Sectarianism in conflicts in the Middle East

Summary: sectarianism is a symptom of the problem, not the underlying problem itself.  Many of the region’s conflicts are more about ethnic identity and nationalism, but Arab dictators use sectarianism to bolster their positions.

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5 thoughts on “Sectarianism in conflicts in the Middle East”

  1. I’d like to add a belated comment, if I may, to other comments on sectarianism. It certainly had no role in Libya’s divisions since Libyans are not only almost universally Sunni but also follow the same, Maliki, madhhab. On the other hand, I would hesitate to downplay the sectarian divide in Bahrain. It went into abeyance in the 1950s and 60s when opposition was expressed in leftist/Nasserist terms and religion was not part of the political vocabulary (although the socially disadvantaged Shia were active in the unions and other oppostion). It came back after the Islamic revolution and, with it, sectarianism. Al Wefaq was essentially the Shia political party. At the other, Salafi, end of the spectrum was Asala. Ibrahim Sherif was unusual as a secular left wing politician in the pre-1979 oppositionist tradition. It is no surprise that he should have been at the Pearl Roundabout or that there will have been some other Sunnis in the early days. Similarly, not all Shia were supportive. I know from Shia friends that violence and the threat of violence near the roundabout and at barricades on roads in central Manama, as well as at Shia village approaches, became severe and they had no trouble identifying the villagers who were responsible. Can I also suggest that we do not treat the Al Khalifa as monolithic. Although none would want to surrender power, they had different views on how to retain it. Contrast the Crown Prince and his negotiations with the repressive behaviour of the Khawalid, their supporters and their Saudi backers.

  2. While I agree with the general flavour of this piece, I’d take mild issue with: “In that sense, it was the dictatorships that imported sectarian strife into their countries. In Iraq, this minority was the Sunni Arabs of the north-west who provided the republican guard of Saddam Hussein and his predecessors. In Syria, it was the Shi’i Alawis from the coastal Nusayri Mountains under Hafez al Assad and Bashar, his son.” To an extent, it was less the dictators and more the preceding (Western) colonial powers which “imported sectarian strife into their countries”: each selected a minorty as their favoured groups. In Syria, it was the Alawis; in Mesopotamia, it was the Assyrians. The British also imported / installed a (Hijazi) Sunni monarch in Iraq. The Assyrians were massacred by the Sunni Arabs on the British departure; the British looked away. As well as the kleptocracy, the Assyrian massacre may explain in part why the Alawis will fight to the last to retain power in Syria – because they’ve seen what happens if they lose it.)
    It’s also worth remembering that while “Sunni Arabs constitute less than a quarter of the Iraqi population”, there has been a steady process of Shi’ification of southern Iraq, and that an (eg 15%) swing from one to another has a doubling (eg 30%) effect on the sectarian demographics. This explains in part why the Sunni Arabs believe that their demographic numbers are higher than they are – now.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I think what happened in Iraq and Syria during the Mandates was slightly different in each country and has to be distinguished.
      In Iraq, you are correct in stating that the Assyrian Christian minority (who came to Iraq as refugees from Anatolia during the First World War) were favoured by the British and recruited as levies, leading to resentment against them. When you state that the Assyrians “were massacred by the Sunni Arabs on the British departure”, I assume you are referring to the events of the summer of 1933. The harsh repression of the Assyrians was carried out by the Iraqi army under Col. Bakr Sidqi. This took the form of massacres of hundreds of Assyrian villagers by the army, aided by Kurdish tribesmen. What led to these atrocities was the perception in Baghdad, fuelled by hysteria in the press, that the Assyrians were intent on establishing their own autonomous enclave and were prepared to use force to do so. Bakr Sidqi and his political masters saw themselves as acting to preserve the unity of the Iraqi state, rather than engaging in sectarian conflict – although as the Assyrians are a distinct religious group (as well as an ethnic one, speaking their own language) I think the question of whether their repression was at bottom for purely secular political (i.e. nationalist) purposes or also had a sectarian/religious element is complex. Please see Tripp, A History of iraq (2007 ed.), p. 78.. You are right that the British looked the other way when the massacres took place, but I don’t think you are right that the British chose the Assyrians as their favoured clients over the Sunni Arabs.
      I deal with the “Shi’ification” of southern Iraq in A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is. Most of this took place in the nineteenth century although it continued into the twentieth. You are right that Britain placed Faisal, a Sunni king, on the throne of the newly created Iraq but I don’t think they created the strife between Sunnis and Shi’is. Remember that Faisal chose the Shi’i feast of the day of Ghadir Khumm as his coronation day. The fact that he was a direct descendant of the Prophet also counted for something among Shi’is. He did make efforts to reach out to Iraqis from all communities (I recently discovered that his personal bodyguard contained at least one Jew). The problem was that the country’s “establishment” was predominantly Sunni Arab, so the Shi’i majority could easily feel excluded. Nevertheless, the situation was not entirely static. In the latter years of the monarchy before its bloody overthrow in 1958 there were four Shi’i prime ministers. Sunnis would also sometimes convert to Shi’ism because of matters concerning inheritance law, and I have been told that members of the Sunni elite understood this and had little problem with it.
      As regards Syria, the French certainly tried to foster sectarian identities (I write about all this in another book, Syria: A Recent History) but the remarkable thing to my mind is how they had relatively little success – as was born out by the cooperation among nationalist rebels irrespective of their sect during the great rebellion of 1925-7. The French certainly recruited many Alawis into their troupes speciales but I don’t think this was why in the 1950s and ’60s (long after the departure of the French) so many Alawis rose to the top of the military. The important thing is that they did so as cliques, which often included non-Alawis. Nor were the Alawis united against all others. Remember that Hafez al Assad came to power in a coup he carried out against Salah Jadid, his predecessor who was also an Alawi. He kept Saleh Jadid in prison until his death. He also had trusted Sunnis and other non-Alawis in key positions, and preserved Syria’s secular ethos.
      I don’t think the fear of today’s Alawis in Syria is connected with what happened to the Assyrians in Iraq in 1933. To the extent that there is fear in the Alawi community it is much more to do with takfiri groups like ISIS/Daesh and the danger of quasi-tribal retribution against them because of the atrocities the regime has carried out. Remember, too, that there have been prominent Alawi dissidents who are opposed to the regime – consider Samar Yazbek and her book The Crossing.

  3. I have not had the opportunity to read John’s book and I look forward to doing so. The pro-democracy movement in Bahrain was not sectarian when it commenced. True the bulk of the peaceful demonstrators who took over Pearl Roundabout Feb 14 2011 were from the majority Shia community but they were joined by many Sunni Bahrainis of whom Ibrahim Sharif, the leader of the secular Wa’ad society was probably the most prominent. I can recall a Bahraini friend who is Sunni speaking to me from Pearl Roundabout on the evening of the 14th making the point that people had come together without sectarian consideration to call for democratic reform. And I recall to a sign held up by a protester in those early days “We are neither Shia nor Sunni, we are Bahraini”.
    It was the ruling al Khalifa who chose to play the sectarian card as a means of maintaining power. They played it ruthlessly and effectively, treating legitimate, peaceful protest as an attempt by Iran to overthrow the regime. It is a charge that was invoked in 2011 and continues to this day, used to repress the call for freedom of expression, freedom of gathering and the call to move toward a constitutional monarchy where power is shared with the people. The repression came down extremely hard on the Shia community but it also caught up many Sunni, including Ibrahim Sharif who spent several years in jail. Other Sunni have been attacked in social media as traitors and collaborators with Iran.

    1. Thank you very much for this valuable and very interesting eyewitness testimony. In my book I only touch on events in Bahrain in 2011, but I agree that, at least at the start of the protests, they were not sectarian. What you witnessed and were told by Bahrainis fits exactly with what Toby Matthiessen also witnessed and wrote about in Sectarian Gulf, which I would recommend if you do not already know it.

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