Yasser al-Habib (on the right).
Hold on to your turbans, because the man you see above may soon ignite a Sunni versus Shia feud in Britain for the first time in our country’s history. And – as if I have to tell you after decades of clashes between the two groups in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and many other Middle Eastern countries – it's not exactly going to be pretty.
The radical, Kuwaiti-born Shia cleric Yasser al-Habib, who incessantly insults highly revered Sunni Muslims, has been tempting trouble for a long time. But with the opening of his Al-Muhassin mosque in Buckinghamshire last week, it's feared that tensions could reach boiling point and spill out of the pressure cooker into a sticky, complicated mess of sectarian conflict.
We took a trip up to Bucks last weekend to witness the unveiling of the controversial new mosque. More than a hundred of al-Habib’s followers turned up to the party and, when he arrived two hours late, he was given a hero's welcome – an adoring mass of chants, hugs and kisses.
One prominent Shia cleric (who wanted to remain anonymous) told us that he fears the mosque could lead to sectarian violence, with "Wahabbis and Salafis… attacking Shias”. The cleric also believes that, not only is al-Habib protected by the British government, but that he and his mosque are being funded by certain “Western organisations who want to create hatred and division among Muslims”. Which basically makes him the Alex Jones of Home Counties religious conspiracy hysteria – perhaps why he wanted to stay anonymous.
Al Habib rejects all of these claims and is considering taking legal advice against the "baseless" accusations. “This is defamation of character," he says. "Those who accuse us of being CIA agents, for example, should remind themselves that there will ultimately be a divine court, where we shall make a complaint against them.”
Whether his critics are right or not, 33-year-old al-Habib is certainly a divisive figure. To his followers, he is a hero for preaching the “hidden truth” – that the Prophet Muhammad was assassinated by his wives, Aisha and Hafsa, and companions, Abu Bakr and Omar, as opposed to the mainstream belief that he fell ill and died. But for the rest, he is a “hate preacher” who makes ludicrously blasphemous remarks.
Al-Habib, however, doesn't fit the stereotype of a “radical cleric” who shouts angrily from the pulpit. In person, he appears down to earth, mellow and softly-spoken. He also opposes extremism and violence and believes that “the majority of Sunnis will go to heaven”, which is kind of strange considering most of those Sunnis supposedly want him dead.
In 2003, al-Habib was sentenced to 35 years in prison in Kuwait for insulting the Prophet Muhammad’s wives and companions, who are revered in Sunni Islam. However, his imprisonment was mysteriously cut short and, in 2004, he fled to London.
There are reportedly plans for provocative publicity stunts at the mosque – celebrating the death of Muhammad's wife, Aisha, for example – that are likely to rouse many of Britain's Wahhabis and Salafis, two strains of ultra-conservative Sunni Islam.
“When it was announced that Margaret Thatcher was dead, there were hundreds of people across the UK who celebrated her death, threw street parties and rejoiced over the news," al-Habib says. "We will [also] take such an event as a chance to present our case against Aisha, who we have evidence poisoned the Prophet. But it will not shift on the street level from our part and you may take that as a solemn commitment from us.”
Al-Habib believes there is no evidence to suggest that the opening of the mosque will lead to Sunni/Shia clashes in the UK. But he concedes that there’s a possibility Muslim sectarian violence could be imported to the UK as a result of certain conflicts around the world. And considering violence has already spread to western Europe, he might not be wrong. Last year, for example, a Shia Imam in Belgium was killed when a man threw a Molotov cocktail at a mosque – allegedly a result of Sunni/Shia sectarianism.
But if mass religious rage doesn't break out over al-Habib's mosque, it's not unlikely that a portion of violence will be coming directly for him. Having already survived an assassination attempt while in jail by a group of fanatic al-Qaeda prisoners (or so he claims), prominent Salafi and Wahhabi public figures have reportedly sent al-Habib threats of violence and issued fatwas permitting his murder.
Al-Habib believes that fundamentalist Islamic groups like al-Qaeda, the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine and the Islamic Mujahideen in Bangladesh are wrongly implementing their interpretation of their so-called Islamic Sharia Law. He believes that these Salafi and Wahhabi radical groups are determined to rid the world of any non-Muslim influences and even concepts such as democracy, civil liberties, human rights and a free market economy.
He's also against Hezbollah because of their religious ideology, but supports their struggle in supporting Palestine and speaks out against the Iranian regime. Al-Habib has also vowed to not only continue speaking out against Islam’s “historical enemies” such as Aisha, but also condemn any injustice perpetrated by modern day Islamic scholars and public figures, including Ayatollah Khamenei in Iran.
Al-Habib is a Rafidi, a term in Shia Islam meaning "rejecter" [of many Sunni beliefs, traditions and caliphs]. He and his followers follow a methodology that differs from the majority of Shias, who commonly practice Taqiyya, which teaches you to conceal your beliefs.
With the opening of his mosque, al-Habib wishes to create a religious and spiritual revolution within the Shia intellect. Despite fears for his life – thanks to the constant death threats being sent his way – he seems bent on preaching his beliefs till the very end. And this beliefs are essentially trying to shock the Muslim world into facing, in his words, the “brutal reality” of Islamic history.
So, with all this in mind, does al-Habib fear for his life? It doesn’t seem like it. “The answer is no,” he says. “Every human will eventually die. I ask Allah to give me success by avoiding a slow death on a hospital bed at a very old age.”
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