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Cry sectarian: The new way to silence debate on Iranian extremism

It is aggravating that, rather than disprove a single point made in my article, its detractors employed ad hominem attacks against me

After the publication of an article of mine last week which exposed glaring similarities between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organisation, I was subjected to several days of online abuse and criticism.

To someone who has long campaigned for human rights in Iraq and elsewhere, and who has spent much time highlighting the effects and reality of the Iranian occupation on my ancestral home, this was nothing new. What was new, however, was the vitriol it attracted from respected left-wing media personalities.

Mehdi Hasan, for instance, who is lauded as a champion of the fight against Islamophobia in the West, took to Twitter to denounce me after he decided that I did not have the right to take a moral stance against the Iranian regime’s extremism by comparing Iran and IS. That was interesting for a number of reasons, not least of which is that Hasan’s own left-leaning politics appear to contradict the stance he took against me, by using his position of power and influence to try to stifle debate by branding me “sectarian”.

In essence, he used his platform to make sure that I, a writer hailing from the majority Sunni Arab demographic of the Middle East, should be silenced. Isn’t the left supposed to empower people, and give voice to the downtrodden, as the Iraqi people are? When I challenged him to prove where I was sectarian in my article he blocked me, Perhaps he realised that I, a British-Iraqi who opposes sectarianism and extremism wherever it is, had drawn attention to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports that highlight the plight of Ahwazi Iranians who, by the way, are mostly Shia. Awkward.

Just like when UK Prime Minister David Cameron attempted to shut down Sadiq Khan’s London mayoral campaign by defaming Muslim community leader Suliman Gani and claiming he was linked to extremists and IS, Hasan was no different (apart from the fact that he does not have the benefit of parliamentary privilege).

In his New Statesman article published in 2011, Hasan bemoaned the “spasms of hysteria” on Twitter that resulted because he said Iran’s desire for nuclear weapons was “rational”. He also decried the fact that his detractors misrepresented him, never “citing a single quote” from his piece. Why, then, was Hasan hypocritically attacking me for allegedly being sectarian despite failing to cite a single quote where I was being sectarian, and then failed to respond appropriately when challenged? As I said on Twitter, if I had written this article about Saudi Arabia, all of those trolling me mercilessly would have instead been applauding me.

Speaking of Saudi Arabia, and aside from insults directed at me and my family, I was also accused by others of being on Saudi’s books and also of being paid by the “Zionists”, perhaps in a poorly veiled attempt to link me to some anti-Semitic “Jewish conspiracy” as is common in Iranian political discourse. This, of course, ignores the fact that I have authored countless articles critical of Saudi Arabia, and was indeed critical of them within the very article that I was accused of authoring for their benefit! This just shows how any criticism of Iran overshadows anything else in the piece.

I was inundated with sectarian pejoratives, denouncing me as a “Wahhabi” and a “nasibi”, terms usually used by extremist Shias to describe those who oppose Iranian expansionism. Just like calling Shias “Safavids” – in reference to the Persian-Shia empire of yore – can be construed as being sectarian, so too are terms like Wahhabi, particularly as the followers of Muhammad bin Abdulwahhab’s teachings in Saudi Arabia itself do not describe themselves as Wahhabi, and no such school of Islamic jurisprudence even exists.

My sect, religion or race have nothing to do with my political opinions or academic research. I undoubtedly focus more on Iran than on Saudi Arabia, but the reasons why should be obvious considering that I am a published academic on contemporary Iraqi affairs, with a PhD thesis focusing on the Iran-Iraq War.

Iran’s influence on Iraqi politics and control over the Iraqi government is undeniable, unless one is completely ignorant or being wilfully blind due to their support of Iran’s foreign policy agenda of exporting its revolution. That being said, I criticise all who play a negative role in Iraq, including the Iraqi Islamic Party that was led by my uncle, Muhsin Abdulhamid, who served on the US occupation’s Iraqi Governing Council. Let us conveniently forget then that I, a supposed raving sectarian, am one of the only authors to write damning articles against a Sunni Islamist party that had members of his own family in it. How shamefully biased and sectarian of me.

It was Iranian-backed death squads and militias that abducted and murdered several members of my family, giving me a personal taste of just how close Iran is to IS. One of my other uncles, for instance, was kidnapped and tortured in Baghdad. They forced him to call my aunt, demanding a huge ransom and she barely understood him because he was unable to speak properly due to torture. In the end, they killed him after repeatedly drilling holes into his body, gouging his eyes out, tearing out his fingernails and burning his entire body with acid. In the end, his body was only identified through a distinctive birth mark on his leg. Even the Jordanian pilot, Muath al-Kasasbeh, was only burned to death by IS, a group perhaps outranked in savagery by Iran’s terrorists. Iran’s sectarian militias inflicted such brutal agony upon my family that I have personal experience and knowledge of how Iran is not too dissimilar from IS, leaving aside all the other families that have suffered like mine, many of whom I interviewed for academic research.

It is aggravating that, rather than disprove a single point made in my article, its detractors decided that ad hominem attacks against me were the most appropriate response, along with defamation by a well-known figure in the media. I would have welcomed discussion and debate, and even offered broadcasters, including Teymoor Nabili, formerly of Al Jazeera and the BBC, the opportunity to set up a debate.

After all, if you’re so confident in your views that Iran is nothing like IS, it should be a simple matter of humiliating a lowly PhD student such as myself before the world. However, their lack of courage in addressing the issue and instead choosing to attack me personally shows the weakness of their convictions and their arguments, if they have any.

In short, those who claim to champion human rights, freedom of expression and democracy did their utmost to silence any debate on the Iranian regime’s extremism. The irony is that I’m not the only author to highlight Iran’s despicable human rights record, and other brave individuals have come forward, including those from Iran. Yet it is no surprise that only I, a Sunni Arab, was targeted for such a concerted and sustained campaign of hatred, abuse and vitriol.

If anything, all this has taught me is that I must continue my struggle against extremist sectarian terrorists whoever they are, whether IS or the Iranian regime. I will not be cowed into silence by hypocritical left-wing media personalities, nor will I be intimidated into changing course.

We all recently praised Muhammad Ali’s lifelong unswerving dedication to moral political stances (despite how much hate he attracted at the time he took them) and, while I may not be The Greatest of All Time, I am proud to say that he is one of my inspirations and I believe in the same moral obligation to stand for truth that he did.

- Tallha Abdulrazaq is a researcher at the University of Exeter's Strategy & Security Institute, and winner of the Al Jazeera Young Researcher Award. He blogs at thewarjournal.co.uk and tweets from @thewarjournal

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Supporters of the Saraya al-Salam (Peace Brigades), a group formed by Iraqi Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, dressed up as suicide bombers, flash the sign for victory in Iraq's holy city of Najaf as the pro-government paramilitary group prepare to reinforce government forces in the fight against the Islamic State group for control of Fallujah, east of the capital, on 17 May, 2016 (AFP).