None but the hopelessly naive or the woefully ill-informed can deny the relevance of sectarian (here meaning Sunni and Shiʿi) identities in the contemporary Middle East, particularly in the Mashriq. Equally self-evident is the centrality of victimhood in how these identities are perceived by their holders. But rather than just highlighting the blindingly obvious, my intention here is to ask, so what? To argue that the ongoing competition of sectarian victimhoods is narcissistic, perverse, and distasteful is to pass moral judgments—ones that I unhesitatingly agree with. However, on their own these are of little analytic value. As such, my purpose here is to highlight some of the tangible implications of competing sectarian victimhoods: their social and political impact and, crucially, their policy implications. This is especially relevant to two areas that are particularly close to the hearts of many in Western policy-making circles: countering the extremism of the Islamic State (IS) et. al., and blunting Iran’s influence and military role in the region.
What Is A “Sectarian Landscape”?
Given that we are discussing sectarian identities, it is perhaps best to begin with an obligatory disclaimer to pre-empt a very predictable, almost pro forma, line of criticism. Until relatively recently, sectarian identities lacked the political relevance that is today often taken for granted. Indeed throughout the twentieth century other frames of political and social reference readily overshadowed sectarian identity. However, given that sectarian relations at any given moment are a product and a reflection of their time, with little if anything about them that is historically immutable, it should be less than controversial to say that things have changed. Indeed, things will change again in the future. The point to be stressed here is that we should not anchor our understanding of sectarian dynamics in any one particular era, be it a bygone era of benign sectarian relations or today’s era of sectarian inflammation. To do so would be to misread the past, misdiagnose the present, and leave us ill equipped to face the future.
As far as modern sectarian relations in the Middle East are concerned, the 2003 invasion of Iraq was as consequential and as destructive as the 1939 invasion of Poland was to Europe. The sectarian landscape that emerged after 2003 certainly had some cumulative drivers predating the invasion. Yet regime change was the unique and perfectly avoidable trigger that set the ugly tone for sectarian relations in the years since. This is mainly due to two reasons. First, 2003 elevated the political relevance of sectarian identities primarily, and most nakedly, in Iraq, with a ripple effect across the region. Second, and more to the point, regime change disturbed the balance of power between sect-centric political actors within Iraq and across the region. All of which gave rise to sect-centric fears and ambitions that, in the post-2003 environment, were able to dominate people’s political perceptions whereby one side’s sect-centric ambition becomes the other’s sect-centric fear (“the Shiʿi majority must rule” becomes “Sunni marginalization” for example).
What this meant in practice is that a sectarian landscape began to emerge. This media-friendly cliche will remain nothing more than that unless defined; so what is a sectarian landscape? At its most basic, it can be taken to mean an environment in which it becomes exceedingly easy for all manner of issues to be sect-coded. As sectarian identity gained relevance, it also gained an outsized ability to color social and political perceptions. As a result an ever-increasing number of issues came to be seen through a sectarian prism–not just issues relating to sectarian dogma or sectarian symbolism but social relations, political movements, political interests, regional conflict, and so forth. And this has been driven as much by foreign observers as by local protagonists, as much by victims as by perpetrators and as much from above as from below.
From a policy perspective, this pervasive climate of sect-coding matters as it can limit policy options. Sect-coding has influenced how events have been framed and perceived and how sympathies–and even interests–have been aligned. It has also prevented national fronts from emerging and has stood in the way of a politics of citizenship. The examples are too many to name: from regime change in Iraq to the Syrian tragedy to events in Bahrain to the Yemeni conflict to the ongoing war against IS, in certain countries and in certain contexts, precious little escapes sect-coding thereby furthering division and limiting options. Indeed, I wonder how many reading this piece are withholding judgment until they have “figured out” the author’s sectarian identity.
Sectarian Landscape Meets Sectarian Victimhood
A key cause and effect of this has been competing sectarian victimhoods. Unfortunately, there is nothing unusual about groups defining themselves through victimhood. Indeed the practice has become ever-more prevalent in a variety of contexts in recent decades. One historian writing in 1993 about the state of modern US politics concluded that, “Every group claims its share of public honour and public funds by pressing disabilities and injustices.” And so it is with sectarian relations in the Middle East today. But perhaps what makes the contemporary Middle Eastern case more virulent is the degree to which sectarian identities today are intertwined with regional geopolitics and with ongoing, highly visualized and regionalized, sect-coded civil wars.
Victimhood is not merely an aspect of sectarian self-definition today—it is often its defining feature. This has been evident for generations in many forms of Shi‘i identity but it was only after 2003 that elements of mainstream Sunni identity—itself a novel concept—entered the fray. Once that happened, the somewhat introverted pre-2003 echo chamber of mythologized Shiʿa victimhood gave way to a competition between Shi‘i and Sunni victimhoods. There is very little underpinning the newfound sense of Sunni identity besides victimhood—indeed the very emergence of a specifically Sunni identity in the twenty-first century was the product of feelings of encirclement and victimization occasioned by the perceived ascendance of an expansive, Iranian-sponsored Shiʿism and what many Sunnis regarded as an international order inimical to their own interests.
It is difficult to establish causality between competing sectarian victimhoods and the sectarian landscape described earlier—as I said, the former is both cause and effect of the latter. In any case it scarcely matters: the two are better viewed as facets of the same phenomenon, namely the sectarianization of the region. More importantly, the relationship between the two is cyclical and self-perpetuating. When sectarian identity influences political perceptions and how threats and opportunities are perceived, people are more likely to entrench themselves in these identities and view themselves as parts of sectarian collectives thereby shifting the separation of “us” and “them” towards sectarian categories. Making matters worse, once such a pattern is in place, it incentivizes political and social actors to frame issues through a sectarian lens. This is simply because, in such an environment, the sectarian lens carries currency, it resonates with, and is more easily digestible by an audience that is now prepared to believe that the sectarian other is a source of threat and that consequently one’s own sectarian identity is encircled.
Again, this is not just a matter of intellectual curiosity. It has fundamentally shaped the conflicts of the region and is shaping its future in a less than benevolent way. An intriguing but unanswerable question in that regard is how the Syrian conflict would have unfolded and to what extent its sect-coding would have succeeded had it preceded regime change in Iraq? Regardless, at the very least, the inherent self-perpetuation of the region’s sectarian victimhoods and its sectarian landscape should be of concern given the disastrous fallout since 2003.
Shiʿa and Sunnis each consider themselves to be the prime victim of the events, conflicts and changes of the past thirteen years and each considers themselves the more deserving of political capital, international support, the moral high ground and justified vengeance. This has complicated conflict resolution and sustained popular support and mobilization for the various belligerents. It has also stood in the way of cross-sectarian (or better still, a-sectarian) solidarity or even an a-sectarian morality. It has also helped raise tolerance of extremism and atrocities all in the name of retributive justice and self-defense. And the examples are again too many to comprehensively list: the sieges of starvation in Madhaya and elsewhere, the Speicher massacre, chemical attacks in Syria or mass graves in Iraq, in each of these and in so many more similar atrocities we see far too many reactions of either sympathy, indifference, or callous glee dictated by perceived sectarian solidarities. It is the logic of competing sectarian victimhoods: the murdered are only victims when they are one of “our” victims.
It is a vicious cycle whereby conflict sectarianized the region which in turn sectarianized conflict. Small wonder that, as early as January 2012, some Iraqi Shiʿi politicians were referring to events in Syria as the “Salafi Spring”—al-rabiʿ al-Salafi. Or that in December 2015 the supposed beacon of “moderate Islam”, Cairo’s Al-Azhar, ran an essay competition entitled: “The spread of Shiʿism in Sunni society: its causes, dangers and how to confront it.” This is the environment we are dealing with in the Middle East today and that unfortunate fact needs to be factored into the well-intentioned efforts of governmental and non-governmental agencies trying to ameliorate conflict or pursuing counter-narratives to the likes of IS.
It is that same divided and divisive environment that sees Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaʿbi/Popular Mobilization/Shiʿi militias portrayed as either angels or orcs across much of the Arabic-language conventional and social media platforms. Again, competing sectarian victimhoods exacerbate the situation and complicate policy responses. For most Iraqi Shiʿa, the Hashd are “our (Iraqi) boys”, a necessary—heroic even—embodiment of national salvation confronting the dangers of IS: they are the avengers of Iraqi (and Iraqi Shiʿa) victimhood. Indeed in this view, the Hashd (which is more of a brand name for a spectrum of mostly Shiʿi paramilitary groups rather than a monolithic, let alone coherent, entity) is a part of the Iraqi state and a legitimate arm of its security apparatus—this is the official Iraqi view as well. Of course, such simplistic reductions mask a much more complicated and much less rosy reality. However, one thing that this narrative gets right is that the Hashd is a part of Iraq’s political and military fabric. Personal preferences aside, Western policy cannot accept the Iraqi state without accepting, in one form or another, some elements of the Hashd as well.
However, on the other side of the sectarian divide, a very common view regards the Hashd as no better than IS—a view fuelled by persistent cases of abuse and war crimes. This sentiment is readily encountered amongst Iraqi Sunnis but is amplified to the point of hysteria in Arab commentary outside of Iraq that often seems to hold IS as the lesser of two evils. Given how embedded the Hashd is in the Iraqi state today, it is not too far a leap to then frame the Iraqi state itself as the greater evil—indeed this was openly suggested on the Twitter feeds and Facebook timelines of many an Arab pundit when the Iraqi state recaptured Fallujah in the summer of 2016. From a Western perspective this is yet another gordian knot to untie in Middle East policy: there are few dispensable allies in the fight against IS yet the one doing most of the fighting on the ground—the fractured Iraqi state—is viewed rather dimly by most of the others and with open hostility by much of regional public opinion: the prism of Sunni sectarian victimhood (particularly outside of Iraq) allows for few if any distinctions between the “Iraqi state” and “Shiʿi militias.”
The difficulty for policymakers and analysts then, is this: how can the United States, or any other actor, come up with a coherent policy that avoids the appearance of championing this or that sectarian victimhood? How can we go about achieving this in a region that is as polarized over the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars and the war against IS as Israelis and Palestinians are divided over the “Holy Land” (another abyss of competing victimhoods)? How can such a policy be formulated in a sectarian landscape that drives various communities and political actors into supporting or at least tolerating IS, the Assad regime, Iranian influence, the Hashd and other forces that Western policymakers wish to see rolled back?
There are no easy answers to these questions and there is little in the way of a silver lining. One area that can potentially yield fruit is the fact that despite the depths of today’s divides, there nevertheless exists a genuine desire for this period of sectarian entrenchment to be over. Even here however, the minefield of competing sectarian victimhoods intrudes: yes, nobody in their right mind could possibly be content with the status quo, but differences arise over the question of how to break-free of the status-quo. Will we achieve resolution through the pursuit of peace or victory? On whose terms and through what arbiter will a resolution be acceptable? And the lack of a shared or uniting vision as well as the total absence of credible mediators are serious weaknesses.
Nevertheless, there is a demographic that is working against sect-centricity and sectarian entrenchment. This can be seen in significant and growing parts of civil society and elements of the religious establishment who have been pursuing de-escalation and dialogue. The potential for progress should not be underestimated but nor should the challenges that such forces face: a lack of political empowerment and political representation, and a pervasive climate of fear and insecurity that is more conducive to the interests of those invested in the perpetuation of the status quo.
For those with the unenviable task of trying to come up with solutions, work is needed at three levels: at the societal or local level, at the political level, and at the regional level. And the three are interdependent: whatever progress is made on one level can easily be squandered if the other two are neglected. Even the most sincere local level reconciliation efforts can be derailed by bickering amongst national politicians, just as elite-level reconciliation efforts can be derailed by some event or atrocity at the local level. In either case, all can be reduced to naught in the absence of a more benign regional environment. How to incentivize major regional (and international) stakeholders into adopting more constructive postures is perhaps the biggest challenge: surveying the last thirteen years, one is left with little cause for optimism as there has not been a single foreign actor that has played a benevolent role in either Iraq or Syria.
[This article is co-published by Jadaliyya and Maydan as part of an ongoing partnership.]