How Sectarian Conflicts Overtook the Arab Spring

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From Syria. Translation: “The scream of a homeland that has tired from sectarianism, death, destruction, and robbery.”

Reflections on the problem of sectarianism in the wake of the Arab Revolutions from CCAS’ inaugural American Druze Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow
By Alex Henley

Why has Sunni-Shi’i sectarianism become the leading issue of debate in Middle East politics over the last few years? Led by rival Sunni and Shi’i theocracies, Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively, the region seems to have fallen into opposing camps in a sectarian cold war. Along the fault-lines in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, Sunnis and Shi’is are fighting for supremacy, backed and incited by coreligionists across the region. The Middle East is in a lamentable state, but this is not—despite what we are increasingly told by news media and political leaders—its natural state.

The Middle East’s problems are not “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia,” the excuse President Obama used to explain away foreign policy failures in his final State of the Union address. Phrases like “ancient conflict” or “deep-rooted hatreds”—heard more and more commonly—do not explain the actions of our contemporaries in the Middle East any more than they do yours or mine. And they certainly don’t explain why sectarianism, which emerged as a central feature of regional politics only in the past decade, is so new.

Even the idea that there are basically two kinds of Muslim is recent, and sweeps an incredible diversity under the rug. Until at least the mid-twentieth century, many Sunnis had little awareness of Shi’ism. The Muslim “other” might have been a follower of another of the four schools of shari’a, a Sufi of one of the many orders, or a member of some revivalist movement or other. On the other hand, the Shi’i label is nowadays used to lump together Syrian Alawis and Yemeni Zaidis with the Twelver Shi’is in power in Iran, despite a lack of any institutional connection or theological recognition between them.

Significantly, new dynamics have been at work in re-framing regional politics in sectarian terms, building on key shifts of recent decades: the 1979 rise to power of a Shi’i Islamic government in Iran and the US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, which opened the way for Iran to expand its sphere of influence. So we see modern sectarianism as being closely tied to state politics. The Saudi and Iranian regimes have explicitly Sunni and Shi’i identities, each connected to rival Islamist ideologies they have been exporting for decades. Other regimes have also come to be seen as fatefully connected to the fortunes of particular communities: the Alawi minority in Syria, the Sunni minority in Bahrain, and the Twelver Shi’i majority in Iraq. These regimes, as well as their opponents, have at times capitalized on the Saudi-Iranian rivalry to gain international backing.

When the Arab Spring movement arose in 2011, it was received differently by different sects. Many Christians and other minorities remained loyal to authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Syria for the sake of security, while mass protests offered new hopes of political participation for Sunnis in Syria and Shi’is in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. This is not to deny the good intentions of protesters; patterns of mobilization often followed the tracks already laid in society. Communal identities sometimes shaped people’s calculations of the benefits or risks involved in regime change, and protesters mobilized more easily using communal networks and resources. Friday prayers, for example, were obvious launch points for mass demonstrations, and mosques or other religious buildings were often equipped to feed large crowds.

If social sectarianism shaped the way Arab Spring movements took shape, what about government responses? Saudi Arabia and Iran, having positioned themselves at the center of regional Sunni and Shi’i networks, certainly saw shifts in the relative power of these networks as key foreign policy priorities. For Saudi, this meant backing Sunni protesters in Syria and Iraq, while bolstering friendly regimes in Bahrain, Yemen, and Lebanon against Shi’i/Zaidi encroachment. For Iran, it meant the opposite—supporting Alawi and Shi’i regimes in Syria and Iraq while taking advantage of openings elsewhere. As a result, Sunni-Shi’i tensions have been ramped up in Iraq, Bahrain, and Lebanon, while proxy wars have devastated Syria and Yemen.

Yet sectarianization is about more than the escalation of a Saudi-Iranian cold war. For authoritarian regimes, it is a survival strategy. The Arab Spring presented a seismic shift in Arab politics with the potential to destabilize republics and monarchies alike. Rather than simply shelter in place, regimes in countries like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria went on the offensive. They discredited protests by branding them as the work of sectarian fifth columnists, minorities more loyal to coreligionists abroad than to their countrymen. While all of the Arab Spring movements were somewhat cross-confessional at the start, regime scapegoating of particular sects divided the protesters by sowing suspicion. Where Sunnis and Shi’is at first stood together against their undemocratic governments, rumors of foreign agents or violent plots scared those with the most to lose into staying home. Having successfully marginalized core protest groups and prevented the revolution’s spread to other communities, these regimes could then distract from their own faults by rallying the rest of their populations in resistance to a supposed regional sectarian threat. So when the Saudi regime sent troops into Bahrain and Yemen, or funded Sunnis against Shi’is and Alawis in Lebanon and Syria, it was securing its domestic legitimacy against the revolutionary tremors of the Arab Spring. In countries where vast power and wealth is held by a very few, it is just good politics to distract from real disparities by promoting a common identity that must be protected from “creeping Shi’ism” or “Sunni militancy.”

Sectarianism has been the Arab regimes’ weapon of choice in fighting back against the uprisings since 2011. When we parrot the language of “conflicts that date back millennia”—or we let our news media and political leaders get away with it—we are not just oversimplifying, we are buying into and authorizing a rhetoric of authoritarian rule. These dictators want us to think that sectarianism is ancient and unfixable, so that we will fear democratization in the Middle East as much as they do. Sectarianism is a problem, but let’s remember that it’s a new problem, and that what can be made can also be unmade.


Dr. Alex Henley is the inaugural American Druze Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at CCAS, an annual fellowship for the study of collective political and cultural identities in the Arab world. Henley’s research focus during his 2015-2016 academic-year fellowship has been on religious leadership among Druze and other communities in Lebanon. He has also continued to work on his book manuscript tentatively titled Religion and State in Lebanon: Religious Leaders, Sectarianism, and Civil War. While at CCAS, Henley taught a new graduate course: “Sectarianism and Community Identity in the Middle East.” This fall Alex start a new appointment as Lecturer in Modern Islam at Oxford University’s Faculty of Theology and Religion and as Tutor at Pembroke College.

This article first appeared in the CCAS Spring/Summer 2016 Newsmagazine.