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U.S. Policymakers Must Understand, Avoid Sectarianism In The Middle East

Iraqi forces walk past near a destroyed Sunni mosque during a patrol looking for militants from the al Qaeda faction, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), explosives and weapons in a neighbourhood in Ramadi (REUTERS/ Ali al-Mashhadani).

Editor's Note: This interview with Tamara Cofman Wittes was originally published by The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs under the headline "The Politics of Sectarianism in the Middle East" on Tuesday, May 20, 2014.

FLETCHER FORUM: Could you please tell us your overall impression of the sectarian violence in Syria and in the Middle East region?

WITTES: Well, look, while there’s a sort of conventional wisdom that the Arab world is homogenous, it’s not. It’s diverse, not just in the sense that it has multiple religious communities in it, but it also has a multitude of ethnic communities in it. And as in any diverse society, there are sometimes tensions and conflicts.

I don’t see sectarianism as driving the war in Syria, but it is certainly a dimension, and it’s one that political actors, both inside Syria and around the region, pick up on and use for their own purposes. And I think that’s exacerbated the extent to which the violence in Syria has become an identity conflict.

You know, when I started out in political science, it was after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the ethnic conflict that was raging in the former Yugoslavia, and at that time there were a lot of people saying things like, “These people have been killing each other for hundreds of years!” And I hear a lot of the same things today about Sunni and Shia in the Arab world “these people have been killing each other for a millennium,” and I think that’s a very simplistic approach.  Sometimes they’ve been killing each other, but they’ve also been living together for a really long time and so you have to get beyond mere sectarian categories and understand the politics and the societal factors behind these kinds of conflicts.

What I would say is groups on the ground fighting inside Syria are appealing for outside support on the basis of sectarian identity, and actors outside are looking at the conflict through the lens of sectarianism. So you have the Gulf Arab states on the one hand, and the Iranians on the other hand seeing the Syrian conflict as a proxy for this regional competition that has been ongoing for a long time, which you could define in sectarian terms as Sunni-Shia, or you could define it in realpolitik terms, as a struggle over the balance of power in the Middle East. So I think that sectarianism is one kind of label you could apply to this broader power competition. And I think the groups who are receiving assistance, reaching out to external actors for support, they see foreign patrons as allies, they see them as backers, as funders, as arms providers. So, you know, it’s a mutually beneficial interaction to be sure.

FLETCHER FORUM: Thinking about the ongoing sectarian conflicts in the region, what concerns do they raise for U.S. foreign policy and perhaps, more generally, the global community?

WITTES: First of all, from a policy perspective the United States is generally not very good at engaging, not very good at grasping conflicts that have significant identity components because we have a civic national identity. We don’t have an ethnic national identity, and though there are a lot of ethnic communities in the United States, that’s not how we define ourselves as a nation state, and so we don’t get that as well as some other countries. We tend to, in our public discourse, think of sectarian or ethnic conflict as somehow irrational, or primordial and, you know, if you could just get people to be rational, then you could resolve the conflict.  That’s just where we come from, that’s our history.

If you understand ethnic and sectarian identity as one piece of political material that political leaders and political entrepreneurs pick up and use to mobilize people, just like others might pick up and use the minimum wage, then you can understand it in context and work on conflict management in a much more effective manner. So I think the challenge for Americans looking at these conflicts is to think about this as politics.

FLETCHER FORUM: So how then, would you define American interests vis à vis sectarian divisions in the region?

WITTES: Let me say a couple of things. First, different actors in the region have tried to pull the United States to one side or another of this sectarian divide, so to speak. When the United States overthrew Saddam Hussein in Iraq and oversaw the establishment of a Shia-led government, the Sunni Arab states were uncomfortable with that. And ever since, they’ve sought to impress upon the United States the desirability of having greater distance from that Shia-led government, and the desirability of seeing that Shia government in Iraq as essentially an ally of Iran. I think in Syria, too, you see pressure from Arab states to look at the Syrian conflict as they do, through a sectarian lens, and to pick sides in that broader regional sectarian conflict.

For a global power with a complex mix of interests like the U.S., it’s neither necessary nor wise to come down on one side of that region-wide sectarian competition. And it’s important for the United States to understand that regional actors do see events in the region through that lens, but that doesn’t mean that we need to choose sides in that dispute.

Also, the Arab world is going through a period of reconfiguration. A lot of political institutions that existed five years ago do not exist today. And other institutions are undergoing tremendous renovations. It’s not surprising that in those transitional conflicts, underlying social tensions, whether they’re about class or ethnicity or about sectarianism emerge as political conflicts. That’s a phenomenon to be expected in this transitional context, just as the argument between Islamists and secularists. But in all of these societies, because they’re living with the legacy of repressive authoritarianism, they don’t have a lot of good mechanisms for dialogue and dispute resolution. And whether you’re dealing with sectarianism or class differences, or Islamist-secularist differences, societies need mechanisms for dialogue and dispute resolution. And political institutions, once they are set up and legitimate, and well established, can serve that purpose. But in this interim period those institutions aren’t there, or aren’t prepared to do that.

FLETCHER FORUM: In countries with major sectarian divisions like Syria, like Iraq, how would you assess the groups currently working to build institutions? 

WITTES: Well I think that, again, these are societies with a heavy legacy of authoritarianism and central authority. And so civic activism is always pushing a rock uphill in that context. But if you are a government recognizing that your society is facing significant structural challenges, economic challenges the demographic challenge of finding productive employment for all these young people who are entering the labor market every year, government can’t solve those problems all by itself. Hopefully over time, governments come to see these civic organizations, these civic activists more and more as partners in the project of national development. I think there are some examples where that’s already happened with wonderful results. In the case of combating domestic violence in Jordan, you have very good partnerships today between the Jordanian government and Jordanian civil society organizations. But, you could see that more and more, there are lots of opportunities for that, I think.

FLETCHER FORUM: Thanks for speaking with us today. Looking at your career, do you have any advice for people studying to enter the profession of international affairs and U.S. foreign policy?

WITTES: Well, I think you’ve got to figure out what you’re passionate about, and go do it. I mean, for me one of the things that drove me into graduate school in international relations was seeing all of that simplistic commentary about the Balkan wars and thinking hey, there’s got to be something more sophisticated to explain this. And so I went into grad school wanting to understand that better, and wanting to get beyond that conventional wisdom. And I think you’ve just got to figure out what you’re passionate about understanding. And then go dig!