Socio-political activism: the importance of networks of exiled and diaspora Shiis

Since the 1950s, Shii clerical authorities began to support, promote and lead new forms of socio-political activism by creating political parties or other socio-political organisational platforms to counter state oppression and to mobilise Shii communities. However, the role of transnational religio-political networks outside of the Middle East in the mobilisation of the region’s Shii communities has not been sufficiently investigated. AlterUmma makes significant new contributions that will advance academic narratives around their formation.

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.

From the 1970s onwards many Iraqi Shii activists and dissidents moved to Kuwait and Syria and many later settled in London. All three localities shifted the centre of Iraqi Shii political activism into the periphery and they became focal points of diasporic politics. The role of London as a global hub of Iraqi Shii diasporic politics has remained unrecognised, despite the fact that after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein many of the main actors emerging in the sectarian politics of Iraq had been exiled to the city for decades.

Post-2003, diasporic and transnational Shii religio-political networks based in Europe continue to hold significant social and communal power and exercise influence on shaping religio-political discourses of the clerical authorities based in the Middle East.

As well as the role of London, the project is the first to consider in detail the contribution made by the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque, a shrine on the outskirts of Damascus, to the forging of modern Shii identities and new forms of socio-political activism. Its religious seminaries and other institutions emerged as another global hub of transnational Shii Islam in the 1970s, connecting Iraqi Shii activists and clerics with their counterparts across the Middle East.

The project questions simplistic top-down narratives of the nature and exercise of power of clerical authorities based in Iran and Iraq. These are influenced by the involvement of individuals in grassroots activism.

The articulation of Shii communal identities in private and public spheres expressed through cultural production and political discourses likewise responds to the securitisation of Islam in Europe and current geopolitical conflicts in the Middle East.

Dr Oula Kadhum investigates the Iraqi Shia transnational mobilisation in the UK as part of this thematic area of the project.

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