From Karbala to Milltown, history repeats itself

Michael Lanigan interviews Dr. Ali al-Saleh, Imam at the Shia mosque in Milltown.

It is Friday afternoon in Milltown’s Ahlul Bayt Islamic Centre on October 24th and Imam Dr. Ali al-Saleh is speaking before a congregation of 24 Shia men. It is the eve of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar and his voice booms through the building with a delay effect on the microphone. Each word spoken repeats itself four times, rendering the Imam’s address near incomprehensible at first. It takes me several moments to grow accustomed to this intensely dizzying sound and learn that he is discussing the topic of a person’s atheism as being no worse than that of Christianity.

Then, a man invites me into the main room, where the sermon is taking place. I pass by eight men, locked in prayer, kneeling between two 15 meter cloths of green and thirty plus prayer beads. Several voices greet the two of us: “Salaam Alaykum!”

The Imam continues talking, undisturbed, switching between English and Arabic on a frequent basis. Surrounding him at the lectern are a series of black tapestries, emblazoned with stories written in Arabic and images of red flags stitched into the cotton material. Two Iranian men present later inform me that these are temporary decorations, set up for the first ten days of Muharram, which concludes with the Day of Ashura on November 3rd. This is the mourning period for Shia Muslims, set aside to commemorate the death of the Third Imam, Hussein, grandson of Muhammad, on October 10th, 680 AD at the Battle of Karbalā in present day Iraq.

Beheaded by soldiers of Yazid I’s Umayyad Caliphate, Hussein is the Christ-like figure of the Shia faith, a sacrificial figure falling in his attempt at securing a caliphate for an Imam chosen by God. This right, in accords with Shi’ism belonged to Ali, the father of Hussein, who died at the hands of Muawiya, during 661 AD. His assassination gave way to the foundation of the Umayyad Caliphate, centred in Damascus and Yazid, Muawiya’s son, succeeded him as caliph in 680. This, the Shi’at Ali would contest as a case of evil overpowering piety.

Travelling from Medina, Hussein led 70 men into a fight against sin. However, after failing to garner further support en route, his men perished at the hands of four thousand Umayyad cavalrymen and archers. The survivors refused to swear allegiance to the Caliphate and as punishment; the Umayyad decapitated Hussein and his remaining men. This conflict has defined modern Middle Eastern history, as it was at this battle where the rift between Sunni and Shia emerged, while the caliph Yazid I has become a point of reference for many commentators, having been labelled as the first George W. Bush by Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the nationalist militia for the Iraqi Shia. However, the more obvious name aligned with this dynast is Abu Bakr-Baghdadi, caliph of the Islamic State, while Hussein has become the Shia symbol of moral resistance to a new wave of extremism.

A martyr to the Shia cause, Hussein’s name is ubiquitous in the room, appearing on various posters that noted him an unsung hero on par with Lincoln, Jesus, and Ghandi amongst countless others. This was something of a surprise initially, but in keeping with the Imam’s words, which were more concerned with global solidarity in the face of the threat from the Islamic Caliphate. “It is not a first”, he stated as a reminder for all those gathered in the room. “Look at history. We have faced this before and we must act now to end the violence of these new Wahhabi-Salafists, be they al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or indeed, ISIS.”

Good evening, I am Imam Ali al-Saleh. You are the reporter, yes?

Soon thereafter, al-Saleh concluded the sermon by leading the now packed room, of forty men in a thirty-minute prayer. All knelt upon the green cloths, each man clasped his set of beads, chanting in unison ‘Allah Akhbar’, before the Imam began a hauntingly hypnotic hymn built around several lengthy calls and responses.

By a quarter to three, the crowd began to disperse, one by one entering into the hallway to converse over tea and biscuits. This was when the two aforementioned men welcomed me warmly, before guiding me through the room to explain the Mourning of Muharram. The more talkative of the two inquired into my presence at the Centre. Informing him that I had come to meet al-Saleh, the quiet second man stood up and strolled over to the Imam. Then, after a moment, he gestured for me to enter the lobby, where the Imam introduced himself to me: “Good evening, I am Imam Ali al-Saleh. You are the reporter, yes?”  Nodding slightly and without a moment to respond to his question, he motioned me into the main room once more.

My interest in the Imam came following his appearance on Newstalk in September. Speaking on the Breakfast Show, he notified listeners that since the rise of the Islamic State, members of his family and associates had begun overhearing more and more expressions of enthusiasm amongst Irish Muslims towards the actions of ISIS. Al-Saleh stated his message, plain and clear, by urging all Irish Shia Muslims to aid Gardaí in their investigations.

When I asked him to comment further on this matter, al-Saleh responded calmly, saying that he had been aware of such a presence for a long time. “Even before the 11th of September, we have seen this kind coming.”

“When we talk we are saying without confrontation, that this is going to grow. They are going to achieve more and more than they already have as Daesh.” These people, he says are not simply ISIS, but part of a growing trend that sprouts from oppressive states and are “more dangerous than al-Qaeda, even Daesh. So, if we don’t confront it in a proper way, this will produce something worse than Daesh.”

In the context of Ireland, he continued by saying, “This world is coming quickly, not necessarily to Ireland just yet, because it is a small country with very good people, but they are using it as a haven. It is not like France, here, where there are up to a million Muslims, or in Britain, where there are two, or three million, or even Canada, but if you don’t do something, we are going to face it sooner, or later.”

For al-Saleh, the major names such as ISIS, or Al-Qaeda are not necessarily the primary aspects, which he is concerned about, as he places more worry upon their ideologies; Wahhabism, Salafism and Takfirism. In terms of the Wahhabists, he pointed to the Second World War, saying; “the world after this war jumped to democracy, and yet it surprises me very much because in the 20th century we still had countries governed like the Gulf States.”

This kind of ideology is the solution for people who live in crisis.

According to al-Saleh, in states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, although immensely wealthy, they were and remain rife with social crises, which, in turn motivates disenfranchised people to subscribe to such extreme ideologies as Wahhabism and Salafism. “Under these savage governments and dictatorships, you will see the most extreme people. You don’t see this extremism in more liberal states such as Lebanon for example, or even in Egypt. This kind of ideology is the solution for people who live in crisis.”

Adding to this, he believes that the joining of such terrorist organisations has as much to do with one’s own personal defects and hence, these ideologies can offer “some kind of opportunity to show off. That is why you see some converts by people in Iraq, even though they live in a democratic state. I am not sure; we need psychologists to help us.”

However, despite these eruptions in Shia governed states, such as Syria and Iraq, he maintains nevertheless, that the issue stem from the Gulf States and in particular, the House of Saud.

“Saudi Arabia is officially Wahhabi, and all extremists are Wahhabi. They have the richest countries. The ideology is coming from there, but they have oil so Western governments support these states. Despite the fact that everybody knows that Wahhabism is from Saudi Arabia, nobody will talk about it.”

Here is where I interjected to ask about the issue of accusing the Saudi officials of actively helping such groups. Allegations over the funnelling of money into such groups frequently came against Kuwait, or in the case of Saudi Arabia, its “deep state”, as opposed to any officials. The matter was opaque of course, and without any solid investigations, it remains pure speculation. However, contrary to such accusations, Saudi officials, on March 7th, 2014, began an active clampdown on terrorism, first by blacklisting the Muslim Brotherhood, Jabhat al-Nusra and Daesh, and second, by arresting known members residing in the state.

If he’s Muslim, you attract him against Shia, or if he’s non-Muslim, you attract him against America, the West, or Christianity.

Silently shaking his head, he gently said, “No, no, the government is certainly doing something to support Wahhabism, because the big headquarters is there and it is now spreading because of their oil money.”

In terms of the vicious antagonism against Shi’ite Muslims, al-Saleh dismissed the Wahhabist claims of liberation as a mere scapegoat ideology without any pious logic, saying: “They need something to target and its founder [Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab] at the time targeted the Shi’ites. Now, if you want to recruit people, if he’s Muslim, you attract him against Shia, or if he’s non-Muslim, you attract him against America, the West, or Christianity.”

“This ideology is using those accused to brainwash the minds of youth,” he continued, before grinning slightly as he began to highlight the absurdity of the militants approach. “Now, with Israel, they recruit people from Palestine, but those Palestinian people with Daesh will not fight Israel. They will fight Syria, or go to fight in Iraq.” At this point, al-Saleh could barely hold back his amusement, as he went on: “If they live inside Israel and there is an Israel soldier in front of them, still they spend money to smuggle themselves from Israel to Egypt, then to Turkey into Syria and then to Iraq to explode themselves in front of the Shia there.” Almost wiping off a tear of laughter by this stage, he sighed, saying, “This just shows the funny thing about this ideology.”

Our brief discussion drew to its conclusion, but not until he emphasised the validity of the Shi’ite faith in the face of this negative period for Islamism as a whole. “We are the proper Islam and think that this issue shows that there are some defects inside Syria. We see ISIS’ support by the youth and now, we must think what is inside ourselves to solve this problem.”

When I finally pose to him the fact that although people fear the radical elements of Sunni, Shia Islam has frequently bore the brunt of criticism from Western commentators, in particular regarding Iran post-’79, Assad’s despotism and Maliki’s oppression of the Iraqi Sunni following the Awakening in 2005. Could he perhaps clarify for some people the actual nature and motives of Shi’ism when they may feel overwhelmed by another case of the Western media’s tendency to oversimplify Islam? “Even if what is said about the Shia is true, still, Shia wouldn’t explode themselves and children, even if we do not believe in Jesus. I will not find a reason to explode myself in front of Christians. Listen to the Shi’ites. Why are we targeted by ISIS? And now, why are they targeting Christians? We are all on the same side of this war.”

Illustration: Naoise Dolan