Friday, April 8, 2022

Review Transnational Shia Politics, Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf

Louer, Laurence, Transnational Shia Politics, Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008


Laurence Louer in Transnational Shia Politics, Religious and Political Networks in the Gulf is a history of the Shiite movements in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait and their relations to Iraq and Iran. The author argues that networks were formed between clerics and political parties in Iraq and Iran with the Gulf States. At first, these were followers but eventually the clergy and movements in the Gulf formed their own agendas.


Louer focuses upon three main groups and individuals and their impact upon the Gulf. Those are the Dawa Party and the Shirazi family of Iraq and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Dawa was formed as a lay organization that wanted to counter the secularization of Iraqi society during the 1950s and called for an Islamic state under the clergy. The Shirazi family were a group of clerics from Karbala, Iraq who challenged the pre-eminence of Najaf, Iraq as the center of Shiite learning. Both became opponents of the Baathist regime and many members were forced into exile and settled in the Gulf where they created their own branches and gained followers. Ayatollah Khomeini won many adherents after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and impacted the Iraqis as well. Both Dawa and the Shirazis for example, embraced the revolution but eventually broke with it to maintain their independence. These different currents had a direct effect upon the Shiite politics in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait but in different ways. This is what the book calls transnational politics as personal networks were created across all of these countries with people and ideas passing between them. Louer calls this the first stage in the relation between these countries when Iraq and Iran acing as the core and the Gulf States the periphery. This would eventually change however.


Transnational Shia Politics emphasizes that each of the Gulf States must be seen through their individual experiences. In Kuwait for instance, the Shiites consider themselves some of the founding families of the state and therefore are integrated into the government and have a share of the economy. Some clergy who went to school in Najaf came to Kuwait and opened branches of Dawa while Iraqi members of the party also came as exiles. Members of the Shirazi group settled in the country as well in the 1970s and focused upon building up the local clerical class. After the Iranian Revolution the Iraqi groups were radicalized and Dawa members turned to terrorism including an attempt upon the ruler in 1985 leading to a crackdown. After the Gulf War the government liberalized which was embraced by the local Shiite groups that had been developed as well as the Shirazis. Today the Shiite parties in Kuwait are focused upon their own demands and politics more than talking about Iran or Iraq. This is the second part of Louer’s thesis, that while Shiite politics in the Gulf were shaped by Iran and Iraq they eventually became localized and national in focus. Louer believes that most of the Shiite groups in the Gulf are no longer followers of Iran. The Shirazis for example were strong supporters of the Iranian Revolution but have now stepped back from politics. Louer misses the fact that this is not true for all the nations in her study. There are still some that pledge loyalty to Tehran. Still her argument that domestic issues are more important seems to be true for most of the parties.


Transnational Shia Politics does a good job breaking down the changing relations between Iraq and Iran on the one hand and Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia on the other. At one time the former two were major influences upon the Gulf countries, but today local parties in Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are shaping their own affairs. They are pushing for things like religious freedoms, political rights and less about spreading the Iranian Revolution. Louer provides a thorough history of how this has played out and makes it an important book to understand the politics of the region.


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