Sectarianism and International Relations: Shia Iran in a Muslim World

Date01 December 2016
Published date01 December 2016
Subject MatterReview Essay
05_AIA670748_1-15.indd Review Essay
Sectarianism and
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
International Relations:
3(3) 359–373
2016 SAGE Publications India
Shia Iran in a Muslim World
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797016670748
Vikas Kumar1
Justin Jones and Ali Usman Qasmi (Eds). 2015. The Shi’a in Modern South Asia: Religion,
History and Politics
. New York: Cambridge University Press. 212 pp., ISBN: 978-1-107-
Toby Matthiesen. 2015. The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism. New York:
Cambridge University Press. 277 pp., ISBN: 978-1-107-04304-6.
Shaul Mishal and Ori Goldberg. 2014. Understanding Shiite Leadership: The Art of the
Middle Ground in Iran and Lebanon
. New York: Cambridge University Press. 155 pp.,
ISBN: 978-1-107-04638-2.
The rise of Shias in Lebanon and Iraq, civil wars in Syria and Yemen, and, more
recently, the lifting of nuclear sanctions against Iran have fuelled speculation
about the emergence of an Iran-led Shia bloc in the Middle East1 and aroused
considerable interest in Islam’s foundational schism. Recent developments seem
to confirm the view that Islam’s ‘principal’ sectarian divide plays an important
role in international affairs in the region. The exclusion of Iran and its ‘allies’ Iraq
and Syria from an anti-terrorism alliance launched by Saudi Arabia (December
2015) and the diplomatic crisis triggered by a Shia cleric’s execution by Saudi
Arabia (January 2016) are cases in point. Popular assessments of the emerging
situation in the Middle East often stress primordial factors by: (a) reading conflicts
through the sectarian lens, (b) equating Iran and Shias and (c) representing Shia
leadership as fundamentalist or extremist. The books under review provide a
useful point of departure for the analysis of the three fallacies identified above.
This review examines the fallacies in the order mentioned above before discussing
the factors that might explain the abundance of sectarian readings of the Middle
East. We will begin with a brief summary of the books.
1 School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, India.
Corresponding author:
Vikas Kumar, School of Development, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru 560100, India.

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 3(3)
The Books
The 3 books under review fill in a void in the literature insofar as Shia have
until recently been a relatively understudied community, at least, in Saudi Arabia
and South Asia (Jones and Qasmi, 2015, pp. 1, 57, 80, 184; Matthiesen, 2015,
pp. i, 1). The countries covered by these books span the whole spectrum of Shia
national experiences bound on one end by Iran, where a Shia majority has lived
under a Shia-dominated state since the early sixteenth century, and on the other
by Saudi Arabia, where a small, divided and persecuted Shia minority lives
under an oppressive Sunni state. In between we have Iraq, a Shia-majority
country where a Shia-dominated government has come to power recently and
faces a restive Sunni minority, and Lebanon and Pakistan, where substantial Shia
minorities live under Sunni/Christian and Sunni-dominated states respectively.
Non-denominational India, where Shia are a ‘double minority’ (Jones and Qasmi,
2015, p. 77), lies outside this spectrum. Of the books reviewed here only Mishal
and Goldberg (2014) directly address questions of interest to students of inter-
national relations. However, the other two books provide a deep understanding of
Shia societies that can be readily used to answer such questions.
Jones and Qasmi’s The Shi‘a in Modern South Asia is a collection of eight
essays introduced by Francis Robinson. Six of the essays deal with specific
Shia communities in India. Three essays are dedicated to the Shias of Lucknow
(Sajjad Rizvi, Muhammad Amir Ahmad Khan, and Justin Jones) with the other
three essays addressing the Ismaili Shias of western India (Michel Boivin, Soumen
Mukherjee, and Shireen Mirza). The remaining two essays deal with the Pakistani
Shias. Tahir Kamran and Amir Khan Shahid discuss the Sunni-Sufi revival in
response to the growth of Shiism, while Simon Fuchs discusses the career of the
Pakistani Shia leader Sayyid ‘Arif Husain al-Husaini and the impact of Iran’s
Islamic Revolution on Pakistan. The essays provide nuanced treatments of Shia
communities informed by their historical and theological idiosyncrasies. The main
weakness of the book is the lack of attention to the ethno-linguistic diversity of
South Asian Shia communities. So, for instance, while we learn a lot about the
Shia communities of Lucknow and western India, we do not know what explains
the difference between their trajectories and why they have not found common
cause in the face of shared challenges. The lack of uniformity of spellings of
names is another shortcoming of the book. In some cases names are spelt in two
different ways on the same page (see pages 141 and 152, for instance).
Matthiesen’s The Other Saudis is a good example of a historically grounded
approach to the study of sectarianism and communal politics. It presents an
exhaustive account of the predicament of Saudi Arabia’s little known Shia
community, which is caught in the crossfire between the royal family and the
Wahhabis and Saudi Arabia and Iran. It pays enormous attention to minute histo-
rical and theological details. The first two chapters nicely build up the discussion
from the pre-twentieth century to the mid-twentieth century in a manner that
allows us to understand how the evolution of the political economy and leadership
within the Shia community over the past few centuries influenced developments
in more recent times. The approach is not deterministic as it suggests how the

Kumar 361
historical factors that initially promoted the influence of the traditional leadership
eventually checked that influence as well and opened up space for new possibi-
lities. The following chapters examine different stages of Shia activism in Saudi
Arabia and carefully explore the linkages between the stages. However, the imme-
diate Sunni neighbours of Shias in the Eastern Province, the economy of the
Eastern Province (the relative per capita income vis-à-vis the national average,
share in Saudi Arabia’s food and oil output, and so on)2, the relationship between
the Shia and the immigrant workers, the relationship between Shias of the Eastern
Province and other Shias and non-Wahhabi Sunnis of Saudi Arabia, and the
Saudi Sunni commoner’s views on the Shia problem have received little, if any,
attention. At times it seems that Matthiesen stands in the Eastern Province facing
Bahrain (and Iran), which can only be partly justified by geography and history
of the former.
Mishal and Goldberg’s Understanding Shiite Leadership is an effort to unpack
the world of the Shiite leadership in the Middle East. The first two chapters
of the book deal with the nature of (Shiite) leadership and its quest for authority
in the Shia world, where the absence of Imam has left behind a perpetual void in
the society. The next two chapters explain the circumstances and the manner
in which this void compels Shia leaders to gravitate toward the middle ground.
(We will engage at length with the idea of middle ground leadership in a later
section.) The next four chapters rely upon a variety of domestic and international
and Shia and extra-Shia issues to illustrate the middle ground character of the
Shiite leadership that is at odds with its caricatures that portray it as fundamen-
talist. The following chapter provides a dull and meandering summary of the
discussion through a fictional Iranian. A short Epilogue tries to locate the Iranian/
middle ground leadership in the international system. The book is poorly edited
leaving behind a lot of repetition and non-uniformly formatted and incomplete
references. The long quotes from Iran’s constitution break the flow of discussion.
Another major weakness of the book is its assumption of Iranian exceptionalism,
which perhaps explains the treatment of Iran in isolation from the world around it.
The Mughals (India), Ottomans (Turkey), and Safavids (Iran) declined simultane-
ously; the Usulis emerged as the dominant school amongst Twelvers from Saudi
Arabia to South Asia around the same time; and Khomeini was one among many
other thinkers such as Jamal al-din al-Afghani, Abul Ala Maududi, and Sayyid
Qutb who challenged secular rulers and redefined the state-religion relationship.
However, Mishal and Goldberg cannot help us locate the developments in Iran
within the broader regional/Islamic context.
The Sectarian Lens
Ishrat Aziz, a former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, complained that ‘the
Shia–Sunni divide is talked about more in academic analyses and media
comments outside the region than within’ (Aziz, 2015, p. 169). While Aziz is a
little too harsh on academics, the authors reviewed here would agree that he has
a point. A fictional character in Mishal and Goldberg (2014, p. 124) argues that

Journal of Asian Security and International Affairs 3(3)
‘Visions of a Shiite political bloc are a projection of Western fears about an
Islamic takeover. When the West cannot afford to criticize Sunnis ... it unloads on
the Shiites.’ Matthiesen (2015, pp. 16–17) notes that:
Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the term sectarianism has become a catchall phrase
in politics, media and...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT