Shi‘i Activism and British Imperialism in Iraq: State Formation, Resistance, and Disenfranchisement

By Zackery Heern
Submitted to Session P4841 (Social, Political, and Ideological Activism in the Shi'i World, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper addresses Shi‘i activism as it relates to British imperialism in Iraq during and after World War One. Research for this paper is based on the writings of Shi‘i clerics and British officials as well as British government records. Creation narratives of the Iraqi state primarily focus on the activity of British imperialists, which diminishes the role played by Iraqis. Scholars, therefore, have conceptualized the Shi‘i experience in Iraq from perspectives of failure, victimization, and sectarianism. Instead of assuming that British imperialists single-handedly created Iraq, I argue that the strained relationship between British and Shi‘i officials played a decisive role in the formation of the Iraqi state. Shi‘i clerics ultimately rejected direct British rule in an attempt to assert their own authority in the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The calculus of the British government and Shi‘i clerics was dramatically altered as a result of the British mandate, the Shi‘i revolt, and the British counter-revolt. During this process, Shi‘i modes of dissent directed towards Britain included the issuance of anti-colonial fatwas, the formation of nationalist secret societies, public solidarity with Sunnis, and armed revolution supported by charitable giving. British coercive action targeting the Shi‘i community entailed discrediting Shi‘i clerics as treacherous anti-Arab Iranians, cutting off the water supply to Karbala’, and countering the Shi‘i revolt with an aerial bombing campaign.

Anti-British Shi‘i activism and British contempt for Shi‘i clerics pushed Britain to establish patron-client relations with non-Shi‘i sources of power, especially tribal shaykhs and Sunni notables. It is my contention that the British desire to incorporate Kurdish territory into Iraq was partially an attempt to increase the non-Shi‘i population of the country. It was precisely because the Shi‘i community comprised the majority of Iraq’s population (even after Kurdish incorporation) that British officials discarded the idea of holding democratic elections. The political center of Iraq, primarily composed of British-backed Sunni Arabs, disenfranchised the Shi‘i community, which pushed some Shi‘i clerics in Iraq to adopt the less activist position of piously rejecting the political order. The Shi‘i-British divide ultimately resulted in Britain’s hasty departure from Iraq and Shi‘i marginalization in the new state, which radically altered the roles that Shi‘i mujtahids and British officials hoped to play in post-Ottoman Iraq.