Examples of religious strife are numerous in the Middle East and elsewhere. Yet more frequently, religious communities have lived side-by-side, if not always arm-in-arm. In the Middle East today, however, regional civil wars have become sectarian conflicts, shattering this already-fragile accord and leading to the deaths of tens of thousands. Although violence in Iraq and Syria understandably grabs the headlines, sectarianism and its manipulation by governments is reshaping the politics of U.S. allies in the Gulf, like Saudi Arabia. Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a leading expert on the Middle East and author of the excellent and timely book on sectarianism, offers his thoughts on sectarianism and why its associated problems are often misunderstood.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research focuses on political reform and security issues in the Arab Gulf states, Libya, and U.S. policy in the Middle East. He is the author of Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (Columbia University Press, 2013).
Sectarian passions are once again inflaming the Middle East. Syria’s ferocious civil war has spilled over into fragile Lebanon and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Iran are at loggerheads, funding and equipping protagonists in conflict zones that are arrayed along sectarian lines. The winds of Shi’a-Sunni strife are spreading, and the referee of American power is nowhere to be seen.
The sectarian lens has long been an appealing, shorthand way to make sense of a confounding, complex region. President Obama, in his September 2013 speech before the United Nations General Assembly, attributed Bahrain’s violence to “sectarian tensions.” But focusing exclusively on the Shiite-Sunni split conflates symptoms with root causes. Often what seems to be a religious or doctrinal difference is more accurately a byproduct of political repression, provincial marginalization or uneven access to economic resources.
Certainly, the Shi’a-Sunni division in Islam matters. But these identities have frequently co-existed with, or been subsumed by, other affinities: national, regional, tribal, ethnic, class, generational, urban versus rural. When the state breaks down or fails to meet the needs of its citizens, sectarian identity becomes politicized and sharpened. Elites invoke and amplify it to the exclusion of other loyalties. Ordinary citizens define themselves by it.
Arab commentators, particularly in the Gulf press, have devoted extensive space to discussing the phenomena of sectarianism and identifying its roots. Overwhelmingly they assign agency to external sources and actors, specifically Iran’s nefarious meddling in Arab politics and society. Such allegations are not new; it is a discourse with a long pedigree stretching pack to the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution. President Obama appeared to echo this trend when he stated in a recent interview with the New Yorker that if Iran did “not stir up sectarian discontent” then Gulf-Iran relations would move towards “equilibrium.” Some voices cast the blame for the regional rise in sectarian temperature on “misguided” Salafi clerics and their prolific use of social media. Still others maintain that the Middle East’s sectarian split is essentially a U.S. project to divide and weaken the Islamic world—an accusation that is also part of Iranian regime narratives, as shown in this recent Tweet from the Supreme Leader. Opinion pieces in the U.S. press that forecast a redrawing of the regional map along ethnic and sectarian lines—predicting, for instance, the creation of a new state in eastern Saudi Arabia and an independent “Shiastan,” in southern Iraq—add grist to such suspicions.
But what is missing in all of these interpretations is a focus on the role of institutions and the agency of political actors in deliberately invoking and amplifying sectarian passions. Specifically, the dearth of inclusive, participatory institutions; discrimination in key sectors like education, clerical establishments, and the security services; the absence of civil society; and uneven economic development are the real culprits of sectarianism.
Nowhere are these dynamics more evident than in Gulf states with significant Shi’a populations: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait. Since the Iraq War, Gulf regimes and their Sunni clerical allies have incited sectarian passions as a ruling strategy. The goals of this sectarian bogeyman are twofold. First, it is meant to prevent Sunnis and Shiite oppositionists from coordinating their activities and forming a united front. The second goal is to dissuade demands for democracy by portraying the royal families as the glue that binds together a fractious and unruly citizenry. Successive regional wars—the Iraq War, the Lebanon War, and now Syria—have enabled this tactic. Why embark on a path of risky reforms, these rulers tell their subjects, when it will only open the door to the sectarian chaos swirling in the neighborhood?
Unfortunately, this strategy has achieved a measure of success. While there is little danger that that sectarian spillover from Syria will escalate into violent conflict across the Gulf, tensions from war have created a toxic political environment, casting a chill over cross-sectarian reform cooperation. Shi’a reformists who at one time lauded the cooperation between Sunni activists elsewhere in the country now speak of these relations being frayed by mutual suspicion and distrust.
The sectarian game in the Gulf is ultimately a Faustian bargain, with the potential to slip beyond the control of regimes. The sectarian dimension of Salafi-jihadism’s appeal is well-established; it is evident in the flow of jihadists and money to Syria from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait and in the exhortations of anti-Shi’a clerics urging support for Syria’s Salafi rebels. The actual blowback effect of such volunteerism remains to be seen. But Gulf rulers who wish to avoid tempting fate would do well to abandon the strategy of harnessing sectarianism for political gain and work toward genuine inclusion.