Putting Sectarianism in Perspective

[The following are my notes from a panel discussion with Nader Hashemi (Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies) and Danny Postel (Assistant Director of the Middle East and North African Studies Program at Northwestern University), editors of the new book Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. presented at the Middle East Institute on Tuesday, November 21, 2017. The program was moderated by Paul Salem, senior vice president for policy research and programs at MEI.]

Nader Hashemi  argued that ancient sectarian hatred is a lazy orientalist explanation. He offered “sectarianization” as a better term than that static trans-historical term “sectarianism.” You cannot understand the current crises unless you understand authoritarianism rather theology as the root of the current conflicts in the Middle East. It is the perpetuation of political rule by the employment of sectarian identity.

There are three ways of approaching the issue: Primordialism,  constructivism, and instrumentalism. Constructivism occupies the middle ground recognizing (as does primordialism) some immutable features of religious identity but recognizing also (as does instrumentalism) the roles of elites in mobilizing religious identity. The questions that must be addressed are: Why are these conflicts intensifying now and why in some places more than others? Why have Sunni-Shia conflicts erupted recently?

Vali Nasr notes that in the past the state was viewed as a passive actor responding to struggles between subgroups. Drawing on research from South Asia, Nasr argues that state actors see political gain in the conflict between sectarian groups. The key claim of the book is that sectarianism in itself fails to explain the complex realities of the conflicts in the region that are rooted in development issues explained by political actors in pursuit of political gain. The refusal of political elites to share power below is a better explanation. Ruling elites are not necessarily committed to defending a theological view or the interests of a particular religious group. Sectarianism is not an inherent quality of Middle Eastern history. Rather, political entrepreneurs capitalize on sectarian divides. Recent conflicts in the US have been more racial than sectarian, but demonstrate a similar point. Trump played the white nationalist card to mobilize people around his political agenda. Politics in the Middle East and U.S. are not the same but they have this in common.

Danny Postel noted that in 2006 the most popular political figure in the Sunni Arab world was HassanNasrallah. This seems inconceivable today. 1979, 2003, and 2011 are critical turning points. There is nothing intrinsically religious in the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The Yemeni conflicts of the 1970’s had nothing to do with sects but with ideology, with Iran and Saudi Arabia siding with monarchs and Egypt with the leftist rebels.

Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in the 1980’s and the U.S. encouraged transnational Jihad in Afghanistan. To say that the bombing of the Imam Hassan shrine in 2003 started the current sectarian strife is an exaggeration, but it has a point. After Saudi execution of Imam Nimr Baqir al-Nimr in 2016, Iran vowed holy revenge on the Saudis.

Scholars say there was a Sunni uprising in Syria in 2011, but the demands were bread and freedom and had nothing to do with sects. Alawis, Kurds, Atheists, etc., all joined the rebellion. The crisis was precipitated by live ammunition fired at peaceful demonstrators. The same thing is happening in Bahrain. In Syria the regime blames Sunnis and in Bahrain the regime blames Shias. The Saudis engage in a classic scapegoating move, it is not us but the other sect that is the source of your problems. Within three days of the Trump-Saudi “Orb fest” in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and Egypt read the love fest as a declaration that “America has our back.”

Paul Salem noted that 1979 was the final stage of Egypt’s departure from leadership of the Arab world as well as the rise of Iran. Until then socialism and Arab nationalism were the central issues. As people turned away from economic and ideological markets did religion replace them? Iran turned a religion perspective into a political project. The same can be said of ISIS which claims that its religious interpretation is profound. For the Shi’a in Iraq and Syria, sect was a means of advancement. He conceded that authoritarianism is the pattern of the region, but asked how to distinguish those regimes for which it is not a tool, such as Sisi or Algeria?

Hashemi responded that in Egypt the Sunni-Shia divide doesn’t exist because there is no mix of populations there. 1967 is the main turning point at which the promises of secularism started to fail, and you see the turn to politicized religion. Socialism and nationalism had cross-sectarian support. The sectarianism card is the regimes’ favorite card to play against the demands for democracy. The narrative they offer the international community is that the problem in their country is not authoritarianism but external intervention and in some cases extremism.

Postel noted that now there is a kind of nostalgia for Arab nationalism, but it failed for a number of reasons including that it never ran deep. The masses never really embraced it. If they were really salient could they have been defeated by a single military defeat (the ’67 War)? Hezbollah redefined itself by its involvement in the Syrian crisis. There was no ISIS when Iran and Hezbollah sided with the Syrian regime.

Hashemi says the first step is for the killing to stop. There must a vision for how to exit the authoritarian status quo, some constitutional vision. The international community must play a more constructive role. We must realize that the Faustian bargain we struck with these regimes is the source of, not the solution to, the problem.

Postel observed that the U.S. had signed off wholesale on the Saudi narratives that all the problems are due to Iran. The Iran nuclear deal is related indirectly to the sectarianism because both the Saudis and Israelis flipped out over the deal.

In the Q&A I remarked that the it is interesting that the one group relatively most committed to Arab nationalism had been the Palestinians who lost most directly from the ’67 War. I also mentioned the role of the West in encouraging the Syrians to resort to armed rebellion against the Assad regime by predicting that he would fall within months. (The Israelis said “within weeks.”)

Postrel took strong exception to my observation insisting that comments about Assad falling from power were “aspirational” rather than predictive. In a conversation with Postrel after the event ended, I informed him of my personal knowledge of how the Syrian opposition took such predictions seriously and that they posed an obstacle to those of us who thought that the best strategy against Assad was to keep the opposition peaceful until he lost the support of the Syrian Army. Such was the pattern of the fall of a number of Middle Eastern dictators from the Shah of Iran to Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia. Postrel insisted that the pattern could not have worked in Syria because Assad’s family is too closely intertwined with the military establishment. On that he and I shall have to agree to disagree and it is my position that brutal as Assad’s attacks on peaceful demonstrators were, the use of violence (albeit in self-defense) by demonstrators and the subsequent civil war that opened the door not only for Assad’s continued military slaughter of his civilian population but for the air and ground forces of a variety of foreign actors as well as the terrorist activities of ISIS and other such groups has been a more tragic consequence for the Syrian people. I do not believe that Assad by himself could have killed so many people in the absence of a civil war without losing the support of the people he would have had to in order to do the killing. I also do not believe the “sectarianization” problem would be as bad as it is at this moment.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute
www.minaret.org

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