The question of sectarianism in Middle East politics

Everywhere the Arab uprisings have been confronted by the entrenched vested interests of old regimes, the so-called ‘deep state’ in Egypt, and by Islamist populism. The alignment of regional powers, following geopolitical interests, has sharpened the sectarian lines. But these alignments are not somehow essential to the region.

Sami Zubaida
28 July 2013

Sectarianism seems to be central to current Middle East politics, both internal divisions and regional alignments. It has led many commentators to see this situation as another manifestation of a historical schism between Sunnis and Shi`is going back to early Islam and perennial in the conflicts of the ‘Muslim world’ over the centuries. This is not entirely correct: sectarian differences change and mutate over the centuries, and are politicised, when they do so, in diverse fashions and situations. I try here to trace the determinants of the current forms of politicisation.

The bare bones of a story

This schism is dated to contentions and battles in early Islam, relating to the succession to the leadership, Caliphate or Imamate, of the Muslim community at the death of the Prophet. The Shi`a are those who favoured Ali bin Abi Taleb, the Prophet’s cousin, husband to his daughter and father of Hassan and Hussein, the only male issue in the Prophet’s line. The imamate, henceforth, was to be in this line of succession. The Sunnis are those who accepted the legitimacy of Imams/Caliphs designated by the consensus of the community. In reality, very soon after the Prophet’s death the Caliphate became hereditary and dynastic. The dynasties in Muslim history were predominantly Sunni, with the exception of the Fatimid, Shi`i/Ismaeli caliphate (909-1171), brief periods of Shi`I sultanic dynasties, and the Zaydi imamate in Yemen. The major exception was the rise of the Safavid dynasty in Iran in 1500, which established Shi`ism as the religion of the country, continuing to the present day.

This is the bare bones of the story. Over the centuries there have been many variations and mutations in the ‘orthodox’ as well as the sectarian formations, and the divisions only broke into conflicts when they were politicised into struggles for power or resources. For the most part, various Shi`ite sects lived quietly under Sunni rule, and were, mostly, left alone. Like elsewhere in the pre-modern world, communities were, typically, isolated in separate localities, except in the main cities where they often occupied different quarters. Politicisation came with social conflicts, rebellions and geopolitical confrontations. Some rebellions borrowed legitimist claims to holy lineage from Ali and the Prophet. Confrontation and battles between the Ottomans and the Safavids over the centuries involved sectarian symbols. Iraq, with its Shi`ite population and holy shrines was often the battle ground between the two. On the eve of modernity it fell to the Wahhabis of Arabia to wage a jihad against Shi`a, in the Peninsula and in Iraq, and their hostility continues to the present day.

From the outset, Shi`ism and the adulation of Ali split into many sects, cults and parties, with esoteric, mystical, militant and shamanic variants. Some of these survive to the present day, as we shall see presently. Imami or ‘twelver’ Shi`ism emerged as the established majority Shi`ism, enhanced by its establishment in the holy shrine cities of Iraq and in the Safavid state of Iran. It traces the imamate through twelve descendants from Ali, through Hassan and Hussein, till the mystical ‘disappearance’ of the twelfth Imam al-Mahdi in 941, in Samurra in Abbasid Iraq. He continues to be the Hidden Imam, whose eventual manifestation is awaited by the faithful as a messianic event. Clerics and mystics hint at some form of communication with the Imam: ex-president Ahmadinejad more than hinted. Messianic claimants appeared throughout that history, heading cults or social movements, the most recently significant was Babism in 19th century Iran, culminating in modern day Baha`ism.

Ismailism was one of the early offshoots, following the dispute over the succession to the sixth Imam in 765. Another early offshoot over succession was Zaydism, now mainly in Yemen and other parts of Arabia. Isamailism played a central part in the politics and wars of medieval Islam, and was embraced by the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt and N Africa. It also split into many fragments, the notable surviving sects include the Druze of Syria/Lebanon/Palestine, and the Nizari branch of the Agha Khan community from India, now world-wide. There were many other Alid (veneration of Ali) religions which emerged in different parts of the Middle East and the Balkans, with various syncretistic amalgams with local folk religions, old Persian religions, and even element of Christianity. Prominent examples involved in the present sectarian conflagration in the region are the Alawites of Syria, and the Alevis of Anatolia.

‘Mainstream’ twelver Shi`ism

‘Mainstream’ twelver Shi`ism (as well as Zaydism) is quite distinct from these other forms, and considers them heretical. In religious belief, ritual and law, twelver Shi`ism is more akin to Sunni Islam: they share the pillars of worship: the Quran, prayer, fasting, alms and pilgrimage, and differ in detail over the law/shari`a. The principle divergence is in religious authority, culture and ritual. Shi`ite ritual and calendar revolve around the cult of martyrdom of Hussein and his family and companions, and commemoration of births and deaths of the other members of the holy lineage. Oddly, this veneration of the holy lineage is shared by some Sufi orders, who are formally Sunni.

The Shi’ite crescent

The other offshoots of Shi`ism are more or less remote from what is considered the core of Islam. The Quran is marginal or absent for most, some, like the Druze, having a different scripture of their own; they follow different patterns of prayer and fasting; they don’t attend mosques but have their peculiar locations of worship and ritual. Crucially, these religions are typically esoteric, with their scriptures and ‘inner’ truths only accessible to a class of the initiated, often hereditary. The Druze have a hereditary caste of ‘sages’, uqqal, who are the exclusive keepers of the book. The Alawites of Syria and the Alevis of Turkey were typically peasant communities in mountain areas, mostly illiterate, led by their elders and holy men. General literacy, coming with modernity, have posed challenges to these religions: typically, they have been re-shaped as ethnic communities of solidarity, especially in the face of Sunni hegemony and hostility. In Syria, it was this previously marginal and poor Alawite community which acquired power and rule through recruitment and rise in the army, policies first initiated by the French Mandate regime, promoting minorities.

These differences have important implications for the conception of sectarianism and politics. The concept of the ‘Shi`ite crescent’ from Tehran to Lebanon, first raised as warning to the Sunni world by the Jordanian King Abdullah, appears to include the Alawites of Syria, allied to Iran and the Lebanese Hizbullah. Yet this inclusion is not in terms of common faith: Alawite religion is just as alien and disapproved by twelver Shi`a as it is by Sunnis. Yet, the official Iranian ruling, by Khomeini himself, is that they are included in the Shi`ite fold, a judgement more to do with geopolitics than with religion. Equally to do with geopolitics is the fluctuating policies of the Sunni states of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Turkey towards Syria. Until the start of the rebellion in 2011 all these states were more or less friendly towards Syria. Turkey was especially friendly, establishing close diplomatic and trade relations. Saudi Arabia at various points, had been a financial benefactor to the regime, despite its Iranian alliance, in order to have a degree of influence over its actions in the region, especially in Lebanon. The Syrian Sunni bourgeoisie had, for the most part, supported or acquiesced in the Assad regime, benefiting from the stability and economic climate it provided. It seems, then, that it was not sectarianism that led to the hostilities, but the events themselves and the geopolitics of the region which have politicised sectarian divisions.

Turkish Alevis

Another interesting aspect in this respect is the attitude of the Turkish Alevis (estimated population of 10 to 15 million) to the alignments in Syria and the policy of their government in supporting the opposition there, especially the Islamic elements. Alevis have long been marginalised and subordinated. Many supported Kemalist secularism, partly as a counter to Sunni hegemony. Yet, even under a secular constitution the implicit qualification of full citizenship identity included Sunni Islam, and Alevis continued to be marginalised, with episodes of persecution, notably a massacre in Sivas in 1993. Many embraced liberal and leftist politics. Their marginalisation became more open under the pro-Islamic AKP government. The naming of the projected third Bosporus bridge after Yavuz Sultan Selim (1465-1520) has been particularly controversial in this regard. The said Selim, nicknamed ‘the Grim’, conducted a notorious massacre of Alevis in 1514 which claimed 40000 victims, as part of establishing Sunni hegemony against ‘infidels’. Many Alevis have been vocal in opposition to AKP support for the Syrian opposition. Syrian-style Alawites do exist in south-western Anatolia, close to the border with Syria, and they have been vocal in their opposition to government policy. But, while there may be overlaps of sectarian groups in Anatolia, the mainstream Alevis are geographically and doctrinally distinct from Alawites. Yet, they see the battle against Alawites as part of a Sunni hegemonic campaign to which they are common victims. Again, these alignments are not based on religious belief or sentiment on the part of Alevis or Alawites, but on political fears of communal victimisation. This is not always the case on the Sunni side.

Sunni antagonism

The Sunni sectarian antagonism to Shi`is, especially in its Salafi and Wahhabi forms, does derive from a deep conviction that the Shi`a are heretic dissidents and a danger to the realm of Islam and its unity. These sentiments were politicised into action by key developments in the region: the first was the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the second the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the removal of the Sunni ruling clique in favour of the majority Shi`a of the country.

Iran was always a geopolitical rival to Iraq and Saudi. But under the Shah this rivalry was with a secular and west-friendly Iran, its Shi`ism muted in regional relations. This was totally transformed under Khomeini and the Islamic Republic. Khomeini’s call was pan-Islamic, revolutionary and populist, and it appealed to many radical Arabs, nationalist and Islamist alike. It also emboldened the considerable Shi`I population in Iraq and Arabia into political claims against their subordination. Iran was rightly perceived as a threat and a challenge in both geopolitical and religious terms. It sharpened and activated the anti-Shi`I ire of the Sunni sectarians.

The Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1989 exacerbated these sentiments and actions, with Sunni sectarianism superimposed on Arab nationalism. Saddam was never popular with Saudi and the Gulf, but when it came to confrontation with Iran he was fully supported. Only Syria among the Arabs became an Iranian ally and its conduit to Lebanese Shi`a, and eventually to Hizbullah. Saddam’s next adventure, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990-91 was a blow to his erstwhile Arabian allies, who appealed to the US and the west, leading to the allied rescue of Kuwait, and the first destruction of much of Iraqi wealth and infrastructure. In Iraq it gave a further twist to the sectarian divide.


The sectarian division in Iraq has had various social and political expressions over the course of its history. For the most part the tensions, if any, were political and religious, with mutual denigration at times, but mostly mild.

Classes, ideas, institutions and cultures which emerged in the processes of modernity from the Ottoman reforms of the later 19th century, reinforced with the formation of the modern state fostered a sense of common identity, national, pan-Islamic, pan-Arab or liberal/secular which rejected sectarian, tribal or communalist solidarities. Shi`I clerics declared jihad on the side of the Sunni Ottomans during WWI, then led southern tribes in the 1920 uprising against British occupation, alongside Sunni nationalists. Iraqi Shi`I intellectuals were prominent in the Arab cultural renaissance, and participants in the common national struggles. The modern, educated middle classes participated in a common milieu of civil society and cultural fields, education, media and the arts. Within these classes cross-sect intermarriage was not uncommon.

The Iraqi Communist Party played an important part in the creation of this common milieu, with generalised participation of members from different religious and ethnic backgrounds. This situation continued in the early days of the Ba`th regime, through the 1970s, despite the violent repression of dissent and the Sunni nature of the ruling clique.

It started to shift after the 1979 Iranian revolution, then the war with Iran, 1980-89. It was then that Shi`i political organisation challenged the regime, which responded with characteristic total violence. The public ideological discourse was rarely an attack on the Shi`a as such, but always expressed through a denunciation of enemies with Iranian connections. Saddam did not target the Shi`a as such (though there was plenty of sectarian prejudice and discrimination). The regime was dominated by Sunni clans because those were Saddam’s kin and allies: they did not represent the Sunni totality, which, in any case, did not exist. Individual Shi`a held high positions in the regime, though not in the sensitive security apparatus. It was the Shi`ite institutions and organised activity, especially those with political import that were the particular targets for regime pressure and violence. The Ba`th had succeeded in eliminating or incorporating all centres of power, organisation and revenue in Iraqi society.

The Shi`ite institutions of mujtahids, schools, pilgrimage, husseiniyas (prayer and assembly halls) and rituals, all financed by independent channels of religious revenues, some of it from outside the country (Iran, the Gulf, India), while under constant pressure, surveillance and harassment, were never successfully eliminated.

Many prominent Shi`a figures, notably Baqer al-Sadr and his sister, were imprisoned and executed in 1980. Large numbers of Shi`a communities and families were rounded up and expelled into the desert borders with Iran in several waves, while incarcerating their young men. The ideological rationale of these persecutions was phrased in terms of combating the Persian enemy: the Shi`a victims were Iranians, not Arabs or Iraqis, and not even Muslim. The racist abuses against Persians included questioning their faith and calling them ‘majus’, ‘magians’, and fire-worshippers. These designations related to their Shi`ism, and could be (and was) read as including all Shi`a. The explicit attack on Shi`a, however, was to come during the uprisings in the South following the Iraqi defeat in the Kuwait war in 1991.

The tanks that entered Karbala and attacked the shrines, massacring countless inhabitants, bore the slogan la shi`a ba’da al-yawm (no Shi`a after today). The 1990s and until the 2003 invasion were years of great hardship for Iraqis, and of weakening regime grip on society. It was then that the initially secular Ba`th and Saddam turned to tribe and religion to reinforce social control.

Saddam launched hamlet al-iman, the faith campaign, which favoured Sunni ulama and institutions. Iraqis, in their distress, turned increasingly to religion, with a sharpening of the sectarian lines. Salafi  networks, influences and finances played an important role in this re-Islamisation, and was sectarian in character, connecting Iraqi sentiments with those in the region with increasing polarisation relating to Iranian power and the increasing confidence and activism of the Shi`a in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, as well as the rise and prestige of Hizbullah in Lebanon.

This sectarianism was to be enhanced and sharpened after the American invasion, the removal of the Sunni regime and the rise of Shi`a power. We are now familiar with the sectarian carnage that followed the invasion. The standard view of many commentators was that the removal of authoritarian control exposed the sectarian and ethnic fault lines of Iraq. I, and many others, have argued that it was precisely the authoritarian regime, its violence and impoverishment of many Iraqis under the sanctions regime that drove those Iraqis to seek security and livelihood in local and communal networks and authorities, which were patriarchal, religious and sectarian.

The civil society of earlier decades had withered, millions of its surviving personnel dispersed in neighbouring countries or in the west, those remaining isolated and impoverished. These were the progenitors of the equivalent of the current Tahriri generation that has emerged in many Arab countries and which is largely absent in Iraq. Iraq is now in a desperate state of sectarian, corrupt and failing government: large oil revenues are shared out between ministries and contractors, the lion share under the control of PM Maliki, consolidating his personal power. He is instrumentalising sectarian sentiments and fears to maintain control over a Shi`I population, most of whom are poor, lacking basic facilities and services and threatened by daily violence and random killing.

Poor people continue to seek security and livelihood in survival units of kin, religion and patronage, all of which reinforce sectarian solidarity in the face of regular attacks by Sunni jihadis. A similar quest for survival drives Sunni sectarian solidarity in the face of an openly sectarian government. The Sunni regions of western Iraq are now finding common cause with their Syrian neighbours, thus adding to the sectarian confrontations on a regional scale. Iraqi Shi`a fighters have also entered the Syrian civil war alongside Hizbullah, some, ostensibly, to defend the Shi`i shrines.

The Arab uprisings

The generation that started and continue the Arab uprisings since 2011 are not sectarian, and their demands are for universal values of bread, liberty and dignity. Everywhere they have been confronted by entrenched vested interests of old regimes and its associates, the so-called ‘deep state’ in Egypt, and by Islamist populism. They have been most successful in Tunisia which features no sectarian divisions. Egypt, another largely Sunni country, with a Christian minority, has seen limited success, threatened by ongoing struggles and turbulence. In Syria and the other countries, this ‘Tahriri’ generation has been thwarted and side-lined by sectarian and jihadi forces with opposite objectives. The alignment of regional powers, following geopolitical interests, has sharpened the sectarian lines. I have argued that these alignments are not somehow essential in the history and society of the region, but the product of particular situations and interests.

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