Everyone has a story.
My story is a long one, which is why I put the main parts of it in a book. To make sure that all my friends and followers can read my book, I recently instructed my office to make the E-book version affordable to everyone for almost nothing.
Here, I explain how I was indoctrinated by the educational system of Islamic Regime in Iran, and how I managed to break free. This is important because I do not speak of a matter that took place twenty or fifty years ago, but a matter that took place less than ten years ago.
How did Imam Tawhidi, go from this:
— PragerU (@prageru) September 4, 2019
The Beginning: An Extremist Community and Atmosphere
In 2006, my friends and I were taken on a journey from Western Australia to Iran, in order to visit the holy Islamic sites as well as participate in a short Islamic studies course. Around a month later, we returned to Australia. Out of the group of 20 people, I was the only one that decided to return to Iran and complete my studies. With encouragement from friends and family, I returned to Iran the following year.
I landed in Tehran at 2:22 am on February 3, 2007. Amar, a taxi driver my family friends had arranged to meet me at the airport, took me to the Holy City of Qum. I told him to take me to the Imam Khomeini Islamic Seminary, located at Jihad Roundabout, because I was familiar with that institute and its people from the previous trip. I was transferred to another location, a student dormitory, where students from all countries waited for their interview with the university committee.
I spent over five months in a dormitory with prospective students from Russia, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Africa, the UK, and the USA. The room I was placed in included six other students waiting their turn, with the entire building holding over 50 other students. It was not a pleasant time. Many had applied to study in this university simply because there was no other option for them in life. They had either come from war-torn countries, or fled their families. Some were converts to Islam. Fights would break out between them, and some students were extremely violent.
Eventually, I was transferred to Al-Mahdi Institute, where students entering the Islamic seminary are required to reach a level of fluency in the Farsi language. I had imagined I would be transferred directly to an Arabic university because I also spoke Arabic, but I was required to “perfect” my Farsi language first. By now it was nearly 2008.
Al-Mahdi Institute can be safely described as an ideological training base, operated by retired members of the Iranian intelligence services. It consists of three floors and an underground level. The rooms in the underground level and first floor are used as classrooms and a large mosque, while the remaining floors are utilized as dormitories.
Although its job is to teach Farsi to students so that they can understand Islamic texts, and more importantly the speeches of the supreme leader Ali Khamenei, it also monitors and investigates foreign students as they are completing their extensive Farsi course.
My heart was full of love for the Iranian government, specifically its supreme leader Ali Khamenei and its former leader Khomeini. I was ready to sacrifice my life for the Iranian regime and I believed that, although life here would be tough, six months of patience in the institute would be worth it, since what I would achieve through the course would outweigh the struggle.
I managed to get along with everyone else by finding a common ground, this being that we were all amateur Islamists who subscribed to an extremist ideology. We all loved Hizbullah, and were prepared to join them at all costs. We detested the USA and cursed it daily along with Israel and the UK.
The ideology of the Iranian regime was simply part of my religion, to the point that we would twist the religion to benefit the Iranian regime. My parents did not raise me as a radical, but my community, friends, surroundings, and teachers did. I never knew that I was a believer in an extremist ideology, because I simply thought that was the only way to be. This ideology had become normality for me in Iran, and we were all taught to become soldiers of religion, who would return to our countries, in my case Australia, and preach Islam – the hardline Iranian revolutionary type of Islam. I also came across other students from Australia and elsewhere in the West, which made life a lot easier.
Our Farsi language classes in Al-Mahdi Institute began at 8 am and paused at 12 for noon prayers and lunch, then continued from 3 pm to 5 pm. The entire curriculum focused on indoctrinating the students and teaching us material that presented the Iranian regime as God’s righteous government on this planet.
The Islamic lectures, school, and mosque programs I had attended in Australia had preached a much more basic version of this indoctrination, so the path was already paved for my brain to be controlled by the regime-dominated educational atmosphere.
What goes unmentioned most of the time is that radicalization is mostly a result of atmosphere, rather than scripture. Majority of ISIS militants from Europe and or Africa for example, have difficulty in reciting any Arabic scripture. But their atmospheres, surroundings and friends provide them with certainty in their beliefs to the extent that they would kill and die for them.
Similarly, I was completely radicalized, and willing to kill anyone who spoke a single word against Ali Khamenei, whom I saw as the link between myself and God; because everyone around me would too.
In my book, I highlight many matters of corruption that took place before me. I began to change drastically while studying at Al-Mahdi. Many things occurred before my very eyes during the first few months of my studies that proved to me that the Iranian regime was indeed a corrupt system. Female students, while segregated in female-only institutes, were regularly sexually assaulted by Islamic clerics, and administrators of the educational institutes who had access to students’ portfolios preyed on them by accessing their details to find out whether a female student was single, divorced, or married.
A struggle remained within me to accept it as normality, both religiously and culturally. Therefore, I began to justify everything I saw although I knew deep down that it was wrong – according to my Australian upbringing, of course. However, I was in Iran, and on my way to becoming an Islamic scholar; therefore, I put my Australian values aside, not willingly, but because I had been brainwashed to.
I moved on to study in the mainstream Islamic universities. Eventually I decided to take on the traditional path of the Islamic Seminary and study under the authority of the Grand Ayatollahs, instead of government-run institutes.
My De-Radicalization and its Costs
My de-radicalization process began in a very unusual way and in two stages. First, I distanced myself from the Iranian regime and Hezbollah’s affiliates, but I was still a fundamentalist Islamist. The second stage was liberating my mind from fundamentalist ideas. The first stage happened in early 2010 and continued until 2012, and was similar to switching support for political parties, but the second stage was extremely difficult as it was a period of gradual, slow, and quiet change; a process that I had to undergo alone over a period of two years.
When I was a fundamentalist among members of the Iranian regime, I did not engage in any research to verify whether the information I was being taught was true or not, simply because I believed it to all be true as it was presented to us with a religious and divine coating. In my book, I also speak about the new community of influential people that I associated myself with. They weren’t progressive Muslims, but they were not militant. It was the perfect and gradual change that I needed.
As the days passed by I realized that a massive chapter within the current situation of Shia Islam and my faith was missing for me, and that was the ability of being a Muslim without the need to die or kill to prove your faith.
After my visible change in approach towards religion, my previous friends from the regime-affiliated institutes treated me as though I had a relationship with Satan himself. I was completely outcast. But the matter didn’t end there; it escalated to bullying. They tried to make me flee the country by bullying me. The dean of students, Mr. Sanjary, would instruct senior students to pressure me to return to Australia voluntarily. The senior students would follow me wherever I went, and if I stopped they would bully me by pushing and shoving me with all their strength, causing me to fall. They would light cigarettes and throw them down the back of my shirt, and would drive beside me with their motorbikes and pull my shirt, slamming me to the ground in public. They stole my money, laptop, and phone and left me with basically nothing.
Mr. Sanjary then sent an Afghan-Australian student from Sydney, Australia, to corner me and make me promise that I would never criticize the regime’s Islamic Theocracy ever again. I did so out of fear. However, he still physically abused me whenever he could, and would keep an eye on my movements. One day in winter, he saw me going into the showers, and decided to bring the hose (which the cleaners used to wash the floor of the showers) and pour cold water on me from over the shower door.
I continued to remain patient for the sake of my educational VISA. I wanted the protection an Australian citizen would have, rather than applying to study through my Iranian documents.
Eventually I was detained, interrogated and physically abused. This began a new trend of regular interrogations as my base began to grow within the Islamic Seminary.
Throughout the entire period of 2009–2012, I attended Islamic lessons both at the Iranian regime’s university and privately at their opposition’s lessons. I was exploring the differences between the Iranian regime and its opposition. My study schedule, other than the month of Ramadhan, would reach 16 hours a day, and I achieved the status of a Muslim scholar in three years.
In June 2010, Grand Ayatollah Sadiq Shirazi ordained me as a scholar and crowned me as an imam in a public event held at his home.
My Final Year in Iran
After withdrawing from the regime-run university by the end of 2012, I found myself free, and with a visa ending in December 2013. I no longer subscribed to the belief system taught by the Iranian regime and its Islamic universities, and I found myself unable to co-exist with groups that supported the Iranian regime, even though they dominated the entire city. As a matter of fact, many casual students in Al-Mustafa University were and still are actual Hizbullah militants.
By this time, I had made several public statements that supported an enlightened brand of Islam. Now that I was not part of a government-run institute, nobody questioned my movements, and I was free to explore the scholarly works that were foundations of the Islamic faith. I kept my reformist agenda to myself, until I was in a strong position to express my opinions. Perhaps this explains why I did not accept the position of deputy to any grand ayatollahs or marry into their families.
My Relocation to Iraq, ISIS and the Fall of Mosul
By the end of 2013, I decided to relocate to Iraq and continue my advanced studies within its Islamic seminaries. I relocated to the Holy City of Karbala, and studied under the authority of its most prominent Islamic authorities between January 2014 and December 2015. Because I am also an Iraqi citizen, I did not require a visa to stay in Iraq. It was an open environment where students were not restricted by any government laws or policies. The two cities of Najaf and Karbala contain the leading Islamic seminaries within Shia Islam. However, Qum is and will always be viewed as a place for students to gain their basics in Islamic studies, unless of course they study independently and outside the boundaries of the curriculum of the Islamic universities.
Six months later, when ISIS took control of Mosul in June 2014, I was temporarily based in Baghdad and literally less than 1 hour away from ISIS territory. The Iraqi government along with the rest of the Iraqi nation didn’t know how strong ISIS was, or if Mosul was the only area it intended to capture. The country was shaken and many ministers fled the country. Many citizens of the USA, UK, and other western countries fled Iraq through Baghdad Airport because they believed that if ISIS captured Baghdad they would all be held as political hostages.
I was also afraid. This event horrified me, but I decided not to flee the country. I immediately returned to the Holy City of Karbala, a sacred Shia Muslim stronghold that would be very difficult for ISIS to conquer. Now I was around 2 hours away from ISIS, and it is from here that my stance against Islamic extremism and fundamentalism became public.
I became focused on preaching peace and tackling Islamic extremism. I began reporting from within Iraq regarding the security situation and the spread of the Islamic State. It didn’t look like it was going to end quickly, and ISIS began to spread rapidly throughout both Iraq and Syria.
I remained in Iraq, both studying and tackling the ideology of Islamic extremism through TV networks. Later in 2014, I was walking with my mother in the crowded holy city when there was an explosion nearby. I will never forget how the earth moved beneath my feet, and how I lost my mother for a few minutes among the stampede of thousands of frightened people running for their lives; because in many cases, if a bomb is detonated in one area, a second explosion will follow, which increased the pushing and shoving among civilians.
In January 2015, my Uncle Faris who was a colonel in the Iraqi Army went missing, and we later received a call from Baghdad informing us that ISIS had captured and burnt him alive. Despite all the government warnings not to travel on the roads leading to Baghdad at the time, I insisted that we received Faris’ body and made sure that he had an honorable burial. My uncle and I received his remains and held a funeral that my entire family attended to mourn his tragic death.
In December 2015, I felt that it was time for me to end my eight-year journey within the Islamic seminaries of Iran and Iraq by returning to Australia. Although I knew that I would be preaching “Down Under,” I knew that it wasn’t going to be anything like the preaching of a typical Islamic cleric, and I had a strategic plan to make my message of peace and anti-extremism more effective; which involved the use of social media.
After experiencing these events, losing a dear uncle and surviving ISIS terrorism, I was living in pain. This pushed me to enter the second stage of my de-radicalization phase, and I was about to not only liberate my mind from the fundamentalist ideologies taught to me, but to turn around and tackle them.
Freedom from fundamentalist teachings gradually became engraved in my identity as a free human being with a free mind, it all began the second that I realized and felt deep down in my soul that I had been cheated and that my mind had been in the possession of barbarians who fed me corrupt and extreme ideologies, as they disguised it as beneficial science and knowledge that would benefit me in life and the hereafter.
I associated myself with great people from all religious communities and found it in myself to embrace others for who they are, without the need to try and change them. I am grateful for the experiences that I have had in this life, and I am determined to continue preaching peace and tackling the ideology of Islamic Extremism.