Addressing Americans sceptical of military intervention in Syria, US President Barack Obama noted, ‘in that part of the world, there are ancient sectarian differences.’ Religious conflict – between Christians and Muslims in Egypt and especially between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain and elsewhere in the region – seems worse than at any time in recent history. Indeed, even such time-honoured problems as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute are receding as a sectarian wave washes over the Middle East. Unfortunately, regional competition and the internal weaknesses of many key states will only further sectarianism and violence in the years to come.
Although Obama attributes sectarianism to age-old differences, the reality is far more complex. Religious communities have fought each other for centuries in the Middle East and elsewhere. Yet they have often lived in harmony – side by side, if not always arm in arm. And even when sectarianism has emerged, its intensity and sources have varied considerably.
What explains sectarianism in the Middle East today? Much of it is a bitter by-product of the Arab Spring: the collapse of governments throughout the Middle East has opened up the political space, allowing religious chauvinists to make their play for power and influence. The spread of social media accelerates the process, enabling sectarian messages to reach a broader audience. Regimes such as that in Saudi Arabia also play sectarian cards to shore up popular support and discredit their rivals.
War looms over all of this. First the civil war in Iraq and now the one in Syria have stoked sectarian fires. In Iraq, the Shia majority continues to assert its power over a Sunni minority embittered by its loss of influence. In Syria, the Alawite-led regime, often lumped into a broader Shia community, faces a vast insurgency drawn primarily from the Sunni majority. Throughout the region, partisans aid their friends. Iran, like many other parties, would prefer to avoid a sectarian conflagration, yet adds fuel to the fire because sectarian-based alliances are one of its few means of securing influence.
The United States and its European allies are largely powerless to take on sectarianism directly, but they can diminish it indirectly. The forces driving the conflict are not ancient but they are strong, and the West’s ability to shape the discourse of Islam is weak. The best way to calm the sectarian furies is to build state capacity: weak states with immature institutions easily fall prey to demagogues, while stronger states are better able to channel or ease tensions among their populations.