‘There is no Such Thing as Islamophobia.’ Imam Tawhidi on Linda Sarsour, Islam and Media in the West

Published July 24th, 2017 - 08:48 GMT
Imam Tawhidi is a controversial figure, yet his message of reform and peace has resonated with many. (Pic: Twitter @Imamofpeace)
Imam Tawhidi is a controversial figure, yet his message of reform and peace has resonated with many. (Pic: Twitter @Imamofpeace)

Imam Mohammed Tawhidi, the self-billed “Imam of Peace” and “terrorist for dropping truth bombs”, is a curious character. Youthful, yet presenting himself as a wise and experienced religious scholar, his public persona has drawn praise from across the political spectrum in the West, as well as criticism, including the outright ban of his Facebook account. In the short span of about a year, he has gone from having a small social media following to an online superstar, equally loved and despised, ridiculed and lauded as the new voice of moderate Islam.  

For Westerners accustomed to seeing images of bearded imams and sheikhs on their television screens screaming about jihad or calling for “Death to America”, Tawhidi should come as a breath of fresh air. But the media buzz surrounding him is far from all positive; he has been accused of pandering to Islamophobes and the alt-right, and of furthering sectarianism within the Muslim community.

The moderate-right applaud his calls for major reform and radical re-interpretation of Islam, whilst the far-right claim he is a closet radical Islamist. Those on the left have been very quiet when it comes to Tawhidi, not wanting to openly criticise a Muslim scholar, yet uncomfortable about his calls for Trump-esque border controls. All of this has naturally contributed towards the confusion surrounding the phenomenon that is “Imam Tawhidi”.

Intrigued by his controversial Twitter feed and very public beef with Linda Sarsour, we reached out to Tawhidi over Skype.

“Hello, peace be upon you”, he immediately apologised for not appearing on camera, expressing worry that people were trying to find his location in hiding, he explained that he had to use a VPN throughout our chat.

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We began by probing the Imam on his views of the fiery, Brooklyn-born Muslim feminist, Linda Sarsour.

Despite both being practicing Muslims in the West with popular followings on (and off) the internet, Tawhidi has previously called Sarsour an “extremist” and a “terrorist” on Twitter (although the latter was perhaps sarcastic), and claims to disagree with her portrayal of Islam in the Western world.

It came as somewhat of a shock when Tawhidi responded by very calmly insisting that he really has no problem with her on a personal level and referred to her as a “respectful sister” and “entitled to her own opinion”. Perhaps in his strive to portray himself as a the ultimate man of peace, respectful and tolerant of everyone, Tawhidi occasionally gets caught up in a self-inflicted web of contradictions. 

Despite his incessant online trolling, Sarsour has yet to respond to Tawhidi—at least, publically—save for blocking him altogether on Twitter.

As the conversation developed, it became quite clear that Tawhidi had very little genuine respect for Sarsour. He accused her of deceiving Westerners, and of having an agenda backed up by “the government” and large Islamic organisations. He did not go into further detail, but assured us that—given the similarity between them with regard to their roles as popular Muslim activists in the West—he knew it to all be true.
Sarsour is indeed a controversial figure, and Tawhidi is not alone in calling her out for her provocative and aggressive statements. Despite her activism for women’s and minority rights (in the West, at least), on occasion she seems to regress massively, once tweeting the below about a victim of female genital mutilation:
 
 
 
Tawhidi, like Sarsour, enjoys a large social media following, and while he does believe that a portion of his followers also follow her, it seems like they are traveling on very different trajectories. With Sarsour often defending sharia law, and Tawhidi frequently tweeting about the evils of it, it seems unlikely that they will ever see eye to eye.
 

Aside from his feud with Sarsour, Tawhidi has also gained much attention for branding himself as a ‘Muslim reformer’.

When asked to elaborate on what exactly he wishes to reform within Islam, he explains that his “vision” is to reach an understanding that the violent verses in the Qur’an purely exist in a specific historical context, and no longer apply to the world we live in today.

 
This is nothing new; many Muslims believe that the Qur’an must be interpreted to factor in the major difference between life today, and life in the time of the prophet Mohammed. But Tawhidi goes a step further, wanting Muslims to condemn violence perpetrated by those who claim to follow Islam. As a reformer, he says, he must condemn both Shia and Sunni extremists, and that there is no such thing as denominations to him.
 
Having been accused of anti-Sunni sectarian views in the past, Tawhidi seemed eager to clear his record.
 
It is on the topic of condemnation that Tawhidi, as an Imam, offers an interesting viewpoint. He suggests that by refusing to link terrorism to Islam, left-wing Western media outlets are contributing to a lack of condemnation in the Islamic world. Just as liberal media is quick to claim that calling white terrorists “lone wolves” absolves radical right-wingers of responsibility, so to does Tawhidi believe that the same is the case for the Muslim community worldwide.
 

With Muslims and non-Muslims alike rushing to distance Islam from the likes of IS, many will be reluctant to agree with Tawhidi on this one. But there are those who have been quite open to listening to the Imam’s message, and have elevated him to the status of “spokesperson” for moderate Islam.

Tawhidi does not believe that most of his followers come from the right hand side of politics. Instead, he claims that his followers hail from both sides of the political spectrum, and include Muslims as well as non-Muslims. He is certain there is a difference between his followers, and the followers of Trump and conservative troll Milo Yiannopoulos, and even says that he and Linda Sarsour share some followers who might agree with both of them on specific points.
 

One thing is certain, and that is that conservative-leaning media loves Tawhidi. He is absolutely sure that sites such as the Daily Mail monitor his Twitter feed so that they can get the latest scoop on what the Imam of Peace says about political events and Islam in general. It is also his belief that “the media” treats Muslims fairly, although it can be presumed that by this he means conservative-leaning media, as he went on the slam CNN for apparently not using the term “terrorist” when describing IS fighters.

When asked about Islamophobia in the media, his response was somewhat confusing. He said that there was no such thing as Islamophobia, but also said that being terrified of IS was not an irrational fear, thus not a phobia. Like many others of Tawhidi’s, this argument has been heard before in conservative discourse on Islam.

 
Tawhidi is an important figure to emerge from the Western Islamic community in the current era of Trump and Sarsour. He will likely fail to convince anyone on the left to agree with Trump’s travel ban, but his steadfastness in his faith and his determination to reform it, rather than ditch it, could (and perhaps already is) reigning in some of those on the right.


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