The following is a transcription of an interview with Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, editors of the pioneering new book, Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. At the site of last year’s Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference in Washington, D.C. (November 18 – 21, 2017), I sat with Hashemi and Postel to discuss their book and many of the important contributions it provides to the study of the Middle East. This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity, but is otherwise presented in its entirety:
Riad Alarian (RA): Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. I wanted to start by asking you to briefly explain the sectarianization thesis and some of the novel ideas it introduces to the discussion on sectarianism.
Nader Hashemi (NH): We contrast the concept of sectarianization with the more popular term, sectarianism, and we try to highlight a set of core differences between these two concepts. Sectarianism sort of presupposes there is this enduring, ongoing tension or conflict between different sects in the Muslim world that has deep historical roots and has always played itself out throughout the course of Islamic history. That is very much the dominant view, not only among “Westerners,” but among many Muslims too, who believe that Sunnis and Shias have always been in conflict. In the book, we try and push back against that narrative. To be sure, we acknowledge that there are differences between sects. But, we employ the term sectarianization to identify a much more immediate set of political conditions that give rise to conflict between Muslim sects. These conditions are fundamentally rooted in the project of political actors that are pursuing goals rooted in the acquisition of power, or the perpetuation of power, by the mobilization of sectarian identities, and deliberately so. In other words, we try and historicize this question of sectarian conflict by pushing back against the idea that it has deep historical roots, claiming—as many people do in the book—that it is a modern phenomenon, and it has a history, and the history is not as deep as people think. It actually goes back to 1979, when political actors in the Middle East (primarily Saudi Arabia and Iran) started to use sectarian narratives to advance the political agendas of ruling elites. So, in a nutshell, sectarianization is a project that involves the deliberate, calculated mobilization of social and religious groups around sectarian markers of identity in pursuit of political goals.
RA: And how does the book help locate sectarian conflict as a distinctly modern phenomenon? What are some of the ways this is apparent?
Danny Postel (DP): Ussama Makdisi’s chapter, which is the first chapter of the book, really sets the historical stage for the story of sectarianization. Makdisi locates sectarianization in the transition from Ottoman rule into the colonial period. It’s not as if sectarian identities didn’t exist under Ottoman rule. They did. The question is how they were organized, why they were organized in the particular way they were, and how sectarian fault lines in the region were transformed under colonial rule. A lot of people react to our argument as if we’re claiming that sects are completely artificial and don’t exist. That is not what we are arguing. Of course there are different sects of Islam, just like there are different sects of Christianity and other religions. The question is, when did sects, or sectarian fault lines, become key political identities in the region? Makdisi claims this is a very recent phenomenon, and argues that sectarianism has distinctly modern roots.
In the introduction to the book, Nader and I bring the story forward even more and suggest that sectarian conflict is a really recent phenomenon—we’re really talking about the last thirty to forty years, essentially. The three key years in this intensification of sectarian identity and violence in the Middle East are 1979, 2003, and 2011. I always say 2011 dash. Meaning, if you just say 2011, it implies that the “Arab Spring” created all of this sectarian chaos and violence. That’s actually not what we argue. It wasn’t the Arab uprisings of 2011 in themselves that created sectarian violence. Quite the contrary, we show in the book, in case after case, how the slogans, demands, and animating impulses of the Arab uprisings had nothing to do with sectarianism, or religion at all. They had to do with broad-based political demands: social justice, human rights, dignity, bread, and freedom. It was through the response of the regimes in the region to those uprisings that the sectarianization process became operationalized, with crackdowns on peaceful, non-sectarian demonstrations characterized by regime after regime as either an “Iranian plot,” or the “Shiite crescent,” or, in the eyes of the Assad regime, “Sunni extremism.” This is all despite the fact that the Syrian uprising, like the other uprisings of the region, were cross-sectarian, non-sectarian, and arguably anti-sectarian. Still, they were characterized from day one as sectarian, which is demonstrably false and straight-up propaganda.
But, over time—and this is the darker story the book tells—that narrative became a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is partly because of regime policy, which fomented sectarianism. As Paulo Pinto demonstrates in his chapter on Syria, the Assad regime used targeted repression—what he calls a “selective distribution of violence” against different groups, depending on the sectarian identities—in response to the protests. What happened was not only sectarianization “from above,” but also sectarianization “from below,” where people take the bait and buy into the sectarian narrative. Certain “sectarian entrepreneurs,” from imams to grassroots activists, began to see things in sectarian terms themselves. They bought into the false regime narrative and made it real. But, the point of the book is that this is a process; it was not inevitable, and it’s not the “natural” playing out of primordial forces. That idea is an Orientalist fantasy. These are specific regime policies and they’ve been taking place in a very recent time frame.
RA: So why now? What made you decide to write this book at this particular moment in history? What sort of readers did you have in mind when you wrote it?
NH: That’s a good question. We were, I guess, looking for a new project to work on at our Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, where Danny and I worked very closely together. We felt there was an emerging sense that the Middle East is heading toward greater sectarian conflict. We also came to the realization that, in the academic literature, there was very little serious work that had been done to try and explain and theorize what had been happening in the region. So we just had a meeting of the minds where we thought that this would be a good project to work on, and we gradually identified a number of people based on what we had been reading who we thought would be good potential contributors to the book. Most people we approached were enthusiastic about it, and we were able to invite some of the contributors to Denver to give preliminary lectures, which then became book chapters. That was really the background for the book. Unfortunately, our prediction and our prognosis have been proven correct, because things in the region are heading toward greater sectarian conflict, driven by a number of factors—some of which Danny identified. It is really a result of the growing regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which we argue in the book is fundamentally driven by politics, not theology.
DP: Let me add to that point about “why now?” One thing that really started getting under our skin was the international conversation on Syria. As you might know, our previous book is titled The Syria Dilemma, and we spent a good two to three years focused exclusively on that conflict. We organized two major international conferences on Syria on top of writing the book, and that became the central focus of our research and energies. One of the most striking things about the international conversation on Syria was the development of this new “conventional wisdom” in diplomatic and policy circles, media debates, and amongst the pundit class, where the Syrian conflict was referred to as a “Sunni uprising.” Nader and I would look at each other and say, “What Sunni uprising?” The Syrian uprising had nothing to do with Sunni versus Shia. It had to do with the struggle for democratic rights, human dignity, and social justice—the same things that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings were about. Where did this new “conventional wisdom” come from? We started hearing, from voices in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, about the “sectarian knife fight” going on in Syria, and questions like “Why should we [the West] be dragged into these ancient conflicts?” Nader and I started realizing that this narrative is an ideological miasma that was being trotted out at a very specific moment in history.
If you go back to the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war, remember that the pundit class (especially the more militaristic wing communicating through Fox News) was very, very triumphalist about the U.S. invasion. “We’re toppling Saddam Hussein and bringing freedom,” they said. Then, over the course of the first three years of the U.S. occupation, there was a clear shift in the discourse; a palpable sense of “What’s wrong, why aren’t Iraqis happy about this?” In fact, Bill O’Reilly and other right-wing pundits started explicitly saying, “Wait a minute, why aren’t the Iraqi people more grateful for these gifts that we’re bringing?” Then O’Reilly started saying things on his show like, “You know what? We have to get the hell out of Iraq, these people are savages, they don’t appreciate freedom, they can’t accept the freedom that we gave them because—
NH: —because they “enjoy killing each other!”
DP: He literally said that! We quote it in the introduction to the book. You know why Sunnis and Shias are killing each other in Iraq? Because Allah tells them to, and they love it!
NH: But, it’s also on the left too, Danny. Don’t leave the left off the hook here.
DP: Yes, there is a left-wing version of this narrative. The Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, for example, adopts a decidedly sectarian narrative. The way he and others on the left frame the Syrian conflict reproduces harmful, sectarian understandings riddled with essentialist and Orientalist baggage. Madawi Al-Rasheed and I debated Cockburn on the BBC Radio 4 program Thinking Allowed about this. He was quite explicit in his defense of the sectarian narrative.
Basically, across the board, there’s this new conventional wisdom swirling around in Washington, London, Brussels, and in the media. People are saying, you know what the problem is in the Middle East? It’s these ancient religious conflicts and passions. This is what drives these people. How are you going to have democracy in this region? That’s why the Arab uprisings failed. That’s why the invasion of Iraq failed. These people “can’t do” democracy—it’s all about religious passions and sectarian conflict for them. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, asserts that the conflict in Yemen is rooted in the 7th century, over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad. So, this becomes, I think, a convenient story that the West tells itself about why the region is in such turmoil. It has nothing to do with Western policy, it has nothing to do with colonial history, it has nothing to do with U.S. militarism, it has nothing to do with the authoritarian regimes we’ve been propping up and funding. Rather, it’s because “those people” are just incapable of being like “us”! I think this is an imperial narrative that the West wants to tell itself—it’s a soothing, comforting story.
NH: And it draws upon deeply held Orientalist stereotypes and prejudices about Muslims; that they’re just fundamentally savages and they can’t be democratic. Then there’s the scary policy consequence that Danny just alluded to, which is that authoritarianism is basically a good thing, because it keeps those savages in control!
DP: “Bring back the dictators!”
NH: “If only we could bring Saddam and Gaddafi back. What a wonderful world the Middle East would be!”
DP: That is actually more or less the new wisdom in diplomatic circles.
NH: And I hate to say this because I’m a big fan of his, but Bernie Sanders, who I think is a very decent and moral person, and in my view the only hope for this country, has actually come pretty close to arguing that point.
DP: The point is this new conventional wisdom, Riad, is so widespread. There’s a right-wing version of it, which is explicitly Islamophobic, and demonizes Islam and Muslims. There’s also a left-wing version of it, and a more centrist foreign-policy establishment version of it. From 2012 to 2015, as things got worse and worse in the region, this new “wisdom” started to pick up and take hold, and you could hear it everywhere, all across the spectrum. That was a huge part of the reason we decided to write this book. We told ourselves we have to show systematically, in case study after case study after case study, how this narrative is wrong and mystifies, rather than clarifies, the politics of the region.
RA: Let’s talk a little about the approach of the book in assessing the question and problem of sectarianization. It accomplishes this in two ways: First, through a “big picture,” theoretical framework, and second, through a more particular, contextual approach. Could you elaborate on these two approaches, how they present themselves in the book, and why you chose to assess the sectarianization thesis this way?
NH: Well, we thought first of all that there was very little good political history on the question of sectarianism in terms of its origins and the argument that it’s a modern phenomenon, as we talked about. There’s also very little work in the scholarship (and we hope that we make a contribution) to try and provide a political theory of sectarianism in terms of how it actually develops, its political manifestations, and the social conditions that produce it. And so we thought that we needed to really address this, which is why the first few chapters in the book speak specifically to these points—to the history and the “religious studies underpinnings” of where the concept of sectarianism emerges and how it manifests itself—
DP: —and the geopolitics
NH: —and then the geopolitics, right. So, it’s the history, the theory, and the geopolitics of the topic. It has an international relations dimension, a comparative politics dimension, and a political theory dimension. So, we lay that out in the beginning of the book, with people who are very well credentialed scholars, and then we look at the case studies. To our credit, if I can sound a bit proud of what we’ve done, the case studies actually affirm the theoretical framework laid out at the beginning of the book. This is true in case study after case study, which look at all the major countries. So that’s really the layout and framework of the book.
DP: Yeah, that first section of the book is very important because it’s the “big picture” of sectarianization, putting the sectarianization argument in historical perspective—with Ussama Makdisi and Yezid Sayigh’s chapters—and the geopolitical dimensions of sectarianization, which Bassel Salloukh does brilliantly. Then Adam Gaiser’s chapter adds a very rich theoretical framework to understanding how sectarianization operationally takes root in individual psyches. He uses narrative identity theory to show how the sectarian narrative can actually speak to individuals. How do individuals “emplot” themselves in these sectarian stories? That’s his question.
But, for me, the heart and soul of the book are the actual case studies. Let’s say a reader does not find the “big picture,” theoretical arguments in the first section terribly convincing—because they’re highly debatable, to be sure. To me, it’s all about taking a closer look at how the sectarianization process actually worked in Syria, and in Yemen, and elsewhere. What’s so striking, for all the profound differences between and among those cases, is that you see the same basic pattern over and over. The real issues, if you will, the really defining fault lines in these societies, have nothing to do with sect. They have to do with power, they have to do with injustice, they have to do with corrupt authoritarian rule and repression, and with class and economic inequalities. But in case after case, you have these conflicts that then morph into sectarian conflicts. How? That’s what the case studies show. And, again, what’s striking is how connected they are. To be sure, sectarian compositions differ from society to society. Some societies are Sunni majority ruled by a Shiite minority. Other societies are Shiite majority ruled by a Sunni minority. But in each case, it doesn’t matter which sect is in power, or which one is the majority or minority. It’s about regimes manipulating people and scapegoating the “Other,” deflecting attention from the central question of corrupt, despotic rule. The late historian Peter Gay called this the “cultivation of hatred.”
RA: One of the things the book points out quite well is the way in which societies in the Middle East went from understanding and conceptualizing politics primarily through the lens of anti-imperialism, to adopting points of view which became increasingly defined by sectarian language and tensions. What is the nature of this shift, and what are some of the major turning points that led to it?
NH: That’s actually a very good question. For much of the modern history of the Middle East, the primary organizing theme that mobilized people was indeed the question of national independence and resistance against imperialism. In that broad mobilization, Sunnis, Shias, and people from different sects were all united. This is why you don’t see sectarian conflict until much later, until the end of the 20th century. One example, which is so revealing to cite, is Iraq, where people today think that sects have been fighting forever. In 1920, in the early days of the British occupation, there was actually a major uprising against British imperial rule, and it was a Sunni-Shia joint uprising against the common enemy. It’s only once we get to the post-colonial phase, when there is at least some nominal political independence, and when the regimes of the region start to face a series of political and economic crises, that sectarianism really enters the equation at all. Because these regimes started to fail, and because the promises they made to their people were not delivered, frustrations and demands for political change arose. As a result, you begin to see the attempt by many of these regimes to play the sectarian card in exactly the ways Danny described. Fomenting sectarian strife was a way of deflecting attention from their own corrupt rule, and it made it seem as though “foreigners who are intervening in our country” were the real problem. This allowed regimes to mobilize people around particular sectarian narratives, primarily as a project of retaining and perpetuating power. So I think that’s the broad historical context, where the question of imperialism sort of recedes in the background.
The bigger political crisis that is now shaping the politics of the region is the politics of authoritarian regimes. These are regimes that lack a base for political legitimacy. They don’t have elections, there’s no accountability, and there’s rising political, economic, and social frustration. Consequently, these regimes have to figure out a way to deal with this issue. 1979 becomes a key turning point in all of this. That year is so significant because it’s when the revolution in Iran announces itself as a non-sectarian revolution, as a revolution geared toward mobilizing Muslim populations—
DP: —including anti-imperialist motifs
NH: —and it claims to be a revolution with broad appeal across the Muslim world—
DP: —which it did actually, to some extent
NH: —yes it did, in the Sunni world. And the Saudis were petrified. They were petrified firstly because there’s now another regional entity that claims to represent the leadership of the Muslim world, but they were also much more petrified because what happened in Iran—a pro-Western monarchy, toppled by a popular mobilization—is something they fear might also happen within their own society, and within the Gulf states more generally. So they play the sectarian card, and you actually see a deliberate increase in sectarian publications, fatwas, and mobilization as a way of trying to portray the Iranian revolution as a sectarian revolution. In their eyes, it has nothing to do with Islam, or with being a good Muslim, it’s actually a “Safavid, Persian, Shiite heresy.” That’s when you begin to see a deliberate attempt to deepen and mobilize people around these sectarian identities, and the fundamental driver of it is really the crisis of authoritarian state projects, which are failing and are relying on these new narratives and plans as a way of trying to perpetuate their political lives.
RA: Earlier in the book, there’s discussion about “weak states” and how they’re essentially more prone to sectarianism because they manipulate identity cleavages, which is a dominant feature of their politics. Could you touch on this in the context of a few examples?
NH: Yeah, in many ways the inspiration for at least the theoretical framework of the book was based on this wonderful chapter that was republished with a little bit of an update by Vali Nasr, who is a prominent political scientist of the Islamic world—now the Dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has a fascinating case study about Pakistan, where he says this whole process of a weak state and the rise of sectarianism, or sectarianization, plays itself out. What happens in the late 1970s is that Pakistan, like other authoritarian regimes, begins to suffer a serious crisis of legitimacy. There’s a lot of frustration and anger from the people, and the dictator at the time, Muhammad Zia Ul-Haq, decides to pursue a policy of “Islamization” of Pakistan, essentially as a way of mobilizing people around a particular sectarian narrative, but primarily to perpetuate his own political rule. He starts pursuing this policy by mobilizing people around a particular Sunni narrative of Islam that alienated the roughly 20% Shia population. That’s when you begin to see this deep rise in tension and conflict between different groups in Pakistan, which is driven by state policies that attempt to mobilize people around certain identities.
You also have other things happening around the Islamic world at this time, which play a role in this, including the beginning of the Irani-Saudi conflict, and the spread of a particular Saudi-Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that finds its way into Pakistan. That’s when you begin to see the first forays of something that has no historical precedent in Pakistan, namely, of people going into a mosque of a rival sectarian group and massacring people en masse, claiming that those people are heretics. Pakistan is actually one of the first places where this sectarianization process—state exploitation of fault-lines in society—begins to take its most toxic form. I think that’s one crystal clear example and one of the earliest manifestations of sectarianization by a weak state, and I think one of the strongest chapters in the book overall is the case study that Vali Nasr narrates on Pakistan and sectarian conflict.
DP: And Iraq is another obvious example. Iraq post-2003, where you have not just a weak state, but you basically have the destruction of a state—
NH: —a collapsed state
DP: —a “politicide,” a “state-icide,” if you will, from outside. The destruction of the Iraqi state was the destruction of a very problematic state under Saddam, to be sure. But, when the leviathan dissolves and melts away so quickly, there’s mass violence, insecurity, and chaos. What do people revert to in this scenario, if not sectarianism? It’s not because of primordial impulses. The sectarian narrative would be, “these regimes, the strong men, kept the lid on sectarian passions, and when you let the people rule, look what they do, they want to kill one another, and they’ll go for a majoritarian sectarianism.” In reality the situation is much simpler. When there is physical insecurity and chaos, in a situation like post-2003 Iraq, people need protection. And when you need protection just for your basic survival—just to get through the day and be able to feed your children without being murdered—you look for protection networks. And the protection networks are these “sectarian entrepreneurs” who create militias and who identify the enemies in sectarian terms. Now, it’s not shocking that this happens in a situation of state-collapse imposed from the outside, which includes mass violence. Let’s also remember that while a lot of that had to do with the imperial invasion of Iraq by the United States, it also had to do with the incredible brutality of Saddam’s rule. The fantasy that Saddam solved the sectarian problem is really just that—it’s a fantasy. Fanar Haddad has a brilliant chapter in the book on what Iraq was actually like before 2003, what sectarian relations looked like. It’s not as if sectarianism was introduced to Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the invasion in 2003. There was an incredibly elaborate sectarian grid that Saddam manipulated in a highly Machiavellian way before 2003. What we have post-2003 is a massive intensification of the sectarianization process. But, the sectarian picture of Iraq before 2003 is incredibly important to understand.
NH: These two things actually work together. The legacy of authoritarianism in Iraq laid the foundations for very tense relations. Then when the external shock of a U.S. invasion came, it exacerbated the tensions that were already there—including much of the anger and the animosity Saddam fomented. When the state collapsed, everyone just went for their own local sectarian identities as a way of trying to get security and support.
RA: Okay, I want to touch on the Arab Spring again, because this is very important, I think. Could you talk in some more detail about the specific ways in which the Arab Spring was sectarianized and why and how this happened?
NH: There are a lot of great studies that we have in the book, and so many ones we could talk about. The Syria case is of much more interest to us, because it’s such a part of the destabilized Middle East today. The uprising in Syria was non-sectarian and democratic, and one of the responses of the Assad regime was to deliberately pursue a strategy of sectarianization as a way of retaining power. The regime does it with two goals in mind. The first is to send a message to the international community, that what this conflict is about is not the forty-plus year rule of the Assad family, but rather these sectarian narratives that are coming in from the outside inspired by Al-Qaeda that want to take over this region—so “international community, support me!” The idea was “you guys are fighting Al-Qaeda, and I’m fighting Al-Qaeda here, so we’re fighting the same fight.” The other goal of the Assad regime was to try and break up the unity of the Syrian protesters; to say that, look, if you’re a minority Alawite or a Christian, you shouldn’t be part of that uprising, because this is an uprising that’s fundamentally sectarian, and if “they” come to power, you’re all dead. So there’s a double goal here. And the sad tragedy of what’s happened in Syria is that this narrative has broadly taken root, internationally and domestically, largely as a result of the brutality of the Assad regime. There’s good documentation of how in the first five years of the Syrian uprising, there were roughly fifty-five deliberate sectarian attacks which took place, chronicled by the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Out of those fifty-five attacks, forty-nine of them were attacks that were organized and perpetuated by the Assad regime—
DP: —or shabbiha militias, i.e. pro-regime forces
NH: —yeah, to try and sectarianize this conflict as a way of accomplishing the goals that I just stated. So that’s the Syrian case, but it also plays itself out elsewhere. Basically, it’s the same kind of narrative: It’s these authoritarian regimes feeling that their shelf-life—their longevity—is threatened, so they play the sectarian card as a way of mobilizing people and dividing the opposition, and sending a message to the international community saying, “Look, you need to come and join us in this fight against Al-Qaeda.”
DP: Right, and in case after case, the specter of a foreign source of these sectarian threats is always invoked. When the Assad regime spoke of Al-Qaeda, it wasn’t just “domestic Al-Qaeda,” but also “foreign Al-Qaeda” and “transnational jihadi networks.” This happens to appeal to a certain kind of Syrian national identity or nationalist sentiment, in that the threat is not only domestic Salafi murderers, but also crazy, foreign ones. Never mind the fact that hundreds of thousands of Shiite foreign fighters are in Syria fighting for Assad—including Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iraqi militias, Lebanese Hezbollah, and even Pakistani mercenaries and Afghan children, who the Iranian government is sending—but they’re not “foreign fighters,” right? No, of course not, it’s only the opposition that has “foreign” fighters. Anyway, my point is that in case after case, not only do you have the sectarian narrative, but also the specter of a foreign entity. Even Saddam Hussein characterized the Shia, who are the majority in Iraq, as “foreigners.” And these are Arabs who identify as Iraqi. Anthropologists and historians of Iraq agree that Iraqi Shia are very, very Arab and very, very Iraqi. But in Saddam’s eyes, they were “Persians.” They are and were always “foreigners”—outsiders and “Others” coming to destroy Iraqi society.
RA: How do you respond to those who are still unconvinced by what you’re saying, and who insist that, even if sectarianism today has a distinctly modern tint to it, that many religious groups currently fighting among each other seem to be more or less the same as those that were fighting in the premodern era? What do you say to those who believe that religious infighting today is not entirely detached from religious infighting in the past?
NH: Well, I would push back against the premise of your question that there were similar forms of religious conflict between groups in the past as there are in the present. I would argue that today it’s much more frequent, the intensity is much greater, and the difference between the premodern era and the contemporary moment is that, now, we’re seeing the deliberate manipulation and mobilization of identity by authoritarian regimes with the goal of perpetuating their own shelf life. That’s what’s driving this process. In the premodern era, we do not have the same types of states, or the same types of political actors. You certainly had conflict between different groups, and they would clash periodically, but then things would be calm. The deliberate attempt to mobilize people around a particular identity for the sake of political power is much more infrequent in the premodern era.
Admittedly, you did see it happening in the premodern period, particularly with the rise and the clash between Ottoman Turkey and the Safavid Persian empire. The dynamics in that sense are very similar and they do have a modern resonance. In the case of the “new” Safavid Persian empire, there was an attempt to distinguish itself from its regional rival, and so it underwent a process of “Shiafication.” People generally don’t know this, but prior to 1501 Iran was a majority Sunni country. It’s only because the “new” Safavid regime that came to power wanted to distinguish itself from its neighbors that it imported imams from Lebanon and the Arab world to convert people to Shiism. This was done to deliberately defame and denigrate key themes within Sunni Islam for the sake of political power and the political projection of power. In that sense, there’s a parallel, but otherwise the sectarianization process today is distinctly modern, for the reasons we previously discussed.
DP: Shiism came to Iran through the Arabs.
NH: Yeah, through Arabs, and actually driven by a process very similar to the modern phenomenon of sectarianization—which is where the parallel lies. But, I think what we’re seeing right now is fundamentally the project of authoritarian regimes suffering deep crises of legitimacy in the eyes of their own populations. These regimes don’t have answers; they refuse to share or relinquish power, and so they have to fall back on these projects of state manipulation and mobilization of sectarian identities—of which there is some basis in reality, as there are different religious groups and there are tensions between them. That exists everywhere. I like to bring it back to the United States, because a lot of Americans think “sectarianism is over there, where those backwards people are.” But, look at what’s happening in the United States today. We’re seeing deep conflict. Perhaps it is not sectarian conflict, but it is at least communal conflict between races. And the key difference, the “why now” question, is Donald Trump, who has deliberately mobilized white nationalist sentiments around a particular narrative to perpetuate his power, and to deflect from his own failed agenda. It’s not at the same level—
DP: —it’s not sectarian, but it’s identitarian.
NH: —it’s identitarian, it’s communal. It’s racial. It’s not “sectarian,” but it’s different groups that exist in tension, and we’re seeing a significant rise of it. This is happening particularly through the mobilization of white nationalist, populist sentiment inspired by Trump, who is going out into the public in ways we haven’t seen before and saying, “Look, we’re a victimized group here.” It’s a parallel phenomenon that I think is driven by a very similar process as sectarianization.
DP: To add a question to that parallel, what exactly is a key component of the white nationalist populist narrative? It’s that “you’re in bad shape, you’ve got economic troubles, and you don’t have the same wages as you used to. Your jobs are being shipped overseas.” Who is to blame for this? It’s not capitalism. It’s not neoliberal policies. It’s not the ruling class or the billionaires. It’s the Mexican rapists. It’s the Muslims. It’s the immigrants. It’s the foreigners. And, of course, it’s also the liberals, who sold our country and let these rapists and Muslims in to begin with. That’s all a scapegoat!
NH: There are some dangerous opinion polls, and they’re quite shocking, that show a significant majority of white Americans believe they face greater discrimination than any other group in the country.
DP: Right, and this gets back to the sectarianization story in the Middle East because that demonization, scapegoating, and outsourcing of problems to the “Other” is a broader phenomenon. In the final chapter of the book on de-sectarianization, Tim Sisk looks at the case of Northern Ireland, which faced its own sectarian problem. When I was growing up, the word “sectarian” was mainly used in reference to Northern Ireland and the troubles there. That came to a political conclusion in the late 1990s—just 20 years ago. So I think it’s very important to remember that, yes, the Middle East today is engulfed in a spasm of sectarian violence, but this is by no means exclusive to the Middle East. Europe had to fight religious wars for centuries, and in Northern Ireland they only came to a resolution very recently. The sectarian story is actually a global story.
RA: Insofar as a key claim of this book is that sectarianism fails to explain the current disorder in the Middle East, and that it obfuscates more than it clarifies, it seems there are two main challenges we are being asked to tackle. The first, and perhaps the simpler one, is to erase and do away with sectarianism as an explanatory force in academia, journalism, and popular media representations about the region. The second, arguably more ominous challenge, is “de-sectarianizing” sectarianized regions. These are both profound challenges. How exactly do we address them and what’s the way forward?
NH: Well, I think for the first part, in terms of how we get away from the narrative that sectarianism explains the turmoil in the Middle East, I think you have to do very much what we’ve been arguing in this interview and in the book: try and look for alternative explanations. We have to advance the idea that sectarian conflict is not something that’s deeply rooted in the culture and history of the Middle East. It is historically a new phenomenon. We then have to try and prove that empirically, while showing how the process of sectarian conflict is driven by the projects of state actors. It’s rooted in authoritarianism, collapsed states, and regional rivalries. It’s fundamentally rooted in politics, not piety. So, I think we have to try and make an argument for that and provide the examples that affirm that position. In terms of how we deal with the second part of your question, as we sort of acknowledge in the book (perhaps not as forcefully as we should have), it’s very easy to start sectarian conflict, but once it gets started, ending it and rolling it back is much more difficult. When you have deeply entrenched views of “The Other,” when blood is shed, and when people lose their lives, trying to roll that back becomes, I think, the immense challenge of our world and of the Middle East.
There are no clear and easy answers. I think fundamentally that what we have to focus on in terms of arriving at a “de-sectarian moment” is changing the underlying social conditions that perpetuate sectarianism. We emphasize heavily in the book the problem and persistence of authoritarianism, but also the need to transition to democracy, arrive at consensus-based politics, give different groups a seat at the table, and write strong constitutions that give people meaningful rights and representation. These are all things I think need to happen.
In the case of Northern Ireland, there was strong support from the international community to try and end the conflict. In the case of the Middle East today, however, it’s in many ways the reverse. We have the U.S. government under Trump openly embracing the sectarian narrative of the Saudi royal family, quite directly. I say that not to let Obama off the hook, because the Obama position was not as vocal in terms of supporting the Saudi position on Yemen and other places, but it was still cautiously and quietly supportive of their allies in the region. So, I think the international community’s approach to the Middle East has to change in ways that should, in fact, follow what we’ve been hearing recently from the German Foreign Ministry. They came out with a position that said the Saudi policy of trying to quarantine and isolate Qatar is a disaster for everyone. They took a very strong position on this, and the Saudis got upset and pulled their ambassador out of Germany. I think the international community’s position should follow more the German example, as opposed to the Trump/Obama example. And there are other, difficult internal issues that have to be addressed in the cases of Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. We need truth and reconciliation commissions. There are a lot of injustices that have taken place, and you can’t heal these societies unless there is some sense of accountability, and a sense that people can get justice. I think these are some of the things that have to happen, in order for us to be able to de-sectarianize the Middle East.
DP: On a sobering note, it really is a lot harder to get the genie back in the bottle than it is to unleash it. We can demonstrate, as we try to do in the book, the artificiality of the sectarianization process—the sense in which it is a constructed, conscious project of states, power brokers, and entrepreneurs to manipulate peoples’ sentiments. We can also show the historical genealogy of the process and map the way it gets operationalized. But, at the end of the day, it takes on a life of its own. Once you unleash these forces, it almost doesn’t matter how they came to be. Once they lodge themselves in peoples’ hearts and psyches, and when people are willing to kill and die on the basis of these narratives, I mean that’s real—that actually happens. We can argue and theorize and talk about the artificiality of the sectarianization process till kingdom come, but it’s not going to affect people on the ground.
Still, we’re very excited about the fact that the book will be translated into Arabic soon. That’s very important because, at the end of the day, if only English-speaking academics, intellectuals, and journalists are reading this stuff in the Anglosphere, who cares? We want the book to be read and discussed and debated in the Arab world. That’s very, very important. But even beyond that, it can’t just be intellectuals. It has to be organizers, civil society activists, imams, and people doing work on the ground—not just amongst the educated elite, because the educated elite are mostly already against these sectarian narratives. It has to be people who are actually in these communities. It has to be religious leaders.
RA: This is a good way to segue into my final question. I found it very refreshing that the book kind of ends on a hopeful note. It ends optimistically but also qualifies that optimism with a sort of caution that, artificial as it may be, sectarianism can become “naturalized”—like the self- fulfilling prophecy you mentioned earlier. How fearful should we be of this possibility, and are you more optimistic than pessimistic, or is it the other way around?
NH: Well, the prognosis for the region looks very bleak, so yes, the book ends on an optimistic note. But, the reality on the ground is that it looks like we’re headed, at least in the short term, for greater sectarian conflict. Still, as you said, and as we argue in the book, there’s nothing natural about sectarian conflict. These are projects and policies that are pursued by state actors. So, since this is a project and a byproduct of politics, then only through politics, properly configured, can we start to de-sectarianize the politics of the region (if the proper policies and the proper politicians and political processes are put in place). There’s nothing inevitable about it. It requires serious commitment to try and roll back the social, political, economic, international and even theological conditions that give rise to sectarianization in the first place. It’s about human commitment, and it’s about credible leadership that’s willing to stand up and push back against this current. It’s also really a question of getting all of the proper stars aligned in an ideal sense to try and roll back this process.
I think fundamentally that what has to happen is there has to be a serious commitment by actors within and outside these societies to try and work toward a non-sectarian future. In that sense, because politics is in the hands of individuals, there’s nothing inevitable about this. At some point, I think people are going to get tired of it, and you can already see signs of that happening, and there’s going to be an attempt to push back. So, there’s hope. But, I think it’s a longer-term hope. The short-term prognosis looks quite bleak, and I think the bigger recent developments, not just the Saudi-Iran rivalry, but really the destructive role that the Trump administration is playing in fueling the sectarianization process, is going to make things very ugly and very bleak for a while.
DP: I will only add that it’s important to remember that even in the very recent past, between 2015 and 2016, the “You Stink” garbage protests in Lebanon were cross-sectarian, if not indeed anti-sectarian, protests. The “You Stink” protests were a beautiful example of protesting horrible mismanagement on a municipal and policy level. It had nothing to do with sect. There were people of all sects in Lebanon out in the streets together. Now, did it translate electorally? Not really. But, the point is those protests are one of many examples of non-sectarian, cross-sectarian, and anti-sectarian organizing that is going on, about all kinds of issues. Labor issues, economic inequality, and mismanagement are things that draw people together across boundaries. It’s going on in small ways across the region. It’s not the dominant narrative and it doesn’t get the headlines, and it’s certainly not what’s defining the politics of the region, unfortunately. But, it is valuable.
Let’s remember that the Arab uprisings occurred only six years ago. People were demanding bread, freedom, and dignity. People were struggling for democratic rights, peacefully, across sectarian lines. Sunnis, Alawaites, Christians, Ismailis, Druze, and atheists stood, side-by-side, demanding democratic rights and the end of the torture mafia state. A lot has happened since then, and there has been a sectarian nightmare that has unfolded both “from above” and “from below,” which is the saddest part to me. But let’s remember that it was actually very recently when people organized around different issues—not sectarian identities—and had common projects of social justice. That can happen again, very quickly. The tide can turn overnight.