In June 2018, the Austrian government announced it would shut down seven mosques and expel sixty imams, because of their putative links to Salafi-jihadists or Turkish regime networks. The government’s decision was made in the wake of a 2015 law that banned foreign funding of religious institutions
and required Muslim organizations to express a “positive approach towards the society and the state” of Austria.
Austria’s determination to clamp down on Sunni Islamist extremism and the Turkish regime network was applauded by some, including prominent think tanks, but condemned by a number of American media outlets. Few have noted, however, that while Sunni extremists are under the spotlight, Shiite Islamists continue to operate with impunity.
Last week, for example, a procession by Shia mourners was held on Mariahilfer Street, in Vienna. The procession was led by Ayatollah Bushehri, the Friday prayer leader in Qom, the city known as the cradle of Shia theology in Iran.
Bushehri was allowed to enter Austria to lead Shia rituals for the Arabic lunar month of Moharram, the holiest month in the Shia calendar. Every year, on the 10th of Moharram, Shiite faithful mourn the beheading of the Islamic prophet’s grandson, Hussein, by his rival family members in the battle of Karbala. Some consider the mourning rituals to be brutal. The severity of the outburst of grief and sorrow expressed by the Shia on this day varies from place to place. Some beat themselves on the chest, some self-flagellate with chains, while a few go to the extreme of cutting their foreheads with a sword or machete, so that blood flows down their faces.
Traditionally, these rituals have been limited to Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan, where sizable Shiite populations exist. In recent years, however, Moharram rituals have slowly crept into public places in major European cities, and even parts of the U.S. (particularly Los Angeles).
The Islamic Republic of Iran funds and encourages the displays of mourning, although it purports to oppose the most violent displays of self-flagellation. It supports Moharram demonstrations through its network of umbrella organizations in Europe — which are styled as “religious” or “cultural” centers — because the regime has long intertwined the day of mourning with the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary zeal.
Vienna’s residents must have looked on with bewilderment at the spectacle. Few would have known who Ayatollah Bushehri is; most would have merely looked upon him and the crowds — whether happily or not — as just another sign of decades of European multiculturalist policies.
But Ayatollah Bushehri is no ordinary Shiite clergy. He is very much part and parcel of the Islamic Republic’s political establishment. Bushehri is a member of the so-called “Assembly of Experts” — a deliberative body (of which all but one of the members are clerics) to which the Supreme Leader is ostensibly accountable.
Members of this council are elected by the people, but their candidacies first require the approval of the Supreme Leader himself. Unsurprisingly, the Assembly of Experts has never challenged a Supreme Leader’s rulings.
Bushehri is also the Friday prayer leader for Qom — appointed by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, to deliver sermons that advance the Supreme Leader’s agenda.
Every Friday sermon consists of two parts: religious and political. The faithful are often encouraged to chant “Death to America, Death to England, Death to Israel and Death to the Enemies of the Supreme Leader.”
Bushehri’s sermons do not shy away from promoting and echoing the extreme, theocratic views of the Iranian regime:
“Today our people came on to the streets, in temperatures of 50 degrees, and chanted ‘Death to America and Death to Israel,’ to tell Trump we will not deviate from our goals.”— June 10, 2018.
“Under the present conditions, Muslims must break their silence and rise up against the American and Zionist plots, and Trump must know that the fire that he has ignited will soon engulf America and Israel.” — Dec 8, 2017
The Ayatollah is a prominent enforcer of mandatory hijab, encouraging his adherents to ensure women are fully observing the Islamic dress code: “Confronting the improper observance of the Islamic dress code is not only the duty of the law enforcement forces.”
This is not the first time Ayatollah Bushehri has been to Austria. On February 19, 2017, he went on a “missionary tour” to Vienna and held a series of lectures at the Imam Ali Islamic Center, which openly identifies itself as a representative office of Iran’s Supreme Leader. In 2017, an Austrian government
Report concluded that the Imam Ali mosque advocates “the destruction of the Jewish state” and that its imams are teaching Austrian Shiites about “a global conspiracy of Western and Arab states seeking to destroy Iran.”
The Austrian government’s recent decision to clamp down on the Turkish regime’s network in Austria followed the widely-reported 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 hardline Shiite clerics and dozens of regime-aligned Islamic centers — are also promoting extremist ideology and conducting espionage. In fact, U.S. government reports have noted that Austria is the center for Iranian intelligence operations in Europe, with 100 agents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security reportedly stationed there, who spy on, harass and threaten anti-regime Shiite and Iranian activists.
In violation of Austria’s 2015 law, Iran’s theocratic network in Austria certainly does not express a “positive approach towards the society and the state.” And yet none of the regime’s activities has led to any censure or restrictions on Iranian institutions or clerics in Austria. Hardline Shiites may be self-flagellating, but in the long term it is the Austrian authorities that are doing themselves the most damage.
Potkin Azamehr is a writer for Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.