Transnational diffusion between Arab Shia movements

By Toby Matthiesen, St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “Transnational Diffusion, Cooperation and Learning in the Middle East and North Africa,” held June 8-9, 2016.

Arab Shia communities are all related in multiple ways to their local and national contexts. Given their geographical dispersion and doctrinal pluralism there are important differences, but they have long had strong transnational connections as well, particularly to the shrine cities and Hawzas (Shia religious schools) in Iraq and Iran. Anti-Shia polemics generally overemphasize these transnational connections, while Arab Shia leaders often downplay them, stating that the national affiliation is the most important trait of Arab Shia identity.

A Transnational Shia Public Sphere

Since 2011, transnational identities amongst Arab Shia – and to an extent also between Arab and Persian Shia and Afghan and Pakistani Shia – have become more important, as the fallouts from the Arab uprisings broke down nation states and led to the strengthening of various pre-existing transnational identities.[1] A key facilitator of these strengthened transnational identities, not only amongst the Shia, was the unraveling of a broader Arab public sphere. The development of distinctive public spheres for particular sectarian communities in the Middle East is the result of the failure and fracturing of the “New Arab Public Sphere,” which had been epitomized by the rise of pan-Arab satellite TV channels such as al-Jazeera since the 1990s. Crucially, this new Arab Public Sphere failed to shape the outcomes of the Arab uprisings towards inclusion and political transition, and instead was hijacked by competing interest groups, many of which set up separate media channels.[2]

What I call the Shia public sphere is made up of both media outlets and physical places of public debate. Numerous satellite TV stations, social media accounts, websites and some newspapers are part of a Shia public sphere, as are actual spaces, either discussion forums such as diwaniyas in the Gulf states, or mosques, coffee houses and other public places in Iraq or the Levant. As the only state with Shiism as a state religion, Iran plays an important part in the (Arab) Shia public sphere that I discuss here, by sponsoring media outlets such as the Arabic language TV channels al-Alam and via the Lebanese Hezbollah al-Manar channel. Other TV channels and countless websites are run by non-state actors, the offices of a number of Grand Ayatollahs, political parties or sectarian identity entrepreneurs.

The initial protests across the Arab world were not from the beginning viewed through a sectarian lens, and support on social media in particular was often cross-sectarian and international. The Bahrain uprising and protests by Shia Muslims in Eastern Saudi Arabia were greeted with particular sympathy in the Shia public sphere. The militarization of the Syrian uprising, in particular from 2012 and 2013 onwards, and the emergence of the Islamic State as a distinctively anti-Shia movement in 2014, broke down any consensus that was left in the Arab public sphere about the Arab uprisings.[3]

Syria and the so-called Islamic State became key topics in the Shia public sphere, strengthening transnational connections amongst Arab Shia communities. The language, practice and symbolism of Shia political mobilization and militancy that diffused through this public sphere were quite distinct from previous Shia militant movements. The establishment of militias to defend the shrine of Sayyida Zainab and al-Hashd al-Shaabi, were the two key examples of this new Shia political mobilization. Since 2015, the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen became another key topic in sectarianized public spheres across the region.[4]

The Shia Jihad in Syria

Iran and Shia militias’s support of the Baath regime in Syria is symbolically legitimized by the defense of the shrine of Sayyida Zainab. Sayyida Zainab derives its name from Zainab, a granddaughter of the prophet Muhammad and daughter of Ali Ibn Abi Talib. Many Shia Muslims believe that Zainab is buried in a suburb some six miles to the southeast of Syria’s capital Damascus, which has become a key target for the armed opposition. With Lebanese Hezbollah, the fight for that suburb has drawn a large number of Iraqi Shia fighters to Syria. The Iraqi recruits usually come from one of the Shia militias that became notorious in the civil war and the fight against coalition troops in Iraq. There are a plethora of Shia militias in Iraq, some with tens of thousands of fighters. While there are ideological and personal differences amongst Shia militias such as Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, Iraqi Hezbollah, the Badr Corps, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters (Mahdi Army), they all have quite strong ties to Iran. With the start of the Syrian civil war and the rise of anti-Shia militias in Syria and Northern Iraq, they started fighting in Syria alongside the Assad regime, Iranian Special Forces, Lebanese Hezbullah and Afghani and Pakistani Shia militants.[5] These foreign militias have saved Sayyida Zainab, but they have also further internationalized the Syrian civil war. By choosing to protect a Shia shrine city, they have made a sectarian statement, somewhat paradoxically supporting their enemies’ claims that this is indeed a holy war between Sunni and Shia Muslims.

Many Gulf Shia support the defense of the shrine, not least because some may have spent their summer holidays there or have been involved in the transnational networks that moved through the suburb over the past decades. Some of the foreign Shia fighters who travel to Syria might also be motivated by strong religious feelings about Zainab, or by a sense of religious duty to wage jihad against Sunni extremists. Lebanese and Iraqi Shia fighters who have died in Syria are lauded at home as “martyrs in the defense of the holy shrines of Sayyida Zainab,” even if they were killed elsewhere in the conflict.[6] The sectarianized narrative of the Syrian conflict will have contributed to their decision to go to Syria to fight. The Syrian war has thus militarized numerous Arab and non-Arab Shia communities, or at the least has made the prospect of militarization more feasible, nominally under the banner of defending a holy site. This will have repercussions for years to come.

The Islamic State and Shia Mobilization

The establishment of al-Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), in 2014 in Iraq, has had consequences across the Shia world as well. In response to the quick military success of the Islamic State, and the threat that it could take over the Shia shrine cities and possibly even Baghdad, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa urging all able men to join the PMF.[7] The establishment of the PMFs and their success and popularity in Iraq, has had a particular impact in the Gulf region. The sense of urgency with which the PMFs were initially created was also felt in the Gulf, when the Islamic State started targeting Shia mosques in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Since 2014, IS claimed responsibility for bombings and shootings in several Shia mosques and hussainiyyas in Eastern Saudi Arabia, as well as a major bombing in Kuwait. Together with an attack on an Ismaili mosque in Najran, attacks on Saudi security forces, and attacks in Yemen, this was the start of a broader campaign in the Arabian Peninsula, whose ultimate goal was to bring down the Al Saud ruling family and “cleanse” the Arabian Peninsula from the “rejectionists,” a pejorative term used to describe Shia Muslims.[8]

Many Shiites in the Eastern Province felt betrayed and let down by the state and became fearful of more attacks.[9] Community leaders called for the establishment of popular protection committees to prevent future attacks. While obviously different from the armed mass mobilization in Iraq, these committees share the same name with the Iraqi forces, al-Hashd al-Shaabi, or the Popular Mobilization. As in Iraq, senior clerics called for the establishment of the committees. In the Saudi case the call was led by Abd al-Karim al-Hubayl, the leader of Khat al-Imam, a pro-Iranian social movement that had been active in the Eastern Province since the 1980s, as well as other senior Saudi Shiite clerics. Soon thereafter, committees were organized in each village and urban quarter, and in specific mosques and hussainiyyas, to check people entering places of worship. Pictures of men in orange vests from the committees stopping and checking cars and monitoring people at the entrances of mosques, as well as female patrols at the entrances for females, were distributed on a specifically established Twitter account.[10] In some of the later attacks, in particular at the al-Anoud mosque in Dammam in May 2015, committee members actually prevented the attackers from entering the mosque, but died while trying to keep the militants out.[11] These guards also prevented a bomber from entering the al-Umran mosque in Qatif in July 2016, after which he blew himself up.[12]

While the guards are not armed and at times also work with the police, the committees’ actions were seen as an implicit threat to the state. Several of those working in the Saudi committees were subsequently arrested. On Twitter, some started to denounce these committees using the hashtag “No to the Shiite Committees in Qatif,” replacing shaabi (popular) with shii (Shiite). But the committees have now become a reality on the ground. Similar committees have been established in other Shia communities in the Gulf to protect mosques, in particular in Bahrain.


Despite the inclusive aspirations and slogans of the early Arab uprisings, transnational identities based on sect have strengthened across the Middle East. This has happened to a large extent through sectarianized public spheres. While the Bahrain uprising initially proved divisive, the growing polarization and sectarianization of the Syrian conflict and the rise of a distinctively anti-Shia movement, the so-called Islamic State, have been the main topics that could be used in these sectarianized public spheres to further the narrative of an epic rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims. One example of such diffusion through sectarianized public spheres is the spreading of a particular form of Shia militancy, the PMFs, across Arab Shia communities. Another example of diffusion, or franchising, is the so-called Islamic State, which claimed to have franchises across the Islamic world and beyond, and whose attacks spurred counter-mobilizations amongst the Shia. As a result, Arab Shia communities in the Levant, Iraq and the Gulf became more connected. A set of pan-Shia militant symbols and a discourse on protecting Zainab and countering “Daesh” and “Takfiri” movements has emerged that resonates strongly across different Shia communities. Widely spread through social media and Shia satellite channels these narrative diffused across the Shia public sphere, which has proven vital to strengthening transnational sectarian identities.

[1] Toby Matthiesen, ‘Transnational Identities after the Arab Uprisings‘ in: Luigi Narbone and Martin Lestra (ed.), The Gulf Monarchies beyond the Arab spring: changes and challenges (Florence: European University Institute, 2015), 32-37.




[5] See, amongst other sources, “Iraq’s sectarian crisis reignites as Shi’a militias execute civilians and remobilize”, Institute for the Study of War, June 1, 2013,; Philipp Smyth, The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, February 2015).

[6] “Syrian war widens Sunni-Shia schism as foreign jihadis join fight for shrines”, The Guardian, 4 June 2013,

[7] See various articles by Renad Mansour on the topic, including “The Popularity of the Hashd in Iraq”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 1, 2016, See also

[8] See, amongst others, Cole Bunzel, The Kingdom and the Caliphate. Duel of the Islamic States, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2016,; Toby Matthiesen, “Sectarianism after the Saudi mosque bombings,” Washington Post, May 29, 2015,


[10] See, in particular throughout 2015 and early 2016.

[11] See the documentary about the work of the committees and the bombing of al-Anoud mosque,