Introduction: Shi’a Politics in the Middle East

The study of Islamist movements has often implicitly meant the study of Sunni Islamist movements. An enormous amount of political science scholarship has dissected the ideology, organization, and political strategy of Sunni Islamist movements. Prior to the Arab uprisings of 2011, this research had largely resolved itself into a coherent framework and set of analytical propositions tested across multiple countries and historical periods. The turbulence and dramatic changes in the years since 2011 have unsettled the literature on Islamist politics, generating another wave of innovative and rich scholarship.

The study of Shi’a Islamist politics has been relatively neglected within political science, however, and has often moved along very different methodological and analytical tracks. The academic communities that study Sunni Islamism often proceed without any interaction with the academic communities that study Iran or Shi’a politics in Arab countries. Studies of Iran and of Shi’a movements similarly often proceed in isolation from the literature on the Arab world or Sunni Islamist movements. This is unfortunate, because Sunni and Shi’a Islamist political dynamics engage many similar theoretical or intellectual issues and could offer each other critically important comparative perspective.

This divide came up repeatedly in the discussions among participants during the annual conference of the Islamist Politics project hosted by POMEPS in January 2017. Therefore, on October 13, 2017, POMEPS convened an interdisciplinary workshop of scholars of Shi’a politics to discuss these questions and to probe the similarities and differences between the two academic communities. We are delighted to publish this collection of essays resulting from that workshop. The essays range widely, both thematically and geographically, and together offer a deeply informed and often surprising portrait of political changes across very different contexts. They also reveal the profound methodological and intellectual divides between the academic communities studying Sunni and Shi’a Islamism.

The workshop identified numerous areas for potentially fruitful comparison. Shi’a communities in Lebanon, Iraq, and Gulf states such as Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia have long been pivotal to domestic political outcomes in the Arab world. Shi’a militias, with widely varying ideological commitments and political relationships, have played critical roles in Syria’s and Iraq’s wars. The politics, ideology and practices of Shi’a political movements and organizations have been just as deeply affected by the region’s seismic upheavals.

The study of Sunni Islamism has demonstrated conclusively how movements with similar ideologies have adapted to different local political environments. Context matters for Shi’a politics, just like for Sunni movements. Sunni and Shi’a Islamists are both mobilized around a religious ideology, raising similar questions about the relative significance of religious ideas as opposed to pragmatic strategic considerations. Sunni and Shi’a movements have both used social services and welfare provision for organizational goals. Diana Zeidan’s analysis of how Hezbollah used social services over decades to build its domination of south Lebanon would fit easily into comparable studies of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The study of Sunni Islamism has generated useful typologies that draw essential distinctions between different types of Islamist movements, from Muslim Brotherhood-style social movements to al-Qaeda style insurgencies and terrorist groups. Such careful differentiation among kinds of Shi’a movements and organizations would likely be similarly analytically useful.

Our workshop also flagged potential problems in such an exercise. As Morten Valbjørn points out, approaching Shi’a politics from a standpoint derived from an implicit or explicit comparison with a “normal” Sunni politics can lead to misleading assumptions about doctrine, organization, and practice. Shi’a politics may follow similar political or institutional logics under certain conditions, but they must be understood on their own terms. It is telling that studies of Shi’a Islamism and of Iran typically feature far more intricate intellectual histories and exegesis of religious texts than do most studies of Sunni Islamism. Shi’a Islamist movements have a profoundly different historical experience, ideological referents, organizational forms, relationships with states, and mobilizing strategies.

One critical difference between Sunni and Shi’a Islamism is the very different types of arguments about the appropriate role of the ulema, rooted in the institutional differences in the organization of religious authority. The Sunni world has nothing like the nearly forty years of experience with the Islamic Republic of Iran ruled by the Supreme Leader (vilayet-e faqih). Most Sunni Islamist movements evolved in opposition to authoritarian secularizing regimes. Shi’a Islamism, by contrast, evolved most dramatically following the 1979 Iranian revolution. Where Sunni Islamism had few, if any, meaningful models of an Islamic state in practice, Shi’a Islamism could not escape the shadow of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Sunni Islamist movements have regularly participated in elections, but rarely with the opportunity to actually win (except at the local level). Shi’a Islamist parties in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran by contrast do have meaningful prospects of victory. This means, in turn, that Shi’a Islamists have a longer track record of actual governance and a deeper experience of the troubled interaction between state power and religious movement.

Several papers in the workshop focused on the question of the historically novel institution of the Supreme Leader, in theory and practice. As Elvire Corboz shows, the doctrine and practice of the vilayet-e faqih unsettled centuries of Shi’a framework for clerical authority. This has led to a very distinctive type of power struggle within Shi’a religious institutions, involving a far greater role for the ulema in both government and in public intellectual discourse. Despite sitting at the pinnacle of the powerful Iranian state, the Supreme Leader has never been able to stop competing with other Iranian and non-Iranian marja‘iyya for authority. Ali Kadivar shows how this relationship has changed since the death of Ruhollah Khomeini and the elevation of Ali Khamenei as Supreme Leader. While Qom and Najaf may have accepted Khomeini’s clerical authority, Khamenei lacked the same religious credentials and thus had to establish his power through other means, such as patronage, media propaganda, and the security apparatus. The passing of Ali Khamenei could trigger dramatic change. As Roozbeh Safshekan and Farzan Sabet put it, “the key subtext of the raucous competition between the moderate and conservative political currents in the 2016 Assembly of Experts and 2017 presidential elections in the Islamic Republic of Iran was the question of who will be the next guardian jurist once the 78-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei passes on… [J]ust who, precisely, gives legitimacy to the guardian jurist?” Is it derived from God, or from the will of the people as expressed by the Assembly?

Three political arenas seem to offer especially useful areas for comparative analysis of Shi’a Islamist politics today. First, Iranian politics offers many opportunities for comparative political analysis. Iran’s regular elections, for all their limitations, offer a wealth of evidence relevant to core questions in the comparative politics field. The continuing fallout of the 2009 repression of the Green Movement following the fraudulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has lessons for studies of the frustrated Arab transitions. So do the ways in which the reform movement has continued to evolve and take new forms, despite constant pressure and repression by conservative state institutions. How Iran manages its rentier dependence on oil exports offers yet another useful comparative lens. Political scientists from across the world should be interested by the unique survey research presented by Kevan Harris on the relationship between state services and political legitimacy. In short, Iranian politics offers many useful questions for comparative politics, including but not limited to its distinctive religious state institutions.

Second, the wars in Syria and Iraq raise important questions about Iranian foreign policy and its transnational connections. Those wars have dramatically empowered Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a wide array of Iraqi Shi’a militias and movements, and new transnational networks. The long term implications are far from obvious. Higher levels of Shi’a mobilization and power projection have coincided with exceptionally high levels of sectarianism on both sides of the divide. These sectarian narratives have at time generated new identities and forced communities into unfamiliar boxes. Syria’s Alawis, for instance, have been treated as Shi’ites in the sectarian logic of Syria’s war, while the Zaidi religious identity of Yemen’s Houthis has largely been effaced as that war has been framed regionally along sectarian lines. Hezbollah’s active role in the Syrian war has cost it much of its long-cultivated popularity with anti-Israeli Sunnis, as it has been recast as a purely sectarian Shi’ite organization.

In Iraq, Marsin Alshamary argues that the seizure of the Sunni areas by ISIS in 2014 created the conditions for distinctively Shi’a state building. As Fanar Haddad has previously argued, this is a new kind of Shi’a state building, which creates new political identities and shapes institutions in distinctive ways. Prior to 2014, Shi’a parties dominated Iraqi politics through a joint electoral list that gave them overwhelming power over state institutions. However, this power masked the significant political and identity divisions among Shi’ites, which have become more salient in the post-ISIS period. Alshamary agues that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has opted to build “a Shia-dominant state that has Iraqi nationalist undertones,” rather than the project preferred by militias such as Badr and Asaib Ahl al-Haq that “Shi’ifies the state with no real attempt at inclusion.” The role of the Popular Mobilizational Forces in the emergent state has become a focal point for this contest, with Ayatollah Ali Sistani weighing in against PMF participation in the upcoming May elections.

Finally, Shi’a communities beyond Iran and Iraq continue to grapple with the repercussions of the Arab uprisings. As Laurence Louër demonstrates, Shi’a communities across the Gulf have come under varying degrees of pressure as the regional narrative has polarized. Bahraini Shi’a have been the most overwhelmingly repressed along sectarian lines since the forceful crushing of a popular uprising in March 2011. Kuwaiti Shi’a, long well-integrated, have faced unusual levels of sectarian pressure. Saudi Shi’a continue to face persecution and political marginalization, receiving few concessions in the reform process led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, even as low-level insurgency in the Eastern Province rumbles along. Sustaining a discourse of non-sectarian citizenship, national rather than transnational loyalty, and non-violent resistance has rarely been more difficult for these communities.

The essays in this collection range broadly over these issues and represent a starting point for the development of a research community. In the coming years, we hope to see much more attention paid to the comparative study of Sunni and Shia Islamism across diverse contexts. Bridging these linguistic, analytical, methodological and political divides would be an important step forward in the broader understanding of Islamist politics. Download the full collection here!

Marc Lynch

POMEPS Director