Modern Age

Two developments can be pointed out that shape the Shiite experience in recent history. First, globalization has led to a spread of Shiism beyond its main centers and thus to a greater diversity of Shiite practices and beliefs. This also means that the significance of Shiism varies greatly. Second, the development of what is often called political Islam has, in countries having large numbers of Shiites, led to the rise of distinct interpretations of Shiism and leaders who represent them.

Regarding the first aspect, it is difficult to establish relative or absolute figures for Shiites, not least because such numbers are often politically sensitive. Estimates vary between 10 and 15 percent of the worldwide Muslim population. In addition to Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon, there are long-established Shiite communities on the Gulf coast, in Saudi-Arabia (ca. 350,000 in the underdeveloped east of the country), Bahrain (while 70-98 percent of the population are Shiites, the ruling dynasty is Sunni), Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Shiite minorities exist in Turkey (the Alevis or Kızılbaş), Syria, Afghanistan (estimates range between 6 and 15 percent of the population), Pakistan (ca. 30 million), India (ca. 10 million; Lucknow and Hyderabad being important centers), Azerbaijan (ca. 6 million), East Africa (Iranians as well as Indian traders, including both Twelver Shiites and Nizari Ismailis), and among immigrants in Western Europe and North America. Accordingly, while some Shiites have to cope with the typical difficulties connected with volatile political circumstances, others enjoy a high standard of living. Likewise, sectarian identities matter more in some contexts than in others.

Regarding the second aspect, the Islamic revolution in Iran had an important impact on the shape of Shiism in most recent decades, mainly in Iran, but also outside its borders. Given that the supporters of the revolution of 1979 came from very different ideological backgrounds, their compromise was limited to their opposition against the Shah, but did not extend to the political system they envisaged as an alternative.

The strongest player within the movement was to dominate: Khomeini, whose speeches circulated widely on cassette tapes and who was able to gather the largest group of followers. In the aftermath of the revolution, Iran's political system became an Islamic Republic under the principle of the vilayat-e faqih, the rule of the (religious) scholar. In addition to a parliament, its key institution is the watch council (shura-yi negahban), which consists of six religious jurists, appointed by the supreme leader, and six secular jurists, chosen by parliament, and who serve for six years.

This turn of events, which went along with the brutal suppression of opponents, led to the formation of opposition groups in exile, among them the People's Mujahidin who have older roots and who combined Shiite and Marxist elements and supported Iraq in the war against Iran. They remain a vocal critic of Iran's human rights record, but have been declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. and until recently the EU. Since the death of Khomeini in 1989, the opposition in Iran has become more outspoken and reforms have been expected from and associated with President Khatami (reg. 1997-2005). More recently, the 'Green Revolution' in support of candidate Mousavi following the presidential election of 2009 has led to expectations of further reform, although this movement has been suppressed.

Active political forms of Shiism also exist in Lebanon. The rise of the Shiites as a political force took place against the backdrop of the conflicts of the 1970s, which included internal confrontations as well as proxy or direct wars of Israel, Palestinians, Syria, and increasingly Iran. The strength of Shiites in south Lebanon increased following the destruction of the Palestine Liberation Organization there. Shiites are represented by the militias and political parties Amal and Hizbullah and have further strongholds in the Bekaa valley and south Beirut. Amal was founded in 1975 by the religious scholar Musa al-Sadr who mysteriously disappeared during a visit to Libya in 1978. Hizbullah was formed a few years later and has been receiving Iranian support since then.

Like the revolutionaries in Iran, these Shiite movements use the religious language of suffering and resisting injustice to put the socio-economic disadvantages of the Shiite areas of Lebanon on the agenda. The principle of confessional balance and integration in the political system guides the division of power in Lebanon as manifest in the composition of parliament and the government. The positions of the Speaker of the Parliament and the Minister of Agriculture are reserved for Shiites. The former position is currently occupied by Nabih Berri, who also leads Amal. Due to demographic developments, Shiites are underrepresented; with an estimated 30 percent or more they probably constitute the largest community. (Population figures are controversial and estimates differ widely.)

Much of the situation of Shiites in Iraq in the last decades has been determined by their marginalization under the Sunni leadership of Saddam Hussein as well as the war against Iran, the Gulf War following the invasion of Kuwait (1990-1991), the embargo, the invasion of 2003, and the ongoing violence. During the war against Iran, national identities prevailed and the Iraqi Shiites did not support Iran. The Shiite uprising following the 1991 Gulf War, encouraged by the United States, ended in a disaster for the Shiites. Estimates suggest that approximately 100,000 Shiites were killed by Saddam's forces. Since 2003, Shiite groups have become more powerful. The current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and other key members of the government are Shiites.

In the aftermath of the Islamic revolution of Iran as well as in more recent times, policy-makers in the West and Sunnis have expressed fears that a Shiite crescent could join the Shiites of Lebanon with those in Iraq and Iran, with further groups beyond the two ends, in East Africa, and in Afghanistan, and the subcontinent. A particularly vulnerable area could be the Gulf region with its Shiite communities. Such a united Shiite movement, however, seems unlikely since these communities live under very different circumstances. While the Shiites in Kuwait belong to different denominations and enjoy political representation, those of Bahrain are more disenfranchised. Since the end of Saddam Hussein, Iran has become the leading power in the Middle East to oppose Western influence, but this has not increased the appeal of Shiism among Sunnis.

Study Questions:
1.     In what countries are Shiites a majority, and where do they have the most influence?
2.     Explain the political developments in Iran and how they have impacted the Shiite community there.
3.     How did the Gulf War affect the Shiite community in Iran?

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