Sectarianism and the Politics of the New Middle East

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

With fighting raging in Syria, spill-over effects becoming more apparent in Lebanon, violence increasing in Iraq, tensions simmering in Bahrain and clerical politicians like Hassan Nasrallah and Yusif al-Qaradawi launching calls for war, it is no surprise that sectarianism is the lens through which most outsiders are viewing events in the Middle East. Even the New York Times thinks so, so it must be true.

There is no denying that sectarianism is a real factor in the politics of all these places, and more places, in the region. But it is important to recognize the political context in which sectarianism becomes prominent in a country’s politics and to realize that neither sectarian conflict nor sectarian political alliances are immutable. While religious identities are extremely important and powerful elements of how people define themselves politically, they are neither always dominant nor do they always mean the same thing. The contemporary political context is more important for understanding how sectarianism plays into modern conflicts than is the history of the first Islamic century.

In the experience of the contemporary Arab world, the salience of sectarianism (and other sub-national identities, like tribalism and regionalism) rises as the power of the state declines. When the state is unable to provide basic security and services for its citizens, they have to look to those communities that will protect them and in which they feel safe. Thus, in Arab states like Lebanon and Yemen, where the state has always been weak, sectarian and tribal identities have played an outsized role in politics.

Syria and Iraq are a different kind of case. In each, the Ba’th Party established a dictatorial regime in the 1960’s that set about building a strong, overweening state. The core of the governing elite in each country was overwhelmingly from a sectarian minority – Sunnis in Iraq and Alawis in Syria. Over time, that core elite came to be identified more and more with a particular family from that sectarian minority. But the state did not govern as a sectarian state at the outset in either. Arab nationalism was the official ideology of the state, the focus of the state educational system and the approved discourse of the state media.

However, as the rulers’ control came to be challenged, they relied more and more on fellow sectarians for support, and their opposition came to be identified more and more by its own sectarian (and ethnic, in Kurdish areas) characteristics. By the time that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, sectarian and ethnic identities dominated Iraqi politics as the power of Saddam Hussein’s brutal state contracted under the pressures of economic sanctions and political pressures. The American destruction of what was left of the Iraqi state apparatus exacerbated this trend. Likewise in Syria, what began as a popular, national protest against the Assad dictatorship devolved into a sectarian fight as the reach of the Syrian state contracted. The regime quickly identified its fight for survival as a sectarian struggle, and the opposition reacted in kind.

Even though Lebanon, Syria and Iraq started in different places, they have ended up as a crescent of state weakness in the Arab East, where sub-national sectarian and ethnic identities now dominate politics and drive conflict. But this was not an inevitable path. Had Saddam Hussein not entered into two disastrous wars in 1980 and 1990, perhaps Iraqi state-building, even with him at the helm, might have developed in a more salutary and less sectarian way. Had Bashar al-Assad actually followed through with his early promises of political reform, Syria might have avoided the protests of 2011 and the collapse of state authority it is now experiencing. The severe sectarianization of their politics was not the only result that could have occurred.

Nor is the sectarian line-up of political conflict in these countries necessarily going to dominate their politics in the future. Lebanon is an instructive comparison here. The weakness of the Lebanese state, a characteristic of the elite bargain that created the Lebanese political system decades ago, became even more pronounced with the civil war of the 1970’s and 1980’s. So it is not surprising that sectarianism remains the driver of its politics. But the axes of conflict and alliance have changed over time. At the height of the civil war, it was a Christian v. Muslim dynamic. Now, Sunnis and Shia square off, with Christians divided between support for the March 14 and March 8 coalitions. It is still sectarian politics, but the scorecard is very different. This is a useful reminder that politics and political choices are not completed controlled by a logic of sectarianism.

Syria, Iraq and even Lebanon are not condemned in the long term to the deep sectarian conflicts that now drive their politics. But to escape the destructive path they are all on, their political elites are going to have to find a way to agree on a way to reconstruct their states on a basis of inclusive citizenship rather than sub-national sectarian and ethnic identities. That is a hard, but not an impossible, task and one that I look forward to being addressed at the forthcoming U.S. Islamic World Forum in Doha this weekend.