Articles and Commentaries |
July 1, 2024

The Sectarian Divide: A Complex Mosaic of Sects and Subsects

Written By: Md. Muddassir Quamar

Introduction

The Gaza War (2023–2024) has renewed attention to the explosive nature of the West Asia and North Africa (WANA) region. As the War continues, failing all regional and international ceasefire efforts, the region is experiencing heightened tensions between Israel and Iran while keeping the Arab states jittery. The conflict notwithstanding, the region is critical to global politics due to its geo-strategic location, energy resources, and centrality to the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. A complex web of political, social, religious, cultural, economic, geopolitical, and external factors has kept WANA conflict-ridden for over a century. The inability of the post-colonial states to adapt to democratic norms has allowed the festering of internal divisions, contributing to civil strife, uprisings, revolutions, violence, terrorism, and intra- and inter-state wars. In the decade since the Arab Spring protests erupted in December 2010 in Tunisia, the region suffered a series of violent conflicts, geopolitical competitions, and the proliferation of armed non-state actors (ANSAs) and terrorist groups. These, in turn, resulted in the multiplication of weak or failed states, posing severe challenges to their cohesiveness and threatening peace and stability in WANA.

Sectarianism is one of the most common frameworks utilised in International Relations and Middle East studies literature to examine, analyse, and explain the widespread divisions, strife, conflicts, and rivalries in WANA.[1] While helpful in explaining the region’s complexities, the broad semantic implications of the term lead to confusion. Sectarianism is an overarching term used to denote the identitarian divisions among communities. It is often used to define inter- and intra-faith, and ethnonational divisions, or the use of such divisions by states and non-state actors to gain legitimacy and advance their interests.[2] Nonetheless, when one refers to sectarianism in WANA, essentially the allusion is to the historic Sunni-Shia division within Islam that permeates across the region.[3] In other words, the Sunni-Shia divide is often considered to be the root cause of the challenges facing WANA countries.

The 1979 revolution in Iran and the foundation of the Islamic Republic under the leadership of Ayatollah Khomeini is often considered the most consequential contemporary event that sowed the seeds of the sectarian-identitarian divisions in WANA. After 1979, with its reliance on Shia theology and the ideological discourse of justice and resistance against American-Western hegemony and imperialism, Iran emerged as the leader of the Shias. Alternatively, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia projected itself as the leader of Sunnis due to its custodianship of the Two Holy Mosques. However, the issue of sectarianism is more complex than its narrow and popular understanding, as the Sunnis and Shias are not cohesive and homogenous communities, and more importantly, the divisions between Iran and Saudi Arabia go beyond the sectarian divide.[4] Hence, sectarianism in WANA should be understood as a complex mosaic of and interplay among many primordial and political identities.

 

Sectarianism and its manifestations

Within the broad classification of Sunni and Shia sects, several political, jurisprudential, ethnonational, linguistic, ideological, and historical divides contribute to the complexity of sectarianism in WANA. Further, Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s claims to be the leaders of the Islamic world go beyond their essentialist sectarian identities. For example, Iran’s relationships with its regional allies, namely Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Houthis, transcend the narrow definition of sectarianism.[5] Similarly, the Saudi claim to leadership of the Islamic world surpasses its control over the Kaaba in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah to include oil wealth, its relationship with the US, and its support for a future Palestinian state.[6] Besides, geopolitical factors are often more important in setting the direction of the foreign policy of the regional powers than sectarian considerations. Additionally, the internal dynamics of each state and the extent of sectarianism in them depend on the nature of the ruling regime and are not the same. Hence, a majority Shia country like Bahrain, ruled by a Sunni dynasty, is an ally of Saudi Arabia. In contrast, a majority Sunni country like Syria, ruled by a socialist, republican dynastic regime, is part of the Iranian camp.

Besides the historical, theological, and geopolitical Sunni-Shia division, sectarianism in WANA is reflected through religious and ethnonational divides. The prime example of a religious divide intermixed with ethnonational movements and combined with regional and international geopolitics producing a conflict is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The Israeli and Palestinian claims over the land constituting Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem) are rooted in the historic Jewish and Islamic control over it and its religious significance for both communities. For Jews, Jerusalem is central to the faith as it is the location of the destroyed Second Temple. At the same time, for Muslims, Jerusalem is the first Qibla and the site from which Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven during Miraj.[7] Hence, for both sides, while the nationalist claims of Israelis and Palestinians remain important, the religious component is a prime motivator for taking an uncompromising position on the matter, thus contributing to the continuation of the long and deadly conflict.[8]

Another major ethnonational issue that has produced conflicts, divisions, and an unsuccessful quest for a state is the Kurdish issue. The Kurds are a majority Sunni community living in a territorially contiguous area encompassing four states: Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Türkiye. With an estimated global population between 30 and 45 million,[9] the Kurds are often referred to as one of the largest stateless communities in the world. The Kurdish quest for autonomy and state goes back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the First World War but has remained elusive.[10] In Iraq, the formation of the Kurdish autonomous region as per the 2005 constitution was a landmark event, but it did not lead to any progress towards an independent Kurdish state. Similarly, after the Arab Spring in Syria, the Kurdish-dominated northern areas were declared an autonomous region under the US-supported Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) control, but without much progress towards formal autonomy or a future Kurdish state. In Türkiye, the Kurds are the largest ethnic minority that has suffered due to the Turkish counter-insurgency campaign against the armed struggle waged by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In Iran, too, Kurds are a significant ethnic minority that fear losing their identity to the assimilating tendencies of the Islamic Republic.

Many other religious and ethnonational minorities in the region have suffered due to increased sectarianism. Christian minorities such as Copts in Egypt and Maronites in Lebanon, other religious minorities such as Zoroastrians and Baha’is in Iran, and Yazidis in Iraq, ethnic and tribal groups such as Berbers, Tuaregs and Blacks in North Africa, Armenians, Assyrians, Turkmen and Druze in Fertile Crescent region, Arabs, Baloch and other minorities in Iran and Bidoons and poor expatriates from Asia in the Gulf are groups that have suffered due to the sectarian, essentialist and narrow identitarian tendencies that prevail in the region. There are, moreover, divisions based on the secular-religious divide, which is felt strongly in countries such as Türkiye, Egypt, and Tunisia and often plays out in the form of popular support for Islamists. At the same time, the state remains rooted in secularist ideals. The most recent example of such divisions is the military coup in Egypt in 2013, whereby the Islamist-inclined government of Mohammed Morsi was overthrown by the deep state led by the then Defense Minister Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. In the Tunisian case, the secular-religious divide played out in 2021 after an elected populist President, Kais Saied, suspended the parliament and dismissed the judiciary to take complete control over the state.

The most widespread and popular Islamist group is the Muslim Brotherhood, with an ideology rooted in Islamic republicanism that aims for a socio-political reorganisation of Muslim states and calls for resistance against the imposition of Western values and norms.[11] The Brotherhood has roots in Egypt but is present in some form in almost all regional countries today. The groups and their affiliates gained strong public support in the wake of the Arab Spring protests despite the initial hesitation of the Brotherhood leadership. However, the fear of the Brotherhood gaining ground across the region and calls for political change alarmed the Sunni monarchies. This led to the Brotherhood being banned by most regional states, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia.[12] Despite that, the movement and its ideology remain alive, and the silence, whether perceived or actual, of the Arab states and their leadership against Israeli actions in Gaza since October 2023 might help the movement regain populist appeal.

The ideological component of Islamism and how it has contributed to the rise of sectarianism in WANA cannot be wholly dissociated from the issue of terrorism, manifested most starkly in the form of al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Both these groups have their roots in the puritanical and militant Islamism of the twentieth century, with a hybrid ideology fused by selective readings of Islamic texts through interpretations of scholars such as Ibn Taymiyya, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, Syed Qutb, Abul Ala Maududi, Abd as-Salam Faraj, and Abdullah Azzam.[13] Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the men behind the formation of al-Qaeda and Islamic State, respectively, were inspired by such interpretations and used the wider socio-political dissatisfaction in Arab-Muslim societies to spread their ideology and gain support. Hence, al-Qaeda and Islamic State represent the wider sectarianism that spread through the rise of militant Islamisation and eventually forged into globalised jihadi terrorism. The same was visible in Iraq in the aftermath of the US invasion in 2003, leading to a sectarian civil war and eventually catalysing the rise of the Islamic State after the Arab Spring.

 

Sectarianism and states in WANA

Most WANA states have faced the challenge of sectarianism. As noted in the preceding section, the core of the sectarian divide is the socio-political fissures based on primordial identities rooted in religious, political, ethnonational, or ideological convictions. These narrow sectarian divisions have created a situation wherein most WANA countries have experienced sectarian divisions, causing political tensions and security concerns. For example, Sunni-Shia sectarian division in Saudi Arabia is often viewed as the reason for the alienation among a section of Saudi citizens belonging to the Shia community concentrated in the Eastern Province.[14] Although the socio-cultural opening under King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has allowed greater space for the Saudi Shia community, the issue of division persists. Iran, too, has faced the challenge of managing its internal socio-political divisions based on identitarian politics, wherein a series of ethnic and religious minorities, including Baha’is, Zoroastrians, Sunnis, Arabs, Kurds, Baloch, and other smaller groups, have been alienated due to the assimilating tendencies of the majoritarian Persian-Islamic identity.[15] Similarly, minority groups such as Kurds and Alawis in Türkiye, Copts in Egypt, Palestinian-Arabs in Israel, Yazidis and Sunni Arabs in Iraq, Shias in Bahrain, Berbers, Tuaregs, and Blacks in North African states, and other groups have faced greater challenges due to the respective state’s behaviour towards them.

Notably, some of the regional states have faced more significant challenges due to sectarianism, and three countries, namely, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, stand out. Three major groups, Shias, Sunnis, and Maronites, hold sway in Lebanon because of their dominant demography, which has been instrumental in determining the country’s consociational political system.[16] The political power is divided among these three groups, and although the idea was based on proportional representation, the situation has created severe problems for the country. First, the situation has evolved because of demographic changes, and the fixed system is no longer adequately representative. Second, the youth, smaller minorities, and women have faced exclusion because of the appropriation of power by corrupt political groups, leaving the ordinary people suffering. The creation of Hezbollah and its emergence as a state within the state have further contributed to the rise of political and sectarian divisions in Lebanon, pushing the country to the verge of collapse.[17]

Iraq, too, has suffered historically due to its political system and the identity politics that have prevailed since its foundation under the British Mandate. The three major sectarian-ethnic groups in Iraq are Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, but smaller sections of Christian denominations, Yazidis, Assyrians, and Turkmen, have lived in Iraq for centuries. Iraq was at the forefront of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, but this led to suffering among the non-Arab minorities.[18] The situation for Kurds, Shias and Christians became highly challenging under the Sunni-socialist dictatorship of Saddam Hussain, with the state taking punitive actions against each of these groups on suspicion of secession. The hopes for political change in post-Saddam Iraq could not be realised as the US invasion led to increased sectarian strife, leading to a violent civil war, and this manifested in the rise of the Islamic State in the post-Arab Spring era. Despite a political system based on a carefully crafted constitution to bring a representative government and political system, Iraq has suffered due to intra-community divisions and infighting, causing widespread discontent among the people who consider the political system externally induced and corrupt.[19]

The situation in Yemen has historically been complicated because of the widespread tribal, sectarian, and ideological divisions that have reverberated since parts of Yemen came under British colonial control, and the situation worsened in the post-colonial phase. The division of Yemen into North and South and the continued sectarian divisions after the 1990 unification under Ali Abdullah Saleh raised widespread strife, alienating many groups such as the Zaidis in northern areas, Sunni tribes in the sparsely inhabited central areas and leftist-secular groups in the south.[20] Discontent among tribes meant that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) gained ground, and post-Arab Spring, Yemen descended into a civil war, causing one of the worst humanitarian crises in contemporary history. Today, Yemen is a divided house wherein the majority of northern Yemen is under the control of the Houthi movement, that denied the Saudi-led GCC military intervention to overthrow it from Sana’a and other major cities and ports. On the other hand, southern parts of the country are controlled jointly by the internationally recognised government and the Southern Transition Council (STC).[21]

 

Sectarianism and regional order in WANA

It is not only the regional states that have been affected by sectarianism but the regional order is seriously affected by the rise of sectarianism and identity politics.[22] Intermixed with geopolitical ambitions, sectarianism has created an explosive situation in WANA, threatening regional security and stability. Competition, rivalry and tension among the regional states define today’s regional order. Based on narrow interests, these states act alone or in tandem with like-minded countries within or outside the region. One of the significant reasons for the states to act on narrow interests is their quest for survival. For all regional states, the question of the state’s and regime’s survival remains at the top of the agenda. Moreover, the competition for resources, influence, and power makes the regional states suspect each other, keeping the regional order dependent on external military and political involvement.[23]

Sectarianism is widespread due to regional politics’ organisation, as the majority of regional states were founded based on narrow religious, sectarian, tribal, or ethnonational identities.[24] Hence, narrow interests often trump the pursuit of a broader collective good. For example, the two major regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have since 1979 remained major rivals because of their inability to reconcile their differences, despite a series of rapprochements since the 1990s.[25] Türkiye and Egypt have continued to define their interests based on narrow identity politics. The same is true for Israel, UAE, Qatar, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco etc. When it comes to regional politics and order, the Arab, Persian, Turkish, Kurdish, Jewish, Islamic, Shia, Sunni, secular, religious, and other essentialist notions come to the fore instead of the need for creating broad economic and political consensus and interdependence.

Regarding the regional politics in WANA, three competing orders vie for dominance. The first is led by oil-rich Arab Gulf monarchies, namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and their regional allies and partners, including Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, and Morocco. It is based on the quest for domination for an Arab-Islamic-Sunni order that works on the strength of oil wealth in conjunction with US security cover and acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Based on this vision of the regional order, the Abrahamic Accords were signed, and a discussion on extending it to Saudi Arabia is ongoing. The problem with such an order is that the regional allies and partners are not always in sync and often diverge on crucial matters, including the continued non-resolution of the Palestinian issue. Predominantly, this order is ensured by the strength of the US military presence; nonetheless, the entry of China and Russia and the strategic hedging by dominant Sunni-Arab states have further complicated it.[26]

The second vision is led by Iran, which is based on the narrow Persian-Shia identity with a clarion call for resistance against American-Western domination and extermination of Israel. Led by Iran, this vision of the regional order has gained ground due to a series of Iranian strategic moves and events that Iran could exploit to gain influence. This has been defined as the rise of the Shia Crescent[27] wherein Iran has gained significant influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Palestine through its alliances with state and non-state actors.[28] While essentially calling for a regional order free from American-Western domination, both in political and cultural domains, it also denies the Israeli right to existence because of ideological and religious convictions. Thus, the narrow Persian, Shia, and Islamic basis of such a regional order runs in contradiction to the claims towards justice and self-determination given its denial of expression of non-Islamic identities.

 

Finally, both these visions of the regional order are challenged by a political Islam or Islamist-inspired regional order that has both moderate and extremist versions.[29] The moderates essentially have shunned any form of violence and receive support from Türkiye and Qatar to create a Sunni-Islamic-republican regional order that is free from external domination and ethnonational and sectarian divisions. Such an order, however, remains non-committed to the Israeli right to existence and has often found itself in an internal quagmire due to ideological and religious divergence. Besides, Islamism has its violent, extremist manifestations, including terrorist groups that call for a complete reorganisation of regional order by overthrowing regional states, as is the case with al-Qaeda and Islamic State. This has led to a situation wherein increasingly both Saudis and Iranians have grown more suspicious of Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

 

Notably, narrow sectarian and identitarian convictions are present in all three visions of the regional order. While the US-induced regional order led by Sunni-Arab Gulf monarchies and Israeli support remains dominant, the Iran-led regional order, with the support of its allies and proxies and by developing strategic partnerships with China and Russia has become a stark reality. The third, supported partially by Türkiye and Qatar, inspired by various ideological offshoots of Islamism, gained some ground in the post-Arab Spring regional politics, but today largely remains a vision without much national, regional or international support.

 

Conclusion

The WANA region has suffered severe challenges to peace, stability, and security due to the pervasive nature of sectarianism in national and regional politics. Sectarianism, defined as narrow and exclusive identitarian politics, permeates through the states and societal boundaries. Various historical, political, social, religious, ideological, and external factors have contributed to the creation and expansion of sectarian politics. Consequently, the region has suffered from divisions, conflicts, infightings, uprisings, and revolutions, further sharpening the sectarian political divide. This has harmed the regional states, contributing to their instability and insecurity; has devastated many communities, especially different minorities, threatening their existence; and has seriously affected regional politics and order, caused tensions and rivalries, and often led to threats of a regional war. The complex interplay of sects and subsects as a determining factor in politics in and among WANA states has created a complex problem that cannot be resolved without changing the basis of politics while accepting the reality and plurality of the people and their identities.

 

Author Bio: Md. Muddassir Quamaris Associate Professor, Centre for West Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

 

References

[1] Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, “Introduction: The Sectarianization Thesis,” in Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel (eds.), Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 1–22.

[2] Fanar Haddad, Understanding ‘Sectarianism’: Sunni-Shia Relations in the Modern Arab World, London: C. Hurst & Co., 2020.

[3] Laurence Louër, Sunnis and Shi‘a: A Political History of Discord, translated from French by Ethan Rundell Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[4] Paul Dixon, “Beyond Sectarianism in the Middle East? Comparative Perspective on Group Conflict,” in Fredric Wehrey (ed.), Beyond Sunni and Shia: The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 11–36.

[5] Afshon Ostovar, “Sectarianism and Iranian Foreign Policy,” in Fredric Wehrey (ed.), Beyond Sunni and Shia: The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East, New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 87–112.

[6] Menno Preuschaft, “Islam and Identity in Foreign Policy,” in Neil Patrick (ed.), Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation, London: I. B. Tauris, 2016, pp. 16–29.

[7] Miraj refers to the Islamic belief that Prophet Muhammad undertook a miraculous night journey from Masjid al-Haram in Makkah to Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, and from there, he ascended to Heaven (in the presence of Allah) on 26 Rajab 621 AD. See Ali Kose, “Miraj” in David A. Leeming, Kathryn Madden and Stanton Marlan (eds.), Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion, Boston, MA: Springer, 2010, p. 573.

[8] Marshall J. Breger, Yitzhak Reiter and Leonard Hammer (eds.), Sacred Space in Israel and Palestine: Religion and Politics, Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2012.

[9] Nearly 70 per cent of the Kurdish population is concentrated in the four WANA countries, while the rest lives in the diaspora, mainly in Europe.

[10] Michael M. Guntur, The Kurds: A Divided Nation in Search of a State, Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2019.

[11] Joas Wagemakers, The Muslim Brotherhood: Ideology, History, Descendants, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2022.

[12] Cinzia Bianco, The Gulf Monarchies after the Arab Spring: Threats and Security, Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

[13] Shiraz Maher, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea, London: C. Hurst & Co., 2016.

[14] Fouad N. Ibrahim, The Shiʻis of Saudi Arabia, London: Saqi Books, 2006; Toby Matthiesen, The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

[15] S. Behnaz Hosseini (ed.), Ethnic Religious Minorities in Iran, Singapore: Springer, 2023.

[16] Imad Salamay, The Government and Politics of Lebanon, Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2014.

[17] Mordechai Nisan, Politics and War in Lebanon: Unraveling the Enigma, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2015.

[18] Adeed Dawisha, Iraq: A Political History, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

[19] Jacob Eriksson and Isaac Grief, “The Iraqi State’s Legitimacy Deficit: Input, Output and Identity-based Legitimacy Challenges,” Global Policy, 2023, 14 (2): 363–72.

[20] Paul Dresch, A History of Modern Yemen, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[21] Marieke Brandt, Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A History of the Houthi Conflict, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

[22] Bassel F. Salloukh, “The Sectarianization of Geopolitics in the Middle East,” in Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel (eds.), Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, New York: Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 35–52.

[23] Raymond Hinnebusch, The International Politics of the Middle East, Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2003.

[24] Uzi Rabi, The Return of the Past: State, Identity, and Society in the Post-Arab Spring Middle East, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2020.

[25] Anoushiravan Ehteshami, Competing Powerbrokers of the Middle East: Iran and Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi: The Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, 2008.

[26] Jean-Loup Samaan, Strategic Hedging in the Arabian Peninsula: The Politics of the Gulf-Asian Rapprochement, London: Routledge, 2019.

[27] During a television interview with NBC’s Chris Mathews, King Abdullah of Jordan used the term Shia Cresent for the first time in 2004. See: https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna6679774#.UcV3GZymV9s

[28] Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflict within Islam will Shape the Future, New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

[29] Tarek Osman, Islamism: What it Means for the Middle East and the World, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.

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