By any measure, the trajectory of Sheikh Imam Tawhidi to public prominence has been remarkable. From relative obscurity in South Australian circles, Tawhidi has become one of this country’s chief voices condemning Islamist extremism. Even if the name doesn’t immediately register, chances are that you will have seen him in the media, appearing on numerous current affair programs or contributing to the Huffington Post.
Through his promotion of the harmonious elements within Islam – the moniker he runs by is, in fact, ‘The Imam of Peace’ – it would seem that Tawhidi would be an obvious poster boy for the Australian government. The Imam is young, well presented and articulate. He is charming, has successfully utilised social media and has a strong following amongst the Australian public. Perhaps most importantly to a government that yearns for unity amongst its electorate, Tawhidi is an immigrant who champions the integration of fellow expats into the Australian community. The complete package, as it were.
However, there is a barrier preventing Australian elites from supporting this maverick cleric, and that is that he does not follow the liberal narrative. Instead of simply condemning obscene teachings associated with his religion, Tawhidi demands modification. Rather than apologise for shortcomings within the immigrant community, the Imam has called for immediate action, encouraging a ban on Islamic schools and Islamist organisations like Hizb’ut Tahrir. Through this, Tawhidi has even received the endorsement of none other than Ayaan Hirsi Ali – perhaps the most famous anti-Islamist (and Islamic) activist in the world – who has suggested that Tawhidi should be ‘elevated’ to sit amongst and give counsel to politicians and leaders.
Tawhidi is, therefore, one of those rare public figures: a reformer who not only denounces elements of Islam but actually seeks to restructure its teachings and interpretations. However, in the current global environment, the courage to promote such ideas inevitably leads to danger; the threat of violence is so present that Tawhidi has been forced to implement constant security measures in both his professional and private life. Instead of meeting in person, we talked on the phone, with Tawhidi calling from a private number.
True to his media appearances, the imam is polite and outspoken. His opinions run forth from him with the ease of someone who has to protect his views for a living. Confidently, he instils in me that he sees death threats as merely a hindrance rather than a danger. Indeed, ‘the anxiety does not affect him at all’, although he has revealed in previous interviews that he has been named an apostate and heretic by a mufti in Saudi Arabia.
Although of Iraqi background, Imam Tawhidi was born in Qom in Iran and immigrated when he was twelve years old to WA, where his father served as the senior imam of the state’s Shia community. Since 2007, Tawhidi himself has engaged in studies throughout the Middle East – including studying under the Grand Ayotollah Sayid Sadiq Shirazi –and is fluent in Arabic, Farsi and English.
It was during this overseas study, in 2014, that Tawhidi saw it as his duty to speak out against the questionable elements enshrined in his religion. On a sunny day in the Iraqi city of Karbala, Tawhidi was standing outside a mosque when, within earshot, a bomb exploded. As crowds ran from the scene and emergency crews rushed to help the survivors, the speakers of the mosque announced to the street below that Islamic State forces had invaded Mosul. If ever there was a time to speak out against Islamist terrorism, it was then.
However, Tawhidi’s campaigning has attracted many critics within the Islamic community itself. Calling for the closure of Islamic schools is bound to court controversy, but it is his contention that Islamic teachings are the causal link to Islamist terrorist acts that seems to really rile community leaders. Following the Manchester bombing, Tawhidi appeared in a fiery TV exchange with Dr Jamal Rifi, imploring his fellow guest to acknowledge that the Islamic holy scripture ‘teach(es) the beheading of people’.
I ask the imam if he considers alienation of the Australian Islamic community as an equally influential element as scripture in promoting Islamist violence. Tawhidi refutes this, highlighting that it appears that terrorist violence is an endemic problem within the Islamic diaspora at present. To illustrate his point, he draws attention to other minority groups. ‘The Asian community in this country is among the most marginalised. How many Asian terrorists do you see? There is no sacred text inciting large numbers of Asian citizens to violence’. This may seem like a simplistic argument, but Tawhidi has a point; ignoring the sinister elements of Islamic scripture and their influence on the actions of terrorists will not solve anything. For Tawhidi, the only way to deal with these elements is by fully exposing them, countering them and reforming from within.
The key issue that has dogged Tawhidi since his arrival in the public eye has been the legitimacy of his clerical credentials; he has not been recognised as an imam by the Australian National Imams Council. Islamic television station ‘One Path Network’ circulated a video asserting that Tawhidi cannot legitimately speak for the Islamic community. Even ABC programs have supported this, with Paul Barry’s ‘Media Watch’ contending that the media ‘should not be giving (Tawhidi) a megaphone’ because of his ‘divisive’ and ‘offensive’ views. When I raise these points with the imam, he suggests that the reason the ANIC does not recognise him as a registered cleric is indeed due to his controversial opinions, as they challenge the many traditional interpretations of Islamic scripture that are followed by other Islamic leaders in Australia.
Tawhidi is dismissive of his critics, and declares that he would rather focus on fighting for unity in Australian society than defending his qualifications. The imam has maintained that he is willing to debate anyone on the tenets of Islam. Indeed, through social media, Tawhidi has laid out challenges to various Islamic leaders and intellectuals in Australia to debate him on Islamic law and teaching.
As he signs off, Tawhidi wishes me harmony in my life and tells me he needs to get back to work; his schedule is full and he has a number of media appearances to prepare for. Although he has only recently arrived in the public sphere, it is hard not to imagine that Islam in Australia is going to be heavily influenced by this ‘Imam of Peace’ for some years to come.