Sectarianism has been used as a blanket explanation for all the Middle East’s ills, or completely dismissed as an epiphenomenon of more tangible struggles for territory and resources. But somewhere between these two positions lies a more nuanced approach that understands the historical roots of the Sunni-Shia rift and does not fall into the trap of casting it as deterministic of the region’s future. In her book, “The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a – Sunni Divide,” Geneive Abdo emphasizes such an approach and argues that the Arab uprisings have brought the question of religious identity and authority to the forefront.
Abdo argues that even if there was “agreement over what constitutes an Iraqi, a Syrian, an Egyptian, a Bahraini, or a Lebanese, the recent uprisings have brought religious identity to a new place of importance.” She contends that many Western analysts have failed to incorporate the religious dimension of conflicts in the region, resulting in an inadequate analytical paradigm. Her rich analysis is supported by extensive field interviews documenting the evolution of sectarianism in places like Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain. Abdo identifies how sectarianism has changed after the Arab uprisings by highlighting three important dynamics.
Sectarianism operates on two levels
First, Abdo argues that sectarianism operates on two levels that feed off one another: a top-down geopolitical level, and a bottom-up societal level. Perhaps one of the most dangerous shifts since the Arab uprisings is the exacerbation of societal sectarianism. Each shock of conflict or instability leads communities to perceive “the other,” or those outside one’s community, with new suspicions and growing mistrust. It is unrealistic to expect Iraqi society to heal the wounds of sectarian polarization or restore its war-torn social fabric anytime soon, even if the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) were completely defeated today. Abdo explains that even in a less chaotic context like Bahrain, sectarian tensions after 2011 have seeped into communal relations and manifested in self-segregation in neighborhoods and shops.
Undoubtedly, state failure, external intervention, and the way in which states, and non-state actors use the ‘sectarian card’ has contributed to the intensification of sectarianism. Abdo alludes to these factors but emphasizes internal rather than external drivers of sectarian politics. Such a perspective risks missing the important role played by colonial powers in shaping current state institutions in countries like Lebanon, or how the US invasion of Iraq caused the complete restructuring of Iraqi state institutions along sectarian lines.
Historiography, not just history, is necessary to understand sectarianism
When destabilizing political conditions erupt, they awaken an existing history of religious differences between Sunnis and Shias. This leads to the second dynamic Abdo highlights in the book. She argues that understanding the religious differences between Sunnis and Shias does not mean simply uncovering the history of events leading up to the split and its aftermath. Rather, one must also deconstruct the narratives each sect has developed to describe that history. In Abdo’s words, exploring the differences between Sunnis and Shias is “an exercise not so much in history as in historiography – that is, in the critical reading of those traditions.” Abdo asserts the need to historicize how differences in theology, religious practice, and political attitudes emerged over time and continue to evolve. One illustrative example is how the battle of Karbala is narrated differently within and between sects. The story of Imam Hussain’s martyrdom has inspired both political quietism and activism within different Shia communities depending on their political, economic, and social contexts.
It is not just the Sunni-Shia divide
Third, Abdo argues that in addition to a Sunni-Shia divide, there are also Sunni-Sunni and Shia-Shia divides. These contestations happen simultaneously, which adds another layer of complexity to sectarianism. Abdo notes that one dimension in the Shia-Shia divide can be found in the historic rivalry between the Najaf and Qom seminaries. Unlike many clerics in Qom, the Najaf religious establishment in Iraq, including its highest authority Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, never endorsed the concept of clerical rule, or velayat-e-faqih. Traditionalist Shia clerics in Najaf view this doctrine as a departure from traditional Shia doctrine and uphold the concept of clerical non-interference in politics. But political instability, the rise of ISIL, and Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq is compromising Najaf’s attempts to preserve its historical autonomy. Abdo’s argument centers on whether or not the successor of Sistani in Najaf will align with Iran’s religious doctrine. This new development, whichever direction it takes, will have repercussions across the region.
Meanwhile, on the Sunni-Sunni front, the decreasing influence of traditional religious authorities has made religious interpretation “free-for-all.” Whether it is ISIL, Al Qaeda, or traditional quietist Salafists, each group claims to have a monopoly over religious truth.
Abdo’s New Sectarianism, which provides a rich and raw account of sectarianism, can be added to the list of must-read books on post-2011 sectarian politics. It seems that Abdo restricted her analysis to the cases where she was able to conduct direct field interviews. While this adds depth to the analysis, the book could have benefited from a deeper look at how communities and religious figures in other contexts such as Iran, Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia understand sectarianism beyond the frame of state-led geopolitics. Still, the book – in particular Abdo’s discussion of the Twitter feeds of prominent Salafi politicos – offers a unique window into how sectarian narratives are cast on modern events as they occur. Battles in Iraq and Syria today are viewed as existential struggles that are analogous to battles that occurred in Umayyad or Abbasid times. For Western analysts who prefer to defer to tangible motives of conflict, this book will challenge them to recognize religion’s nuanced importance in the region’s current conflicts.
Sumaya Almajdoub is a Middle East Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). Sumaya expects to receive an MA in Middle East Studies from George Washington University in 2017.