Beyond Sunni and Shia: challenging sectarianism in a changing Middle East


One could be forgiven for thinking Iraq remains a tangled mess of sectarian division and political failings, whose people are incapable of resolving their differences and working together to rebuild the country, notes the Hoover Institution’s Kori Schake. Those who believe the people of the Middle East unsuited to democracy may even take satisfaction their bias has been borne out by events. That is not what I saw in Iraq, she wrote for the Atlantic:

What I saw in Iraq this last week was a prime minister striving to build commonality across sectarian communities, to redress grievances and put his personal stamp on efforts to establish accountability for the conduct of security forces. Sectarian leaders are jockeying for position in advance of next year’s parliamentary elections. Politics rather than violence is the means Iraqis are using to contest the crucial issues—even the Kurds mildly say their referendum will be non-binding, “the start of a negotiation” rather than an ultimatum (although it must be admitted that comes only after the U.S. conveying it will not recognize the referendum nor support Kurdish independence).

After championing the reconquest of Mosul, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi has over the past month forcefully stared down a Kurdish independence bid and extended the Iraqi government’s reach into disputed areas controlled by Kurdish militias since 2014. Abadi, once written off as a weak functionary, now is more popular than ever, The Washington Post reported.

Iraqi analysts spoken to by Middle East Eye paint a picture of Abadi building over his decades as a political underling, where the inner workings of government were studied, power circles pinpointed and potential rivals placated rather than destroyed.

“Abadi presented a new model” for resolving political conflict in Iraq, said Rahman al-Jobori of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. “Iraq’s politics have for decades been dominated by ostentatious display. Abadi works quietly and shuns the limelight. That’s the difference,” he said.

Iraqi’s robust civil society is also focused on finding alternative solutions to the root causes of conflicts (e.g. combating corruption and ending sectarian policies), according to a recent analysis.

A number of civil society organizations and women activists in Sulaimani gathered on Sunday (November 12) in protest of amending the Iraqi Personal Status Law and measures to affect women and girls’ matrimonial matters, according to reports:

The Iraqi Personal Status Law 188 of 1959 is an amalgamation of liberal Islamic rules as well as some divergences. It restricts child marriages (by setting the legal age of marriage at 18 years), bans forced marriages and restricts polygamy; it curtails men’s prerogatives in divorce, expands women’s rights in divorce, extends child custody to mothers, and improves inheritance rights for women. It remains one of the most liberal laws in the Arab world with respect to women’s rights. Moreover, the law is meant to be applied across all social and sectarian groups in Iraq. It does not differentiate between the various religious communities and thus sustains social and communal coexistence and national unity.

Instead of treating distinctions between and within Sunni and Shia Islam as primordial and immutable, a new study – Beyond Sunni and Shia: The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East – examines how political economy, geopolitics, domestic governance, social media, non- and sub-state groups, and clerical elites have affected the transformation and diffusion of sectarian identities.

The book takes as its starting point the limitations of viewing the region’s travails through the lens of religious identity conflict, says its editor, Frederic Wehrey, a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

In particular, it challenges what can be described as the “primordialist” school of thought, a deterministic view that sees religious tensions, particularly between the Shi‘a and Sunni branches of Islam, as preordained and immutable. To be sure, there are important divides between the two sects—over questions of religious and political authority, rituals, jurisprudence, and other matters. But the notion of two hermetic blocs being locked in conflict today—a continuation of an unresolved “age-old” dispute within Islam—is patently false.

At the other end of the spectrum, the study rejects what might be called an excessively materialist or “instrumental” approach to religious identity, which sees sectarianism as simply a proxy for economic or political grievances, or the result of top-down, elite manipulation, adds Wehrey, the author of Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings:

Here again, we acknowledge that elements of this are certainly at play. Authoritarian regimes have found it useful to play up sectarian differences as a ruling strategy, “sectarian entrepreneurs” have stoked communal tensions from pulpits and social media platforms, and sect-based antagonisms have been inflamed by state collapse and the unequal distribution of economic resources. But these worldly explanations have their limits as well. At the societal and individual level, beliefs, identity, and doctrines do in fact matter. RTWT

Credit: FT

The region’s autocratic rules are well-versed in mobilizing sectarian divisions for their own strategic ends, observers suggest.

The Saudis are engaged in a cold war with an opportunistic Iran that’s exploiting their missteps in Yemen and Qatar and exacerbating a dangerous Sunni-Shiite sectarianism in the region, analysts Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky write for Foreign Policy.

Saudi Arabia appears to be committing the original sin of modern Middle East politics — fighting its regional wars in Lebanon and driving that fragile country once again toward civil strife, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius writes:

Hezbollah emerged as the dominant force in Lebanon partly because of the instability that followed Israel’s unwise 1982 invasion. The Iranian-backed militia has subverted Lebanese democracy and been a dangerous forward outpost for Iran’s power. When the Syrian civil war began in 2011, many analysts predicted that a frail Lebanon would tumble back into chaos. But it hasn’t happened — yet — because Hezbollah worked quietly with Saad Hariri and other Lebanese leaders to keep a lid on unrest.

Considering the Saudis’ extended involvement and apparent losses in these conflicts – seen as attempts to curb Iranian influence – the decision to engage Iran in Lebanon may not be wise, according to Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and expert on Syria.

Landis believes the contest for military supremacy is already over. “The Iranians have won the war for military strength in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. There can be little doubt about this,” he told Al Jazeera.

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