GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Social Media and the Transnational Shia Politics in the Gulf
Paper Proposal Text :

Social Media and the Transnational Shia Politics in the Gulf

This paper examines the relationship between social media and the transnational politics of Shia actors in the Gulf. It studies the complex relationship between Shia actors and their political activism in social media in countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman. In doing so, it also seeks to understand through what complex network processes, both offline and online, such activism is realized. The study particularly focuses on the interactive and discursive process through which Shia actors across gender, class and countries in the Gulf are involved in the construction of distinct social spaces in the formation of new political practices. Such political practices range from social services, which operate in tension with larger Sunni-dominated states, to street politics such as Bahrain. There are two parts to the essay. The first part focuses on the Hawza and the various institutions in the clerical establishment that promote or expand spiritual authority through various material cultural mechanism and communication networks, especially the Internet. Ayatollahs Sistani and Shirazi will be the focus of this section of the paper. The second section looks at the collective force of social media, in particular Shia media sites funded by leading clerics, and how social actors interact and build social capital for political activism in countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The role of Iran and Iraq (Najaf), and by extension the civil war in Syria, is also considered in both of these sections. The study ultimately argues that the traditional manifestations of Shia authority are re-constructed through social media in its multiplicity of interpretations, experiences and meanings. Shia authority on Facebook is networked, decentralized and interactive. But such fragmentation is less about the weakening of clerical authority but in fact its enhancement through the Internet. In the particular case of the Gulf, the impact of social media has enabled several influential Shia clerics to expand their authority across gender and the youth population and in doing so have inserted a new sectarian dimension in the local politics of various Shia communities in the Gulf. In this light the paper distinguishes clerical and non-clerical Shia activism in the Gulf. The difference between clerics and non-clerical online activists is discussed here in connection with how identities, especially in sectarian terms, are re-formulated online through innovative interactive processes that have created new spaces of political imagination. Such analysis is viewed in the historical context of the rise of Internet in Iran in the mid-1990s, when the new technology began to serve as alternative medium of communication for the younger generation in postrevolutionary period. The analysis also includes a study of the role of Ayatollah Sistani in the spread of the Internet in Iraq and the Gulf region. A number of key Shia news sites and other online services are studied in the context of political life in the Gulf. The paper finally considers the broader theoretical impact of the Internet, especially social networking sites, on Islamic authority and political activism and how such activism has been transformed in light of changes in the Gulf region since the rise of sectarian conflict in 2005-06 (In Iraq) and the Arab Spring in 2011.