Sunni and Shia Islamists in Italy: A New Unholy Alliance?

by Dr. Tommaso Virgili & Giovanni Giacalone

While it is not novel to witness friendly exchanges between Sunni and Shia Islamists

The latest twist in the Italian Islamist scene is the construction of organic links between Sunni and Shia Islamist organizations. In a recent meeting of the Council for Interreligious Dialogue at Regione Lombardia, Ali Faeznia, president of the Imam Ali Cultural Centre (Shia) entrusted Mohamed Asfa (Sunni imam of Via Padova Mosque), and Ali Abu Shwaima (Sunni imam of Segrate Mosque) as his delegates. Shwaima and Asfa have also been designated by Millî Görüş.

The Imam Ali Centre is not generically Shia; it is Khomeinist. Khomeinism is the state theology of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is named after its founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989).

Among its recent events, the Centre has celebrated the anniversary of the “victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran” at the presence of the Iranian consul, and a commemoration of Qassem Sulaymani, the leader of Iran’s terrorism forces who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2020, including a vow of “revenge” against the perpetrators of his killing.

Among the Centre’s associates are neofascists who praise the Iranian regime, Hezbollah, Assad, and Hamas.

As to the Sunni representatives designated by Faeznia, they have long been known in the UCOII circuit and beyond. Abu Shwaima has a long curriculum in Muslim-Brotherhood-related entities. In Italy, he was a founding member of USMI and then of UCOII, as well as first president of the FIOElinked Islamic Waqf. Abroad, he was a founding member of the European Institute of Human Sciences (Institut Européen de Sciences Humaines or IESH) and sat in the board of FIOE.

He is also known for his endorsement of polygamous marriages and for claiming that it is “indecent” for a woman to ride a bike. Furthermore, he has been investigated over illegal circumcisions performed at his mosque.

Mahmoud Asfa, a Jordanian with Italian citizenship, is currently the president of the House of Islamic Culture (Casa della Cultura Islamica or CCI). Milan-based, it was founded in 1993 and it has engaged in dialogue with many Catholic, Buddhist, and Jewish groups of the Forum of Religions in Milan.

Previously with UCOII, in 2008 Asfa distanced himself from the organization. In May 2020, during an interview with the online newspaper Il Giornale, Asfa made some controversial statements regarding Hamas, which he claimed to know extremely well and defined as “an organization recognized throughout the Arab Muslim world that is fighting for the liberation of its country”.

Asfa was also photographed at pro-Palestinian rallies next to Mohammed Hannoun, president of the Charitable Association for Solidarity with the Palestinian People (Associazione benefica per la solidarietà con il popolo palestinese or ABSPP).

ABSPP, which the Israeli domestic security agency Shin Bet (or SHABAK) classifies as the Italian emissary of the Hamas-linked Union of Good, had its bank accounts shut down in December 2021 due to a series of suspicious transactions possibly directed to Hamas.

While it is not novel to witness friendly exchanges between Sunni and Shia Islamists, the establishment of organic links welding together Khomeinists, UCOII, and Millî Görüş marks a noteworthy evolution that is in line with dynamics already seen in other European countries.

A relevant example comes from Germany, and specifically from the Islamic Centre of Hamburg (IZH), whose chairman (a self-claimed former member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps or IRGC74) was, in fact, invited as a guest speaker at the fourth annual conference of the Imam Ali Centre in Milan.

While the IZH is, in the words of the German Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), “an instrument of the Iranian government”, it is also part of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD), which has been defined “the umbrella organization of the Muslim Brotherhood in Germany”.

Furthermore, IZH founder Abdul-Karim Grimm was married to Fatima Grimm, who was in charge of the publications of the MB-linked Islamic Centre of Munich.

Article is an excerpt from Research Paper — Muslim Brotherhood and Khomeinism in Italy: The Told and the Untold.

Dr. Tommaso Virgili is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the WZB Berlin Social Science Center, where he works on Islamism and liberal Islam, and a Research Associate at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies in Brussels.

Giovanni Giacalone is a senior analyst for the Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues and Managing Emergencies/Catholic University of Milan and for the UK think-tank Islamic Theology of Counter-Terrorism.