Fear of the spread of Shiʿi power in the Middle East has seized the imagination of Arab dictatorships at least since 2003 and the hysteria surrounding the so-called Shiʿi crescent (al-hilāl al-shīʿī) has become heightened since the Israeli-Lebanese war of August 2006. Paranoia towards minorities is unfortunately not a new phenomenon in the Middle East but at the same time there are qualitative differences between the last Shiʿi ‘scare’ following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and this new hysteria after the fall of Saddam in 2003. The policy implications of the Iraq war raised issues both for her neighbours and for those powers involved in the conflict. The discourse of the Shiʿi crescent or threat is one particular type of response and further emphasises the basic problematisation of Shiʿi presences in the Middle East (not to speak of the problems of South Asia and the borrowed conflicts in the diasporic communities of Europe and North America where London and New York among others locales constitute significant Shiʿi presences).
1979 was primarily a concern for the shape of the Middle East and particularly the Gulf, after the vacuum created by the removal of the Shah, the ‘policeman’ of the region, in the face of the virulent ideology intent on exporting revolution, culminating in political shifts in places as diverse as Lebanon and Pakistan (with the formation of Hezbollah and various movements beginning with Tehreek-e Jafaria in the latter) and attempted political seizures and coups in the southern Gulf monarchies. Thus the fear of Shiʿi power articulated a concern for the containment of Iran, which had already been recognised as the paramount regional power before then. It was therefore a policy of confronting Iran led by US foreign policy, one which remains the case today heightened by the nuclear negotiations. Post-2003, the Shiʿi crescent is often described as a revival of this concern to contain the Iranian state and its foreign policy ambitions in the light of a few basic realities on the ground: the war in Afghanistan in 2001 that removed the Taliban placed a friendly pro-Iranian government in Kabul, the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran led to a revival of the rhetoric of the early 1980s concerned with the export of the revolution alongside an active promulgation of a programme to acquire nuclear power, and the removal of Saddam in 2003 led to a new Iraqi government (and parliament) that has dominated by friends and clients of the Iranian state (many of whom were Shiʿis who spent time in exile in Iran). The August 2006 war in Lebanon confirmed for many the reality of the Iranian state’s flexing of its muscle beyond its borders and its powerful role in manipulating its proxies. To a large extent, the Shiʿi-Sunni tension in the Middle East and beyond is an expression of a proxy ideological conflict between two rival versions of public Islam promoted by Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Consistently since 2005 and 2006 Arab leaders especially in the Gulf have expressed concern over this aggrandisement of Iranian power, not least because of the basic assumption that their own Shiʿi communities (which in the case of Bahrain is still – just about – the majority of the citizens of the state) constitute a fifth-column, an ‘Iranian’ horde amongst them, ready to open the gate to welcome the invading Iranian armies. That such discourse is irresponsible is clear given the affect it has on people who are then subject to discrimination, harassment and violence, with the implicit and at times explicit support of the state, most notably in the case of Saudi Arabia. But the attitude of the Shiʿi communities towards the state, no doubt due to the successful acceptance of the nation-state even when it excludes them by explicitly denying any pluralistic notion of citizenship, remains remarkably non-belligerent. Perception often trumps reality in this sense. The loyalty of the Shiʿa is consistently tested: Hosni Mubarak in his strange outburst in April 2006 claimed that the majority of the Shiʿa were loyal first to Iran. As the cultural critic Nader Kadhim has shown in the case of Bahrain, the discourse of loyalty and treachery is far too simplistic when aligned with sectarian affiliation: the simplistic equation of Sunni with loyal subject and Shiʿi with rebel is belied by the evidence. Similarly one prominent Shīrāzī activist in the Gulf said in an interview with me in January 2009, people often confuse the influence of ideas with political loyalty. Even if one supports the role of ʿulema in government (an important aspect of the theory of wilāyat al-faqīh), that does not entail loyalty to Iran; in fact, both in Bahrain and in Iraq the position often comes with a staunch suspicion of Iran if not outright hostility. The political landscape of loyalty and dissent in Bahrain is far more variegated.
But the new ‘threat’ is about much more than Iran. The key factor, particularly for the Gulf, is in fact Iraq and the new Iraqi government. In fieldwork interviews in Kuwait, Bahrain and Iraq in 2008 and 2009, it was clear to me that Shiʿi (often Islamist) politics has taken a more activist turn because they have seen what is possible in Iraq. The bolder claims and statements made by opposition figures in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia (in the latter case the events of February 2009 and the ‘Nimr’ affair in ʿAwāmiyya), in contexts in which their communities are severely disadvantaged by those states, allies and clients of the American and British states in particular, are clearly a direct result, as they themselves admitted, of events in Iraq. The Shiʿi rise to power expressed by the United Iraqi Alliance (al-iʾtilāf al-muwaḥḥid al-ʿirāqī) in elections since 2005 has emboldened and encouraged them.
The wider regional issues and their policy implications are discussed in the two influential books by Vali Nasr (now a major policy player at the Council on Foreign Relations) and Yitzhak Nakash. These books in some ways pre-empted (encouraged?) the discourse of a Shiʿi threat in the Arab (Sunni) media. The assault of al-Qaraḍāwī in September 2008 (significantly during Ramaḍān) reveals the continuing conflation of the sorts of political and theological challenges that Shiʿi thought poses in a majoritarian Sunni context. In the vacuum of legitimate authority that exists in the Arab Middle East, any shift of allegiance and embrace of an alternative struggle against ‘imperialism’ is bound to disturb. Charismatic authority that appeals to the ‘Arab street’ is the greatest threat. The state does not seem to discuss between the embrace of Nasrallah as a symbol and a theological adherence to a doctrine. In some ways, the roots of this problem lie in the dual failures of medieval Sunni political thought and theology. First, authority in the theory of al-Ghazālī, Ibn Jamāʿa and al-Māwardī was seen as stemming from the successful deployment of power. Power defined the political order and not the successful promotion of justice in society. Legitimacy and authority were considered to be secondary to the naked use of power in pursuit of defining the community within particular set parameters, and then objectifying heretics as those who would not be accommodated. The construction of heresy, the process of heretication, was central to the legitimation of power. Second, they often were incapable (or unwilling) to distinguish adequately between heresy and political dissent and confused the two. A radical misreading of early history meant that the tax rebellion known as the ridda was defined as heresy, while the theological dissent of the Khawārij was primarily seen as an issue of political rebellion. A dystopian assumption prevailed with an associated distrust of the human. In response, various forms of Shiʿi Islam posed an intellectual challenge because of a clear notion of legitimacy, underpinned by the charisma of the family of the Prophet, and a utopian and even messianic notion of how proper governance should be established rooted in justice. In the present scenario, the political power of Shiʿi state and non-state agents is conflated and confused with the missionary aspects of faith. This confusion is most clearly at play in Egyptian public discourse. Of course, the real worry for Mubarak and other authoritarian rulers is not that their populations will convert to Shiʿi Islam as a faith but that they will adopt it as a political identity, empathising with Sayyid Ḥasan Naṣrallāh and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Nasr sees the tension and competition between rival Shiʿi and Sunni conceptions of power and authority to be the key dynamic for change in the Middle East and indeed the wider Muslim world. This poses a problem for Shiʿi political actors because it places them in the role of being perceived as agitators promoting a neo-conservative agenda in the region, as was precisely the problem with elements of the Iraqi Shiʿi opposition pre-2003 embracing the likes of Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz. As Nasr sees it, there are opportunities for both sides. For far too long US policy in the Middle East has been mediated through Sunni authoritarian regimes. The change in Iraq in 2003 signals a possible shift. Identity politics is here to stay. What he is not arguing for is the promotion of sectarian conflict (although it may well have been seen in such terms). Competing concepts of authority and the state are healthy aspects of politics which is after all concerned with managing difference. Violence is the breakdown of such politics. Nasr’s concern in the book is to explain to a general American audience who the Shiʿa are, what effect the Iraq war has and how the conflicts will shape an emerging new Muslim world. But the delicate balance between description and prescription is a difficult one to sustain. Certainly, his work has been read as being more prescriptive and policy-oriented, not least because of his professional role.
The nine chapters of the book move from a basic account of the Shiʿi faith and the development of Shiʿi political thought, through to the modern period and the failure of secular and socialist nationalisms coupled with the competition of ‘fundamentalisms’ both Iranian since 1979 and Wahhabi sponsored by the Saudi state, played out in proxy conflicts in locations such as Pakistan. The final few chapters focus on Iraq and the impact of Iraq as an Arab Shiʿi state with a friendly Iran on its borders. Writing towards the end of 2006, the afterword focuses on the triumvirate of Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Shiʿi government in Iraq post-Samarra and after the death of Zarqawi, and Iran in the ascendency under Ahmadinejad. The height of the sectarian violence and the war for Baghdad was still to come. At that point, Nasr raises the question of whether the constitutionalist politics of Sayyid Sīstānī in Iraq will prevail or whether the Hezbollah model will dominate Shiʿi politics. This was and remains a policy concern for the US and for Britain as well as for the regional actors. Allied to this question is the fear of radicalisation among the Shiʿa and how Shiʿi intellectual figures and actors can be deployed against the problem of Sunni radicalisation. This is misleading and dangerous policy. Given the vehement anti-Shiʿism of the jihādī (and salafī) spectrum in which the talk of the Iranian, ṣafawī, rāfiḍī enemy within is the first one to attack, it is difficult to see how policy can engage. Besides, US policy towards Iran vitiates against this as does the unwillingness of authoritarian Sunni regimes to make alliances with the Shiʿi communities against the jihādīs.
Such policy concerns also set up a false dichotomy of quietism and activism, based on the assumption that Shiʿi political history has fluctuated between these two poles. If anything, Iraq demonstrates that this is not the case and that activism is often a function of the context – the shifting roles and positions of Sayyid Muqtadā al-Ṣadr is a case in point.
What one misses in the political analysis is that Shiʿi intellectual discourse is not primarily minoritarian. In fact, it is based on the notion that the Shiʿi ʿulema are the true guardians and custodians of Islam. This basic fact is missed by many analysts. Reform and intellectual development will not come from jihādī circles.
Nakash’s book represents a descriptive recognition of this. The policy focus on Sunni radicals has led to a serious neglect of policy towards Shiʿi actors in the Middle East and this is more acute since 2003. His book is in many ways similar to Nasr’s although he is more optimistic about the policy implications of the Shiʿa allying themselves with US interests in the Middle East. This has not happened, not only because the surge for democratisation was quickly jettisoned as policy, but also because a suspicion towards US intentions is rife among Shiʿi political actors in Iran, Lebanon and Gulf (and even in Iraq where anti-Americanism is a feature even of the governing parties such as Maliki’s Daʿwa Party). The strength of Nakash’s work, following on from his earlier book on Iraq, is to identify the Arabic discourses and place Iraq at the centre of the debate on Shiʿi politics shifting the emphasis away from Iran. He is quite correct to focus on the role of history and memory as key components of identity and conflict and draws out the main contours of Arab Shiʿi communities in Lebanon and the Gulf. Written somewhat earlier than Nasr, Nakash sees Iraq as critical either to a serious shift in legitimacy based on constitutional arrangements (and the hero of the book is clearly Sīstānī) or a descent into civil war. We have witnessed both, especially in Iraq. The question that many have is what impact does this have on communities in the Gulf and the sporadic rioting and violence since 2008 in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia alongside the electoral successes of Shiʿi parties in the Kuwaiti elections of 2009 suggests that the two track development of political relations remains the case. A serious consideration of Shiʿi politics in the present necessarily needs to refocus on Iraq but also to consider more widely the communities in the Arab world and beyond. Nakash limits his study to the former, but one quibble with Nasr is the weakness of his analysis of South Asian Shiʿi communities (including Afghanistan) which given his previous research is quite inexcusable. Studies on contemporary Shiʿi Islam in South Asia remains academically a rather weak field. Since arguably South Asia hosts the largest communities of the Shiʿa, this lacuna and academic weakness is deplorable.
Interest in the Shiʿi question is not merely the concern of European academics. More recently the Nasr, Ibrahim and Nakash have all been translated into Arabic by Dār al-Sāqī. They have also published a number of relevant monographs and collections in Arabic particularly concerned with the development of politics in Iraq and in the Gulf. These include one collection focused on the so-called Sunni-Shiʿi problem in the Middle East, the subject of a Chatham House conference in the summer of 2008. What is striking is the new literature which is being produced by Shiʿi intellectuals relating to their communities particularly in Iraq and the Gulf. London has for some time been a major centre for the exchange of ideas and the presence of Shiʿi oppositions and their activities through the Gulf Club, the Abrar Foundation and other organisations provides the forum for debate of ideas and shifts in positions and policies.
A key member of these diasporic politics is Fouad Ibrahim, a major thinker and member of the former Iṣlāḥiyya in Saudi Arabia who has spent many years in exile in London. Ibrahim’s book is the first serious work in a European language on the Shiʿa of Saudi Arabia. It follows a groundbreaking work on the topic in Arabic by his friend and colleague in the Saudi Shiʿi opposition, Ḥamza al-Ḥasan which was published in London and Beirut in the early 1990s in two volumes. Ibrahim’s work is a slightly revised doctoral dissertation from London University (SOAS) and is an insider’s account of the development of Shiʿi oppositionism in Saudi Arabia, and in particular its links with the Shīrāziyya political networks that arose out of Iraq. Of course, the political shift post-1979 was towards a more Iran-oriented politics of encouraging the export of the revolution and the key ideological doctrine of the authority of the jurist (wilāyat al-faqīh) associated with the movement that became known as Hezbollah al-Hijaz. In seven chapters, Ibrahim begins with a history of the Shiʿa in the Eastern Province, one that is quite contested, and he does well to indicate some of these. The basic fact that no one can agree on how many Shiʿa are in Saudi Arabia is a problem that affects policy. He then traces the history of Shiʿi activism as a response to Saudi state repression, examining the early impact of Daʿwa in the region and work of the Shīrāziyya in promoting revolutionary ideals leading to the troubled 1980s. The 1990s and beyond signals an approach towards accommodation as the revolutionary leaders Shaykh Ḥasan al-Ṣaffār and Tawfīq al-Sayf moved towards a more conciliatory position. The work ends with a few speculations about the impact of Iraq post-Saddam, but this is a topic that requires a more careful investigation. Clearly, as the events of February 2009 and other flashpoints before suggest, the impact of Iraq has been a source of encouragement for the more radical Shiʿi opposition exemplified by Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr and Khalāṣ led by Ḥamza al-Ḥasan in London and expressed online through the Shīrāzī website al-Rāṣid. Ibrahim’s book is not a critical examination; it is in many ways a vital primary source for understanding the role and positions of Saudi Shiʿi intellectuals. A consistent feature, and one finds this among other opposition intellectuals in the Gulf, is the insistence that the treatment of the Shiʿa and their response are not expressions of primordial Sunni-Shiʿi hatreds; rather, the political situation is the result of tensions between ruling Sunni elites and Shiʿi subjects. However, state policy is expressed in a salafī idiom and the government has done little to curb anti-Shiʿi excesses of the salafī ʿulema and their media outlets, taking advantage of the discourse of a Shiʿi threat. No doubt most Shiʿi Saudis want a normalisation of their identity but it is difficult to see how the question of loyalty can be postponed as long as the Saudi state refuses to internalise the forms of pluralism that it has been espousing in the last few years on the international stage for political expediency.
The simple choice often imposed is that the Shiʿi opposition in the Gulf has either to find accommodation with the rulers of their state and buy into a system of quasi-representative politics (although in practice this is rarely a serious step towards constitutional politics) or to continue the revolutionary and rejectionist position articulated by the Shīrāziyya in the 1970s with the Organisation of the Islamic Revolution (Munẓamat al-thawra al-Islāmiyya) established by Shaykh Ḥasan al-Ṣaffār and Shaykh Tawfīq al-Sayf. The former tendency in Bahrain is represented by al-Wefaq and their engagement in the assembly and in politics since 2004 following the National Pact of 2002 and amnesties of those involved in political activism. In Saudi Arabia, it is represented more recently by Shaykh Ḥasan al-Ṣaffār who embarked on the accommodationist path with the publication in 1990 of his influential work al-Taʿaddudiyya wa-l-ḥurriyya fī-l-Islām (Pluralism and Freedom in Islam). More recently, al-Ṣaffār has written a work that tries to articulate a path between the exigencies of sectarian and national politics, and he has already dealt with the question of how the Shiʿa ‘fit’ within a kingdom whose identity is so staunchly salafī. Those advocating direct action in Bahrain include al-Ḥaqq led by Ustād Ḥasan Mshaymaʿ and Khalāṣ led by Ḥamza al-Ḥasan based in London. But there is a sense of a false dichotomy here. A constitutionalist approach would benefit the opposition more and seek wider participation and alliances against the basic injustices of a monarchical absolutism in the Gulf, drawing upon secular and Sunni liberal opinions and activists. Tawfīq al-Sayf’s path from revolutionary politics has taken the form of a serious engagement with political thought, making sense of the possibilities of Shiʿi political philosophy and the implications of Iranian reformist policies and intellectual shifts for Shiʿi communities in the Gulf and beyond.
These wider regional dimensions and the role of the Shīrāziyya in them is also the focus of a more recent volume by Laurence Louër. She examines the regional impact of Iraq and rather neglects the Iranian politics arising out of the Hezbollah tendency that is difficult to quantify in Bahrain and Kuwait. Shiʿi politics in the Gulf has to an extent always been lead by events and debates beyond their shores: first, it was Iraqi politics and the Daʿwa, then the Iranian revolution and the Shīrāziyya, and now arguably we are seeing a return to a competition between Iranian led ideas and organisations and those looking more towards Iraq. Mere use of the symbolism of Khamenei and Iran does not entail loyalty to Iranian politics. The importance of Louër’s analysis lies in the re-orientation of the Shiʿi question in the Gulf to links with Iraq, historically significant with the Iraqi Daʿwa Party which established cadres in the Gulf in the early 1970s, through Shaykh ʿĪsā Qāsim and Shaykh Sulaymān al-Madanī in Bahrain, and the Shīrāziyya through the work of Sayyid Hādī al-Mudarrissī and his Karbala origin network. These transnational and yet localised networks remain prominent in the contemporary Gulf and it is of significance that the present Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki is a Daʿwa-led coalition government.
It is often said that the politics of wilāyat al-faqīh in the Middle East is organisationally led by two figures in two locations: Shaykh ʿĪsā Qāsim acts as Khamenei’s representative in the Gulf (and as such is paramount over other important figures such as Shaykh ʿAbd al-Hādī al-Faḍlī based in Dammām in Saudi Arabia), and Sayyid Ḥasan Naṣrallāh in Lebanon. Shaery-Eisenlohr’s anthropologically informed volume pursues the Iranian-Lebanese link in greater detail as a way of understanding Lebanese politics and society and the wider impact of Iran in the Middle East. In many ways, the Lebanese context is the most interesting and relevant to other multicultural spheres such as those in the diaspora.
She takes up a critical theme in the work of Louër, namely how to reconcile local and national concerns and negotiations on identity with transnational networks and affiliations. Given the nature of minority status of the Shiʿa in the Middle East lacking a state (or at least one espousing the political cause of the Shiʿa before Iran became such an entity in 1979), transnationalism was always a strong feature of Shiʿi communities. But just as globalisation has made transnationalism somewhat more normal and accessible, those Shiʿi movements such as Hezbollah that are seen as international actors have had to respond increasingly to local concerns. The shift from a revolutionary resistance movement to a politically normalised player on the Lebanese scene has come about due to the demands of the context as the Shiʿa have moved from the margins to the centre, confronting the cultural biases of the urbane non-Shiʿi Lebanese. Shaery-Eisenlohr does a good job of emphasising the significance of such cultural factors. While a series of recent books have analysed the rise to political awareness of the Shiʿa in Lebanon since the 1920s, she focuses on two themes which comprise two parts of the book. The first analyses the creation of Shiʿi nationalism within Lebanon as a modular form of Maronite nationalism (also a minority in an Arab context), and the creation of a discourse that links piety, belonging and cultural citizenship among the Shiʿa as manifestations of what Usama Makdisi has called the culture of sectarianism in Lebanon. What emerges from her study is the perceptions among the Lebanese and even among the Shiʿa tend to be rather caricaturised. Iranians are considered to be pious, political hezbollahis and resented as external interference; Khatami-style reformists are not the first who come to mind. Others have commented on how liberal and reformists voices in Lebanon, while exhibiting some influences of the Iranian reformists, tend to reflect local exigencies. Faḍlallāh’s open-handed and open-minded jurisprudence is an example of this given the assault upon his integrity and credentials by the Qum juristic establishment.
Perhaps this is the main point that the author is making: that we need to disaggregate when discussing the Shiʿa either globally or within a national context. Any talk of a Shiʿi crescent begs the question: which notion of the Shiʿi political? Sīstānī or Khamenei? Hezbollah or Soroush? The problem thus with sectarianism is that it becomes self-fulfilling; in the quest for find sectarian politics and conflicts we inevitably confirm them.