Shia in Iran and in other parts of the Middle East have some important common factors such as religious identity, sectarian rituals and culture, as well as the family bonds.
Historically, the majority of the prominent Shia clerics are from Iranian origins which make propagating the Iranian Shia ideological policies easier and more relevant from all other ideologies. The core in this strategy of Shia revival is the supreme leader and his spiritual and political leadership over the Shia in the world.
Shiism or Shia ideology is the core ‘soft power’ in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies. Shiism played the crucial role in legitimising the role of clergy and Shia religious establishments in Iran’s domestic politics and enhanced the influence of Iran in the Middle East.
After the triumph of the 1979’s Islamic revolution in Iran, the Shia clerics seized power and established a new religious political system based on Khomeini’s doctrine of wilayat al-faqih, Therefore, Iran’s political stance radically shifted from a US ally to its most stubborn enemy in the region. Khomeini’s project of ‘export of the revolution’ transformed Iran’s foreign policy toward the revival of Shiism as a vital engine for Iran’s expansion in the region. Khomeini’s doctrine of wilayat al-faqih which he highlighted in his book ‘Islamic Government’ is a Shia version of political Islam that aims to lead the Shia and the Muslims in the world. The change in Iran’s political system resulted in emergence of new religious political elites who believe in Khomeini’s revolutionary principles and his theory of wilayat al-faqih. As a result, they designed the Iranian constitution in accordance to doctrine of wilayat al-faqih and the principles of the Islamic revolution. Thus, the Iranian constitution emphasises the role of wali al-faqih and his position in the Muslim society as a spiritual and political leader during the occultation of Imam al-Mahdi. Article 110 of the Iranian constitution lists the duties of the supreme leader who is in charge almost of everything and his authority is not limited within Iranian boarders, but to all Muslims in his capacity as the ‘wali amr al-muslamin’ (the guardian of Muslims).
In December 2004, the King Abdullah II of Jordan warned the world of an imminent emergence of the ‘Shia Crescent’ which extends from Iran, through Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah in Lebanon that would change the traditional balance of power in the Middle East in favour of Iran. The King Abdullah’s warning about the ‘Shia Crescent’ came as a result of the political changes in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hossain which paved the way for pro-Iranian Shia parties to seize power and change the Iraqi political stance in favour of Iran’s regional policies.
Shia educational establishments or Hawza historically located in the Iraqi city of Najaf and Iranian city of Qom. But, Najaf privileged from the shrine of Imam Ali (first Shia Imam) and the most prominent Shia clerics have studied in Najaf’s Hawza. The 1979’s Islamic revolution in Iran and emergence of the Shia state, as well as the secular pan-Arabism regime in Iraq enhanced the importance of the Shia religious establishments in Iran and the city of Qom become the new hub for Shiism and destination for foreign Shia students who inspired and encourage by the Islamic revolution and Khomeini’s revolutionary principles and his anti-American and anti-Israeli discourses.
As soon as they seized power in Iran, the religious political leaders began their rule by establishing charitable institutions known as ‘Bonyad’ (foundation). ‘Bonyads’ emerged in 1979 by confiscating and seizing the assets and properties of the former regime figures who fled the country after the fall of Shah. There are six influential and important Bonyads in Iran; (1) Bonyad Shahid va Omur-e Janbazan (Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs), (2) Bonyad-e Mostazafan va Janbazan (Foundation of the Oppressed and Disabled), (3) Astan Quds Razavi, (4) Bonyad 15 Khordad, (6) Sazman-e- Tablighat-e- Islami (Islamic propagation organisation). Bonyads and the Shia educational institutions (Hawza) represents Iran’s ‘soft power’, especially in foreign policy where they focus their charitable and cultural activities in the countries that have good relationships with Iran or countries that suffer from civil wars and lack of security and political stability, mainly in the Middle East and Africa.
Al-Mustafa University (MIU) is a Shia Hawza and academic institute was established in 2008 in the Iranian city of Qom by integrating the Institutionalisation of the Education of Non-Iranian Students (ICIS) and the Organisation for Overseas Seminaries and Schools (OOSS). MIU is specialise in training and educating non-Iranian students and funded by the Iranian government, for example, in 2016 Al-Mustafa University has received £79,000,000 of fund from the government .
The Shia students receive all requirements for living and Studying in Iran from free education, accommodation, and health care to monthly wages, and once they have finished their Howza training, Al-Mustafa University recruits these new Shia clerics in its branches around the world where they represent the Shia marja (religious reference) in their home countries and helping Iran’s religious and political policies. Iran’s political Shiism policies also targets the Sunnis who are willing to convert to Shia- known as tashayyu (convert to ShiaTashayyu phenomenon emerged rapidly after the 1979’s Iranian revolution and seeks to enhance and expand the Shiism in the world by providing special privileges and benefits for those who are converting to Shia- such as political and financial support, as well as ideological and military training. According to Iran’s constitution Article 110c, the supreme leader is the president of the mass media of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the director of this organisation is chosen directly by the Supreme Leader for five years. As a result, the Iranian media implement the religious and political policies of the supreme leader under his direct supervision. In the recent years, Iran has launched several satellite TV channels in Arabic, English, Turkish, and Spanish in order to reach a greater numbers of viewers.
The following objectives highlighted in the MIU website:
- Instructing jurists, researchers, teachers, disseminators and pious and committed Muslim thinkers;
- Clarifying and expanding the Quranic and Islamic viewpoints and disseminating Islamic theories, divine teachings and humanities knowledge.
According to MIU, more than 50,000 of male and female students from 122 different countries have studied in the Al-Mustafa University, and more than 25,000 of whom graduated from this university. MIU has 2500 academic staff, more than 150 academic programs and in the last 8 years, MIU has launched 4000 websites and blogs, 300 newspapers and magazines in 40 different languages as well as the student’s TV and radio channel.
Al-Mustafa’s main campus is located in Qom and the University has more than 170 campuses around Iran as well as more than 60 countries around the world including South Africa, Albania, Germany, Afghanistan, Indonesia, England, Uganda, Brazil, Bulgaria, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Benin, Pakistan, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Denmark, Japan, Ivory Coast, Sweden, Senegal, Syria, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Ghana, the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Cameroon, Kosovo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Comoros, Gambia, Georgia, Guyana, Guinea, Lebanon, Madagascar, Malawi, Malaysia, Mali, Myanmar, Norway, Niger, Nigeria, India and etc.
According to Dr. Jafar Mehrdad, head of Information Sciences department at Shiraz University, 21000 foreign students studying at Iran universities where 95% of whom studying at Al-Mustafa University . MIU provides various facilities and services for the students and their families such as: issue a student visa, student loan and grant, free student accommodation, free Health service, Gym, free education for the family and kids, free family tours, low interest loan, vocational training for the spouse and kids, and so on. In addition to student union, Al-Mustafa has unions for those who graduated in 40 countries and they are in constant contact with the Al-Mustafa’s main campus in Qom. By providing suitable study environment and wide range of privileges and benefits, Iran has greatly encouraged non-Iranian students to come to Iran to study Shiism and become Shia clerics and scholars.
Objectives of Al-Mustafa University
Export of the revolution is the core principle of Khomeini’s theory of wilayat al-faqih and the main trend in Iran’s post-revolution foreign policy. In order to achieve this goal, the Iranian government fundamentally relies on the ‘soft power’ for geographic expansion. Since 1979 the Iranian government and with close cooperation with the Shia establishments launched the policy of founding and creating the non-state organisations in other countries. This policy began with charitable and cultural activities, but extended to include forming armed militias that link ideologically with the doctrine of wilayat al-faqih and its core principles under the supreme leader command as spiritual and political leader for the Shia in the world. The Shia establishments in Iran played the crucial role in dedicating the status of the wali al-faqih among his followers who must follow his orders with ‘hearing and obedience’. This relationship between the clerics and the Shia society stems from the usuli (principles of jurisprudence) Shia school that dominated the Shia thought since the 18th century. Usuli gave the Shia clerics the role of advisor and the guardian of the Shia societies in regards to religious, social, and political issues.
By: K. Zergani, a freelance journalist and human rights activist