by Claude Salhani
The Austrian government said in June that it would shut down seven mosques and expel 60 imams from the country because of their close association to what it termed “Salafi-jihadists or Turkish regime networks.”
Strange as this may sound, Iran is majority Shia while Turks are mostly Sunni and never the twain shall meet. Nevertheless, the Austrians said there is ample proof, collected by intelligence services, to justify concern about Islamists, be they Sunni or Shia, in its territory.
The planned terror bombing of Iranian dissidents in France last June began, high-ranking members of the Iranian opposition said, in Vienna where an operative acquired the bomb.
The Austrian government’s decision comes after a 2015 law banning foreign funding of religious institutions. The Austrians demand that residents “express a positive approach towards the society and the state” of Austria. That point clashed with sermons delivered by deported imams, who reportedly called for violence, including the killing of opponents.
Austria’s trepidation of certain aspects of Islam can be traced to the year 1529 when the Ottomans, under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent, laid siege on Vienna. This was the first attempt by the Ottoman Empire to expand west.
Today, Austria finds itself once again facing threats from the east.
The move by the Austrian chancellor to clamp down on Islamists received mixed reviews and returned to the spotlight the schism between the two principal branches of Islam, Sunnis and Shias, adding to the general confusion that is the Middle East today.
One point of interest is that the attention to Sunni fundamentalists is giving free rein to Shia extremists, who, some say, are operating with impunity. They cite the example of Shia mourners commemorating Ashura, the holiest day on the Shia calendar when they remember the killing of Hussein, the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson in the battle of Karbala.
Shia mourners recently had a procession on Mariahilfer Street, in Vienna. The mourners were led by Ayatollah Hashem Hosseini Bushehri, the Friday prayer leader in Qom, Iran, known as the cradle of Shia theology in Iran.
Bushehri was permitted to enter Austria to lead Shia rituals for the Islamic month of Muharram, the holiest month in the Shia calendar. Every year, on the tenth of Muharram, Shia faithful mourn the death of Hussein by flagellating themselves with a sword, a knife or chains. To Westerners, this ritual can seem barbaric and many Muslims frown on the event. Sunni Muslims, who do not celebrate the event, tend to look down on the practice.
During the processions some participants beat themselves on the chest, some self-flagellate with chains and some cut their foreheads with a sword or machete so blood flows down their faces and over a white cloth worn as a poncho.
Traditional Ashura festivities generally were centred on Iran but did occur in Lebanon, Iraq and Pakistan, countries with large and important Shia minorities. In recent years, Ashura celebrations have taken place in Europe and North America. One place Shias have been rapidly expanding is Los Angeles.
One can only imagine the reaction of the average Austrian resident on seeing such a spectacle unfold in their city, which has inspired great composers who have produced some of the world’s finest musical works.
Very few Austrians are likely to have recognised Bushehri but this is no ordinary imam. He is a member of the Assembly of Experts, a consultative body that Iran’s supreme leader calls for advice. Perhaps more important is that Bushehri is the Friday prayer leader for Qom.
It is in similar settings that crowds are encouraged the chant “death to America” and “death to Israel,’’ helping perpetuate the animosity between Iran and the West.
The decision by the Austrians to clamp down on the Turkish regime’s network in Austria followed the discovery that Turkish mosques in Austria were being used by the Ankara regime to promote Turkish Islamist ideology and conduct espionage. However, Iranian networks in Austria — led by hard-line Shia clerics and dozens of regime-aligned Islamic centres — are also promoting extremist ideology and conducting espionage.
Intelligence sources suspect Austria is the centre of Iranian intelligence operations in Europe, with 100 agents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security reportedly stationed there. Their job, said one Middle East analyst, is to spy on, harass and threaten anti-regime Shia and Iranian activists.