Sectarian identity politics and Middle East international relations in the first post-Arab Uprisings decade— from ’whether’ to ‘how,’ ‘where’ ‘when’ and for ‘whom’

Morten Valbjørn, Aarhus University

During the last decade, sectarianism has figured prominently in discussions about regional politics of the Middle East. Much of the discussion has been about ‘whether’ sectarian identity politics matters in post-Arab uprisings international relations. This is a valid question and may become even more important in the coming years, if a new ‘hyper-nationalism’ will replace the recent decades’ focus on sectarianism, as suggested by some observers.[1] However, when it comes to understanding the role of sectarian identity politics in Middle East international relations during the first decade after the Arab uprisings, it is useful supplement the ‘whether’ question with another set of questions focusing on ‘how,’ ‘where,’ ‘when,’ and ‘who.’ In order to answer these additional questions, it is worthwhile paying attention to some of the contested issues in the broader sectarianism debate and revisit some of the more classic debates on International Relations Theory (IR) and the Middle East.

The Arab Uprisings and the fall and rise of dripping identity politics

Traditionally, identity politics has figured prominently in the study of the international relations of the Middle East, a region famously described as ‘dripping with identity politics.’[2] Scholars have discussed whether ideational factors matter compared to material ones, as well as how the presence of multiple trans-state identities has influenced dynamics of regional politics and whether this puts the region apart from international relations elsewhere.[3]

The Arab uprisings challenged this conception of an identity-saturated Middle East. Some suggested the potential for the emergence of a ‘new Middle East’ which would pave the way for a new kind of identity politics or maybe even make the whole debate on identity politics obsolete.[4] Thus, the absence of classic Arab nationalist or Islamist slogans and the presence of only Egyptian flags at Tahrir Square made some to claim that state and national identity in the Middle East at last had prevailed.

However, the rise of sectarianized conflicts and transnational religious mobilization soon made clear that it was premature to declare trans-state identities ‘so 20th century.’ In line with Lynch’s observation about how ‘a number of deeper trends have come together in recent years to give frightening new power to identity politics writ large,’[5] various kinds of trans-state identities began subsequently to receive increasing attention. Some observers drew attention to sub-state identities based on tribe or ethnicity, discussing whether this would lead to a remapping of the Middle East.[6] Others suggested that the defining feature of identity politics in a ‘new Middle East’ would be what Abdo coined the ‘new sectarianism,’ and others described as a process of ‘sectarianization.’[7]

Approaching a sectarianized new Middle East

Sectarianism is not a novel topic for the scholarly agenda on Middle East politics, but in the last decade it has become a ‘catchphrase in politics, media and academia.’[8] Past debates on ‘whether’ sectarianism matters have been replaced by a growing recognition – even among previous sceptics – that sectarianism has become a ‘real factor in politics.’[9] This has been reflected in a ‘surge’ of publications on Shia/Sunni sectarianism in the Middle East discussing how sectarianism can be conceptualized, mapped and explained in terms of its causes and consequences for domestic as well as regional politics.[10]

In the more theoretically informed debate on sectarianism, it is possible to identify a common way of framing the existing study of sectarianism.[11] It is presented as being polarized between primordialist and instrumentalist approaches. Both of these two allegedly very influential camps are considered faulty as they are accused of either reducing everything to sectarianism or explaining it away as a mere epipheno­menon. This critique is usually therefore followed by a call on scholars of sectarianism to get beyond both primordialism and instrumentalism.

This framing misses a number of important features of the actual sectarianism debate. The critique of primordialism and instrumentalism might as such be valid, but at closer inspection it turns out that in academia these two camps are far less influential than claimed. In fact, it can be hard to find a genuine primordialist scholar nowadays. Instead, it appears that most scholars consider themselves as representing the much coveted ‘third way’ beyond primordialism and instrumentalism.

At the same time, it also becomes clear that the ‘third way’ is not only a very crowded field. It is also populated by very different kinds of ‘creatures.’ Thus, an agreement about the need to get beyond both primordialism and instrumentalism has not translated into any ‘new consensus’ as for how to do this more specifically. Instead, it is possible to identify a range of different kinds of ‘third way’ strategies.[12] This leaves a lot of room for disagreements and debate among those who in principle subscribe to the same overall ‘beyond’ ambition. So, rather than using all the energy ‘beating dead horses,’ those interested in the real disagreements in the current scholarly sectarianism debate are therefore well advised to turn their attention to differences among the multiple suggestions for how sectarianism can be approached in a way that is neither primordialist nor instrumentalist.

Debating international relations in a sectarianized Middle East

These insights from the broader sectarianism debate are also useful, when it comes to how the role of sectarianism in Middle East international relations has been discussed in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Similar to the pattern in the broader debate on sectarianism, the existing approaches have often been framed as being polarized between two camps: those who reduce everything to an ancient sectarian Shia/Sunni divide and those who only emphasize geopolitics ending up explaining sectarianism away. Both of these approaches are rejected and instead the critics are calling for a new allegedly superior ‘third way’ beyond both.[13]

Like in the broader sectarianism debate, it is indeed possible to find examples close to these two polarized camps. On closer inspection, however, it turns out – again – that they are few, and the more or less ‘pure’ examples will typically come from politicians, journalists or figures from think tanks rather than the more theoretically informed scholarly debate. Thus, most scholars seem to acknowledge that sectarianism ‘somehow’ has become a factor to consider when studying Middle East international relations in the first decade after the Arab uprisings. But the majority do also stress that sectarian politics is far from ‘the whole story’ as sectarianism is only one among more important factors.[14] The really contested issue, therefore, seems rather to be about how one moves from the rather banal statement that it is important to pay attention to both geopolitics and sectarian identity politics to specifying how, when, where and for whom sectarianism matters in international relations.

This point is far from novel for those acquainted with past identity-saturated discussions about Middle East international relations. Thus, there is not only a rather broad consensus about how both geopolitics and identities matters, but also that ‘simply claiming that ”identity matters” is no longer sufficient,’ as Lynch already noticed two decades ago.[15] As a consequence, much Middle East scholarship concerning international relations has been less preoccupied with the question about ‘whether’ than about ‘how,’ ‘where,’ ‘when’ and for ‘whom’ identity politics matters.[16] Along with insights from the recent ‘beyond’ discussion in the broader sectarianism debate, some of the analytical distinctions and dimensions from this classic debate can therefore be useful to revisit, when it comes to examining the role of sectarian politics in post-Arab uprisings Middle East international relations.

First, the ‘how’ question. By revisiting some of the discussions in IR generally and among Middle East scholars more specifically, it is possible to identify a number of ways in which identities and ideas can affect international relations.[17] In simplified terms, it is possible to group the suggestions in two clusters with somewhat different foci. The first and most far-ranging cluster takes as its point of departure the view that identities and ideas give meaning to actor’s realities and their understanding of their interests. Identities are therefore considered crucial for how actors conceive of the international and answer fundamental questions such as ‘What is a threat?’ and ‘Who is threatening and against whom?’ which again influences what is considered (un)thinkable and (im)possible.[18] The second cluster turns greater attention to the question about how identities can both constrain and enable international actors in the way they pursue their interests—regardless of where these come from. Thus, the prevalence of specific ideas and identities can, on the one hand, impose costs on certain forms of behavior, making an actor hesitate to or even refrain from following what, from a narrowly materialist perspective, would be in their interest. On the other hand, they can also enable actors to pursue their interests in ways not otherwise possible.[19]

For the role of sectarian politics in Middle East international relations, this literature provides some useful tools as it invites to a discussion on specifying exactly where in the ‘causal equation’ sectarianism matters. In other words, has sectarianism influenced Iran or Saudi Arabia’s worldviews, their threat perceptions, notions of their interests or ways of identifying friends/enemies? Or is it rather so that the impact from recent decades’ sectarianization of regional politics mainly concerns how this process, at the same time, has enabled and constrained the two in pursuing interests, which has less to do with sectarianism per se than with geopolitical or regime survival concerns. For instance, even if Iran’s regional policy and choice of allies are not informed by its Shiite identity per se, the regional sectariani­zation may still play a role by limiting Iran’s ability to access actors in the ‘Sunni Arab world’ compared to the decade before the Arab uprising, and at the same time it may have strengthened links to various ‘Shia non-state actors.’[20]

Another way to approach the ‘how’ question is through the literature on (international) politics/religion, which asks about whether identity politics involving religious identities is somehow different from those relating to other kinds of identities. Following Brubaker’s  discussion about ‘Religious Dimensions of Political Conflict and Violence,’ the answer to this question depends on whether one subscribes to a ‘diacritical’ or a ‘normative ordering’ understanding of religious identities.[21] While the former perceives identities as ‘culturally empty,’ the ‘content’ of identities matters in the latter understanding. Sheikh has similarly discussed whether religious identities should be equated with other kinds of identity politics in international relations or if they hold some distinct qualities. While subscribing to the latter view, she emphasizes at the same time the need for alternatives to essentialist – and instrumentalist – ways of including religion in IR. Against this background, she introduces a distinction between perceiving religion as a belief community, as power, or as speech act.[22]

While religion and sectarianism are not identical, this literature brings attention to the basic question about whether all identities should be considered as ‘empty,’ so their influence on international relations basically will be the same; or is it necessary to pay attention to their ‘content’ and to distinguish between dynamics associated with sect-centric and other kinds of identities. In addition to the question about whether sectarian identities as such are different from other forms of identity politics,[23] a number of other questions emerge. For instance, are dynamics related to trans-state identities concerning Shia different from the Sunni counterpart,[24] and does it make a difference if rivalries involving identity politics are played out between actors associated with the same or different ‘sect-centric identities,’ e.g. Qatar/Turkey/Saudi rivalries vs. Iran-Saudi?[25] Does it make sense drawing parallels between the ‘classic’ Arab cold war that revolved around an Arab trans-state identity, and the current regional rivalries, which has been labelled as a ‘neo-sectarian’ or ‘Shia-Sunni’ regional cold war?[26] Does it make a difference which kind of (trans-state) identity external patrons emphasize when approaching local ‘proxies’ in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and what about Libya, where Shia/Sunni sectarianism does not play any role;[27] and, finally, does the shifting importance for Iran being Persian, Iranian, or Shiite and for Saudi Arabia being Arab, Sunni or Saudi matter for their threat perceptions and international behavior?[28]

Second, in view of how the salience of sectarianism has waxed and waned across time as well as space, it is also relevant to consider ‘when,’ ‘where’ and for ‘whom’ sectarian identity politics matters. As for the ‘who’ question, Gause asks elsewhere in this issue whether sectarianism in the present regional configuration is a top-down or a bottom-up phenomenon. The answer to this question carries implications for, whether one should mainly direct attention to elite actors, i.e., foreign policymakers, or to the broader public and various non-state actors. While Gause earlier mainly has emphasized the elites and top-down dynamics, in his discussion in this issue bottom-up dynamics appears to play a larger role.[29] By focusing on the ‘who’ question, one will furthermore become attentive to how the role and salience of sectarianism may vary among different kinds of actors. For instance, for some sectarianism may be nothing but a tool used instrumentally, whereas it for others can be more deeply felt, or it may, over time, become internalized and get a life of its own.[30]

When it comes to the ‘where’ and ‘when’ questions, it can be useful to revisit the broader literature on the international politics of ethnic conflicts, and in particular the Middle East specific debates on the permeability of the post-colonial Arab state in a regional ‘sound chamber in which information, ideas, and opinions have resonated with little regard for state frontiers.’[31] These literatures bring attention to how the salience of trans-state identities often correlates with levels of state(de)formation, and how the presence of weak states and strong trans-state identities provide amble opportunities for proxy warfare. Thus, foreign powers can use trans-state identities to interfere and mingle in local conflicts in weak states with permeable borders (outside-in logic), and as a way of addressing the ‘ethnic security dilemma’ local actors can appeal to trans-state identities as a way of seeking support from the outside (inside-out logic). As various observers have suggested[32], this analytical lens is also useful in specifying and explaining where and when regional politics has become particularly ‘sectarianized’; in short, it is often in the context of ‘regionalized civil wars,’ where countries with weakened or collapsed state institutions and some sort of sectarian division domestically become arenas for complex ‘inter-mestic’ rivalries involving external powers and local (non)state actors, e.g. Syria, Iraq, Yemen.

Change – and continuity – in an identity-saturated Middle East

During the last decade, sectarianism has figured prominently in discussions about regional politics in the Middle East. In one way, this marks a change from debates before the Arab uprisings. At that time, some sort of Arabism usually figured as the most prominent example of trans-state identities, which some claimed were becoming obsolete in the 21st century. On the other hand, this focus on sectarian politics can also be perceived in continuation of a much longer and broader debate on the role of trans-state identities in regional politics of the Middle East and ideational factors in international relations more broadly. As shown in above, it is useful to keep these older debates in mind. Besides providing a range of analytical tools and distinctions suitable to push the debate from ‘whether’ to more nuanced accounts of ‘how,’ ‘where,’ ‘when’ and for ‘whom’ sectarian identity politics mattered in the first decade after the Arab uprisings, they can also provide insights to the question about whether or not the recent decades’ sectarianization of regional politics really constituted a significantly new kind of identity politics in the Middle East.

[1] Ardemagni, E., “Gulf Monarchies’ Militarized Nationalism”,  Sada – Analysis on Arab Reform, February 28, 2019,; Alhussein, E., “Saudi First: How Hyper-Nationalism Is Transforming Saudi Arabia,” in ECFR Policy Brief (2019).

[2] Telhami, S. and M. Barnett, “Introduction: Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East,” in Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, ed. S. Telhami and M. Barnett (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002), 3. Paradoxically, the Middle East has not only been described as a place ‘dripping with identity politics’ for which reason it is important to pay attention to ideational factors. The region has also been depicted as one of the places in the world that ‘best fits the realist view of international politics,’ see Nye, J. S., Understanding International Conflicts – an Introduction to Theory and History (N.Y.: Longman, 1997), 148.

[3] for an overview Valbjørn, M., “Introduction: The Role of Ideas and Identities in Middle East International Relations,” in International Relations of the Middle East (Vol. 3: The Role of Ideas and Identities in Middle East International Relations), ed. M. Valbjørn and F. Lawson (London: Sage, 2015).

[4] Valbjørn, M.,”Studying Identity Politics in Middle East International Relations before and after the Arab Uprisings,” in The Routledge Handbook to the Middle East and North African State and States System, ed. R. Hinnebusch and J. Gani (London: Routledge, 2020).

[5] Lynch, M., “The Entrepreneurs of Cynical Sectarianism,” POMEPS Studies no. 4 (The Politics of Sectarianism) (2013).

[6] Wright, R., “Imagining a Remapped Middle East,” New York Times, September 28 2013. See also POMEPS, “Rethinking Nation and Nationalism” POMEPS Studies no 14 (2015).

[7] Abdo, G., The New Sectarianism : The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi’a-Sunni Divide (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); Hashemi, N. A. and D. Postel, eds., Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (London: Hurst Publishers, 2017).

[8] Matthiesen, T., The Other Saudis – Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 16.

[9] Gause, F. G., “Sectarianism and the Politics of the New Middle East “,  Brookings Upfront Blog, June 8, 2013,; cf. Gause, F. G.,”Saudi Arabia: Iraq, Iran, the Regional Power Balance, and the Sectarian Question,” Strategic Insights 6, no. 2 (2007).

[10] Mabon, S. and L. Ardovini, eds., Sectarianism in the Contemporary Middle East (London: Routledge, 2018); Hinnebusch, R., “The Sectarian Revolution in the Middle East,” R/evolutions: Global Trends & Regional Issues 4, no. 1 (2016); Valbjørn, M. and R. Hinnebusch, “Exploring the Nexus between Sectarianism and Regime Formation in a New Middle East: Theoretical Points of Departure,” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 19, no. 1 (2019); Haddad, F., Understanding ‘Sectarianism’: Sunni–Shi’a Relations in the Modern Arab World (London: Hurst Publishers, 2020).

[11] for an elaboration of the below argument see Valbjørn, M., “Beyond the Beyond(S): On the (Many) Third Way(S) Beyond Primordialism and Instrumentalism in the Study of Sectarianism,” Nations and Nationalism 26, no. 1 (2020).

[12] I have elsewhere distinguished between three broad kinds of ‘third way strategies’: i) ‘The New Savior,’ ii) ‘The Baby and the Bathwater’; iii) ‘Lego Theorizing,’ see Valbjørn, M., “Beyond the Beyond(S).

[13] for examples of this framing see Colgan, J., “How Sectarianism Shapes Yemen’s War,” POMEPS Briefings, no. 28 (The Gulf’s Escalating Sectarianism) (2016); Darwich, M. and T. Fakhoury, “Casting the Other as an Existential Threat: The Securitisation of Sectarianism in the International Relations of the Syria Crisis,” Global Discourse 6, no. 4 (2016); Malmvig, H., “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,” POMEPS Studies, no. 16 (International Relations and a new Middle East) (2015); Cook, S. A., “Why the Myth of Sunni-Shia Conflict Defines Middle East Policy — and Why It Shouldn’t “,  Salon, May 7, 2017; Nasr, V., “The War for Islam”,  Foreign Policy – Argument, January 22, 2016; Mabon, S., Saudi Arabia and Iran: Power and Rivalry in the Middle East (London: I.B.Tauris, 2016).

[14] Mabon, S., “Saudi Arabia and Iran: Islam and Foreign Policy in the Middle East,” in Routledge Handbook of International Relations in the Middle East, ed. S. Akbarzadeh (New York, NY: Routledge, 2019).

[15] Lynch, M., “Jordan’s Identity and Interests,” in Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, ed. M. Barnett and S. Telhami (Ithaca: Cornell University Press., 2002), 56.

[16] Mabon, “Saudi Arabia and Iran: Islam and Foreign Policy in the Middle East”; Valbjørn, “Studying Identity Politics in Middle East International Relations before and after the Arab Uprisings.”

[17] Jepperson, R. L. et al., “Norms, Identity, and Culture in National Security,” in The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics, ed. P. Katzenstein (N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1996); Saideman, S., “Conclusion: Thinking Theoretically About Identity and Foreign Policy,” in Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, ed. S. Telhami and M. Barnett (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002); Goff, P. M. and K. C. Dunn, eds., Identity and Global Politics – Empirical and Theoretical Elaborations (N.Y.: Palgrave, 2004); for an overview Valbjørn “Introduction: The Role of Ideas and Identities in Middle East International Relations.”

[18] Bilgin, P., “Whose ‘Middle East’? Geopolitical Inventions and Practices of Security,” International Relations 18, no. 1 (2004); Bilgin, P., “Identity/Security,” in The Routledge Handbook of New Security Studies, ed. J. P. Burgess (London: Routledge, 2010); Campbell, D., Writing Security – United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).

[19] Saideman, “Conclusion: Thinking Theoretically About Identity and Foreign Policy”.

[20] Byman, D., “Sectarianism Afflicts the New Middle East,” Survival 56, no. 1 (2014); Mabon, “Saudi Arabia and Iran: Islam and Foreign Policy in the Middle East”.

[21] Brubaker, R., “Religious Dimensions of Political Conflict and Violence,” Sociological Theory 33, no. 1 (2015).

[22] Sheikh, M. K., “How Does Religion Matter? Pathways to Religion in International Relations,” Review of International Studies 38, no. 2 (2012).

[23] Malmvig, “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.”

[24] Haddad, F., “Anti-Sunnism and Anti-Shiism: Minorities, Majorities and the Question of Equivalence,” Mediterranean Politics (2020).

[25] Cherif, Y., “Dahlan Vs Belhaj: The Maghreb in the Arab War of Narratives,” in The Middle East: Thinking About and Beyond Security and Stability, ed. L. Kamel (Bern: Peter Lang, 2019); Gause, F. G., “What the Qatar Crisis Shows About the Middle East”,  Washington Post – The Monkey Cage, June 27, 2017;

[26] Valbjørn, M.,”Dialogues in New Middle Eastern Politics – on (the Limits of) Making Historical Analogies to the Classic Arab Cold War in a Sectarianized New Middle East.”

[27] Phillips, C. and M. Valbjørn, “‘What Is in a Name?’: The Role of (Different) Identities in the Multiple Proxy Wars in Syria,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 29, no. 3 (2018).

[28] Maloney, S., “Identity and Change in Iran’s Foreign Policy,” in Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, ed. S. Telhami and M. Barnett (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002); “The Roots and Evolution of Iran’s Regional Strategy,” Atlantic Council – Issue Brief, no. September 28 (2017); Alhussein, “Saudi First: How Hyper-Nationalism Is Transforming Saudi Arabia.”

[29] Compare Gause’s discussion in the present issue and for instance Gause, “Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War,” in Brookings Doha Center – Analysis Paper (2014).

[30] Lynch, “The Entrepreneurs of Cynical Sectarianism.”

[31] Posen, B. R., “The Security Dilemma and Ethnic Conflict,” Survival 35, no. 1 (1993). Salloukh, B. F. and R. Brynen, eds., Persistent Permeability? Regionalism, Localism, and Globalization in the Middle East (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004); Gause, F. G., “Systemic Approaches to Middle East International Relations,” International Studies Review 1, no. 1 (1999); Binder, L., ed. Ethnic Conflict and International Politics in the Middle East (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999); Noble, P., “The Arab System: Pressures, Constraints, and Opportunities,” in The Foreign Policies of Arab States, ed. B. Korany and A. E. H. Dessouki (Boulder: Westview, 1991).

[32] Gause, “Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War.”; Hinnebusch, “The Sectarian Revolution in the Middle East.”; Salloukh, B. F., “Overlapping Contests and Middle East International Relations: The Return of the Weak Arab State,” PS: Political Science & Politics 50, no. 3 (2017).