Addressing an American public skeptical of U.S. military intervention in Syria, President Barack Obama noted, “In that part of the world, there are ancient sectarian differences.” Indeed, religious conflict—between Christians and Muslims in Egypt and especially between Sunnis and Shi’a in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, and elsewhere in the region—seems worse now than at any time in recent memory. But while the president is correct that religious communities have fought each other for centuries in the Middle East (and elsewhere), these same communities have at times lived in harmony side by side with one another, if not always arm in arm. And even when sectarianism has erupted, its intensity and sources have varied considerably. Drawing on a longer piece I wrote in Survival, in this essay I offer my thoughts on why sectarianism is so prevalent right now and the implications this has for the United States and its allies.
The latest round of sectarian violence arises not from a sudden focus on religious doctrine, but in large part from the weakness of governments in the Middle East. The stronger the government, the less room there is for sectarianism. Radicals and vitriol exist in all countries: America has the Ku Klux Klan, Europe has its racist skinheads, and so on. However, these extreme voices are not always able to gain traction. An obvious point, perhaps—but one often missed in the discussion of ancient animosities—is that in countries with strong governments, extremists who promote violence end up in jail. In the past, Middle Eastern governments, such as the Mubarak regime in Egypt and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in Iraq, were nothing if not strong. But the events of the Arab Spring (or in the case of Iraq, the U.S.-led invasion) weakened many governments in the region, and their ability to repress sectarian violence faded as well.
As Barry Posen has shown, bloodthirsty rhetoric and organizing for violence, even if infrequent, will understandably alarm neighboring communities, reinforcing existing sectarian divisions and leading them to arm and organize in turn. In Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere, leaders have argued that their seemingly provocative decisions to arm and organize their communities are defensive in nature, pointing to the recent bellicose behavior of their supposed enemies to justify their actions. For example, when order broke down in Iraq, communities that had previously lived together peacefully turned inward for protection and promotion—a tendency that Iraq’s political system rewarded after the 2003 U.S. occupation, when U.S. authorities put in place a government that rewarded sectarian and ethnic tendencies and devolved considerable power to the local level. This further weakened the Iraqi government, creating a vicious circle.
Even when they hold power, weak leaders are often fearful of losing their tenuous grip on power and are therefore reluctant to suppress sectarianism if it means confronting strong local actors. We can see the effects of this in the failure of fledgling post-revolution governments to stop the wanton destruction of Coptic churches in Egypt and Sufi shrines in Libya. In addition, divided peoples find it harder to rise up against corrupt or dictatorial regimes. When regimes fall or decay, new would-be leaders emerge. Many of Iraq’s current political leaders made their post-2003 careers (and careers in exile before that) by championing their communities as victims of discrimination rather than working to heal national divisions. This narrowness goes all the way to the top: The Shi’a-dominated government of Nuri al-Maliki sees itself first and foremost as leading the Shi’a community and only secondarily as leading Iraq. These leaders play on prejudices and exaggerate isolated attacks (and often simply lie) to foster animosity and to discredit more moderate voices within their own communities.
The historical structure of many Middle Eastern regimes makes these fears more potent. Regimes often placed one minority (usually their own) above the others and put communal loyalists into key positions in the military and government in order to guard against a coup. The Asad family did this with Alawites (and a few other minorities) in Syria, Saddam did this with Sunnis in Iraq, and so on. When dictators wobbled, it threatened the privileged position of select communities and raised the hopes of rival communities, particularly in places such as Iraq and Syria, where the community that had suffered most from discrimination was the group with the numerical majority in the country.
Regime manipulation to stave off domestic unrest compounds the problem. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the regime initially feared that the Arab Spring would rock the Kingdom and threaten the Sunni monarchy’s hold on power. In addition to buying off dissent, the regime also responded to the Arab Spring by trying to paint its domestic opposition as a puppet of Iran, dominated by Shi’a apostates. Sectarianism allowed the regime to tell its own people, and the world, that democracy would lead to the rise of the Shi’a (who make up about 15 percent of the total Saudi population) and to social violence. Many devout Salafis in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere believe the Shi’a are not true Muslims and are a fifth column for Iran. This strategy succeeded in strengthening support for the regime among the Salafi clerics and their supporters, who represent a significant power base for the regime, but it also further polarized the Kingdom.
The media often exacerbate this phenomenon. The good news is that with the collapse of government in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, newspapers and media sites have proliferated, greatly expanding the information flowing into and out of the region. That’s also the bad news. In a politicized environment with new media sources, alarmism often dominates. Satellite stations in the region are venomous in their coverage, with stations in Saudi Arabia beaming Friday sermons that are virulently anti-Shi’a and highlighting obscure or minor actors in order to vilify a rival community. Though not new to Saudis, these Friday sermons can now be heard by people throughout the region who have recently gained access to Saudi satellite channels. As the media market fragments, outlets that play to the prejudices of extremists inevitably emerge in every community.
The advent of social media adds even more complexity to the issue. Now the burning of a Shi’a mosque or the desecration of a Sufi shrine is broadcast on YouTube for all to see. Individuals highlight rare events, such as a particularly horrific sectarian killing, on Facebook pages and personal blogs, and the stories get picked up by Internet aggregator sites and go viral; rumors and misinformation spread like wildfire around the world via Twitter.
War amplifies all of these problems. To win wars, governments and their opponents try to mobilize the people to fight, provide money, and otherwise back their cause. Sectarianism taps into popular passions and anxieties already heightened by the conflict, allowing its proponents to raise new recruits and find financial backers. War also creates networks and builds skill sets that endure long after the conflict has ended. The funding, recruitment, and propaganda networks that arose at the height of the Iraq war still exist today and are being used to further the conflict in Syria. The skills jihadist fighters gained in Iraq made them far more formidable when they decided to fight in Syria, putting them above other opposition groups.
The war itself becomes proof—vivid, bloody, and constant—that the other community is indeed out to kill you. Al Qaeda in Iraq’s bombing of the Al Askari mosque in Samarra in February 2006 is often described as the final provocation that pushed Iraq into all-out civil war. There were no casualties, but by targeting the resting place of several revered Shi’a historical figures, the attack cemented the already strong impression of religious war. As a war drags on, local warlords and other new leaders arise and begin to exploit sectarianism, using it to raise money and attract recruits from their own communities. Over time, revenge becomes a powerful motive, with support growing after each new round of fighting.
Syria itself was an almost perfect setting for a sectarian conflict. The war next door in Iraq had already laid the framework for violence and suspicion: networks and anti-Shi’a sentiment were both in place. In Syria, a minority (Alawi) regime rules brutally over a (Sunni) majority. Many Sunnis consider the Alawites to be religiously deviant. In addition, Damascus draws support from Iran and the Lebanese group Hizballah, the two Shi’a bogeymen. As the peaceful opposition morphed into violent resistance in response to brutal crackdowns by the Asad regime, the shift to sectarian strife was utterly predictable. Insecurity, revenge, outside manipulation, and above all mobilization for war led to the formation of sectarian-focused groups and their steady increase in strength.
Just as religious identity crosses borders, so too does sectarianism. The Iranian regime today does not want a Middle East racked by sectarianism, but its policies help create one. Iran’s leaders have long tried to portray themselves as heading a revolutionary front that represents all Muslims, not just Shi’a—they believe they champion “resistance,” not sectarianism. Iran has gained popularity when backing groups like Hizballah and Hamas in their campaign against Israel, an agenda shared by Sunni and Shi’a alike.
In general, however, Tehran has not been able to overcome the Sunni-Shi’a divide, with Arab Sunnis long being suspicious of Iran’s Shi’a (and Persian) identity. Iran’s 1979 revolution threatened its neighbors, such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf states, whose leaders feared instability from their own Shi’a populations and from attacks on their legitimacy by Tehran’s clerical leaders. They responded by trying to discredit Iran as a sectarian—rather than revolutionary—power and by attacking Shi’ism directly. This conflation of Iranian power and Shi’a hegemony recurs whenever Iran appears threatening to its neighbors.
As Iran and its allies feel the squeeze, Tehran has tried to deepen or expand its ties to Shi’a groups—its one sure ally—as a counter, thereby increasing the perceived threat to its neighbors. Even limited support (and it is quite often not limited) feeds the Sunni narrative of a Shi’a conspiracy to subjugate Arab regimes and the Sunni majority. Conversely, Iran’s ability to reach out to Sunni groups has plummeted since the start of the Syrian civil war. Early in the war, its most important Sunni ally, Hamas, distanced itself from Iran and publicly rejected Syria in order to placate Sunni donors and Palestinian public opinion, both of whom side firmly with their Sunni co-religionists in the struggle against the Iranian-backed Asad regime.
Saudi Arabia has long seen itself as engaged in a geopolitical rivalry with Iran for dominance of the Muslim world. Working with Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and other smaller Gulf states, the Saudi government has funded mosques and political organizations in South and Central Asia and Europe as well as the Middle East in order to spread its strict brand of Islam (known as Wahhabism) and to deny Iran potential access points. Qatar, another Sunni gulf monarchy, has also joined the fray in Syria and has contributed to the growing sectarian nature of the conflict. Qatar under Sheikh Hamid Al Thani (who left power in 2013) was hyperactive, funding and arming an array of groups in Syria outside the Western-backed structure designed to centralize the opposition and actively encouraging the development of networks of Sunni fighters to go to Syria. Qatar openly funded radicals in opposition to the policies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, trying to one-up them in intra-Sunni politics. Thus far, Hamid’s son and heir Tamim appears more cautious.
The Gulf states’ motives are more than cynical manipulation, and their actions today are creating dynamics that will last for years. Saudi leaders genuinely believe that Iran is lurking behind every bush and has made substantial inroads into the region, particularly after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq lead to the creation of a Shi’a-led government there. Small symbols, such as Bahraini Shi’a putting up a Hizballah flag in a demonstration or Iraqi Shi’a lauding Iranian clerics, reinforce this paranoia.
Gulf leaders are also seeking to appease domestic public opinion, which is appalled by the slaughter in Syria and supports the uprising against Asad. Because of this public support, it is important to distinguish between the policies of states and the actions of their citizens. The Gulf states’ primary role has been deliberate inaction. As my Brookings colleague William McCants points out, the Gulf monarchies themselves often back non-sectarian actors, but “have not been able or willing to stem the tide of private money their citizens are sending to the Salafi charities and popular committees.” Saudi Arabia and the UAE have tried at various times to crack down on such funding, but citizens easily sidestep this, often by sending money via Kuwait.
Non-state actors also play an important role in fomenting sectarianism, especially in the context of the Syrian conflict, and their divisive and hostile agendas are far more open than those of state actors. With Iranian support, Hizballah and various Iraqi Shi’a groups such as the Badr Brigade and the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq have sent fighters to assist the Asad regime. Sunni fighters likewise are flocking to Syria, driven in large part by a sectarian message that their community is under attack from an apostate regime. They flock not only from nearby Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, but also in large numbers from North Africa and in smaller numbers from Europe and the Caucasus.
Sectarianism has radicalized both Shi’a and Sunni communities in the Middle East. Groups like Hizballah and Sunni jihadists in Iraq and Syria are lauded as defenders of their respective communities. Recruitment and intensity of support has the potential to grow. For now, the radicals are killing each other—and plenty of innocent Syrians and Iraqis—but not Westerners…yet. The growth in overall numbers of fighters and the possibility that they might shift their targets is deeply troubling.
Sectarianism is not staying confined to the war zones. Sectarian sentiment is spilling over into Lebanon and Iraq in particular, further destabilizing these already fragile countries. Tension between Shi’a and Sunni groups is growing ever worse in Lebanon, while some Christian groups—looking at Sunni jihadist depredations next door in Syria—are now moving closer to Hizballah. Similarly, the Syrian war has exacerbated the violence in Iraq.
Fighters flocking to Syria from around the Muslim world and Europe bodes ill for us in the West. War often changes the mindset of fighters: Volunteers travel to places like Syria for what they feel are altruistic reasons, defending their community from the attacks of enemy sects; however, once there, organized groups—especially those who are or may previously have been affiliated with al-Qaeda—indoctrinate them and spread their much more extreme ideas, including virulent anti-Western sentiment. When fighters return from Syria to their home countries, they will be more violent, more experienced in perpetrating violence, and more aware of sectarian issues. For as Islam crosses borders, so too does sectarianism. The close ties between immigrants in diaspora communities and their home countries make it hard to keep sectarian fires contained. Volunteer fighters are flowing from the West into Syria, and Western intelligence services are increasingly worried that they will eventually flow back.
But sectarianism is also mostly bad news for Iran. Iran’s backing of the Asad regime in Syria and the heightened sectarian tension discredit Iran among Sunni populations and governments alike, making it impossible for Iran to exert leadership. Efforts to isolate Iran will become easier, and Iran’s efforts to spread its influence beyond narrow Shi’a enclaves will prove even more difficult. Similarly, the credibility and popularity of Iran’s most powerful terrorist ally, Hizballah, has been badly damaged in the eyes of many who once viewed the organization as one of the strongest defenders of Muslims against Israel and the West, but who now see them instead as the defenders of the brutal and bloody Asad regime.
The United States and its European allies are largely powerless to take on sectarianism directly. The forces fueling the recent wave of sectarian violence are not ancient, but they are strong. And while the ability of Western political leaders to shape the discourse of Islam is understandably weak, they do have some ability to help shape the factors actually driving the recent rise of sectarianism in the region. The best way to calm the sectarian furies is to try to help build state capacity where possible: Weak states with immature institutions easily fall prey to demagogues, while stronger states are better able to channel or ease tensions among their populations and to exploit it outside their borders.