A flood of anti-Shia propaganda online and on satellite television is spreading bigotry and violence to countries, which have so far had little experience of the sectarian hatred that has set the Middle East alight.
Shia Muslims from Australia to Nigeria, from Britain to Indonesia, are increasingly the victims of intimidation and even violent attacks from fellow Muslims as hardline Sunni ideologies gain an ever more global reach.
“The rise of anti-Shiism or Shia-phobia, is quite concerning to Shia communities living in the West, and the Internet, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook play a big role in promoting these hate messages,” said Yousif al-Khoei, a prominent Shia community leader in London.
Khoei, a director of the Al-Khoei Foundation, a charitable and educational organization, said there had been an increase in threats in Britain including against himself and has called for greater police vigilance. Last year he helped Shia victims of a violent attack by Islamic radicals, which the British press dubbed the “first case of Muslim sectarian violence in Britain.”
This year, low level intimidation continues, Khoei said, particularly at some universities, where there have long been concerns over infiltration by Islamic radicals.
In Australia, a Shia community leader was shot in the face outside a prayer hall on Nov. 3, reportedly hours after passersby had shouted “Shia dogs” and had threatened to return to carry out an attack.
In Nigeria, where attacks on Shia Muslims are relatively rare despite widespread violence between Christians and Muslims, a suicide bomber killed 15 people at a Shia ceremony, while in Vienna, a Shia mosque was evacuated after a bomb threat. And in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim state, an “Anti-Shia Alliance” led by hardline Sunni clerics this year held its first national convention.
The great majority of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, and the schism with Shia Islam dates back to a 7th century dispute over who should succeed Islam’s Prophet.
Sunni jihadists at the heart of the current anti-Shia campaign claim Shias have to pay for the bloody repression of Sunnis by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism. Assad’s backing by Shia-majority Iran and Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah movement has added to the vitriol.
The Internet is awash with anti-Shia material, including gruesome videos of executions, part of a social media campaign by the Islamic State jihadist group which experts say has rallied thousands of Westerners to its cause.
Andrew Hammond, Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that the spread of smartphones and social media had given anti-Shia sentiment global reach. “I definitely think we’re seeing a wave of anti-Shia bigotry … It’s obvious to see in recent years the readiness within the Sunni mainstream to take anti-Shia positions which would not have happened before,” he said. “It’s reaching places that you wouldn’t imagine. Pakistan, Britain, Malaysia, Indonesia. It’s really quite a striking phenomenon.”
Satellite TV channels, believed to benefit from support in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, feature inflammatory preachers labeling Shias grave worshippers, justifying their slaughter as heretics.
Most mainstream Sunni leaders condemn Sunni extremist groups, but that has done little to stem anti-Shia bigotry. Rasoul al-Musawi, the Shia community leader shot in Sydney, said he could not be certain his attackers were sectarian, but said some shops in the city had put up “No Shias” signs and the Islamic State’s black flag.
Last month gunmen opened fire on a bus carrying Shia Muslims in Pakistan’s Quetta, killing eight, part of an “unprecedented” escalation of violence against the country’s Shia community since 2008, Human Rights Watch said. Days later, gunmen killed seven members of Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, prompting the government to close the Riyadh bureau of a privately-owned television channel known for its anti-Shia rhetoric.
In London last year, radical Islamist protesters carried placards and shouted slogans including “Kill the Shia kafirs” and “Shia are allies of Satan.”
Fahad, a Shia, tried to remonstrate with them, but was beaten with fists and flagpoles. “They’re not going to stop,” he said, giving only his first name. “As long as they have support, as long as they have funding, as long as the idea is there, how can you stop them?”