The Importance of being Earnest about sectarianism

The Importance of being Earnest about sectarianism
Comment: Modern day sectarianism in the Middle East is often dismissed as 'ancient hatreds' continuing into the present day, but this goes against historical precedents says Bassel F. Salloukh.
5 min read
03 Feb, 2016
Sectarianism is neither driven by ancient hatreds nor does it date back millennia [AFP]

The current conflicts engulfing the Middle East are often blamed on a catalogue of "ancient hatreds" that don't seem to go away. Even US President Barack Obama evoked a lopsided view of history during his final state of the union address this year, to explain the current regional turmoil. "The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia," he claimed.

It is one thing for Western policy analysts and journalists - or even the president of the most powerful state in the world - to lapse into this kind of reductionist thinking; it becomes doubly dangerous, however, when decision-makers in the Middle East embrace this kind of primordial sectarian narrative.

The result is a tendency to reduce contemporary regional conflicts and domestic tensions by jumping back to the seventh century when schisms first appeared among the leaders of the Muslim community about succession to the Prophet Mohammed.

Historical revisionism

Reading history backwards brings a danger of feeding into Orientalist western attitudes vis-a-vis the Middle East, long diagnosed by Edward Said. More ominously, it speaks volumes about the destructive power of - to borrow from Said again - "the modern Orient partaking 'in its own Orientalising'" as the region's peoples uncritically and unconsciously internalise Orientalism's subjugating ahistorical discourse.

To be sure, the sectarian wave sweeping the Middle East is neither driven by "ancient hatreds" nor does it "date back millennia". This is not to say that sectarian identities were not present in these states and societies earlier. Nor does it ignore the influence of repression by homogenised, centralised, authoritarian states - built shortly after independence on a mix of populist policies and transnational ideologies to justify their monopolies on power and the marketplace of identities. But history alone does not explain why sectarian identities, conflicts, and modes of mobilisation exploded in the region just over a decade ago.

On their own sectarian identities explain only a small part of the otherwise complex tapestry of processes and dynamics that shaped the post-independence Middle East. It is rather much more rewarding to view the present securitisation and explosion of sectarian identities - at the expense of other types of affiliations - as a very recent phenomena. It is one rooted in the sectarianism deployed by Saudi Arabia and Iran during the grand geopolitical contest that followed the 2003 US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, rather than with timeless, unchanging, primordial sectarian sentiments.

People start reimagining history as a linear tale of uninterrupted sectarian hatreds and conflicts that go back straight to the seventh century.

The tragedy of the present regional quagmire is that sectarian identities always coexisted along with other more significant sources of political and socioeconomic mobilisation - be they class, regional, tribal, ideological, or gender. In fact, people everywhere subscribe to a menu of fluid identities; why they prioritise any one of them at the expense of others at different periods has more to do with endogenous situational and political factors than "ancient hatreds".


Be that as it may, a combination of sectarianised geopolitical contests, the explosion of repressive homogenising regimes, and the will to monopolise power by sectarian patrons in the name of their sects - despite the popular uprisings of this period - fractured many Arab states and societies along sectarian fault lines. Sectarianism consequently emerged as the main and sometimes only marker of political identity, which fed on state weaknesses, civil wars, and communal fears created by sectarianised geopolitical contests.

Once securitised, however, sectarian identities assume a life of their own and swiftly become reified, much like a self-fulfilling prophecy. People start reimagining history as a linear tale of uninterrupted sectarian hatreds and conflicts that go back straight to the seventh century. They forget an otherwise long and very real history of intersectarian coexistence when sectarian chauvinism was condemned as the divisive work of colonial powers and their local lackeys, and when grand political ideas travelled through identities and shook the streets of many Arab capitals.

They invent sectarian narratives where none had existed a short time before. Add to this the neo-imperial role of foreign powers, the destructive power of new social media, and the pontifications of some experts who insist on seeing the region and its peoples through sectarian or ethnic or tribal lenses, and the sectarian policy toolbox is complete. Suddenly the whole world starts looking like Lebanon, where sectarian identities were advertently institutionalised from the outset into the political system thus becoming the main markers of political identity and mobilisation, carefully reproduced by a very complex political economy and ideological hegemony.

All this produces an inescapable recipe for many more difficult years to come in the Middle East before this sectarian wave is contained and hopefully someday reversed. Demystifying the very political causes driving this wave is the first step in this difficult but not impossible task. Then begins the challenge of reimagining novel modes of polyphonic democratic citizenship in new but hopefully more inclusive and just political orders.

Perhaps this sounds like wishful thinking in the thickness of the fog of sectarian hatreds. But once we consider the current moment as an exceptional one driven by situational causes rather than timeless "ancient hatreds", we can begin to see the light at the end of the sectarian tunnel.

Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.