Interview: sectarianization as a process

Sectarianization-book-coverNader Hashemi and I recently gave the following interview to Jadaliyya about our new co-edited book Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, followed by an excerpt from our co-authored introduction to the volume.

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, eds. Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (Oxford University Press and Hurst, 2017).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi (DP and NH): Over the last several years, a narrative has taken root in Western media and policy circles that attributes the turmoil and violence engulfing the Middle East to supposedly ancient sectarian hatreds. “Sectarianism” has become a catchall explanation for virtually all of the region’s problems. Thomas Friedman, for instance, claims that in Yemen today “the main issue is the seventh century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis.” Barack Obama has been one the biggest proponents of this thesis. On several occasions, he has invoked “ancient sectarian differences” to explain the turmoil in the region. In his final State of the Union address, he asserted that the issues plaguing the Middle East today are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” A more vulgar version of this view prevails among right-wing commentators. But in one form or another, this new sectarian essentialism, which is lazy and convenient — and deeply Orientalist — has become the new conventional wisdom in the West.

Our book forcefully challenges this narrative and offers an alternative set of explanations for the rise in sectarian conflict in the Middle East in recent years. Emphasis on recent: the book demonstrates that the sharp sectarian turn in the region’s politics is largely a phenomenon of the last few decades — really since 1979 — and that pundits who imagine it as an eternal or fixed feature of the Middle East are reading history backwards. So the book is an exercise in refutation and ideology critique on the one hand, while also offering a set of rigorous social scientific arguments about what exactly is driving the intensification of sectarian conflict in the Middle East today. Our contributors come from political science, history, anthropology, and religious studies, and it is from this range of disciplines that we present a social and political theory as well as a critical history of sectarianism.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

(DP and NH): The first section of the book offers big-picture historical, theoretical, and geopolitical perspectives on the sectarianization process — that is, the escalation of sectarian conflict in recent years. The second section dives into a series of case studies, examining how the sectarianization process has played out in Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and Kuwait. The concluding chapter explores the prospects of reversing the sectarianization process.

The book addresses a range of literatures: in the introduction, we draw on the literature on ethno-nationalist mobilization and evaluate the primordialist, instrumentalist, and constructivist schools of thought; in his chapter, Adam Gaiser revisits debates among sociologists of religion about the nature of sects and engages with theories of narrative identity; Fanar Haddad applies critical race theory to the politics of sectarianism in Iraq; Paulo Gabriel Hilu Pinto draws on the anthropologist Robert Weller’s concepts of saturation and precipitation to illuminate the sectarianization of the Syrian conflict; Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi draws on international relations theory — specifically Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Raymond A. Hinnebusch’s concept of “middle powers” in a “penetrated regional system” — to make sense of Iran’s role in the sectarianization process; drawing from the literature on republicanism, Islamism, and post-Islamism, Stacey Philbrick Yadav develops her original concept of “Islamist republicanism” and explores what she calls “convergent republicanism” among adversarial Islamists in Yemen; Toby Matthiesen deploys the concept of “securitization” associated with the Copenhagen school of critical security studies to examine the sectarianization process in Bahrain; Bassel Salloukh draws on Foucault, Gramsci, and James Tully in his analysis of what he calls the disciplinary logic of the sectarian system in Lebanon; Timothy D. Sisk draws on the growing body of research on ethnic and religious violence and post-conflict peacebuilding in search of lessons for de-sectarianization.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

(DP and NH): In 2013 and 2014 we were deeply engaged in the literature and the debate on the Syrian conflict. We organized two international conferences — one at the University of Denver, one at SOAS in London — and co-edited a book on the subject. It struck us that all sorts of journalists, activists, and even some scholars, across the ideological spectrum, characterized the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms. Prominent Syria commentators referred to the protests that began in March 2011 as a “Sunni uprising.” Diplomats cautioned against the West taking sides in “ancient” blood feuds. Some left-wing journalists and activists unwittingly echoed these essentialist, Orientalist tropes. This narrative of course belied the decidedly non-sectarian origins of the Syrian uprising. The slogans and demands of Syrian protesters throughout the spring and summer of 2011 were exactly those of the other Arab uprisings: dignity, social justice, democratic rights, an end to dictatorship. The Syrians making these demands came from various backgrounds and represented a cross-section of the society: Alawis, Christians, Druze, Ismailis, and Sunnis (Kurds, Armenians, and Arabs alike) took to the streets and demonstrated together, along with secular Syrians.

This history had been erased, and very quickly, in the sectarian narrative that took hold. We wanted to push back on that distorted narrative, but we also wanted to make sense of how exactly the Syrian conflict became sectarianized. So our interest in the sectarianization process emerged very directly out of our work on Syria. But we saw a pattern across the region: uprisings that began as non-sectarian/cross-sectarian but morphed into sectarian battles. In Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and beyond, the sectarianization process took different forms in different countries, but the underlying dynamic was remarkably consistent. We thus set out to assemble the case studies, drawing on the leading experts on those countries, but also to theorize the phenomenon as a whole.

Our longstanding interest in democratic theory and social movements also animated this project. Nader Hashemi’s book Islam, Secularism, and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societiesmakes a case for democratic pluralism in the Islamic world. The sectarianization process has undermined the struggle for democracy in Muslim societies by sowing division and cultivating hatred, to borrow Peter Gay’s felicitous phrase. Danny Postel worked in the US labor movement for several years (for the organization Interfaith Worker Justice, and for a coalition of labor unions and community organizations). His interest in labor movements in the MENA region (and progressive political mobilization more generally) is related to the issue of sectarianization insofar as the former is an example of people organizing around issues of shared interests and aims that transcend religious identity. It’s vital to remember that there have been all kinds of labor movements and other forms of political mobilization in the region and that the politics of the Middle East have not always revolved around sectarianism — nor must they forever.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

(DP and NH): Our aims are ambitious: we want to change the very terms of the public conversation about sectarianism and to put a major dent in the currently ascendant narrative about why the Middle East is awash in violence today. We want to put the term sectarianization into general circulation and see it become part of the vocabulary of political debate.

We hope all sorts of people will read the book — scholars, journalists, researchers, policymakers, diplomats, religious leaders, and practitioners in the world of conflict resolution, peacebuilding, and human development. The book will soon be translated into Arabic, which is hugely important to us. We would love to see the Arabic edition reach not only scholars but people on the ground in the societies the book examines, especially religious leaders and activists engaged in cross-sectarian organizing. Those are the efforts that will chart the path beyond the maelstrom of sectarianization.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

(DP and NH): We’ve been developing a project on cross-ideological coalition building in deeply divided societies focused mainly on Tunisia and Egypt, but also drawing on cases outside the region. Nader is working on an intellectual and political history of Iran’s Green movement, and a volume on Islam and human rights. Danny is writing something on Syria and tragedy. Down the road he hopes to do something on the role of labor movements in the MENA region.


Excerpt from the Introduction

“The Sectarianization Thesis: A Social Theory of Sectarianism”:

This book forcefully challenges the lazy and Orientalist reliance on “sectarianism” as a catch-all explanation for the ills afflicting the Middle East today. We propose to shift the discussion of sectarianism by providing analternative interpretation of this subject that can better explain the various conflicts in the Middle East and why they have morphed from nonsectarian or cross-sectarian (and nonviolent) uprisings/movements intosectarianized battles and civil wars. The contributors to this volume—who include political scientists, historians, anthropologists, and religious studies scholars—examine this phenomenon as it has unfolded over a definite period of time via specific mechanisms. Through multiple case studies (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Iran) and with historical and theoretical chapters exploring the nature and evolution of sectarianization, they analyze and map this process, exploring not only how but why it has happened.

Conflict between sectarian Muslim groups has intensified dramatically in recent years. But why? What explains the upsurge in sectarian conflict at this particular moment in multiple Muslim societies? How can we best understand this phenomenon?

To answer this question, we propose the term sectarianization: a process shaped by political actors operating within specific contexts, pursuing political goals that involve popular mobilization around particular (religious) identity markers. Class dynamics, fragile states, and geopolitical rivalries also shape the sectarianization process. The term sectarianism is typically devoid of such reference points. It tends to imply a static given, a trans-historical force—an enduring and immutable characteristic of the Arab Islamic world from the seventh century until today.

The theme of political authoritarianism is central to the sectarianization thesis. This form of political rule has long dominated the politics of the Middle East, and its corrosive legacy has deeply sullied the polities and societies of the region. Authoritarianism, not theology, is the critical factor that shapes the sectarianization process. Authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have deliberately manipulated sectarian identities in various ways as a strategy for deflecting demands for political change and perpetuating their power. This anti-democratic political context is essential for understanding sectarian conflict in Muslim societies today, especially in those societies that contain a mix of Sunni and Shi‘a populations. To paraphrase the famous Clausewitz aphorism about war as a continuation of politics by other means, sectarian conflict in the Middle East today is the perpetuation of political rule via identity mobilization.

[W]hy are these conflicts intensifying now; and why in this particular region of the world? In other words, what explains the flaring of sectarian conflict at specific moments in time and in some places rather than others? Sunni–Shi‘a relations, for example, were not always conflict-ridden, nor was sectarianism a strong political force in modern Muslim politics until recently. How did Syrians and Iraqis with different sectarian identities manage to coexist for centuries without mass bloodshed? How did these pluralistic mosaics come unglued so precipitously? What are the key forces driving sectarianization?

The Geopolitics of Sectarianism: 1979, 2003, 2011

The key regional development that shaped the rise of sectarianism was the 1979 revolution in Iran. Western-backed dictatorships in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, feared that the spread of revolutionary Islam could cross the Persian Gulf and sweep them from power in the same manner as the Pahlavi monarchy had been toppled. In response, the Saudi kingdom and other Sunni authoritarian regimes invested significant resources in undermining the power and appeal of the Iranian revolution, seeking to portray it as a distinctly Shi‘a/Persian phenomenon based on a corruption of the Islamic tradition.32 Sunni Muslims, they argued, should not be duped by this distortion of the Prophet Muhammad’s message. Anti-Shi‘a polemics in the Sunni world increased dramatically during this period, fueled by significant sums of Arab Gulf money. Sunni–Shi‘a relations were deeply affected by this development, and Pakistan was an early battleground where this conflict played out.


The key international event at this time was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Western support for the Afghan Mujahedeen, backed by Saudi petrodollars, produced a Sunni militant movement that attracted radical Islamists from around the world, most notably Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. This constellation of forces eventually morphed into al-Qaeda. The ideological orientation of these Salafist–jihadi groups was decidedly anti-Shi‘a, both in theory and practice, buttressed as it was by a neo-Wahhabi reading of the world.

The Saudi–Iranian rivalry is critical to understanding the rise of sectarianism in Muslim societies at the end of the twentieth century. Both Tehran and Riyadh lay claim to leadership of the Islamic world, and since 1979 they have battled for hearts and minds across the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Asia.

[T]he 2003 US invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq marked a turning point in Saudi–Iranian relations, and subsequently in sectarian relations across the region.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein dramatically affected the regional balance of power. The rise of Shi‘a Islamist parties in Iraq allied with Iran set off alarm bells in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The subsequent Iraqi civil war, which after 2006 had a clear sectarian dimension to it, further inflamed Sunni–Shi‘a relations across the Middle East. The rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon was also a factor during this period. Its ability to expel Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000 and its perceived victory against Israel in the summer of 2006 increased the popularity and prestige of this Shi‘a militant group as a revolutionary force on the Sunni “Arab street.” An opinion poll at this time listed the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, as the most popular leader in the region, a fact that highlights both the chasm between state and society in the Arab world and explains how anti-imperialism trumped sectarian identity at the grassroots level during this period.

Around this time, King Abdullah II of Jordan reflected a common concern among Sunni Arab regimes when he invoked the specter of a new “Shi‘a Crescent.” Linking Beirut with Tehran and running through Damascus and Baghdad, this perceived rolling thunder threatened to dominate the politics of the region in the name of a new brand of transnational Shi‘a solidarity.

The “Arab Spring” of 2011 marked another turning point in Saudi–Iran relations and, consequently, in Sunni–Shi‘a relations more broadly. The Arab uprisings shook the foundations of Middle East authoritarianism. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia relied on sectarianism to deflect attention from popular demands for political change and to advance their influence in the region. The Saudi case is easier to diagnose and is better known. The Saudi regime blamed protests in Bahrain and in eastern Saudi Arabia on a Shi‘a conspiracy allegedly orchestrated from Tehran, while the Assad regime and its Iranian backers attributed the (nonviolent) Syrian protests of 2011 to Salafist “terrorists” supported by Riyadh and hell-bent on toppling Iran’s key regional ally in Damascus. The Iranian case of sectarianization is more subtle and less well known.

In the case of Syria, Iran has utilized a distinct sectarian narrative, albeit a subtle one, to mobilize support for the Assad regime, as Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi explains in his chapter in this volume. While officially Tehran claims that it is supporting the “legitimate” government in Damascus and fighting ISIS, all Syrian rebels are depicted as Salafi–jihadis who are bent on exterminating minorities should Assad be toppled. As the war in Syria has dragged on, Iran has organized a transnational Shi‘a militia movement from among the poor and devout Shi‘a communities of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq. These militias are recruited through an explicitly sectarian narrative that draws on classic Shi‘a themes of persecution, martyrdom, and sacrifice. The imminent threat of the destruction of Shi‘a shrines in Syria is invoked, and financial compensation, educational opportunities, and Iranian citizenship are offered as an incentive package.

The key claim of this book is that sectarianism fails to explain the current disorder in the Middle East. Viewing the region through a sectarian prism clouds rather than illuminates the complex realities of the region’s politics. The current instability is more accurately seen as rooted in a series of developmental crises stemming from the collapse of state authority. At the dawn of the twenty-first century a series of UN Arab Human Development Reports forecast and predicted that this region was headed for a deep crisis unless these problems were addressed. The foreign policies of leading Western states toward the Arab-Islamic world have only made matters worse.

While it is true that religious identities are more salient in the politics of the Middle East today than they were in previous periods, it is also true that these identities have been politicized by state actors in pursuit of political gain. Authoritarianism is the key context for understanding this problem. In other words, there is a symbiotic relationship between social pressure from below—demands for greater inclusion, rights, recognition, and representation—and the refusal by the state from above to share or relinquish power. This produces a crisis of legitimacy that ruling elites must carefully manage to retain power. The result of this political dynamic is sectarianization.

[Excerpted from Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, with author permission, (c) 2017.]



Author: Danny Postel

I'm a writer, editor, researcher, and activist. I'm currently Politics Editor of New Lines Magazine. Previously I was Assistant Director of the Center for International & Area Studies at Northwestern University and Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. I'm the author of Reading Legitimation Crisis in Tehran (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2006) and co-editor (with Nader Hashemi) of three books: The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (Melville House, 2010), The Syria Dilemma (MIT Press, 2013), and Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (Hurst/OUP, 2017). My writing has appeared in The American Prospect, Boston Review, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs, Constellations: An International Journal of Critical and Democratic Theory, Critical Inquiry, Dædalus (the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences), Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, Dissent, Global Discourse: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Current Affairs, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, In These Times, Middle East Policy, Middle East Report (MERIP), The Nation, New Politics, the New York Times, The Progressive, Salmagundi, and the Washington Post, among other publications. My work has been translated into Arabic, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish. I taught English as a Foreign Language at St. Augustine College, the Latino Outreach Program of National Louis University, and the Howard Area Community Center (1993-1998), taught Spanish at St. Tarcissus Elementary School, now part of Pope Francis Global Academy (1995-1999), was an editor at Encyclopædia Britannica (1999-2001), a staff writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education (2001-2003), a visiting instructor in the journalism program at Columbia College Chicago (2004), Senior Editor of openDemocracy magazine (2004-2007), Communications Coordinator for the organization Interfaith Worker Justice (2007-2011), Editor of The Common Review, the magazine of the Great Books Foundation (2010-2011), and Communications Specialist for Stand Up! Chicago, a coalition of grassroots groups and labor unions in Chicago (2011-2012).

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