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Bringing in the Other Islamists – comparing Shia and Sunni Islamism

Panel XIII-10, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
For more than half of a century, a dominant theme in discussions about Middle East politics has concerned Islamism and the link between Islam and politics. Over the years, scholars have produced a large number of important studies about specific Islamist movements and about Islamism as a phenomenon. While scholarship about Islamism has become increasingly sophisticated and multi-faceted, it still suffers from a major blind spot: most scholarship on Islamism has been de facto Sunni-centric, whereas the study of Shi’a Islamist politics has been relatively neglected by Islamism studies and has often proceed in relative isolation from the broader debates on Islamism. Against this background, this panel will bring in ‘the Other Islamists’ as part of an effort to promote stronger dialogues between the larger academic community studying (Sunni) Islamism and the much smaller one doing research on Shia Islamism. The papers in the panel show how the inclusion of Shia Islamists will not only provide additional case material for existing debates on Islamism. In some instances, they will also give rise to new questions and hypotheses as well as to more fundamental reflections on how to grasp and understand Islamism as such.
Political Science
  • Dr. Morten Valbjorn -- Organizer, Co-Author, Chair
  • Dr. Toby Matthiesen -- Presenter
  • Courtney Freer -- Presenter
  • Mr. Andrew Leber -- Presenter
  • Prof. Jeroen Gunning -- Organizer, Co-Author
  • Mr. Raphaël Lefèvre -- Presenter
  • Dr. Younes Saramifar -- Presenter
  • Co-Authors: Morten Valbjorn
    Much existing research on Islamist political parties and their supporters in the Middle East has focused on an Islamist/non-Islamist distinction within primarily Sunni Muslim communities, while framing ostensibly Islamist Shi‘a parties and movements primarily as in terms of sectarian attachments rather than beliefs on the role of religion in politics. This paper challenges this framing through a cross-national and cross-sect comparison of individual attitudes towards political Islam and nominally Islamist parties in the Arab world, as expressed in Wave III of the Arab Barometer. Such analysis finds little sign of a uniform division between Sunni and Shi’a respondents within countries, let alone an overarching set of views shared across country contexts—there is no clear basis for excluding Shi‘a Muslims from investigations of “Islamism” writ large. On the other hand, the paper finds that a relatively homogenous “ideal-type” of Sunni Muslim support for Islamist parties does not travel to multi-sectarian contexts, even for political parties that meet mainstream definitions of “Islamists.” We offer three recommendations on the basis of these findings. First, and at a minimum, work based on Sunni Islamist parties should acknowledge potential sect-specific scope conditions. Second, comparative work incorporating Shi‘a-Islamist cases can generate new theories of how Islamists gain and exercise power by highlighting explanatory factors common to Sunni and Shi‘a contexts alike. Finally, bringing “the other Islamists” back in holds the potential to reimagine the study of Islamism to better integrate findings from this subfield into the study of religious and identity-based political parties and movements.
  • Courtney Freer
    Existing scholarship has documented the extent to which Sunni Islamists enjoy a unique advantage in electoral settings in the Middle East (Camet and Luong, 2014), whether due to their ability to implement social welfare networks (Brooke, 2019), their skill in attracting followers on the basis of a religious ideology which governments are hesitant to repress (Gause, 1994), or their power to play on religiosity to mobilize electoral support (Lust, Kao, and Okar, 2021). Immediately after the Arab Spring, as Islamist parties made historic gains in Egypt and Tunisia, Sunni Islamism, specifically linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, came to be viewed as the primary mode of political opposition in the Middle East. In the intervening years, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has been designated a terrorist organization in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, and Western states including the UK and US have considered designated it a terrorist group as well. What was once considered an advantage, then, seems to have become a political liability, as the Muslim Brotherhood’s brand has become increasingly associated with majoritarian practices in electoral settings and radical Islamist movements in government-produced rhetoric. In this paper, we seek to interrogate ways in which what had previously been the premiere Sunni Islamist brand has now become a scarcely viable political identity. In examining this question, we also examine the extent to which any Islamist advantage or disadvantage exists solely in the Sunni sphere or extends to independent Shii movements, which have until now remained woefully understudied in the field.
  • Dr. Toby Matthiesen
    This paper will compare state sponsorship for Sunni and Shii Islamist movements to investigate the question what role foreign state sponsorship has on the trajectories and decisions, and the success, of Islamist movements. Shii Islamist movements have largely had to rely on Iran as a foreign sponsor, and this has limited their independence from Iran. How has this affected their overall performance, in violent and non-violent contexts? What does that tell us about foreign state sponsorship in general, where Sunni movements have had a larger group of patrons to choose from, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, Pakistan. Has this facilitated factionalism and ideological competition? And when states outside the Islamic world, like the US, have sponsored Sunni and Shii Islamist movements, has broadened their room for manoeuvre and relative dependence on regional sponsors or otherwise affected their development? The paper will be based on fieldwork before the Covid-19 pandemic, a reading of movement literature and a rethinking of existing secondary literature.
  • Mr. Raphaël Lefèvre
    Co-Authors: Jeroen Gunning
    The past two decades have been marked by the growth of a rich and robust scholarship on transnational Islamist militancy (Hansen 2013; Hegghammer 2010a, 2010b, 2013, 2020; Kepel 2000, 2017; Lia 2008; Moghaddam 2017; Robinson 2020; Roy 2017). These accounts often highlight the sheer global character of recent acts of Islamist militancy. They tackle the growth of militant ideologies which do not recognize national borders such as Salafism (Moghadam 2009; Wagemakers 2009, 2012; Maher 2016), the spread of transnational Islamist networks (Abou Zahab and Roy 2004; Pall 2016; Jaffrelot 2017), or again the global scope and reach of groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, which not only carry out attacks throughout the world but, in addition to their local base, also recruit many foreign fighters (Byman 2015, 2019; Hegghammer 2010; Joffé 2016; Mallet 2013). Yet, in spite of all this progresses, the scholarship suffers from an important gap which may bias the analysis of the transnational dynamics of armed Islamism: it overwhelmingly relies on Sunni examples and overlooks Shia Islamist transnationalism. This gap is a crucial one to address. Lebanon’s Shia Hezbollah was arguably the first Islamist armed group to pioneer attacks on transnational targets, as demonstrated by its involvement in the 1994 bombing of Jewish community centre in Argentina and the 1995 Khobar Towers attack aiming at US military personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia. Iraq’s Daawa Party, for its part, may have been the first truly transnational Islamist armed group as it operated throughout the Gulf in the 1980s and drew Shia members from Iraq but also from Lebanon, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Afghanistan (Jabbar 2003, Louer 2008). In other words, militant Shia Islamism has also been largely transnational in its reach and scope, but its analysis has rarely been factored in broader accounts about global jihad. This raises important questions which this paper seeks to address. To what extent and how are transnational Shia militant Islamist groups similar/different from Sunni counterparts? What, if any, are the peculiar factors which drive transnational Shia Islamist militancy? Is the phenomenon one that cuts across sub-ideological categories of Shia Islamism, or one which is underpinned by particular political ideologies – such as for example, Khomeinist Islamism? How precisely does the role of external sponsorship matter when accounting for Shia transnational activism? And how truly transnational is the phenomenon?
  • Dr. Younes Saramifar
    We are History: Historical Affect, radical cosmologies and militancy in the MENA region By way of anthropology of history or doing history in anthropology, I explain how the claim “we are history” is an attempt to become a community of individuals via history and social actors turn history into a world-making practice that informs political participation and justifies for armed actions as well as excessive violence. I ground my suggestions in ethnographic encounters among Shia militias in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to illustrate how social actors’ relationship with history facilitates militancy, justifies violence, Othering and legitimizes religious leadership. My fieldworks and interviews among Shia volunteer combatants show “We are history” is a declaration that traverses usual identity labels, symbols, rituals and nation building through history. I demonstrate that announcing “we are history” is a political-mystical practice, and living with the evocative historical affect permeated from radical cosmologies crafted by militants and revolutionaries in the MENA region. When militants and revolutionaries claim to be the ‘history’, the claim allows them to indulge in a type of transcendence that expands them into a cosmological scale that exceeds both state and everyday life.