims and reformists’ focus on positive verses and interpretations as deserving sympathy and support?” He also expressed frustration that he had sent the Sodagar story to “six newspapers. Three did not answer. One thanked no. Two were interested but had no space and would return."

Derwish decides to leave Sweden over the incident, renouncing his title as a journalist, saying “Sweden is not a place to be a journalist anymore…I do not want to be a countryman with a population whose majority is cowardly”.

He returns to Sweden in 2015, where he continued his assault against Islamic figures and anti-Islamophobia organisations, such as the Swedish Muslims for Peace and Justice organisation, a prominent peace group in the country. Dervish has campaigned against the group and its founder, Yasri Khan for not shaking hands with women.

By 2016, the climate in Europe had changed; if the mainstream didn’t pick up Derwish’s stories in 2013, the alt-right would push it through for him in 2016.

So, this time, when on June 18th 2016 - after several days of writing about Sheikh Sekaleshfar - he wrote about his three-year pet-project, Sodagar and that video, there was a local alt-right outlet to pick it up.

Far-right Swedish site Fria Tider picked up Derwish’s article and video the next day. A few individual Islamophobes picked up the story as well. 

As explained earlier, as part of their “information war” outfits like Breitbart monitor local Muslim activity closely, either researching speakers for anything that they can use against them and then timing coverage of their “findings” to coincide with local events or by using local events to start researching invited speakers.

As with the case of Sekaleshfar and United West we don’t know which one of these strategies was adopted, but we do know that four months later in October, Breitbart London had this story to publish the day after Sodagar started lecturing in London for Muharram.

We also know Breitbart were likely monitoring local event pages, and that AIM had announced Sheikh Sodagar’s attendance a month earlier in September. So, it is very likely they held this story to maximise its impact. This was a targeted campaign.

 

MUHARRAM 2016 IN LONDON

AIM and Islamic Centre’s Muharram programme commenced at the Iranian School in London on 3 October 2016. The next day Breitbart ran the headline “‘Behead, Burn, And Crush Gays’ Islamic Preacher To Deliver 10 Days Of Lectures In London”.

The article was written by Raheem Kassam, Breitbart’s UK bureau chief and former chief aide to Nigel Farage, who was in later months a part of the first British delegation to meet with newly-elected President Trump. The article included the video from the far-right Swedish group Fria Tider who had taken it from Nima Dervish, an Iranian Islamophobe with a long-standing vendetta against Sodagar.

The following day, 5th October 2016, the UK tabloid newspaper, The Express picked up the story, calling Sodagar a “radical extremist” and mixing a host of unrelated political buzz words and topics. It went on to say that “the event he is speaking at is organised by the Ahlulbayt Islamic Mission group, which also gave the radical preacher a platform in 2014. The Ahlulbayt group is noted as being in favour of the Iranian regime, which recently locked up a British-Iranian mother on charges that remain unknown.” The article was attached to a large photo and story of Anjem Choudary a takfiri extremist leader who is currently imprisoned in the UK and is connected to UK terrorist attacks.

On the 6th October two more tabloids, The Daily Mail and The Mirror ran the story calling Sodagar a “radical hate preacher”. Peter Thatchell, a gay-rights activist also picked up the cause, calling for the Home Secretary to revoke “ Islamist extremist preacher” Sodagar’s visa and The Independent ran the story with this angle on the 7th October.

Controversial Iranian ex-Muslim Mariam Namazee posted about the story as did some other alt-right sites and a few more UK newspapers such as The Times.  

However, the story never gained traction nationally or internationally, and never made it to any print editions of any newspapers. This lack of traction could be attributed to the successful handling of the incident, by ICEL and the advice it was getting and has been used as proof that the right course of action was taken. Mustafa Field has certainly made that assertion.

Though it is possible that stopping Sheikh Sodagar from speaking from the fifth night of Muharram onwards may have averted an escalation, this isn’t a certainty. The actions taken would not have had an impact on day two or three of the reporting, by which point there would be an expectation of coverage by outlets like the BBC or the Guardian, if they wanted to pick it up. These two outlets never covered the story at all, nor did the story make any print editions. It is more likely that the story never gained serious traction because it didn’t come in the immediate aftermath of the Orlando shooting, as was the case with Sekaleshfar.  

Either way, what can be seen by looking at the campaigns against Sheikh Sekaleshfar and Sodagar is how the media networks that started them operate and also highlight the political nature of the attacks. But how did the community, especially the leadership and key figures, respond to these campaigns? And was their action to the benefit of the individuals involved and the wider community, or to its detriment?