A Century of the Iraqi Hawza: How Clerics Shaped Protests and Politics in Modern Day Iraq

Headshot of Marsin Alshamary

Marsin Alshamary
Boston College

Date: Wednesday, January 31, 2024
Time: 12 - 1pm
Location: 24 Quincy Road, Conference Room

RSVP Required


There are not many beliefs that are shared jointly by Saddam Hussein, by the British occupiers of Iraq in the 1920s, and by later American policymakers. One of these beliefs is the fear that the Shi’a religious establishment in Iraq would mount a revolution and seek political leadership in the state. In this presentation, Alshamary will rely on years of fieldwork in Iraq (including interviews with political elites, protestors, and clerics) as well as archival research in the Ba’ath Party Archives, to first explain why political elites feared the power of Shi’a clerics and, secondly, to document the interactions between political elites, clerics, and protestors in Iraqi history. She will demonstrate that despite the fears of government elites, Shi’a clerics are not driven by an ideological inclination to protest nor a hunger for power, but rather are invested in protecting their centuries-old religious establishment. 

image of Marsin Alshmaray

Marsin Alshamary is a scholar of Middle Eastern politics, with a primary focus on religious institutions, civil society, and protest movements. She is currently working on a book manuscript titled: A Century of the Iraqi Hawza: How Clerics Shaped Protests and Politics in Modern Day Iraq, which explores the historical and contemporary interactions between the Shi’a religious establishment and protest movements. Her research has been published in academic journals, including The Journal of Democracy, and she has provided commentary to various media outlets such as Agence France-Presse, Al Jazeera, BBC, The Associated Press, Vox Media, The Washington Post, and Reuters. Alshamary has also consulted for organizations like the United Nations, USAID, and the World Bank. She is a faculty associate in the Islamic Civilization and Societies Program at Boston College. She is also a research affiliate with the Middle East Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. She holds a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).


Alshamary, Marsin. “The Iraq Invasion at Twenty: Iraq’s Struggle for Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 34, no. 2 (2023): 150–62.

— and Hadad Hamzeh. “The Collective Neglect of Southern Iraq: Missed Opportunities for Development and Good Governance.” International Peacekeeping (2023): 668–87.

—. “The Protester Paradox: Why Do Anti-Islamist Activists Look Toward Clerical Leadership?The Brookings Institution. April 2022. 

Nakash, Yitzhak. “The Struggle for Power in Iraq.” In Reaching for Power. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. 72–98.

Isakhan, Benjamin. “The Islamic State Attacks on Shia Holy Sites and the ‘Shrine Protection Narrative’: Threats to Sacred Space as a Mobilization
Frame.” Terrorism and Political Violence 32, no. 4 (2020): 724–48.

Petersen, Jesper. “Observing the Sunni-Shi'a Divide in Fieldwork: The When and Where of Muslim Identities.” Journal of Muslims in Europe 12, no. 1 (2023): 58–76. 


In the article “The rise of a Shia Vatican in Iraq”, Mehiyar Kathem, who specializes in the politics of heritage and conflict at University College London, writes on Shi’a Islam’s focus on heritage and cultural preservation in politics. The article explains how this drive to preservation is influencing endowments, shrines, and schooling in the Hawza, a group of Shi’a religious schools. Kathem highlights the layers of influence Shi’a clerics have on Iraqi cultural development, a topic that Alshamary’s presentation will also address.

Alshamary during presentation

Dr. Marsin Alshamary delivering her luncheon colloquium at the Boisi Center.

Alshamary during presentation
Alshamary during presentation

Photo Credits: Christopher Soldt, MTS

Dr. Marsin Alshamary welcomed the Boisi Center and friends back from winter break with an enriching luncheon colloquium titled, “A Century of the Iraqi Hawza: How Clerics Shaped Protests and Politics in Modern Day Iraq.” Alshamary shared background information for guests less familiar with the topic and her fieldwork: Hawza refers to the institutions where Shi’a Muslims religious leaders are trained. She described the way in which these institutions have influenced the social and political fabric of Iraqi society. She also described recent conflicts related to religiously-influenced large militia groups that arose in response to ISIS.

Alshamary moved on from introductions to paint an elaborate picture of Hawza presence and influence, both in actuality and its wrongful perception. She gathered data about this influence during her fieldwork, in which she spoke with political protesters, civilians in Iran, and the Shi’a religious hierarchies. She described the Hawza as a space of informal learning that influenced politics, as it formed religious leaders who often have both direct and indirect forms of political influence over their communities. Alshamary emphasized that the sermons given by Shi’a religious leaders often acted as engines of political movement, although leaders were not intending to speak in support of political protests. Shi’a clerics view their role as, first and foremost, protectors of religious establishments and embodiments of institutional responsibility.

Alshamary’s presentation was met with a fruitful discussion that looked at American journalism’s (often-incorrect) perception of Shi’a clerics, Iraqi public opinion, the ethnic makeup of the Hawza, and the influence and reach of Hawza teachings outside of Iraq. Alshamary's insightful presentation shed light on the complex dynamics of the Iraqi Hawza, underscoring their frequently misconstrued role in shaping protests and politics.