The Shia in American Strategic Thought – (Research Paper)


This is a translation of a research paper written by the Lebanese academic Dr. Ahmad Majid, surrounding the historical development of US interest in/and study of Shia Islam and its adherents. The paper argues that American interest in the study of Shia Islam is inherently utilitarian and defined by the strategic political interests of the US state.

Below is the translation of the paper’s abstract and methodology. MEO will gradually be translating and publishing the whole paper over seven separate instalments.

Dr. Majid attained his PhD in Philosophy from the Islamic University in Lebanon, and has published several books and articles in the field of Islamic philosophy, history, and contemporary issues. He currently works as a researcher and lecturer at the Maaref Hekmiya Research Institute in Beirut, Lebanon.


Date: N/A – source accessed in July, 2021

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The Shia in American Strategic Thought

Author: Dr Ahmad Majid


American thought began to consider Islam practically after World War II (1939-1945), such that the Suez Crisis and subsequent events constituted a prelude for the departure of France and Britain from the leadership of the Western world, allowing the United States to replace them as an alternative power. The Suez Crisis and its ramifications were a catalyst for the start of a new phase of studies related to the Islamic world. The precursors of this interest began in 1952, when the United States allocated large sums of funds to encourage universities to open departments of Arab-Islamic studies. This led to the spread of hundreds of Arab-Islamic studies (research) centres, as well as departments of Middle East studies in American universities and scientific institutes. To prepare its intellectual cadre capable of knowledge production in relation to the Middle East, it worked on attracting scientific competence in the field of Islamic Studies; it brought in orientalists from major countries that were intellectually and academically developed in this field, such as Germany, Britain, France, and Italy. It brought in the Austrian Gustave Grunebaum[1], the Englishman Bernard Lewis[2] and Philip Hitti[3] to work in American universities. Despite its academic presence in universities, Middle Eastern studies did not lean towards the theoretical, historical, or linguistic approaches of traditional Orientalism. It rather focused on contemporary Islam and used sociology as the basis for its vision. American utilitarian thought was built upon reality, and sought to crystallize a real picture that it could practically deal with, in so much as it reflects reality.

There is a second phenomenon that requires quick mention however – we will return to it in a dedicated chapter – these studies resorted to an integrative process that endeavoured to involve intellectuals from the Islamic world in the study of their (own) societies, and to submit reports about them. It went further, through the funding of cultural institutions that could monitor political, cultural, and economic life on the one hand, and (actively) influence the societies to which (these intellectuals) belong on the other. Thereby, studies on Islam in America were inseparable from the US’ political goals.

As these studies stem from the concept of utility, the United States began conducting operations based on its higher interests as a state. Consequently, they restricted their research on the Muslim majority, that is, the Sunni Muslims, and most of the debate – even within academic discourse – focused on the Sunni experience, (with the US) considering it the most important element, and Shiism as a marginal sect in Islam which does not (even) require the trouble of monitoring and researching. Michael Rubin[4] says that when Western researchers engaged in the study of Islam decades ago, geography initially forced them to cross the Sunni areas that were under the control of the Ottoman Empire, and they adopted the perspectives (of these Sunni areas) regarding the primary elements of Islam and its main authorities. Another myth was enclosed in this issue: that Sunnis are the clear majority in the Islamic world, representing around 85% to 90% of the world’s Muslims, with the knowledge that these percentages may be false – and as we will see – there is rather near parity between them.

[1] Gustave Grunebaum (1909 – 1972) of Austrian origin, a graduate of the Universities of Vienna and Berlin. He was appointed assistant professor of Arabic and Islamic studies at New York University (1938 – 42), and at the University of Chicago (1943 – 49) and was made a professor there (1949 – 57). He represented it at the Purdue University conference, which it co-convened (June 29, 1956). He was appointed professor of Near Eastern History in the University of California (1957), and then President for the Department of Near Eastern Studies in it.

[2] Bernard Lewis (1916 – 2018), born in London, Britain. He was a British-American Emeritus Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Princeton University, specialized in the History of Islam and the interaction between Islam and the West, and he was noted for his works on the history of the Ottoman Empire. Lewis is one of the most important Western scholars on the Middle East, whose advice was frequently sought by neo-conservative policymakers such as the administration of US President George W. Bush.

[3] Philip Khuri Hitti (1886 – 1978), the Lebanese Arab and Islamic Civilization historian. He was born in the town of Shemlan, continued his studies in Lebanon, and then joined Columbia University in the US, from which he earned his PhD in 1915. In appreciation of his brilliance, the university appointed him lecturer in the Department of Oriental Studies, where he worked for four years. He also worked as a visiting professor at Harvard University. He wrote studies on the history of Lebanon, Syria, and the Arabs, as well as the Islamic faith. His book, The Arabs: A Short History, was a guide for the US forces that settled in Kuwait in 1958.

[4] Michael Rubin (1971) is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School. He previously worked as an official at the Pentagon, where he dealt with issues of the Middle East, mainly focusing on Iran. Between 2004 and 2009, he was chief editor of the Middle East Quarterly. He received fellowships from the Council on Foreign Relations and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. Rubin has lectured in history at Yale University, The Hebrew University, Johns Hopkins University, and has served as a visiting lecturer in Sulaymaniyah, Salah El-Din, and Duhok Universities in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Between 2002 and 2004, he worked as a Director in the Office of the Minister of Defense for Iran and Iraq, which was seconded to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Rubin currently teaches senior members of the US Army, the US Marine Corps, and the US Naval Commands prior to their deployment to Iraq, the Gulf, and Afghanistan.


This paper seeks to study the Shias according to American thought. We tried to focus on how this image/perception emerged, and to achieve this goal, we referred to a large number of sources that tackled this subject. We adopted a descriptive methodological approach that attempts to present the image as it is, without interfering with it, so that the reader can arrive at a clear perception of the subject. We have summarised a lot of ideas so as not to burden the paper with useless and extended details. To achieve our objective, we used the following (research) design:

Chapter 1: American thought begins to approach Islam and Shias
Chapter 2: From Orientalism to Strategic Studies
Chapter 3: The most prominent US study centers interested in Shiism
Chapter 4: Islam in its totality is the enemy
Chapter 5: Shiism and Islam
Chapter 6: The problem of Shiism in American thought
Chapter 7: How the Shias should be reconstituted

In this paper we relied on multiple sources which we will list in order for researchers to refer to. However, we did not include these sources in the footnotes of the body of the text. The main sources include:

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

The RAND Corporation:

The Council on Foreign Relations:

The Brookings Institution:

The Atlantic Council:

The Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

The American Enterprise Institute:


Moukayed, Mahmoud. American Enterprise Institute. The Islamic Center for Strategic Studies by the al-Abbas’s Holy Shrine, 2017.

Saad, Jihad. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Islamic Center for Strategic Studies by the al-Abbas’s Holy Shrine, 2019

Saad, Jihad. The RAND Corporation and the Muslim World. The Islamic Center for Strategic Studies by the al-Abbas’s Holy Shrine, 2019.

Little, Douglas. American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945. 3rd ed., The University of North Carolina Press, 2008, p. 11.

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