Vanilla Muslims: Decentering sects in the analysis of political Islam

By Peter Mandaville, George Mason University

*This memo was prepared for the “Islamist Politics in the Shadow of the Islamic State” conference, January 23, 2015. 

It is commonplace for most contemporary analyses of the interface between religion, society, and politics in the Muslim world to focus primarily on particular ideologues, movements, sects, or religious leaders. And with good reason: These are important and influential actors, and they represent key constituencies and institutions in society. They are undoubtedly highly relevant and tangible points of entry for understanding Muslim politics. In this short paper, however, I want to raise some questions about what analysts might miss by over-privileging the centrality of movements and particular theological currents or groupings in the Muslim world. This is a particular important point to bear in mind at the present time given the renewed salience of sect and sectarianism in the Middle East.

At some level, the urge to think in terms of such categories is a product of how we are trained as scholars and analysts. Social scientists are taught to think in terms of ideal type categories that serve the heuristic function of reducing complexity to something more manageable – entailing, of course, inevitable trade-offs when it comes to accurately reflecting the nuances of social reality. But this whole question also reflects a deeper problématique that has occupied anthropologists of Islam for several decades now. How to think about Islam, and religion more broadly, as a category of social inquiry without granting it undue ascriptive power? I would contend that the basic contours of this debate also apply to how we think about and treat sects and sectarianism in Islam.

In a seminal article published in 1986, the anthropologist Talal Asad suggested that it would be most useful to think about Islam first and foremost as a “discursive tradition.”[1] That is to say, as a historically grounded and socially transmitted system of meanings and practices that, while varying in time and space, consistently invokes a common set of conceptual, textual, and historical reference points. The function and social significance of these referents is not seen to be static and unchanging but rather – as per any understanding of discourse – continually negotiated amidst changing relations of social power. These include but are by no means limited to the Quran, the Prophet Muhammad, sharia, etc.

Working in an Asadian spirit, I would suggest that we should think of sect in relation to “Muslimness” in much the same way as we think of Islam in relation to personhood. Just as saying that someone is a Muslim does not tell you everything about who they are as a person, the interjection of sect in matters of Islam similarly fails to account entirely for one’s Muslimness. We are this way also better able to make sense of the presence of significant variation within sect and sectarian identities. To treat Shiite Islam as a discursive tradition, for example, is to recognize that while Shiism does not possess a single, universal essence, it is certainly possible to talk about an inter-subjectively constructed historical experience of Shiite identity and practice that grants varying meaning and significance to a common repertoire of figures, events, rituals, etc. In other words – and trying now to better explain the heuristic work that the concept of discursive tradition performs – to invoke Shiism is not to provide a totalizing account of one’s Muslimness. Rather, Shiism understood as a discursive tradition helps us to identify some of the parameters that govern the ongoing process of Muslim being and becoming as particular Islamic meanings and interpretations are negotiated and renegotiated.

None of this is to deny the relevance and importance of sectarianism to understanding contemporary politics in the Middle East. Rather, it is about urging caution with respect to the question of how we position sect as an explanatory factor. The central take away here is the idea that role of sect can only be understood by looking at how sectarian formations intersect with the broader distribution of social power and political economy in a given society. In other words, we better understand the political valence of sectarian divisions when we understand how they relate to social geographies of access to power, privilege, and socioeconomic mobility.

While there is no doubt valuable insight to be gleaned from positing better ways of treating sect and sectarianism in academic discourse, we would be remiss here if we were to ignore the real world effects of particular ways of talking and thinking sect – particularly in light of recent events in the Arab world such as the rise of the Islamic State. What I have in mind here is the importance of recognizing that when particular assumptions and understandings about the nature and significance of sectarianism begin to circulate amongst media pundits, policymakers, and even national security officials, the practical implications can be enormous.

Just as malignant ethno-religious entrepreneurs sought to mobilize forms of sectarian identity in the Balkans for political gain after the Cold War, the United States largely failed to understand how its invasion of Iraq in 2003 would enable the very same dynamics in the Arab world. One of the more alarming things to observe in the aftermath of that war was the ease with which some U.S. national security officials discussed sectarian violence in Iraq in ways that suggested that they understood this bloodletting to be rooted in centuries-old theological disputes rather than in the coincidence of sectarian boundaries and the uneven distribution of political and economic power in postcolonial Iraq.

Sect talk – particularly of the Sunni/Shiite variety – has been rampant over the past decade. With Iran’s growing influence in Iraq forefront in the minds of Western policymakers and regional leaders alike, Jordan’s King Abdullah pointed in 2004 to an emerging “Shi’a Crescent.” In 2007, noted academic and future State Department official Vali Nasr posited a “Shi’a revival” in which “conflicts within Islam will shape its future.”[2] More recently, in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings, the ongoing violence in Syria, quashed aspirations in Bahrain, resurgent Salafism, and the rise of the Islamic State (not to mention Iranian efforts to leverage all of the above) drive a current trend to read the aftermath of 2011 primarily in sectarian terms – particularly among Middle East watchers in Western capitals. At some level, references to new sectarian tension simply function as a proxy for the Iranian-Saudi rivalry that – despite the Saudi religious establishment’s virulently anti-Shiite orientation – has always been at root a conventional struggle for regional hegemony. As the battle lines are drawn, Washington D.C. seems once again to be tempted by sects and ready to accept such divisions as a given reality and natural starting point for constructing new political arrangements rather than asking tougher questions about the circumstances and methods through which sectarianism becomes a political tool.

So all this leads me, finally, to a plea for the decentering of sects in our efforts to understand and engage Muslim societies. In its 2012 survey The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that:

[S]ectarian identities, especially the distinction between Sunni and Shia Muslims, seem to be unfamiliar or unimportant to many Muslims. This is especially true across Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as in Central Asia, where medians of at least 50% describe themselves as “just a Muslim” rather than as a follower of any particular branch of Islam. Substantial minorities in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia also identify as “just a Muslim.”

Some sociologists of Islam are also starting to ask what we might learn about Muslim communities if we begin with the insight that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims do not regard themselves as part of any particular grouping, movement, or “denomination.”[3]

So how can we think about and build space for the many millions of Muslims today who understand their religious identity in terms that reject – or perhaps fail to recognize altogether – sectarian limitations, requirements, or encumbrances? My own shorthand – and it might also sound a little offhand – for those who fall into this category is “Vanilla Muslims.” This kind of designation and the approach it signifies does not deny the relevance, presence, or reality of sect in Islam. Rather it simply invites us to consider what we might discover about how Muslimness comes into being by treating sect as merely one facet of a discursive tradition rather than as the natural starting point or ground zero for the making of Muslim identity. To decenter sect, or to un-assume the hegemony of sectarian sway, also provides a critical vantage point for understanding the nature of power relations within and between competing claims to Islamic normativity.

Peter Mandaville is a professor in the School of Policy, Government & International Affairs at George Mason University. From spring 2015 he will be serving as a senior advisor in the Office of Religion & Global Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. He is the author of Islam and Politics (Routledge, 2014) and Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma (Routledge, 2001).


[1] Talal Asad, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam,” Occasional Paper Series, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, Washington D.C., 1986.

[2] See Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, New York: WW Norton, 2007.

[3] See for example the various contributions to the Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 34, No. 7, a special issue on “Methods in the study of non-organized Muslim minorities.”

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