Thursday, October 24, 2013

Resisting revolution – with sectarianism

Gulf monarchies stir up religious tensions

By Brian Whitaker

"Although the Arab uprisings have not yet brought down a monarchy, Gulf rulers have been severely shaken by events elsewhere as well as by unprecedented street protests in some of their own countries.
They responded to this in customary fashion, mainly through repression and splashing money around in the hope of buying off discontent. But they are also increasingly deploying another weapon in their anti-revolutionary armoury: sectarianism.

Until now, the role of sectarian discourse in the counter-revolution has not received much attention, though it is discussed in Toby Matthiesen's new book, "Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring that wasn't". Yesterday, Matthiesen also gave a talk on the subject, organised by the London Middle East Institute.

The purpose of such language, he said, is to spread the idea of a fifth column – "some group that wants to undermine security of the Gulf, a group that 'doesn't want to be part of our nations', etc, etc." It seeks to portray all protests in the Gulf region as inspired by foreign forces and carried out by people who do not represent the mainstream.

Initially, this was directed mainly against the Shia population but, especially during the last year or so, has also been applied to the Muslim Brotherhood in a very similar way: "If you substitute 'Shia' for 'Muslim Brotherhood' in some of the communiques by the ministries of interior or foreign affairs you get almost the same sentences." He continued:

"This double narrative of fifth columns, on the one hand the Shia and on the other hand the Muslim Brotherhood, also led to the massive involvement of the Gulf states across the region in trying to contain the spillover effects of the popular revolutions from Syria via Libya to Egypt.
"The Gulf states tried to deflect tensions that were building up at home towards engagement abroad, and in the case of Syria this is of course very clear. So, while there might be not official support in Saudi Arabia for people going to fight and for money being channelled through indirect channels, on a discursive level and on the main foreign policy level, along with this sectarian narrative it's very clear that the government and the Sunni Islamists in Saudi Arabia are in one line towards Syria."

Matthiesen acknowledged that "sectarianism" is a catch-all term that can obscure more than it reveals:

"We have to really contextualise it – it's different in every country, but at the same time we cannot simply ignore it. 
"If you speak to people living in the region it has become such a dominant discourse that we really need to disentangle it. In the Gulf it has become a tool for regimes to divide opposition movements, and it has largely worked."

Aside from the regimes themselves, Matthiesen said sectarianism has also become a tool for those he describes as identity entrepreneurs ("people who claim to represent one sect or defend it, and then try to make political or economic capital from it").

"[Sectarianism] is similar to ethnic politics and nationalism but it's also different because the emotional aspects of religion are being brought together with the kind of discourses that stem from ethnic politics and nationalism, and some of the key actors are also different – clerics can be key actors – what we have seen in the last two years is that some of the most prominent clerics from both sects across the region [Sunnia and Shia] have started to adopt this narrative, and this is quite a frightening precedent."

Looking toward what might lie ahead, he continued:

"It's quite a grim picture that I'm painting here and I also don't really know what the solution could be, but at the moment the problem is that this kind of sectarian language that is used from Gulf capitals fits into the western and Israeli anti-Iran 'Shia threat' narrative ...
"If we see a real rapprochement with Iran or if we see a negotiated solution in Syria that could lead to an easing of this sectarianism. If we don't see that, however, and this kind of sectarian civil war across the region intensifies and even starts to spread to other countries, then I think the prospects are pretty bleak."

Although Matthiesen's book focuses on the Arab Gulf states, it's clear that the Assad regime has been playing the same card in Syria. Sectarianising the conflict there – and playing on the fears that surround it – has helped to blunt western support for the opposition as well as rallying support for Assad internally.

Sectarian tensions in the Middle East are certainly real but hyping them up and exploiting them for political purposes is a worrying trend. One danger – especially in terms of western foreign policies – is that the threat of sectarianism can easily turn into an excuse for supporting authoritarian regimes.

In a recent paper about the survival prospects of Arab monarchies, for example, Gregory Gause writes:

"More so than in the other monarchies, an American push for real democracy in Bahrain will only exacerbate sectarianism, rather than mitigate it. Real democracy is exactly what the opposition is requesting, but it is exactly what both the Al Khalifa ruling family and many of their supporters in the Sunni minority fear. 
"Real elections anytime soon in Bahrain would simply become a sectarian census, as the first elections in post-Saddam Iraq were, raising rather than lowering temperatures."

Although Gause isn't proposing unqualified support for Gulf regimes, the monarchs would clearly like to present the world (and their own people) with a straight choice between sectarian conflict and stable authoritarian rule. 

They shouldn't be allowed to get away with that, especially when the sectarianism is at least partly of their own manufacture. Nor should we swallow their claims that authoritarianism equals stability. That may have been broadly true in the past but now, even in the Gulf, though, authoritarian rule is no longer a guarantee of stability and it's time to recognise that whether we like it or not, instability is rapidly becoming the new norm."

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