Bringing the ‘Other Islamists’ back in: Sunni and Shia Islamism(s) in a sectarianized new Middle East

Morten Valbjørn, Aarhus University

*This piece was drafted as part of the New Analysis of Shia Politics workshop. See POMEPS Studies 28 for the full collection.

Islamism and the relationship between Islam and politics have dominated academic discussion for several decades. However, this has not produced a consensus as to how to understand and study Islamism (for an overview, see Volpi, 2010). The “essentially contested” nature of the concept of Islamism has been reflected in all the energy spent on discussing how to define it (Utvik, 2011; Mozaffari, 2007; Esposito, 2005); whether we should speak about Islamism, political Islam or Islamic fundamentalism (Roy, 2010; Euben and Zaman, 2009; Fuller, 2003; Denoeux, 2002); how Islamism relates to post-Islamism, neo-fundamentalism, jihadism (Bayat, 2013; Roy, 2010; Mandaville, 2014); how Islamism and Islam as a religion are interlinked (Gunning and Jackson, 2011; Hamid, 2016); whether Islamism is more/less prone to violence or compatible with democracy and the nation-state (Piscatori, 1986; Esposito and Voll, 1996; Toft, 2007; Dalacoura, 2011); and whether the emergence and dynamics of Islamism should be accounted for by distinct theories that factor in Islam or is it possible focus on the same political and socio-economic factors that are used to explain other (non-religious) movements (POMEPS, 2016; Wiktorowicz, 2004; Meijer, 2005).

This debate is not only rich, but has also become increasingly sophisticated. At closer inspection, it appears, however, that it is very Sunni-centric in the sense that the majority of studies concern various forms of Sunni Islamism, whereas the “Other Islamists” – different kinds of Shia Islamist groups – have received far less attention. This choice of focus is seldom explicitly substantiated and the Shia/Sunni distinction and sectarianism have generally not held any prominent position in the otherwise very multidimensional debate on Islamism. Even in the instances when both Shia and Sunni Islamist groups have been included in discussions, there is usually little attention to whether, how or why the Shia/Sunni dimension might matter. If the question has been addressed, attention has often been drawn to the striking similarities, at least before 2011, between Sunni Hamas and Shia Hezbollah, both of which were perceived as examples of “Islamist national resistance” whose messages resonated widely across the Shia/Sunni divide (Ayoob, 2008; Fuller, 2006; Valbjørn and Bank, 2007). Other studies have pointed out how Khomeini was a voice of Pan-Islamism rather than of a distinct kind of Shia-Islamism, how the Shia/Sunni question seldom was addressed by the spiritual fathers of the modern Islamism, how Sunni revivalist ideology helped pave the way for the Iranian revolution in 1979, and how the Islamic Republic subsequently inspired various Sunni Islamist groups (Khalaji, 2009; Mozaffari, 2007).

While various forms of Sunni Islamism as well as inter-sectarian similarities are indeed important in the study of Islamism, a quick look at the current Islamist scene suggests that it is anything but obvious that sectarianism and the Shia/Sunni distinction should be dismissed from the broader debate on Islamism(s). In the post-2003 Iraqi conflict, where various Shia and Sunni Islamist actors played prominent roles, sectarianization still had a limited regional resonance. But in the years since the 2011 Arab uprisings a “sectarian wave” has washed over large parts of the Middle East, as different kinds of Shia and Sunni Islamist groups are key players, and often adversaries (Hashemi and Postel, 2017; Abdo, 2017; Wehrey, 2017; Byman, 2014; POMEPS, 2013). Not only has Hamas parted ways with Hezbollah, but the latter’s rhetoric is also increasingly that of a Shia militia rather than an “Arab lion,” as it was hailed as in the Arab public during the 2006 Summer War (Saouli, 2013; International Crisis Group, 2014; cf. Valbjørn and Bank, 2007). In Yemen, despite its diverse demography, traditionally sectarianism has not played any significant role, but now both al-Islah and Al Qaeda in Yemen have adopted an increasingly anti-Shia voice (Al-Muslimi, 2015; Yadav, 2017). In Syria and Iraq, the Islamist scene has in recent years been occupied by a range of Islamist groups with an increasingly sectarian agenda (Phillips, 2015; Lister, 2015). Even in places with almost no Shias, such as Egypt or Jordan, anti-Shia rhetoric has become prominent among internally rivaling Sunni Islamists groups (Saleh and Kraetzschmar, 2015; Wagemakers, 2016). Against this backdrop, it is time to bring the Shia/Sunni distinction as well as the sectarian dimension into the broader debate on Islamism(s) and explore the implications.

The other Islamism debate

While the Islamist debate traditionally has been predominantly Sunni, the “Other Islamists” and the Shia/Sunni divide have not been completely ignored. At the time of the Iranian Revolution, there was a huge debate on whether Shia or Sunni Islam was more/less revolutionary than the other (for an overview of this debate McEoin, 1984; Kramer, 1987; Biglari, 2016). To the (limited) extent scholars and analysts had devoted attention to Shia Islam before the revolution, the general consensus held that Sunni Islam(ism) was more activist, political, and revolutionary than the allegedly quietist and apolitical Shia Islam. Thus, Shia Muslims, the argument went, were waiting for the 12th Imam to reappear, and until then they would shun worldly politics, which by definition was considered illegitimate. As a consequence, the Shia ulama were also considered largely apolitical. Unsurprisingly, this reading changed dramatically after 1979, as Shia-Islam now was presented – sometimes substantiated with references to the “basic nature of Shia-Islam” – as activist, political, and revolutionary to the core, a “religion of protest.” For instance, the Shiite idea about the Imamat was highlighted as an example of the merger of political and religious rule, reflected in Khomeini’s ideas about velayat-e faqih. The Battle of Karbala was likewise highlighted as showing the importance for Shias of activism, protest, and standing up against injustice even if it required martyrdom.

The fact that doctrinal sources appeared so flexible that they could be – and were – used to substantiate so different interpretation of the “basic” nature of Shia Islam(ism), led some observers to conclude that the differences between Shia and Sunni Islam did not matter, which may explain the marginal attention traditionally devoted to the distinction in the general Islamism debate. Some did, however, argue that Sunni and Shia Islamism differed, but provided a more nuanced approach, which combined religious and non-religious factors. An example is International Crisis Group’s (ICG) 12 years old report on Understanding Islamism (2005), which constitutes one of the few more recent examples of an explicit argument for making a distinction between Shia and Sunni Islamism. In addition to presenting a nuanced typology of Sunni Islamism, the report argued that Shia Islamism differed profoundly from Sunni Islamism and it would be wrong to conflate Khomeini’s Shia Islamism with Salafi or Qutb-inspired forms of Sunni Islamism. While Sunni Islamism had fragmented into rival tendencies with very different world views, strategies and forms of organization dominated by laymen rather than clerics, the report argued that Shiite Islamism has remained much more cohesive with the Shiite ulama playing a leading political role. These differences between Shia and Sunni Islamism were, according to the report, a result of Shia Muslims’ historical status as the minority form of Islam combined with the Shia ulama’s historical autonomy vis-à-vis the state (i.e., they had not been coopted by Sunni rulers in the same way as the Sunni ulama), and their continuing practice of ijtihad. This had made them more “modernist” than their Sunni counterparts and, thus, able to engage with contemporary problems and stay relevant. During the 20th century, the Sunni ulama, on the contrary, had been outflanked by laymen engaging in a more or less anarchic ijtihad of their own and, according to the report, this helps explain why the Sunni Islamist scene has been more diverse.

This other debate on (Shia/Sunni) Islamism has only had a limited influence on the broader Islamist debates. In view of the current efforts not only at rethinking Islamism (Hamid and McCants, 2017; POMEPS, 2014; 2016) but also at understanding the causes and consequences of the current sectarianization of Middle East politics (Hashemi and Postel, 2017; Abdo, 2017; Wehrey, 2017; Byman, 2014; POMEPS, 2013; Matthiesen, 2013), it is now time to bring this historically less influential debate into a dialogue with the broader debate on Islamism(s) and examine how it may enrich our understanding of Islamism in a new sectarian Middle East. In doing so, four sets of questions serve as a useful starting point for such an explorations of the sectarianism/Islamism nexus and various expressions of Shia and Sunni Islamism(s).

(1) Should the Islamism typology debate be supplemented with a Shia/Sunni distinction?

One of the most prominent and controversial issues in the broader Islamist debate concerns the basic question about whether Islamism should be perceived as a unitary phenomenon, or if it is useful to make an analytical distinction between different forms of Islamism. As for the former position, Mehdi Mozaffari (2007) argues that despite reciprocal animosity among Sunni, Shia, and Wahhabi Islamists, they have more in common than in opposition. In his view, they fundamentally share the same ideals and ultimate goals, practice the same methods, and nourish the same patterns of solidarity and animosity, and they can accordingly be treated as a single phenomenon. Conversely, proponents of the latter position highlight the importance of paying attention to divisions and differences that necessitate some kind of typology as a way of disaggregating the various forms of Islamisms (Ayoob, 2008). This will enable us not only to recognize how various Islamist groups differ as regards their goals, forms of activism and organization, leadership and membership profile, but also bring awareness about how specific Islamist groups can transform and evolve from one type of Islamism into another. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, has undergone a number of dramatic transformations since the time of Hassan al-Banna, fitting into different “boxes” in an Islamism typology.

While the view that it is important to differentiate between Islamisms has gained a considerable prominence in the broader Islamist debate, this has not been translated into any consensus on how to distinguish between different types of Islamism. Instead, a great variety of Islamist typologies have been suggested. In addition to simplistic distinctions between “radical/moderate” or “violent/peaceful” Islamism, it is possible to identify a range of much more sophisticated typologies such as resistance/revolu­tio­na­ry/re­­for­­mist Islamism (Robinson, 2007), Islahi-Ikhwani/Jihadi-Ikhwani/Islah-salafi/Jihadi-salafi Islamism (Utvik, 2011); refor­mist/re­volu­tio­na­ry/so­cie­tal/spiritual Islamism (Yavuz, 2003); Third Worldist/Neo-Third Worldist Islamism (Strindberg and Wärn, 2005); Statist/Non-Statist Islamism (Volpi and Stein, 2015), Salafist Jihadi/Ikhwani Islamism (Lynch, 2010), or mainstream/irredentist jihadi/doctrinaire jihadi Islamism (Gerges, 2005).

Each of these typologies highlight different dimensions of Islamism, but are still largely devoted to Sunni Islamist movements, as reflected in debates on the differences between Salafist Jihadism vs. Ikhwani Islamism or purist/politico/jihadi forms of Salafism (Lynch, 2010; Wiktorowicz, 2006). Much less attention has been paid to whether, and if so how, the distinction between Shia and Sunni might matter (among the exceptions: International Crisis Group, 2005; Nasr, 2007; Louër, 2008; Steinberg, 2009). If Shia Islamist groups not have just been ignored, they have usually just been placed in one of the “boxes” in a typology mainly derived from studies of Sunni Islamism without much explicit reflection about whether dynamics at the Shia Islamist scene somehow differ from the Sunni counterpart. An example could be how Hezbollah sometimes has been typologized, along with Hamas, as an example of “Islamist national resistance” or “third world-ism” (Ayoob, 2008; Strindberg and Wärn, 2005). In view of the more recent changes on the Islamist scene and in the Middle East more broadly, it may, however, be useful to consider if the typology debate should be supplemented with a Shia/Sunni distinction based on a reexamination of some of the contributions to the aforementioned past but less influential debate on Shia/Sunni Islamism.

In such a discussion about whether it makes sense speaking about Shia and Sunni Islamism, a range of questions deserve to be addressed: what are the defining features of Shia and Sunni Islamism, and how and why do they differ? Has this changed over time? How important are differences in religious doctrine, influential myths, history, and intellectual currents? To what extent is it possible to use analytical tools based on experiences from Sunni Islamism to grasp Shia Islamism, for instance, is the inclusion/moderate hypothesis often used on the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (Schwedler, 2011) also suitable to explain the result of the inclusion in Iraq of a Shia Islamist movements such as Hizb al-Dawa or SCIRI/ISCI?

In addition to these questions, it would, moreover, be useful to examine differences and similarities between Shia and Sunni Islamist groups in terms of relations to state power, membership profiles, as well as institutional and network structure, which are factors where Shia Islamism often have been presented as different from their Sunni counterpart. A quick look at the current Islamist scene leaves a complex picture. In Syria, where Shia and Sunni Islamists groups are fighting each other, the former appears less fragmented than the other just as the aforementioned ICG report would expect. However, by turning to neighboring Iraq, the current Shia Islamist scene looks very divided. Then there is the role of the ulama as opposed to laymen. Sunni Islamism is usually perceived as being concentrated among individuals without classical religious training, whereas Shia Islam is supposed to feature a stronger role for the official clergy based in particular cities and networks. While this pattern certainly can be identified in some places, a closer look at Shia Islamists movements like Hizb al-Dawa will, however, not only reveal inspiration from the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood but also a strong presence of laymen rather than clerics just like some of the leading proponents of Shia revolutionary ideology in Iran, e.g. Jalal al-e Ahmad and Ali Shariati, happened to be laymen (Bokhari and Senzai, 2013; Moghadam, 2011). So, while the Shia/Sunni distinction may deserve more attention, it is also clear that there is need for more work not only on whether but also how and why Shia Islamism might differ from the Sunni counterpart.

(2) What are the differences within Shia Islamism?

While the first set of questions concerned the possible role of inter-sectarian differences on the Islamist scene, the second set of questions focuses on intra-sectarian divisions. One of the lessons from the rich literature on how to typologize the (mainly Sunni) Islamist scene concerns how various (Sunni) Islamist groups differ as regards their goals, forms of activism, and organization, leadership and membership profile and how specific (Sunni) Islamist groups can transform and evolve from one type of Islamism into another.

While Shia Islamism is often presented as more homogeneous than their Sunni counterpart (International Crisis Group, 2005), a quick comparison of the current Islamist scene across places like Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, Syria, Kuwait, Lebanon and Yemen, however, reveals that Shia Islamism today take various forms. Moreover, a study of the history of Shia Islamist groups like Hizb al-Dawa or SCIRI reveals a number of transformations. This suggests that it is necessary not only to consider the potential value of making a distinction between Sunni and Shia Islamism, but also to how the latter can be subdivided.

One possibility is to draw on the existing literature from the Sunni Islamism debate and then just transfer one of these typologies to the Shia Islamist scene, so that we, for instance, begin speaking about political, missionary, doctrinaire jihadi, and irredentist-jihadi Shia Islamism. As pointed out in the aforementioned ICG report, a possible problem with this strategy is, however, that it does not acknowledge that the divisions within Shia Islamism may be quite different from those in Sunni Islamism requiring a different kind of typology.

Another strategy would be to develop a new kind of all-encompassing typology including both Shia and Sunni groups. One example could be Heghammer’s (2009) nuanced model that distinguishes between on the one hand violent/non-violent “manifestations” and on the other hand a variety of “rationales,” including state-oriented, nation-oriented, umma-oriented, morality-oriented or sectarian– and within some of these ten types of Islamism one may find both Shia and Sunni Islamist groups.

A third strategy seeks to develop a distinct Shia Islamist typology. This could be on basis of demographic differences (minority/majority) or variance in the specific local political contexts (e.g. democratic/authoritarian/civil war), as suggested by ICG (2005), who makes a distinction between Iranian, Lebanese, Iraqi and Pakistani Shia Islamism. Alternatively, a typology could be based on doctrinal differences, for instance based on the classic distinction between the three main variants of Shia Islam: the Fivers (Zaydis), the Seveners (Ismailis) and the Twelvers (Imamiyyah). Historically, they have differed not only as regards the question about the (number of) Imams, but also their views on politics, the state, and activism.

(3) How has the sectarianization of the Middle East politics impacted the (Shia and Sunni) Islamist scenes?

If specific Islamist movements and the broader Islamist scene can transform and change, this raises a third set of questions concerning whether, how, and why the Arab uprisings and the subsequent sectarianization of much Middle East politics have led to changes between and within Shia and Sunni Islamism(s).

One dimension concerns the inter-sectarian relations between Shia and Sunni Islamist groups. The end of the traditionally close relationship between Sunni Hamas and Shia Hezbollah following the outbreak of the Syrian conflict represents an example of how the Arab uprisings have impacted the Islamist scene. The souring of the relationship in Yemen between increasingly anti-Shia al-Islah and the Houthi movement represents another example, and Qaradawi’s famous change from praising Hezbollah at the time of the Summer War 2006 to his 2013 denunciation of Hezbollah as “the party of Satan” is yet another (Lynch, 2013).

The current sectarianization has also impacted the intra-sectarian relations within Shia and Sunni Islamism, respectively. In debates on the current Yemeni conflict, the Houthi movement is often presented as Shia, but traditionally the Iranian Twelver Shia clerics in Qom would hardly have recognized these Zaydis as “real” Shias. In fact, the intra-Shia divide between Zaydi and Twelver Shia has often appeared more important than the differences between Sunnis and the Zaydis. In the 1960s, the Zaydi Imamat was, for instance, supported by Riyadh. Today, the Saudis are presenting the Zaydi Houthis as part of a Shia camp, which the Iranians now acknowledge. Some observers have seen this as part of a larger trend towards a kind of homogenization of a “Shia block,” in which Zaydis and Alawites are now included among “the new Shias” (El-Husseini, 2016). Others are, however, suggesting that Shia Islamism is currently fragmenting, pointing to how the Iraqi Islamist scene, for instance, has been increasingly divided between pro-Iranian and Iraqi nationalist Shia groups (Sowell, 2015).

The Arab Uprisings and the subsequent sectarianization of Middle East politics may have impacted both inter and intra-sectarian relations of the Islamist scene, but it remains unclear exactly why and how.

(4) How have Sunni and Shia Islamists contributed to the current sectarianization of Middle East politics?

The fourth and final set of questions reverses the question by asking whether and how various Sunni and Shia actors on the Islamist scene have contributed to the current sectarianization of Middle East politics.

This already became clear during the Iraqi civil war following the 2003 U.S. invasion. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, not only became a prominent voice of anti-Shiism but also incited a violent sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni Iraqis (Steinberg, 2009; International Crisis Group, 2006). In order to understanding why the Syrian conflict became sectarianized, it is likewise important to pay attention to not only Bashar al-Assad’s framing of the conflict, but also how various Sunni and Shia Islamists groups have made use of a highly sectarian rhetoric (Phillips, 2015; Anzalone, 2016).

At the same time, it is also obvious that the significance of sectarianism varies among Islamist groups just as it is possible to identify attempts at cooperation across the Shia/Sunni divide. In the early days of the Arab uprisings, Tehran did for instance also set up the “World Assembly for the Islamic Awakening” that emphasized the existence of a single, worldwide Muslim Ummah, which should unite “against the predatory powers led by the US” and promote an Islamic system of governance (Soage, 2017). More recently, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has hosted Moqtada al-Sadr, who previously was known as a Shiite “firebrand cleric” (Haddad, 2017).

For Sunni Islamism, the varying role of sectarianism among different groups has often been attributed to a theologically based difference between the Ikhwani/Muslim Brotherhood current and the Salafi/Wahhabi current. The latter is usually associated with an ingrained anti-Shiism closely linked to an influence from ibn Taymiyya and ibn Abd al-Wahhab (Ghobadzdeh and Akbarzadeh, 2015). While this undoubtedly plays a role, closer inspection reveals a more complex picture. Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has historically been quite anti-Shia (Steinberg, 2009) and while this did not use to be the case for the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood, this has changed recently. As for jihadi-Salafi groups, Al Qaeda in Iraq may always have been very anti-Shia, but Al Qaeda in Yemen, in turn, was not particularly occupied by sectarian question before 2011 and Al Qaeda is generally considered less sectarian than Islamic State despite of their shared Salafi inspiration (Anzalone, 2016).

Thus, similar to the three other sets of questions, there is still more to be said as for why and when sectarianism becomes a prominent theme for some Islamist groups and whether and how this has contributed to the “sectarianization” of Middle East politics.

On broadening the Islamist debate

The Islamist debate has been both rich and sophisticated, but has also been limited by its de facto Sunni centric focus. In view of recent developments in the Middle East, in particular after the Arab uprisings, this negligence is no longer viable. There is a need to broaden the Islamist debate not only by paying more attention to various Shia Islamist groups, but also by bringing the broader Islamism debate into a closer dialogue with the more recent debate on sectarianism in a new Middle East and past discussions about Shia-Islamism. In doing so, there is a potential for enriching our understanding both of dynamics of various forms of Islamism and of the causes and the consequences of the current sectarianization of Middle East politics in the wake of the Arab uprisings.


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