What stokes sectarianism in the Middle East?
Interview with Fatima Ayub
– A lot of what we call sectarian politics is purely cynical manipulation in times of crisis for the purpose of preserving and extending power
– Lighting a match in the forest is easy, but putting out the fire is very difficult. In Iraq and Syria it’s the task of a generation to deal with the cycle of victimization before they can recover and achieve some semblance of social cohesion again.
– Iraq became a country that was friendlier to Iran than it is to the Gulf. So the Gulf states now have put all their eggs in the basket in trying to pull Syria out of the Iranian orbit
PROFILE: Fatima Ayub is a Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Formerly she was an advocate at the Open Society Foundations in London and Brussels, focusing on rights protection and political transformation in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. Before that, she worked in Afghanistan for three years for the International Center for Transitional Justice, examining the legacy of impunity in fragile states, security sector fragmentation and electoral reform. She was a researcher at Amnesty International in London, and prior to that worked for Human Rights Watch in Washington DC. Ayub has served as a freelance writer and analyst for a range of policy briefings, media commentaries, academic journals and books. Recently she edited and co-wrote a report on sectarianism in the Middle East: http://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/the_gulf_and_sectarianism217
Interview by Poyâ Pâkzâd
Since the Arab uprisings began in 2010 we’ve seen an overwhelming emergence of sectarianism and sectarian identity politics across large parts of the Middle East. What do you think are the dynamics behind this development and its recent manifestations?
The particular causes of sectarianism are an incredibly complicated subject so I’d like to take a step back from the question. It’s true that since the onset of the Arab awakening many new scenes of competition have emerged, with old and new political tensions feeding into them. In some instances, as in Syria, these competitions have become tremendously violent and destructive. States in the Middle East are still in a sense defining their identities, and the communities and citizens within them have since the onset of the Arab awakening been seeking to carve out new spaces of politics. But striking a balance between competing interests and communities and ultimately resolving decades of tension in a pluralistic way in such mixed societies is not easy. Today, many point to Syria as an example of what happens when you try to change the governments in the Middle East. But I think that is very misleading. Syria has its own specific history. For example, apart from Bahrain, Syria is the last country in the Middle East that still has a post-colonial structure of minority rule, which has created decades of public grievance in that country. In every such instance we’ve seen a violent collapse of their power, [e.g.] Iraq, or in Rwanda to pick an example outside of the Middle East. They follow a post-colonial dynamic.
In the post-colonial period there has been a pervasive idea of a ”benign authoritarianism” or the need for ”strong-men” to prevent sectarian chaos. Do you think the aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein testifies to that?
No. The real story of Iraq is far more complicated. I think the notion that authoritarianism is in any way necessary to prevent sectarianism is disingenuous. It has a very superficial accuracy to it. In a sense, Saddam Hussein managed to contain sectarianism in Iraq at a heavy human cost to his own population. He may have managed to tamp down the aspirations of Kurdish nationalism, but only by killing them in the tens of thousands. To say that the end of Saddam Hussein instigated sectarian warfare in Iraq is in effect a very convenient disavowal of what the U.S. created in Iraq after 2003. There were more practical reasons for the violence faced in the last decade, the most essential one being the ultimate erosion of security once all the services in Iraq had been disbanded. Once perceptions of sectarianism become instilled in the minds of communities that are being targeted and marginalized, it quickly turns into a spiral of grievance and revenge. Breaking out of it depends on how long a conflict continues, how many people, families and communities that are affected, and so on. Lighting a match in the forest is easy, but putting out the fire is very difficult. In Iraq and Syria it’s the task of a generation to deal with the cycle of victimization before they can recover and achieve some semblance of social cohesion again.
So, sectarianism comes to fill a void in state security and services?
Well, people’s first instincts are not sectarian. I mean, there are differences from place to place, but they don’t wake up in the morning thinking I am a Sunni, a Shia or an Alawi. In the absence of security and the protection of a state, people come to rely more on their communities. You are more liable to trust someone from your own area than from some other parts of the country. One should emphasize for example, that Syria began as a peaceful revolution which was embraced by many sectors of the population, but this diversity frayed as the conflict went on. In Iraq there were a set of decisions and policies undertaken in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s removal and the creation of the transitional government, which aggravated the situation. In the pursuit of consolidating power, Prime Minister Maliki of Iraq took on a very sectarian approach. After the 2010 elections it seemed clear that the government had to rely more on the Shia communities as their core constituency, since they had effectively alienated Sunni communities by barring hundreds of them from running in the elections. Maliki has carefully deployed sectarian policies when it has been convenient for him. In this sense, a lot of what we call sectarian politics is purely cynical manipulation in times of crisis for the purpose of preserving and extending power. And we are likely to continue seeing exactly the same kind of thing in Syria.
Regional sectarianism has mostly been depicted through the lens of an inherent Sunni-Shia divide. We have the two big axis – the so-called ‘Shia crescent’ and the ‘Sunni crescent’ in the Middle East – that are supposedly pitted against each other, and they are often depicted as stubborn relics of religious conflict from time immemorial. Is this a dispute over power or Islamic interpretations?
At one level there is a real competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia in the wider Gulf. Iran is a country of more than 80 million people, it is larger than all the Gulf states combined, so they see each other as a genuine threat and certainly as sources of competition. Since the revolution in Iran in the late 70s, the Gulf has successfully managed to mitigate the perceived Iranian threat because of an extensive U.S. security umbrella operating in the Persian Gulf. This paradigm between Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and Iran hasn’t changed in the last three decades. But the war with Iraq from 2003 and onwards created a couple of new dynamics. Iraq ultimately became a country that was friendlier to Iran than it is to the Gulf, which in turn produced among the Gulf states an acute sense that they had lost out in Iraq geopolitically. So now they have put all their eggs in the basket in trying to pull Syria out of the Iranian orbit, even if it comes at the cost of supporting some of the most problematic extremist and sectarian groups operating in the country. On the other hand, Iran’s policies in Syria and its cooperation with Hizbollah (which has also been devastating to Lebanon) has aggravated the situation too. One cannot escape the fact that there are factions on both sides who see one another as uncompromising enemies. In Saudi Arabia, which has a Shia minority, this has consequences on a country-wide level, where the school curriculum teaches that Shias are heretics and as such are ultimately enemies of Islam. It’s easy see how this mindset attracts the more extreme groups in Syria, who think they are fighting a crusade against the Shia to purify Islam. Among the more extreme Shia communities you also have a discourse of victimization and calls for protecting Shias in other parts of the world. These conflicts begin however in the same conventional and boring way as other power struggles do. The relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been purely antagonistic for years, providing it ample space for sectarian manipulation. The very idea that they could cooperate on security issues in the region instead of relying on destructive proxy politics hasn’t sunk in for any of them yet. There are some pragmatists on both sides who might consider moving to a different kind of relationship, but that is way off.
It seems much easier to enable sectarianism than to quell it. Recently, Marc Lynch wrote in Foreign Policy that today’s ”sectarianism is political to the core — even if it increasingly seems at risk of racing beyond the control of its cynical enablers”. If it comes down to politics, wouldn’t the introduction of real economic, social and political issues take away some of the appeal of sectarianism?
I think that’s true. There’s a need for a generational rethinking of social organzation and communal coexistence. Over the last decade there have some attempts of managing the conflicts on cultural and religious grounds. When former Iranian president Khatami called for a ”dialogue between civilizations”, he was not just talking about Iran’s relationship with the U.S., but also its relationships with its neighbours. Among Sunnis there were efforts by clerics and the International Unions of Muslim Scholars trying to establish cross-communal dialogues and so on. One of them was the prominent cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is now based in Qatar, who since May this year did a complete 180 degree turn. Just last week he gave a sermon which was viscerally sectarian in its rhetoric. To paraphrase, he said ‘there are one-and-a-half billion Sunnis in the world, and they have all abandoned Syria’. These kinds of views and comments coming from the religious establishment are unhelpful and dangerous. By and large sectarianism in the Middle East is a tool for its enablers to leverage political grievances and furthering political aims. Where there is real marginalization, disenfranchisement and discrimination it is easy to feed sectarianism. As such, I am actually surprised that Bahrain hasn’t become a more violently sectarian place. The conversation can fairly easily slip from ‘how do we as a majority of Bahraini citizens obtain our equal rights?’ to emphasizing that ‘we Shia Bahrainis will no longer accept the discrimination of our Sunni leadership’. That slip from the one to the other becomes easier when a community or sect is in fact being discriminated against, and when they have legitimate cause to feel marginalized or repressed. But once such a dynamic takes hold, it’s extremely difficult to uproot it. It’s like the metaphor I used earlier, like trying to put out a forest fire when all you did was light a match. There has to be a change in the political configurations of these states with mixed populations to take into account the interests and rights of all of their citizens. They can’t remain minority or majority rules forever. The Arab awakenings raised the ideas of revolution and reform, but the latter has to come from the governments. Yet none of them have been successfully moving in such a direction.
ILLUSTRATION: Military leaders in Iraq, 2009 [photo: Staff Sgt. Luke P. Thelen, U.S. Air Force]