Prophets and Priests: Religious Leaders and Anti-Government Protest in Iraq (dissertation project)

Committee: Roger Petersen (Chair), Richard Nielsen , Fotini Christia, Chappell Lawson

When do religious clerics join anti-government protest and in what capacity? In my dissertation project, I argue that clerical participation in protest is mediated by the internal structure of the religious system. Specifically, the degree of hierarchy and bureaucratization of a religious system imposes different abilities and responsibilities on individual clerics therein. In turn, these factors mediate clerical behavior and determine the type and timing of clerical participation in the face of external pressures and particular ideological leanings.

I build this structural theory of clerical participation by analyzing the behavior of clerics in the Iraqi Hawza (the Shi’a religious establishment) in six instances of anti-government protest from 1917 to 2018. I triangulate data gathered from clerical, government and rebel resources from ten months of fieldwork in Iraq in addition to archival work and interviews in the US and the UK.

I argue that clerical decisions to participate in protest are influenced by structural pressures from their respective position in their religious institutions. When religious elites feel a responsibility to maintain the institutional integrity of the religious establishment, they avoid advocating rebellion because it risks harming the institution. Rebellion is most likely to be instigated and supported by religious elites who are influential but who feel limited institutional responsibilities. These influential, low-responsibility clerics are few in number because influence and responsibility tend to go together, but their call to action can plunge a society into violence. In the Iraqi case, these tend to be clerics with informal (usually, familial) ties to the religious establishment but no official position within it. High-responsibility clerics may get involved in protest after violence has broken out, seeking to manage the conflict in ways that will leave the institutions unscathed. These arguments hold across nearly a century of Iraqi history and have significant policy implications for the region.

Interview of Marsin Alshamary interviewing Ayatollah Mortada Al-Qazwini
Interviewing Ayatollah Mortada Al-Qazwini

Religious Capital: Pilgrimages and the Development of Civil Society in Southern Iraq

Kerbala at Night
Kerbala at Night

How is civil society created? Under Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime (1979-2003), Iraqi civil society was decimated. Its’ remnants turned into subterranean units or transferred their activities abroad. Despite this, post-Ba’athist Iraq has seen a remarkable growth in the number and diversity of civil society organizations (CSOs). As of July 2018, the Iraqi NGO Directorate listed 3,648 CSOs working across 17 sectors. In southern Iraq, the cities of Kerbala and Najaf have the highest number of registered CSOs per capita, seemingly eclipsing larger and more prosperous cities in associational life. However, unlike other Iraqi cities, Kerbala and Najaf have an abundance of service-providing and cultural organizations and a marked paucity of advocacy-oriented ones. How can this variation in civil society development be explained?

In this project, I argue that religious institutions, abundant in Kerbala and Najaf, can provide both the means and motives for the development of certain types of CSOs. Specifically, I examine the impact of annual religious pilgrimages to Kerbala and Najaf on the development and activities of local organizations. I demonstrate how these pilgrimages, which draw in millions of visitors and involve extensive coordination efforts, can foster organic associational life.

I assess three mechanisms that can explain this relationship. First, a classic Western model in which the accumulation of wealth leads to the development of organizations that seek to protect that wealth from state predation. Secondly, an organizational sunk costs argument in which pilgrimage skills are utilized by locals in the off-season. Finally, a localized pilgrimage effect in which constant exposure to the pilgrimage promotes pro-social values amongst locals.

The Ideological Transformation of the Da’wa Party

Dawa Party Electoral Poster in Najaf
Dawa Party Electoral Poster in Najaf

This project explores the ideological transformation of the Islamic Daʿwa Party. Daʿwa is one of the oldest Islamist parties in the Middle East and the oldest Shiʿa Political Party. Despite years of persecution under the Baathist regime, it has endured for six decades and occupied the highest government posts in democratizing Iraq. At the time of its inception by a group of Shiʿa clerics in 1958, Hizb Al-Daʿwa was influenced by Sunni Islamists like Sayyed Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood. Its pan-Islamist, anti-communist views rendered it non-sectarian and yet, six decades later, Hizb Al-Daʿwa is considered to be one of the causes of Iraq’s sectarian woes. How did Al-Daʿwa’s ideology disintegrate so much from its original basis and what factors led to this transformation over time?

To answer this question, I draw upon internal Daʿwa documents, academic histories of the party, biographies of its key figures as well as interviews with current and former members at the elite and local levels (conducted in Iraq, the US and the UK). I use this data to test pre-existing social scientific theories – like the inclusion moderation hypothesis – on an understudied yet extremely important Islamist party.

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