The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shia-Sunni Divide

Mosque in Yazd, Iran. Flickr/Creative Commons/Ninara

An excerpt from Geneive Abdo's new book.

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide by Geneive Abdo with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2017 by Oxford University Press.

The Arab uprisings began with a seemingly secular cry, “The people want to overthrow the system.” In most countries, religious motivations were, at first, conspicuously absent; but, 5 years on, the initial unity has eroded into societal conflict in some countries and all-out war in others. Instead of agreed-on goals of social justice and a different form of governance, religious differences and how Muslims define themselves have emerged as newly salient characteristics throughout Arab society.

Throughout history, competing groups, sects, and schools of Islamic law all struggled to define the faith for a diverse and often-contentious community of believers, but the Arab uprisings brought identity and religion once again to the fore. A core issue in the post-Arab uprising era is the question: Who is a true believer and who is a nonbeliever? This exclusionist mind-set is most evident in the sectarian conflict between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, which poses a serious threat to the stability of regional states and to stakeholders in the wider world, including the United States and its allies.

One of the many reasons sectarianism is so intractable and will, unfortunately, plague the Middle East for years to come, is that all players in the violent conflict claim to have a monopoly on religious truth. Whose Islam is it? Is it that of the Salafist, who wants to return to how he says Islam was practiced during the time of the Prophet Mohammad 1,400 years ago? Or that of the banned Muslim Brotherhood leader in Egypt? Or the leader of a Shi’a militia in Iraq? Or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic State? Each party believes its religious knowledge is sacred and true.

From its beginnings in the 1970s until today, a key to the power and appeal of modern Islamism—encompassing an array of groups from the nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt to the violent al Qaeda and ISIS—has been the process of defining “the Other.” Members of traditional religious institutions have been left behind in what has become an interpretive free-for-all.

This exclusionist claim to religious truth is not new, nor is it exceptional to Islam. This historical phenomenon shares some characteristics with other revealed faiths. As sociologists of world religions have long noted, the death of a charismatic leader, prophet, or seer deprives the nascent community of access to revelation and sets the stage for the rise of a caste of priests, lawyers, and bureaucrats who claim the authority to interpret the holy teachings. The sacred texts remain unchanged, whereas how they are interpreted—and by whom—become questions of utmost importance.

These same circumstances also introduce the very real likelihood of dissent, fragmentation of the community, and the emergence of distinct sects or groupings, each asserting a monopoly on religious truth. In the world of Islam, this problem has proved particularly acute. With the arguable exception of the earliest days of Islam, there has never been anything resembling a consensus figure or institution of religious authority among the Muslims. As a result, Muslims worldwide have been left vulnerable to a succession of claimants, many backed by the use of force, in what have proved ultimately to be doomed efforts to secure such a mandate. Much of the social and political unrest that characterizes Islamic history, from the murders of its earliest leaders, to medieval rebellions, to the rise of Osama bin Laden and the birth of the self-proclaimed Islamic State in our own century, reflects this same internal logic.

In other words, the longing for Muslim religious identity reflects an internal debate that has been, quite literally, centuries in the making. Since the death of the Prophet Mohammad in 632 CE, the question of legitimate religious authority has plagued the worldwide community of believers. Who, then, is a good Muslim? And who gets to decide? These questions are no less relevant today than they were in the seventh century, and differing responses during the intervening centuries have brought forth aspiring prophets, visionaries, and revolutionaries demanding the right to dictate the proper contours of the faith to their fellow Muslims, often with the threat of death or damnation.

During the postcolonial period, a new generation of essentially secular leaders—such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi—backed their nationalist policies with claims of religious sanction and used local religious institutions to solidify their hold on power. It is no accident that Egypt and Libya later emerged among the most prominent battlegrounds between dictatorial state power and popular demands for self-determination.

Today’s charismatic religious ideologues first began to make their presence felt during the 1970s, laying the foundation among Arab societies for a religious revival that continues to the present. Shi’a and Sunni communities—the former in reaction to the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the latter in response to the developing power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—began to associate their long-established religious beliefs and practices with personal identity, supplanting a largely manufactured and fragile loyalty to the relatively new phenomenon of the nation state.

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