Towards the end of the Trump administration last year, the US Department of Justice announced that two American citizens and one Pakistani national had been charged with the federal crime of moving US dollars to Iran on behalf of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2018 and 2019. Although the accused were alleged to have links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which had been designated as a terrorist organisation the year before, the movement of funds was said to be for the purpose of khums, a religious tax that is obligatory for Shia Muslims. As a religious authority, Khamenei had the mandate to collect and distribute it to charitable causes. Hence, the charges were arguably an example of America's criminalisation of an established religious practice.
This move was followed by the US Treasury Department imposing sanctions on the Astan Quds Razavi, a Safavid-era religious foundation that manages the Imam Reza shrine in the holy city of Mashhad, which attracts millions of visitors each year.
These desperate final acts were part of Donald Trump's failed "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran, a week before he left the White House.
Trump's successor, President Joe Biden, attempted a more diplomatic approach following his inauguration, with the stated intention to return the US to the 2015 nuclear agreement (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – JCPOA), something which Iran has insisted can only take place once sanctions are lifted. Nevertheless, Biden now faces a different set of challenges. No longer faced with a moderate Iranian president he will have to deal with hardliner Ebrahim Raisi who takes office in August. Raisi is a president-elect who is very much the product of US provocation and policies amid missed opportunities for dialogue with the moderate camp. The return of the US to the nuclear deal appears as unlikely as ever, not just because of Raisi, but also due to the decision earlier this week by the US government to seize dozens of website domains affiliated to Iranian state-controlled media outlets, including PressTV.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh denounced the US for undermining freedom of expression on a global level. "The current US administration has followed the path of the previous administration, which will only lead to a double defeat for Washington," he said. "The Islamic Republic of Iran rejects the unlawful and bullying measure, and will pursue the issue through legal channels."
That was a fair assessment. These provocative measures by the Biden administration do not make dialogue with Tehran any easier, especially coming before Raisi assumes power.
However, the US did not just target Iranian sites; it seized those belonging to allied movements in the region, such as Iraqi Hezbollah and Bahrain's main opposition TV station, as well as Al-Masirah, which belongs to Yemen's Houthi movement. Despite overtures by Biden to lift some of the Trump-era sanctions imposed on the Houthis, it is clear that the US is trying to censor media narratives by Iran and its allies who are resisting US interests in the region and those of Washington's allies such as Israel and the Gulf states.
These are faith-based #Shia TV channels, affiliated with Iraq's Ayatollah Sistani. They include a children's cartoon network (!) and @AhlulbaytTV, UK-based, independent, viewer-funded, religious cable TV channel.
Yes. Cartoons & spiritual Shi'a shows!
Did MBS compile the list?! pic.twitter.com/nZH1Sr6HjR
— Sayed M. Modarresi (@SayedModarresi) June 23, 2021
What was surprising, though, was the seizure of non-partisan websites related to Shia Islam in several countries, including the UK-based Ahlulbayt TV and Hidayat TV. Several have taken to social media to express dismay and anger, and to accuse the US of Shia-phobia by singling out Shia-affiliated websites that do not necessarily have links with the Iranian government. It is a development that seems to have been picked up from the Trump administration by Biden's team.
Such securitisation or criminalisation of Shia Islam seems to be following the examples of Egypt and Malaysia. This suggests that the actions of the US authorities are not limited to containing Iranian influence or agency, but represent a concern in the Middle East by US allies about the proliferation and propagation of Shia Islam.
On Thursdays countless Shias from around the world go to websites like Karbala TV and Ahlulbayt TV to watch livestreams of holy sites they long to visit and recite Dua Kumayl, a beautiful poetic supplication. The US government has denied them this religious practice. pic.twitter.com/mLs0CBmL7l
— Mohammad Ali Musawi (@malimusawi) June 24, 2021
This blurring of religion and politics is, of course, largely because Iran is defined as an Islamic Republic, but Iran and Shia Islam are by no means synonymous. This is why the decision by Washington is problematic, revealing more about the US and its fear of Shia Islam than anything else. Why is this the case?
It could have something to do with the inherent revolutionary traits that exist in Shia Islam. It also has much to do with the fact that Shi'ism remains somewhat of a mystery to the Western world with contemporary popular media and academic attention only given to it since the 2003 Iraq War. According to the introduction in Shi'ism, Resistance, And Revolution by Martin Kramer, the "geographic bias" of Shia Islam preserved the faith from scrutiny and therefore understanding by the West. "While many of Sunni Islam's great centres were Mediterranean and conducted a dialogue in warfare, trade and ideas with the West, Shi'i Islam had become predominantly Asiatic, and the lack of sustained contact with the West left Shi'ism much misunderstood."
For Hamid Dabashi in his book Shi'ism: A Religion of Protest, the faith "remained youth-driven, insurrectionary and destabilising of the status quo for much of its history." This was especially the case in the formative years during the Umayyad era which witnessed several Shia uprisings owing to its anti-establishment nature.
Yet there also existed a prolonged period of revolutionary deradicalisation and political quietism that came to define Shia Islam in later eras. Such revolutionary character would be reactivated following the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 which utilised the potent symbolism of Shia Islam that in turn allowed the clerics to make the revolution "Islamic" in spite of its secular origins. This revolutionary-spirited Shia Islam is at the forefront of resisting US interests and those of its allies in the Middle East, which is probably why the US has growing concerns, not least about its ties to the Iranian state.
From a purely political perspective, the Biden administration's seizing of religious websites based in various countries in different languages makes little strategic sense. But when perceived in ideological terms — this is a revolutionary religion that draws heavily on what has been labelled as the "Karbala paradigm" which has the propensity to redefine Shia identity and encourage Muslim political activism against injustice — then such actions appear more pragmatic than originally thought. That being said, it is important to recognise that although Iran has an important and enduring relationship with Shia Islam it does not have a monopoly over it, especially when it comes to the rival clerics based in Iraq's Najaf headed by Ayatollah Ali Sistani who lean more towards quietism.
Speaking of Iraq, one of the many blunders by the Bush administration was the unintended consequence of unleashing Iranian influence in the country post-2003 US invasion and occupation. A lot of this stemmed from ignorance of Shia dynamics and centuries of cultural and religious ties between the two countries, particularly in the south. We can't be sure how much US policymakers have learnt about Shia Islam since then, if anything at all, but we tend to fear what we don't understand. The effective censorship of Shia Islam is a case in point.
BOOK REVIEW: Sunnis and Shi'a: A Political History
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.