Vali Nasr has explained that ‘[sectarianism] can be better understood as a form of ethnic posturing: mobilisation of a group identity for political ends in lieu of class, ideology or party affiliation’. Sectarianism, like ethnicity, is difficult to study; there is no universal definition, though historically the concept refers to an adherence to a particular sect.
Sectarianism has evolved and mutated over centuries and across religions. Today, we are faced with political social structures that fuel ideological divides across borders and communities. The exploitation of these divides brew social conflicts, rebellions and geo-political confrontations, thus the idea that sectarianism is essentially about identity politics and mobilisation – or political sectarianism. Political sectarianism is the biggest challenge facing the Middle East today, given differing religio-political affiliations and inclinations of concerned states.
The identity politics of sectarianism in the 21st century are inherently rooted in geo-political rivalries between states vying for regional influence. A conflict becomes one of identity politics when greed leads to the exploitation of grievances, stimulating them on theoretical grounds. While there are countless theories that can be applied to studying sectarianism, for the purposes of this article we will focus on five important approaches that help explain certain on-going conflicts in the Muslim world.
The instrumentalist approach to ethnicity and sectarianism is essentially that they are socially constructed concepts; people combine common heritages and cultures to form individual or group identities. This approach argues that identity mobilisation (in ethnic or sectarian conflicts) is a socio-political construction, used as a tool for gaining political and economic advantage. Instrumentalism explains how leaders and elites exploit the system for vested interests.
A core basis of this approach is economics. Instrumentalists argue that ethno-sectarian conflicts emerge out of greed for economic gains (in line with the ‘greed versus grievance’ debate, as led by Paul Collier). Under instrumentalism, sectarianism serves as an instrument of state policy.
Constructivists, like instrumentalists, also believe that ethnicity and sectarianism are products of social and political constructs, but they approach identity politics as a process of history, whereas instrumentalists think these identities are fluid and modifiable in short terms.
Constructivists see these conflicts through historical influences. They maintain that if two groups – such as the Shias and Sunnis – have been at war with each other in the past, they are likely to have a particularly negative perception of each other. Thus, according to this approach, supra-state and supra-national identities (e.g. Shia and Sunni identities) compete with state identities (e.g. an Arab identity) in the Middle East, resulting in borderless movements. Constructivists place emphases on social interactions and practises, challenging neorealism.
Neorealists believe that sectarian conflicts have less to do with human nature and social interactions, and more to do with state survival because states always want to maximise their power and influence. Their actions, and the actions of their ruling elites, are based on raison d’Etat. States seek to maximise their influence internally (by enforcing ideologies upon citizens) and externally (by undermining the influence of neighbouring states).
‘According to the Neorealist logic, the case of the evolving state-level Sunni-Shia divide consists of a more or less planned ‘policy’ and pertain to external balancing tactics: in essence, states use the sectarian (or anti-sectarian and pan-Islamic) label for the purposes of forging and forming alliances’ writes Mari Luomi. Thus the sectarian rhetoric begins trumping the pan-Arab nationalist rhetoric. ‘The US actions to contain Iran are a textbook example of how a hegemon uses economic sanctions and threatens to use military force in order to halt a rising power whose interests overlap with its own’.
Primordialism is another principle theory which further explains sectarian identity mobilisation. Clifford Geertz suggests that certain human characteristics are a ‘given’. They lead to natural divisions. Primordialists suggest that because individuals are born into particular belief systems, it is a ‘given’ that they will always be different, thus prone to conflicts and confrontations.
Geertz writes, ‘[the] congruities of blood, speech, custom and so on are seen to have an ineffable and, at times, overpowering coerciveness in and of themselves. One is bound to one’s kinsman, one’s neighbour, one’s fellow believer, ipso facto.’ Approaching this school of thought essentially implies a subjective view of a shared identity, a phenomenon rooted in human psychology and social interactions, but less in politics.
Geo-Political Rivalries and the Middle East
Sectarian divisions in the Middle East have transformed over the years into divisions for resources, influence and power. A core example is the geo-political rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
It began in 1979. The Iranian revolution was never meant to be Islamic in nature when it took flight. To garner support, Ayatollah Khomeini politicised sect for strategic goals, catering to the mosque network and clerics in Iran. He portrayed himself as the spiritual leader of the Muslim world, not just Shias. Still, it was not just his religious narratives, but his anti-imperialist, anti-Shah and nationalist rhetoric which appealed to the masses (including Marxists, communists and regionalists), and unified the Iranian populace. Some may even argue that Khomeini hijacked the revolution. The results terrified the Sunni-dominated Saudis.
The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1989 further exacerbated the aggressive sentiments held by Sunnis for Shias. While Saudi and the Gulf initially backed Saddam with financial and diplomatic support, Syria became the only Iranian ally, followed by Lebanon and Hezbollah. Iraq, then America’s ally, used gas against the Kurds in 1988 but the West refrained from assaulting Baghdad in its operations against Tehran and the Iranian army. Instead, the CIA blamed Iran for using gas, despite the fact that scores had been killed in Hallabjah because of Saddam.
Countering Baghdad would wait till 2003, when Saddam would no longer have chemical weapons at his disposal. American invasion and Saddam’s fall reinforced Iran’s position as a regional power, further undermining Saudi influence and popularising the Salafi and Wahabi schools of thought derived from a deep conviction that Shias are a danger to Islamic unity.
Now, reports indicate similar weapons are being used by Syrian rebels (not just the regime), supplied by Saudi Arabia. But international leaders have little to say to their Saudi counterparts who are allied with them against Iran in a regional battle for influence and national security interests.
Arguably, sectarian discourses prevailing in the current geo-political rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia are best categorised under instrumentalist and neorealist approaches.
Coming to Syria, M. Ma’oz argues, ‘The Syrian regime’s survival strategy is based not on rhetoric but realpolitik. Syria’s most credible allies are Iran and Hizbullah because of common strategic interests not their alleged shared Shi’ism. Each needs the other to fend off what is seen as a US-Israeli attempt to erode their respective positions, whether by pushing Syria out of Lebanon, imposing sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program or encouraging the Lebanese government to disarm Hizballah’.
In the Middle East, this rivalry requires involving key states for geo-political advances, including Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen and Syria. Saudi’s biggest advantage is its relations with the United States sustained by a common denominator: strained relations with Iran. Tehran’s advantages are also with its extra-regional ally, Russia, as well as the identity politics it shares with Lebanon vis-à-vis Hezbollah. Whether Damascus is a gateway to bigger political and economic advances, remains to be seen.
In this region, we see a greed for economic and political influence designing sectarian discourses and structuring allegiances. Although many would take the constructivists or primordialists routes and emphasise social practises, human behaviour, and historical loyalties to justify sectarian or ethnic conflict, it suffices to say they would not have been sustainable without nations and elites hungry for control, be it at the cost of dividing a populace under the garb of unity.
According to Nasr, both primordialism and instrumentalism are vital in explaining the rise of sectarianism in Pakistan, but sectarian differences alone do not explain the rise of sectarianism and its role in society and politics.
Nasr explains that in Pakistan’s early history sectarianism had not been a political force – rather, it only began gaining prominence over the past few years. This can be explained in light of Zia’s alliances with Saudi Arabia (more political than religious) and his efforts in curbing Iranian influences in Balochistan following the 1979 revolution. Therefore, instrumentalism is a stronger argument in explaining sectarianism in Pakistan, and the economic competition and political structures that sustain it.
What we are witnessing in the Muslim world is waves of popular narratives maintaining that secular violence is a continuation of conflicts that began in the 7th century, and the events that followed. A fabrication and misinterpretation of history has made us believe that religion is the root of all evils. But conflicts that have been brewing in South Asia or the Middle East have little to do with religion, and everything to do with modern politics.
Our predecessors over centuries have seen decades and centuries of cohabitation within various religious communities, with pluralism, tolerance, and accommodation prevailing. Let us not forget that there are countless of Muslims, both Shia and Sunni, who risk their lives on a daily basis to protect co-religionists and religious minorities in their communities. Muslims themselves do not approve of misusing sects for political and/or strategic goals. Certainly Prophet Muhammad would have abhorred such divisions within Islam.
Zoha Waseem is from Karachi and has a post-graduate from King’s College London in Terrorism, Security and Society.