Understanding & Overcoming the Roots of Sectarianism

October 28, 2014

(This is the second entrance in a 4 part series hosted by the Stimson Center)

(The first entrance in the series : “Explaining Violence in the Middle East” may be read here)


Dr.Dwight Bashir, Deputy Director for Policy and Research, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom

Dr.Najib Ghadbian, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Arkansas

When Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammad Bouazizi let himself ablaze on January 4, 2011, he did not intend to instigate waves of political upheaval throughout the Middle East. Although his actions are now considered to be the starting point of what the West now refers to as “the Arab Spring,” Bouazizi was not focused on instigating sweeping regional change. What Bouazizi did was to protest what had become an entrenched and corrupt government system, on that insulated itself against unrest by systematically dividing and deflecting public frustration on to various individuals and minorities throughout Tunisian society. Through his actions, and by asserting himself as an individual who demands recognition and respect, Bouazizi succeeded in inspiring his fellow countrymen – in addition to inspiring citizens throughout the MENA region – to challenge the status quo and demand a free, open, and representational government and economy. By adhering to these principles, Tunisia has not only maintained relative stability during a time of great upheaval, it has ushered in a progressive and inclusive constitution that in turn is pacing the way towards a representational government in Tunis. The manner in which Tunisians has navigated and negotiated challenges has redefined the country as the “sole success” of the Arab Spring, while also serving as a model for other countries undergoing political transitions.

Although it is now obvious that Arab Spring movement has had a significantly different impact on each country throughout the region, Dr. Bashir claims that the movement nonetheless highlighted the prominent role that sectarianism and divisionary policies played in propping up several long-standing, familial and ethnic based governments in the Middle East. Further, over the past few years the war in Syria has shown over the past few years, a large influx of foreign fighter and also the birth of terrorist groups such as the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State (IS). It has become increasingly apparent just how strongly sectarian divides are enforced and institutionalized in many states throughout the Gulf

With ideological and strategically opposed regional powers in Saudi Arabia and Iran, Dr. Bashir argues that both countries as well as their allies have employed and directly sponsored sectarian figures and groups in order to shape public opinions and secure a firm base on which government policies can be supported and Shi’a lastimes are prortedlt being mention

In Saudi Arabia Dr. Bashir attributes the country’s history of producing and sympathizing with extremists groups to its tolerance for strict, state-sponsored interpretations of Sunni Islam. With the state in charge of appointing the country’s imams and religious leaders, the government is able to define the larger context in which Saudi Arabia is aacting and  public perceptions and sentiments about government policies. In addition, the government maintains tight control over the country’s education system and, until recently, promoted a Sunni oriented curriculum and textbooks which underscored sectarian divides throughout the region’s history.

With the country’s main political rival being Iran, it is easy to understand why Saudi policymakers would want deter its citizens from sympathizing with Iranian interests. However, the government’s harsh actions may in the end only breed more instability. As Dr. Bashir pointed out, IS has, at the least, tacitly endorse Saudi Arabia’s global outlook, as the group is currently administering old Saudi textbooks and propaganda throughout Syria and Iraq. Although Saudi policies may originally been enacted in order to counter Iran’s regional influence, they are now being used to legitimize an organization that, ironically, has called for the overthrow of Saudi Arabian monarchy.

In Iran, sectarianism may not be embedded in the country’s education system, but the government has used religious rhetoric and policies as a means of advancing regional partnerships and interests. For example, although approximately , of the country’s population is Sunni there are no Sunni mosques in all of Tehran. Signals such as this serve as a clear indicator to Dr. Bashir, and others, that Iran’s governing is deliberately working to undermine any and all cultures that threaten its own, touted Shi’a identity

Over the years, Iran has emphasized its Shi’ite roots in order to build and strengthen the ties it shares with leaders and policymakers in Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah Party. . Although typically phrased as an attempt to build a “Shia crescent,” Iran’s religiously aligned partnerships have, according to Dr. Ghadibian, failed to build any civil unity, and instead only further fanned sectarian hatred.

By acting in line with Hezbollah, and deciding to actively support and defend the Assad regime in Syria, Iran has played into the combative Sunni-Shi’a rhetoric propagated by IS and conservative religious leaders throughout the Gulf. However, Dr. Ghadibian also believes that Saudi Arabia helped build up the the conflict by tolerating and broadcasting the messages of conservative religious leaders, such as Sheikh al-Aroor, who actively advocated for Sunni’s in Saudi Arabia and in Syria to violently resist the Assad regime based on religious grounds. Even in light of the fact that Saudi policymakers are now making a more concerted effort to monitor and censor conservative donors and religious leaders, policies were only altered once the Kingdom had received significant international blame and also had its own instability threatened.

Regardless of what factors led Saudi Arabia to reassess its policies regarding sectarian preaching and rhetoric, the fact that the country – one of the leaders of the region – not only acknowledged it had an existing domestic problem, but then acted on it right away, is undoubtedly a step in the right direction towards easing sectarian tensions throughout the region. However, as the war in Syria has proven, no one power can solve this crisis unilaterally. The tensions and violence currently being seen are a producte product of competing regional policies and interests; a pluralistic solution is needed. On all levels – internationally, regionally, and domestically – Dr. Ghadibian and Mr. Bishar urge competing leaders to come together, acknowledge one another’s position, and work to achieve a political solution.

So far, peace talks hosted in both Geneva and Paris have failed because, according to both speakers, talks have yet to include all regional powers. Iran is always excluded.  Of course, one of the main factors barring Iran from the talks are the country’s long standing feuds with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia – although members of the Syrian National Council have also refused to negotiate with Iran due to its unflinching support for the Assad regime.

If there is to be any hope of peace, progress, and prosperity in Syria and the wider Middle East, regional governments must be willing to change their policies and their approach to politics. Divisive rhetoric and suppressive policies can no longer ensure a government’s survival. Providing equal representation and equal access to opportunity are the new currencies with which governments must buy their citizen’s loyalty. The war and chaos seen today in Syria is a reminder of just how damaging shortsighted and self-serving policies can be. As has been demonstrated in Tunisia, if a government hopes to be successful in the new Middle East, it must have the support of all of its people.


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29. October 2014 by Will Houstoun
Categories: Foreign Policy, Middle East, Uncategorized | Comments Off on Understanding & Overcoming the Roots of Sectarianism