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

December 6, 2016 Topic: Politics Region: Middle East Tags: IranEgyptIslamIslamismSunniShiaArab Spring

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

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.

As these religious revivals gathered momentum, the efforts by states to invent traditions to secure the idea of nationhood began to collide with a growing Islamism. Over time, this battle steadily eroded the power of many of the region’s rulers, but also challenged established religious institutions, which were widely, and correctly, seen as having placed the interests of the state over those of the ummah, the larger community of Muslim believers.

By the time the Arab uprisings erupted into their full fury in early 2011, there was already fertile ground for instability, insecurity, and violence. Although it is imprecise to say the Arab uprisings alone produced violence in the name of religion, it should be understood that the overarching ideologies of Islamism and nationalism, which had been developing for decades, locked horns.

In addition to this state-societal competition, a struggle has developed within Islam, primarily between Shi’a and Sunni Muslims, but also within each of these communities, penetrating many aspects of Arab society. In each Arab country, this competition has a different history and is now being played out in different ways. There is no consistent frame and thus the Shi’a-Sunni conflict must be analyzed separately in each country.

So, is the Shi’a-Sunni conflict fundamental? Can the gulf be bridged? These questions divide experts in the East and West. The fundamental question is whether religious identity now trumps other identities, including ethnicity, tribe, and national affiliation. If so, because the religious difference is, by its nature, unresolvable, this would mean the violence now sweeping the Middle East is intractable. If, however, other struggles over other identities are just as important to stability, then there is hope the conflict will subside or be subsumed into other less combustible and more manageable arenas.

The argument I put forth, through narratives, rhetorical analyses of non-state actors, and interviews with a variety of religious figures, is that even if there ever should be agreement over what constitutes being an Iraqi, a Syrian, an Egyptian, a Bahraini, or a Lebanese, the recent uprisings have brought religious identity to a place of new importance in Arab societies—a development with at least 30 years of history behind it.

Those who argue that religious difference is not the fundamental cause for violence posit another theory: it is the geopolitical rivalry between Shi’a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, and their proxies and clients doing their bidding on the ground, that are shaping and directing the conflict. Although this is certainly a significant driver of the conflict, the violence would not be as profound if religion were not also being contested. Essentially, longstanding notions of religious identity and sectarian affiliation have supplanted the postcolonial project of Arab nationalism, thereby creating the opportunity for violent extremist groups, such as ISIS and al Qaeda, to fill the resulting vacuum.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, extremist groups such as the Islamic State did not appear out of nowhere. Rather, these extremists are benefiting from all the conditions described earlier. They have also found support from those who have been marginalized economically and politically—not necessarily from the Arab uprisings alone, but from everything that helped spark the revolts in the first place.

This significant development took Western governments by surprise. It was not until the civil and sectarian wars in Iraq and Syria became so bloody that Western scholars and governments acknowledged the Sunni-Shi’a conflict was real and that it probably had something to do with religion. What is most alarming is that Western thought, having experienced 30 years of modern Islamism, did not understand that religion and ideology were destined to become the main currencies among societies in the Arab world.

As the Arab uprisings toppled dictators, Western media outlets, political leaders, and others viewed the turmoil as being led exclusively by secular actors and groups engaged in civil disobedience in the name of Western-style democratic reform. Herein lies the origin of the seductive but highly misleading notion of an “Arab Spring,” a dangerous misnomer that has led many a politician and commentator astray. Now, it is clear that those who led the revolutions in some countries will not finish them.