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

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - ALTERUMMA (Creating an Alternative umma: Clerical Authority and Religio-political Mobilisation in Transnational Shii Islam)

Reporting period: 2019-07-01 to 2020-12-31

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.

The project will have a major impact on research on the Middle East, the history and current manifestation of sectarianism in the region in the context of contested processes of post-colonial nation-state building and the transnational dimension of modern and contemporary global Shii Islam. In addition, its thematic remit resonates with some of the societal challenges identified by the European Commission as part of the Horizon 2020 work programme. By analysing the formation of sectarian identities in the Middle East and the transnational links of global religio-political Shii networks to Europe, the project will yield new insights into “Europe as a global actor” and “a renewed understanding of this rapidly changing world” and its current “multipolar” character ( The insights gained through the project can inform EU and national policies on how to respond to the growing sectarian dimension of geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East and on how to engage with transnational governmental and non-governmental religious actors that increasingly defy the political boundaries between nation-states in the Middle East.
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: members of Alterumma organised 5 conference panels, presented a total of 27 conference and seminar papers (1 of them delivered online) and organised 1 research workshop. Due to the Covid-19 global health crisis, a significant number of conferences were cancelled or postponed. Between March and the end of the reporting period, team members were due to give a total of 24 papers and run 3 panels at conferences which have been cancelled or postponed. 6 journal articles and 1 edited volume have been published in the reporting period. 1 journal article has been accepted for publication, and 1 contribution to the very prestigious Encyclopedia of Islam (3rd ed.) has been commissioned. 5 journal articles and 1 chapter contribution have been submitted and are currently under review. Scharbrodt (PI) has also co-edited 1 special journal edition which is currently under review. 7 articles are currently in preparation to be submitted by December 2020. 1 edited volume will be completely by September 2020.

Work carried out in 3 work packages:
Work package 1 (WP1) on clergy-state relations: The researchers involved in WP1 have investigated clergy-state relations in different contexts and in different periods. One of the aims of the project is to investigate clergy-state relations in secular authoritarian context where the Shii religious establishment was under pressure from the state (such as Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution) and in political contexts in which they have gained significant influence (such as in Iraq after 2003). Razavian and Mesbahi have looked at clerical activism in Iran before the Islamic Revolution. Razavian investigates the social thought of an important ideologue of the Islamic Revolution, Morteza Mottahari, illustrating in particular how he embedded reformist thought from early 20th century Sunni Islamic thought into Shiism. Mesbahi provides ground-breaking research on how the clerical leaders of the seminaries in Iran managed to ensure the survival of their institutions – an important prerequisite for clerics becoming the main actors in opposition to the Pahlavi monarchy before the Islamic Revolution. Al-Hilli’s work on the contemporary Iraqi clerical leader Ayatollah Sistani establishes him as a reluctant political actor and – based on interviews with major religious and political stakeholders in Iraq – provides unique insights into the modus operandi of his interventions in Iraqi politics.
Work package 2 (WP2) on transnational Shii religio-political activism: Kadhum has investigated the nature of transnational and diasporic Shii political activism focussing on activities and orientations of Iraqi Shii actors based in London with whom she has conducted interviews. Her work illustrates 3 stages in the development of Shii religio-political activism between London and Iraq: (1) oppositional work against Saddam Hussein up to 2003; (2) empowerment of Shii Islamist parties after 2003 and (3) disillusionment with Shii Islamist politics and turn towards non-political religious transnational actors such as networks connected to charities or clerics like Sistani, in particular since 2011. Kadhum’s research highlights the shifting nature of transnational activism and a growing disillusionment with Shii Islamist politics in Iraq (and also Iran). Scharbrodt (PI) continues his research on the Shirazi clerical network and its connections to various other Shii clerical and political activists and their contribution to the development of Shii Islamist thought.
Work package 3 (WP3) on cultural production of Shii communal identities: significant work is already underway as part of WP3 which just began in January 2020 with some publications already in preparation. The objective of WP3 is to investigate the role of rituals, art and material culture to mediatise and strengthen Shii communal religio-political identities. Marei investigates how rituals and certain sacred objects are used to create a culture of resistance within Shii political movements, aligned with Iran, and their branches and activities in Lebanon, Iraq and Europe. Al-Hudaid’s research provides unique insights into religious art produced by female Shii artists in Kuwait and other Gulf countries that has been produced in response to the rising sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiis in the region. The artwork plays a central role in articulating Shii communal identities in a context where Shii minorities are under increased pressure and provide also a means for female Shiis to adopt agency within their communities. Williamson Fa investigates oral recitations and religious poetry produced by Turkish-speaking Shii communities in Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and northern Iran illustrating how modes of cultural production are transnationally transmitted and localised. All 3 researchers working in WP3 adopt a transnational perspective. Therefore, their research results promise to create significant synergies with WP2.
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.