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Middle East sectarianism is a self-inflicted wound Open in fullscreen

Gehad Quisay

Middle East sectarianism is a self-inflicted wound

Iraqi students hold signs against sectarianism and calling for unity [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 June, 2017

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Book review: 'Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East' is a refreshing challenge to the popular essentialist view of sect or religion as the main source of conflict.

Whether it's Sunni-Shia infighting, or a Muslim versus Christian divide, the majority of Middle East nations appear to be engulfed in internal sectarian struggles.

But a new book, "Sectarianization: Mapping the new politics of the Middle East", edited by Professor Nader Hashemi and Professor Danny Postel, explores the origins of the problem of sectarian conflict in the region, through a collection of academic essays.

"Sectarianization" is a term conceived within this anthology to describe the process by which political and social actors magnify and use differences in religious identities within the Middle East to influence geopolitics.

This groundbreaking text articulately challenges the conventional view that sectarianism is a consequence of historical religious rivalries. It concludes, through rather introspective analysis, that sectarianism is in fact a complex political tool that was first used by colonial powers and later resurrected by postcolonial authoritarian regimes, as a means of exerting control over citizens.

The authors included in the book belong to different academic disciplines including history, political science, anthropology and religious studies. Such variety delivers a rounded picture that uses different approaches to explore the root causes of the violence, and the ways in which diversity within the region has been co-opted as a weapon of political pressure.

The case studies presented in "Sectarianization" succeed in taking down the mainstream - mostly western - view of sectarianism in the Middle East

The case studies presented in "Sectarianization" succeed in taking down the mainstream - mostly western - view of sectarianism in the Middle East. The essays skilfully challenge a neo-orientalist image of a region in which everything can be explained and filtered through the lens of religion. 

The in-depth case studies of different countries examine the ways in which sectarianism has been conjured by the political elite to relive and distract political dissent.

Perhaps the most obvious example of Middle Eastern sectarian conflict is found in Lebanon. The Lebanese state recognises 18 sects within its society. Between 1975 and 1990 the nation was embroiled in a bloody civil war caused by a fierce power struggle over the disproportional division of power among the sects as outlined by the National Pact of 1943.

In his chapter, political scientist Bassel Salloukh argues that sectarianism in Lebanon has unique characteristics because the process of Sectarianization began in Lebanon from its inception. Salloukh eloquently outlines the way in which the process of constitutional engineering allowed sectarianism to be a core part of Lebanese life.

In this case, sectarianism allows the political elite to maintain their power through "sectarized fiscal policies that impoverish the lower and middle classes while enriching an increasingly integrated sectarian economic post [civil] war elite and protecting their commercial, financial and tertiary rentier profits".

Securitization theory is a central concept to the arguments made in the book. This notion describes the means by which regimes present an issue, in this case sectarianism, as an existential threat justifying unconventional security measures by the state.

Salloukh eloquently outlines the way in which the process of constitutional engineering allowed sectarianism to be a core part of Lebanese life

In the case of Saudi Arabia, author Madawi Al-Rasheed, a social anthropologist, examines the consequences of the political awakening that swept the region in 2011. In response to plans of an uprising by the Shia minority, the Sunni Wahhabi regime gave Sunni clerics uncensored, free reign in their anti-Shia rhetoric.

Al-Rasheed argues that "Saudi kings are manipulative political actors driven by survival rather than sectarian solidarity". The author argues that the regime's aim was to terrorise Shia by proxy, through empowering an extreme Sunni cleric, resulting in renewed Sunni allegiance and a subsequent eruption of sectarian pressure.  

Protesters in Egypt's Tahrir Square hold up Qur'an and crucifix as sign of sectarian unity [Getty]
Protesters in Egypt's Tahrir Square hold up Qur'an and crucifix as sign
of sectarian unity [Getty]

The chapter on Iran takes a historical approach - through examining the way in which events and processes of the recent past shaped current political climate.

Historian Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi carefully unpacks contemporary Iranian history, to deliver the arguement that Iran is a "regional middle power," a nation that simply maintains the balance power in the Middle East through sectarian means, without having any solid economic or technological influence.

Such a state, the historian proposes, relies on neighbouring nations' internal instabilities, often caused by sectarian conflict, to promote its own interests and increase its influence - this is referred to as Iran's "strategic depth".

It's clear that Sectarianization can be used as a tool of both domestic and foreign policy. For a nation such as Iran - with limited access to weaponry due to international sanctions - it can maintain a striking presence in the region despite the overwhelming capabilities of neighbouring antagonists such as Saudi Arabia and UAE. 

This anthology provides a valuable, in-depth analysis of the complex issue of sectarianism in the Middle East, and pulls apart popular essentialist views on the status of religion as a main source of conflict in the region.

The ideas it examines and the context it provides are vital to understanding the the issues facing the world's most volatile region

While the language of the book is often dense - peppered with complex academic concepts, the ideas it examines and the context it provides are vital to understanding the issues facing the world's most volatile region. While the book does not include a chapter on Egypt - a nation sitting on the geopolitical crossroads of the Arab world - it makes up for this in the quality of its study of often overlooked regions such as Yemen.


Gehad Quisay is a history and politics researcher, who graduated from SOAS and Georgetown University. She has also worked as a researcher at a London based think-tank focusing on post-Arab Spring nation building.


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.

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