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The Myth of the Shi'a Crescent - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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An Iranian Shiite Muslim woman sits in front a poster depicting religious prayers written in Arabic in downtown Tehran on November 9, 2013, during a ceremony marking Ashura, which commemorates the seventh-century slaying of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed. (AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI)

An Iranian Shiite Muslim woman sits in front a poster depicting religious prayers written in Arabic in downtown Tehran on November 9, 2013, during a ceremony marking Ashura, which commemorates the seventh-century slaying of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed. (AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI)

The notion of “Shi’a crescent” was first articulated in late 2004 by King Abdullah of Jordan in an interview he gave a few weeks before the first parliamentary elections in Iraq, in which he expressed his fears about the growing influence of Iran in the Arab Middle East. Since then, the “Shi’a crescent” has been used extensively in the media in its analysis of the reshaping of Middle Eastern politics. Several developments in the region have fed into this narrative: the ongoing role of Hezbollah in Lebanon and its more recent involvement in the Syrian civil war, the fact that Bashar Al-Assad’s regime draws much of its support from Alawites (an offshoot of Shi’a Islam), and accusations of an alliance between Iran and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, to name just a few.

The success of this expression reveals some of the preconceptions that circulate, in the Middle East and elsewhere, about the Arab Shi’a and their relations with Iran. First, the Shi’a are seen as constituting a unified body that crosses national borders that puts obedience to religious authority higher than loyalty to nation and political rulers. Secondly, the Shi’a are considered inherently tied to Iran, a state that would command both their religious and political loyalty. These views are not only distorting the reality: They lead to dangerous domestic and foreign policies that undermine social integration and political stability, and feed the rhetoric of the radical Salafists who are doing so much to create sectarian discord.

A multipolar Shi’a world

A distinct feature of contemporary Shi’ism is the existence of a clerical class with an important cultural role. It is dominated by large families, often claiming descent from the Prophet Mohammed, who are organized on a transnational and trans-ethnic basis, with branches scattered to the main corners of the Shi’a world. However, this has not had the effect of unifying the Shi’a into a single body. In fact, in this case the opposite has occurred, with Shi’a clerics divided between rival poles of religious authority, promoting different views and competing for influence in society. The most well-known of these rivalries is between the cities of Najaf and Qom.

Over the course of the 19th century, Najaf became the main religious learning center and the place of residence of the most influential Shi’a religious scholars. It is there that the doctrine of the marjaiya al-taqlid (“the source of emulation”) was elaborated. Enjoying canonical status today, it stipulates that every Shi’ite who has not reached the capacity to practice ijtihad (literally “diligence,” but here meaning the independent interpretation of religious law) must follow the views of a particularly knowledgeable religious scholar called the marja (al-taqlid). The rulings of the marja are spread through networks of agents (wakil), official representatives of the marja and, increasingly, through modern means of communication including books, leaflets and websites.

Najaf succeeded in maintaining its preeminent position in religious learning until the 1980s. Since then, it has had to face the ascent of Qom in Iran. The city rapidly grew in influence after the revolution that overthrew the shah in 1979, as the new Iranian regime invested heavily in the development of its infrastructure. The city also benefited from the repression of Najaf’s religious seminars by the Ba’athist regime, which pushed hundreds of religious scholars and students, both Iraqis and foreigners, to leave Iraq. Many found refuge in Qom, where they found a propitious environment for pursuing their scholarly activities. If Qom came to replace Najaf as the main learning center after the revolution, it never replaced it as the place of residence of the most widely followed marja worldwide. Ruhollah Khomeini was no doubt celebrated by many Shi’as, scholars and laymen, as the man who brought down the shah’s tyrannical regime. However, despite all his efforts to promote himself as a transnational marja, he never matched the religious influence of Najaf’s marjaiya, namely Abu Al-Qasem Khoei, who was the main marja of Najaf between 1970 and 1992. He remained the most widely followed religious scholar in the Shi’a world despite being subjected to strict control by the Ba’athist regime.

Khoei, and today Ali Sistani, who has followed him as the principal scholar of Najaf, have rejected some important ideas put forward by Khomeini, most conspicuously the famous doctrine of velayat-e faqih, which is the doctrinal pillar of the Islamic Republic of Iran and stipulates that an Islamic state must be ruled by a mujtahid. This conception goes against mainstream Shi’a religious thinking about state and government, which is more accommodating of different types of government, providing it allows its Shi’a citizens to practice their faith. Thus Ali Al-Sistani has clearly said that democracy is a perfectly legitimate form of government, and has claimed no direct governmental role for clerics in a post-Saddam Iraq, even calling for political leaders who wear a turban to not accept ministerial portfolios. In his view, and in that of many of his peers, direct involvement in politics is detrimental to faith and religious institutions.

This view is widely shared beyond Najaf, including in Qom itself, where Khomeini had difficulty finding supporters among high-ranking clerics. This led him to endorse a junior cleric, Ali Khamenei, as his successor, and upon his accession to the post of supreme leader in 1989 Khamenei was hardly recognized as a mujtahid, and certainly not as a marja. He tried to impose himself on the higher-ranking scholars of Qom, including attempts at coercion, and, when he realized that he could not force the hearts and minds of his peers, declared in 1995 that he would only exercise his religious authority outside of Iran. His attempts were rebuffed by many, especially in the Arab world. Mohammed Husein Fadlallah, a Lebanese mujtahid born and trained in Najaf, and who became one of the foremost religious references of Lebanese Shi’a and was close to Hezbollah, declared himself a marja shortly afterwards, a clear way of saying that he refused to recognize Khamenei’s authority.

The Islamic Republic of Iran: A controversial model

The velayat-e faqih doctrine and the Iranian state model it sustains are also the subject of fierce debates within Shi’a political Islam. Upon the advent of the Iranian revolution, the various Shi’a Islamic movements were enthusiastic about this development, becoming the main channels for the exportation of the revolution, which was a pillar of Iranian foreign policy in the aftermath of the revolution. This was particularly so of the two rival transnational activist networks of Al-Da’wa Al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Call), which originated in Najaf’s religious seminars, and the Message Movement, stemming from a group of clerical families from the city of Karbala led by the marja Mohammed Al-Shirazi. Born in Iraq in the late 1950s and 1960s, the two movements spread to Lebanon and the Gulf monarchies, most notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain.

The Lebanese cell of Al-Da’wa was one of the main constituents of Hezbollah upon the movement’s creation in 1982. In Kuwait, Al-Da’wa activists formed a legal opposition group that competed for votes in elections. In Bahrain, the movement included some of the most senior opponents to the government and was among those demanding the reinstatement of the parliament that was disbanded in 1975. While it did not call for the advent of an Islamic revolution, it was a major contributor in spreading Khomeini’s ideas in the country.

Constituting itself into a network of influence that remained supportive of the political establishment in Kuwait, seen as benevolent to the Shi’as, the Message Movement turned into a revolutionary movement in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where it made itself known under names that left no ambiguity about its program: the Organization for the Islamic Revolution in the Arabian Peninsula (OIRAP) and the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain (IFLB). OIRAP was behind the events that came to be known as the Intifada of Muhrram 1400 (November 1979) in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. The IFLB prepared a coup in 1981, which ended up with the arrest or exile of the majority of the movement’s members.

The upsurge of enthusiasm for the Iranian experience among Shi’a activists progressively weakened following deep shifts in regional politics. On the Iranian domestic scene, the end of the 1980s, marked by the drawing down of the war with Iraq in 1988, witnessed the sidelining of the traditional supporters of the revolutionary Shi’a movements in favor of those, such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who wished to rebuild Iran’s relations with its neighbors and world powers. Some Shi’a activists who were still dreaming of bringing down the “unjust rulers” felt betrayed, and others took the opportunity to redefine their goals in ways more in line with what seemed possible: fighting with political means for reforms that would enable the Shi’as to have a better share of wealth and power in countries where they suffered from discrimination. Many of those who embraced this reformist approach reflected that it had been an error to put their destiny in Iranian hands. They were also disappointed with the Iranian experience, considering that the Islamic Republic had evolved into an authoritarian regime. This was notably the case of a group of lay officials of Iraqi Al-Da‘wa, who split from those, mostly clerics, who continued to pledge allegiance to Khomeini. They left Iran for Syria and Western Europe. Saudi OIRAP followed suit and renamed itself the Reform Movement.

Others, who are referred to in Shi’a Islamist parlance as “the Hezbollah line” or the “Imam’s Line” (“Imam” referring to Khomeini), remained committed to the Iranian political model and the doctrine of velayat-e faqih. However, they reached the conclusion that this model was only implementable in Iran, where the vast majority of the population professes the Shi’a creed. In countries where Shi’as had to coexist with other sizable religious communities, the aim of creating an Islamic republic was abandoned in favor of establishing pluralist political systems. This was the option put forward by Hezbollah in Lebanon in the aftermath of the civil war.

The reformist shift was further fostered by major domestic changes that occurred in several Arab countries with Shi’a communities in the course of the 1990s and early 2000s. In Lebanon, the end of the civil war allowed the return of democracy. Parliaments were reinstated in Kuwait (1992) and Bahrain (2002), while in Saudi Arabia a Consultative Council was created in 1992, followed by municipal elections in 2005 where the Shi’a candidates did very well in the Shi’a localities of the Eastern Province. These changes were accompanied by amnesty for most Shi’a political prisoners and exiles. The most far-reaching changes occurred in Bahrain, where the various trends of Shi’a political Islam gathered under the umbrella of a new political movement, Al-Wifaq (The Accord), the goal of which was to achieve a genuine constitutional democracy.

In Iraq, the deposition of Saddam Hussein in 2003 permitted Iraqi Shi’a activists to seize power. The chaos that followed the military intervention favored the penetration of Iranian networks of influence in the country. As a result of that, nowhere has the debate about relations with Iran and the doctrine of velayat-e faqih been fiercer. The various Shi’a candidates were initially divided between those who favored a national line but had been exiled for years, such as the Al-Da’wa, which included current prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki and those who continued to rely on Iran materially and ideologically, such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), controlled by members of the Al-Hakim clerical family who came back to Iraq directly from Iran. There were also those who had never left Iraq, such as Muqtada Al-Sadr, an Arab and Iraqi nationalist who deeply resented the domination of the exiled activists and the penetration of Iranian influence.

The reshaping of these movements’ political ideologies and alliances that took place after the first Iraqi elections is revealing of the actual state of the relations between Iran and Shi’a Islamic activists. Nouri Al-Maliki has conspicuously accentuated his image of an Iraqi nationalist leader, seeking supports in all segments of Iraqi society as well as Iranian support against his rivals. SCIRI has renamed itself the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and declared that it recognizes the religious authority of Ali Sistani, dropping the aim of establishing an Islamic republic in Iraq and renouncing its previous support for Ali Khamenei as the sole legitimate religious authority. As for Muqtada Al-Sadr, he has courted Iran to obtain the material, logistical and political support he needed to become a major power broker.

The lesson to be drawn from this plasticity of ideologies and alliances is that Iran has been desacralized among a growing number of Shi’a Islamic activists, and hence has become an ordinary player in Shi’a Arab politics. No longer the bearer of a hegemonic political model, it is just another regime seeking to play a role in regional politics through unstable alliances with proxies with whom it shares interests at a certain moment in time, rather than a clearly articulated ideology.

This article was originally published in The Majalla.

Laurence Louër

Laurence Louër

Laurence Louër is research fellow at the Centre d'études et de recherches internationales (Ceri) in Paris. She is the author of Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf (Columbia/Hurst, 2012).

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