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 ...


Sectarianism as a concept has gained renewed prominence following an offensive by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in early June 2014, which resulted in the fall of Mosul and a string of Iraqi towns. These land grabs have resulted in a flurry of commentaries blaming the conflict on sectarian differences between Iraq’s Shi‘a and Sunnis and predicting the fragmentation of Iraq along sectarian lines. This piece seeks to provide an analysis as to whether sectarianism, in and of itself, is the driving factor behind the renewed conflict in Iraq or the three-year civil war raging in Syria.

While the use of the term “sectarianism” as an explanation for conflicts between Sunnis and Shi‘a in Iraq has been challenged and given a more nuanced approach by Fanar Haddad,[1] as an analytical concept “sectarianism” continues to be used in mainstream media discourses and foreign policy circles. When the term is invoked, it tends to describe sects as social units that are historically continuous, primordial, and embedded in multi-sectarian Islamic societies, as opposed to a reaction to unique political crises in certain states.

Sectarianism in Syria and Iraq has thus often been characterized as the product of tensions raging since time immemorial and framed as the latest manifestation of an irreconcilable Sunni-Shi‘i conflict, explained away by the “ancient ethnic hatred” trope. Such interpretations make the mistake of treating sectarian communities as homogeneous entities, ignoring the often intense and sometimes violent cleavages within these communities. Furthermore, sectarianism is often treated as the primary cause of conflict in and of itself, which fails to explain why sectarian tensions in states such as Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq emerge as aberrations in a broader historical pattern of peaceful coexistence between Shi‘i and Sunni communities.

Rather than view sectarianism or the mobilization of politics along sectarian lines in the Middle East as a root cause of conflict, it could be better categorized as a strategy of patronage politics. In states where sects are prevalent, regimes often create an in-group through which a particular sect predominates among the higher echelons of politics. Even so, the Ba‘thist regimes in Iraq and Syria maintained cross-confessional alliances. This strategy allowed them to claim legitimacy as states in which members of any community could rise to the top, provided that they were loyal to the leadership.  

When Iraq and Syria began to weaken in 2003 and 2011, respectively, conflicts did not emerge simply because sects existed in both states. Rather, sectarianism emerged as a strategy to either rally a particular sectarian community in defense of the state, or to mobilize communities that felt threatened by the state.

The Use of Sect to Ensure Regime Survival

The ruling elites in Ba‘thist Iraq and Syria consolidated their power by showering the largesse of the state on a narrow segment of society, whether it was military officers, a privileged tribe, or family relatives. When Ba‘thist military officers took power in Iraq in 1968 and Hafez al-Assad ascended to the Syrian presidency in 1970, the privileged group appeared to be officers from the armed forces. However, as these regimes evolved, the patronage system tended to benefit a non-military clique from a particular town and its surrounding region; it just so happened that each of those towns was homogenous in terms of sect and class. Saddam Hussein’s system of patronage rewarded a series of predominantly rural Arab Sunni tribes living near his hometown of Tikrit with prestigious positions in the security apparatus. Similarly, Assad’s higher echelons of power tended to be recruited from the tribes of the Alawite sect, a large number of which originate from Syria’s Mediterranean coast—particularly Qardaha, the hometown of the Assad family. In these cases, one could characterize the creation of elite in-groups as sectarianism by default, as the particular geographic areas from which high-ranking officials were drawn tended to be comprised of a single cohesive group that happened to belong to the same sectarian community.

This system, in which a few select groups who shared the same sectarian origin manned the higher echelons of the state, was designed to reward loyalty above all else. When opposition to both Ba‘thist states erupted, the entire Alawite and Arab Sunni communities would suffer from belonging to the sect that happened to control the Ba‘th Party and the capital. This patronage system served as a way of communicating to these in-groups that if the regime were to fall, so would their privileged socioeconomic status. The desire to preserve this status explains the tenacity of military units made up of these groups in defending Saddam’s leadership during the Iraqi intifada in 1991, for example, or Assad during the current Syrian civil war.

In both Iraq and Syria, however, not all members of the chosen group benefited from this arrangement. As a result, the problem with analyzing these patronage networks solely on the basis of sect is that the analysis does not account for the Arab Sunnis who did not gain from the system in Iraq or for the success of the Arab Sunni business class that profited from its relationship with the Syrian state. Arab Sunnis from Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, as well as some Arab tribes in the center of the country, tended to dominate the upper echelons of the security apparatus; however, this system could only work if members of other sects also participated in the higher echelons of power. The key to the survival of both states was based on the ability to create confessional alliances and a bureaucratic climate that encouraged officials to inform on one another. Outside analyses of the situation in Syria tend to portray the conflict as one pitting Alawite Shi‘a against Arab Sunnis, without taking into account that the system brought in all sects and ethnic groups. The myth of a homogenous, sectarian security apparatus ignores the fact that not all Alawites are implicated in the regime, while some Sunni Arabs are stalwart supporters of Assad’s rule.

Iraq after 2003 witnessed a rearrangement of the patronage system that existed under Saddam. One way to analyze the de-Ba‘thification process is to view it as a dismantling of one of the primary vehicles of bestowing patronage, the Ba‘th party. Membership in the party was often a prerequisite for a job in the state’s behemoth bureaucracy. The security concerns post-2003 that ultimately led to the dismissal of thousands of experienced bureaucrats not only deprived Iraq of its pool of mid-level civil servants—a large number of whom happened to be Arab Sunnis—but also allowed new parties in power, such as various Shi‘i Islamist groups, to offer bureaucratic posts to members of their communities as a means of patronage. This in turn led to Arab Sunni complaints of systemic discrimination in hiring practices, one of the leading grievances raised by protesters in towns throughout the country, such as in Mosul, Falluja, Ramadi, and Hawija from 2012 to 2013.[2] This transition demonstrates that the conflicts that have taken on a sectarian nature in Iraq cannot be attributed solely to the existence of sectarian cleavages in Iraqi society. Rather, they are a reflection of conflicts that emerge in neo-patrimonial systems characterized by patronage and favoritism.

The Use of Sect as a Conflict Mobilization Strategy

As conflicts envelop Syrian and Iraq, the leadership in each state has relied on security and paramilitary forces that are often recruited from a particular sect. At the same time, sub-state actors in Iraq and Syria have found that they are able to fill their ranks by mobilizing communities based on the defense of a victimized sect. In both countries, a security vacuum led to the formation of sectarian militias, such as the Mahdi Army among the Iraqi Shi‘a and Jabhat al-Nusra among the Sunnis in Syria. In each case, these militias could deliver on a promise to protect each community’s identity-based interests. The threat posed by another sectarian actor, whether it was the Syrian paramilitary shabiha or the Islamic State in Iraq, led to the rise of militias that proved to be more cohesive than the Free Syrian Army or the nascent Iraqi security forces.

Sectarian-based militias can prove successful in rallying a besieged community, but they rarely serve as a means of creating a unified armed force for the sake of defending that community. If sectarianism assumes that conflicts coalesce around sectarian cleavages, such as Sunni versus Shi‘a, there is no corresponding paradigm for conflicts within a sect. Intra-sectarianism, which is just as prevalent as sectarian conflict, can also paradoxically lead to alliances with militias from other sectarian communities.

In Iraq, the Mahdi Army often clashed with rival Shi‘i movements, and even tried to forge alliances with Sunni insurgent groups in Falluja in 2004 when they shared the U.S. military as a mutual foe. The Shi‘a-led government of Nuri al-Maliki ordered the Iraqi security forces to clamp down on the Mahdi Army in Basra in 2008, and sectarian allegiances were not enough to keep it from splitting into various factions, such as Asa‘ib Ahl al-Haq. Even while Iraq witnessed the resurgence of sectarian violence in 2013, the Shi‘a of Iraq have failed to rally behind one party in the 2014 elections, with the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council and politicians loyal to Shi‘i cleric Moktada al-Sadr running against Maliki’s Da‘wa Party. While Maliki’s party won a plurality of seats, most likely rallying a large segment of the Shi‘i voting base around his record of maintaining security, his sectarian background is not in and of itself enough to unite the entire Shi‘i political scene. Indeed, sectarian identity rallied Shi‘i volunteers to protect threatened holy sites in towns such as Samarra after the ISIS offensive, yet the rival Shi‘i factions failed to unite behind Maliki even during this crisis. ISIS also recently claimed responsibility for assassinating members of the Arab Sunni Awakening Movement that turned against al-Qa‘ida in Iraq in 2008.[3]

Intra-sectarianism is also part of the conflict in Syria. Not even the Islamist segment among Arab Sunni rebels could unite under a single sectarian agenda. Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have fought against each other and clashed with Arab Sunnis who make up the Free Syrian Army. And the mainstream idea of sectarianism fails to take into account the Syrian Sunnis who have remained loyal to the government—or at least see it as marginally preferable to the possibility of an Islamist Syria—not to mention those who have remained in the armed forces and even joined the paramilitary shabiha. It also fails to acknowledge the Alawite activists opposed to Assad’s leadership.

Separating Sectarianism from Anti-Shi‘ism

To bring the cases of Iraq and Syria into a greater Asian context, it is perhaps better to disaggregate sectarianism from anti-Shi‘ism. In Syria and Iraq, mobilization in terms of regime security and intra-state conflict has coalesced along sectarian lines, rather than sectarian differences serving as the casual factor in creating a sectarian state or militias. In contrast, the existence of Salafi-inspired movements that see all Shi‘a as heretics to be actively targeted occurs outside the politics of regime survival, and is not a new phenomenon.

The rise of the Sipah-e-Sahaba in Pakistan in the 1980s and its attacks against Pakistan’s Shi‘a were more a result of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran than anything else. The response among Pakistan’s Shi‘a has consisted of small-scale attacks that are retaliatory in nature. The Hazara Shi‘a community in Pakistan has failed to create a sectarian movement to defend itself against attacks in Quetta, indicating that the problem in Pakistan is more of an active anti-Shi‘a campaign provoking Shi‘i responses. Other countries with vast Sunni majorities, ranging from Nigeria to Egypt to Indonesia, have witnessed the rise of anti-Shi‘a movements, and anti-Shi‘ism in these cases differs from the situation in Iraq and Syria, where sectarianism revolves around the nature of power distribution within the state.

Ultimately, both sectarianism and anti-Shi‘i sentiment are affected by funding from Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, these should be treated as separate processes. Whereas sectarianism in Iraq and Syria has emerged as a response to patronage politics and conflicts over scarce resources, with Saudi Arabia and Iran entering the fray via local proxies, the rise of anti-Shi‘a sentiment and armed anti-Shi‘a attacks operate in a different context. While both Iran and Saudi Arabia have encouraged missionary activities to either combat or promote anti-Shi‘ism, Sunni-Shi‘i tensions in the greater Middle East and Asia are not embedded in a struggle to reshape governments and reallocate public resources.


This analysis might be overstating the obvious: that sectarianism fails to adequately explain conflicts in societies with sectarian cleavages. However, the term “sectarianism” seems to have taken on a life of its own since the 2003 Iraq War, and the problem of over-determining sect at the expense of patronage and mobilization strategies needs to be addressed. More than ten years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the pitfalls of reducing the country to three monolithic ethno-sectarian communities—Kurds, Shi‘a, and Sunnis—have still not been learned. As of 2014, sect continues to be used as a mechanism to explain Iraq’s internal tensions, and the same flawed model is being persistently applied to the Syrian civil war as well.

If one looked at Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s, one would witness political street battles being fought between parties that recruited from all sects, including pan-Arab Nasserists, Ba‘thists, and Communists. That conflict in Iraq was a microcosm of debates raging throughout the Middle East, but by the 1970s these ideologies had died out. Analyzing sectarianism as a set of political tactics to achieve secular goals that are embedded in unique political structures, and as responses to political crises, offers a ray of hope that it could be a passing political trend in the Middle East, although it may continue for several more decades.


[1] Fanar Haddad, Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity (New York and London:  Columbia/Hurst, 2011). 

[2] “Iraq Mass Protests Mount Pressure on Maliki,” Al Jazeera, 28 December 2012,

[3] Raed El-Hamed, “ISIS and the Anbar Crisis,” Sada, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 12 June 2014,


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