From Baghdad: Fellow Marsin Alshamary Investigates Links Between Religion and Politics

| Spring 2023

Marsin Alshamary is a Research Fellow with the Belfer Center's Middle East Initiative.

When the Iraq War started, Marsin Alshamary was 11, living in Minnesota and attending Islamic School. “I remember the school being shut down for several days because of fear of reprisals,” she said. “That was obviously a very important point in my life because suddenly my personal religious identity was in the spotlight. It seemed so important and suddenly everyone was curious.”

Born in Iraq, her family moved to the United States when she was three. Being from two different worlds had its advantages as it helped her be more open to change and to difference, Alshamary said. 

She lived in five different states growing up and went to nine different schools. “It really made me resilient to change, and it was actually a great upbringing for someone who ended up being a political scientist because I was always ready to move to different areas and to research different things,” she said, adding, “I was always curious about different environments, and I just went with the flow of different communities. And I am so grateful for that background.” 

She said her parents always held the hope of going back home. “They were so attached to everything that happened in the country. When the war started, it was a very stressful period and just a lot of information about how complicated the world is thrown at an 11-year-old when you would prefer that the world was clearly divided into the good and the bad.” 

Alshamary found refuge in an interesting source. “At the time, this is when the Harry Potter books were becoming really popular. Those books are a good escape because the world there is so clearly bad and good. There isn't this nuance and this complexity that exists in real life. I really enjoy fiction so that was a very good escape at the time.”

Marsin Alshamary speak while sitting on a panel at an event in Mosul, Iraq.

Marsin Alshamary takes part in a panel discussion at the Iraq Future Center for Democracy Support in Mosul. 

The experience nudged her decision to become a political scientist. “I think it really did shape my career trajectory in the sense of thinking that there are important questions that people care about that I’m uniquely equipped to answer, and subconsciously being pushed in that direction for years,” she said. She ended up with a PhD in political science, having built skills in research that were applicable across disciplines. 

Alshamary’s research was motivated by a particular experience of her father’s. “My father participated in an uprising in 1991 [against a] regime in Iraq, and he had to leave the country as a result,” she said. 

“I remember at the time, growing up and listening through the years to him and other people in his position complain that they felt they were let down by the religious leaders in Iraq who should have supported them, who should have supported the protestors and helped them create a new state, which is what they wanted to do.”

She began to explore why religious leaders get involved in politics, noting that while there was writing on the subject, there was also a hesitancy in political science to work with religion “because religion is such an intangible concept.” 

“So I found this huge empty space in political science,” Alshamary said, “and I had this question from my background that I was very interested in. I dedicated some time to working on it as an undergrad thesis at Wellesley. And that thesis eventually morphed into a much larger project, which became my dissertation and now my book. But it just all came from a personal question.”

Alshamary says being a practicing Muslim adds to her work. “I thought that was my comparative advantage, but also it puts me in a unique position. The particular case I was interested in was this Shia Muslim religious establishment in Iraq, called the Hawza, which is very powerful throughout the world because of the millions of adherents it has, but that is so understudied because it lived under a state of repression for so long. So, I thought this is my opportunity to also work on something that is important for the world to know about.” 

It was in her senior year at Wellesley that Alshamary first came across the Belfer Center through a friend who was at the Kennedy School (This friend was Sara Minkara, who is now President Biden’s advisor on international disability rights). She started attending events and eventually as an MIT student got to know some of the fellows and professors. During COVID she held a pre-doc fellowship at Belfer before her current research fellowship at the Center with the Middle East Initiative. 

“I think what attracted me to Belfer initially, and the reason I stayed on for so long, is that rarely do you get places that have academic excellence with policy excellence, and so I found Belfer to be a home for someone who actually has interest in policy but also is serious about their academic work,” she said, adding, “So it is a very unique space. I don't take it for granted. I love my time there. I'm sad to see it come to a close soon, but it's also that once you are part of the community, you're always able to come back.”

She said the Belfer Center was there for her when she needed it the most. “I was at this divide between whether I wanted to continue with academia or I wanted to go to policy work. And I didn't want to make this decision too quickly. I wanted to give at the time it deserved. And so Belfer was really the only space that could absorb me because it did both well, and it could accept both and it could accept the indecision,” she said. “It's not just a place of cultivation, it's also a place where you can see examples of people who have bridged both academia and policy, who have bridged the divide and who have had illustrious careers in both worlds and really get to benefit from them.”

Marsin Alshamary seated at a microphone in the foreground. IN the background images on a large projector screen show protests in the Middle East.

Marsin Alshamary gives a presentation on “The Politics of Preachers: Understanding Clerical Participation in Iraqi Protests” during a Middle East Initiative seminar in 2020.

The time she had to think through her work at Belfer has led her to the next chapter in her journey. “I am very happy to say that I’m going to be starting a position at Boston College as an Assistant Professor in the fall,” she said.  

Alshamary is pleased that her new position will keep her close to the Belfer Center. To incoming fellows, she says, “It’s an achievement to make your way into Belfer and to be amongst your colleagues, so actually lean into the enjoyment and the pleasure and the opportunity that is Belfer.” She adds that it’s important to physically be at the Center if possible. “Being physically present is such a blessing that we took for granted.” 

Her third nugget of advice is specific. “I learned it quite late in my fellowship, but the communications team is amazing and you can get yourself published in wonderful places and get great editing, support, and feedback and recommendations and advice,” she said, adding, “You just have to reach out. They're so nice. I actually ended up getting to write a piece with Foreign Policy magazine through this relationship with the communications team.”

As she rounds out her time at the Belfer Center, Marsin Alshamary says one person she would like to thank at the Center is MEI Director Tarek Masoud. “He’s been a mentor for such a long time. He’s someone who is incredibly busy, but he somehow makes the time to support minority women in particular,” she said. “I don’t think I would have made the decision to follow a particular career path or to sort out my life if not for the patience he showed in trying to advise and mentor me and shepherd me through different obstacles. He is always putting opportunities in my path, which is such a lovely thing for a mentor to do. So, I can’t thank Tarek enough.” 


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Ezeokoli, Ada. "Belfer Fellow Profile: Marsin Alshamary, Fellow, Middle East Initiative (MEI)." Belfer Center Newsletter, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. (Spring 2023)