Toward a Political Theory of Sectarianism in the Middle East: The Salience of Authoritarianism over Theology

By Nader Hashemi | Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics - Josef Korbel School of International Studies - University of Denver. | Oct 27, 2015
Toward a Political Theory of Sectarianism in the Middle East: The Salience of Authoritarianism over Theology
Sunni-Shi'a Battle of Siffin (657 CE)

Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...

Sectarian identities could not be politicized unless differences in beliefs, values, and historical memory compelled religious groups to collective action around particularistic identities. The critical question, however, that demands an answer in explaining sectarian conflict is: why now?  Why do sectarian conflicts erupt at particular moments in time and not at other moments? Sunni-Shi’i relations, for example, have not always been conflict-ridden nor was sectarianism a strong political force in modern Muslim politics until relatively recently. What factors contributed to this change? Drawing on research from South and Southeast Asia, Vali Nasr has suggested that we must take into account the agency of state actors in identity mobilization.[1] Nasr’s insight helps deepen our theoretical understanding of identity mobilization in that it pushes the conversation beyond primordial differences and elite manipulation and focuses attention on state behavior and state-society relations. The national context is essential for understating sectarian conflict in the Middle East today.

National Contexts

While most Muslim majority societies are Sunni, comprising about 85-90 percent of the total global Muslim population, Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain are Shi’a majority societies. Significant Shi‘i populations also live in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Syria.[2] Critically, what these societies share in common is that most of their political systems are decidedly non-democratic and various forms of authoritarianism dominate the political landscapeIt is this overarching fact that determines the ebb and flow of political life and influences the relationship between sects, the rise of sectarianism, and the behavior of political and religious leaders.

Authoritarian states in the Muslim world have several distinguishing features that influence sectarian relations.  They suffer from a crisis of legitimacy and as a result they closely monitor and attempt to control civil society by limiting access to information and the freedom of association of their citizens.  Joel Midgal’s concept of a “weak state” best describes these regimes.[3]  In his formulation, “weak states” often cannot and do not control sections of the country, both within urban and rural areas, which they claim sovereignty over.[4] While the state is too weak to dominate society, it is often strong enough to manipulate and to effectively respond to crises that threaten national security and regime survival.[5]

Weak states ... are more prone to sectarianism given that manipulating cleavages of identity is a dominant feature of their politics.

In weak states politics revolves around “strategies of survival.”[6]  A common tactic to preserve and perpetuate political rule in a weak state is to manipulate social and political cleavages via a divide and rule strategy. This gives ruling elites greater room to maneuver in the short-term but often at the cost of social cohesion in the long term. This dominant feature of the politics of weak states also suggests why “state actors are principal agents in identity mobilization and conflict in culturally plural societies, and the manner in which politics of identity unfolds in a weak state, is a product of the dialectic of state-society relations.”[7] Weak states, therefore, are more prone to sectarianism given that manipulating cleavages of identity is a dominant feature of their politics.[8]

During the 1960s and 1970s, in several Muslim countries, political opposition to the ruling regimes was in the form of various socialist, communist, and left wing political formations. In an attempt to pacify these oppositional currents, political Islamists were allowed greater freedom of movement and association in the hope that they would challenge the popularity of these secular oppositional groups, thus immunizing the state from criticism and scrutiny. The most dramatic case of this was in Egypt when Anwar Sadat released scores of Muslim Brotherhood members from jail and allowed exiled leaders to return home.[9] Similarly, in an attempt to enhance the capacity of the Pakistani state and solidify political control, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq launched an Islamization program in the late 1970s, which despite its pretensions to Islamic universalism was in essence an attempt at the Sunnification of Pakistan’s political and social life. This was therefore viewed as a threat by religious minorities in Pakistan, the Shi‘i community in particular, who considered these policies detrimental to their sociopolitical interests. The severe rupture in sectarian relations in Pakistan that soon followed was significantly shaped by this development, but as Vali Nasr has demonstrated it was also deeply influenced by regional and international variables as well.[10]

The Geopolitics of Sectarianism

The key regional development that deeply shaped the rise of sectarianism was the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Western-backed dictatorships in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, felt vulnerable. They feared that the spread of revolutionary Islam could cross the Persian Gulf and sweep them from power in the same way the Pahlavi monarchy had been toppled. In response, Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Sunni world, invested significant resources in undermining the power and ideals of the Iranian revolution by seeking to portray it as a distinctly Shi‘i/Persian phenomenon based on a corruption of the Islamic tradition.[11] Anti-Shi‘i polemics in the Sunni world increased dramatically after this period and were backed by significant sums of Gulf money. Sunni-Shi‘i relations were deeply affected by this development, and Pakistan was an early battleground where this conflict played out.[12]

The key international event at this time was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Western support for the Afghan mujahideen, backed by Saudi petrodollars, produced a Sunni militant movement that attracted radical Islamists from around the world, most notably Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. This constellation of forces aligned, and eventually morphed into al-Qa‘ida. The ideological orientation of these salafi-jihadist groups was decidedly anti-Shi’a both in theory and practice, buttressed by a neo-Wahhabi reading of the world.[13]

The Iranian-Saudi rivalry is critical to understanding the rise of sectarianism in Muslim societies at the end of the 20th century. Both Tehran and Riyadh lay claim to leadership of the Islamic world and since 1979 have battled for hearts and minds across the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of Asia.[14] The Iranian-Saudi conflict, however, has experienced an ebb and flow, and sectarian relations have mirrored this pattern. It was particularly acrimonious during the 1980s when Saudi Arabia strongly backed Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. 1987 was perhaps the worst year, when 400 Iranian pilgrims were killed in Mecca during a protest march at the annual Haj pilgrimage and the Saudi and Kuwait embassies in Tehran were attacked as a consequence.[15]

Following the end of the Iran-Iraq war (1988) and the death of Ayatollah Khomeini (1989) tensions gradually subsided and relations improved. The rise of more pragmatist and reformist leaders within Iran, such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, led to the restoration of diplomatic relations and a cold peace was established that lasted for most of the 1990s. The 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, however, marked a turning point in Iran-Saudi relations and subsequently in sectarian relations.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein affected the regional balance of power. The rise of Shi‘i Islamist parties in Iraq, which were allied to Iran, was the key event during this period, setting off alarm bells among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The subsequent Iraqi civil war, which after 2006 had a clear sectarian dimension, further inflamed Sunni-Shi‘i relations across the Middle East. The rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon was also a factor during this period. Its ability to expel Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000 and its perceived victory against Israel in the summer of 2006 increased its popularity and prestige as a revolutionary force on the Sunni Arab street. It was during this period that King Abdullah II of Jordan, reflecting a common concern among Sunni Arab regimes, spoke of a “Shiite Crescent,” linking Beirut and Tehran and running through Damascus and Baghdad that was seeking to dominate the politics of the region based on a new brand of Shi‘i solidarity.[16] This brings us to the year 2011 when the Arab Spring marked another turning point in Sunni-Shi‘i relations in the Middle East.

The Fear of Democracy and the Politics of Sectarianism

The response by most Arab regimes, principally those of the GCC, to the Arab Spring is revealing. It serves to highlight the salience of authoritarianism over theology in understanding the dynamics of Sunni-Shi‘i relations today. 

The response by most Arab regimes, principally those of the GCC, to the Arab Spring is revealing. It serves to highlight the salience of authoritarianism over theology in understanding the dynamics of Sunni-Shi‘i relations today. Fearing that the demand for political change would sweep across the Arab world and destabilize their own societies, several of these regimes relied on a strategy of exploiting sectarianism to deflect demands for democratization. The response from these governments can be situated within the framework of Joel Migdal’s thesis, as discussed above, on the nature of “weak states” and the “strategies of survival” that shape their politics.

In writing about the House of Saud’s reaction to the Arab Spring, Madawi al-Rasheed observes that:

Sectarianism became a Saudi pre-emptive counter-revolutionary strategy that exaggerates religious difference and hatred and prevents the development of national non-sectarian politics. Through religious discourse and practices, sectarianism in the Saudi context involves not only politicizing religious differences, but also creating a rift between the majority Sunnis and the Shia minority.[17]

This was made easier when only Shi‘as in the Eastern province came out to demonstrate during the Arab Spring, while similar protests in the rest of Saudi Arabia failed to materialize. The specter of an Iranian Shi‘i/Savafid threat was invoked, and the usual Wahhabi court (Ulema) were given air time to issue fatwas against public demonstrations and to warn people of the wrath of God that would fall upon those who defied their rulers.[18] The security forces were then brought in as backup to restore order via the usual tactics of repression that are common in non-democratic regimes.

Al-Rasheed, however, notes that it is wrong to characterize relations between the Saudi regime and its Shi‘i population as a one-way street that relies exclusively on repression. The House of Saud “deploys multiple strategies when it comes to its religious minorities and their leadership,” she observes. “Wholesale systematic discrimination against the Shia may be a characteristic of one particular historical moment, but this can be reversed. A political situation may require alternatives to repression. Sometimes repression is combined with co-optation and even promotion of minority interests and rights.”[19]

For example, when ISIS bombed Shi‘i worshippers on two occasions in May 2015, the Saudi regime strongly condemned the attacks and vowed to hunt down the perpetrators. Expressions of solidarity with the Shi‘a soon followed and were widely disseminated on official state media. Summarizing this strategy, al-Rasheed concludes that:

It is important to note that there is no regular and predictable strategy deployed by Saudi authoritarianism against the Shia. Each historical moment requires a particular response towards this community, ranging from straightforward repression to co-optation and concession. The Arab Spring and its potential impact on the country pushed the regime to reinvigorate sectarian discourse against the Shia in order to renew the loyalty of the Sunni majority.[20]

The story of sectarianism in Kuwait reveals a different narrative, but the underlying context is the same. Political authoritarianism and the fear of democracy shape the relations between state and society. Sunni-Shi‘i relations can be understood in this context.

The demographics of Kuwait are different than the other GCC countries in that 30% of population is Shi‘a. As a consequence, this demographic reality has contributed to more stable sectarian relations in comparison to its repressive neighbors. Stability has also been enhanced by the fact that Kuwaiti politics have far greater democratic underpinnings than in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates. Competitive elections and a functioning parliament that can remove individual ministers and override the preferences of the emir based on a majority vote have been a part of Kuwait’s modern political history. At the same time, however, the cabinet is appointed by the emir and they serve at his discretion. This has produced a unique dynamic where oppositional politics matter, especially for the Kuwait monarchy; where threats to its ability to govern can emerge from society (both from Shi‘i and Sunni constituencies). This problem came to a head during the 2011 Arab Spring. 

While not as dramatic as the protests that brought down regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, Kuwait was also rocked by pro-democracy demonstrations. For over a year, tens of thousands of peopled were mobilized leading to the storming of parliament and the resignation of the government. A powerful opposition from different constituencies emerged that challenged the al-Sabah family demanding representation and political transparency. The regime responded by dissolving the opposition-led parliament and replacing it with a more compliant one. Arrests, intimidation, and the removing of citizenship from political activists and opposition leaders marked a general authoritarian crackdown that persists until today.[21]

In analyzing these events, Madeleine Wells suggests that sectarian relations in Kuwait can be

[b]etter explained by addressing the regime’s increasing authoritarianism than by international threats.  Rather than focusing on the rise of the specter of Iran in the region, and its ostensible local lackeys, the Kuwaiti government is more focused on internal domestic challenges, specifically, the ongoing reformist demands of a vociferous tribal-Islamist-youth opposition that crystalized during the Arab Spring. Without understanding this domestic oppositional context it is impossible to understand the unique shape of regime-Shi‘i relations.[22]

The crux of her explanation can be located in Kuwait’s semi-authoritarian political structure and the type of state-society political dynamic it engenders. Wells argues that “government policies have very little to do with Shi‘i ethno-religious characteristics or their perceived links to Iran. Rather, the extent to which policies toward the Shi‘a are inclusive or exclusive depends upon their political oppositional potential.”[23] In Kuwait, this has proven to be a serious problem, post-Arab Spring, given the new assertiveness of the opposition. A divide and conquer strategy that can weaken opposition to the al-Sabah monarchy is what shapes state-Shi‘i relations today, not questions of theology or external threats from abroad.


Sectarianism fails to explain the current disorder in the Middle East. The prism of sectarianism, rooted in an alleged enduring Sunni-Shi‘i chasm, clouds rather than illuminates the complex realities of the politics of the region, which have their roots in a series of developmental crises (both political and economic) that the region has been facing since independence. The policies of leading Western liberal democracies toward this region and foreign intervention have only exacerbated these problems.

While it is true that religious identities are more salient in the politics of the Middle East than before, it also true that state actors have politicized these identities in pursuit of political gain. The politics of authoritarian regimes is the key context for understanding this problem. In other words, there is a symbiotic relationship between pressure from society down below, which demands greater inclusion, respect, and representation, versus the refusal by ruling elites from above to share or relinquish power. This produces a crisis of legitimacy that needs to be carefully managed. The politics of sectarianism or sectarianization–the deliberate manipulation of religious identities–is a result of this political dynamic. The core allegiance for ruling elites is not to their sectarian identity but to their political thrones and the various clients, whether Sunni or Shi‘a, who can help sustain their power.  In short, sectarianism does not explain the current turmoil in the Middle East, authoritarianism does.

[1] Vali Nasr, “International Politics, Domestic Imperatives, and Identity Mobilization: Sectarianism in Pakistan, 1979-1998,” Comparative Politics 32 (January 2000), 173.

[2] Pew Research Center, “Mapping the Global Muslim Population,” October 7, 2009.  

[3] Joel Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 3-41.

[4] Joel Migdal, “The State in Society: An Approach to Struggles for Domination,” in Joel Migdal, Atul Kohli and Vivienne Shue eds., State Power and Social Forces: Domination and Transformation in the Third World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 9.

[5] Vali Nasr, “International Politics, Domestic Imperatives, and Identity Mobilization: Sectarianism in Pakistan, 1979-1998,” Comparative Politics 32 (January 2000), p. 174.

[6] Joel Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World, pp. 206-237.

[7] Vali Nasr, “International Politics, Domestic Imperatives, and Identity Mobilization: Sectarianism in Pakistan, 1979-1998,” Comparative Politics 32 (January 2000), p. 174.

[8] David Little, “Religion, Nationalism and Intolerance,” in Tim Sisk, ed. Between Terror and Tolerance: Religious Leaders in Deeply Divided Societies (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2011), pp. 9-28.

[9] Abdullah Al-Arian, Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Egypt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) and  and Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).

[10] Vali Nasr, “International Politics, Domestic Imperatives, and Identity Mobilization: Sectarianism in Pakistan, 1979-1998,” Comparative Politics 32 (January 2000), pp. 171-190.

[11] Khaled Abou El Fald, Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari’ah in the Modern Age (Lanham, MY: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014),pp.  203-270.

[12] S.V.R. Nasr, The Rise of Sunni Militancy in Pakistan,” Modern Asian Studies 34 (2000), 139-180.

[13] Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion until September 10 (New York: Penguin Books, 2004) and Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[14] Simon Mabon, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013) and  Ben Hubbard and Mayy El Sheikh, “Wikileaks Show a Saudi Obsession with Iran,” New York Times, July 16, 2015.

[15] Recent events followed the September 2015 Hajj stampede, which resulted in the death of over 1,000 pilgrims, most of them Iranian, have sunk Iran-Saudi relations to a new low.

[16] Ian Black, “Fear of a Shia Full Moon,” The Guardian, January 27, 2007. The inclusion of Syria in this list might seem odd given that the majority of Syrians are Sunni. The ruling Asad family, however, comes from the minority Alawi sect of Shia Islam. For background on the Shia threat debate see Augustus Richard Norton, “The Shiite ‘Threat’ Revisited,” Current History, December 2007, pp. 434-439.

[17] Madawi Al-Rasheed, “Sectarianism as Counter Revolution: The Saudi Response to the Arab Spring,” forthcoming.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Shafeeq Ghabra, “Kuwait: At the Crossroad of Change or Political Stagnation,” May 20, 2014, Middle East Institute,

[22] Madeleine Wells, “Sectarianism and Authoritarianism in Kuwait: 2003-2015,” forthcoming

[23] Ibid.