GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Ayatollah Online: Shia identity politics and social media in the Gulf
Paper Proposal Text :
Social media use by Shia clerical institutions is undoubtedly on the rise. In the 21st century it is not uncommon for various Shia clerics based in and around Iran to use their online presence to both increase their follower base, and to spread ideas and interpretations of jurisprudence. While this new online medium has been claimed in the Iranian context as a way to change the dynamic between cleric and followers by making a playful arena whereby clerics can interact with their followers directly (Rahimi, Babak 2014), social media is being used very differently by Shia religious movements within the Gulf region.

Spurred by ongoing political tumult and social disquiet, many Shia religious movements are engaging an online community through social media tools. Rather than using the online arena and social media as a means to communicate with followers and disseminate clerical jurisprudence, Shia movements in the Gulf have turned to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to strengthen and advance their own form of identity politics. That is to say, that the Shia online presence in the Gulf context is separate and distinct from other Shia online presences (such as those based in Iran or elsewhere), and should be understood and explored as such. Rather than harnessing the power of social media to promulgate religious teaching, Shia religious movements in the Gulf are using online tools to strengthen their own particular form of identity politics unique to the Gulf situation.

To strengthen the claims made above, an examination of Shia religious movements within the Gulf region is being conducted, to specify and demarcate exactly how Shia movements in the Gulf are using social media to shore up identity politics. This is further achieved through an observation of the online presences of Shia religious movements based within or connected to the Arab Gulf States. The accounts (across platforms) of Shia religious groups such as Al Wefaq Society, Amal Society, Da’wa Islamic Society, and other groups will be examined alongside online presences of preeminent scholars such as Hadi Al Modarresi, Muhammad al Hussaini and Sadiq Al Shirazi, Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, and Abdullah Al Ghuraifi. Chiefly, the rhetoric used in these online mediums will help to illustrate the point made above, that the goal of Shia movements in the Gulf availing of social media platforms is to strengthen Shia identity politics, rather than the dissemination of religious jurisprudence.

This phenomenon represents a unique case in the study of social media and Shia religious movements, as an interesting distinction can now be made between the Shia movements operating within the Gulf context and of more traditional clerical structures also availing of online media tools. This highlights a fundamental tension between traditional transnational Shia clerical institutions and Shia organizations and individuals shaped by regional political realities. To understand these spheres as separate in their operation, structure, aims, and goals, is essential to fully comprehend both the changing nature of Shia politics in the Gulf, and the potential for social media use to facilitate and mobilize identity politics in the region.