Coming in from the Cold: How we may take sectarian identity politics seriously in the Middle East without playing to the tunes of regional power elites

By Helle Malmvig, Danish Institute for International Studies.

*This memo was prepared for the the “International Relations and a New Middle East” symposium.

In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings and especially the Syrian war, sectarianism appears to have become entrenched in Middle East regional politics. Rivalries and alliances are increasingly framed in sectarian terms, and the main conflicts of the region from Yemen to Syria and Iraq can all be said to entail a sectarian dimension. As Gause puts it: “There is no denying sectarianism’s important role in understanding current regional conflicts,” (Gause, 2014:4). However, while much of the literature agrees that sectarianism indeed has grown and deepened over the last decade or more, it paradoxically has difficulties understanding the eruption and meaning of sectarianism in regional politics. The three dominant approaches to sectarianism—primordialism, instrumentalism and historical sociology—all tend to explain sectarianism away, reducing the phenomenon to factors exterior to sectarian identity politics itself. This is unfortunate in so far as the explanatory focus is thereby moved away from what sectarianism is/or means, how it becomes a source of conflict and what makes it distinct and effective compared to other identity and ideational claims.

This short article, therefore, argues for taking sectarian identity politics seriously on its own terms. It claims that this can best be done by bringing in insights from poststructuralist theory in International Relations, particularly from the Copenhagen School’s conceptualization of securitization and religion. Drawing on securitization theory will allow us to bridge concerns with the power politics involved when regional actors and local elites make sectarian claims and the processes of social construction whereby sectarian identities are enacted and discursively framed as security threats.

Securitization theory and religion

Securitization theory’s core idea is that security can be analyzed as a speech act, which brings certain referent objects and threats into existence by being uttered as such by securitizing actors e.g. state representatives or political leaders. By making an effective security claim to a certain audience, a political issue is moved from the realm of normal politics into a realm of expediency, where extraordinary measures (e.g. military means) can be used (Wæver, 1995). Studying sectarianism from a securitization theory perspective will thus imply examining how political elites use sectarian discourses as powerful sources of legitimation and persuasion. However, sectarian articulations would be approached as articulations that produce the very sectarian community they invoke as being under threat, rather than as mere rhetoric or manipulated constructions. The analytical focus thereby shifts towards questions of meaning and social construction—such as how sectarian identities are produced and re-produced, what it means to speak in sectarian community terms, or how sectarian identities are imbued with certain specific characteristics through strategies of Othering—rather than to questions of the underlying intentions or drivers behind actors’ use of sectarian language—such as the quest for power, state interest or regime survival.

Secondly, while sectarian identities in this sense are taken seriously as socially constructed facts—in some respects similarly to a primordial approach—these are not presumed to have a certain essence that can be defined, neither to be inherently conflictual or antagonistic. Instead, I would argue that this needs to be approached as an empirical question of how a given identity relation is articulated and how it may become securitized over time with reference to a sectarian community under threat. Obvious cases for such diachronic analysis of securitization would be the uprisings in Syria, in Yemen, or the post-2003 period in Iraq. For instance, the Syrian conflict initially hardly contained a sectarian dimension, but over time securitizing practices and discourses adopted by the regime, local “defence forces” and regional powers in particular, created self-fulfilling prophesies and anarchic security dynamics that prompted all actors to believe that their own community was threatened by the mere existence of the Other sect, and thus that the survival of their community ultimately was dependent on fighting the Other.

Thirdly, securitization theory argues that religion has its own distinct logic and a specific referent in the form of “faith” that securitizing actors claim to act in defence of (Wæver & Lausten, 2000, Sheikh, 2014). Sheik stresses that religious claims therefore are different from other identity and ideological claims, and that religious forms of legitimation will have distinct effects in terms of conflict dynamics. Speaking in terms of the defence of religion will, according to Sheikh and Juergensmeyer, for instance enable the securitizing actor to claim that it is a religious duty to use extraordinary measures, enable actors to elevate conflicts to cosmic battles between good and evil, potentially turn wars into sacred and eternal struggles with no time limits, provide personal rewards in terms of redemption or heavenly luxuries, and make it easier to mobilize vast numbers of supporters who otherwise would not have been mobilized around a given political or social issue. Especially this latter point seems relevant in relation to the current securitization and regional mobilization around the Sunni-Shia rift, where sectarian referents effectively have elevated local conflicts to regional security problems.

Some of the above suggestions, however, may primarily be applicable to the study of jihadist and radical religious actors (such as the Islamic State, al Qaeda, or Jabrat al Nusra) and less to the study of sectarian discourses and practices employed by main regional power and actors. In part this may also be due to the fact that there are differences between making a religious and a sectarian claim. Although sectarian identity claims may have faith as their security referent, the referent would more likely be a specific sectarian community that securitizing actors would claim to act in defence of. Sectarian identities are in this sense closer to ethnic and national identity constructions, more “political”, and often put forward within an already existing nation-state discursive framework[1]. E.g. when Hezbollah legitimizes its military intervention in Syria, it does indeed articulate Sunni extremists and so-called takfiris as the Other and represents this Other as an existential threat. Yet Hezbullah does usually not explicitly refer to its own sectarian faith as being endangered, but rather to the identity of the whole of Lebanon.

The primordial, the instrumentalist, and the Historical Sociology approach

How does this perspective then depart from dominant ways of studying sectarianism in Middle East regional politics? The current literature on the role of sectarianism in Middle East regional politics can be divided into three different strands i) a primordial, ii) an instrumentalist, and iii) a historical sociology approach; with significant overlaps between the latter two.

The primordial approach is particularly dominant in the media, where it often implicitly guides the analysis of the region’s wars and competitions. But it also figures prominently in policy analysis and diplomatic circles. Within this perspective sectarian identities are presumed to lie at the roots of conflicts in the Middle East. The Shia-Sunni conflict is viewed as an ancient struggle, “for the soul of Islam, a great war of competing theologies and conceptions of sacred history and a manifestation of tribal wars of ethnicities and identities” (Nasr, 2007). The Sunni-Shia split is taken to be a primary conflict of the region that reaches back to the 7th century and continues to drive the politics of the region today. In this way the sectarian divide comes to explain present conflicts, but is not itself in need of explanation. Sectarian identities are assumed to be primary or natural, and they are presumably played out between two clearly defined religious sects – leaving little analytical space for the study of overlapping or inter-sectarian identities. Although primordialists acknowledge that sectarianism has varied historically, and thus that it is not a constant in Middle East politics, this is largely interpreted as a type of overlay or repression that have kept latent sectarian identities under the radar. Abdo for instance argues that sectarian identities were kept in check by authoritarian regimes and strong state structures prior to 2011, and that the undermining of these orders – in the form of state collapse, revolution and sudden violence in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain – have allowed people to return to their primary identities and unleashed the tide of sectarianism (Abdo, 2013).

In contrast, instrumentalists are deeply skeptical about using a sectarian framework to explain the causes of the region’s present struggles and rivalries. Sectarian identities are primarily seen as superficial political constructs, open to manipulation and exploitation by political elites, who use sectarian fear-mongering to garner vested patron-client relationships, as gateways to mass mobilization, or as powerful levers in regional rivalries. To understand why sectarianism has risen over the last decades, instrumentalists primarily look to the way that authoritarian states have exacerbated sectarian divisions both domestically and regionally in order to prop up their regimes and remain in power. Arab states have for decades skillfully manipulated fears of political exclusion and claimed to protect certain sections of the population from others. The Assad regime is for instance infamous for its strategy of self-fulfilling sectarianism, having succeeded in galvanizing support from Alawites and Christians communities in particular due to their fears of Sunni majority rule. Political leaders may also use sectarianism to discredit their political opponents and rivals. In fact attacking Shiites is often a result of rivalries between different Sunni faction, rather than being motivated by a larger Sunni-Shia struggle (Lynch, 2013). Precisely because sectarianism is exacerbated by, and plays into the hands of authoritarian regimes, instrumentalist caution that the primordialist approach may lead to dangerous political prescriptions (Gause, 2014, Lynch, 2013). As Marc Lynch points out, primordialist arguments ”tend to lead towards solutions involving the heavy hand of authoritarian states to suppress the supposedly inevitable violent clash of sectarian communities”, or alternatively toward the partition of states into clean ethnic-sectarian enclaves, echoing the solutions applied to the Balkans in the 1990s (Lynch, 2013).

Moreover, instrumentalists rightly point out that the primordialist approach often neglects the multiple cross-cutting divisions, alliances and overlapping identities within the so-called Sunni and Shia camps. For instance by analyzing the Saudi-Iranian rivalry as a struggle driven by sectarian motivations, it is difficult to explain the alliance between Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran, as well as the rivalry between Saudi-Arabia and Qatar. Indeed both Iran and Saudi-Arabia have crossed the sectarian fault line when seeking regional allies. Iran’s close relationship with the Assad regime is not founded on an alawite-shia sectarian kinship, but rather on geo-strategic interest and a common position on Israel (Lynch, 2013, Ayub, 2013). Similarly to the logic in the domestic arena, Saudi-Arabia may use sectarianism regionally to mobilize local clients in conflict zones, or as a way to discredit Iran. But this is a part of a game for regional influence rather than a centuries-long religious dispute (Gause, 2014:5). Thus to instrumentalist, sectarianism is foremost an ideology that state actors conveniently employ either regionally in a classic realist balance of power, or domestically to hold on to state power (Gause, 2014, Lynch, 2013, Ayub, 2013, Delacarous)

Instrumentalists importantly point to the power and politics involved in sectarian identity politics, and to the analytical and political consequences of operating with an underlying assumption of essentialist identities. However, to instrumentalists sectarianism is precisely an “ism”, a form of ideology up for grasp alongside other ideologies in the region. The conflation of ideology and identity is however problematic in several respects.

Firstly, sectarianism becomes a type of surface phenomenon—or in Marxist terminology a mere superstructure—underneath which one will find the real drivers of politics, i.e. material power and interest. In a reverse image of the primordialist—who implicitly assumes sectarianism to be deep structure overlaid by power—instrumentalists see material power as a deep structure that moves sectarianism. This implies that sectarianism is removed from the equation and instead is explained away. In so far as sectarianism is assumed to be just another ideology cynically used by power-holders, instrumentalists are less well-equipped to explain why sectarian identity politics has become so prominent over the last decade, or what has made it so effective, compared to other ideologies available in the region. In other words, given that instrumentalists presume sectarianism is a mere expression of continuous universal power struggles, they are less focused on the particularities of sectarian identity formations or what it means to make sectarian claims.

Other scholars inspired by historical sociology therefore instead emphasize those historical path dependencies that have led to the recent thrive in sectarian identity politics (see e.g. Hinnebusch, 2014, Dodge, 2014, Heydemann, 2013). Dodge, for instance, argues that it is foremost the gradual weakening of state structures, the army, the policy force and the ability to deliver protection and services that creates the conditions of possibilities for sectarianism. When state institutions are eroding—because of sanctions, conflict, or foreign invasion—people turn to “whatever grouping, militia or identity that offers them the best chances of survival,” (Dodge, 2014:3). Analyzing the gradual break-down of state order in Iraq, Dodge points out how the withering of the state’s monopoly on collective violence, its civilian institutional capacity, and its infra-structural power all meant that Iraqis had to seek protection and services on a local and regional level instead. So-called “ethnic-religious entrepreneurs” were ready to jump in and supply these goods, and they were predominantly legitimizing their role in terms of communalistic identities. With the Arab uprisings in 2011, and the subsequent conflicts and weak/collapsing state structures, sectarian identity politics has gained further traction. Heydemann emphasizes how the deepening sectarianization of politics from the domestic sphere to the regional level now is a two-way street: Local conflicts have led to sectarian spill-over in neighboring states and have drawn in major regional actors along sectarian lines. Regional politics have become locked into a strategic culture of sectarianism, just as regional actors have exacerbated local sectarian dynamics by establishing patron-client support structures based on sectarian affinities (Heydemann, 2013:11).

To scholars inspired by historical sociology, the rise of sectarian identity politics is thus primarily a question of sufficient strong state structures (or the lack thereof) at the domestic level prompting communities either to seek protection with sub-state actors or regional patrons. In contrast to instrumentalists, historical sociologists do, to a certain extent, analyze these identities as different from ideologies. Sectarian identities are seen as more entrenched than mere ideology and more difficult to change or reverse once they have become established in popular discourse and practices. However, as in the case of instrumentalists, sectarian identity itself is withdrawn from the explanation by making it a function of something else. Sectarian identifications constitute a type of fallback position ready to be used in situations of heightened insecurity and state collapse, in which individuals or groups, out of rational self-interest, seek safety, goods, and order. Thus, as in the case of the instrumentalist approach, sectarianism is implicitly presumed to be a tool for self-preservation and a form of passive undercurrent available to sub-state elites when state structures collapse.


This article has argued that there is a need to take sectarianism more seriously, without reducing sectarian identity politics either to an already given essence or explaining it away by factors exterior to sectarianism itself. Inspired by some of the key concepts of the Copenhagen School’s conceptualization of securitization, I presented an analytical focus on how sectarian identities becomes securitized and accepted as security threats over time, the power involved when securitizing actors make sectarian claims/representations, and what it means within a distinct discursive field to make a sectarian claim. In this sense, one might argue that securitization theory may potentially bridge key concerns of all three approaches: the primordialists’ concern with identity, instrumentalists’ concern with power, and historical sociologists’ concern with identity formation. However, empirical studies of sectarian identity politics in the Middle East have yet to be carried out from a securitization perspective. This piece has hopefully taken the first steps in this direction, but the fruitfulness of securitization theory for the study of sectarianism will of course ultimately depend on future empirical studies.

Yet arguably, securitization theory is primarily concerned with conflict situations and the discourses of political elites. This makes the theory well suited to address the current Middle East regional order, but less to the everyday local sectarian practices. There anthropological approaches may have more to offer.


Helle Malmvig is a senior researcher in foreign policy at the Danish Institute for International Studies.


[1] Yet different from these, notably because sectarian communities seldom aspire to statehood. Shia minority communities in the Gulf for instance, and even in Iraq hegemony over the state and its resources rather than carving out an independent state.

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