Shi'a Islam and Politics (Mohseni)




From the conflict in Yemen pitting the Shi'a Houthis against a Saudi-led coalition, to the civil war in Syria and the Shi'a militia-led fight against ISIS in Iraq, dominant media narratives portray conflict in today's Middle East as part of a proxy battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia rooted in an ancient dispute within the Muslim world between the Shi'a and Sunni sects of Islam. In this rendering, primordial hatreds are driving religious wars and civil conflict with Iran, at the heart of the so-called Shi'a crescent, and Saudi Arabia, the stalwart of true Sunni identity. However, such simplistic thinking masks over a more complex understanding of the changes occurring in today's Middle East and prevents accurately differentiating between distinct yet overlapping factors such as actual substantive theological and intellectual differences between Shi'a and Sunni Islam, state competition (that is, between Iran and Saudi Arabia), and historical legacies of empire and state building in the Middle East. This course addresses such dominant narratives and challenges conventional understandings of the interplay between religion and politics in the Middle East and how sectarianism, Shi'a Islam, and geopolitical conflict can be more properly understood from a rigorous analytical perspective and focuses on the foundations and varieties of modern Shi'a political thought; religious clerical institutions; Shi'a political parties and militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen; and Iran's Islamic revolution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), and the Basij paramilitary organization.