Intellectual responses

Intellectual responses: Shii discourses of autochthony

Since the 1950s, Shii communities in Iraq and other countries of the Arab Middle East experienced state oppression, socio-economic marginalisation and political disenfranchisement. The underlying ideologies of the new post-colonial nation-states hindered the articulation of Shii identities in the public sphere. Similarly, Shii clerical authorities in Iran faced the modernising and secularising policies of the Shah and his efforts to undermine clerical authority and its socio-cultural influence.

As a consequence, Shii clerics in Iran and Iraq began to articulate intellectual responses to the rise of modern nation-states and their underlying ideologies. Some of these responses, in particular the emergence of Ayatollah Khomeini as leader of Iranian clerical opposition, have been extensively studied. This project focuses on lesser known but still highly influential Iranian and Iraqi clerical figures and their responses to the secular and modernising ideologies and policies of their countries. While Khomeini emerged as the charismatic leader of the Islamic Revolution, other clerical figures associated with him played an equally important role in creating the revolution’s ideological basis.

By including Iraqi clerics who were significant in mobilising Shii communities across the Middle East and Iranian clerics who were later overshadowed by Khomeini’s activities, AlterUmma makes a novel contribution to the wider ‘social field’ of Middle Eastern Shii networks by investigating the intersections, influences, similarities and differences between Iranian and Iraqi clerical actors. By investigating the ways in which clerical authorities and their networks were involved in socio-political activism, AlterUmma questions the simplistic belief that clerical authorities favour participating in either political quietism or activism. This overlooks the fact that there are a wide range of views amongst Shii clerical authorities about their role in politics, and that even quietist clerics have moments of political intervention and engage in socio-political and communal mobilisation that are not prima facie political. For instance, the project will investigate the subtle but determined post-2003 political interventions of senior Iraqi clerical authorities on the country’s sectarian politics, interventions which challenge their perception as politically quietist.

Following the religio-political mobilisation of Shii communities, the notion of a ‘Shii International’ emerged. This gained further currency thanks to the diasporic encounter of different transnational Shii networks and Iranian efforts to mobilise Shii communities across the Middle East after the Islamic Revolution. This notion illustrates the global spread of discourses of autochthony as a means to produce in-groups and out-groups.

Dr Pooya Razavian and Yousif Al-Hilli undertake research in this area of AlterUmma. Dr Razavian focuses on the concept of social justice as developed by Morteza Motahhari (1919-1979), one of the main ideologues of Islamic Revolution and close associate of Ayatollah Khomeini. Yousif Al-Hilli investigates the political role the clerical establishment in Najaf has played in the politics of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

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