The West's "intellectually lazy" obsession with sectarianism

Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi warn in this interview with Emran Feroz against the tendency in Western media and policy circles to view Middle Eastern politics in essentialist sectarian terms. "Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East", their recent collection of essays, examines the topic in depth

By Emran Feroz

Can you explain briefly what you mean by the term "sectarianisation" when talking about politics in the Middle East?

Danny Postel: There has been a dramatic spike in sectarian conflict and violence in the Middle East in recent years – in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait and in public opinion across the region. Saudi-Iranian rivalry is central to this development: these two regional powers use and exacerbate sectarian enmity, looming large in what we might call the sectarian imaginary. Anti-Shia and anti-Iranian sentiment is at an all-time high in the Middle East and beyond, even in societies with no Shia populations, like Malaysia. IS, which is anti-Shia to the core, is both a symptom and a driver of this explosion in sectarian animosity.

As recently as 2006, two of the most popular figures in the Arab world were Hassan Nasrallah and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – two Shia Muslims, one of them non-Arab. Today, several years into Syriaʹs civil war, Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran are deeply unpopular among Sunni Arabs. What changed?

Nader Hashemi: Sectarian fault lines have hardened and come to dominate the politics of the Middle East through a process. We call this process sectarianisation. It didnʹt just "happen": it was set in motion by political actors pursuing political goals that involve popular mobilisation, including the mobilisation of emotions, around religious identity markers.

It is the "cultivation of hatred", to borrow a phrase from the late historian Peter Gay. The sectarianisation process is multi-layered, operating top-down (state generated); bottom-up (socially generated); outside-in (fuelled by regional forces); and inside-out (the spread of conflicts from inside national borders into neighbouring states).

Cover of "Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East", edited by Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi (published by Oxford University Press)
The "cultivation of hatred": sectarian fault lines have hardened and come to dominate the politics of the Middle East through a process – sectarianisation – set in motion by political actors pursuing political goals that involve popular mobilisation around religious identity markers

Many people try to explain political conflicts in the Middle East or in the Muslim-dominated parts of the world by talking about the "deep conflict" between Shias and Sunnis that started in the early days of Islam. Why is this wrong and why are current sectarian problems not connected with these ancient blood feuds?

Postel: In recent years, a narrative has taken hold in Western policy and media circles that attributes the turmoil and violence engulfing the Middle East to supposedly ancient sectarian hatreds. "Sectarianism" has become a catch-all explanation for virtually all of the regionʹs problems.

This narrative can be found across the political spectrum – from right-wing voices with openly anti-Muslim agendas, to softer liberal-centrist articulations and even certain commentators on the left. In its various forms, this sectarian essentialism has become a new conventional wisdom in the West. It is an intellectually lazy, ideologically convenient and deeply Orientalist narrative.

Itʹs so much easier for politicians, pundits and diplomats to rely on the "ancient hatreds" claim: if Sunni and Shia Muslims have hated one another for centuries, this "explains" why the region is plagued by conflict and also lets the West off the hook. It conveniently elides the role of Western policies in the present state of the region.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq; the support of various Western governments for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which commits war crime upon war crime in Yemen and disseminates poisonous sectarian propaganda throughout the Sunni world; not to mention longstanding Western support for highly repressive dictators who manipulate sectarian fears and anxieties as a strategy of control and regime survival – the "ancient hatreds" narrative washes this all away and lays the blame for the regionʹs problems on supposedly trans-historical religious passions. Itʹs absurd in the extreme and an exercise in bad faith.

How far are Orientalist views and the problematic use of the term "sectarianism" present in current debates? Do we see it just on the far-right or also in left-wing circles?

Postel: Versions of the sectarian narrative can be found on the right, in the centre and on the left. The New York Times columnist and establishment sage Thomas Friedman, for instance, claims that in Yemen today "the main issue is the seventh century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad – Shias or Sunnis."

Barack Obama asserted that the issues plaguing the Middle East today are "rooted in conflicts that date back millennia." A more vulgar version of this view prevails among right-wing commentators. The former cable television host Bill OʹReilly has remarked that "the Sunni and Shia want to kill each other. They want to blow each other up. They want to torture each other. They have fun. … This is what Allah tells them to do and thatʹs what they do."This is hardly surprising, given that anti-Muslim prejudice is so pervasive on the right. What is surprising is to find people on the left trafficking in the sectarian narrative. Take the case of Patrick Cockburn, the influential Middle East reporter for The Independent. Cockburn has consistently framed the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms – using language like "sectarian blood-letting" and "demons" – and even criticised others for downplaying sectarianism.

He did this from very early on, seeing sectarianism as immanent even during the nonviolent popular demonstrations of 2011, which were notably devoid of sectarian slogans and involved Syrians of multiple religious backgrounds/identities. The Syrian conflict became sectarian, but it didnʹt start that way and, contra Cockburn, its sectarianisation was by no means inevitable.

In his chapter in our book, the anthropologist Paulo Gabriel Hilu Pinto demonstrates how the Assad regime pursued a deliberate strategy of sectarianising the conflict through the use of sectarian pro-regime militias and the "selective distribution of violence" to punish specific sub-groups of protesters; and by releasing various jihadis from Syriaʹs prisons, to poison the well and produce a "preferred enemy".

Are you suggesting that many political analyses of Middle Eastern politics are not genuine analyses, but merely consist of throwing around certain phrases? It certainly appears that individuals who participate in, or even dominate the discourse, are often just using a template of their ideological world view, mixing it with some facts and calling it "analysis". How can we call tell the difference?

Hashemi: The best way to detect an ideological agenda masquerading as informed/objective analysis of the Middle East is to look for double standards. Many commentators and activists denounce authoritarianism and human rights violations in some countries but not in others. The question of radical Islam is another example. The rise of Islamism (of various strands) as a response to political repression has been extensively documented in social science literature and is widely understood by those on the left.

For example, it is uncontroversial to affirm that the rise of political Islam in Iran during and after the 1979 revolution was directly related to the authoritarian policies of the Pahlavi monarchy. Similarly, in the case of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, Algeria and the rise of the Islamic Salvation Front, we understand this connection between repressive state structures and opposition movements that emerge as a direct response to these dictatorial policies. In the case of Israel and Palestine, leftists have no problem viewing the rise of Hamas in the context of the Israeli occupation, humiliation and repression of Palestinians.

When it comes to Syria, however, many on the left refuse to understand this relationship. The rise of various rebel groups with Islamist ideological orientations after 2011 is not attributed to the policies of the Assad regime, but is rather blamed exclusively on the U.S. and its allies. Many leftist writers and activists adopt this view, while completing downplaying or ignoring the massive state violence perpetrated by Assad (and his Russian and Iranian allies) that has produced social conditions conducive to the rise of radical Islam. This double standard is utterly ideological.

Interview conducted by Emran Feroz

© 2018