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From Babylon to Baudelaire and back

In exploring the role of clerics in the Shi’a world, political science PhD student Marsin Alshamary heeds the call of family history.
Posters of religious leaders in Najaf, Iraq
Posters of religious leaders in Najaf, Iraq
Photo: Marsin Alshamary

When Marsin Alshamary arrived at Wellesley College in 2009, she had several years of French under her belt and a burning love of literature. Four years later she graduated — with honors — with a BA not only in French, but in international relations as well. The following year, she joined MIT’s Department of Political Science as a PhD candidate in comparative politics and international relations. 

She was in the process, to paraphrase Friedrich Nietzsche, of becoming who she was.

“Political science was meant to be because of my family’s story,” says Alshamary. Her father, a veterinarian for the Iraqi army, was forced to leave the country as a result of his participation in the 1991 uprisings in Iraq. After two years in Saudi Arabia, he gained refugee status in the United States, and the family followed him there.

“I fought it for the longest time. But it’s always been in the background: My entire life story’s about politics.”

In her dissertation, Alshamary will explore the role of clerics in rebellion in the Shi’a world. Delving into her research has meant letting go of some assumptions — for example, that a religious leader is automatically an instigator of protest, à la Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran. This is not the case, she says.

“I originally thought I’d find a lot of religious leaders inciting rebellion, and I’ve been completely surprised, in the cases that I’ve been working on so far, that they weren’t. People assume that a religious leader is using powerful, religious rhetoric, but in fact they don’t, necessarily. ... A lot of times they’re opportunistic, joining only when they think a rebellion’s successful, or they’re coopted by rebel leaders who need their legitimacy. Very often they stay uninvolved, which can be very costly.”

Understanding the role of clerics in this context is important for the world right now, says Alshamary. “If you think about one thing the whole world has in common, it’s religious systems. Religious leaders exist everywhere — whether as elites in the hierarchy or as local leaders, at the community level.” And yet, she says, “in political science people don’t focus on individual leadership, so even when you look into theories of participation in rebellion, it’s usually participation by communities but very little about movers or leaders or instigators. Which is surprising, given that there’s so much work being done on civil war and contentious politics.” 

Alshamary’s plan is to study cases all over the globe — from America to Myanmar — and from that research build a theory that can be generalized to the world. She then plans to test her theory by conducting intensive fieldwork in the Shi’a world — in Iraq, Bahrain, possibly Saudi Arabia.

That Alshamary ended up in MIT’s political science department — a place she describes as being a “perfect fit” — is in part thanks to Assistant Professor Richard Nielsen, who “put MIT on the map for me.” She worked for Nielsen as a research assistant in 2013, when he was still at Harvard University and she still an undergrad at Wellesley. While there, she also honed her Arabic-English translation skills, which stood her in good stead last year when she was a research assistant for MIT Associate Professor Fotini Christia, laying the groundwork for a survey in Kerbala, Iraq. The city was not unfamiliar to her: Born in nearby Babylon, Alshamary lived in Kerbala until she was 3. 

“Everyone does what speaks to them,” she says, “and this happens to be my life.”

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