Analysis • Commentary • Advocacy

Nicolas Pirsoul: Government should act over diplomat’s incendiary speech

Iranian diplomat Hormoz Ghahremani has come under fire for his recent anti-Israel speech at an Auckland Shia Islamic centre in Pakuranga.

Ghahremani spoke alongside other speakers in a series of talks that denied the Holocaust and called for the “surgical removal” of Israel.

The speakers also argued that Israel is currently fuelling terrorism in the Middle East. The controversial speeches took place during the celebration of “Quds” day, an anti-Israel protest day initiated by Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

As a liberal, democratic country, New Zealand should promote freedom of speech and criticising other nations’ policies is a right. Iranian propaganda, however, is not acceptable.

Denying the atrocities of the Holocaust represent a disservice to humanity and is anti-Semitic.

A liberal, democratic nation should act to ensure that racism is not propagated on its territory. Iranian influence in New Zealand should be restricted as its goal is to legitimise an authoritarian regime that does not respect basic human rights.

The Iranian influence on some Shia places of worship in New Zealand raises once again the question of foreign influences on Islamic communities in our country.

The new government should tackle this important issue as positive race relations and our democratic values are directly under threat from such influence. The government should work in concert with Muslim communities and clerics to ensure that mosques remain places of worship and do not become the vehicles for the propagation of any radical political ideology.

To understand and assess the potential threat of such statements to New Zealand society, it is important to understand the wider ideological background of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Ayatollah Khomeini, the charismatic leader of the Iranian revolution, transformed Iran into a theocracy after the fall of the Shah.

The Iranian ideology represents a politicisation of religion. Khomeini theorised the idea that the formation and maintenance of an Islamic state was the most important aspect of Islam and could even trump other Islamic principles.

His political activism broke away from a tradition of political quietism amongst Shia clerics, who mostly disapprove of the idea of creating an Islamic state before the return of Imam Mahdi, the Shia messiah.

Khomeini’s departure from the traditional Shia emphasis on the separation between religion and government has two implications. Firstly, that he had to impose his ideology over the majority Shia clergy. This happened mostly through the use of force. Secondly, Khomeini believed that his movement would lead to an overall Islamic revolution in the Muslim world.

Given his status as a Shia, and the strong anti-Shia sentiments amongst Sunnis, Khomeini embraced pan-Islamism and the ideal of Sunni-Shia unity against what he called Western and Zionist influence over the Muslim world.

This rapprochement meant that radical Sunni Islamist theories such as Sayyed Qutb’s began to influence some politicised Shia movements and a process of radicalisation and Islamisation of some Shia communities began.

One of the ways Iranian revolutionary forces planned to gain the support from Sunnis was to become the main supporter of anti-Israel militantism while portraying Sunni leaders as traitors and collaborators with Israel.

The creation of Hezbollah and continuous financial/military support for Hamas (despite being a Sunni terrorist organisation) embodies this phenomenon. Whether or not this strategy served Iranian interests is a matter of debate.

The phenomenon of politicisation and radicalisation of Shia Islam continued under Khamenei (Khomeini’s successor as Supreme Leader) and exporting their ideologies abroad has become a key element of their soft power strategy. The speeches in the Pakuranga centre reflect this problematic Iranian influence in Western nations.

Despite the Iranian illiberal and authoritarian ideology not being shared by most Shia clerics, it has become increasingly popular amongst Shia communities, even in Western nations.

This is largely due to the fact that Iranian financial support is much stronger than the financial support received by Shia Islamic centres which do not align themselves with the Iranian government.

This phenomenon is happening in Auckland where two Shia centres (in Pakuranga and New Lynn) receive financial and ideological support from Iran and propagate their ideology openly.

Iranian militantism is different from Sunni jihadi propaganda such as ISIS or Al Qaeda’s and does not call for indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the West.

This does not mean that Iranian influence in New Zealand is not highly problematic, as evidenced by Ghahremani’s controversial speech.