How a controversial Muslim figure helped ignite a media firestorm over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s 9/11 comments

How did a video of Omar’s comments on the 9/11 terrorist attacks explode into such a massive controversy? Australia’s Imam Mohammad Tawhidi, who claims to be a Muslim reformer, lit the match.

Imam Mohammad Tawhidi participates in an interview. Many of Tawhidi's detractors question his credentials and call him the “fake sheikh.” Video screenshot

(RNS) — Since President Trump tweeted a provocative video juxtaposing clips of Rep. Ilhan Omar and the falling Twin Towers, Omar has faced a surge of criticism along with direct threats of violence, both online and offline.

But how did a video of Omar’s comments on the 9/11 terrorist attacks, part of a speech about how Muslims should not lose their civil liberties because of the actions of extremists, explode into such a massive controversy?

Credit a controversial Australian imam, little known in the U.S. until now.

For three weeks, the contents of Omar’s 20-minute speech at a Council on American-Islamic Relations fundraising banquet last month went virtually unnoticed.

Then a video clip about the speech landed in the path of Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who posted about it on Twitter: “First Member of Congress to ever describe terrorists who killed thousands of Americans on 9/11 as ‘some people who did something’. Unbelievable.”

Crenshaw didn’t appear to have come across the clip on Fox News, which broadcast the entire speech live, nor did he seem to have come across it on a right-wing blog or news site.

Crenshaw had actually retweeted a post by Australia’s Imam Mohammad Tawhidi, who had uploaded a clip of Omar’s speech to Twitter and claimed that her speech minimized the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

That post from Tawhidi, a self-described reformist Shiite imam who goes by the handle @ImamOfPeace, helped catapult Omar’s comments into the right wing’s view and spurred yet another cycle of outrage over Omar.

Many of Tawhidi’s critics, including some prominent U.S. Muslims from both sides of the political aisle, say that wasn’t an accident. His detractors within Muslim communities believe that Tawhidi doesn’t carry a message of peace – nor, many claim, is he actually an imam.

Instead, many call him the “fake sheikh.”

Tawhidi, a verified Twitter user with more than 380,000 users following him, bills himself on the platform as a former Islamic extremist turned “Peace Advocate, Reformist Imam, Ordained Scholar (and) National Bestselling Author.”

In 2016, he became the founding president of the Islamic Association of South Australia. Through the organization, which appears to have few followers or fans offline, he has positioned himself as a lone truthful voice combating Islamic extremism by championing national security, anti-radicalization, women’s rights, religious tolerance and support for Jews and Israel.

He appears to have converted that organization, whose site is now down, into the Imam Tawhidi Foundation. Its website says the foundation works to achieve peace by “ideologically tackling Islamic extremism on both diplomatic and international level.”

Since 2016, when Tawhidi burst into Australia’s media spotlight, thanks to his unexpected stances on those issues, the Iranian-born cleric has managed to build a significant media profile for himself on TV news and among the alt-right and anti-Muslim blogosphere. He has received endorsements from activists like author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson, author Sam Harris and Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson, all of whom normally have a more contentious relationship with Muslim communities.

Tawhidi took full credit for his role in bringing attention to Omar’s comments. His post was retweeted more than 23,000 times, including by GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.

“One tweet from Imam Tawhidi managed to influence the United States media for 3 days straight,” he wrote. “This is exactly why the mainstream media hates me.”

Tawhidi told Religion News Service that he does not support any attacks or incitement of violence against Omar and that his criticism of her is rooted in his belief that “her agenda will lead to civil unrest.”

He also criticized her ties to CAIR and what he called “her continuous bad choices of words.”

In the past, Tawhidi has accused Omar of promoting Shariah, being anti-Semitic and attending “terrorism classes.”

After Fox News host Jeanine Pirro claimed Omar’s hijab was “antithetical to the United States Constitution,” he defended Pirro and then posted an original poem in her honor. “She uses her voice to express / Words of truth through the press … Stay strong, Princess.”

But in statements to RNS, Tawhidi agreed with Omar’s headline-grabbing comments.

“Yes, I agree with Ilhan Omar that many MANY Muslims have been treated unfairly since 9/11, but that is not the agenda of the US government,” Tawhidi said. “The US government has been very supportive of Muslim communities through many programs and even monetary grants. We need to have a balanced view, that is all I am saying.”

Tawhidi, whose father was a senior imam of Western Australia’s Shiite community, studied at Iran’s Islamic Seminary of Qom. But both the Australian National Imams Council and the Imams Council of South Australia have declined to recognize him as an Islamic leader, and a major local Islamic TV channel has disavowed him.

Tawhidi says this treatment is because he does not fit into the “liberal” narrative Muslims want to promote. And many of his supporters, including right-wing and anti-Muslim political activists in the U.S. and Australia, take this condemnation of Tawhidi as evidence of Islamic sectarianism.

Chloe Patton, a researcher at Australia’s RMIT University who has studied young Australian Shiite Muslims, noted in an article for the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that not only has Tawhidi gone out of his way to align himself with local white nationalist and anti-Muslim organizations, he has also made comments that appear to equate Sunni Islam with terrorism.

“In Tawhidi’s black-and-white worldview, anything other than the Shia Twelver Islam that he follows is the terrorist ideology,” she wrote. ” … the majority of Australia’s Shia community does not conflate Sunni Islam with terrorism. Tawhidi’s theological outlook places him firmly on its extremist fringes.”

An investigation by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. noted that he has no mosque and a handful of followers. Local Muslim leaders have condemned his inflammatory statements about Sunni Islam.

Iran’s Al-Mustafa International University published a letter stating that Tawhidi had dropped out of its bachelor’s programs in 2012, contrary to Tawhidi’s public claims that he had earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degree there.

After media began investigating and questioning Tawhidi’s credentials, the South Australian branch of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies issued a statement confirming the authenticity of Tawhidi’s credentials based on phone calls with Islamic leaders in Iran and Iraq.

Tawhidi told RNS he is unaware of any controversy regarding his credentials.

“My religious credentials and images of me being ordained as an Imam are on my website, although my views have changed on certain things from time to time,” he said.

Some of his reformist stances are largely uncontroversial among Muslims: He says the Quran condemns terrorism, and he denounces the Islamic State group as un-Islamic. He’s also called for female muftis — certainly not a mainstream argument, but one that echoes calls made by many feminist Muslims.

Other statements have made him a lightning rod.

He has railed against halal food certifications. He warned about the dangers of accepting immigrants and refugees into Western countries, and called Muslims running for U.S. office “soft jihad.” Tawhidi is a vocal advocate of Trump’s travel ban, even promoting the hashtag #PrayForMuslimBan.

After the fire broke out this week at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Tawhidi tweeted that he is waiting for the “full facts” of the incident to emerge. “So far, I’m not buying the ‘accident’ story because I am taking into serious consideration the events and dates surrounding the fire,” he wrote, offering not-so-subtle fuel to the far right’s conspiracy theories that Islamists were behind the attack.

Tawhidi has said the Palestinian territories belong to the Jews, bucking the trend on an issue that unifies Muslims of virtually all political and national stripes.

“I mean, come on, who doesn’t know this? Jesus came to Jerusalem,” he said two years ago during a public lecture at the Rotary Club of Adelaide. During the same lecture, he suggested that the Book of Bukhari — a compilation of the hadith, or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, that is widely considered to be authentic and a holy Islamic text — should be banned in the country because “every act of terrorism is taught from that book.”

He also suggested that Australian authorities should limit the construction of mosques, track who funds mosques, remove books from Islamic schools and mosques, close all Islamic schools and monitor Muslim leaders’ movements, bank accounts and lectures. He has claimed that Muslims in Australia were plotting to create a taxpayer-funded Islamic caliphate “right here, under our noses.”

That claim was covered by Channel 7, the Daily Mail and other media outlets.

“My father made the choice … to come to Australia because it is a non-Muslim country,” he said at the same Adelaide lecture. “Now, if we knew that after 30 years, we were going to have burqas running around, mosques being erected in every corner, and people proposing Shariah law against democracy in this country, we would not have come.”

“Look, this is Australia,” he said. “You don’t like it, we’ll give you one of our kangaroos and you can hop back to where you came from.”

Even prominent leaders in Muslim reformer circles, including Zuhdi Jasser and Shireen Qudosi, have criticized Tawhidi as a “charlatan.”

“He doesn’t represent the values of reform,” Qudosi said in an interview on the Middle East Forum’s podcast, saying that Tawhidi’s language was “dehumanizing” to Muslims.

“I would love for people to take what he says with a fat pinch of salt and not believe everything he says,” she said.

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