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What is sectarianism in the Middle East?

The term is heard whenever the Middle East or Syria are discussed, yet a talking head would be pressed to define what they mean by sectarianism. Mohammad Dibo speaks to two prominent Arab thinkers willing to assist our understanding by going back to the basics.

Looking inside the uprising This article is part of Looking inside the uprising; a joint project between SyriaUntold and openDemocracy.

Mohammad Dibo: Can we have an opening definition?

Salameh Kaileh: The sect is a community that subscribes to certain religious beliefs from the past. These beliefs, at the time of their formation, were the expression of the ideological and class conceptualisation of a certain social group. This conceptualisation is transformed into a religious belief when there is a societal collapse and social groups become closed, whereupon these conceptualisations are reformulated as “mythological” beliefs. The sect is a group of people who were born to certain beliefs. Their beliefs often survive only cosmetically: people practice some celebratory or funerary rituals, or marry into the same sect for reasons of continuity. But these inherited beliefs do not serve as a basis for relations with the larger society where more common traditions and customs, both in urban and rural societies, are more prevalent. These beliefs generally recede against modernist ideas allowing for more societal integration. 

Sectarianism is any religious or sectarian barrier that is based on inherited beliefs against the ‘other’. That is to say: sectarianism is turning diversity to conflict. Without doubt this diversity is a result of an ancient conflict, however, the conflict at that time had economic and ideological bases for a political and ideological class conflict. Whereas before they represented intellectual currents rooted in material social classes and conditions, this language of an old struggle is used today in an essentialist way that has no relation to ideologies or classes.  

There is a subheading which we could call, sectarian instrumentalisation. A certain class could utilise these inherited beliefs to advance its own interests, without necessarily believing in them. This can be seen in the context of a class’s defence of its own privileges and existence against other classes, or against other sectors from the same class.

Sectarianism is the tendency to undermine social cohesion by pushing for the reproduction of ancient beliefs and separations. This process is not exclusive to religious minorities, but can also be observed in the majority as well.

Victorious Shams: The sectarian question emerged in Lebanon initially. Its main theorist was Michel Chiha (1891-1954) who is considered one of the fathers of the Lebanese constitution (1926). Chiha viewed Lebanon as a unique country that is “only similar to itself” because of its confessional diversity. Lebanon, according to Chiha, was a country of “partnership between sectarian minorities.” The sect was considered a “stand-alone social entity, held together by its internal cohesion, and with deep historical roots.” Thus, the sect becomes the main, and elementary, social unit, rather than the individual. Indeed, it becomes the necessary gateway between the individual and the state--i.e. the individual’s relationship with the state rests upon his sectarian affiliation, rather than his claim to citizenship.

Citizenship is replaced by a sectarian understanding of sectarian authority, as in a “partnership between sectarian minorities.” Mahdi Amel formulated a scientific rebuttal of this understanding. He defined the sect as a “specific political relationship that is defined by the history of class struggle”; that is to say, a sect only achieves presence and political cohesion through its relationship with other sects, its position within the state, and its proximity to authority in the network of interests that covers all the other sectarian components in the political system.

Sectarianism, according to this definition, is the system that best preserves the classist hierarchy and the dominance of the colonial bourgeois class (this is in communities with diverse confessional backgrounds, where tribalism might prevail in other types of community).

MD: When is a regime “sectarian” and when can we say that it is “instrumentalising sectarianism”? Is there a difference ?

Salameh Kaileh: Most of our sects are the product of the Middle Ages after the collapse of the Arab Islamic empire. This is the era that witnessed the formation of the majority—Sunnis--and religious minorities. Prior to that, Islam was the religion of the authorities, and thus class opposition would usually take a religious shape, but as a politicised class opposition.

There are four types of state sectarianism. When a sectarian power obtains authority over a state--i.e. it transforms these inherited beliefs into an ideological and political project--this becomes a sectarian state, with the power to enforce its beliefs upon the entire community. This is an extreme example that rarely materialises, because the kind of sectarian fervor needed for its success is usually only felt by small parts of the imagined community, who rarely have the necessary force to control a state. More often than not, this scenario ends with the disintegration and collapse of the sectarian state. 

Now, take the examples of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Velayat-e Faqih (Guardianship of the Islamic Jurists) in Iran. Here we find that the ruling power is another type of sectarian power--i.e. it believes that it represents the majority, but it enforces the views of a minority. Here we can indeed say that the state is governed by a sectarian power. To ensure its control, these powers implement different control mechanisms, replacing the class hitherto dominant in the control of the state, while at the same time representing their interests.

When the Muslim Brotherhood won power in Egypt, as before that in Sudan and Tunisia, they represented what remained of a traditional capitalist sub-class (city merchants), a group who could only ascend to power by dint of their adherence to a fundamentalist ideology. The ruling class in Iran is the capitalist class linked to a denomination of Shia who believe in Velayat-e Faqih (a relatively weak current in the Shia spectrum).

A third form of sectarianism is the institutionally sectarian. This brand is mostly created by colonial forces. The institutions of the state are filled on the basis of power-sharing between different sects. The obvious example, of course, is Lebanon (which was replicated in Iraq by the US occupation): the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of the parliament a Shia (in Iraq: the president is Kurdish, prime minister Shia, while the speaker of the parliament is Sunni). 

This is a system that reproduces societal groupings and identities on the basis of sect, regardless of whether the ruler is sectarian or not. It is a superficial sectioning that keeps society divided, and contributes to sectarian intolerance, and eventually sectarian upheaval. In this case, we can label the political structure sectarian. And even if the ruler is not sectarian, his position is inevitably determined by his sect.

In the institutional sectarian cases, we find that even potentially non-sectarian bourgeois political parties tend to flatter sects and use sectarian discourses (for example, Michel Aoun, a prominent Lebanese politician, who, despite his nominally secular ideology, often uses sectarian discourse in the service of his bid for presidency). This privileges sectarian identities in the struggle of conflicting groups within the same class for ultimate control. In the example of the Lebanese civil war, we find that most of the struggles were aimed at revising the balance of power vis-a-vis the sects and their relationship with the state, as well as their relationships within the capitalist class.

A regime that is not essentially sectarian but in fact represents a different class (usually the dominant capitalist class) can still instrumentalise sectarianism in its quest to remain in power. This is a very common tactic for colonial regimes, but it is also used by capitalist nations and regimes run by organised crime. In the Lebanese example we can see that the Christian capitalist class utilises the confessional structure to protect its control of the state as well as other parts of the capitalist class. In short, most ruling classes are not sectarian, nor even religious in any sense, but use these antiquated beliefs to assert control over the state. These beliefs are mined for their religious, sectarian, tribal or even regional prejudices.

Victorious Shams: Your question needs some revision. The phrasing objectifies sectarianism, as if it were a choice. Like a cloak that can be worn or discarded at will. This is a simplification of the issue that might suggest that the regime under discussion, the one that “instrumentalised” sectarianism, could arguably equally formulate itself in many other ways, if it so wishes. This is not the case. The nature of any political regime (be it democratic, dictatorial, tribal, etc.) is not born out of choice, but rather governed by the complex interests of the ruling class and by whichever part of the system is best suited to preserving its hegemony in a specific social setting, regardless of the personal convictions or wishes of individuals within that class.

In retort to that question, we might pose another one: could the Libyan regime, at the height of its crisis, resort to sectarianism to preserve its authority? I think the answer is that this was glaringly impossible, for Libyan society is homogeneous from a sectarian point of view. That means, the regime would have had to resort to another type of Asabiyyah (as elaborated by Ibn Khaldun) such as tribalism.

The Syrian regime has long rested its control upon a blend of nationalist and socialist maxims that have preserved its hegemony and allowed it to survive. The revolution however marked the collapse of these maxims, which have long been drained of any substance. They were replaced, under pressure of the fight for survival, with different ones that ushered the conflict in a different direction: sectarian mobilisation and escalation. This was not a matter of choice, but rather a necessity in the context in which the regime found itself. This begs another question: regardless of the current framing of the conflict, could the Syrian regime return to its nationalist and socialist maxims with any credibility? The answer again is a glaring no.

To my mind, instrumentalising sectarianism is simply sectarianism: there is no difference between the two concepts. One cannot analyse the matter on the basis of the wishes and intentions of those in the driving seat of the conflicting camps (the regime, and its opposition). Indeed, one must proceed in one's analysis from the effects of the conflict on the ground, and the ability of each party to preserve its control. This is especially true in the absence of alternative ideologies, like Arab nationalism or Marxism.

The difference between sectarian and religious regimes is that in the case of a religious regime, one is subjected to an absolutist religious hegemony that allows no sharing of power with any other religious groups, as is the case in Iran and Saudi Arabia. A sectarian regime, on the other hand, presupposes power-sharing between different religious minorities on the basis of quota, even if the system is overwhelmingly dominated by one of them.

MD. (to Salameh Kaileh): You have said that, “when we want to characterise a political system, it is necessary to proceed from a materialist analysis to understand its structure and the interests it represents. Only then can we study the ideological form it uses to impose its hegemony over society." Can we consider the Abbasid Caliphate or the Iranian state under the jurisdiction of Velayat-e Faqih as a sectarian regime using this definition? 

Salameh Kaileh: We cannot make a valid comparison between the Abbasid Caliphate and the modern regimes of the Muslim Brotherhood or Iran. At the time of the Abbasids, religion was the ideology of the state that was used to coerce society, and class and political struggles took place through religious forms. Religious majorities and minorities took their shape as sects only after the collapse of the Abbasid Caliphate (especially in the 12th and 13th centuries). Before that they represented intellectual currents rooted in material social classes and conditions.

This transformation happened outside the state; that is, these sects were stateless and in conflict. When the Sunni ideology rose to take control it considered other sects to be of a lower level, and in some cases actively worked to enslave or eradicate them (as has happened in the Seljuk and Mamluk empires, and even more so in some periods of Ottoman rule).

Today in Iran, the state is ruled by a Twelver Shia denomination that ascribes to the concept of Velayat-e Faqih, but it also co-exists with other sects (Iran is home to a significant Sunni minority). The Iranian state considers itself a representative of the majority Shia population, despite the fact that it does not represent all Shias (neither all denominations, nor all the people). Thus, while it rules in the name of Shia, it actually serves the interests of a specific capitalist class. Sectarianism in this context is discrimination between people in their access to power. This is based on an inherited model that conceptualizes the citizenry, not as citizens, but as delineated sects. This is indeed a sectarian perspective. A parallel example can be seen in the Wahhabist ideology of the Saudi regime.

Having said that, the concept of sectarianism, as I have tried to explain goes deeper. It stokes conflict with the ‘other’ on the basis of antiquated conflicts and inherited beliefs. That is, it is an infra-political struggle.

There is no doubt that the Iranian regime aspires to enforce its hegemony over the region in the context of international struggles and its own aspirations to become a major power. This is why it has supported Hezbollah in Lebanon, strengthened its relationship with the Syrian regime, coordinated its strategy with the US in Iraq, and supported the Palestinians. To this end, the Iranian regime will use any tool at its disposal, including sect. By positing itself as the representative of Shias, it attempts to mobilize them in areas where it needs to create pressure, and supports Shia groups for political gain, like in Bahrain and Yemen. 

But it has also nurtured very close relationships with groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt and the Erdogan government in Turkey (all Sunni forces). That is to say that the Iranian regime operates pragmatically with concern to its regional interests, despite its Shia character and its commitment to the ideology of Velayat-e Faqih. It is a very intelligent strategy, whereby Shia ideology is only a cover, and does not represent a serious obstacle when more pragmatic alliances are needed. 

As for its "policy of Shiaization”, I believe this is exaggerated, and mostly perpetuated in the discourse that considers the region through a 'Sunni-Shia struggle' framework.

Translated by: Yazan Badran

About the authors

Salameh Kaileh is a prominent Palestinian-Syrian intellectual and activist. He was born in the town of Birzeit, Palestine, in 1955, and studied in Baghdad and Damascus, he soon became an activist within the Palestinian resistance and later within the Arab left. Last detained by the Syrian authorities in 2012.

He has published more than 30 books, among them: “Critique of Mainstream Marxism” (1980), “The Arab and The National Question” (1989), “Imperialism and the Plunder of the World” (1992), “The Problems of Marxism in the Arab World” (2003) and most recently “A true revolution: marxist perspective on the Syrian uprising” (2014).

Victorios Shams is a Syrian writer based in Cairo since 2012. He was a member of the 'Union of Syrian Democratic Youth' between 1995-1998, then a member of the 'Popular Democratic Party' and the 'Democratic Youth Movement' in Lebanon, where he served in various capacities between 1999 and 2011, when the Syrian revolution erupted.


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