16 March 2023
This article was first published on The Diplomat
In 2017, he was exposed as a fraud. Six years on, Australia’s “fake sheikh” has a Twitter following of over 800k, meets with world leaders, and last December was a headline speaker at the inaugural Abraham Accords Global Leadership Summit.
But is the rise of this self-styled “Imam of Peace” simply a case of history repeating itself? Or are the American right willing co-conspirators in Mohammed Tawhidi’s covert campaign of Islamophobia?
On 23 May 2017, Australians awoke to the shocking news of a suicide bombing taking place at a pop concert in Manchester, England. The attack, for which ISIS would later claim responsibility, was carried out by a 22-year-old British citizen of Libyan descent using homemade explosives. Twenty-two people were killed, including a number of children.
Coverage of the story dominated world media, including breakfast television program Sunrise which two days later aired a special broadcast with the headline “Manchester Terror: Australia’s Muslim leaders speak out.” One such leader interviewed was Imam Mohammed Tawhidi.
“We have a large number of youth that are being radicalised,” Tawhidi spoke gravely, clad in flowing black robes and a turban-like head covering.
“This happens because of the books we have, the Islamic scriptures that we have. They push the Muslim youth to believe that if you go out there and you kill the infidel, that’s how you will gain paradise.”
For the Imam (a word connoting Islamic spiritual leadership), this was far from his first foray into the media spotlight- nor would it be his last. In his capacity as leader of the Islamic Association of South Australia, Tawhidi became somewhat of a regular fixture in Australia’s centre-right circuit, making multiple appearances on The Bolt Report, Ben Fordham Live, Today Tonight, and A Current Affair, and with nationwide publications from The Daily Mail to The Australian providing additional coverage of his controversial views on Muslim immigration and the dangers of Islamic schools. No mean feat, given his credentials were almost entirely fabricated.
Tawhidi’s tenuous credibility as a spokesperson for Australia’s Muslim community began to crumble with a series of ABC investigations into his background. A June 2017 article titled “Imam Mohammed Tawhidi: The problem with the media’s favourite Muslim” revealed that the self-proclaimed Imam had no mosque, was not recognised by the Australian National Imams Council, and never graduated from the Iranian university at which he claimed to have completed a master’s degree in Islamic theology. Doubt was also cast on Tawhidi’s ostentatious story of being forced into hiding and receiving police protection after a threat of beheading was allegedly posted on his Facebook page.
Australia’s love affair with the shock-jock sheikh soon dwindled to a halt. For the past few years, local media coverage of Tawhidi’s activities has been confined to a handful of less than flattering profiles on the Imam’s legal fracas (last year saw Tawhidi successfully sued for defamation after calling a Melbourne immigration lawyer an “ISIS promoter”). But in a bizarre twist, Mohammed Tawhidi’s cancellation in Australia appears to have directly coincided with an explosion in his popularity and prestige abroad- particularly in the US, Israel, and certain Arab Gulf states. In a world of Fake News, it seems that clickbait trumps facts. And when it comes to clickbait, nothing trumps Trump.
At the time of print, Mohammed Tawhidi boasts a Twitter following of 800.3k- a number that dwarves Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s 625.4k and includes high-profile Republicans including Ellie Cohanim, Nikki Haley, Brian E Leib, and Donald Trump Jr. And while Donald J. Trump does not currently follow Tawhidi, there’s evidence that Australia’s former favourite Imam has been a major influence on the man himself.
From his proposed ban on Muslim immigration, to labelling Black Lives Matter protesters “thugs,” the presidency of Donald Trump was characterised by social media scandal and racially charged unrest. But accusations of Islamophobia against Trump reached a peak in April 2019 after the then-president posted a doctored video of Democrat Ilhan Omar speaking at the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) the previous month – endangering the life of the congresswoman in the process.
WE WILL NEVER FORGET! Trump captioned the clip, which depicts Omar stating “CAIR was founded after 9/11, because they recognised some people did something.”
The video then splices between graphic footage of the twin towers collapsing taken from various news channels. The words “SOME PEOPLE DID SOMETHING?” are repeated in bold on a plain black background.
The full context of Omar’s speech, intended to highlight the perceived injustice of America’s treatment of its moderate Muslim community in the wake of 9/11, shows that Omar actually said “[CAIR] recognised that some people did something, and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.” But the damage had been done.
Ilhan Omar, who is a Muslim American, released a statement alleging she received an increased number of death threats in the days following this tweet. Trump would later instigate further online attacks against the senator in a similar vein, including the erroneous accusation that Omar was “out partying” on the night of September 11; even after a New York man was arrested and charged with threatening to assault and murder her. The man was reportedly a hard-line Donald Trump supporter.
In June 2019, an article was published by The Intercept concerning the origins of Trump’s infamous tweet. The article alleged that a video the same or similar to that posted by Trump actually originated from the Twitter account of Mohammed Tawhidi (the post has now been removed), before being re-tweeted by Republican Dan Crenshaw, and eventually coming to the attention of Trump himself.
“Omar’s remarks had previously garnered little attention, but the cleric’s inaccurate caption for the video — “Omar mentions 9/11 and does not consider it a terrorist attack” — propelled it into the mainstream news media,” the article states.
On the subject of Tawhidi, The Intercept concluded that “even a cursory review of his Twitter feed undercuts the idea that he is focused on the reform of Islam or the pursuit of peace, since it is devoted mainly to reinforcing the prejudices of right-wing trolls and nativist politicians, echoing their racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric.”
But the Imam’s Islamophobic underpinnings have proved no impediment in making friends in high places. In the months following the tweet, Mohammed Tawhidi was pictured with a number of high-profile political and diplomatic leaders, including conservative Canadian senators Larry W. Smith and Michelle Rempel Garner, and on 12 December 2022, the Croatian Parliament published a press release stating that the leader of the Interparliamentary Friendship Group Marijana Petir had met with Imam Mohammed Tawhidi to discuss security challenges in the Middle East and the fight against terrorism.
Though the name may be unfamiliar to most Australians, Marijana Petir has attracted infamy in both Croatia and wider Europe over comments decrying the “radicalisation” of the neighbouring Bosnia’s Muslim population, and calls for Europe to return to its “Christian roots.” In December 2021, the MP found an unlikely ally in an organisation called the Global Imams Council. The Council issued a statement slamming Ms Petir’s inclusion in the European Islamophobia Report 2020 as “inaccurate, irresponsible, and defamatory.” But who, exactly, are this group, who claim to be the world’s largest transnational body of Muslim religious leaders? All roads, it would seem, lead back to Tawhidi.
According to the body’s official website, the Global Imams Council (GIC) is an Islamic interfaith network representing over 1,300 Muslim faith leaders and scholars. The Council claims to engage with a number of prestigious civil and political bodies including the United Nations, American Bar Association, and the US Department of State- though not necessarily with the knowledge or consent of such organisations. (In November, a representative from the American Bar Association denied any association with the GIC and advised they had requested the page remove reference to their organisation. At the time of print, the reference still remains.)
Officially, Imam Mohammed Tawhidi is listed as Global Imams Council Vice President. The true extent of his involvement with the group is, however, somewhat unclear, with the six other Imams named as comprising GIC’s Governing Board appearing to have little to no online presence. While reporters did manage to contact Peer Syed Mudassir Shah, GIC Director of South Asia, the director could provide little detail as to the group’s origins or purpose and told The New Daily he was not directly involved in the advocacy work detailed on the organisation’s website. The only other Council member Mudassir Shah had spoken to was Mohammed Tawhidi, who invited him to join the group after reaching out on Twitter last February.
The Global Imams Council’s public defence of Marijana Petir is but one example of its arguably curious stance on global affairs. In December 2021, the group made headlines in a number of fringe right media publications including The Ephoch Times following a press release calling for a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Representatives for the Russian Islamic leader Grand Mufti Ravil Gainutdin, who appeared to have signed the statement GIC released, would later refute any endorsement, calling the Council’s claim “a blatant lie” that “does not correspond to reality.”
“It is noteworthy that after telephone conversations with the offices of the Supreme Mufti of Egypt Sheikh Shauki Allam, the Supreme Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina Hussein Kavazovich and others, it was reliably discovered that the spiritual leadership of these countries also had nothing to do with this document,” the representative added.
Another notable statement from the GIC’s office concerned their endorsement of a definition of antisemitism that critics claim may stifle pro-Palestinian voices by conflating criticism of Israel and its settlements with racial or religious prejudice. The move was welcomed by a number of Republican politicians including Deborah Lipstadt, Ellie Cohanim, and Brian E. Leib, as well as prominent Israeli-American lobbyist Adam Milstein and conservative editor of The Washington Examiner Seth Mandel, all of whom re-tweeted the Council’s press release. Mohammed Tawhidi himself regularly writes for Israel-based news outlets and has claimed – incorrectly- to be the first Shia Imam to pay respects at Auschwitz. Tawhidi’s author profile on The Times of Israel website states that he was nominated for Australian of the Year 2019.
Unqualified, unverified, and untruthful- it’s hard to imagine Mohammed Tawhidi’s claims withstanding even the most casual enquiry. Even more outlandish is the prospect that the controversial commentator who once called Democratic congresswomen with Muslim backgrounds “ISIS with lipstick,” could be considered a genuinely appropriate choice to address one of the most important diplomatic movements to emerge from the Trump presidency- the Abraham Accords Global Leadership Summit 2022.
In light of this, Tawhidi’s unlikely second act success suggests a significant- if unspoken- symbiotic relationship between the “Imam,” and the right-leaning cultural and political players who promote his dubious brand of interfaith leadership. And, as predicted by Muslim culture researcher Chloe Patton back in 2017, that “in the pantomime that is media coverage of Islam and Muslims, it is far easier to be fake than real.”
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