By the Name of Allah, the most Beneficent, the most Merciful

Salaam dear Readers,

The article below was written a few days after the publishing on the article, “The Secret War: The Zionist Spy and the Formation of the Shia-Con.”  A copy of this article is available both online and in the possession of the writers of the below article.  It had come to the attention of the writers that there may be certain changes to “The Secret War” article in the near future; we will be happy to evaluate any changes to the article and add notes as an addendum to this very posting below the article.

The Ethics of Exposé

A Critique of “The Secret War”

By Azhar Sheraze and Trent Carl

“The Secret War: The Zionist Spy and the Formation of the Shia-Con,” a recent article published on the website oppression.org, draws attention to what the author describes as the “Shia-Con” problem – a group of influential Muslims from the Shia tradition who allegedly have been groomed, or misled, into supporting an imperialist agenda by neo-conservatives.  Readers will find the article to be a thought-provoking exposition that emphasizes the need to prioritize Islamic principles over political considerations.  The article also brings to light  issues related to the protection and cohesion of the Shia community, since it is clear that Muslim individuals, ulema and organizations alike face the real threat of being influenced and infiltrated by inimical interests. The article’s effectiveness, however, is compromised by methodological problems, speculative conclusions and broad generalizations.  The crux of the comments below represent a constructive critique of “The Secret War” in the hope that it will foster a greater level of precision and care in discussing the controversies and disagreements that are inevitable in any community.

Journalistic Standards

Before looking at the substantial issues broached in “The Secret War,” a comment must be made about journalistic standards. The author is introduced as an investigative blogger, but it is noteworthy that in this article several professional standards were compromised.

a) The article makes no mention of any attempts to contact Shaykh Sahlani, Syed Naqvi, or relevant others for their responses to the contentions raised in the article.  Perhaps this was done in some other forum, but there is no mention of such communication with respect to the presented allegations.  This makes it difficult for readers to understand the complete picture and compromises the objectivity and impartiality of the article.

b) Several arguments in the author’s narrative are not given references. In cases where he or she refers to “our research,” the author doesn’t specify whether this research was a personal initiative or an initiative on behalf of a group or organization, and if there as an organization involved, it is not named.  The missing context of these arguments and research will make it impossible for a reader to come to an informed conclusion about the allegations.

c) Considering that the author relies on books written by Stephan Schwartz to levy claims against the Muslims under contention, it is unfortunate that the credibility of the Schwartz’s sources are not further discussed.  This is especially surprising considering that the article concedes that Schwartz is a deceptive, Zionist Neo-Conservative. Does it make sense to take a deceiver’s claims at face value?  If the author’s own description holds true, then Schwartz’s claims relating to the Shia Muslims are likely to have been exaggerated, perhaps in part to further split the Shia community.  Rather than being accepted without hesitation, Schwartz’s claims could at most be a point of departure for further research.

“O you who have faith! If a profligate [person] should bring you some news, verify it, lest you should visit [harm] on some people out of ignorance, and then become regretful for what you have done.” [1]

The issue raised in point “c” is especially disconcerting for anyone concerned about the future of the Muslim community in America.  Regardless of the truth-value of Schwartz’s claims, if the community were to blindly accept what he has to say, what would stop the likes of him from deceiving the community with entirely false (and more destructive) claims in the future?  The author’s reliance on the claims of Schwartz is incomplete at best and opportunistic at worst.

Textual Inconsistencies

More serious are a number of textual inconsistencies in the article which need clarification or re-evaluation.  As mentioned before, the article relies for some of its information on Stephen Schwartz, whose books and articles are publicly available.  After examining the quotes in the “The Secret War” and referencing them to the original works there appear to be a number of problems with both the citations and narrative construction.  A few of the claims and mistakes will be examined in the order in which they appear in the article.

The author claims that Schwartz’s book Is it Good for the Jews?: The Crisis of America’s Israel Lobby explains that “Shi’a clerics and leaders were referred to as ‘Shia-Cons’ by US government officials and were funded and supported by the neocon movement months before the Iraq war.”  The claim that these clerics “were funded and supported…months before the Iraq war” contradicts Schwartz’s own claims in his article “Fear Not the Shias” which is provided in the text of The Secret War in the link “Pro-Iraq War Rally” [2].  This article was published on March 24th 2003, four days after the US invasion of Iraq [3].  On page 3 of “Fear Not the Shias” Schwartz says, “A good start would be to bring Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, Sheikh Kedhim Sadiq Mohammed, and others like them to Washington, to meet with the men and women guiding our efforts in Iraq, and to meet with the capital’s press, the better to explain the future of Iraq as envisaged by Iraqis themselves.”  [4]  This statement, if reliable, seems to illustrate that the mentioned clerics were not asked to engage in dialogue with the US government until after the invasion and were not funded months prior to the invasion.  A few conclusions are possible: either Schwartz contradicted himself or revised his position failing to inform readers, the author of “The Secret War” has speculated this information, or the author has failed to give a citation that would alleviate these inconsistencies to prove the clerics were indeed funded months before the Iraq invasion.

The author also quotes correctly a block of text from page xiii of Is it Good for the Jews?. However, he or she continues to quote, below the block of quoted text, from the book without citation (it is hoped the publishers will fix this problem so that the author may not face accusations of plagiarism or copyright infringement). The following sentence: “He spent hours picking the brains of the Shi’a clerics about the situation in Iraq, to discern who would support U.S. policy and how factions in the U.S. community lined up with those in Iraq itself” is not attributed to Schwartz and is in fact weaved into the author’s own narrative and words, although it is actually a sentence from Schwartz’s book on page xiii. There is also no evidence in Schwartz’s book to prove that “With help from Stephen Schwartz, Franklin was able to infiltrate the Washington DC, Dearborn Michigan, and New York City Shi’a communities” or that “Franklin promised the Shi’a leaders direct access to the foreign policy makers.” These two claims remain unsubstantiated.

The author further claims that “Back in DC, Larry Franklin successfully pushed for the Shi’as to organize a national conference in support for the Iraq war” and cites Schwartz’s book as evidence (without citing the page number for the quoted text). The block of text quoted that begins with “Franklin spent a great deal…” is from pp. 231-232 of Schwartz’s Is it good for the Jews?. The author uses this quote to create the narrative that Franklin was instrumental in forming UMAA and that UMAA was formed to support the Iraq war. However, nothing in the text of Schwartz’s work gives this impression. Perhaps other sources can confirm this claim but no citation was given in “The Secret War.” It is unsettling for such an important point to be left unsubstantiated, let alone for it to be referenced to an inaccurate source.

Two of the most striking flaws in “The Secret War” are the author’s citation errors from p. 231 of Schwartz’s book. First, the author tries to show that “A concentrated effort was made to find and promote Shi’as indifferent and even hostile towards Iran in the US” and goes on to quote from p. 231 in order to prove, as it seems, that the Iraqi clerics involved were friendly with neo-conservatives and hostile to Iran (merely criticizing Iran is considered treacherous in some Shia circles). The author quotes from Schwartz’s book, “Franklin, who frequented the Iraqi-American ‘Shia-cons’ i.e., influential Shia Muslims who like the neoconservatives, backed the United States in Iraq, kept his eye on the task at hand: lining up support for the intervention.” This sentence indicates that some of the Shia Muslims have an affinity with neo-conservatives. However, the text from Schwartz’s book actually states that Franklin met with “influential Shia Muslims who, like the neoconservatives, backed the United States in Iraq.” Our author leaves out a crucial comma from the original source that misconstrues both the sentence and the Muslims’ relationship with neo-conservatives—instead of, as Schwartz indicates, a relationship based on strategic interests, the misquoted text seems to indicate a genuine friendship between the two parties.

In the second serious error, he or she quotes from Schwartz: “ln his meetings with Shia clerics, he seldom mentioned Iran, which was probably wise, because nearly all of them were and are soft on Tehran. They rejected the Khomeini scheme for clerical rule in politics. (Schwartz p. 231)”  However, this quote is truncated and a period is placed where a comma should be. Schwartz’s text actually states:

“ln his meetings with Shia clerics, he seldom mentioned Iran, which was probably wise, because nearly all of them were and are soft on Tehran. They rejected the Khomeini scheme for clerical rule in politics, but they were not against Iran as a leading Shia power. Indeed, of the clerics Franklin met with, one repeatedly showed Hezbollah videos from Lebanon in his mosque.”

The truncated version that appears in “The Secret War” makes it seem as if these clerics were inimical to Iran, but Schwartz’s original text actually states something different: these clerics admired Iranian political strength and Hezbollah. At best, the author made a serious misreading. At worst, the text has been manipulated for some end. The most that could be drawn from this particular quotation from Schwartz’s work was that these clerics were not completely in agreement with the structure of the Iranian government – a claim that would require further investigation beyond the work by Schwartz in order to determine its truth-value.

These types of textual inconsistencies point to serious journalistic flaws or—worse—to cynical misuse of sources to construct a narrative and “web of organizations” that are not necessarily connected as such.  Such misuse or flaws may also contribute to a skewed portrayal of the clerics and individuals involved. This does not mean that the individuals involved are not guilty of wrongdoing or naivety – that is a separate matter – but to misrepresent them amounts to slander. It is hoped that the Shia community will hold its scholarly and journalistic works to a higher standard.

The Shia-Con Label

Perhaps the harshest aspect of the article is the pejorative phraseology, particularly the accusation that the alleged Muslims in the article are to be known as “Shia-Cons.”  There are risks associated with the coinage of this type of terminology.

Let us assume that the Muslims labeled by the author as “Shia-Cons” were not eager to support the mass-murder of Iraqi civilians for the sake of material interests (as the term “Shia-Con” may suggest, considering its relation to its mother term “Neo-Con”).  If indeed it is true that the alleged Muslims hold a more nuanced perspective on the issue of war—or even a more convoluted and confused perspective for that matter—it would be true that affinity with Neo-Cons and intentionality would be far more difficult to ascribe to the alleged Muslims in the article.  Imagine how difficult dialogue and debate would be if one perspective was smeared by this label.  What if some of the alleged never met any of the so-called warmongers?  What if some participated in the alleged gatherings and conversations to perform damage control?  What if some had indeed met with them, but to provide them thoughtful advice and warning as prescribed by Imam Sajjad’s (a) Treatise on Rights [7], irrespective of whether such advice was well-advised or naive, or even inadvertently harmful?  What if some accused in the article and presented in the photos were indeed guilty of the alleged mistakes, but not all?  Were the accusers present in those conversations and meetings?  Considering these possible nuances, is it correct to utilize the term “Shia-Con” so lightly, in ways that seem to portray all those mentioned and showcased in photos with this pejorative label?  If there is such a thing as a “Shia-Con,” let those who use the epithet lightly be aware of the weight and consequence of what label they choose to use.

It has always been the case that governments have tried to make contacts with potential opposition groups in order to influence or co-opt them. Such contacts do not necessarily mean that the group has sold out or even that it has been fooled. It may simply be their strategy for minimizing the harm of an oppressive system. That strategy should certainly be subjected to evaluation and critique, but pejorative epithets do not serve that purpose well. In any case, the evidence presented in the article did not fully substantiate the accusations made and certainly on its own could not be relied upon.

Encouraging Constructive Debate

Point “a” in the “Journalistic Standards” (see Addendum 2 below) section above explained the need to showcase the other side(s) of the story.  The author’s own confidence in his or her claims would provide even more reason to acknowledge and respond to rebuttals and opposing voices and perspectives – this is not to legitimize them or their perspectives, but to bring to light the truth.  For one, placing everyone on the hot-seat results in the accused to reflect deeply on their own actions.  This will be the case, of course, if combined with reasoned argumentation with an appropriate tone.  It does not appear, however, that the article was written for reasoned debate with the accused, but was rather an attempt to expose them.  It was already decided that the hujjah [5] was completed on them and therefore there was no need to seek a response from them.  Perhaps this is clear to the author; it is not necessarily clear for the author’s audience.  In fact, the heavy-handed approach taken in the article, along with a few convoluted misreadings of sources, may in the end have the effect of either appealing to or repelling its readers based on their prior beliefs about the matter—it does not encourage constructive dialogue or debate.  It can only be speculated what kind of polarizing effects this type of journalism will have on the harmony and solidarity of the Shia community in America if it becomes more common.

It should be made clear, however, that this critique makes no suggestion that the community ignore evil, nor is it suggesting that they sit idle when they feel harmful strategies are employed by their sisters or brothers.  In fact, it is suggested that all contending parties engage one another in greater, more creative, and more numerous ways, so long as that interaction is just, conscientious, done with truth, and according to the methods prescribed by Maraje on performing amr al bil ma’roof wa nahi an al munkar. [6]  It seems obvious the more heavy-handed approaches would, more-often-than-not, remain rare last resorts.  Imam Sajjad’s (a) Treatise on Rights is instructive in this regard:

“The right of the adversary (khasm) who has a claim against you is that, if what he claims against you is true, you give witness to it against yourself. You do not wrong him and you give him his full due. If what he claims against you is false, you act with kindness toward him and you show nothing in his affair other than kindness; you do not displease your Lord in his affair. And there is no strength save in God.

The right of the adversary against whom you have a claim is that, if your claim against him is true, you maintain polite moderation in speaking to him and you do not deny his right. If your claim is false, you fear God, repent to Him, and abandon your claim.” [7]

Conclusion

Of course, none of this is to take a stance one way or another on the substance and thrust of “The Secret War.”  This critique has not made any mention on the accuracy of the claims as true nor false, nor that the Shia scholars and laypeople it mentions are justified in their actions – whatever those actions may be. It is to be said that the article has the positive outcome of encouraging the community to be more mindful of potential threats facing the community, for indeed no committed Muslim would want to support imperialist agendas or state-sponsored violence.  To that end the article is successful.

This critique is also not a defense or an apologetic for any particular individual or organization.  It is rather a criticism of the type of journalism that the “The Secret War” represents in general.

The major points of the critique is to say that without hearing the other side of the story, determining the reliability of the sources the article relies on, considering the broader context, and re-evaluating the mis-readings of the sources themselves, the article on its own does not reveal much about the allegations levied against the Muslims in the article or the organizations they belong to.  To reiterate, the material of the article is plausible, but that is beside the point intended by this critique.  It is instead meant to reveal the need for the Muslim community to retain a more thoughtful type of interaction – especially regarding disagreements.  It is hoped that critiques such as this will help nip in the bud unscrupulous characterizations and potentially fraudulent journalistic endeavours by Muslims against other Muslims in the future.

The authors partially drew upon an e-mail correspondence on a scholarly list-serve that contributed to the framing for the article.  Praise is due to the Divine for anything beneficial. Any mistakes are the responsibility of the authors. Dialogue on this critique is welcome.

Addendum 1, 06/02/2011: A link to the “Ethics of Expose:” was added to the “Secret War” near the bottom of the article itself .

Addendum 2, 06/02/2011: The sentence, Point “a” in the “Quality of Journalism”,… was changed to Point “a” in the “Journalistic Standards”…

Citations

[1] Quran, 49:6

[2] http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/002/361ssuxr.asp?page=1

[3] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/invasion/cron/

[4] http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/002/361ssuxr.asp?page=3

[5] The word hujjah is a Quranic term in Arabic that refers to the phenomenon of when a truth, or a perspective, has been made self-evident to a particular soul without a shadow-of-a-doubt, to which no ambiguity remains what-so-ever.

[6] This term is a Quranic phrase that can be translated into English as enjoining what is good/correct and forbidding what is evil.  Syed Sistani has made available an instructive dialogue on how to perform this Divine duty at the following website: http://www.najaf.org/english/book/4/

Syed Khamene’i’s perspectives are given on these three pages (from the English book, Replies to Inquiries About the Practical Laws of Islam):
http://www.leader.ir/tree/view.php?parent=n5317&catid=23&lang=null
http://www.leader.ir/tree/view.php?parent=n5318&catid=23&lang=null
http://www.leader.ir/tree/view.php?parent=n5319&catid=23&lang=null

The late Syed Fadlallah’s instructions, translated into English and broken into 3 pages, can be viewed here: http://english.bayynat.org.lb/Fatawa/s9p1.htm

[7] http://www.al-islam.org/sahifa/treatise.html

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