Be careful what you wish for − The Multiple Strategies of De-Sectarianization

Does a shared agreement about the importance of challenging sectarianism necessarily translate into much consensus as for how to go about it and do some of these efforts carry their own potential pitfalls, which deserve attention in discussions about how to promote inclusion and reconciliation in deeply divided societies? These questions have become increasingly important to reflect upon as news stories about Lebanon and Iraq in recent months have carried headlines about how these two countries are ‘breaking the sectarian chains’ and experiencing ‘a revolution against sectarianism’ led by ‘a nationalist movement against sectarian politics’ which will lead to ‘the end of sectarianism.’ The dramatic events in Lebanon and Iraq might be the most outspoken and dramatic attempt at challenging the kind of sectarianism that has held such a prominent position in (debates on) Middle East politics in recent years. At the same time, they can be seen as part of a broader regional trend marked by a growing interest in challenging or getting beyond sectarianism. Expressions of this trend can be observed among elite and grassroots actors in different parts of the region as well as in scholarly debates. Thus, recent years have seen the emergence of research projects on ‘de-sectarianization’ (SEPAD), conferences and reports on ‘Countering Sectarianism in the Middle East’ (Martini et al., 2019) or ‘Sectarian De-Escalation’ (Mohseni, 2019) as well as the proliferation of references to ‘anti/counter/post/trans/non/multi-sectarianism.’

This interest in how sectarianism can be challenged or overcome can be seen both as a reaction to and part of the last decade’s debates. Thus, sectarianism has become ‘a catchphrase in politics, media and academia’ (Matthiesen, 2015: 16) to an extent that Western as well as Arab commentators, policymakers, analysts and academics sometimes have been described as ‘almost fixated on sectarianism’ (Wehrey, 2013: x). Little consensus emerged from this debate, when it comes to the question about the nature, causes and consequences of the recent ‘sectariani­zation’ of Middle East politics (Hashemi and Postel, 2017; for an overview Valbjørn and Hinnebusch, 2019). However, in general sectarianism was ‘mired in negativity’ (Haddad, 2017), and most observers appeared to agree that sectarianism was something to avoid, refute, oppose, eliminate or exceed. As a consequence, recent years’ debate on ‘anti-sectarianism,’ ‘counter-sectarianism,’ ‘post-sectarianism,’ ‘trans-sectarianism’ and ‘de-sectarianization’ has been wrapped in positive connotations just as ‘non-sectarian,’ ‘multi-sectarian’ or ‘cross-sectarian’ movements and initiatives generally have been viewed in very positive terms.

In view of the well-known negative outcomes of (some kinds of) sectarianism, including discrimination, political instability, violence, repression, nepotism, corruption, paralysis, exclusion etc., this almost unambiguous positive view of anti/counter/multi/post/trans-sectarianism is hardly surprising. Yet, when you as an academic meet such a consensus about how something is unequivocal good it is tempting to reach for your revolver – or at least to challenge the consensus by making things more complicated and full of dilemmas. Based on an examination of some of the current and past debates on and examples of how sectarianism can be and has been challenged by various kinds of actors in the Middle East, I will in the balance of this paper take on this ungrateful task. In the following, I will show how a shared ambition of challenging sectarianism can translate into very different kinds of top-down and bottom-up strategies, some of which are burdened with their own problems or dilemmas, raising the question whether the cure is always better than the disease.

Strategy #1 All that we share: unity, community and homogeneity

The basic aim of the first strategy is to make people aware of what unite rather than divide them and unity, commonality and community are therefore center stage. This strategy, which has not only been very prominent in the current but also in past debates, exists in various versions some of which have a top-down direction and others are more bottom-up.

One version is the ‘ecumenical unity discourse in Islam,’ which focuses on how Shia-and Sunni-Muslims are all Muslims. This emphasis on how Muslims of different sects share the same basic beliefs is far from new and is closely connected to the debate on taqrib and pan-Islamic visions represented by figures as al-Afghani or Khomeini (Brunner, 2004). More recently, it can be identified in the Jordanian ‘Amman Message’ initiative, where more than 200 Islamic scholars from various strands of Islam not only called on tolerance and unity, but also declared takfir as prohibited. In her study of debates on Islamic unity among Shiites Corboz (2019) has similarly identified a position that emphasized commonalities between Shia and Sunni Islam and how the early Shiite imams were working for unity among Muslims.

Another version focuses on a different kind of uniting community: the national. During Middle Eastern modern history, the idea that different groups in a society are united by being member of the same nation has been present in different versions. While the Arab nationalist idea about how Arab Christians, Shia and Sunni Muslims were all part of the same Arab nation today plays a far less significant role than in the past, a number of observers have pointed to how some of the regimes in the Gulf-countries, for instance, recently have started replacing a sectarian rhetoric in favor of a what has been labeled as new hyper or ultra-nationalism (Alhussein, 2019, Ardemagni 2019). Such attempts at strengthening a distinct national identity, reflected in curricula in schools, museums displaying national history and heritage, National Day celebrations, and heritage festivals, can – in principle – enable inclusion of previously excluded groups. In Saudi Arabia, a traditional anti-Shia rhetoric has not only been toned down in favor of a Saudi nationalist one. A smiling King Salman has been shaking hands with Shia clerics and businessmen and the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue has launched a program in the Eastern province to promote communal coexistence and enhance national cohesion (Diwan, 2018).

In addition to such elitist top-down initiatives, this first strategy can also be identified among various grassroots initiatives. During the 2011 uprisings in Bahrain, protesters at the Pearl Roundabout shouted that they were ‘neither Shia, nor Sunni, but Bahrainis’ and during the Lebanese 2018 elections the coalition ‘Kulna Watanti’ emphasized how ‘we are all patriots.’ Most recently, the national anthem ‘Kulluna li-l-Watan’ (‘All of us, for our country!) has resounded at the large demonstration across Lebanon, where protesters in all kinds of creative ways emphasize national unity, such as when flashlights represented the various sects merged into the Lebanese flag.

Strategy #2 ‘Good vs Bad Muslims,’ ‘people vs regime’ and other alternative cleavages

While the first strategy might be the most prominent, it is not the only one. Rather than emphasizing how we are all alike, another strategy does instead try to counter sectarianism by emphasizing other kinds of cleavages that go across the Shia/Sunni divide.

This strategy also comes in more versions. Some of these draw on the classic ‘Good vs Bad Muslim’ distinction (cf. Mamdani, 2004). In her aforementioned study on Shiite unity discourses, Corboz (2019) also identifies a discourse, which tries to counter the Shia/Sunni distinction by introducing another one that distinguishes between a minority strand in Islam represented by Wahhabi-Salafism and the majority strand of ‘mainstream Islam,’ which includes both Shia and Sunni Muslims. Another version of this strategy, currently promoted by the Egyptian, Saudi and Bahraini regimes, makes a distinction between (their own) ‘moderate official Islam’ vs. what is labeled as ‘radical Islam,’ which includes a rather diverse group of actors, including al-Qaida, Islamic State, Iran and Muslim Brothers. When the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was a prominent opposition figure in Saudi Arabia, was executed in 2016, the Saudi regime did for instance not only label him as a ‘radical terrorist.’ They did so as part of a mass execution together with Sunni Muslims accused of being part of al-Qaida. The regime in Bahrain seems in a similar way to have replaced the strategy of mobilizing Sunnis as a way of countering the Shia-dominated opposition with a strategy that aims at countering all kinds of critical political activism and in particular Islamist mobilization – Shia or Sunni (Valeri 2018).

Like the previous one, this second strategy does also come in ‘bottom-up’ version. Here the purpose is to challenge rather than supporting those in power by stressing a divide between the elite/regime and the people. This was, for instance, the case in the early days of the 2011 uprisings in places like Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. By shouting that ‘the people want the downfall of the regime’ (’ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam’), protesters emphasized how their grievances were directed at the regime rather another sect. During the Lebanese protests in 2015 ‘You stink’ did likewise not only refer to the rotting garbage in the streets, but also to what was considered a corrupt sectarian elite serving only their own narrow interests rather than those of the people (Salloukh, 2015; Yahya, 2017). A similar critique can be identified in the current protests in Lebanon, where the protesters’ slogan that ‘all of them, mean all of them’ (Kellon Ya’ni Kellon) refers to a demand that the whole corrupt sectarian elite must leave, regardless of sectarian affiliation (Cham and Salem, 2019).

Strategy #3 Cooperating between and across sects

Contrary to the previous strategies, the final one does not deny the existence or importance of sect-centric identities. Instead, it aims at promoting a more ‘banal’ – rather than ‘radical doctrinaire’- form of sectarianism (cf. Valbjørn and Hinnebusch, 2019). Besides enabling co-existence, this is supposed to promote cooperation across sectarian divides. Like the other ones, this version also comes in various and quite different forms.

The first and probably most controversial version is represented by the Lebanese political system. By other strands in this debate, the Lebanese form of consociationalism usually is considered as representing everything that is wrong about sectarianism. However, some observers have suggested that in a sectarianized Middle East, where sect-centric identities have become prominent, Lebanon represents a kind ‘proto-model’ for promoting co-existence and cooperation (Salamey, 2016).

Some of the groups that have been highly critical of the Lebanese political system can also be perceived as an example of this third strategy. A case in point is Beirut Madinati, which at the local elections in 2016 tried to challenge the sect-centric political elite. The movement has been described as ‘multi-sectarian’ (Yahya, 2017), which makes some sense. Thus, instead of denying the role of sect-centric identities, they were very attentive to ensure an equal representation of members from all sects in the movement.

The so-called ‘Project on Shi’ism and Global Affairs’ and their work on ‘sectarian de-escalation’ can be seen as yet another version of this third strategy (Mohseni, 2019). Here, sectarianism is perceived as an ‘intrinsic part of any religious tradition and reflects the plurality of interpretations.’ Instead of viewing sectarianism solely in negative terms and as something to be countered as such, it is therefore argued that the ‘goal should not necessarily be to encourage Muslims to eliminate or resolve different sectarian points of view but rather to eliminate or resolve the destructive and harmful aspects of sectarianism.’ From this perspective, sectarian de-escalation is about ‘acknowledgment and respect for diverse interpretations of Islam’ and the expansion of pluralistic spaces in which different strands of Islam can ‘co-exist and grow alongside one another.’

Be careful what you wish for…

By now, it should be clear that an agreement in principle about the importance of challenging sectarianism does not have to translate into much consensus as for how to go about it. Moreover, an in many ways sympathetic ambition does not mean that it is without its own challenges. Sometimes, the cure may almost be as bad as the disease raising the question about what has been gained. This issue does also deserve attention in the present context.

The first strategy with its focus on what we all share may sound as something nobody can be against. However, on closer inspection a number of issues emerges. Thus, this strategy has a very homogenizing ambition and in its more excessive versions, it does not leave much space for diversity, pluralism and difference. This raises the question about whether a denial or maybe even suppression of sect-centric identities is realistic or will it rather trigger a backlash as similar homogenizing strategies have produced in the past. Another issue concerns the question about who are supposed to define what unites us and to what extent that will also entail exclusions; in other words, who have the right of speaking on behalf of ‘Islam,’ ‘the nation,’ ‘humanity,’ ‘the people’? Thus, the ‘standard’ story about Islam has often been the Sunni version leaving little space for Shias and what about those who are not Muslim or religious at all. If the Iraqi nation post-2003 has become Shia-centric where does this leave the Sunni population? And even if a new Saudi nationalism becomes less Sunni-centric and more inclusive, it is hard to imagine that the Saudi regime will accept a form of nationalism where the Saud family is not center stage.

As for the second strategy, it should be obvious that some of the alternative cleavages supposed to replace the Shia/Sunni divide can be used in a just as excluding and potentially repressive way as when various authoritarian regimes in recent years have played the ‘sectarian card’ (Valbjørn and Hinnebusch 2018). Thus, the recent rise of hyper-nationalism in the Gulf has been accompanied with distinctions between those loyal to (the regime’s vision about) the nation and the ‘traitors’ (England and Omran 2019), and the ‘Good/Bad Muslims’ distinction has likewise been used to repress various forms of critics (across the Shia/Sunni divide).

When it comes to the third strategy, it may leave more space for pluralism and diversity. At the same time, the strong attentiveness to existing sect-centric identities entails the risk of unintentionally reproducing the many well-known problems of sectarianism, which it is supposed to challenge. Moreover, multi-sectarian movements are by nature very heterogeneous. This does not only pose a challenge when it comes to formulating a shared vision, but does also leave them vulnerable to internal fragmentation and infiltration from political forces representing the existing sectarian system.

Where do we go from here…

If a growing consensus about the need for challenging (some forms of) sectarianism does not have to produce agreement as for how to go about this and if some versions of the identified strategies carry their own problems, where does all this leave us? The current protests in Lebanon and Iraq should serve as a reminder of how these challenges do not mean that the growing interest in anti/counter/multi/post/trans-sectarianism should be dismissed as a futile endeavor. On the contrary, it may have become even more important. At the same time, it also seems to be time for a deeper and not at least more critical engagement in what it means to challenge sectarianism. This requires a recognition of some of the potential pitfalls and dilemmas associated to this endeavor and serious discussions about how they can be addressed in a way where the cure does not end up being almost as bad as the disease.

Morten Valbjørn is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University.


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