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Questioning Sectarianism in Bahrain and Beyond: An Interview with Justin Gengler

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In popular accounts of politics in the Arabian Peninsula in this post-Arab uprisings era, "sectarianism" has been an omnipresent signifier for conflict and unrest. The term commonly acts – implicitly, because it is never qualified or defined – as both a description of political contestation and, simultaneously, an explanation for it. The history of "sectarianism" in academia, as an object of study and as an analytic with explanatory power, is a contentious one, used at times uncritically and rejected absolutely at others.

Given the burgeoning body of new research into "sectarianism" that addresses both the proliferation of this popular discourse and the political phenomenon to which it refers, I reached out with a series of questions on the topic to Justin Gengler, a senior researcher at the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute (SESRI) of Qatar University and an adjunct lecturer at Northwestern University's Qatar campus. In 2009, Justin Gengler administered the first-ever mass political survey of Bahraini citizens as part of dissertation fieldwork at the University of Michigan. He continues to write on Bahraini, Qatari, and Gulf politics, including the politics of sectarianism. His article, "The Political Costs of Qatar's Western Orientation," appears in the Winter 2012 issue of Middle East Policy, and he is a contributor to a forthcoming edited volume entitled Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf. He also maintains the blog Religion and Politics in Bahrain and is working to complete a book on Bahrain based on his dissertation research.

John Warner (JW): Can you give us a brief introduction to your research in the Arabian Peninsula and describe the place of sectarianism in it? How have the recent uprisings and counter-revolutions reshaped the directions of your work?

Justin Gengler (JG):
My research interest in Bahrain, in the Gulf Arab states, and in the general phenomenon of sectarianism is in large part an accident. In early 2008, members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula carried out several attacks on the American Embassy in Sana‘a, where I had been living and studying Arabic since 2006 in preparation for a Fulbright Fellowship, also to be completed in Yemen. I was given a choice: remain in Yemen without funding, or find a new country in which to finish my language training and fellowship. As my purpose there was to carry out a (quite expensive) national-level survey of Yemeni citizens as part of dissertation fieldwork, I did not have much of a choice if I wished to graduate. I left Yemen and, having previously made contacts at a (now-disbanded) survey research center in Bahrain, revamped my dissertation plans to carry out a survey instead in Bahrain.

Having just spent two years in Yemen, where the question of confessional membership simply did not enter into everyday life despite the country’s religious diversity (which now appears to be changing), I was struck upon arriving in Bahrain at the ubiquitous outward manifestations of Sunni-Shi‘i difference. First, the entire island is organized geographically according to what Oxford linguist Clive Holes has aptly described as an “almost apartheid-like system of voluntary segregation.” But even in the mixed district of Manama where I resided, it did not take long to understand that Shi‘i mosques and houses generally clustered together, flying black or multicolored banners, whereas Sunni houses raised the national flag. Sunni-owned vehicles tended to be adorned with decals professing the Islamic profession of faith, whereas Shi‘i cars displayed the familiar declaration "‎اللهم صلّ على محمد وآل محمد" which was also printed on street signs in Shi‘i villages and neighborhoods. One large mall in ‘Isa Town even contained separate Sunni and Shi‘i mosques, at opposite ends of the complex. Similar reminders of social, political, and physical division abounded.

This seemingly inescapable power of religious group membership suggested a simple research question that guided both my thesis and subsequent work: Is it really the case that the political views and behavior of ordinary citizens in Gulf societies are determined chiefly by economic considerations? In Bahrain, at least, it was difficult to see how this could be so, whether among Shi‘a or Sunni citizens. Of course, critique of the rentier state framework in itself is nothing new. What made my study different, however, and what probably distinguishes much of my work from that of others, is its utilization of survey data in order to investigate these questions empirically. If rentier state theory purports to understand the political motivations of ordinary citizens in rent-dependent states, in other words, then why not simply test its claims directly by asking individuals about their political orientations and behavior? Until my Bahrain study (which also made use of complementary survey data from Iraq), this had not been attempted.

As it turned out, mine would be the first political survey ever conducted in Bahrain, which made for a difficult process. At several points, including when I was summoned for police questioning, it appeared as though the whole enterprise was doomed to fail. In the end, thankfully, I was able to carry out the survey—which now forms a part of the larger Arab Barometer survey project led by researchers at the University of Michigan and Princeton University—and to finish my dissertation.

JW: The summary of your contribution to the upcoming edited volume Sectarian Politics in the Gulf notes two principal problems with past academic work on sectarianism. Can you elaborate on that work and the critiques of it that have since developed?

By far the most common problem among extant treatments of sectarianism and other types of group conflict—whether in the scholarly literature or in popular discussion—is the appeal to description or narration rather than explanation. Thus Iraq, or Bahrain, or Sri Lanka is said to be afflicted by “entrenched hatreds,” “longstanding rivalries,” and other intrinsic and irresolvable conflicts that in turn fuel political instability, social fracture, civil war, and so on. Yet such an explanation is no explanation at all, but rather a simple tautology: sectarianism influences society via “tensions,” “rivalries,” and other ill-defined passions—that is, via sectarianism.

This failure to identify the actual causal mechanisms underlying sectarianism as a social and political phenomenon has helped give rise at the same time to the opposite reaction among scholars, which is the wholesale rejection of sectarianism as a useful analytical tool. If scholars of sectarianism can cite nothing more than vague emotions and historical animosities in explanation of diverse outcomes across a wide range of societies, these critics reason, then something more basic must be at work. And so sectarianism gives way to more generic explanations, usually with a basis in economics.

JW: How has this older work, and the critiques which it generated, fed into or responded to popular discourses in the West—both historical and current—about religiosity, politics and violence in the Middle East?

The study of—and perhaps even the word—sectarianism, particularly in the Middle East and Gulf context, tends to evoke strong emotions at both ends of the analytical spectrum. In line with the opposing theoretical interpretations described already, there are on the one hand those who find in it a broad explanation for the perceived decay and dysfunction of Middle East, or Arab, or Muslim societies, these beset by internal religious fanaticism and violence even as they export it abroad. On the other hand, and at least partly in reaction to such essentialist arguments, are those who adopt the opposite position to deny altogether any explanatory value of “sectarianism,” seen now as the external veneer of some mundane conflict over group resources that anyone who has studied game theory could explain. To understand social or political outcomes through the lens of sectarianism, by this view, is at best unsophisticated and naïve, at worst an outdated relic of Orientalism.

The upshot, unfortunately, is that one who studies sectarianism is either an Islamophobe or neocolonialist. Some sense of this analytical tension can be gleaned from the fact that there was real discussion among contributors to our volume as to whether the words “sectarianism” and “sectarian” should—or could—be used at all.

JW: Given those critiques, why do you find sectarianism, as an analytical lens, useful? How are you re-defining that concept within your own scholarship?

My impression is that the pushback against the concept of sectarianism stems primarily from the imprecision with which it has been defined and analyzed to date, rather than from the idea that distinctions along religious, ethnic, and other ascriptive group lines play no role in influencing social, political, and economic outcomes in diverse societies, not least in the Gulf region.

The first step in making “sectarianism” a useful conceptual tool is to define it in a way that avoids the pitfalls of tautology and narration. When one does so—I adopt a broad definition: the politicization of religious, ethnic, or other ascriptive group identity—one sees that it is best understood not as a cause of this or that social or political ill, but as an effect of some processes of political group coordination and agenda-setting. When one begins to identify and examine these underlying causal paths, it becomes easier to explain why religious or ethnic identity achieves political salience at some times or in some contexts but not in others. In this way, the resulting investigation constitutes a sort of middle ground between the two competing views of today: sectarianism is more than just enduring rivalry and group solidarity, but the analysis also does not neglect the particular historical and institutional circumstances of a society or region.

JW: Sectarianism is a mobile concept, applied to sociopolitical contexts as varied as Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Canada and Myanmar. Is there something particular about sectarianism in the Persian Gulf? Do the Gulf states share similar historical experiences and contemporary political economic conditions which relate to sectarianism, or are they of limited comparative value?

I would argue that sectarianism in the Persian Gulf context is driven by three main processes, only one of which is specific to the region.

The first is political and economic institutions that privilege group coordination on the basis of ascriptive social categories, whether sect, ethnicity, region, tribe, or some other outwardly-observable, descent-based group. On the political side, the region’s relatively barren political environment—with an absence of independent media, non-state organizations, effective representative institutions, political parties, and so on—makes it difficult for citizens to organize politically along shared policy preferences, since individuals cannot easily observe or infer the views of other citizens. By contrast, ascriptive social categories such as ethnicity or religion are readily-communicable by outward cues—dialect, family name, dress, skin color, etc.—that are common knowledge to both members and non-members. While they may or may not correspond to actual shared political preferences among members, such categories are both easy to observe and, as they are primarily based on descent, relatively stable over time.

Another institutional feature of the Gulf environment that favors political coordination along ascriptive lines is the region’s economic organization. In short, the distributive economy offers little basis for political coordination along economic lines. Not only is there no natural grouping such a taxpaying middle class from which cross-societal citizen coalitions might emerge, but the rentier system itself incentivizes individual—rather than group—competition for state benefits. Indeed, beginning with the earliest articulations of the rentier state framework, theorists predicted that only political parties representing an ideological orientation—specifically, those based on Islam—were likely to form in allocative economies.

This natural tendency toward descent- rather than issue-based political coalitions has been reinforced—largely deliberately—through the processes of state-building adopted by Gulf regimes. Through fraud, gerrymandering, or unusual electoral regulations, the various representative institutions erected by ruling families have institutionalized group-based political competition on the basis of tribe, sect, region, and so on.

In Kuwait and Bahrain, for instance, the number and design of electoral districts is meant to dilute the electoral representative of certain group-based political constituencies. In Bahrain, moreover, the state utilizes what it calls “general” polling stations placed at strategic points across the country—at the airport, on the causeway leading to Saudi Arabia, and so on—that are not linked to any district. These facilitate voting by members of the armed forces, Saudi dual-nationals, and other groups, who in the past have been bussed in for the occasion. The United Arab Emirates restricts eligible voters to a list of citizens selected via some unknown process. In its most recent election in 2011, these voters amounted to only twelve percent of the citizen population. In Saudi Arabia, in order to hinder the electoral chances of candidates with localized bases of support, voters can cast ballots in multiple districts within the same municipality, a provision unique to that country. In Qatar, finally, which has not yet issued its voting law (expected later this year in time for promised Shura Council elections), it is widely expected that citizens will vote in the home district of their father or grandfather (a rule also in force in Jordan and elsewhere), institutionalizing family- and tribe-based patterns of representation. Although these representative institutions generally lack practical political significance, then, they are still useful in revealing the deliberate strategies devised by regimes to structure the forms of political competition that can emerge in a society.

In addition, the national narratives developed by most Gulf states have emphasized a particular version of history and of peoplehood with which not all can identify. This has served to divide populations between those with the genealogical prerequisites to be a “true” and loyal citizen, and those whose divergent history finds them excluded. While no national mythology can hope to resemble perfectly the diversity of people it is meant to encompass, one community consistently and conspicuously absent from the majority of Gulf narratives emphasizing Sunni, tribal identity is Arab Shi‘a. Excluded from identities crafted in the image of ruling families, Gulf Arab Shi‘a have constructed their own national folklore that draws on shared notions of political injustice and betrayal rooted in the very foundations of Islam. In this way does a millennium-old politico-religious schism continue to overlap with ongoing processes of national marginalization to reinforce polarization along Sunni-Shi‘i lines.

JW: The proliferation of labor activism, Marxist groups, such as the Dhofar Liberation Front, and reformist movements, such as Bahrain's National Union Committee, throughout the Arabian Peninsula in the early and mid-twentieth century suggests that the possibility of non-/anti-/cross-sectarian political organization existed under certain historical conditions. How were those avenues for mobilization and solidarity opened up and closed down in the colonial and postcolonial periods?

Of course, to observe the distinct potential of ascriptive group identities as focal points for political cooperation in the region is not to suggest the inexorable emergence of sectarian conflict as a proverbial Gulf state of nature. Just as certain characteristics of the region’s history and politico-economic organization serve to augment the salience of ethnicity, tribe, or sect, so too can institutions and historical developments encourage the opposite. Elections, parliaments, and other consultative bodies can be used to promote intra- rather than inter-group competition. Such was attempted explicitly—though with what success one can debate—in post-2003 Iraq, which now employs consociational arrangements, ultra-proportional representation in parliament, and other mechanisms to help reduce society’s latent tendency toward ethnic and sectarian political groupings.

And, indeed, as alluded to here in the question, cross-sectarian political identities and mobilization has been possible and even dominant in various times and locations across the Arabian Peninsula. However, two separate factors would combine to militate against these cross-societal coalitions: the consolidation of the rentier state, and Islam’s triumph over Arab nationalism as the main ideological force in the Arab world. The main takeaway in both cases is that rulers and governments are not disinterested bystanders in the processes of social and political cooperation (or noncooperation), but rather have been successful in harnessing these forces for their own ends.

The consolidation of the oil-based economy, which coincided roughly with the end of colonial administration in the Gulf, gave leaders more flexibility in dealing with political challenges. With ever-expanding resource revenues, state-owned oil-companies and other traditional venues of worker and union action could be staffed increasingly with apolitical foreigners rather than nationals, the latter employed instead in sprawling government office bureaucracies where workers shared little basis for mass action. More generally, governments could now afford to subsidize large swaths of the citizenry in an effort at political co-optation, and indeed to naturalize new, presumably more loyal citizens from abroad (to say nothing of expansive security and intelligence apparatus staffed once again by still more apolitical foreigners). In the two decades following independence in 1961, for example, Kuwait granted citizenship to more than two hundred thousand Sunni tribesmen from surrounding deserts, first to help marginalize urban merchants and Nasserist sympathizers, and later to dilute the electoral influence of Kuwaiti Shi‘a in the wake of the Islamic Revolution. Bahrain would later do (and continues to do) the same for similar purposes, though at roughly half the scale.

This leads directly to the second transformative change that undermined the ability of cross-societal movements to organize and flourish: the final defeat of Arab nationalism at the hands of political Islam. Where Gulf regimes once were happy to tolerate popular religious-based mobilization aimed at checking the growth of Arab nationalism, the Iranian Revolution made clear the danger of this new politics with which potentially every citizen could identify. To help insulate themselves from a similar fate, Gulf leaders increasingly appealed to sectarian narratives, feeding into popular fears of Iranian expansionism and, in those countries with sizable Shi‘a populations, hidden fifth columns. Support for reform or revolution, rulers argued, was in fact support for Iranian takeover. Emboldened Shi‘a populations in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait did nothing to allay these fears.

Thus, by 1979, not only was the main ideological basis for secular Arab movements fading as a viable political alternative, but Gulf regimes exploited latent religious cleavages to help check against cross-societal mobilization in the name of Islam. The post-2003 political rebalancing of Iraq would only cement these fears and arguments. These developments seemed to confirm that democracy in a Shi‘a-led state would be equivalent to Shi‘a majoritarianism and Iranian proxy rule. This argument is the same witnessed today in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where protest movements are written off as nothing more than Iranian-backed agitation, a conclusion that both absolves the state of the need to undertake meaningful reform, and serves to paralyze Sunni and secular-minded citizens who share many of the same political demands and grievances.

Particularly in the wake of the Arab uprisings, the emergence of issue-based, cross-societal political coalitions represents the most frightening of all possibilities for Gulf rulers, for it is only these movements that enjoy the broad popular support required to exert real pressure for change. And, for several regimes, concerted appeal to sectarian distrust and other group differences is the only thing holding back revolutionary change.

JW: In the current moment of widespread social unrest across the Arab world, how are past remnants and contemporary currents of sectarianism intersecting with other economic, political, social and cultural processes?

This question anticipates the final factor underlying sectarianism in the Gulf context, which of course is the external geopolitical environment. Once mere religious deviants, today the Arab and Persian Shi‘a of the Gulf states are viewed by nervous Sunni rulers and citizens increasingly as political heretics as well—indeed, as veritable fifth columns serving an expansionist Iran and united by a transnational solidarity and the common goal of Shi‘a empowerment. Emboldened Shi‘a populations in Iraq, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, combined with the prospect of a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic, have only amplified such existential fears, quickening plans for deeper politico-military integration among the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. And with the latter thrust into the political driver’s seat by the events of the Arab uprisings, the entire region is increasingly consumed by what has been termed the “new Middle East Cold War”: a conflict pitting the Sunni Arab monarchies against Shi‘a-led regimes in Iran, Iraq, and now Syria.

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