The social construction of sectarianism in the Middle East

by Omar Hassan • Published 20 January 2019

It is rare to find a news report about the Middle East that doesn’t refer to the religious affiliation of the protagonists. Events tend to be interpreted almost exclusively through this framework, both by experts and lay people. The result of this is a more or less unchallenged consensus that the Middle East is a region uniquely shaped by religious tensions: Sunnis hate Shi’as, Shi’as hate Sunnis, all Muslims hate all Christians, and of course, every Arab has a profound and irrational hatred of Jews. We are told that these hostilities have their roots in intractable theological disputes that go back thousands of years, a fact that provides a powerful explanation for the endless wars in the region. Thus we are encouraged to accept – implicitly or explicitly – a clash of civilisations thesis that counterposes the secular and tolerant West with a religiously divided, tribal and savage Orient.

This narrative is a noxious blend of self-delusion and racial stereotyping.

For one thing, the image presented of the West is entirely out of kilter with reality. It would be ludicrous to describe contemporary Europe as tolerant, when governments of all shades are currently implementing murderous border regimes and repressive internal policies – not to mention the historic growth in the size and influence of the far right and fascists. Meanwhile the American empire is governed by a bigoted reality TV star with a passion for racists, rapists and third world dictators. Here in Australia children languish in detention for over five years, swallowing razor blades to try to end their own lives, while Indigenous teenagers are imprisoned at unprecedented rates. These are not the policies and trajectories of a tolerant, multicultural and liberal society.

The other side of the comparison is equally problematic. Historians of the Middle East have documented the impressive history of coexistence between people of a dizzying variety of faiths and backgrounds. Sunnis, Shi’as, Jews, Maronites, Druze, Ismailis, Alawis, Orthodox Christians and so on. All these groups lived together for centuries under the Ottoman empire and prior to it. It’s true that there were occasional outbreaks of communal tensions, and a Sunni interpretation of Islam informed the region’s social and political institutions. Yet the Middle East was for centuries a beacon of relative social harmony and intellectual openness; especially in comparison to medieval Europe.

Despite this history, it is undeniable that sectarianism has become a highly visible and central element in Middle Eastern society and politics in recent decades.[1] There are serious and challenging questions that can and should be asked about this phenomenon. This article will attempt to put forward an analysis regarding the origins, features and contradictions of sectarianism in the Middle East.[2] Obviously, attempting a comprehensive history of such a diverse region would be impossible in a single article. Each country has its own features, its own history, with a unique tempo and constellation of political forces. So rather than drill down on the specific historical experiences, this article will present a more conceptual and schematic argument about the origins and nature of modern sectarianism, looking in particular at the Arab East – which includes Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Jordan and Egypt.

I’ll make three key arguments. The first is that sectarianism is a central feature of capitalist social relations in the Middle East. This means it is not simply a leftover from feudalism but a core part of how capitalism has developed and how it operates on a daily basis. Secondly, I will argue that sectarianism is not some inherent aspect of Arab societies, but something that has been repeatedly constructed and strengthened by both foreign and domestic bourgeois forces. The latter of these is crucial. The left can sometimes fall into shorthand, implying that sectarianism is simply the product of colonialism or Western intervention. This argument fails to account for the reactionary role played by bourgeois and petty bourgeois forces in the region itself, and trying to synthesise the local, national and global elements of this process will be central to my argument. Finally, I will briefly look at the political implications of this analysis, that is, how do we challenge and end sectarianism.

Ottoman empire in the transition to capitalism

For much of the feudal era the Middle East was one of the most advanced regions in the world, on the cutting edge of science, art and culture, philosophy and economic trade. It is an historical irony that feudalism survived longer in the region precisely because it was more sophisticated than its European version, leaving few spaces for an independent proto-capitalist class to emerge in opposition to the old order.

As part of this prosperity, the various Islamic empires conquered much of the Middle East and North Africa, for a time even extending their rule into southern Europe and central Asia. By necessity this entailed the construction of diverse empires in which it made sense not to insist on religious or cultural uniformity. The preferred strategy was to grant substantial cultural and political autonomy to minorities within the overarching Sunni system of Shari’a law. This was especially the case in the Arab East, where religious diversity was greatest.

While there were occasional sectarian and communal outbursts, the picture was of general stability and calm. Islamic cities generally contained quarters for the various religious and family groups, which sometimes (though not always) coincided with a specific function in the overall social division of labour. For instance, the Maronites in Lebanon were able to establish roots for themselves in the high Ottoman period because they were recruited to administrative tasks, while Jews played a central role in money and finance. The conflicts that did arise either within cities or at a district level were generally cultivated by elites seeking to deflect social tensions in moments of crisis, usually produced by economic or environmental disasters. The other source of sectarian tension was the repeated wars between the Sunni Ottomans and the neighbouring Shi’a Safavid empire, which was based in what is now known as Iran. Heterodox religious communities were viewed as potential fifth columns at these times, and their leaders were repressed. Overall then, while the Ottoman period was characterised by centuries of coexistence and relative harmony, the occasional periods of sectarian strife left a legacy, especially among the oppressed minorities who preserved the memories of their suffering in oral histories and religious traditions.

As capitalism arose in western Europe between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries it became desperate to expand its scope for exploitation and profiteering. The Ottoman empire, which by this point was in decline, was an obstacle to this process. The first tactic used to gain access to territory and resources was to simply conquer parts of the region, as Napoleonic France and later Britain did with Egypt. The other was to use local populations to gain a foothold from which to expand. These tactics complemented each other, and both involved the mobilisation of sectarian discourses and institutions.

One of the more interesting examples was in Lebanon, where the British and French latched on to religious minorities and stoked divisions in order to try to weaken the relatively stable governing structures of the Ottomans from as early as the mid-nineteenth century. This was a far from smooth process, as has been ably documented by Ussama Makdisi. Records from the time speak to the frustration of French missionaries when faced with the friendly relations that existed between Muslims and Christians in the country. One described with revulsion the situation in Sidon:

We are sorry to say that there was a sort of coexistence [fusion] between the Christians and Muslims of Sidon. They visited each other frequently, which resulted in intimate relations between them and which introduced, bit by bit, a community of ideas and habits all of which was at the expense of the Christians. These latter joined in the important Muslim feasts, and the Muslims [in turn] joined in the Christian feasts; this kind of activity passed for good manners, sociability, while in truth it resulted in nothing more than the weakening of religious sentiments.[3]

Far from the population jumping at the chance to learn religiously inflected knowledge and histories, the sectarian religious schools established by colonial missionaries only took off once they cut back on the time spent on holy scripture and focused more on maths, science and literature.

There is great irony, of course, in the fact that local desire for secular modern knowledge (as opposed to ecclesiastical or evangelical knowledge) was controlled largely by missionaries, and hence that knowledge was disseminated along sectarian lines.[4]

When the French and British proposed to divide Mount Lebanon into “Christian” and “Druze” areas in the mid-nineteenth century, they faced serious resistance from local leaders of both communities. The reason for this was that throughout the feudal era elites from each of the religious groups identified far more with each other than the peasants from their own “community”.[5] They had not yet learned to see society in sectarian terms. This changed over time; the result of a complex interplay between Western intervention and local power plays is described well by Makdisi:

The objective of Druze and Maronite elites was not to confirm European or Ottoman attitudes toward them but to…[present] themselves as the only genuine interlocutors of the so-called primordial sectarian communities that inhabited Mount Lebanon. They sought to transform their religious communities into political communities and to harness invented traditions to their respective causes. The construction of a political sectarian identity did not come naturally; it entailed petitions, meetings, and the incessant application of moral as well as physical pressure by the leaders in each community to overcome local rivalries, regional differences, and family loyalties.[6]

The exact history differs from country to country, but the overall process by which sectarian identities were jointly constructed by colonial and domestic elites is similar across the Middle East. It was partly a colonial imposition of divide and rule, partly a manoeuvre of local elites hoping to construct a new basis for their power and privilege amid the gradual disintegration of the Ottoman order. Lacking the possibility of independent thought and action, peasants would sometimes draw on these identities to justify and strengthen their rebellions against elites in particular places.

The final breakup of the Ottoman empire and the imposition of colonial rule by European powers after World War I crystallised and accelerated these sectarian social institutions. In Syria, for example, after expelling the Ottomans following World War I the French created autonomous cantons for the Alawis, Druzes and other minority communities in order to weaken the hold of the traditional Sunni elites who opposed their rule and the Sykes-Picot agreement. Lebanon itself was created in order to give France a reliable base in the region, dominated by the Maronite Christians trained in their seminaries and schools. The British similarly manipulated the Assyrians in Iraq,[7] allied themselves to the small but growing Zionist community in Palestine, and established the Sunni-supremacist Hashemite royal family in Iraq and elsewhere.

Post-colonial revolutions

It would take a lifetime to document all the sectarian crimes committed by the colonial powers, desperate to entrench their rule in hostile territory. The most lasting and important of these are the creation of the despicable Saudi monarchy and the genocidal state of Israel, but every state has committed its fair share of sectarian crimes. In any case, for the purposes of establishing a systematic explanation for the prevalence of sectarianism today, it is more useful to look at the ways in which sectarianism began to be challenged during the anti-colonial revolutions in the aftermath of World War II. These movements sought to end European control of the region, and involved the popularisation of various forms of nationalism and communist ideology that to a large extent rejected divisive ideas about religion and ethnicity. In this period nationalists of all stripes, even those of the right wing Syrian Social Nationalist Party, tended to stress the non-sectarian nature of their politics. Mass movements such as the Iraqi revolution of 1958 or the mobilisations around Nasser and his allies in Egypt and elsewhere eschewed sectarian divisions in favour of a reimagined, inclusive “Arab” identity.

A series of factors come together to explain this political breakthrough.

1. The movement was led by the new middle classes. All the key figures in the Arab nationalist movement were drawn from the relatively well-educated sectors, most typically doctors, teachers and mid-level military officers. In general it was the military men who ended up in charge due to their superior social organisation and coercive capacity. As conscious modernisers, this layer sought to bring their societies into the twentieth century by challenging the legacy of feudal and colonial rule. Undermining the power of conservative religious institutions was seen as a crucial part of this process, along with ending widespread illiteracy, economic underdevelopment, and so on.

2. Strength of the left. In many countries the communist parties played a substantial role in providing both ideological depth and a mass base for the anti-colonial struggles. Though overwhelmingly Stalinist and class-collaborationist, the Arab left helped popularise the idea of “Arab socialism”, which opposed the prominence of religion in political life.[8]

3. Over-representation of oppressed minorities in leadership positions. This was not universally the case, but was important places in such as Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The emphasis on national unity fit with their experiences as members of small communities: sectarianism threatened the survival of their group, or at the very least stymied their capacity to rise through the ranks of the state machine.

4. A sense of optimism and hope. An intangible but identifiable phenomenon, the early post-colonial period saw immense energies unleashed by the feeling of a united national struggle against the colonial powers and the elites who collaborated with them. In this context sectarian ideas could be pushed to the background, even if the prejudices and social structures that underpinned them were not fully resolved.

Events did not follow this pattern everywhere. In some places, notably Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Morocco, the monarchies were able to hang on to power and negotiate a transition from colonial rule without relying on or succumbing to mass movements from below. In Iran a left nationalist movement was overturned by a US-backed coup, while in Lebanon the nationalist movement was undermined at key moments by regional powers keen to prevent any sort of progressive transformation of the sectarian, pro-Western regime.

Even in the strongholds of Arab nationalism there was always a contradiction in the so-called secularism of pan-Arabism. For one thing, pan-Arabism failed to account for some of the specific oppression and democratic demands of national minorities such as Kurds, Berbers and others. Additionally, the nationalist desire for unity borrowed strongly from the idea of the Islamic Ummah, and tended to emphasise cultural factors that were more or less Sunni in nature. Even in the heyday of Nasser, Qassem and others, rhetoric that emphasised national unity and secularism existed in an uneasy tension with the ongoing opportunist mobilisation of sectarian themes, which could be used to undermine the left (who were disproportionately recruited from minority groups), to buttress national feeling at moments of crisis, and to justify new rounds of repression and authoritarian measures.[9]

Still, having made these qualifications, by attempting to overcome the sectarian divisions in the region Arab nationalism represented an important breakthrough. In that context, it is no accident that in this period Islamist organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and other similar groups tended to be a key prop of the conservative, anti-nationalist forces. Based in the old landowning classes and the traditional sectors of the middle class around the small traders and the mosques, groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, based on social classes hostile to modernisation, formed an organic and coherent opposition to the progressive and Soviet-backed left. As such they were strongly supported by the CIA and other reactionary forces – including Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States.

Thus in this period the Islamist parties and the states that backed them were correctly seen as reactionary institutions opposed to the progress, however contradictory, embodied by the “radical republics”. This does not mean that the majority of people in countries like Iraq, Egypt and Algeria rejected Islam per se – far from it – but they correctly identified Islamism as the political tool of imperialism and the much despised traditional ruling class.

Neoliberalism and sectarianism

The post-colonial revolutions raised the hopes and expectations of millions across the Arab world. It seemed that after decades of humiliating decline brought about by colonisation, progress was finally to be made on economic, social and cultural fronts. This was manifested most potently in the goal of Arab unity espoused by so many of the leaders at the time. Unfortunately, this period of optimism and social reform was to prove fleeting.

Having placed themselves at the head of developmentalist state capitalist regimes, the military officers who led the post-colonial movements quickly became central to a new round of capital accumulation located in and around state institutions and favoured private contractors.[10] For a time high levels of growth allowed for substantial corruption to co-exist with rising living standards for workers and peasants, however this could not last. As the pressures of governing a bourgeois state in an imperial system of states became more fierce and the contradictions inherent to the developmentalist models came to a head, the populist regimes retreated from their more radical policies – albeit at different tempos. Counter-reforms were adopted that undermined the living standards of workers, peasants and the poor and supposedly “anti-imperialist” foreign policies were abandoned. Subsequent crises required further attacks on workers and the poor, whose rates of exploitation and immiseration had to be increased to attract foreign investment. Thus figures like Nasser, Assad and Gaddafi were transformed from radical outsiders to key figures in networks of regional and international capital, a shift which put them fundamentally at odds with their popular social base.

As opposition to neoliberal policies grew, the ruling elites found it necessary to lean more and more on authoritarian methods, institutions and ideologies. Such tendencies were not totally foreign to these governments. Indeed one of the first acts of the Free Officers’ Movement in Egypt was to execute a number of striking workers and leave their bodies hanging out the front of their factory. This was a warning to potential militants; while the regime might improve wages and conditions for workers, the process was to be managed entirely from above. No independent workers’ organisations were allowed in Egypt or anywhere else. Even so, there was a discernible strengthening of the systems of surveillance and control as policies became less redistributive and more elite-friendly. This involved expanding the size and scope of the secret police and internal security forces, harsher repression of unions and independent political organisations, and conservative ideological shifts. One of the most important of these was the increased instrumentalisation of religious and sectarian identities and institutions.

As has already been mentioned, the mosques, integrated as they were into the social and political life of the conservative sections of the urban and rural middle classes, had long been the basis of a right wing opposition to Arab nationalism. Grouped around mercantile and agricultural fractions of capital, these groups were predisposed to supporting the neoliberal shifts taking place to begin with. However in many cases this natural affinity with reaction was supplemented via more or less explicit political alliances, as exemplified by Sadat’s turn to the Muslim Brotherhood and Saudi Arabia, and Assad’s strong relationship with Christian, Druze and Sunni patriarchs in Syria. Through this process the regimes sought to replace the support they had once received from workers, peasants and the poor by absorbing previously oppositional religious communities into a top-down, corporatist system of domination.

The regimes also manipulated sectarian loyalties to supplement their own hold over the state apparatus itself. This meant placing trusted members of their own families and sects in strategic positions of power, a situation that made the fragmentation of the state bureaucracy under the pressure of popular opinion less likely. This happened in both Iraq and Syria, where respectively Sunni and Alawi figures took on the overwhelming majority of the senior positions, despite being minorities of the country. This did not mean that power now rested in the hands of the sects as a whole; most still lived in conditions of poverty and oppression. Even within the supposedly “dominant” sects it was usually figures with family and tribal connections who gained the most. Regardless of these nuances, the damaging narrative of sectarian domination was established. This sectarianisation of the state machine often went along with attacks on other religious or ethnic groups. In Egypt the Copts bore the brunt of this state-driven sectarianism, while in Iraq both Shi’as and Kurds were targets of systematic oppression.

Most regimes used a combination of these strategies, which resulted in a massive expansion in the salience of religious identity and political organising in the region. This was classic politics of divide and rule, with a whole series of explicitly sectarian institutions and practices developed by the rulers to cement and reinforce the divisions among the ruled. Often the regime both encourages sectarian violence against minorities and then presents itself as a defender of the same minority, as in Egypt and Syria. These factors breed a certain sectarian identification on the side of the repressed, who are encouraged by the undeniable sectarian realities of the social order to blame their suffering on the “ruling” sect, rather than the political and social structure of capitalism in the region. This is of course encouraged by the reactionary political leaderships in the region, who have a vested interest in such narratives rather than class-based alternatives. Regardless of the specificities, once initiated this cycle of sectarian mobilisation quickly develops its own destructive logic that has proven extremely difficult, though not impossible, to resist.

Compounding and reinforcing this shift in ruling class strategy has been the response of the political forces in society most capable of shaping mass consciousness – the left and the Islamists themselves.

For the left, Arab nationalism presented both an opportunity and a challenge. There was no alternative to positioning itself as a critical supporter of the progressive policies of the new post-colonial regimes, given their immense popularity. On the other hand, it was crucial to mobilise to extend the broadest possible democratic rights and economic reforms possible. This was made impossible by the domination of Stalinism with its insistence on the separation of democratic and socialist stages of social struggle. So the left became largely uncritical champions of the nationalists. In the more radical phase of the nationalist struggle this weakness was somewhat camouflaged, though even here it missed substantial opportunities to build its own forces and radicalise the movements further. However, once the regimes consolidated into neoliberal tyrannies, it should have been anathema to any mild progressive, let alone for revolutionaries, to provide them with any sort of support. And yet they defended the repressive dictatorships right up to the revolutionary wave of 2011, and in many case beyond it. Indeed in some cases they called for more severe repression against the Islamists than the governments themselves were proposing.[11] This perspective has profoundly discredited the socialist movement for generations of people. After all, if the barbaric policies of Assad and Saddam Hussein had something to do with socialism, then who in their right mind would want any part in it?

Just as significant in facilitating the rise of Islamism were the structural shifts in the regimes themselves. Closely tied to the petty bourgeoisie centred on the traditional merchant classes, the Islamists had always been in favour of trade and capitalism. Yet as the post-colonial regimes went into crisis and introduced sweeping neoliberal reforms, the Islamists shifted to a more populist position even as their leaderships became increasingly bourgeoisified. At an ideological level they attacked the corruption and inequalities of the nationalist regimes and provided a huge network of social services to fill the gaps left by the retreating welfare state. The role of Islam in this project was to offer a more humane social order based on religious piety as an alternative to the endless greed of crony capitalism. Though also a reflection of the deep privations of their mass base in this period, the shift was made possible by the fact that Islamist capitalists were often – though not always – excluded from the business opportunities created by the neoliberal era, where privatisation became a mechanism of handing out wealth to the families and networks favoured by the existing state managers. Regardless, in a context of widespread cuts to an already weak welfare state, the Islamist appeals could gain a widespread hearing. Over time this has increased the salience of religious identity and organisations in society, as explicitly religious groups became an important source of social welfare and education. This was a process that unfolded over decades, and although it did not involve the propagation of sectarian ideology, by institutionalising religious division in this manner it has laid the basis for sectarianism to emerge at key moments of social crisis.

It’s worth mentioning here that the nationalist regimes had always given the Islamists some space to exist as a counterweight to the left.[12] However even when the regimes more or less adopted Islamist themes and politics later on, they never fully incorporated the Islamist organisations into their ruling structures. Partly this was due to the more militant and less controllable groups that remained active on their fringes, but also because they represented a well-organised threat to the hegemony of the governing institutions. Egypt was symptomatic of this tension, where the reconciliation between the Brotherhood and the regime under Sadat went the furthest, and yet Islamic Jihad still mobilised to assassinate him in 1981. By straddling this ongoing contradiction the Islamists maintained – and in most cases expanded – their ability to project themselves as passionate opponents of the status quo, despite having substantial relations with the hated regimes.

Thus we’ve seen across many Middle Eastern states the development of two rival sets of economic and political interests. The dominant one is based on the state apparatuses – especially the military – and their allies in the private sector, while their main rivals are the capitalists and professionals organised around the mosques. The latter have shifted from their previous stance of right wing opposition towards a more religious-populist discourse, though fundamentally pro-capitalist and socially conservative politics remain at its core. There is nothing fundamentally supportable about either side of this political contest, reflecting as it does a dispute between differing factions of the ruling class regarding who is to profit from the exploitation of workers and the poor. Both sides are prepared to opportunistically manipulate ethnic and religious identities in furthering their goals, and neither wish to improve the lot of masses of the population. The Arab Spring proved this in spades; both sides were incapable of offering any progressive reforms despite the substantial pressure of revolutionary events.

Imperialism and sectarianism today

Another factor driving the sectarianisation of politics in the Middle East has been the growing rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This is not to say that that the conflict between these two countries is primarily a religious one. Such an analysis is fundamentally orientalist, presenting the Middle East as essentially different to the rest of the world that is structured around more traditional conflicts over resources, profits and power. Having said that, it is significant that both regimes deploy interpretations of Islam – however cynical and opportunistic – to buttress their moral and political legitimacy at a domestic and regional level. This means that their rivalry has tended to be expressed in sectarian language, which has contributed to the escalation of tensions between Sunni and Shiite communities in countries across the region.

Prior to 2003 this tendency was constrained by the existence of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which stood as a third pole in many of the region’s political conflicts. Any attempt to depict regional affairs in simple Sunni versus Shiite terms was inevitably complicated by the fact of a relatively independent state run by a Sunni chauvinist that (at times) clashed with the Saudis. Indeed after the Iran-Iraq war Saudi Arabia and Iran collaborated for years in order to contain and weaken Saddam’s regime. The relationship between the two countries peaked in the aftermath of the first Gulf War, which the Saudis supported and the Iranians tolerated, after which diplomatic relations were restored. The fragmentation of Iraq that followed the US invasion in 2003 transformed the situation yet again. The fall of Saddam and the subsequent expansion of Iranian influence through Iraq, Lebanon and Syria has unsettled the Saudis and led to a serious counter-mobilisation.

On the Saudi side, religion has always been an important – though not exclusive – organising tool. One major element of their strategy to build cultural capital and networks of political influence has been their funding of Islamic schools. One estimate suggests that the Saudis have spent as much as US$75 billion on these schools since the 1980s.[13] These institutions teach versions of Islam that are closely aligned, if not always identical to, their own highly reactionary version of Islam known as Wahhabism. These schools function as an institutional and ideological weapon for the construction of a political hegemony against the influence of Shi’a Islamic teachings and political organising.

In Bahrain, a quasi-colony of the Kingdom, the issue is clearest. The country has a clear majority of Shi’as, but is ruled by a Sunni monarchy given its imprimatur by the Saudis. Further, with the assistance of the Saudis, the Bahraini government has constructed a purely Sunni police force and encouraged Sunni migration from their own country to Bahrain in order to deepen their control. During the Arab Spring, when it looked like the oppressed Shi’as of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia were beginning to forge links with Sunni oppositionists, the media was filled with violently anti-Shi’a propaganda. This included both hysterical attacks on Shi’a as fifth columns of Iran, and criticisms of the pro-democracy movement for being “sectarian” and not “nationalist” because it was supposedly a purely Shi’a affair. This political offensive was backed up by selective repression; handfuls of Sunni activists were disciplined harshly but entire Shi’a neighbourhoods were occupied and harassed by the police.

Iran has operated in a similar manner, albeit with fewer resources at their disposal. They have built relationships with a number of Shi’a and quasi-Shi’a groups in the region. They too have tended to bestow their largesse on the most sectarian elements. The conflicts in Syria and Iraq have served to dramatically widen both the nature and the field of their operations. Most notable has been the construction of Shi’a mercenary forces drawn from Afghanistan and elsewhere, designed to defray the social cost of seemingly endless war against the West and the Saudis.

However it has been the rise and consolidation of Hezbollah in Lebanon which most completely expresses their strategy. In Hezbollah Iran has sought to train a mass party staffed by cadres and activists whose worldview is deeply informed by Iran’s vision of Shi’a politics and religion. Hezbollah is not a typical political party. To ensure its social and ideological hegemony Hezbollah has a whole integrated network of childcare programs, scout camps, schools, media institutions, youth organisations, unions, corporate entities, financial institutions, welfare and service providers and more. It is no exaggeration to describe it as a state within a state, as Joseph Daher does in his outstanding book on the topic.[14] Within this complex social structure, Iran’s highly sectarian brand of Islam plays a central ideological and institutional function. It permeates the entire apparatus, giving it meaning and value, and helps incorporate Hezbollah’s supporters in a whole system of local, national and international organisations, alliances and political perspectives.

Western imperialism

The final ingredient to add to this heady mix is the intervention of global powers into the region. Thus along with the degeneration of the post-colonial regimes and the Iranian revolution of 1979, the invasion of Iraq is a central moment in the recent escalation of sectarianism across the region. This is the case not simply because it destabilised regional power balances as previously discussed, but due to the specifically sectarian methods adopted by the US to manage the occupation of an overwhelmingly hostile country and the subjugation of its people.

The West has always seen Iraq as an unstable amalgam of conflicting groups. Consisting of inherently distinct and conflicting ethno-religious communities of Sunnis, Shi’as and Kurds, Iraq was seen as inevitably doomed to social division. This of course ignores many centuries of coexistence that harks back to the very establishment of the Abbassid caliphate in the eighth century. Baghdad and its hinterlands have always been a multicultural area in the literal sense of the word, with relatively high concentrations of Jews, Christians, Sunnis, Shi’as, Assyrians and many other groups. Even if the reality of competing empires and ruling classes meant that tensions between various groups flared episodically, the Sunni rulers of the area were unusually tolerant of diversity, a factor born at least in part of necessity since their power tended to fade outside the walls of the major cities. As in so many other places, the British took advantage of these pre-existing religious fractures and social hierarchies and embedded them deeply into the social, economic and political foundations of the new country they created in 1921, with the aim of dividing and ruling their new colonial subjects. Reinforcing the fallacy of orientalist explanations of sectarianism is the fact that this approach was not unique to the Middle East, but was first perfected in Ireland before being replicated across the British empire.

With this history in mind, let’s fast forward to 2004, where a united struggle against the occupation of Iraq was beginning to take shape. George W. Bush and his team responded by consciously inflaming sectarian tensions. This took many forms, the most important of which involved raising the most sectarian Shi’a forces in the country to positions of power in exchange for their assistance in squashing the Sunni insurgents. They also constructed walls between areas simplistically designated as Sunni or Shi’a, and undermined those, such as Moqtada al Sadr, who sought to build alliances between the communities.[15]

Their explicit goal was to establish a sort of “balance of power” situation, where no faction of Iraqi society was strong enough to govern alone and crush its rivals, forcing them all to rely on the US for support. This involved using Shi’a forces to attack Sunni areas and vice versa. Widespread use of depleted uranium has left generations of children with birth defects so drastic that medical terms don’t yet exist to describe them. The largely Sunni city of Fallujah is the most dramatic example of this policy, home as it was to many supporters of the former Ba’ath regime. The city was subjected to a devastating military siege and assault not once or twice but three times, resulting in incredible loss of life and infrastructure. This facilitated the growth of more extreme groups such as ISIS, which further encouraged state-sanctioned violence to repress them. This horrific spiral of violence and counter-violence is just one example of a more general trend in which the West employed, endorsed and institutionalised the most horrifically brutal sectarianism the region had ever seen.

In this context, sectarian violence and social organisation became normalised to a historically unprecedented extent. The undeniable crimes of each faction encouraged equally criminal responses by their opponents. Tens of thousands of sectarian cadres were trained on the battlefields of Iraq, and millions more discovered the impossibility of religious coexistence via the evening news.

This is why it is no exaggeration to say that alongside Assad’s brutal repression of the Syrian revolution, it is the US-led, Australian-supported invasion and occupation of Iraq that is one of the key causes of ISIS and other such organisations of sectarian terror.

Some theoretical conclusions

A number of tentative theoretical conclusions that can be drawn from this sordid history.

1. Sectarian divisions are an objective feature of society.

Sectarianism needs to be understood as the toxic outcome of the development of capitalist social relations in the concrete social reality of the Middle East. This unfolded through the related processes of internal class (and therefore, state) construction and the institution of colonial rule. The precise manifestation of this differed from country to country based on a range of factors, including demographics, level of colonial domination, the geopolitical significance of the country, pre-existing social divisions, the form and complexity of the pre-capitalist social structure, and much more.

This combination of capitalist and pre-capitalist relations is not a process of adding different features together mechanically, but of mutual transformation and penetration. The religious tensions that existed prior to the rise of capitalism – alongside a kaleidoscope of familial, tribal, regional and other divisions – have been fundamentally transformed by commodity production. This is because capitalism is a social system that classifies and regulates every aspect of human existence more systematically than any previous social structure. And in this process, the ruling class instinctively grasps towards labels and categories that are understood in much the same way as the system as a whole – hierarchical, natural and permanent.

Trotsky’s concept of combined and uneven development is crucial to understanding this whole procedure. Trotsky’s essential insight is that what is created in the situation of late-developing capitalism is not a half-feudal, half-capitalist hybrid, but a fully-fledged capitalist system – albeit one with distinct features different to the “standard” model of western Europe.[16] Indeed, the subsequent development of global capitalism may suggest that the “standard” liberal-democratic model is perhaps the exception to the rule.

In any case, the result of this process of combined and uneven development is a particular articulation of capitalism that is strongly sectarian in nature. It is not some external flaw that can easily be reformed away, but is structurally embedded in the economic, social and political institutions of that society at all levels. Again, this varies from place to place, depending on local factors, but overall has been a relatively consistent feature of society across the Levant especially, and the region more broadly.

The most obvious way this happens is that sectarian relations are built into the state institutions themselves. This means that education, service provision, criminal justice, family law and sometimes even parliamentary representation itself are structured along communal lines. Lebanon’s confessional system of government is the most extreme case but hardly the only one; discrimination does not need to be enshrined in law in order to operate. Given these conditions, it is not surprising that the structure and content of political organisations seeking to contest for state power tend to be coloured by sectarian concerns. The basic question of politics – who gets what – is reduced to a competition among religious communities for access to social resources. This is heightened by the disproportionate (though not unique) role of patronage in Arab politics, and by the fact that in the neoliberal era the amount of resources available for socially beneficial programs is constantly diminishing. Even when there is political contestation within a community, the sectarian structure of the state system means that it tends to be expressed as a debate regarding who truly speaks for the community’s interest.

Underpinning all this is the fact that communalism imposes itself on the very structure of the economy itself, albeit to varying degrees. For instance in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq a number of corporate entities are structured on communal lines, with management and workers coming from the same group. Sometimes entire sectors are dominated by particular sects, such as the historic dominance of Christians over finance and banking in Lebanon, though that has changed to some extent since the end of the civil war. In other cases this division rests on geographical divisions, such as the Kurds’ overwhelming dominance of the north of Iraq. Sectarian divisions are thus not simply ideological, they are based on a distorted interpretation of a material reality.

2. Sectarianism is a conscious political strategy.

Notwithstanding the previous point, it is also the case that sectarianism is a conscious method of social control. The fact of intensive sectarian conflict today is not an intrinsic feature of the Middle East per se, but the product of bourgeois forces attempting to build constituencies and compete with rivals over territory, wealth and power. To reiterate for emphasis, this is not merely a foreign imposition, it has been a tool used by local bourgeois forces for over a century now.

Sectarianism has thus been revitalised and regenerated each time a ruling class has needed a means to divide and conquer a populace over which it lacks hegemony. Its use is therefore always accompanied by increasing powers of repression against outsiders and dissidents, depending on the severity of the crisis. Thus it serves to simultaneously provide a rationale for repressing non-conformers, and to build a false unity among the religious majority population behind a leader in need of a base. This is assisted by the fact that the very material structure of society makes it difficult to perceive that there are no common interests between ruling class and working class Sunnis, Shi’as, Druzes or anyone else.

It’s worth explicitly stating that sectarianism is primarily a political posture, not a theological one. This doesn’t mean that the operation is entirely cynical – indeed often conflicts between various wings of political Islam can emerge out of a sense of corruption by power or the betrayal of religious principles. As is usually the case, the middle class constructors and mobilisers of sectarian discourses cannot act effectively without being sincerely convinced of the righteousness of their cause. Yet a few examples will suffice to show that religious considerations are of secondary importance.

The relationship between the Alawis of Syria and Islam more broadly is a historically complicated and contested one. However since the Ba’ath takeover in 1963 there have been a number of attempts to “Islamify” the Alawi religion. In the recent past, efforts to bridge the Muslim-Alawi divide have all been politically motivated. In 1936 the Sunni Mufti of Jerusalem, Jaf Amin al Husayni, declared the Alawis to be Muslim as part of his effort to break the colonial grip on power. The second attempt was in 1972 when the Shi’a cleric of Iran, Ayatollah Hasan Mahdi al Shirazi, declared that Alawis and Shi’a were “two synonymous words”. This occurred following a request by Syrian leader Hafez al Assad, who used it to try and pacify Sunni oppositionists who had been questioning his religious credentials. There have since been other, similarly motivated decrees.[17]

For another example, take Saudi Arabia’s extremely close relationship with the state of Israel. The regime’s explicitly sectarian and bigoted interpretation of Islam clearly hasn’t stopped it from long term collaboration with such a powerful ally. This ruling class hypocrisy goes way back. Makdisi tells a hilarious but indicative anecdote of the Maronite church in feudal Lebanon. For centuries the church hierarchy refused to allow peasants more than one day off a year to celebrate their saints. Each village was forced to pick just one holy figure to commemorate via a holiday; this decidedly profane constraint was brutally enforced by landowners who, not surprisingly, seemed to prefer the corporeal wealth of this world to the promise of satisfaction in the next.[18]

Thus it is clear that sectarianism continues to be an important component of social control in the Middle East. Like nationalism in the West, it remains an easy shortcut to social influence for those with little positive to offer the popular masses of a country. In the period of post-war expansion it was possible for a progressive middle class leadership to articulate a relatively non-sectarian program for the improvement of society for all the oppressed, but – in the conditions of neoliberal degeneration and crisis – this is extremely unlikely today.

3. Sectarianism: a permanent feature of the region.

Writers in this journal have argued that systematic oppression of women and racial minorities is an essential element of the complex totality that is the capitalist mode of production.[19] The purpose of this article is to show that this analysis applies equally to the issue of sectarianism in the Middle East. Like women’s oppression, the social, ideological and material basis of sectarianism existed prior to capitalism, and had been mobilised by pre-capitalist ruling classes to strengthen their rule. However it is now over 100 years since capitalist relations penetrated and dominated the Middle East. To speak of sectarianism – or monarchical dictatorships, for that matter – as a “semi-feudal” distortion of capitalism is worse than meaningless; it serves as an implicit apologia for really-existing capitalism. One might as well speak of sexism and the family as “semi-feudal” aberrations. Rather, sectarianism has been absorbed, transformed and embedded into capitalist society via political and economic processes and institutions. It is best understood now as both a product of and a crucial prop for bourgeois hegemony in the region. That is to say, the brutally repressive regimes of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the anti-Coptic pogroms of the Egyptian state, the genocidal instincts of the Israeli state and even the unrestrained barbarism of ISIS and similar groups – this is what really-existing capitalism will look like in the Middle East as long as it is allowed to exist.


The analysis presented in this article differs substantially from that traditionally put forward by the Arab left, who have tended to explain sectarianism and the heightened religiosity of Middle Eastern society as a hangover from the feudal era. Those who argue this have tended to be aligned to the Stalinist communist parties, and this analysis has helped justify their support for various bourgeois “modernisers” who they hoped would finally bring the democratic and anti-clerical achievements of the French revolution to the Arab world. Their hopes have been repeatedly dashed, and the left has been largely discredited as a result. In the conclusion to a stunningly insightful text written in 1946, Tony Cliff summarised the reasons for this failure:

Imperialism is the main factor retarding the broad all-sided economic development of the Arab countries, and therefore disturbing the complete abolition of the communal economic castes; it foments communal strife and contention and its existence excludes the existence of inter-communal peace. The bourgeoisie of the Arab countries is not the antipodes of imperialism. Tied to feudalism [sic] and struggling for a place in the cracks left by imperialism, it is incapable of overcoming the internal competition eating at its vitals, and primarily the communal competition. The same factor – fear of the proletarian revolution – which drove the German bourgeoisie to pursue a course of insane persecution of the Jews as a means of galvanising national unity in the German people, will tomorrow drive the Arab bourgeoisie to savage hatred of the minorities.[20]

So far it has been emphasised that sectarianism is deeply rooted in capitalist society. But as with so many of the systems of oppression and control deployed by the bourgeoisie to guarantee their rule, sectarianism is constantly contradicted by the reality of social existence. Social interaction between members of different sects occurs far more commonly than, say, interactions between people from different nations, especially in the major cities of the Arab world. So just as bourgeois forces have to continually invest energy into sectarianising Arab societies and politics, the experience of daily life can tend to undermine these divisions. This has always been especially true for the working class, which most encompasses the full spectrum of social diversity in any society.

Of course, far more than just working and living together, the key means of challenging sectarianism is to struggle together. Such struggles encourage unity across sectarian lines, and can reorient political discourse from sectarian divisions to more fundamental issues of oppression and exploitation. The example of Lebanese teachers comes to mind, who at the highpoint of their struggles became a focal point for opposition to the corrupt sectarian system in that country.[21] We see similar dynamics in the case of Hamas, a Sunni Palestinian organisation that has inspired solidarity across the Middle East whenever it has resisted Israel. More recently, significant social movements against repressive and dysfunctional governments have unified populations in both Iraq and Iran, while a mass campaign against corrupt and environmentally destructive waste disposal in Lebanon in 2015-16 became a lightning rod for social dissatisfaction.

The most dramatic evidence of this process was seen during the Arab revolutions of 2011. In country after country scenes of solidarity between different religious and ethnic groups were to be seen. In Egypt Coptic Christians protected Muslims praying in Tahrir Square, and vice versa. In Syria revolutionaries carried banners denouncing sectarianism and went to great efforts to appeal to Christian, Druze and Alawi communities. Women of all faiths participated in every aspect of the process, breaking conservative social traditions often justified with religious references. After decades of social strife, communal tensions, terrorism and poverty, another Middle East seemed to be emerging from the mass protests and strikes of that year.

But as with every battle against the system, spontaneous struggles against sectarianism can only go so far. In the case of the Lebanese teachers, the union that was formed by the left was subsequently captured and run into the ground by a joint ticket run by the political establishment. In Egypt, both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military successfully used sectarian conflict – among other things – to divide and neutralise the movement. There are many other such examples, going back to the early phases of the Lebanese civil war where students and workers of all backgrounds united to challenge the sectarian and reactionary capitalist system in that country. What followed was a massive counterattack by the sectarian forces of the status quo, leading to decades of catastrophic violence and social stagnation.

These histories show that it is possible to challenge sectarianism but also that it is incredibly difficult to win. In the face of consciously reactionary politicians and institutions, the working class needs conscious political instruments of our own – including unions, political parties and alternative media – to generalise and radicalise the fight against oppression and exploitation. Fundamentally, it requires the construction of revolutionary political organisation that clearly and consistently opposes all forms of exploitation and oppression and the capitalist system that creates them. This organisation must be large enough to act as a pole of attraction for workers who seek to fight against the wishes and interests of traditional communal leaders. This kind of organisation will only be built through struggle; both at an ideological level against the rotten inheritance of bourgeois society, and in the streets and workplaces.

There’s nothing easy about this task – but it’s the only way out of the sectarian hell that the ruling classes of our world have created in the region.


Beinin, Joel 1998, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, University of California Press.

Chit, Bassem 2014, “Sectarianism and the Arab Revolutions”, Socialist Review, 388, February,

Cliff, Tony 1946, “The Problem of the Middle East”,

Cole, Juan 2015, “Iranian Support for Syria Pragmatic, not Religious”, Informed Comment,

Daher, Joseph 2016, Hezbollah: Political Economy of the Party of God, Pluto Press.

Daher, Joseph 2018, “Sadr, sectarianism, and a popular alternative”, Jacobin,

El-Hamalawy, Hossam 2007, “Comrades and Brothers”, Middle Eastern Research and Information Project, 242,

Garnham, Sarah 2018, “Against reductionism: Marxism and oppression”, Marxist Left Review, 16, Summer.

Gold, Dore 2003, Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism, Regnery.

Hassan, Omar 2017a, “The criminal origins of the Assad dynasty”, Marxist Left Review, 13, Summer.

Hassan, Omar 2017b, “Review of Hezbollah: Political Economy of the Party of God”, Marxist Left Review, 14, Winter.

Kepel, Gilles 2003, Muslim Extremism in Egypt: the Prophet and Pharaoh, University of California Press.

Makdisi, Ussama 2000, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon, University of California Press.

Trotsky, Leon 1932, The History of the Russian Revolution, Haymarket Books.

[1] Rima Majed, “In the Arab World, Sectarianism is Real, Sects are Not”, Al Jazeera News, 10 October 2016.

[2] This essay is inspired by a brilliant piece written by Bassem Chit in 2014.

[3] Makdisi 2000, p90.

[4] ibid., p92.

[5] ibid., p78.

[6] ibid., p77.

[7] Cliff 1946, pp50-54.

[8] At times this secularism became an excuse for supporting the violent repression of opposition to the nationalist dictatorships, especially as they degenerated through the 1970s and 80s.

[9] Joel Beinin’s 1998 work on Egyptian Jews makes for fascinating and tragic reading, documenting their shift from being a longstanding and highly respected part of Egyptian society to being suspected of being a Zionist fifth column following an attempted terror plot and the Suez crisis of the mid-1950s.

[10] Hassan 2017a.

[11] El-Hamalawy 2007.

[12] Kepel 2003, p133.

[13] Gold 2003, p126.

[14] Daher 2016; for a summary see Hassan 2017b.

[15] Sadr was then and remains now no angel. His commitment to non-sectarianism is extremely shaky, and his militias have been accused of sectarian violence on numerous occasions; see Daher 2018 for more on this. But in the post-2003 Iraqi context he has been perceived as a relatively non-sectarian political actor, and has won mass support on that basis, however unreliable his underlying politics.

[16] Chapter one of Trotsky 1932 outlines this theory with wonderful clarity and historical scope.

[17] Cole 2015. It is indicative of the dramatic and unfortunate shifts that have taken place in the region – and the relative fluidity of the salience of sectarian identities – that just a few decades ago being declared a Shi’a leader by an Iranian cleric was seen as conducive to building better relations with the Sunni community.

[18] Makdisi 2000, p43.

[19] Garnham 2018.

[20] Cliff 1946, p205.

[21] Daher 2016, pp145-150.

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