The truth about sectarianism

The truth about sectarianism
Have the divisions within nation states brought about war and violence, or did war and violence fracture our nations first?
7 min read
21 Jul, 2014
Sectarian fighting has caused thousands to become refugees [Getty]

The issue of sectarianism has never been as prominent in Arab politics and culture as it is today. This raises interesting questions about why this is so after almost a century of commitment to a structure of nationhood that supersedes sectarian and tribal affiliations, whose manifestations largely disappeared in public discourse.

The strength of these sectarian affiliations seems to have taken many by surprise. In response, some call for a reconsideration of pan-Arab and nationalist theories, which for so long suppressed or ignored these ties, in order to properly incorporate them into existing states, or face – as some see as inevitable – either domestic or regional sectarian war.

Others go further. They suggest that recent conflicts and turmoil in the region show that Arab nation states in their present form are unworkable. Reality on the ground is shaped solely by sectarian communities, they say, and those who lose out will be those that fail to organise accordingly.

In general, the prevailing belief is that sectarianism is a powerful reality whose vitality and influence has been underestimated. Accordingly, it is possible to build sustainable Middle East states only by understanding and adapting to this reality. This could mean sacrificing the idea of a nation state in which everyone, regardless of their origins or sect, are equal, in favour of a federal or confederate system that grants each sect complete autonomy, even sovereignty, over its own affairs.

This view is shared in certain circles in the West, where some academics and journalists have long cast doubt on the efficacy of existing Arab states because of their sectarian and tribal make-up. It is notable the number of maps that have started to appear in western media based on a redrawing of borders in the region.

All of this raises surprisingly few objections. In the hell of the bloody wars of the region, people will cling to any and all suggestions that offer a glimmer of hope.

Tribal partisanship and loyalties

I dispute these assumptions. First, I do not believe that strong and automatic sectarian and tribal affiliations still exist in Arab societies on any large or significant scale. On the contrary, I believe that regardless of any hold on the imagination such ties may have, in practice they have been broken. Whatever the level of internal organisation, the sect can no longer meet the demands of individuals, whether these are for intellectual and moral guidance, political recognition, security, law, employment, education, healthcare and so on.

     In the hell of the bloody wars of the region, people will cling to any and all
suggestions that offer a
glimmer of hope

If anything, the cohesiveness of any sectarian grouping rather depends on securing humanitarian aid or other forms of foreign support. In extreme cases, like in Lebanon, sectarian groups are funded by foreign powers for the purpose of promoting that power’s interests in domestic affairs, in effect rendering them agents of foreign power. But even here, this is less to do with natural partisanship and more with the organised actions of an elite, not even necessarily a religious elite, and the interference of foreign states to remove traditional sectarian leaderships in favour of those who will do their bidding. The best example is Hizballah, but it is not the only one.

Second, I do not think sectarianism in its present form explains the crisis of the Arab nation state. I do not think that pandering to sectarian demands offers any way out of the long and gruelling covert and overt war we are about to settle into. I also do not think there is any contradiction or inherent conflict between maintaining communal solidarities and building a modern nation state.

The best evidence for this is that communal groupings did not oppose the emergence of modern national states when the elites began promoting the idea in the late 19th century. Rather, they encouraged it. In Syria, in fact, leaders of sects and minorities played the most important role in promoting their formation.

Unlike a century ago, today there are no identifiable leaders of these communities. The traditional sectarian leaderships have been undermined exactly by those who today claim to speak on behalf of their sects, such as Assad, Maliki, their agents – police officers, intelligence officials and corrupt financiers.

I believe that the conflicts and chaos we are currently witnessing have not arisen because of a revival of sectarian ties. On the contrary, I think the conflicts arise from a breaking down of those ties that has left only fragments in place. As nation states, Arab countries have not been effective in engaging these fragments as productive elements within an effective national structure, offering them a new memory and history. The chaos we are undergoing is a result of two dynamics for which we – the modern, non-sectarian elite - are responsible: The chaos that has emanated precisely from the breaking down of those traditional loyalties and the chaos that stems from the devaluation of the national state project.


I believe that the chaos we are currently witnessing have not arisen because of a revival of sectarian ties...
I think the conflicts arise from a breaking down of those ties that has left only fragments in place.

Disconnected from the whole, these fragmented remains of communal ties are scattered everywhere. They behave as if no longer dependant on any guide, whether the traditions and values of tribe or sect, or the rights and duties of citizens. Everything has become possible; everything permissible. And this is also true of heads of state such as Assad and Maliki. These people are no longer committed to their duties as heads of states. Their motivations are no different from those of outlaws, highwaymen, pirates and barbaric raiders in centuries past.

Exacerbating sectarianism

Because there are no longer effective sects or communal ties that protect individuals and help them organise their affairs and social problems, those with money and foreign support have found it easy to appeal to sectarianism and to mobilise forces, whether in political or non-political contexts. The breakdown of sectarian and tribal ties has given rise to armies of those who have lost their sense of belonging. In consequence, the pressures on the state have increased. No longer able – if ever willing – to meet the demands or inspire the loyalties of its citizens, these citizens have become easy targets for anyone with money. Money buys loyalty in the absence of a properly functioning state. In this way, mafias have emerged based around money and weapons. We are back to a system of feudal castles, landowners, master and serf. 

     The struggle for power and
states’ desire for control
have revived sectarianism
specifically to be employed
in the service of those who
would dominate.

The absence then of traditional values for these fragments or splinter groups in this social space leaves war without any principled or legal framework. The desire to avenge any political challenge or civil resistance will not be quenched until the societies in which the splinter groups operate are turned into fragments themselves.

It is not suppressed or ignored sectarianism that drives this vicious war that is convulsing the Middle East. On the contrary, that war, the struggle for power and states’ desire for control have revived a sectarianism specifically to be employed in the service of those who would dominate. Sects, along with their heritage and values, have become hijacked by fringes who are operating for private political purposes.

This kind of sectarianism threatens the social heritage of sects, the bonds of brotherly solidarity and communal belonging. This sense of community is a feature of human dignity that can only prosper in the context of a nation state, governed by laws that treats all citizens equally and guarantees them freedom, dignity, protection and the kind of solidarity that was lost permanently with the disappearance of the support system of a natural communal environment.

Burhan Ghalioun is a Syrian intellectual, born in 1945, and a professor of political sociology at the Sorbonne University in Paris. He was the first president of the opposition Syrian National Council, and has authored “A manifesto for democracy”, “The assassination of the mind” and “The society of the elite”.   

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Al Araby Al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.