Shirazi religious channels, hijacking the Shiite sphere

Hassan Al Mustafa

Published: Updated:

The Shirazi reference believes that “media outlets these days are a tool in the hands of the enemies of values, morals and humanity. Given the absence of the important and influential role of virtuous and pious people who follow the right doctrine in media outlets, these tools are thus exploited in achieving demonic and ill purposes.” This is according to what’s posted on Ayatollah Sayyid Sadiq al-Shirazi’s official website.

This perception is not new but it dates to years ago, before the death of reference Sayyid Mohammad al-Shirazi who encouraged his followers to be involved in the media field and not let others monopolize it. This made the Shirazi Movement later work on establishing more than 20 satellite television channels in different languages. This number is based on a statistic which Al Arabiya.net attained from a source from within the Shirazi reference

Researcher Bassem al-Zaydi at Imam Shirazi Center for Studies and Research thinks “satellite television channels are the most important means of modern media communication. Thus there were more focus on them in terms of contributors to establish them and recipients.”

The sphere conflict

In 1979, the “Islamic Revolution” toppled the regime of late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Ayatollah Sayyid Mohammad al-Shirazi returned from Kuwait to settle in Qom where the religious Hawza (seminary) is. Although Sayyid Mohammad supported the revolution – at the time – he advised his followers not to reveal all their cards so they do not become mere tools in the hands of the new regime.

The independence which Shirazi wanted for his reference and followers led to difference in opinions and clashes with security forces and clerics in support of Ayatollah Khomeini. This explains the political disharmony which later happened between the old comrades!

The Shirazis are aware that Iran is a state with huge financial capabilities and political influence that goes beyond its borders. They know they cannot compete with it on this front so they headed towards another field which is possessing the sentiment of the Shiite public, addressing it and influencing it especially amid the sectarian conflict in the Middle East and the worsening Sunni-Shiite conflict.

Amid this sectarian polarization, Alanwar TV was launched in 2004. It was the first satellite television channel affiliated with the Shirazi Movement. It adopted a religious rhetoric and broadcast juristic and doctrinal lectures and prayers and aired footage of visitors to sacred shrines of Shiite imams.

This combination of religious material touched the worried and wounded Shiite sentiment at a time when Al-Qaeda explosions rocked Iraqi cities and killed dozens of innocent people and amid the rise of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the violence and oppression he represented.

The “Husayni” rhetoric of Alanwar TV created an objective and moral space for the public in the Gulf and in Iraq in particular as people found themselves a breather which they can use to declare their own identity amid attempts to bury it and eradicate it, as they tend to believe.

“Arresting the Shiite sentimental space” was the task which the Shirazi Movement found itself capable of in terms of competing with the Iranian regime and excelling over it, especially that Tehran adopts a different rhetoric which purpose is to present itself as a state against extremism and sectarianism and adopts statements of “Islamic unity.”

A figure that’s well-informed about relations between Iran and the Shirazi reference told Al Arabiya.net: “The Iranians want to control the Shiite decision, and they’ve actually managed to control most of it. They have soft mechanism of action to melt all Shiite existences. Meanwhile the group of Sayyid Shirazi refuses to surrender to the Iranian will but it cannot compete with Iran in its jihadist and political project. It can compete with it in controlling the Shiite sentiment via the project of rituals and satellite channels.” He added: “This explains why the Shirazi office began establishing ideological channels. They succeeded in that as their channels are watched by many Shiites since they air material that harmonizes with the popular culture of fathers, mothers and grandparents.”

This competition over the Shiite sphere made the Iranians criticize these channels which they think “they work on a daily basis to promote extremist ideology, attack the Iranian Islamic Republic and ignite the fire of war between Sunni and Shiite, i.e. provide indirect services to takfirist movements that wreak havoc in the Muslim nation.” This is according to a report published in March by the news agency Tasnim that’s close to Iranian security apparatuses.

List of channels

There is only one channel that speaks in Arabic, Farsi and English and which represents the official opinion of the Shirazi reference and it is Marjaeyat TV which broadcasts the news, activities and lessons of Sayyid Sadiq al-Shirazi and of his institutions and religious hawzas (seminaries). There are also more than 20 satellite television channels that were established upon “the encouragement of the Shirazi reference,” and they are:

Arabic speaking channels: Marjaeyat TV, Alanwar TV, Alanwar TV 2, Imam Hussein TV, Al-Mahdi TV, Alhawza Alilmiyya TV, Shaaer TV, Al-Abbas TV, CH 4 Teen, Al-Aqila TV and Imam Hassan TV.

Farsi speaking channels: Marjaeyat TV, Imam Hussein TV, Imam Asr TV, Alhawza Alilmiyya TV, BaitAlabbas TV, Aby Al-Fadl al-Abbas TV, Al-Qaem TV, Imam Sadiq TV, Al-Slam TV and Al-Ghadeer TV.

English speaking channels: Marjaeyat TV and Imam Hussein TV.

Urdu speaking channels: Imam Hussein TV, Hussein Janl TV and Khadija channel.

Turkish speaking channels: Al-Zahraa TV.

The diverse television channels that speak in different languages aim to address an audience that’s made up of different ethnicities and that are distributed in difference Islamic and European countries.

What’s noticeable about these channels is that their programs and topics resemble each other and that the production rate is humble and the quality of the content is less than average.

Researcher Bassem al-Zaydi said: “With the presence of more than 20,000 channels across the world that are affiliated with different religions, cultures and ethnicities, we think the Islamic world in general and Ahl al-Bayt sect in particular have very few satellite channels. Each channel has its message and its own programs even if the purposes are similar.” He attributed the lack of content quality to the fact that “qualitative work requires huge financial capabilities whereas these satellite television channels operate with their simple available capabilities.”

Researcher Sheikh Ahmed al-Katib, who witnessed the era of Sayyid Mohammal al-Shirazi since the beginning of his activity in the Iraqi city in Karbala, disagrees with Zaydi and attributes the weak content to the fact that the “Shirazi Movement does not have experts in the media or prominent figures who studied media and specialized in it.” He added: “What they are doing is a mere propaganda attempt where those who supervise these channels lack a substantial vision.”

Editor-in-chief of Al-Sahel Magazine Sheikh Habib al-Jumayaa supports Katib’s opinion and believeS that “these channels transformed into mere channels that air mourning ceremonies as those who operate them do not have a work plan or a systematic vision, and this makes the negatives much more than the very limited positives.”

Relation with Yasser al-Habib

Fadak TV, which broadcasts from the UK and which is supervised by Kuwaiti cleric Yasser al-Habib, is one of the most important channels that adopt a sectarian and extremist rhetoric that excludes whoever is different whether Sunni or Shiite. Habib’s insults have included respectable Sunni and Shiite Islamic religious symbols.

Habib historically belongs to the school of Sayyid Mohammad al-Shirazi in which he’s been active since his early years. However, his slanderous rhetoric made many figures from the movement keep away from him and disown him or in the best case scenarios declare they do not support him.

In February 2014, the office of reference Sayyid Sadiq Al-Shirazi in the Iranian city of Qom issued a statement saying “Only the well-known reference offices across the world and Marjaeyat TV represent the Sayyid, the reference.”

Many viewed this statement as ending liaison between the Shirazi reference and Habib though this was not frankly declared.

We asked the Imam Shirazi Center for Studies and Research: “Do you support the rhetoric of channels like Fadak TV and Yasser al-Habib?” They answered: “No, not at all,” adding: “The adopted rhetoric of the office of Sayyid Shirazi, the reference, always confirms moderation, centrism and co-existence and (advocates) the use of peaceful and moral methods via wisdom and good preaching.”

Perhaps this is the first time that an institution that’s affiliated with the reference of Sayyid Sadiq Al-Shirazi exonerates itself from the rhetoric of Yasser Al-Habib in such a clear and frank way. The reference has kept silent for years over Habib’s activities despite what he said about deep problems and sectarian rift between Muslims, and it preferred not to engage in this. However, this silence raised suspicions of “implicit approval” or lack of desire to confront extremist from within the Shirazi Movement.

Researcher Ahmed Al-Katib has his own opinion on the matter as he said: “Fadak TV and other similar channels express the opinion of the current Shirazi reference, despite the different terms used and the type of the adopted rhetoric. Everyone drinks from the same shallow intellect.”

A Saudi figure who previously belonged to the Shirazi Movement and who preferred not to be named disagree with Sheikh Katib and said: “There is real disparity in the ideas between the office of Sayyid Sadiq Al-Shirazi and Yasser Al-Habib’s group. Habib crossed the references’ lines and did not commit to them and to their ethics.”

Sheikh Habib al-Jumayaa said: “Yasser Al-Habib’s movement greatly harmed the image of Shiites and depicted them as a group that do nothing but disturb others. This contradicts with the culture we inherited from Al-Bayt imams who forbade insulting. The silence of the reference’s (office) from this backward behavior may be understood by some as support of this behavior. This is what Habib’s followers promote.” Jumayaa called on the Shirazi reference “to declare a frank stance towards Habib’s insults because preserving civil peace, people’s interests and the society’s unity is more important than anything else.”

The next article will discuss the funding sources of these satellite television channels, the kind of rhetoric they adopt and their promotion of Al-Shirazi, the family and the reference.

This article is also available in Arabic.

Hassan AlMustafa is Saudi journalist with interest in middle east and Gulf politics. His writing focuses on social media, Arab youth affairs and Middle Eastern societal matters. His twitter handle is @halmustafa.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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