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.

Many analysts, government experts, political leaders, and academics refuse to see extremist religious sentiment and practices as anything but an epiphenomenon of more familiar and more comfortable factors, such as institutional failings, economic backwardness, traditional geopolitics, ethnic difference, entrenched antimodern attitudes, and so on. Although these conditions certainly are playing a role in some Arab states, without religious identification the conflicts would not have flared to the degree they have done today.

At the same time, it is vital that scholars, analysts, and others in the field not shy away from acknowledging the role that some prominent contemporary readings of Islam have in the propagation of violence and extremism. It must be possible to distinguish between the faith as a whole—that is, the faith as Scriptural command—and its various and conflicting interpretations throughout the many centuries following the Revelation.

Traditionally, sectarianism can be understood as a set of institutional arrangements determining loyalty and affiliation. Today, however, the increase in sectarian conflict is primarily the result of the collapse of authoritarian rule and a struggle for political and economic power, and over which interpretation of Islam will influence societies and new leaderships.

In states such as Bahrain and Lebanon, where the Shi’a make up approximately 70% and 40% of the population, respectively, the prospects of democratic governance alarm the Sunni. As a result, democracy is viewed largely as part of a subversive Shi’a agenda. Although the underlying goal of the Arab uprisings was to move toward a more just style of governance, the Shi’a “threat” may provide those Sunni-dominated governments still standing with powerful justification to retain authoritarian rule.

During the past three decades, as Sunni Islamist movements gained widespread popular support, the Shi’a also began to mobilize, despite restraints imposed by their governments. Broadly speaking, the Shi’a, once a seemingly weak and alienated community within Arab Islam, are now demanding their rights and reaching for greater political influence—from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain and Kuwait.

Just how profound are the challenges still facing the Shi’a was documented recently in an opinion survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a Washington, DC–based research institute. The study showed a widespread belief in most Arab countries that Shi’a are not real Muslims.

A central challenge to the stability of the Arab world lies with the tension between Islam’s complete integration of the religious and political realms and the European state apparatus imposed by colonial power during the 19th century, without regard for Muslims’ beliefs, practices, or modes of communal governance throughout the preceding 1,100 years. Thus, the modern state failed to take root.

Instead, postcolonial rulers floundered to cobble together systems that mimic elements of the modern sovereign state, grounded in nationalist and pan-Arab claims of legitimacy. The relative ease with which the recent Arab rebellions toppled many of these regimes and badly shook others merely underscores their fragility, instability, and illegitimacy.

Yet, the nation state remains the preferred frame through which the outside world views the conflicts raging across the Arab Middle East. This book challenges this predominant discourse. The increasing power of nonstate actors—who are even more influential after the Arab uprisings—makes any notion of the nation state essentially irrelevant.

The outside observer must also resist the impulse to parse the many expressions of Sunni-Shi’a contestation—whether political, social, or economic—into discrete, independent units in such a way as to ignore or downplay the dispute’s fundamentally religious nature. In other words, this sectarian conflict may be, and often is, expressed in forms that appear recognizable to the outsider as simple rivalry between communities over, say, land use, water rights, political power, economic opportunity, or access to education. However, its very persistence and seeming intractability must be understood as flowing directly from religious differences and their associated religious identities that this difference has conferred on both Shi’a and Sunni.

This same fundamental tension infuses meaning, form, and purpose into all natures of disputes. Thus, the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s and today’s geopolitical struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia are both cast by all parties as recapitulations of the Shi’a-Sunni rivalry, the origins of which lie in idealized notions of the seventh century.

State rivalry feeds societal sectarian sentiment and vice versa. This combustible top-down and bottom-up bigotry along sectarian fault lines will, ultimately, alter the map of the Middle East from what it has been since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This is the reason to draw world attention to the sectarian conflict.

Lastly, on a personal and intellectual level, I must note that I wrote this book as further evidence that religion in Arab society matters—not only in how it is exploited and instrumentalized by extremists, moderate Islamists, and dictators alike for political purposes—but also how it evolves perpetually and is perceived and practiced among the vast majority of Muslims. Arab women do not wear headscarves because of pressure from their husbands or because they cannot afford to buy shampoo, as one prominent Egyptian leader tried to convince me during the 1990s. Similarly, Shi’a and Sunni today are not battling it out over territory alone; they are fighting for history and memory.

Geneive Abdo is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is the author of No God but God (2002) and Mecca and Main Street (2007).

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