Iran, Shiism and Trump



Research Associate at the Arab Center for Scientific Research and Humane Studies

“Together, we will determine the course of America and the world for years to come”- this statement by Donald Trump during his inauguration speech stressed once again that as unnerved as they were with his election, most world leaders have no choice but to work with him.

If it is true that world leaders will at some point engage with Donald Trump, leaders of the Islamic republic of Iran may very well represent an exception. Shortly after the election of Trump, President Rohani stated that the result of the American election has no impact on the will of Iran adding that Iran would remain committed to the nuclear deal. The declarations of Trump during the campaign were largely used by Ayatollah Khamenei to validate his views of the United States. Indeed, Iran and the US have come to develop one of the most hostile relationships in all international politics.

While the topic of the rather complicated relationship between both countries has often been analysed through the lens of political hegemony, a religious element has recently emerged more significantly in the discussion. Indeed, we hear analysts arguing that Iran adherence to Shii rather than Sunni Islam has impacted the general political orientations of the country. Within this perspective, Shii Islam is depicted as inherently revolutionary, which within this same perspective explains Iran inclination to conflicts rather than consensus. While this perspective is simplistic at best, it brought to attention the Shii/ Sunni division.

The root of this division traces back its origin to early Islamic history and originated around the disagreement over the succession to the authority of the prophet Mohammed. A schism occurred after the death of the Prophet in 632 leading to a dispute over his succession. This dispute materialized in the battle of Siffin and intensified greatly after the battle of Karbala in which Hussein, the grandson of the prophet was killed.

Hostility flared between Sunni and Shiite throughout the medieval era and what started as political dispute translated into differences in jurisprudence and religious interpretations. Today the overwhelming majority of Muslims are Sunni with however a significant Shii minority estimated at around 15% to 20%. Shii communities can be found around the world but they are mainly concentrated in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen.

Beyond religious differences between both groups, Shii are often perceived as more politically active with a more revolutionary leaning. This perception is rather new and relates to the Iranian revolution rather than the long history of Shiism. Indeed the most prominent ideologue of modern Shiism was Ali Shariati in the late 1960s who preached an active political ideology based on a combination of Islam and Third Wordism. Ali Shariati referred to imperialism, cultural colonialism, social injustice, and political repression as the greatest contemporary challenges. In contrast to the passive, suffering role historically associated with Shiis, Shariati tried to create new narrative using Shii symbols to portray Shiism as revolutionary and classless. Shariati inspired Ayatollah Khomeini and Imam Musa al-Sadr who encouraged the Shiis of Lebanon to take an activist role in struggling for better socioeconomic conditions and political representation.

The Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 and its constitution represent the ideological institutionalization of modern Shii political ideas. However, this can by no mean represent both the long standing history of Shii Islam nor its diversity throughout the Islamic world.

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