Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Clerical Networks and Saudi Protests

If you have access to it, go read Toby Matthiesen article on the Shi'ite protests in Saudi Arabia in the Autumn 2012 issue of Middle East Journal.  The article is a highly useful rundown of the events over the past two years as a protest movement has continues to confront the Saudi regime amidst a government crackdown.

One bit of background Matthiesen touches upon is the influence in the Gulf states of the Shirazi movement.  The Shirazis are a clerical family which was based in the Iraqi city of Karbala, site of the martyrdom of Hussein, during the time in which the story of Hussein's ill-fated resistance to the Umayyad caliph Yazid was coming to be seen as a model to emulate rather than a figure to mourn.  In this context, they developed a reputation for political activism.  Way back when, it was Muhammad Hasan al-Shirazi who issued the 1891 fatwa calling for a boycott of tobacco as a means of protesting a British concession in that industry.

In the late 20th century, the family emerged under Muhammad Husseini al-Shirazi as what I think of as religious populists.  For example, the clerical establishment in Najaf opposes the popular practice of bloodletting during Ashura mourning rituals, but the Shirazis support it.  They also communicate in popular forms rather than learned theological and jurisprudential treatises.  Their followers were handing out small booklets when I was in Bahrain during Ashura in 2007, but although I took some I never read them and have no idea where they presently are.

Muhammad Husseini al-Shirazi died in Qom, Iran in 2001, and was succeeded as head of the family network by his brother Sadiq al-Husseini al-Shirazi, whose web site is here.  Although based in Qom, he still uses Karbala imagery, with the main mosque in that city on the right of the top banner and the phrase "Holy Karbala" below his name.  The two Shirazis began moving away from revolutionary political activism after becoming disillusioned by the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution.  In Saudi Arabia, where Shirazis were a critical part of 1979-80 Shi'ite uprisings, they actually started pursuing an accomodationist stance toward the government, which may have sought to co-opt them because of the potential of their communications network.

Not becoming a quietest, however, was their nephew Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrisi, who actually returned to Karbala after the fall of Saddam Hussein and has been promoting his own claim to be a Shi'ite exemplar.  One thing Matthiesen found in the Eastern Province today is that while the protestors are being supplied by unaffiliated youth, much of the leadership, such as Nimr al-Nimr, follows al-Mudarrisi.  At the same time old Shirazi hands such as Hassan al-Saffar, their deputy in the region, call for an end to protests.

This makes me wonder two things.  The first concerns the role of clerical rivalries in the protest movement.  There are very clear grievances for Saudi Arabia's Shi'ites, and anger at the nation's role in ruthlessly suppressing Bahrain's Shi'ite population was clearly a major spark here.  At the same time, it is striking that the divisions between the clerical networks within Saudi Arabia parallel those further up the chain.  I believe protests would happen without the al-Mudarrisis, but are they trying to get in front of this parade to bolster their own standing, and if so, do they also have a role in Bahrain?

The other is the relationship between Sunni-dominated states and Shi'ite clerical networks which are often thought of as their formal opposition.  At this MESA panel from two years ago, someone commented that in southern Iraq in the late 1990's, the Sadr movement was actually popularly conflated with the Ba'athists because they were effective intermediaries between the population and the local and regional officials who often acted independently of Baghdad.  If you wanted to get something done, the Sadr movement could help you.  Have the Shirazis become something similar in Saudi Arabia?  Whether they can effectively represent Shi'ite interests, especially perhaps material interests, might be an important component of their own calculations about the value of protests.

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