According to the neo-Orientalist perspective that has become the standard explanation for events in the Middle East, the region has been embroiled in a ruinous conflict that re-emerged in the wake of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and expanded in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, but actually dates back 1,400 years.

In his 2016 State of the Union Address, then-President Barack Obama said, “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” During a segment on the Sunni-Shia ‘conflict’, popular comedian and former host of The Daily Show, John Stewart, argued that Sunnis and Shias last coexisted in 950 AD, “the only time it has ever happened…” In an interview with Aljazeera America’s Tony Harris in 2014, former U.S. Middle East Peace Envoy George Mitchell said, “There are three internal conflicts that are overlapping and intersecting throughout the Islamic world. First is a Sunni-Shia split, which began as a struggle for political power following the death of the Prophet Muhammad. That’s going on around the world. It’s a huge factor in Iraq now, in Syria and in other countries.”

This idea of an all-embracing sectarian conflict stands in stark contrast to the complex history of the region. Before the 2003 invasion, twenty out of every fifty marriages in Baghdad, i.e. 40%,were between Sunnis and Shias. In the 1950s, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, Al Azhar University, established a center that brought together Sunni and Shiite religious scholars to discuss various issues and bridge theological divides. In 1932, at an anti-imperialist conference in Jerusalem attended by Sunni and Shiite thinkers, Iraqi anti-colonial activist and Shiite jurist, Sheikh Muhammad HusaynKashif al-Ghita, led prayer at al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Sunni Islam, upon request from the conference delegates, which included Muslim intellectual Rashid Rida, Palestinian Mufti Amin al-Husayni and other prominent Sunni figures.

There are countless other examples that challenge the notion of a 1,400-year-old conflict between Sunni and Shia.

At the same time, it is true we are seeing groups, like ISIS, excommunicating and anathematising Muslims who are members of non-Sunni sects, as well as militias from the largely Shiite Popular Mobilization forces of Iraq (Hashd al Shaabi) being accused of carrying out attacks and unlawful killings against Sunnis.

While historical symbolism and religious narratives may feed into the motives behind such attacks, they are fundamentally rooted in actions of states, politicians, and political groups. Understanding these events requires a new theoretical framework that appreciates the intersections between the historical and the contemporary, while accurately assessing the operations, contradictions, and explanatory limitations of sectarianism in the Middle East.

Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of The Middle East edited by Nader Hashemi, associate professor at the University of Denver, and Danny Postel, assistant director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Northwestern University, brings together specialists and scholars from various fields to counter the neo-Orientalist assumptions and provide a framework for analysing political sectarianism. Among the strongest themes running through all fourteen chapters of the book is that viewing conflicts in the Middle East as the result of ancient hatreds is inaccurate, lazy, and flat-out wrong.

As the book’s contributors explain, what the Middle East is experiencing is a process called sectarianization. It is a process influenced by class dynamics, fragile states, and geopolitical rivalries, and is deeply rooted in modern authoritarianism. It is not theological, but rather the result of the ‘survival strategy’ of weak regimes, trying to manipulate identity politics in order to combat democratization. Sectarianization is a peculiarly modern phenomenon and usually operates within nationalist discourse, it is similar to ethnic identity, and can be thought of as ethno-religious nationalism. Drawing on examples from Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Kuwait, the book demonstrates how and why sectarianization came to be and how it functions.

Historical Root of Sectarianization

In his chapter of the book, Ussama Makdisi, professor of history at Rice University, argues that the historical genesis of sectarianization began with the nineteenth century modernization of Ottoman Territories, which occurred as Western hegemony spread across the Middle East. The nineteenth century saw the traditional Ottoman system come into contact with a series of challenges, including the rise of nationalism in the Balkans and the encroachment of European colonial powers. These challenges undermined the Ottoman state’s ability to run its diverse, multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious empire.

The pre-nineteenth century Ottoman system was structured according to religious pluralism; Islam was the religion of the Ottoman State, but Christian and Jewish communities were allowed to rule themselves according to their own religious laws. While religious minorities in European countries were either being expelled or compelled to convert, the Ottomans allowed Christians and Jews to worship freely in their churches and synagogues. Despite official second-class status in the empire, members of these confessional communities could become socio-economically prosperous and obtain positions of socio-political influence within Ottoman society.

This system unravelled in the nineteenth century, as the Ottomans began to implement a series of reforms that led to the creation of parliamentary democracy, equal citizenship regardless of religion, equality before the law, and the decriminalization of homosexuality and apostasy. European interference undermined this process of reform, putting the empire on a path far different from the one toward which it was evolving.

It also began a process in which certain religious groups were dramatically privileged over others. For example, the French declared themselves the protectors of Ottoman Christians, and would interfere in local disputes that involved Christians. Christians benefited in other ways as well. European companies transformed inter-communal workforces into ones where foreigners occupied the top jobs, Ottoman Christians were placed in middle management, and Muslims in the lowest rung of the corporate hierarchy.

This European interference, coupled with Ottoman reforms, stoked resentment between different religious groups and led to conflict, namely the 1860 Mount Lebanon Civil War, which began as a peasant revolt of Maronite Christians against their Druze landlords, over heavy taxation. The conflict spread across greater Syria, and turned into a civil war that resulted in French troops occupying parts of what today is modern Syria and Lebanon.

By the time European powers formally colonized the Arab world in the twentieth century, Makdisi says, the process of sectarianization was in full swing. European colonialists expanded and institutionalized this sectarianization. Indeed, the British Mandate in Palestine (1917-1948) would use religious categories (Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze), in order to administer the Palestinian population. The British allocated land, power, and representation along denominational lines in Palestine and the French did the same in Lebanon and Syria.

While it is undeniable that colonization was a primary factor in the ascent of political sectarianization, Makdisi urges us to see it not merely as a colonial implant, but also as an interaction between local pre-colonial politics in the nineteenth century and twentieth century colonial politics.

Present-day Sectarianization

The most salient example of contemporary sectarianization is Iraq, where the American invasion of the country has destroyed the old authoritarian order and most institutions of the state. The resulting power vacuum allowed the Americans, Iranians, Gulf rulers, and local political actors to battle for control and influence within the country.

Between 2005 and 2006, Iraq slipped into civil war, making it clear that American attempts at state building and democratization had failed. It was then that Western media outlets began talking about an intractable primordial Sunni-Shia clash. There was a measure of convenience to these discussions, as it allowed the Americans to refuse to take any responsibility for the violence.

But, while the 2003 Iraq invasion violently intensified and expanded sectarian politics in Iraq, it did not invent it. Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, Fanar Haddad’s, intriguing chapter on ‘sectarian relations before “sectarianization” in pre-2003 Iraq’, examines the ascent of Shiite political consciousness, and how non-Shias understood and viewed it. Haddad argues that, prior to the 2003 invasion, sectarian relations were recognized within a Shias-and-the-State framework, not between Shias and Sunnis.

As Haddad demonstrates, Shiite communities across Iraq had begun the process of mobilizing along the lines of religious identity, from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This mobilisation fused together common symbols and narratives, but was done within the prism of ‘Iraqiness,’ especially from 1921 and onwards when the Iraqi nation state was born. Iraqi Shiite polity never challenged the idea of the Iraqi nation state. Instead, Shiite identity politics tended to focus on representation within the state, while the public practice of Shiite religious rites was connected to justice, poverty, and state services. Shiite politics in Iraq was not, however, monolithic; it had a diverse range of actors, groups, interests, and demands and quite often embraced issues affecting non-Shiite Iraqis.

Haddad argues that some southern Iraqi Shias, who were poor and lacked access to state and economic resources, blamed their disadvantages on sectarianism, believing the Iraqi state was deliberately keeping them impoverished. These perceptions were framed within a grander persecution narrative that used imagery from the Battle of Karbala, and made reference to the defeat, loss, and injustice endured by Imam Hussein, Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, and his followers at the hands of forces loyal to the Umayyad caliph Yazid I.

The Iraqi state developed a complex attitude towards its Shiite population, one that Haddad describes as ‘mismanagement’ of communal and sect identity. The Iraqi state made discussion of sectarian difference taboo, and criminalized anything that it viewed as harming social-sect relations. At the same time, it surveilled Shiite religious schools, seminars and religious establishments closely, fearing possible Iranian infiltration.

The Iraqi state did not claim to be a ‘Sunni’ entity defending against ‘heretical’ Shias. After all, many Shias served in the highest echelons of the Iraqi state. Instead, the Iraqi government presented itself as a nation state worried about geopolitical opponents – targeting the Iraqi Communist Party, where many disenfranchised Shia happen to locate their political activism, because of the so-called threat from the Soviet Union. The targeting of the Communist Party would see hundreds of its members thrown in prison, executed or exiled, which led to the dramatic decline of the Communist Party in the 1980’s. The result of this decline meant there was little secular alternative to the state for disenfranchised Shia groups and led to the growth of Shia Islamist movements.

While a clear political-religious identity developed amongst the Shia pre-2003, no equivalent identity existed for Iraqi Sunnis. Sunni identity pre-2003, according to Haddad, had no persecution narrative, no mobilization power, no symbols or political structure. In short, Iraqi Sunnis did not understand the power of sect identity. This identity began to form post-2003, as the civil war raged. To this day, however, it remains an unstable and unsure identity.

Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of The Middle East’ makes the case that sectarianization is a modern process that takes shape because of, and not despite, authoritarian rule, class division, geopolitical rivalries, foreign intervention, and the weakness of the state order. Rejecting the simplistic explanation that sectarianism solely exists because of Western Imperialism, it highlights how Western Imperialism interacted with regional authoritarian politics, local political mobilization, regional geopolitical rivalries, and state counter-revolutionary forces, which together lay the ground work for sectarianization to thrive. In these ways, the book is a much welcome and needed contribution to our understanding of the unfolding and multilayered dynamics of the process of sectarianization in the Middle East.


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