Questions on scripture, sectarianism and minority issues

Questions on scripture, sectarianism and minority issues
Sectarianism is first and foremost a socio-political phenomenon, rooted in communities' historical experiences, rituals and reformation, says Dr Azmi Bishara.
5 min read
02 Feb, 2016
The emergence of sectarian groups is far from being an ecumenical matter [TNA]
Sectarianism is not a religious issue, but a socio-political phenomenon.

While a sect is a religious community, sectarianism is zealousness for this community rather than for the religion or denomination.

Therefore, attempting to understand sectarianism by returning to scriptures is futile, and equally futile is any attempt to address sectarianism through dialogue among clerics.

When political, social or even personal rivalries emerge over leadership and power, in a context where religious culture is dominant, different interpretations of the same scriptures emerge. 

Over time, even history and experiences by rivals are interpreted differently, becoming ritualistic occasions summoned with a sectarian twist.

In this sense, the same differences that led to sectarian divisions lead to ritualistic and religious differences that then re-justify the sectarian division in an almost closed loop. 

Therefore, those who attempt to understand sectarian divisions by analysing doctrinal differences are starting at the wrong place and going in the wrong direction. The results they reach will not help them understand socio-political phenomena such as sects, sectarianism and political sectarianism.

Religious sects are communities that share a similar creed and similar rituals that set them apart from others. Since religious devotion is a collective practice, the rituals a sect develops reaffirm the distinctiveness of the community and its identity, even centuries after their doctrinal foundations are forgotten.

For this reason, rituals become later much more important to sectarianism than doctrinal details and differences over them.

Indeed, rituals, which conceptually embody sectarian differences and are practiced as part of a collective performance, exceed in power various theoretical interpretations. Thus, rituals are more influential in producing a collective sectarian identity.

In some cases, rituals are used for political mobilisation.


The second layer of sectarianism is promoting a sense of victimhood, and a sectarian interpretation of concepts like oppression and marginalisation.

After that, it becomes easy to narrate all of history as a series of sectarian wars, dividing oppressors and oppressed throughout history according to the lines of division between sects, in turn imposed retroactively on historical events.

Recently, there have been attempts to analyse extremist groups such as the Islamic State group and others, by assessing the ideas and scriptures they rely on. While some of these groups' superficial and poor jurisprudence have indeed played a role, they do not explain the phenomenon in question.

True, some IS practices are the result of literal interpretation of some scriptures. However, it is easy to find similar scriptures in other religions, including Judaism's Talmud.
A phenomenon like IS cannot be understood without understanding the role of the US occupation of Iraq...

What matter when attempting to understand the behaviour of those who interpret these texts literally are not the texts per se, but the historical, political and social circumstances that led to the emergence of groups that interpret scriptures out of context.

To be sure, a phenomenon like IS cannot be understood without understanding the role of the US occupation of Iraq, the dissolution of the Iraqi army and state institutions, the vindictive sectarian agenda of the new Iraqi regime and the expansion of Iranian influence.

This is not to mention the role of the pre-occupation convergence between Islamists and some Baathists to encourage Islamism in Iraq sponsored by Saddam Hussein during the country's embargo. The detention of Baathist officers and Islamist militants during the occupation, the sectarian Iraqi regime, the war on Afghanistan and the dispersal of al-Qaeda members from the country, and the influx of Arab militants to Iraq also contributed.

These are the historical factors that created IS and other groups. They emerged from the ruins of old edifices, amid sectarian polarisation, and in opposition to Shia sectarian militias that operated during the occupation and then under the sectarian regime, engaging in vendettas against everyone associated with the Baathist regime.

Then with the brutality shown by the Syrian regime and its allies, the feeling of victimhood in Iraq and Syria grew stronger. This converged with other Arab feelings of victimisation looking for an outlet and expressing themselves through solidarity with the Syrian people.

All these factors are more important to understand the phenomenon of sectarian groups than any analysis of scriptures, and of the pseudo-jurisprudence produced by these groups to justify their practices.

The Syrian regime and some Shia militias (and even groups like Cambodia's Khmer Rouge) engaged in similar crimes, with or without interpreting scriptures.

Religious reform?

All this does detract from the importance of religious reform. However, religious reform involves a major historical movement that influences all of culture and all of religion, and thus, political morals in societies as a whole, including both the religious and the non-religious.

However, religious reform may not influence heavily on zealots, especially in cases of sectarian division. Indeed, there have been cases in history where a reformation led to more violent zealousness.

Those who call for religious reform do not realise they are talking about a completely different subject. They downplay its importance, when they consider theirs to be a magical solution to the conduct of the zealots.

Likewise, those who repeat mantras about the Shia-Sunni conflict also do not know what they are talking about. Obama and others' recent attempt to peddle a narrative about a sectarian conflict that dates back millennia is a dismal Orientalist approach.

In the past, the Shia were not an organised, cohesive or clearly defined community, even when the struggle for leadership was at its height.

Now, this struggle is interpreted retroactively as a conflict between Sunnis and Shias. In truth, while the foundations of the Twelver Shia doctrine emerged at the end of the third Hijri and the middle of the fourth Hijri centuries, it acquired its institutionalised form under Safavid rule.

The Safavid-Ottoman conflict over Iraq helped sectarianise that country. However, this does not mean the Shia were one organised community at any time.

As for the Sunnis, they were never a standalone religious sect, but we are today witnessing the process of their transformation into one. In truth, until recently, the concept of sect was closely linked to the concept of minoritism.

Awareness of the sect and of the need to organise it in contrast to the state and the rest of society is a minoritist position, even if the majority feels that way.

The majority might tend to become a sect, if it feels like a minority in terms of its position and status in its country.