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Exhausting the Term "Sectarian" - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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What exactly do we mean when we say there is a “sectarian” problem in the Middle East?

This statement is both confusing and misleading, both in letter and spirit, as it seems to indicate the existence of [many] sects and trends in conflict with each other whereas in reality there is tension and conflict between only two sects; the Shiites and the Sunnis. This conflict is taking place in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Pakistan and the Gulf and the reverberations of this can be felt throughout Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. This impact can be seen in the talk of a campaign to Shiaficate the four countries mentioned above, even though these countries do not have Shiite communities, or have an almost negligible Shiite population.

So it is meaningless to talk about a variety of different sects, when it is only two sects who are monopolizing the conflict, although other smaller sects or trends may become involved in this conflict, as was the case with General Aoun’s [Free Patriotic] movement or Walid Jumblatt’s party [PSP] in Lebanon.

This [differentiation] is not pedantry, but is instead a description of the woeful state of the Middle East which is increasingly losing its diversity. The Christians have lost their presence and influence in the East. Ignore the noise that is being made by the Christians in Lebanon, and the roar of the Copts in Egypt; however it must be said that the Egyptians Copts do carry considerable weight in comparison to the rest of the Christians in the [Middle] East.

As for the confusion and obscurity in the definition of the term “sectarian conflict” this [is because] it refers to different verbal, theological, and historical divisions. However the problem of sectarianism is far more complicated, and cannot be confined to just cultural, theological, juristic, and historical dimensions. These dimensions form the overt shape of this current conflict of interests and counter-interests; this is a conflict that wears the cloak of sectarianism as part of a strategy to unite and rally the crowd behind a banner. However in the end this banner is just a banner; it does not represent the picture as a whole, but is instead its main feature.

Just look around you in our tense region and you will find a systematic and active endeavor to divide the Arab public until they can only define themselves in a sectarian manner. For example, the Future Movement today is not the same as the Future Movement under the leadership of Rafik al-Hariri. The Future Movement under the leadership of Rafik al-Hariri was more relaxed towards others, particularly the Shiites in Lebanon. However the Future Movement under Saad al-Hariri has become strained and less relaxed [with regards to its relationship] towards others.

It would be easy to say that this Sunni sectarian animosity – which [Saad] al-Hariri was the catalyst for – is nothing more than a reaction to the overt sectarianism of the Khomeinist Hezbollah and the affiliated Amal Movement. The Hariris – at least with regards to their rhetoric and election – did not spring from sectarian sensitivities. It was the non-stop and systematic disruptions caused by Hezbollah, its protests, its invasion of Beirut, its monopolization of [the concept of] purity and honor, and its stigmatization of the Hariris in particularly, and the Sunnis in general, accusing them of being agents of the US and Israel, which cornered the supporters of the Future Movement and caused the party’s leadership to lose control of its ability to control sectarian passions.

But is this viewpoint enough to understand the sectarian frenzy that has taken place this year, not just in Lebanon, but also in Iraq. According to Iraqi journalist Hassan al-Alawi, Iraq is being governed by a “Shiite government” but not by the Shiites of Iraq. Iraq is full to the brim with shocking sectarianism, and this is now spilling over into the entire region. The Emir of Kuwait expressed a great deal of anger at the emergence of sectarianism in his country during his most recent address, and this is a clear sign of the increasing and negative impact of this [sectarianism spilling over].

There is no alternative but to admit that the political tension in the region is primarily a sectarian scene where the players are dressed in sectarian costumes and are playing out this [sectarian] conflict. However underneath the costume there is a conflict of interest and the desire to correct the mistakes of history that are currently being played out here and there.

If we delve a little deeper, the picture is not as simple as it seems at first glance. If we look into the situation in Syria, and the accusations of Alawite sectarianism made by Sunni Islamists against the ruling regime, then things are even more complicated than we imagined.

In an essay published in the excellent [Arabic] anthology put together by [Lebanese journalist] Hazim Saghieh entitled “Nawasib wa Rawafid” the Syrian writer Yassin Haj Saleh tells us that during the Muslim Brotherhood’s struggle against late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the movement’s major problem can be seen in their inability to transform the Sunnis in Syria – who represented around 70 percent of the population – into “sectarians.” And so the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria remained sectarians without a sect. The ironic thing about the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is that even though they were less than a sect, they dreamt of becoming an entire nation.

Haj Saleh also talks about the Hama Massacre, which took place in 1982 when the Muslim Brotherhood clashed with the Syrian regime. Saleh describes what happened in a manner that divests it of the sectarian unity that the Muslim Brotherhood aspires to, saying “During the bloody confrontation that was taking place at the time, Hama and Aleppo were fiercely opposed to the regime, while Damascus was relaxed, Hims was restless, and Ar-Raqqah and Hauran were unaware what was happening…the Shawaya and the Beduoins (in addition to the Kurds) were siding with the regime.”

Therefore this limitless Sunni ocean, in the same manner that it gives a feeling of comfort to those who want to benefit from, also contains internal contradictions. Let us look at another example, such as why didn’t the Iraqi Kurds – who are Sunni – join with the Arab Sunni of Iraq against the Shiites in order to form an anti-Shiite Sunni bloc?

The answer is simple, because things aren’t as united as those who embrace sectarian or religiously divisive ideology believe them to be.

A government, any government, has its own way of approaching religious issues and sectarian sensitivities. We are now witnessing an abundance of social activity on the part of Islamic currents and groups in Syria, which is ruled by a Secular Arabist Baathist regime. This is the declared side of the Syrian regime’s identity, but what about the undeclared side? According to the accusations leveled at the Syrian regime by its enemies, the regime also incorporates a well-hidden Alawite sectarianism. The goal of the Sunnis in the “Levant” has remained the same, and the Sunni hegemony with regards to the definition of Islam still exists. Haj Saleh also revealed that there is an undeclared “gentleman’s” agreement [in Syria] whereby those in power have control over politics, and the Islamic religious authority has control of society. If we add a newly formed economy built upon the ruins of a socialist one, then it is understandable how everything has become wrapped in the heavy cloak of Arabism, Patriotism, and the Resistance. This is a cloak that is worn by all, and has become something of a uniform that outwardly gives an appearance of unity [while hiding the disorder mentioned above].

As for Iran, even in the pre-Khomeini era, it would look at the question of sectarianism in terms of how it could best serve the country’s political interests. Iran worked upon the issue of sectarianism, not out of enthusiasm for Shiite fanaticism, but rather in order to reap the fruit of sectarian intolerance. We have seen these fruit fall like ripe dates into the basket of Tehran’s mullahs, by way of the fields of Lebanon whose Shiite community has been monopolized by the Khomeinist Hezbollah long after this seed was first sown by Musa al-Sadr.

In his own research published in Hazim Saghieih’s “Nawasib wa Rawafid” Lebanese sociologist and writer Ahmed Beydoun writes about how ostentatious Safavid rituals found their way to the Lebanese Shiites, and how in the past the Lebanese Shiites were not overt or dramatic [with regards to their religious practices], but only became so after they were affected by Iran’s influence. This was initially confined to the town of Nabateya, but this was later extended over the entire Shiite community by the influence of Hezbollah and Khomeini’s ideologies. This strained the mood of the Lebanese Shiite community. This was not just a result of abstract sectarian zeal, but was a political tool to incubate and insulate the masses and incite them to rally around this political project.

There is a flagrant example in Yemen. The Zaidiyyah of Yemen, who are [ideologically] closer to the Sunnis (The people of the Hadtih) than they are to the Twelver Shiite, have become a Khomeinist enclave as a result of internal and external political pressure, rather than as a result of intellectual justifications. In this case, it is politics that has led to the creation of this ideology and sect.

To sum up, the recreation of Sunni – Shiite sectarianism is nothing more than a tool in the hands of certain politicians here and there. The majority of sects are being controlled and provoked by this [tool] which is being used by certain political elements. Even the most isolated and solitary sects, such as the Islamic Batiniyyah sect, abandon their practices for the logic and protection of the government. This also previously happened during the Fatimid era in Egypt, and is currently taking place once more.

Civilization and the logic of the modern State are the greatest losers as a result of this sectarian commotion, along with the idea of an Arab deriving his identity from civilization rather than sectarianism.

If this conflict between the Shiites and Sunnis results in the end of sectarian ideology in the region, then this would be a great victory and a magnificent breakthrough. However I wonder what price we would have to pay for such a victory. And more importantly, is there a guarantee that we will pass through the tunnel of sectarianism into the bright pastures of civilization?

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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