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 ...

In many Arab countries, the homogenizing, authoritarian, centralized state is a relic of a bygone past. However, what will replace it is not yet clear. The popular Arab uprisings that exploded in December 2010, and their overlap with already-underway geopolitical battles unleashed by the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, combined to torpedo the political orders of a number of Arab states.[1] Whether in the historically weak states of Yemen and Libya, or in the more robust states of Syria and Iraq, state institutions ultimately collapsed under the combined stress of external invasion, authoritarian regime breakdown, sectarianized geopolitical battles, and the later emergence and spread of local and transregional Salafi-jihadi groups. This regional explosion and reinvention of sectarian, tribal, or ethnic identities is not rooted in pre-modern primordial and immutable cultural affinities. It is rather the consequence of the post-uprising erosion of coercive, institutional, and ideological power in a number of countries with plural societies, and the deployment by domestic and regional actors of sectarianism to defend their authoritarian orders against local rivals or as a fig leaf for otherwise geopolitical battles.[2]

Lebanon is the regional embodiment of sectarianism run amok. Modern and historically-constructed sectarian identities predating the country’s creation in 1920 were imported into the new polity and later institutionalized in multiple pre-war and postwar corporate power-sharing arrangements, namely the 1943 National Pact and the 1989 Taif Accord. Weak state institutions relegated communal matters to the country’s 18 sects, in the process hardening and reproducing sectarian identities and modes of political mobilization.[3] Moreover, and because Lebanon’s power-sharing arrangements were anchored in overlapping domestic and regional/international balances of power, they perpetually invited domestic actors to align with external actors against domestic opponents and allowed regional actors to play out their geopolitical battles in the country.

Iraq is another Lebanon in the making, not because of the primordialism of its ethnic and sectarian identities, but rather due to the choices imposed upon it after regime change in 2003 by the occupying U.S. administration and later the exclusionary policies of the post-Saddam political elite.[4] The 2003 U.S. invasion and the post-2006 sectarianization of Iraqi politics gradually transformed the country into another site for sectarian and ethnic mobilization and overlapping geopolitical battles. As Toby Dodge argues, the emergence of sectarianism as the primary mode of political mobilization in post-Saddam Iraq is the result of “the deliberate development or reinvention of sectarian identities by a ruling elite that judges this the best method for rallying an alienated electorate.”[5] Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarian clientelist politics between 2006 and 2014 go a long way toward explaining the alienation of Iraq’s Sunni community and, consequently, the Islamic State’s (ISIS) ability to capture large swathes of Iraq’s Sunni heartland and maintain a continuous supply of recruits.[6]

The consequences for Iraqi nationalism and territorial unity are disastrous. Centrifugal pressures are on the rise at the expense of unitary nationalist sentiments, exacerbating ethno-sectarian suspicions, mistrust, and misapprehension between Sunnis and Shi‘a, and between Baghdad and Erbil.[7] For the Kurds in the north, a combination of hyper-mobilization in defense of the ethnic motherland plus the protection offered by the international political economy of oil, the support of regional (Israel) and international (U.S.) allies, and geopolitical good fortune has granted them a de facto state. As a result, Baghdad and the region to its south have become a bastion for pro-Iranian Shi‘i political parties and militias, while the area northwest of Baghdad is the theater for ISIS’s bravado under the guise of an imagined caliphate run in part by disgruntled former Ba‘th apparatchiks.

A mix of popular uprisings, sectarianized geopolitical battles, and external invasions is also inventing new ethnic and sectarian identities in Yemen and Libya. Riyadh’s use of sectarianism as an instrument of geopolitics in Yemen, and the Houthis’ vengeful acts as they made their way south from their mountain strongholds, devastated the country’s once shared national traditions. Riyadh’s view of the multifaceted Yemeni political landscape through binary sectarian lenses[8]—in a country where “sectarian differences meant almost nothing until recent years”[9]—means that the domestic and geopolitical struggle over Yemen is cast increasingly in sectarian terms, at the expense of more important tribal and regional markers of political identity.

Similarly, the overlapping domestic and geopolitical contest over post-Qaddafi Libya has invented new fault lines along hitherto dormant ethnic and religious identities. These include battles between “Libya’s Islamists, the merchants of Misrata, the Arab Bedouin tribes concentrated in the Green Mountains of the east, the indigenous Imazighen (i.e., Berbers) in the west, and the two ethnic groups of Libya’s slice of the Sahara—the Tuareg and Tubu.” These contests increasingly look like “a battle between Bedouin Arab tribes and Libyans of other ethnic groups Arabized over centuries.”[10] They are inventing new modes of political identity and mobilization that are tearing Libya apart.

Syria is another site where the combination of popular uprisings, geopolitical contests, and Washington’s “realist” calculations produced the state’s coercive, institutional, and ideological collapse in substantial areas, creating a vacuum ultimately filled by sectarian transnational and local Salafi-jihadi groups, namely ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. Here again, primordial assumptions fail to explain the resurgence of ethno-sectarian identities and modes of political mobilization. After all, and throughout the country’s process of state formation, sectarian identities overlapped with other, more meaningful cleavages, but especially class and regional affiliations.[11] Some four years into what has mutated into a devastating war with exorbitant costs in human lives, many parts of the country remain multi-sectarian, and the fault lines in some major cities are economic rather than sectarian.

Aleppo is instructive in this respect. On the morrow of the rebel attacks in 2012, “the mostly Sunni city was divided along economic, not sectarian lines: the wealthy west remained loyal while the rebels made a base in the poorer east.”[12] Moreover, the war displaced millions of mainly Sunnis who sought refuge in the coastal cities, presumably the bastion of the regime’s core Alawi elite. Indeed, waves of displaced Sunnis have altered the sectarian demographic balance in a number of areas that remain under regime control, turning them into Sunni-majority cities. By contrast, in Homs, both the regime and the opposition launched early policies of sectarian cleansing. This was driven by a number of situational factors: the city’s strategic location along the Damascus-Homs-Latakia axis and its Lebanese environs and Hezbollah’s supply routes; socioeconomic competition in the city between the relatively recent Alawi migrants and the local Sunni population; and the confrontation between sectarian groups on both sides of the divide—the regime’s shabiha (vigilantes) and the Salafi-jihadis.[13] Similar but less bloody practices are currently underway in northeast Syria as Kurdish militias attempt to connect their cantons and in the process, intentionally or not, drive Arabs and Turkmen from the area.[14]

Only when Syria’s peaceful popular uprising against authoritarianism was hijacked by regional powers and their sectarian proxies, by international actors and their agendas, and by local and transnational Salafi-jihadi groups did the protests turn into a sectarian war.[15] The explosion of otherwise modern and malleable sectarian and ethnic identities in Syria is consequently the result of structural, situational, and geopolitical considerations rather than the resurgence of ancient, ancestral hatreds.[16] A combination of state collapse in many parts of the country, sectarianized geopolitical contests, and the predominance of Salafi-jihadi groups have created new local and transnational actors and dynamics that find in sectarian discourse a useful tool to mobilize their followers and demonize their opponents.

Despite their modern reinvention or in some cases invention, as well as their structural and geopolitical drivers, sectarian and ethnic identities across the Arab world are supplanting other sources of political mobilization. This has catastrophic consequences for the national unity and territorial integrity of Arab states with plural societies and collapsing state capabilities. Even in states far removed from the region’s geopolitical contests, ethnic and sectarian sentiments are on the rise―in Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, for example, courtesy of the influence of new social media, satellite channels, and the resurgence of Salafi-jihadi preaching.

Concomitant with these seismic transformations is the emergence of new centrifugal discourses and the search for new political orders. Most of the Christian, but mainly Maronite, population and political elite find themselves increasingly marginalized by the Sunni-Shi‘i struggle over post-Syria Lebanon, a struggle that overlaps with the grander Saudi-Iranian geopolitical regional contest. Watching their political prerogatives erode steadily since the negotiation of the 1989 Taif Accord, they have now raised the banner of broad political, administrative, and fiscal decentralization in Lebanon, a trope for a new confederal power-sharing arrangement.[17] The idea is to transfer much of the powers of the very centralized Lebanese state to elected and accountable local councils who would then assume control of the fiscal, administrative, and developmental needs of their regions. Whether it is a form of territorial or trans-territorial sectarian confederalism, a substantial cross section of Lebanon’s Christians want out of the post-war Muslim-dominated centralized state and the power-sharing arrangement that relegates them to a mere appendage of the political and economic elite.[18] Lebanon is no longer the Arab world’s outlier state in this regard.

As mentioned, the Kurdish state in Iraq is all but a practical reality; its leaders speak openly about their determination to push for secession from Iraq once the battle against ISIS is won.[19] And the Kurds are not the only community in Iraq in favor of broad regional autonomy. The vocabulary of taqsim (partition) has entered the lexicon of the south as well,[20] and it is difficult to see how the country’s Sunni community will join the battle against ISIS or any prospective national government without the promise of substantial local autonomy in a future Iraq.[21]

Decentralized political orders with broad regional autonomy along tribal and ethnic lines seem to offer the only hope for future stability in Libya and Yemen as well. Even in the once Hobbesian Syrian state there is currently talk of vivisecting the country along new, hitherto unthinkable, lines. In the north, Kurdish popular forces are determined to stitch together their three cantons—Afrin, Kobani, and Jazira—into an autonomous enclave. The regime in Damascus seems to have acquiesced to this prospect, while U.S. airstrikes, inadvertently or not, support the Kurdish military effort, to Turkey’s growing chagrin. The regime and Iran’s strategy is to retain control of a swathe of territory running along the Zabadani-Damascus-Homs-Latakia arc euphemistically labeled Suriya al-mufida (useful Syria),[22] an area that comprises the country’s political, economic, and demographic backbone and protects Hezbollah’s military and training supply routes—and hence Tehran’s geopolitical interests in the Levant. The rest of the country might degenerate into warring statelets in which an assortment of local and transnational Salafi-jihadi groups, plus other non-jihadi endogenous factions, each with their external backers, compete over territory and control.

We should not bemoan the end of the homogenizing, authoritarian, centralized state in the crucible of instability stretching from Syria and Iraq to Yemen and Libya. Nor are other Arab states with plural societies immune from a similar destructive prospect when and whether the same mix of domestic and geopolitical pressures overtake them. That this end has come on the ruins of popular uprisings demanding dignity, social justice, and democracy underscores the destructive powers of the region’s authoritarian legacy, its sectarianized geopolitical struggles, and the realist calculations of international actors bent on protecting their strategic interests. New and genuine power-sharing arrangements anchored in inclusive national governments but substantial decentralization of power to regional authorities seem to be the only short-run policy option to restore a modicum of stability and preserve the territorial integrity of states torpedoed by domestic upheavals and geopolitical contests.[23]

As Lebanon’s and Iraq’s postwar experiences suggest, the institutional architecture of these new power-sharing arrangements cannot allow for the marginalization of a sect or confessional, ethnic, or tribal group. It must rather be anchored in the kind of institutions that can help create, in the very long run, inter-sectarian, ethnic, tribal, and regional alliances that open up possibilities beyond narrow exclusivist affiliations and modes of political mobilization.[24] They must also empower citizens vis-à-vis accountable officials instead of herding them into sectarian, ethnic, or tribal ghettos and shackles that reify and reproduce otherwise modern and invented identities. After all, truly democratic and decentralized political orders may be the only antidote to the death and destruction visited upon many Arab states since the explosion of the popular uprisings. They may even be a necessary first but belated step for the possibility of a future polyphonic reimagining of the polity. For much is at stake this time around, much more than the hubris of colonial borders.

The author is grateful to Wadood Hamad, Rabie Barakat, and Ibrahim Halawi for their invaluable comments.

[1] Bassel F. Salloukh, “The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East,” The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs 48, 2 (June 2013): 32-46; and F. Gregory Gause III, “Beyond Sectarianism: The New Middle East Cold War,” Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper, July 11, 2014,

[2] Andrew Flibbert, “The Consequences of Forced State Failure in Iraq,” Political Science Quarterly 128, 1 (2013): 67-95; Toby Dodge, “Can Iraq Be Saved?” Survival 56, 5 (October-November 2014): 7-20; and Christopher Phillips, “Sectarianism and Conflict in Syria,” Third World Quarterly 36, 2 (February 2015): 357-376.

[3] Bassel F. Salloukh, Rabie Barakat, Jinan S. Al-Habbal, Lara W. Khattab, and Shoghig Mikaelian, The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (London: Pluto Press, 2015).

[4] Wadood Hamad, “Al-Bahth ‘an Hawiya ‘Iraqiyya,” al-Safir, April 30, 2015.

[5] Dodge, “Can Iraq Be Saved?,” 16.

[6] See the PBS Frontline documentary “The Rise of ISIS,” October 28, 2014,

[7] Nussaibah Younis, “A Cross-Sectarian Vision for Defeating the Islamic State in Iraq,” Carnegie Middle East Center, July 6, 2015,

[8] Amer Hassan, “Min Ali Saleh ila Tawakkol Karman,” al-Akhbar, June 29, 2015.

[9] Robert F. Worth, “Yemen: The Houthi Enigma,” New York Review of Books Blog, March 30 2015,

[10] Nicolas Pelham, “Libya against Itself,” New York Review of Books, February 19, 2015,

[11] Raymond A. Hinnebusch, “Class and State in Ba‘thist Syria,” in Richard T. Antoun and Donald Quataert, eds., Syria: Society, Culture, and Polity (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1991), 29-47.

[12] Phillips, “Sectarianism and Conflict in Syria,” 361.

[13] Phillips, “Sectarianism and Conflict in Syria,” 361.

[14] Patrick Cockburn, “Why Join Islamic State?” London Review of Books, July 2, 2015,

[15] Hugh Roberts, “The Hijackers,” London Review of Books, July 16, 2015,

[16] Phillips, “Sectarianism and Conflict in Syria,” 361.

[17] “Al-Hurub ila al-Federaliyya fi Lubnan ba‘da Suriya wa-l-Iraq,” al-Safir, May 12, 2015.

[18] See excerpts from Phalange Party leader Sami Gemayel’s speech in “Gemayel Calls for Lebanon to Adopt Federalism,” Daily Star, July 6, 2015; and Wafiq Qanso, “Gebran Bassil: Musta‘edun li-Fart al-Nizam,” al-Akhbar, July 7, 2015.

[19] Younis, “A Cross-Sectarian Vision for Defeating the Islamic State in Iraq;” and KRG President Massoud Barzani’s May 6, 2015 comments at the Atlantic Council,

[20] Nicolas Pelham, “ISIS and the Shia Revival in Iraq,” New York Review of Books, June 4, 2015,

[21] Younis, “A Cross-Sectarian Vision for Defeating the Islamic State in Iraq.”

[22] Claire Shuker, “Al-Mantaqa Tursam min Jadid…wa Hadith ‘an Suriya al-Mufida,” al-Safir, July 1, 2015.

[23] David Ignatius, “Why a 2006 Report Merits a Fresh Read,” Washington Post, June 23, 2015,

[24] For a comprehensive discussion, see Salloukh et al., The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon, Chapter 10.

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