By Brian Whitaker
"The Sunni-Shia divide is almost as old as Islam itself but during the last few years this ancient schism has played an increasing role in Middle Eastern politics.
It is certainly a factor in the Syrian conflict (though how big a factor is still debated) and Sunni Arab monarchs in the Gulf have embraced sectarianism as part of the propaganda effort to save their thrones.
A few days ago I came across a four-page essay by Fanar Haddad which makes some important observations on this topic. Haddad's speciality is sectarianism in Iraq and he is the author of a book about it.
In his essay, Haddad identifies three key factors behind "the change in sectarian relations":
- The political change in Iraq of 2003;
- The spread of new media and social networking;
- The search for alternatives to "familiar but moribund forms of authoritarianism", as demonstrated by the "Arab Spring".
The Iraq effect
The invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Haddad says, resulted in the empowerment of ethnic and sectarian outgroups - namely Shia and Kurdish political forces.
"It also allowed, for the first time ever, the full, unfettered assertion of previously suppressed subnational identities. In other words, 2003 highlighted the uncomfortable fact that there were multiple, indeed contradictory, visions of what it meant to be an Iraqi and by extension what it meant to be a part of the Arab world."
The interesting question here is why, in this upheaval, sectarian identities came to the fore rather than, say, regional, class or ideological identities - and Haddad suggests two possible answers.
One is that the empowerment of the Iraqi Shia caused alarm among Iraqi Sunnis and made them more conscious of their Sunni identity than previously:
"Prior to 2003 [sectarian identity] was an issue largely restricted to Arab Shia with Arab Sunnis having little awareness of themselves as Sunnis."There was no marked Sunni identity and as such little in the way of specifically Sunni expression or Sunni symbols or rituals. Reflecting demographic realities and the realities of power, whatever Sunni rituals, symbols, narratives, or causes that existed prior to 2003 were perceived in Islamic or national rather than specifically Sunni terms."
In addition to that, Haddad argues that "the political orientation and calibre of Iraq's new political elite further ensured the centrality of sectarian identity in post-2003 Iraq":
"Many of the most prominent post-2003 political actors were, throughout their careers, more akin to ethnic and sectarian lobbyists rather than national politicians. Rather than acting as politicians who happen to be Shia, many if not most of the post-2003 Shia political elite retained their role as sectional sectarian advocates for whom Shia identity and Shia interests were intrinsic to their political outlook."Their failure to make the transition from Shia rights advocates to national politicians validated Sunni prejudices and fears, which were exacerbated by the fact that many of these political actors were based in or had strong links to Iran."
Popular expressions of sectarianism
The effects of this have not been confined to Iraq. Across the region, Haddad says, Arab Sunnis increasingly identify as Sunnis, with fears of the "Shia crescent" nourishing a sectarian outlook on regional events.
"Unfortunately, what began as an Iraqi tragedy has been turned into a regional one in a manner and speed scarcely imaginable before the information and communications revolutions that were unfolding just as the new Iraq was being born."
It's worth noting that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was followed, in quick succession, by the launch of Facebook in 2004, YouTube in 2005 and Twitter in 2006:
"New media, social networking, and the revolutionary changes to the flows of information that signalled the end of more familiar forms of censorship in the Middle East were a key part of the perfect storm unleashed by the invasion of Iraq. These monumental changes facilitated expression and mobilisation and gave events, no matter how local, the potential to become regional ..."In many ways, these innovations brought an end to the taboos surrounding discussion of sectarian identity and made sectarian polemics mainstream."
End of 'the old way', search for new ways
As a result of this, Haddad says, "the taboos and awkwardness traditionally enveloping the issue of sectarian identities have all but withered away": it's now out in the open.
Of course, sectarianism is not unique in that respect. Many other issues that were once kept under wraps have been coming to the surface in the midst of the region's political turmoil. In my view that's a necessary process because it's only by bringing them into the daylight that they can ever be addressed.
While Haddad notes that "there is no fire more easily started than a sectarian one", he is careful not to exaggerate its significance:
"This is not an argument for reducing Middle Eastern dynamics to their sectarian component. Despite their increased socio-political relevance, sectarian identities are not the 'be all and end all' of the 21st century Middle East."Furthermore, despite toxic levels of politicisation, sectarian division is far from all encompassing and remains context driven. Sunnis and Shias are as internally divided as any similarly large groups and pragmatic self-interest is still likely to trump sectarian loyalties.""