Shi’ite Muslim pilgrims gather as they commemorate the Arbaeen outside of Imam al-Hussein shrine in Karbala, Iraq, November 10, 2017. (Reuters)

Recently, Iran has been showing increased interest in the Union of the Comoros, the island nation off Africa’s east coast. Historically, the inhabitants of this nation’s three component islands were mostly Shi’ite, until they were conquered by France in the mid-19th century; today, most residents are Shafi’i Sunnis. Iran’s interest in the Union of the Comoros is supported by Comoros President Ahmad Abdallah Sambi, despite opposition from various elements in the country. 

On May 1, 2008, the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram published an investigative article on Shi’ization in the Union of the Comoros. Following are translated excerpts from the investigation:[1]

Iranian Elements Are In Charge of Security for Comoros President Sambi 

According to the Al-Ahram report, ever since Ahmad Abdallah Sambi was elected president in 2006, Iranian intervention in the Union of the Comoros has intensified, as manifested in the office of the presidency as well as in the areas of medicine, culture, and humanitarian and other aid: “The Iranian presence in Comoros is currently focused in four areas, the most important of which is the institution of the presidency. According to statements by a politician in the Comoros Islands, Iranian elements are in charge of security for President Ahmad Abdallah Sambi… inside the country and also on his trips outside it.

“Iran has also set up a medical center belonging to the Iranian Red cross… a cultural center… and an additional center for humanitarian aid, officially called the Al-Khomeini Committee for Help in the Comoros Islands… Also, according to reports from several sources, Iran is planning to set up an embassy there in the near future…

“The medical center’s main activity focuses, of course, on providing various medical treatments at no cost to the Comoros Islanders. The Imam Khomeini Help Committee conducts various humanitarian activities, the most important of which are three-month professional training courses… for the Comoros youth… They also give help to poor families, and provide them with material and economic support. Five hundred families benefit from this bimonthly support. ”

Comoros Residents Call Their President “Ayatollah” 

Al-Ahram reported that “prominent Comoros politicians link the Iranian presence [in the country] to President Sambi’s affection for Iran, where he attended religious studies in his youth. Some of them even accuse the president of secretly becoming a Shi’ite, and of attempting to spread [Shi’ism] in the country, [which is] Sunni Arab.” The paper added that “[even before he was president,] island residents called him ‘Ayatollah.’ The president says that at first he opposed the nickname, but afterwards came to think that there was nothing wrong with it, and therefore agreed to it.”

According to the Al-Ahram report, “there are numerous reasons for the opposition members’ accusations that the president has affection for Iran, and perhaps even became a Shi’ite: his dress, which is similar to that of Iranian clerics; his personal interest in links with Iran, to the point of appointing a relative as ambassador of his country in Tehran; his personal oversight of Iran’s activity in his country, and even the Iranian medical center, [which] began operations without applying for a license from the Health Ministry… the [staff’s] entrance into the country followed a direct request from President Ahmad Abdallah Sambi.”

However, the Al-Ahram report also raised the possibility that the Iranian presence in the country was not the result of a deliberate policy of President Sambi’s, but of lack of choice, stating: “Perhaps the reason behind Sambi’s agreement to the Iranian presence is a poor country’s need for any foreign help, in light of the lack of Arab support…”

Has President Sambi Become a Shi’ite? 

In addition to this evidence, the Al-Ahram report cites statements posted on a Shi’ite website confirming rumors about President Sambi becoming a Shi’ite: “Sambi is one of the most prominent clerics on the African continent, who has studied with the religious authority Ayatollah Al-Sayyed Muhammad Taqi Al-Modarresi… and he moved from the Sunni school to the Shi’ite school, thus becoming a proselytizer of Shi’ism in the Comoros Islands.”

According to the report, “the president of Comoros denies these charges outright; he always stresses… that he belongs to the Shafi’ite school… and that he has affection for Shi’ites.” However, President Sambi’s opponents claim that his denials are a manifestation of the Shi’ite principle of taqiyyah, permitting them to pretend not to be Shi’ites when necessary: “They [many in Comoros political circles] accuse him of secretly becoming a Shi’ite, [and of] implementing the principle of taqiyyah.” The report also presented evidence that “according to one of the island’s residents… the president once lived in Dubai and would pray at a Shi’ite mosque [there].”

Sunni Clerics Against Shi’ization

The spread of Iranian-Shi’ite influence and activity in the Union of the Comoros has aroused not only opposition from Comoros politicians but also the anger of Sunni clerics in the country – who have demanded that the authorities expel the Iranian Shi’ite missionaries and protect the Sunna: “Some of the activities conducted by the Iranian cultural center have enraged the [Sunni] clerics in the Comoros Islands, after they sensed that they were attempting to disseminate Shi’ism in the region.

“In February 2007, 60 Sunni clerics met in the capital Moroni and warned of the danger inherent in the holding of Shi’ite ceremonies in the island. This meeting took place several days after some Comoros Island residents held in public, for the first time in the island’s history, the Ashoura, the ceremony commemorating the killing of Imam Al-Hussein. These clerics… headed by the capital’s head qadi… demanded the expulsion of the foreigners who are disseminating Shi’ism in the Comoros Islands. They demanded that President Sambi protect the Sunni ceremonies – but the president decided to leave the cultural center [in place, but] to restrict its activity so that it would not anger those who oppose it.

“The [Sunni] clerics in the Comoros Islands continue to fear the activity of the Iranian institutions operating on the country’s soil, and are unconvinced that their real goals are purely humanitarian…”

Al-Ahram: Sunni Arab Countries Must Increase Presence in the Comoros Islands 

The Al-Ahram report concluded with a call to Arab countries to increase their diplomatic presence in the Union of the Comoros, and even to support its economy – before the country becomes another focus of tension between the Arab countries and Iran, and between Shi’ites and Sunnis: “In any event, the presence of only one Arab embassy – that of Libya – is inconceivable, and there is no escape from increasing the Arab presence there by establishing diplomatic representations in addition to those currently in place in the capital Moroni.

“Similarly, there is no escape from taking an interest in the economic situation of this poor country… Certainly, the establishment of a number of economic projects there, in addition to aid, is considered essential in dealing with the problem, which is still in its early days – before it gets worse and becomes a new center of Arab-Iranian tension that we do not need.”

[1]Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 1, 2008.