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.

We are grateful to John McHugo for today’s posting. John is an honorary Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at St Andrews, and a board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding and the British Egyptian Society. He is the author of the new book “A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is”.

Let us stand back for a second and ask whether sectarianism is really the root cause of the instability and conflicts tearing the Middle East apart. This view has become a fashionable cliché, so it deserves to be examined. We can begin by observing that there is no sectarian element in quite a few Middle Eastern conflicts. The Darfur genocide in Sudan is one example, since all groups concerned are Sunni Muslims. The same applies to the fighting between the various factions in Libya, while Russia’s invasion of Georgian South Ossetia in 2008 was a case of Orthodox Christian fighting Orthodox Christian. Nor is there a sectarian element at the root of the conflicts and disputes concerning Kurdish communities in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. These are about Kurdish ethnic identity and nationalism, and the relations of Kurds with the dominant ethnic groups.

So if some conflicts in the Middle East have no sectarian element, what of those which do? Consider Syria and Iraq. No one would seriously dispute that sectarianism was unleashed in Iraq following the 2003 invasion and that the country tore itself apart after the 2006 bombing of the Twelver Shi’i shrines of Samarra. This vicious and coldly-calculated sectarian attack was carried out by the predecessors of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. When Syria also imploded in the years after 2011, sectarianism became an element in the nightmare of civil and proxy wars that have destroyed Syrian society and have not yet come to a conclusion.

Before and after the Second World War, both Syria and Iraq were on a path to democracy but that democracy was fragile and under great stress. It was to be blown away by dictatorships that came to power in coups. Dictatorships are by definition insecure, and need to find at least an element of popular support in order to sustain themselves, no matter how efficient their secret police.

What lies at the root of today’s sectarian tragedy in both Syria and Iraq is the fact that their dictators relied on henchmen drawn disproportionately from the religious minority from which they themselves came. 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. Sunni Arabs constitute less than a quarter of the Iraqi population. In Syria, the Alawis are roughly eleven per cent. In neither case was a religious sect  taking power or the dictator seeking to establish some kind of theocracy. On the contrary, each dictator ruled over a secular state and supported the secular ethos.

Yet the easiest way to find support was through quasi-tribal patronage. Each dictator sought out people on whom he could rely. This began with his own family and friends as well as trusted colleagues, then extended to other people from his home region. Inevitably, this soon extended to other members of the same sect. Patronage flowed in that direction, and this soon led to cronyism and a blind eye to much corruption, as well as to resentment by the majority. This was sectarianism by default, not by design.

In the absence of all accountability and transparency, the ruthless suppression of democratic opposition in both countries opened the door to sectarian politics. In Iraq this led to the mobilisation of the Shi’i majority after 2003. Following the outrage at Samarra in 2006, the country slid into a civil war in which the tables were turned on the Sunni minority that had dominated the country until the invasion of 2003. This, in turn, led eventually to a Sunni reaction and to ISIS which swept across northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014. Its terrifying success would probably not have happened but for the neglect and alienation of the Sunnis by the new, democratically elected, Shi’i dominated government.

In Syria, the domination of the country by cronies of the regime who were disproportionately Alawi led to the growth of sectarianism in the 1970s, notably in the 1979 Aleppo artillery school massacre and subsequently. After 2011, Syria slid into a multi-sided civil war fuelled by the meddling of foreign powers. Hard-line Sunni groups emerged and grew stronger at the expense of the opposition forces that aspired to a democratic future. These hard-line groups demonised and murdered Alawis and secularists.

The grievances that caused the implosion of Iraq and Syria were the repression, corruption and cronyism of the regimes, rather than any privileged position for the minority sect from which the president and so many of his acolytes and secret policemen came. Yet the resentment this created inevitably opened the door to sectarian politics.

Saudi Arabia and Iran have stoked the fires of sectarian conflict in both countries. Yet ultimately their struggles for hegemony always trump their sectarian sympathies, not only in Syria and Iraq but elsewhere in the region. Thus, Iran has provided support for the Sunni Palestinian movement Hamas, while Saudi Arabia maintains a relationship with Muqtada al-Sadr, the important  Iraqi Shi’i political leader.

When looking to the future and seeking solutions, defusing the sectarianism that has become so toxic in recent decades is obviously a priority, but sectarianism must be recognised ultimately as a symptom of the problem, not the underlying problem itself. Assuming that sectarianism is the cause distracts attention from the issues that have created it: gangster-style dictatorships with high levels of repression and corruption, the absence of accountability, transparency and freedom of speech, low levels of education and literacy, and the failure to build a diversified and successful modern economy. It would also help if it were acknowledged that the flawed state formation in the Middle East (for which Britain and France carry much responsibility) has also been a factor that has made it considerably harder for many Arab countries to find their way in the modern world. Putting the majority sect into power through democratic elections is not enough, as the Iraqi experience has shown.

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