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memri
November 30, 2015 No.
1206

Fitna TV: The Shi'ite-Bashing Campaign On Salafi TV Channels And Social Media

By: Yotam Feldner*

Introduction

The 2000s witnessed the escalation of Sunni-Shi'ite tensions in the Middle East, with virulent rhetoric fomenting on both sides of the sectarian divide. The anti-Shi'ite campaign has clearly been the more pervasive and acrimonious. The first decade of the 21st century witnessed the development of three major hubs of extreme anti-Shi'ite discourse: 1) Egypt; 2) Saudi Arabia and the Gulf; and 3) North Africa. From there, the vilification of Shi'ites has spread to other parts of the Arab world and beyond.

The growth of sectarian animosity on broadcast media was facilitated by the proliferation of TV channels in some Middle Eastern nations in the 2000s and the rapid development of social media platforms. Arab authorities have been lackadaisical in enforcing their own media laws, and in some cases have exhibited an ideological affinity with inciting broadcasters.

Political Background

Until the current wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, there was no major military conflict between Sunni and Shi'ite powers since the end of the Iran-Iraq war. This allowed militants on both camps to concentrate on external foes, real or imaginary, for more than a decade. The developments in post-Saddam Iraq, however, have brought Sunni-Shi'ite animosity back to the fore and onto TV screens.

Interestingly, Osama Bin Laden was not keen to stir up this sectarian antagonism. He was entirely focused on the Jihad against the West, while maintaining some sort of modus vivendi with Iran and its satellite governments.[1] The turning point came when Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi was made Emir of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi departed from Bin Laden's hands-off approach vis-à-vis the Shi'ites. He declared "a total war of Sunni vengeance"[2] against the Shi'ites and masterminded ruthless terror attacks against Shi'ite communities in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi founded the Islamic State in Iraq, which would transform into ISIS a few years later.

While these events were unfolding, the rising Shi'ite-Sunni tensions were reverberating in Arab media across the Middle East, especially among Sunni Islamists. Many of the brutal practices for which ISIS has become notorious were being discussed approvingly by Salafi clerics on Arab TV channels. "Beheading apostates should be easier than cutting the buttons off their shirts," stated one Egyptian scholar;[3] homosexuals should be beheaded, stoned to death, or thrown off a mountain, other clerics affirmed.[4] The vilification of Shi'ite has become ubiquitous on Salafi broadcasting.

The Golden Age Of Cairo-Based Salafi Networks

In the mid-2000s, Egypt became an oasis for fanatic Sunni TV networks. During his last decade in power, President Mubarak endorsed a relatively pluralistic media policy, allowing the emergence of private TV channels, including Salafi Islamist channels. Many Salafi TV networks were established in Egypt in those years: Al-Rahma TV, Al-Nas TV, Al-Khalijiyya TV, Safa TV, and Al-Hekma TV, to name but a few. Mubarak's liberal media policy did not extend to criticism of his own regime,[5] but the private Islamist TV channels enjoyed much latitude in their violent incitement against secularists, homosexuals, and religious minorities.

Some of the extremist Sunni channels launched in Cairo were established by wealthy sheikhs and businessmen from the Gulf,[6] who entrusted their channels in the hands of KSA-educated Egyptian clerics such as Mohamed Hassan and Mahmoud Al-Masri. Saudi businessman and Shura Council member Masnour bin Kadsa, for example, established two music and entertainment networks in 2006: Al-Nas TV and Al-Khalijiya TV. A year later, Al-Kadsa had some sort of epiphany, and his channels transformed into extremist Salafi media outlets.[7]

The revamped Al-Nas TV and Al-Khalijiya TV, like all the other Cairo-based Salafi networks, embraced a violent anti-Shi'ite tone. As it turns out, a large Shi'ite population is not a prerequisite for the development of virulent anti-Shi'ite sentiment. There is no conclusive figure regarding the number of Shi'ites living in Egypt, but nobody disputes that their role has been insignificant in society and non-existent in politics since Saladin dismantled the Fatimid Caliphate in the 12th century. Nobody, that is, except for Egyptian Islamists.

The "Shi'itization" Panic Of Egyptian Islamists

The first prominent Islamist to voice concerns about the alleged expansion of Shi'ites in Egypt was Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi.[8] This leading Muslim Brotherhood authority warned that Shi'ites were staging "Shi'itization" campaigns in an attempt to infiltrate Sunni countries. Al-Qaradhawi, a frequent participant in Sunni-Shi'ite interfaith dialogue conferences, complained that the Shi'ites were violating the understandings he had supposedly reached with them. "I told them it was unacceptable to preach the Shi'ite doctrine in Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, and so on. These are purely Sunni countries," he said in 2006.[9]

The rhetoric employed by the Salafi TV channels that were emerging in Cairo in the 2000s was much blunter. The Shi'ites pose an "imminent danger to the Muslim nation everywhere," declared Sheikh Mazen Al-Sarsawi on his Al-Nas TV show, many episodes of which were dedicated to Shi'ite-bashing.[10]   "If Allah had not created the Shi'ites as human beings," he said on another TV channel, "they would have been donkeys."[11] Another Egyptian cleric, Mahmoud Al-Masri, stated that "those Shi'ites are the most infidel creatures created by Allah" and prayed that Allah "rids our nation of such apostate dwarfs" by sending them "annihilating earthquakes and burning volcanoes."[12]


Sheikh Mazen Sarsawi: "Shi'ites pose an imminent danger" (Al-Nas TV, July 2009)

Indeed, Egyptian Islamists were giving a voice to the same ideology of "Sunni vengeance" that Al-Zarqawi's successors were implementing in Iraq. In his weekly Al-Rahma TV show, Sheik Muhammad Al-Zoghbi called upon President Mubarak to actively exterminate the Shi'ite population in Egypt: "These people are evil! They are evil! Wherever they are - they turn the place into a quagmire. I call upon our leader - and I pray that Allah enables this - to annihilate them, along with the Bahais in our country, in order to purify the land of their filth, for the sake of future generations."[13]

By no means did this inflammatory rhetoric subside during the one-year Morsi rule in Egypt. The Salafi clerics accused the Muslim Brotherhood government of not doing enough to thwart the Shi'ite menace. They were especially anxious about the Egyptian government's plan to develop Iranian tourism to Egypt and were alarmed by Iranian President Ahmadinejad's February 2013 historic visit to Cairo. "Dr. Morsi is like a man who allows porn movies into his home but states that he would not allow his children to go astray,"[14] declared Sheikh Ahmad Farid during an April 2013 conference dedicated to the alleged Shi'ite threat.

An objective examination, however, shows that this was not the case. During Morsi's year in power, new Salafi networks, such as Amjad TV and Al-Nada TV, joined the anti-Shi'ite choir. In addition, under the Muslim Brotherhood government, the anti-Shi'ite message made its way into mainstream TV. In one infamous incident, Sheikh Mohamed Hassan spoke to an excited crowd at the "Egyptian Nation Conference in Support of the Syrian Revolution," aired live on national TV. Sheikh Hassan turned to President Morsi, who had attended and later addressed the conference, and said: "Mr. President, I call upon you, in the name of these good people, and in the name of the Egyptian people, not to open the pure gates of Egypt to the Rafidites. By Allah, they have corrupted every place they entered. Their true face has been revealed."[15]

The Giza Massacre And The Second Revolution

Unfortunately, this rhetoric did not serve as a wakeup call for Egyptian authorities. The consequences were catastrophic. A week later, on June 23, 2013, a mob raided a small Shi'ite congregation in the village of Abu Musallam in Giza, torched their homes, massacred four people and injured 32. The bodies of Sheikh Hassan Shehata, the leader of the local congregation, and the other victims were dragged through the streets and dumped near local security personnel, who had stood by as the incident unfolded.

The massacre enraged many in the Egyptian media, but the inciting sheikhs viewed it in a festive light, refusing to reflect about the consequences of their inflammatory rhetoric. Sheikh Al-Sarsawi hailed the massacre as "something to be happy about,"[16]and another sheikh, Walid Ismail, confirmed that he was delighted by the massacre, adding that his happiness "is shared by the entire Egyptian people."[17]

As it happens, the Shi'ite massacre soon lost its place in the media spotlight when the Morsi regime was toppled 10 days later.[18] The new Egyptian regime endorsed a stricter policy towards Islamist incitement in general, but its record in policing a more benign rhetoric has been inconsistent. While some channels have faced censorship and were not allowed to broadcast live shows, Safa TV, for example, has incessantly continued "to fight the Shi'ite cancer in Egypt."[19]

Throughout the past decade - first under the rule of Mubarak, then under Morsi, and recently under Al-Sisi - Egyptian-based anti-Shi'ite propaganda has continued unabated in social media. Sheikh Walid Ismail resurfaced as the coordinator of an ultra-extremist online group called "The Coalition for the Defense of the Prophet's Companions and Family." This coalition has used its Facebook page and other social media platforms to "expose" clandestine Shi'ite activity in Egypt. In March 2014, Sheikh Ismail announced that the coalition had received all the necessary paperwork to launch a new channel, Fatima TV, the policy of which would be "to fight the Shi'ites and confront their attempts to spread among the Egyptians." In addition, the new channel would "preach to Shi'ites in their own countries and call on them to convert to Sunni Islam."[20] So far, the new channel has not materialized, but the efforts of the coalition have not been in vain. In May 2015, the Egyptian authorities arrested local Shi'ite leader Al-Taher Al-Hashemi after the coalition claimed he was heading an association involved in Shi'itization.[21]

Following the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood rule, there were early signs of change. President Al-Sisi attended a Coptic Christmas mass,[22] and in an address at Al-Azhar University, he called upon the clerics "to take a long, hard look at the situation," change the religious discourse, and revolutionize Islam.[23] So far, however, this revolution seems to have skipped the Egyptian Shi'ite community.

Saudi Arabia And The Gulf - Incitement, Terror, And Tribal Fury

Wahhabi sheikhs from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have served as the ideological and financial engine behind the anti-Shi'ite discourse throughout the Arab world. However, throughout most of the 2000s, Saudi authorities did not allow the establishment of private TV channels on Saudi soil. Saudi entrepreneurs were forced to establish their networks elsewhere - in most cases in Cairo, as described above. Al-Majd TV, the pioneer of all Salafi networks, was established in Dubai.[24] Only towards the end of the decade did TV channels devoted to the vilification of Shi'ites emerge in Saudi Arabia itself.

Wesal TV - A Salafi Media Empire In The Making

In April 2009, a new beacon of intolerance loomed in the Gulf. Wesal TV, the presumably Kuwaiti owners of which remain anonymous, has been operating mostly from Saudi Arabia. The motto of Wesal TV is: "Sunni-Shi'ite dialogue leads the way to the Prophet's guidance" - a somewhat ironical slogan for a network dedicated to virulent Shi'ite-bashing.

Wesal TV aspires to become a Salafi media empire and has been founding new channels in a variety of non-Arabic languages, operating mostly from London. Recently, the network announced on its Twitter account that it was "continuing to expose the Safavid enterprise" through 12 TV channels in 10 languages, including channels in Farsi, Urdu, Kurdish, German, English, Tajik, Filipino, Indonesian, and Hausa, which is spoken in Chad and Nigeria. Some of these channels are still under construction, but others are already broadcasting.

Wesal TV has been focusing on the various conflicts between Sunnis and Shi'ites in the Middle East and, indeed, all over the world. It has become a "wailing wall" for sheikhs from Africa, the Far East, and the periphery of the Arab world who wish to complain about the spreading of Shi'ites back home.

In several cases, the network was reprimanded by the authorities for its virulent incitement. At one point, the Saudi Information Ministry instructed the network to dismiss TV host Sheikh Khaled Al-Ghamedi, who had complaints by Saudi Shi'ites pending due to his relentless Shi'ite-bashing. In 2013, he had even threatened Shi'ites in the eastern Saudi town of Al-Awamiyah, declaring: "We will mobilize armies and tribes against you and we will eat you alive."[25] That, however, was not why he was taken off the air.

The final straw had to do with the conflict in Yemen. In late 2013, all the Salafi TV channels were up in arms over the Houthi siege of the Yemeni village of Dammaj in the Sa'dah Governorate, home of the Salafi Dar Al-Hadith seminary. Sheikh Al-Ghamedi was leading the campaign on his TV show "Iran's Collaborators," in which he called upon Sunnis "to march and bring me the head of (Abdel-Malik) Al-Houthi... I will place it on this table... and I will kick it back onto his head."[26]

Then, in November of that year, wounded Salafi students who had been evacuated from the Dammaj seminary were kidnapped by the Houthis from the hospital quarters of the Yemeni Ministry of Defense compound in the capital of Sana'a. Sheik Al-Ghamedi accused the Yemeni defense minister of collaborating with the Houthis, adding that the hospital director had betrayed his trust by handing the wounded students over to the Houthis. In his usual style, Sheikh Al-Ghamedi threatened "to mobilize armies and tribes" against the hospital, "in order to avenge the blood of our brothers there."[27]

Sometimes one should be careful what one wishes for. A week later, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attacked the hospital, leaving 56 dead and many wounded. Among the casualties were foreign nationals. The video of Sheikh Al-Ghamedi threatening to storm the hospital went viral, and the Saudi authorities had had enough. Wesal TV was instructed to dismiss Al-Ghamedi, which it did.


Wesal TV: 12 channels in 10 languages

This was not the only time when Wesal TV suffered criticism and bans when its incitement happened to coincide with terror attacks. In November 2014, the Saudi authorities shut down the offices of Wesal TV in Riyadh following a shooting attack at a Shi'ite religious ceremony that left eight Saudi Shi'ites dead. Saudi Information Minister Abdulaziz Khoja wrote on his Twitter account that "this is essentially not a Saudi channel."[28]

In Kuwait too, the Information Ministry decided to shut down Wesal TV's broadcasts following the deadly June 26, 2015 bombing of a Shi'ite mosque. As it turned out, a few hours before the attack, Wesal TV had tweeted that "Sunni-Shi'ite coexistence in Kuwait will end soon if the state continues to refrain from monitoring the pulpits of polytheism and abomination, those husseiniyat (Shi'ite seminaries), and what is said in them."[29]

Yet despite the repeated shutdown declarations, Wesal TV continues to broadcast live, presumably from Saudi Arabia. Recently, the channel made headlines again when TV host Abdulellah Al-Dosari celebrated the death of several hundred Iranian nationals in the September 2015 Mecca stampede. "Praise be to Allah, who relieved Islam and the Muslims from their evil. We pray that Allah will usher them into Hell for all eternities," he concluded.[30]

Awtan TV Vs. Ismaili Shi'ites

Awtan TV was another Saudi TV channel dedicated to the Sunni-Shi'ite conflict. The channel, founded in 2010, aired a series of talk shows called "Quiet Dialogue with an Opponent." According to the show's concept, "quiet dialogue" would be held between two or three Salafi sheikhs sitting in the studio. From time to time, a Shi'ite caller - the "opponent" - would come on the air, making some remarks, which would then be ridiculed as nonsense by the panel members.

In March 2012, three panel members were accused of making disrespectful comments about the Ismaili Shi'ite community of Najran. Although a small community, numbering less than one million, the Ismailis of Najran belong to the large Yam tribe. A total of 5,000 Ismailis signed a petition against Awtan TV, which was submitted to the Governor of Najran, who, in turn, referred the complaint to the King and Crown Prince.

The following day, panel member Sheikh Sa'd Al-Sabr appeared on Awtan TV again and denied that he had ever accused the Ismailis of apostasy. But this attempt at damage control failed. In accordance with the instructions of King Abdallah, Awtan TV was taken off the air for a month. When the penalty was over, Awtan TV returned and continued to operate for another year or so, before disappearing from the grid in early 2013.

The North African Anti-Shi'ite Campaign

The third major hotbed of anti-Shi'ite incitement has been North African Salafism. Like in the case of Egypt, the negligible Shi'ite population in countries such as Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria has not deterred Salafi clerics from portraying a Shi'ite bogyman who is about to invade, or had already invaded, their countries. Salafi TV networks have not been established in North Africa, and most of the anti-Shi'ite propaganda is channeled to social media platforms.

"The Safavid Shi'ite movement has been spreading in Tunisia," declared cleric Bechir Ben Hassen. "Their presence and their activity is the most dangerous threat to Islam. This country is a Sunni country... They have no business being here. We will use all means at our disposal to confront them, because we are absolutely sure that the threat they pose to Islam and the Muslims is greater than that posed by the Jews and the Christians." Sheikh Ben Hassen warned Tunisians to make sure that there is no reception of Shi'ite TV channels, "which are like pornography," in their homes, and prayed that "Allah would humiliate these people and purge our country of them."[31]

In Morocco, Salafi clerics have repeatedly stressed the increasing danger of Shi'itization in Tangier and the northern parts of the country. Apparently, Moroccan authorities to some extent share Salafi concerns in this respect. In a 2013 session of the Moroccan parliamentary foreign committee, Socialist Union MP and former minister Mohammed Amer demanded that the government confront "the dangerous Shi'ite spread in Senegal, which threatens the spiritual life of the Moroccans in Senegal and the Senegalese themselves." Although Morocco and Senegal do not share a border, they have some cultural and spiritual affinity, through the Tijaniyyah, one of the two largest Sufi orders in Senegal, whose founder is buried in Fez, Morocco. According to MP Amer, Iran is infiltrating Senegal, thus endangering Morocco and the Moroccans. Moroccan Foreign Minister Saad-Eddine El Othmani responded that he supported the initiative.[32]

Anti-Shi'ite propaganda is very common in Sudan as well and has been gradually picking up in Sub-Saharan Africa. Even in the disintegrating Libya, several champions of the anti-Shi'ite cause have emerged. Sheikh Salem bin Ammar, for instance, has warned on his Libyan Al-Wataniya TV show ofthe Yemenization of Libya. "We are in dire need of spreading the culture of tolerance, compromise, stability, and peace," explained Sheikh Bin Ammar, and this, he said, is impossible to do with people who curse the companions of the Prophet Muhammad.[33]

The Anti-Shi'ite Campaign Spreads To Europe

North African Salafist clerics, from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, have played a pivotal role in exporting the message of the "Shi'ite threat" across the Mediterranean Sea. While the issue of Jihadi, anti-Western, and antisemitic discourse by European Islamists has been extensively debated in the Western media, much less attention has been awarded to the growing anti-Shi'ite sentiment in European mosques and Islamic centers. Against the backdrop of the escalating Sunni-Shi'ite war in the Middle East, Shi'ite-bashing has become a valued commodity in European Islamist centers, and locally-based and visiting clerics are happy to supply the demand. This anti-Shi'ite movement has been documented in the online video accounts of various Islamic centers.

In the Low Countries, for example, some Islamist institutions have become centers of Shi'ite vilification. In the Netherlands, two Islamic centers - the Al-Fadjr Mosque in Helmond and the Ibn Taymiyyah Center in the Hague - have organized seminars about the "Shi'ite threat" both in Arabic and in Riffian Berber. In one of these conferences, at the Helmond mosque, Moroccan cleric Abdelkader Chouaa lectured on the dangers posed by the Shi'ites to the Muslim family.[34] Another Moroccan cleric, Sheikh Rachid Nafi, delivered a lecture on "the truth about the Shi'ites" at the Ibn Taymiyyah Islamic Center, where he explained that the proper name that should be used is "filthy Rafidites," not "Shi'ites." Sheikh Nafi expressed his opposition to any attempt at Sunni-Shi'ite rapprochement, saying that "there is nothing good in them."[35]


Moroccan sheikh Bechir Ben Hassen at the ICC, The Hague, December 2014

Notwithstanding the dominance of North African clerics in anti-Shi'ite vilification in Europe, many local and Gulf-based clerics have shared the task. Some Arab scholars have become gurus of the Shi'ite threat and have been touring Europe's Islamic centers  - in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere - and lecturing about the imminent Rafidite invasion. Syrian-born German cleric Sheikh Hassan Dabbagh, for example, has dedicated his Leipzig Al-Rahman Mosque and his Schiiten Sin Kuffar ("Shi'ites are Infidels") YouTube account to indoctrination about "the danger of Shia among us."[36] Kuwaiti cleric Othman Al-Khamis has delivered lectures on "the Truth about the Shi'ites" in several European nations[37] and was the keynote speaker at a 2013 seminar at the Hague center, dedicated to "the Secrets of the Rafidites." His four-session lecture was preceded by a warm-up gig by Moroccan cleric Sheikh Abdelhamid Al-Akra, who concentrated on the threat posed by Shi'ites to Sunnis living in Europe. Al-Akra stated that the goal of the Shi'ites is "to annihilate the Sunnis and convert the entire world to Shia Islam," and added that "killing a Sunni is a Shi'ite's way of getting closer to Allah."[38] Sheikh Al-Akra explained that the Shi'ites pick up young men in European countries and send them to study in Iran and Iraq, before returning to Europe "to spread their poison." He warned the mostly Dutch-Moroccan congregation about Moroccan girls travelling to study in Iran: "The Rafidites in Iran are now having sex with our daughtersÔǪ These daughters go by themselves to study in Qom and those Rafidites are having sex with them."[39]

"We must immune ourselves and our children from this dangerous virus, this cancer that has plagued our nation - the Rafidite cancer, which has swept away the world,"[40] said Sheikh Akra, before surrendering the floor to Sheikh Al-Khamis, whom he presented as "a thorn in the throats of contemporary Rafidites."[41]

In neighboring Belgium, Shi'ite-bashing conferences have become common too. A December 2013 seminar in Brussels' Al-Muhwahideen Mosque featured Saudi cleric Abdelrahman Al-Muzaini, who stated that the Shi'ites are enemies and are "more infidel than the Jews and the Christians." He warned that the Shi'ites were planning to conquer Medina and to dig 'Aisha out from her grave and stone her for adultery. Sheikh Al-Muzaini told his audience a story about a man from Damascus who admitted cursing the Prophet's companions. Before his trial was completed, the crowd of people "who could not even write their own names" pounced on the suspect and tore him to pieces. "This is real zeal for the Prophet's companions," commented Sheik Al-Muzaini. "We are worth nothing if we do not defend Abu Bakr and Omar."[42]

In Brussels, the anti-Shi'ite rhetoric has already reaped one casualty. The imam of the Rida Mosque, the largest Shi'ite mosque in Belgium, was murdered when a Moroccan national torched the mosque on March 12, 2012 "in revenge for the oppression in Syria."[43] The incident was powerfully condemned by the president of the League of Imams in Belgium, Sheik Mohamed Toujgani, who is also the imam of Al-Khalil Mosque, the largest Sunni mosque in Belgium. Sheik Toujgani deplored the "abominable" attack and said that Allah had ordered Muslims to protect houses of worship.[44] But in another interview, a year later, Sheik Toujgani joined the Salafi choir, dubbing conversion to Shia Islam an "abnormal" and "non-benign" phenomenon, and demanding that European Shi'ites stop cursing the companions of the Prophet Muhammad.[45]

Recently, it has been reported that an organization of Moroccan Shi'ites, the Ressali Line Association, intends to fight back by filing legal suits in European countries against sheikhs who incite against the Shi'ite community.[46]

Anti-Sunni Incitement On Shi'ite Networks

Sectarian incitement in the Arab media has not been one-sided. Over the past decade, numerous Shi'ite religious and political TV channels have emerged in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, the Gulf countries, and elsewhere, many adopting hyper-sectarian chauvinistic discourse. However, while the Salafi clerics have made no attempt to conceal their violent anti-Shi'ite hostility, the Shi'ite media has consistently employed a cleaner, more politically correct, rhetoric. Even when Shi'ite militias were involved in atrocities against the civilian population in Iraq, clerics and activists appearing on Shi'ite TV networks emphasized the need to fight "terrorists," and sometimes "Wahhabis," but consistently refrained from encouraging a war against Sunnis. Even the psychotic-looking "Abu Azrael" - an Iraqi Ramboesque militia leader who threatened to turn rivals to "slurpees" and "to grind them to flour" - stressed time and again that it was ISIS he was fighting."[47]

Shi'ite Clerics And Pranksters Hit Below The Belt

In most cases, anti-Sunni rhetoric has been voiced under the guise of theology. Extremist Shi'ite scholars and activists have developed ingenious methods to further poison the atmosphere with brazen, sometime infantile, comments regarding Sunni beliefs. One Shi'ite prankster-activist called in to a cooking show on the Egyptian Islamist Al-Nas TV and asked whether the dough that the chef had been kneading was made "with the breastmilk of Wahhabi women." Three days later the same guy called again to make a comment about the Prophet's wife, 'Aisha. The chef, Muhammad Fawzi, lost his cool. "I have one thing to say to you and to all the Shi'ites who keep calling this show," the chef said. "If there is a real Islamic regime, you people will not exist anymore, Allah willing."[48] On another occasion, chef Fawzi took a vow never to display Iranian cuisine on his show. "It's good food," he said, "but I don't want to spread their culture: never Iranian cuisine, never Jewish cuisine."[49]

At the core of the Sunni outrage lies the allegation that Shi'ites curse 'Aisha and the caliphs Abu Bakr, Omar, and Othman, who are revered by Sunnis, but rejected by Shi'ites. This allegation has been repeatedly denied by some Shi'ite scholars. Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Jamal Al-Din Al-Saghir, for example, rejected a comment by Egyptian Salafi cleric Abu Ishaq Al-Heweny, who had apparently claimed that when Shi'ites hear thunder, they say that this is Ali beating up Abu Bakr. Sheikh Al-Saghir countered that the spreading of such lies has turned into a method, adding that if the Sunni belief had been well founded, they would not have needed to resort to such lies.[50]

These denials notwithstanding, some Shi'ite scholars have been making outlandish remarks about the Prophet's companions, especially on networks operated by clerics who had fled their countries to the West. The Iranian-born Hassan Allah Yare, for example, runs a channel called Ahlulbayt TV from California. Ahlulbayt TV is a one-man show, dedicated to the disparagement of Prophet Muhammad's companions.

"My shoe and the shoe of my little son are better than thousands like Abu Bakr, Omar, and 'Aisha,"[51] Sheikh Yare once declared on his show. He adroitly dismisses all the Sunni activists who call his show and try to embarrass him by asking whether he approves of "pleasure marriage" - a temporary union for the purpose of sex. One Sunni activist even promised to convert to Shia Islam if Sheikh Yare would give him his daughter for pleasure marriage. Sheikh Yare has a ready-made sarcastic answer for all these Sunni callers: "Shi'ite men are allowed to have sex with Wahhabi women, especially the Saudi ones... There are many sisters of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi all over the world. This is the way to reach unity in the Muslim world."[52]

Even more outrageous is the London-based Sheikh Yasser Al-Habib, who fled Kuwait in 2004 after having been arrested for anti-Sunni incitement. Sheikh Al-Habib received political asylum in Britain, from where he happily infuriates Sunnis with diatribes about the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. Every year, he organizes an "'Aisha in Hell" celebration on the date of the death of the Prophet Muhammad's wife. In one show on his London-based Fadak TV, Sheikh Al-Habib proclaimed that Omar Ibn Al-Khattab had an "anal disease." According to this "well-known medical condition," he added, "someone who has been penetrated in the anus - a worm grows within him, due to the semen discharged in him... It becomes like an addiction, and he cannot calm down unless he is penetrated again and again." Sheikh Habib then added that when a baby who is not a Shi'ite is born "the devil inserts his index finger into this anus, and when he grows up, he becomes a passive homosexual."[53]


"Aisha in Hell" celebration, London 2014 (Fadak TV)

Conclusion

Shi'ite clerics like Yare and Al-Habib have been doing all they can to further poison the already charged sectarian atmosphere. Their injurious comments about the companions of the Prophet Muhammad have become much-appreciated ammunition for the big guns of Sunni radicalism.

But the TV war between Shi'ites and Sunnis has not been waged on equal terms. As eccentric and stinging the rhetoric of individual Shi'ite scholars has been, it does not compare in magnitude and malevolence with the Shi'ite-vilification movement that has risen in the Middle East, spreading to Europe and elsewhere. The Salafi TV channels broadcasting from Egypt and the Gulf have provided an ideological foundation for the murderous practices of ISIS and other Jihadi groups.

The efforts of Arab authorities to curtail this incitement have been inadequate in most countries. Despite the occasional chastising of rogue TV channels - usually induced by a random terror attack - the authorities have done very little in this regard. The Arab regimes have always appeared more eager to police their anti-blasphemy laws - a euphemism for offending Sunni sensitivities - than to protect religious minorities from the public and the media.

 

*Y. Feldner is Director of MEMRI TV.

 

Endnotes:

 

[1] Note that one of Bin Laden's wives, six of his children, and eleven of his grandchildren found refuge in an IRGC-controlled site outside Tehran.

[5] In 2000, for example, sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim was sent to jail for alluding to Mubarak's plan to pass the rule down to his son Gamal; in another case, in 2007, journalist Ibrahim Eissa was sentenced to jail for writing about Mubarak's health problems.

[6] In some cases, trucking the Gulf strings behind these Cairo-based channels is not so easy. A BBC reporter tried to identify the Kuwaiti owner of Safa TV. Diligent research in Egypt as well as Kuwait, and then some exploration of Wikileaks documents revealed a possible name: Khalid Al-Osaimi. But Al-Osaimi refused to acknowledge this. BBC Arabic TV, March 18, 2014.

[7] Marebpress.net, March 2, 2008. Interestingly, another channel, Al-Khalijiyya TV, has gone in the opposite direction. Saudi preacher Sheikh Muhammad Al-Shaharani, who established this Salafi TV channel, sold his shares to an Egyptian businessman in 2010, because the channel was becoming, in his words, "purely Egyptian" and was showing "women with their hair." Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), July 3, 2010.

[8] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 311, Debate over the Status of Shi'ites in Egypt, December 27, 2006.

[10] Al-Nas TV (Egypt), July 2, 2009.

[11] Al-Hekma TV (Egypt), August 7, 2011.

[12] Al-Nas TV (Egypt), September 20, 2010.

[13] Al-Rahma TV (Egypt), April 14, 2009.

[14] Youtube.com/watch?v=la8ZO_-Ta7k, April 12, 2013.

[15] Channel 1 (Egypt), June 15, 2013.

[16] Amjad TV (Egypt), June 25, 2013.

[17] Dream TV (Egypt), June 24, 2013.

[18] For their role in the massacre, 23 Egyptians were sentenced to 14 years in prison in June 2015. Fourteen of them were tried in absentia.

[19] Safa TV (Egypt), November 12, 2014.

[20] Elwatannews.com, March 1, 2014.

[21] Youm7.com, May 19, 2015.

[24] Al-Majd TV was founded as early as 2003 by Saudi businessman Abdur-Rahman Ashamemri. In 2008, it was forced to leave Dubai's Media City, following a lawsuit by Shi'ite activists. The network moved to Cairo, but eventually returned to Dubai.

[25] Youtube.com/watch?v=X4a1NjGFg_M, January 8, 2013.

[26] Youtube.com/watch?v=PtQHuKuu_aw, July 3, 2015.

[28] Huffingtonpost.com, November 5, 2014.

[29] Alaraby.co.uk, June 26, 2015.

[32] Assabah.press.ma, May 21, 2013.

[33] Youtube.com/watch?v=v39QQJim1lc, February 20, 2013.

[34] Youtube.com/watch?v=8bNu4ZJMzfo, February 15, 2014.

[35]  Youtube.com/watch?v=4icdrPYbPfk, July 28, 2009.

[36] Youtube.com/watch?v=w7OsU_EuB5Y, October 10, 2013.

[37] For example, in Ri├│s, Spain, on July 13, 2012. Youtube.com/watch?v=94SNRwVVTVY, July 15, 2012.

[38] Youtube.com/watch?v=IedwQmMWfZk, January 7, 2014.

[39] Youtube.com/watch?v=nj7GBYb4aQc, January 7, 2014.

[40] Youtube.com/watch?v=nj7GBYb4aQc, January 7, 2014.

[41] Youtube.com/watch?v=IedwQmMWfZk, January 7, 2014.

[42] Youtube.com/watch?v=Q_VSVUTh9e4, December 3, 2013.

[43] France24.com/ar, June 12, 2014.

[44] Youtube.com/watch?v=47s1FzpdGS8, March 15, 2012.

[45] Youtube.com/watch?v=O4Ror8F8-9w, May 9, 2014.

[46] Dalil-rif.com, April 13, 2015.

[48] Al-Nas TV (Egypt), January 25-28, 2012.

[49] Youtube.com/watch?v=Egt6Blr88Do, February 25, 2012.

[50] Youtube.com/watch?v=vQ6UmwnMtNs, April 17, 2015.

[51] Ahlulbayt TV, December 22, 2012.

[52] Ahlulbay TV, October 19, 2014.