MESA Banner
Faith-Based Activism, Charity, and the Maxims of Governance in Contemporary Shi’i Politics

Session IV-18, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
Recent scholarship has called into question the mobilization of religious identities, faith-based values and worldviews in geopolitical rivalries between Saudi Arabia/Israel and Iran. Security-minded analyses further emphasize the relationship between hyper-politicized sectarian identities and conflicts ongoing and yet-to-come in the Middle East, Africa, and their diasporas. Less emphasis has been placed on the role of faith-based and religiously-motivated activism in contemporary Shi‘i politics as well as triangulations of Shi‘i politics and global shifts in development practice, maxims of governance, and hybrid regimes of rule. Addressing this scholarly lacuna, this panel examines less emphasized aspects of Shi‘i politics and probes into the hybridified forms of governance and development practices that emerge from the intersection of faith-based activism and global political transformations. In the first part, we look into transnational ties between the Middle East, East Africa and Europe. We examine the global networks and resources a Tanzanian Shi‘i NGO mobilizes in forms of faith-based activism that emphasize the connection between spiritual and material advancement. These initiatives empower Shi‘i communities and position Shi‘is as capable and self-sufficient members of their societies despite a history of marginalization. Likewise, grassroots Shi‘i organizations in the United Kingdom respond to acute crises in Iraq, buttressing social cohesion and community resilience and compensating for state weakness. Their charitable work has been especially pertinent in response to anti-Shi‘i violence, the rise of the Islamic State organization, and the mass displacements that ensued. Despite this, Shi‘i charities navigate a labyrinthine minefield of regulatory hurdles shaped by national and international developments, including the hyper-securitization of Muslim charitable work and the global War on Terror. In the second part of this panel, we interrogate the role of faith-based Shi‘i non-state providers (NSPs) and supranational aid-economy actors in the context of postwar reconstruction and urban revitalization in Lebanon. We propose that Shi‘i NSPs should be understood as ‘partners’ alongside international aid-economy actors in ‘glocalized’ politico-institutional configurations. These hybrid configurations are therefore a demonstrative example of the triangulation of Shi‘i religiosity and faith-based activism and neoliberal conceptions of development and the liberal peace. We conclude with an examination of hybrid regimes of rule in Iran, demonstrating that while electoral authoritarianism strengthen hybrid regimes, it impedes good governance, weakens the state, and erodes the accountability of both elected and unelected elites and institutions. This panel is informed by multi- and interdisciplinary research conducted in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Tanzania, and the United Kingdom.
International Relations/Affairs
Political Science
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Lebanon, a multi-confessional country with an established consociational democracy, is facing the threat of slipping into state failure as it grapples with its soaring political and economic crisis. Scholars of Lebanese politics have amply demonstrated that a plethora of subnational non-state actors and sectarian strongmen and institutions ‘capture’ the State from below while foreign powers meddle freely in the country’s internal affairs. Amongst the most extensively cited non-state actors accused of undermining the State in Lebanon is the Islamic resistance movement and Shi‘i political party, Hizbullah. This paper interrogates the Hizbullah-led urban intervention following the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, examining the foreign and domestic web of relations mobilized in support of Hizbullah’s largest reconstruction effort to date. I demonstrate how Hizbullah-run municipalities and the party’s reconstruction arm provided the organizational superstructure ensuring synergistic partnership between private sector real estate developers, faith-based organizations (FBOs) and elite factions of civil society, and global aid-economy actors. More specifically, I examine the role of non-state providers (NSPs) and their relationship to Hizbullah-run local government agencies, focusing on two foreign and supranational actors (the United National Development Programme and the Kuwait Fund for International Development) as well as faith-based organizations affiliated with Hizbullah operating in the fields of public safety and security and public health. I propose that Hizbullah’s postwar urban intervention should be understood in relation to global neoliberal transformations, maxims of the liberal peace, and precepts of the humanitarian-development-peace nexus championed by Western governments, international financial organizations (IFOs), and intergovernmental organizations. Crucially, I insist that, while these configurations appear to bypass the central government, they are made possible only because of the State’s indispensable neoliberal role as proactive enabler.
  • Both hostland and homeland factors are said to create opportunities and constraints for diasporic activism. Yet very little work has addressed the interconnectedness of terrorist threats in the homeland, counter-terrorism measures in the hostland and their impact on grass-roots political transnationalism between both. Furthermore, diaspora have been analyzed as either aiding insurgencies in the hostland (Collier and Hoeffler, 2004; Checkel, 2013) or as securitized communities under counter-terrorism policies (Bourbeau, 2017; Cochrane, 2015; Lazaridis and Wadia, 2015). Less analyzed is their role in supporting the state during existential crises, and how concurrently, counter-terrorism measures in the hostland and homeland may undermine these efforts. This study argues that Shia grass-roots organizations in the UK are increasingly becoming a transnational welfare provider for victims of Islamic State in Iraqi society, delivering vital state services and buttressing Iraq’s weak state. Yet their securitization is creating multiple obstacles, both in the UK and Iraq. This paper demonstrates how terrorism in the homeland is shaping Shia political transnationalism towards civil society. Simultaneously it reveals the transnational impact of counter-terrorism measures both in the homeland and hostland, which are impeding support to livelihoods of families who have themselves been victims of terrorist acts of violence in Iraq.
  • Media and policy analysis often depicts African Muslims as pawns in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, ignoring the wider history of trans-regional connections between Africa and the Middle East. Yet Iran is not the only Shi‘i player in Africa. This paper examines a prominent Shi‘i Islamic organization in Tanzania with connections to Kuwait. Transnational ties create opportunities for the empowerment of Tanzanian Muslims who adapt global networks and resources to address their local and national disadvantages. Based on ethnographic research in Kuwait and Tanzania, I explore one trajectory for the expansion of Shi‘i Islam in religiously-mixed East Africa. The origins, discourses and objectives of Ahl al-Bayt Centre (ABC), which follows the teachings of Ayatollah Shirazi, highlight the interconnection of diverse local, national, and transnational actors in social welfare provision. ABC was originally founded as a small Quranic school in Northern Tanzania in 1986 by clerics from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait. The school expanded into an Islamic seminary and vocational training center through assistance from Al-Thaqalain Social Philanthropy Association. The only officially registered Shi‘i Islamic NGO in Kuwait, Al-Thaqalain’s founder is a Member of Parliament who used his political clout to obtain this status. With generous charitable contributions from Kuwaiti Shi‘a, ABC developed into an indigenous Tanzanian organization that prioritizes spiritual as well as material advancement. Its goal is to better position Tanzania’s Shi‘a as capable, self-sufficient, and professionalized nationals able to proudly contribute to their country despite the history of marginalization of Muslims in East Africa.
  • There is a growing body of literature on electoral authoritarianism and hybrid regimes. The current literature focuses on ways elections enable these regimes to survive and persist. More specifically, and as indicated by Posusney (2002) and Lust and Ghandi (2009), the literature explores how controlled elections help authoritarian incumbents manage opponents, engineer institutions, reduce political violence, and improve state-society relations. Building on this literature, our paper contends that while electoral authoritarianism may strengthen hybrid regimes, it also impedes good governance and weakens the state. We examine the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) as a case study and show that electoral authoritarianism tends to cause regime underperformance. This paper addresses four critical issue areas: national deficit, energy policy, environmental sustainability, and pensions fund risk. Using the case of the IRI, we establish causality and address a broad research question: Why do electoral authoritarianism and hybrid regimes produce suboptimal policy and underperform economically and developmentally? The paper offers a three-fold answer to the question. First, unelected elites and institutions (e.g., the supreme leader and guardian council) create and exacerbate political gridlock because they possess less legitimacy than the elected ones (i.e., the president and parliament) and consequently veto or block their proposed policies. Second, having less power than their unelected counterparts and possessing limited purview, the elected elites and institutions generate shortsighted policies. Third, electoral authoritarianism and regime hybridity erode the accountability of both unelected and elected elites and institutions by offering them opportunities to deflect blame and responsibility for poor governance.