Posted by: sean | March 13, 2007

Sectarianism and politics

I read an article in Al-Ahram Weekly analyzing sectarianism in the Middle East, which seems to argue that the Sunni-Shia rift is, at least in Lebanon, a “temporary and false construct.”

One of the recurrent themes in the speeches of Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is his insistence that the Shia “cannot be lumped together in one basket”. Nasrallah’s assertion is commonly interpreted as an attempt to distance the resistance movement from Shia political groups elsewhere, particularly in Iraq, where they maintain an intimate relationship with their occupiers.

…The consensus in both Sunni and Shia circles appears to be that attempts to emphasise Sunni- Shia rivalries are intended to deflect attention from both the US occupation of Iraq and continuing Israeli aggression. That the US is working to fuel such tensions is almost an article of faith for Muslims on both sides. In its attempt to create an anti-Iran alliance, they say, the US is resorting to a strategy which aims to raise the spectre of sectarianism across the Muslim world.

He seems to argue that there is no “Shia crescent” and that the problems in the region are political and not sectarian.

To my mind, though, it seems hard to make a claim like that in countries where practically all political parties are based on sectarianism. Of course this does not mean that all Shia in Lebanon are in the same party, but rather that the fundamental basis of support for parties in Lebanon — Amal and Hezbollah for the Shia, the Current for the Future for the Sunni, the PSP for the Druze, and the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement for the Christians — is sectarian. Most political parties are likewise split down sectarian lines in Iraq.

So while there isn’t exactly a monolith of Middle Eastern Shia, there is a loose confederation that’s held together by Iran. On the face, Iraqi and Lebanese Shia don’t have too much in common vis-à-vis their relationship with the US, but what they do share is Iranian sponsorship.

As for the claim that keeps coming up that the US is intentionally spreading sectarianism, I honestly don’t see it. Of course American incompetence in Iraq has unleashed a new wave of sectarianism that hadn’t been seen since the Iran-Iraq war, but I’m not convinced that America is aiming for sectarian split. It seems to me that American policy in the region involves backing the enemies of the enemies of the US. This is a very shortsighted approach to foreign policy and often leads to many contradictions, like supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria but opposing them in Egypt.

Basically, it seems to me that the US is taking advantage of rifts that already exist in the Middle East. But there is a tendency to not want to believe this. I spoke to a Christian in my neighborhood yesterday who was convinced that the US was trying to split all Arab countries (especially Iraq and Lebanon) into sectarian statelets so that Israel would be the most powerful country in the region.

This, of course, is silly for any number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that Israel is already the strongest state in the region. Moreover, the US has been fighting the dissolution of the Iraqi state, and no one reasonable is talking about splitting up the already tiny Lebanon.

In any case, there seems to be a hesitancy in the region to recognize that these sectarian fault lines were not American or Israeli inventions. Much like Iraqis initially refused to believe that it was fellow Iraqis committing sectarian crimes, instead blaming it on foreign terrorists, the Middle East as a whole seems unwilling to take a long hard look in the sectarian mirror.



  1. If you get the time, read Usama Makdisi’s book on Lebanon. It is very good on Lebanon’s sectarian roots. The Culture of Sectarianism, or something like that.

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