Politics, not religion

The Middle East is fraught with governments, non-state actors and ideologues fighting for dominance, with religious identity a major divide between Sunni and Shia. But is it politics or religion? On September 16th,  Abbas Kadhim, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Hisham Melhem, the Washington Bureau Chief Al Arabiya, Joyce Karam, the Washington Bureau Chief of Al Hayat and Geneive Abdo, Moderator and Fellow in Middle East and Southwest Asia at The Stimson Center, addressed this question.

Abdo acknowledged that sectarianism is one of the animating principles and dominant themes in Middle East disputes. But she also noted there is a deeper conclusion to be reached about the role of religion.

Though tension and violence within the Muslim ummah is as old as Islam itself, Melhem noted that the development of political Islam is rooted in the 20th century. Some might attribute the Sunni-Shia divide to rivalry as to whose jurisprudence is more true to the faith, but this only comprises a small element. The actual fight is for political power. When analyzing sectarian violence it is essential to look at the manifestations of political tension and influence in a historical context.

Until 1967, the Arab political sphere was “animated” by secular ideology and driven by nationalism, socialism, and Nasserism. Israel’s devastating defeat of the Arabs during the 1967 war caused a resurgence of Sunni political Islam that capitalized on the increasing feeling of insecurity. The Islamists used the waning support of secular ideologies to consolidate support and power. They saw the defeat at the hands of the Israelis as a way to return to Islamic roots.

The 1979 revolution in Iran saw a resurgence of Shia power, reasserting the sect as a “powerhouse in the world.” Using Iraq as a case study, where sectarian violence is rampant, the Sunni-Shia divide can be seen as a means to acquire power. While some argue that the 2003 American invasion created sectarianism in the country, Melhem concludes that the invasion only made it worse and that Iraq was already “broken.”

Kadhim echoed the sentiment that the conflict between the two sects is deeper than an “old story of rivalry” but rather one of “identity politics.” He further claimed that “Iraq is the cradle of the Sunni-Shia rivalry” that dates back to the early 20th century during the British mandate.

Karam shifted the conversation to Lebanon, a microcosm of regional politics. While noting that Lebanon has never had an extended period of peace due to sectarian tensions and regional violence, she highlighted the moment in which sectarian tension “flared up” during the 1975 civil war in Lebanon. The precursor to the war involved not only the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shias but included the different Christian factions as well. Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon only made the situation worse as the country continued to struggle with internal issues.

In Lebanon’s second largest city of Tripoli, poverty is pervasive. Karam cites a UNDP report that 57% of residents live in poverty, a city that also happens to have the largest concentration of Sunni population in the country. In addition, Bab Tabaneh, another heavily Sunni populated city with a 87% poverty rate, is where most of the sectarian clashes happen in Lebanon. The socio-economic situation contributes greatly to sectarian tensions.

Following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, a void was left in the Sunni leadership in Lebanon, which some say led to the rise of the Salafist movement (mainly in Tripoli). Radicalization was exacerbated by the spillover of the Syrian war in 2011.

Karam disagreed with Melhem’s assessment that the Iranian revolution was the catalyst for political Islam in the region. Instead she concluded it arose from a generation of disenfranchised, undereducated youth who feel their future has been compromised.

As violence rages on in the Middle East, the real issue is the struggle for political power as states transition away from secular autocracies. The sectarian diagnosis is an overstated simplification.

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