In Conversation with Melani Cammett, Ali Asani, and Payam Mohseni

Interview by Michelle Nicholasen

Mirror image of ‘Ali wali Allah by calligrapher, Mahmud Ibrahim, c. 1720-30

From civil strife in Syria to the war in Yemen to US-Iran tensions, Shi'a groups are emerging as major players on the geopolitical landscape. The 200 million Shi'as around the world comprise 15–20 percent of all Muslims, yet little is understood about their culture, historical legacy, and political dynamics. Shi’as are the majority sect in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain, and comprise substantial minority groups in Africa, South and Central Asia, and countries throughout the Middle East. 

Last fall, the Weatherhead Center launched the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs to support advanced research on the diverse manifestations of Shi’ism, and to encourage rigorous scholarship on the political dynamics of its role in the Middle East. The project supports scholarship that increases understanding of the intersection between religion and politics in Islam by engaging political scientists, historians, policy makers, religious leaders, and other specializations at the WCFIA. It was a busy first year, replete with talks on important events in Islamic history, the geopolitics of Iraq, the US-Iran confrontation, and more. The project launched the online platform Visions, which offers advanced commentary on all aspects of Shi’a thought, politics, and society.   

Additionally, project members have travelled to Baghdad and Erbil in Iraq for field work and academic conferences, as well as to the United Kingdom to present research and conduct outreach. Team members have also travelled to various cities across the United States to give presentations and interactive workshops—including to Muslim-American communities in Dearborn, Michigan (home to the largest Arab-American population in North America) and Orlando, Florida—on the topic of religious pluralism, youth activism, Islamic thought, and civil society. 

Directed by Payam Mohseni, lecturer at Harvard University, the project is funded in part by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation. We asked Payam Mohseni and project chairs Melani Cammett and Ali Asani about the motivations behind the Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs.

CENTERPIECE: When you directed the Iran Project at the Kennedy School of Government (from 2014–2019), you looked at Iranian foreign policy, domestic politics, nuclear negotiations. How is this project different?

PAYAM MOHSENI: One goal of this project is to produce more balanced and scholarly understandings of pluralism within Islam and to challenge misperceptions of the religion—in particular the Shi’a tradition. This in part requires that we stop conflating Shi’ism and Iran to some extent in order to focus on the broader diversity of the Shi’a world, which is extremely rich and varied across the globe. 

While the Iran Project was primarily focused on policy (without ignoring society and history of course), here at the Weatherhead Center we focus on four primary domains of study: history and identity; sectarianism and sectarian de-escalation; geopolitics; and the global Shi'a diaspora. This interdisciplinary approach allows us to work with scholars from across various fields, world regions, and time periods to give a more comprehensive and nuanced view of the historical and contemporary manifestations of Shi’a Islam and transnational Shi’a communities, including research on peaceful coexistence among religious and sectarian communities.

CENTERPIECE: Can you describe the basic differences between Shi’ism and Sunnism, for those who may not know?

PAYAM MOHSENI: The main difference between Sunnism and Shi’ism centers on the issue of leadership in Islam that began with the succession to the Prophet Muhammad, who died in 632 AD. Both the worldly and cosmological role of leadership for the Shi’a extends from the Prophet to the successive line of Imams—or rightly guided leaders who are members of the Family of the Prophet (Ahl al-Bayt)—and reflects the Shi’a belief in Imamate, or leadership, in addition to Prophethood. The Imams were not only the worldly historical leaders of the faithful but the esoteric and cosmological guides that lead people to God in sacral dimensions beyond just exclusively historical time. 

Nevertheless, what is quite surprising about Shi’ism and Sunnism is how very similar they actually are in the majority of their beliefs and practices today. Most Shi’as and Sunnis believe in the same line of prophets, holy texts, and share most theological positions and religious rituals with one another. From the outside and from the news media, it may seem that Sunnis and Shi’as are foundationally antagonistic with one another. But in reality, this is of course not true. Like all global religions, there has always been diversity within Islam and the existence of different interpretations. As sectarian identities gradually formed and took shape in Islamic history, there have of course been times when intercommunal relations have been fraught—but significant periods have been peaceful as well. When it comes to Muslims who practice law, those ritual laws between Sunnis and Shi’as (praying, fasting, the Hajj pilgrimage, almsgiving) are probably about 90–95 percent similar with only minor differences based on diverse readings of scriptural texts and legal reasonings.

CENTERPIECE: Why do most of us know far less about Shi’ism than Sunnism?

PAYAM MOHSENI: There has been much less of a programmatic focus on Shi’ism in academia because Sunnism is the majority sect in Islam (with some 80 percent of Muslims identifying with Sunnism). While this is in part understandable, updating our curricula and knowledge is long overdue—especially given the growing revival of Shi’a Islam and communities across the world. 

Problematically, many of the early Western scholars of Islam either projected their own understandings of Christianity onto dynamics in Islam or unquestioningly adopted religious polemics they encountered in the Islamic (mainly Sunni) texts they were reading. This in part resulted in much of the early scholarship of Islamic studies to understand Shi’ism as a later extremist heterodox movement in Islam and was often treated as simply too marginal or out of the mainstream to be taken seriously. This is, of course, not true; Shi’as were there from the very beginning and their ideas and institutions developed over time. Shi’ism has deeply influenced not only thought and civilization within Islam but has also had a global impact on other world regions and religions. So it is necessary to explore this often glossed-over history, especially given how important Shi’a-majority states like Iran and Iraq are in world politics today. 

ALI ASANI: I was very interested in the Shi’ism project since historically the American academy has been almost exclusively centered on Sunni Islam. There's been little attempt to represent diverse interpretations and theologies beyond Sunni perspectives. It would be similar to teaching a tradition like Christianity and omitting Catholicism. This bias has serious consequences for the teaching of Islam, as well as the training of PhD students in Islamic studies—many of whom will graduate with little or no exposure to Shi’ism. This is one more unfortunate instance of the academy being complicit in perpetuating exclusion. It's very difficult to break down such prejudice—even in the academy. Many PhD students won’t take courses on Shi’ism because they assume that they do not represent “real” or “true” Islam.

CENTERPIECE: One of the criticisms you have about contemporary commentary is that it treats the Sunni-Shi'a divide as if it has always existed, and as a driver of conflict in the Middle East. Can you explain the fallacy here?

PAYAM MOHSENI: Another prominent misunderstanding—which we seek to address in this project—is the Sunni-Shi'a divide. This “divide” is by no means eternal nor does it need to be divisive; pluralism is embedded in Islam, so it’s largely a question of how one deals with diverse interpretations of a religious tradition. There are periods of peace, easy (or not-so-easy) coexistence, tensions, friendships, periods of conflict, and unity between Muslims of all stripes. It’s therefore very problematic to define sectarianism within Islam in a purely antagonistic light.

So in hotspots across the Middle East, it's not a doctrinal conflict between Muslims purely driving the tension—despite how the media may bring in the conflict—but rather geopolitical and state dynamics, along with social discrimination and marginalization of different communities. In the media, if you're reading about the conflict in Yemen, it immediately becomes Iran and Shi’ism versus Saudi Arabia and Sunnism. Whereas, for the most part, the roots of the conflict have nothing to do with these sectarian identities. 

MELANI CAMMETT: This is a prominent topic in the classes I teach. There’s a chapter in a book called The Shi’ite Movement in Iraq by Faleh A. Jabar, where he documents that in the nineteenth century, nobody was really aware that they were Shi'a or Sunni—that tribal identity, not religious identity, was the most politically salient category. There was extensive intermarriage across Sunni and Shi'a because it was not a politically salient category. And I could tell you uncountable anecdotes to that effect in the contemporary Middle East, even in Lebanon, pre-Second Gulf War or pre-2005. There were a number of points at which the Sunni-Shi'a cleavage became politicized in the contemporary moment. To people who don't have historical perspective, that makes it look as if we've always been in this moment of Shi'a-Sunni tension.

CENTERPIECE: What is the impact of this dichotomous thinking on US foreign policy?

ALI ASANI: I'll give you an example. A fellow from the National Security Agency, who was on a sabbatical here, audited my introductory course on Islam. At the end of the semester, he invited me to lunch during which we discussed the course. He remarked, “For all these years I've been in the NSA, we've had many different experts talk to us about issues related to Islam—Muslim societies in the Middle East and so on—but none of them gave us a real sense of how diverse the tradition really is. That's one thing I've learned from your course.” He surprised me when he added, “I have learned from your course that Islam is more than just a political ideology. It's a faith tradition.” It was an important recognition on his part that in many political, social, and media spaces, Islam has come to be identified purely as a political ideology. For example, former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn has remarked that Islam is just a political ideology hiding behind the skirts of religion. Such a perspective has had very serious consequences for policy issues related to Islam and Muslims.

CENTERPIECE: Besides academics, is there anyone else noticing the problems associated with this sectarianized way of thinking?

ALI ASANI: One thing to consider is: Whose voices are being heard? Who is voicing their resistance to sectarianism? In my opinion, in large part it is the artists broadly defined—the poets, filmmakers, musicians, the visual artists—who are expressing resistance to sectarianization through their art. Shi’a youth are also becoming more vocal. In the US, Shi'a youth are organizing camps, conferences, and workshops so they can share their stories and perspectives.
We are witnessing a great deal more confidence among the younger Shi'a to explain who they are, their interpretation of Islam, and what they stand for. For example, a young Shi’a woman from Pakistan who studied with me as an undergraduate in Harvard College, recently wrote an op-ed for a Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, in which she discussed her experience of being Shi'a in Pakistan. This is a Sunni majority country in which the Shi'a minority is targeted by militants. Mosques have been burned, and Shi’a have been persecuted and threatened to the point where some are actually claiming asylum in Europe and the US. The column my student wrote provides you with a young person’s insight on what it means to be Shi'a in this polarized environment. That a major Pakistani newspaper would publish the piece in order to prompt public awareness and discussion on an important topic is an indication of just how crucial this debate has become.

CENTERPIECE: How can you begin to reverse these enduring attitudes about sectarianism being the root of conflict in the Middle East?

MELANI CAMMETT: I started to get interested in the question of desectarianization, and that's another component of this project. If you're teaching the history of this in modern politics, I can tell the story of the spike in sectarian tensions in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Syria, and the sectarianization of the Syrian war, which did not start out as such. Frankly, we think we know a lot as social scientists about how these kinds of tensions come up and ratchet up. But we know less about how they come down. To me, that's an important dimension, because they are going to come down, and they arguably never spiked to the degree that we think they did in the West.

CENTERPIECE: Are you actively seeking scholars for the project?

PAYAM MOHSENI: We are certainly looking for scholars who are working on issues of Shi’ism or sectarianism broadly speaking. Shi’ism is extremely diverse and includes Twelver Shi’as with majorities in places like Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain; Ismailis in Central and South Asia, mainly; Zaydis, mainly in Yemen; Alevis in Turkey; and Alawis in Syria. All of these groups also have vibrant diaspora communities in the West. 

These are all extremely rich areas of research with diverse regional, cultural, and political manifestations. One of our main goals is to be inclusive of the diversity of communities within Shi’ism itself. There are many projects which can also be undertaken, including an effort to map Shi'a experiences and communities in the United States. All of these examples are exciting; it's all very new and very understudied and fascinating. We are excited to continue this research in a vibrant center such as Weatherhead at Harvard, and to contribute to this constantly growing and important domain of research.


Mirror image of ‘Ali wali Allah by calligrapher, Mahmud Ibrahim, c. 1720-30. Credit: Library of Congress, African and Middle Eastern Division

NOTE: This piece was updated June 1, 2020