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Creating an Alternative umma: Clerical Authority and Religio-political Mobilisation in Transnational Shii Islam

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - ALTERUMMA (Creating an Alternative umma: Clerical Authority and Religio-political Mobilisation in Transnational Shii Islam)

Reporting period: 2021-01-01 to 2022-03-31

This interdisciplinary project investigates the transformation of Shii Islam in the Middle East and Europe since the 1950s. The project examines the formation of modern Shii communal identities and the role Shii clerical authorities and their transnational networks have played in their religio-political mobilisation. The volatile situation post-Arab Spring, the rise of militant movements such as ISIS and the sectarianisation of geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East have intensified efforts to forge distinct Shii communal identities and to conceive Shii Muslims as part of an alternative umma (Islamic community). The project focusses on Iran, Iraq and significant but unexplored transnational links to Lebanon, Kuwait, Britain and the Caucasus region. In response to the rise of modern nation-states in the Middle East, Shii clerical authorities resorted to a wide range of activities: (a) articulating intellectual responses to the ideologies underpinning modern Middle Eastern nation-states, (b) forming political parties and other platforms of socio-political activism and (c) using various forms of cultural production by systematising and promoting Shii ritual practices and utilising visual art, poetry and new media.

The project yields a perspectival shift on the factors that led to Shii communal mobilisation by
- analysing unacknowledged intellectual responses of Shii clerical authorities to the secular or sectarian ideologies of post-colonial nation-states and to the current sectarianisation of geopolitics in the Middle East
- emphasising the central role of diasporic networks in the Middle East and Europe in mobilising Shii communities and in influencing discourses and agendas of clerical authorities based in Iraq and Iran
- exploring new modes of cultural production in the form of a modern Shii aesthetics articulated in ritual practices, visual art, poetry and new media.

The project creates a new narrative on the rise of modern Shii communal identities in the Middle East and in Europe. Within the various denominations of Shii Islam, Twelver Shiis are the majority, being dominant in Iran and Iraq and constituting important minorities in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. Despite the discursive framing of Shii Muslims in the Middle East as being marginalised minorities in different national contexts, Shiis actually constitute up to half of the population in the entire region. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003 have shifted the sectarian power dynamics in the Middle East and translated the demographic strength of Shii communities into geopolitical power. Yet, little understanding exists of the historical and socio-cultural processes that mobilised and empowered Shii communities because of a persistent Sunni majoritarian perspective on Middle Eastern history, societies and cultures. The project questions this majoritarian perspective by illustrating the historical mobilisation of Shii communities in various oppressive contexts and the different stages and factors of their gradual empowerment from the 1950s to 1979, after 1979 and since 2003.
Alterumma’s research activities are progressing as planned to deliver the project’s objectives. The major achievements so far are as follows:
- Staffing and recruitment: the projected has recruited 6 research fellows and 1 PhD student. Dr Christopher Pooya Razavian and Dr Mohammad Mesbahi are the two research fellows and Yousif Al-Hilli is the PhD student involved in Work Package 1. Dr Oula Kadhum was recruited as the research fellow for Work Package 2. Dr Fouad Marei, Dr Nada Al-Hudaid and Dr Stefan Williamson Fa joined the project as research fellows for Work Package 3 (which began in Jan 2020). Recruitment for the project is now complete with the entire research team set in place.
- Work packages: Work package 1 (Jan 2018 – Jun 2021) engages with clergy-state relations in contemporary Twelver Shiism, focusing on the case studies of Iran and Iraq, and involves 3 researchers (Razavian, Mesbahi and Al-Hilli). Work package 2 (Jan 2019 – Dec 2022) investigates transnational networks of religio-political activism and mobilisation between Europe and the Middle East and involves Scharbrodt (PI) and Kadhum. Work package 3 (Jan 2020 – Dec 2022), includes Marei, Al-Hudaid and Williamson Fa and explores different examples of the cultural production of Shii communal, political and religious identities in different contexts through rituals, poetry, art and other elements of material culture.
- Dissemination: In this reporting period, the project published 9 articles, 1 special issue of an academic journal, 1 edited volume and 1 monograph bringing the total of publications of the project so far to 29 outputs. Project team members presented 22 conference papers, organised 3 conference panels, participated in 6 academic workshops and had 5 invited seminar presentations. The major mid-project conference to conclude WP1 on clergy-state relations was conducted online on 20-21 May 2021 with more than 40 participants from various academic institutions around the world. In addition, 2 workshops were organised in the reporting period by project team members.
Yousif Al-Hilli who has been part of WP1 as a PhD student successfully passed his oral examination on 24 May 2021 and has been awarded a PhD by the University of Birmingham.
Progress beyond the state of the art has been achieved so far in the following areas which will further be explored until the end of the project and inform its overall results
- Novel insights into unknown actors in pre-revolutionary Iran and their intellectual trajectories and political interventions: this includes the leaders of the religious seminaries and revolutionary activists like Motahhari both of which set the institutional basis and intellectual foundation for the formulation of Shii Islamism as an alternative ideological framework.
- Highlighting the important contribution of Shii clerical figures and their networks in the development of modern Shii political thought: this includes in particular the Shirazi network which informed Khomeini and other ideologues of the Islamic Revolution – a contribution that has been overlooked so far.
- New perspectives on the evolution of transnational Shii religio-political activism: as one of its objectives Alterumma seeks to foreground the salience of transnational and diasporic activism in the communal mobilisation of Shii communities. Research undertaken so far reveals a growing disillusionment with Shii Islamist politics in power and a turn to non-political transnational actors.
- Insights into the modus operandi of Shii clerical political interventionism: by taking the case study of the highly influential Iraq-based cleric Sistani, the project provides new insights how clerics intervene in domestic politics without any formal role in the state apparatus.
- Emphasising the centrality of cultural production: alternative articulation of Shii communal identities through rituals, poetry, artwork and other forms of material culture have been overlooked in academic scholarship but have become more salient in opposition to politicised readings of Shii Islam or, as part of the aestheticisation of politics, are used as novel means of communal mobilisation. WP3 – which began in Jan 2020 – investigates these particular issues that will take current scholarship significantly further.

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