Voice

The Entrepreneurs of Cynical Sectarianism

Why the Middle East's identity conflicts go way beyond the Sunni-Shiite divide.

A group of Syrian-Americans arrived at an academic conference at Lehigh University last week in Bashar al-Assad T-shirts and draped in Syrian flags adorned with Assad's face. They repeatedly heckled and interrupted speakers, and one told an opposition figure that he deserved a bullet in the head. When a speaker showed a slide picturing dead Syrian children, they burst into loud applause. When another speaker cynically predicted that Bashar would win a 2014 presidential vote, they cheered. In the final session, they aggressively interrupted and denounced a Lebanese journalist, with one ultimately throwing his shoe at the stage. The panel degenerated into a screaming match, until police arrived to clear the room.

This spectacle might seem notable in that it unfolded at an American university, but otherwise it would pass for an alarmingly normal day at the office in today's toxically polarized Middle East. Such intense mutual hostility, irreconcilable narratives, and public denunciations are typical of any number of highly polarized political arenas across the region. A similar scene between supporters and opponents of Egypt's military coup is all too easily imagined -- just add bullets. That's why the disproportionate focus on sectarian conflict as the defining feature of the emerging Middle East seems dangerously misplaced. Sunni-Shiite tensions are only one manifestation of how a number of deeper trends have come together in recent years to give frightening new power to identity politics writ large.

The explosion of Sunni-Shiite conflict in recent years has very little do to with intrinsic religious differences or with 1,400 years of Islamic history. It should instead be understood as an entirely typical example of identity politics, one in which sectarian differences happen to be the most easily available to politicians hoping to exploit them for cynical purposes. It looks much the same as the ethnic and religious polarization that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The sectarian polarization in Bahrain or Syria has followed very similar patterns to the Islamist-secularist polarization in Egypt and Tunisia. Responding to these sectarian tensions by embracing authoritarian states, focusing on religious authorities or exegesis, or promoting cross-sectarian reconciliation will miss the point. Today's sectarianism is political to the core -- even if it increasingly seems at risk of racing beyond the control of its cynical enablers.

Interpreting Sunni-Shiite conflict as just another manifestation of a millennia-old conflict repeats a broadly essentialist position which tends to be the first resort every time ethnic or sectarian violence breaks out. Such approaches tend to focus on intrinsic, deeply rooted, and irreconcilable cultural differences between groups which can always pose a risk of escalation to violence (think Robert Kaplan's Balkan Ghosts, which supposedly convinced Bill Clinton of the inevitability of Yugoslav ethnic slaughters). Evidence of decades of co-existence or intermarriage rarely impresses proponents of an essentialist approach. These differences might be latent for long periods of time, but given the opportunity -- electoral mobilization, state failure, sudden explosions of local violence -- people will tend to fall back on these deep identities. Such arguments tend to lead towards solutions involving the heavy hand of authoritarian states to suppress these supposedly inevitable violent tendencies, or toward partition into ethnic enclaves if state collapse has gone too far.

That's just what authoritarian regimes would like us to believe. But much more frequently, ethnic or sectarian violence is driven by either regimes themselves or by elites who cynically exploit identity for their political aims. These leaders might or might not truly believe in these differences, but they are perfectly happy to take advantage of them when it suits their goals. Often, it is the authoritarian regimes themselves that are most responsible for stoking and shaping the identity divisions. The Saudi regime, most obviously, systematically uses sectarianism in order to intimidate and control its own Shiite citizens at home and to combat Iranian influence regionally. Saudi leaders might or might not genuinely hate Shiites, but they know that sectarian conflict is a useful strategy. In Egypt, the Mubarak regime tolerated significant levels of intimidation and attacks on Coptic Christian citizens, while Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government actively stokes the demonization of Islamists to generate support for the new military regime. In Iraq, a stronger state under the control of Nouri al-Maliki is too easily used to protect Shiite privilege and repress Sunni opponents. Strong states are often the problem, not the solution.

The strategic mobilization of identity politics typically involves some common moves. Electoral systems can be designed to maximize sectarian or ethnic competition, force voters into identity-defined voting blocs, and hinder cross-identity coalition formation. Discrimination in state institutions, military recruitment, and patronage can entrench hostility along particular lines and not others. For sectarian entrepreneurs from Slobodan Milosevic to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to triumph, intermarried families must be ripped apart, the possibility of co-existence undermined, and moderate counterparts knocked down in favor of more frightening extremists. Televised slaughter, rumors of sectarian or ethnic targeting, and the wide circulation of hostile rhetoric are a benefit, not an unfortunate side product of their efforts.

Often, the real purpose of such strategic identity mobilization is intra-group competition, as ambitious leaders see sectarian or ethnic extremism as a useful way to attack their political rivals as weak, naïve, or duplicitous. Attacking Shiites is often a product of competition among different Sunni factions as much as it is driven by larger religious struggles. More venom is often directed towards moderates within one's own group than towards the putative enemy; as the dwindling cohort of true Egyptian liberals can attest, anyone who might try to seek the middle ground and critique both sides will be viciously shouted down. That, in turn, pushes more and more people to either silently accept or even to vocally repeat the mythologies supporting this mobilized identity, no matter how absurd.

Uncertainty, fear, economic hardship, and violence often create the toxic conditions for identity mobilization to gain traction. It's endlessly useful to demagogues and dictators to have some minority to blame for problems, to deflect outrage from their own failures and to bind an otherwise fractious community together against a common enemy. And that's where the proliferation and entrenchment of sectarian rhetoric over the previous decade have been especially destructive. The sectarian incitement which pollutes official and private media outlets alike, and which floods through politicized mosques and religious networks, provides the master frame which increasingly makes sense to people who a decade ago would have angrily waved such rhetoric away. And after a decade of civil war in Iraq and propaganda about an Iranian-led "Shiite Crescent" threatening the Sunni Muslim world, those narratives are now deeply entrenched and hard to change. Language and terms that once sounded exotic and strange now find wide public circulation and resonance.

The Arab uprisings introduced such uncertainty and fear not only within countries such as Syria, but across the entire region. So do recent memories of very real slaughters, displacements, and outrages -- such as those that have scarred Iraq. Syria provided endless opportunity for local entrepreneurs to use sectarian language and imagery to build support and raise money for the insurgency. Increasingly polarized, insular media clusters within which only information supportive of sectarian narratives tends to circulate, reinforces and intensifies identity conflicts with every YouTube video. And those atrocities have been experienced vicariously across the region, with Egyptian or Tunisian Sunnis identifying with the suffering of their Syrian or Iraqi counterparts even if they did not themselves have much direct contact with Shiites.

Highlighting the role of cynical politicians in the mobilization of identity conflict points to very different policy advice, of course. Fighting sectarianism thus requires changing the incentives and the opportunities for such political mobilization. Were electoral rules changed, official media and state institutions purged of sectarian language, and hate speech and incitement punished rather than encouraged, identity entrepreneurs would suffer political defeat. Elites who want to cynically manipulate sectarianism need to have the raw material with which to work or the right conditions within which to work their evil magic. Taking the oxygen out of the room is not impossible: Kuwait, for instance, turned away from sectarianism in its last elections, in part as the costs of such conflict began to really sink in.

But such political responses to identity conflict become far more difficult after they have been successfully mobilized -- especially under conditions of state failure, uncertainty, violence, and fear. It is far easier to generate sectarian animosities than it is to calm them down. This ratcheting effect is the reason for the deepest concern about the trends of the last few years. Identity entrepreneurs might think that they can turn the hatred on and off as it suits their interests, but at some point these identities become self-sustaining and internalized. Blood matters, a lot: There will be no reconciliation in Iraq or Syria for a long time, not with so many people who have watched people they love slaughtered or raped or displaced over their ascribed identities. How could anyone expect an Iraqi Sunni to forgive or happily coexist with Shiite neighbors who only recently killed his children because of their religion? Those memories are only reinforced by the endlessly circulating videos and images which today provide unavoidable documentation of additional atrocities. Even ending the violence and restoring a modicum of stability in Syria, Iraq, or Bahrain is not likely to erase these inflamed hatreds and memories, leaving well-fertilized terrain for the next identity entrepreneur who comes along.

The political approach to sectarianism makes painfully clear that it did not have to be like this. Sectarian conflict is not the natural response to the fall of a strongman. The Bahraini activists who demanded political reform and human rights did not have to be tarred as Iranian assets and smeared as Shiite separatists. Syrian non-violent activists could have developed and enforced a compelling vision of a non-sectarian post-Assad alternative. Gulf Islamists and regimes could have opted not to use sectarianism to generate support for the Syrian insurgency. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and its enemies could have opted for cooperation and inclusion rather than spiraling polarization and confrontation. But this approach also offers little optimism about the future. The painful reality is that sectarianism proved too useful to too many powerful actors, and too compelling a narrative in a violent, turbulent, and uncertain time, to be avoided.

MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images

Marc Lynch

The Middle East Power Vacuum

When Iran starts to look competent and responsible, you know you've got a problem.

Despite the surface froth, the Middle East has been frozen in place for the last few months. Nothing of consequence has happened in Egypt since General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's military coup and the blood clearing of the Rabaa sit-in.  Syria's civil war remains the grinding, destructive stalemate which was inevitable the moment the revolution morphed into an insurgency. Iran and the United States have made some tantalizing diplomatic moves, but nothing tangible has changed. When Foreign Policy is dominated by gawking at a Twitter troll's downfall and parsing an impotent tantrum by Saudi Arabia's Bandar bin Cheney, it's probably a good time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

The key structural feature shaping today's Middle East, it seems to me, is the dissolution of power.  During the early days of the Arab uprising, this could be seen in the fall of long-ruling leaders and the surge of popular protests against the old order. But those uprisings have failed to create any enduring new regimes, and the power of popular movements has dissipated into sectarianism, political polarization, and -- in the worst cases, such as Egypt -- capture by the state.

This power fade can be seen at every level, though: the international system, where American struggles have not been matched by the rise of any competing power; the regional system, which lacks even a single serious great power; domestic politics, where almost all states suffer from institutional incompetence;  political movements, where old organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood are on their heels but no new alternatives have emerge. The diffusion of power to do anything constructive lies behind the political paralysis which seems to beset every Arab country today and the strategic floundering of almost every regional player.   

The diffusion of power isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course. Arab states for decades had far too much power, which they used to ruthlessly repress and control their citizens and to maintain a highly unpopular regional order. Nobody should seriously mourn the problems these states now face in controlling the flow of information or ideas. More people in the region will celebrate declining American power than will mourn it. But, as Libya and Yemen so painfully demonstrate today, a basic functional state which provides security, predictability, and legitimate governance is a necessary condition for politics. The absence of power also means that endemic problems will not be solved -- from unemployment to sectarian violence to the Syrian civil war.

Start at the global level. For all the brave talk about continuing American potential, it's pretty obvious that Washington has vastly reduced capability -- and not only willingness -- to engage deeply in the problems of the Middle East.  The refusal to intervene in Syria is not simply a matter of President Obama's gum-chewing indifference.  It is rooted in a deeply and widely held, bipartisan public opposition to any new military adventures in the region, grim opposition from an exhausted and wary Pentagon, the growing internalization of Iraq's painful lessons, and disillusionment with the failures of the Arab uprisings and the Libya intervention. Invocations of the need for bolder leadership by the administration's critics ring hollow in the absence of any serious alternative policies to back up the louder words. A United States that can't even keep its own government open is going to retrench in the Middle East because it has little choice to do otherwise.

This does not mean, however, that American unipolarity has given way to some other familiar balance of power.  There is no rising power poised to grab the throne. Russia's more active diplomacy in the region is a mirage, backed by no economic, military, political, or cultural appeal. China has shown no interest or ability in playing a more active role beyond securing energy supplies from anyone and everyone.. Europe remains largely irrelevant, whether on its own or as its constituent countries, and is hardly rising.  America's necessary retrenchment is not matched by any real loss in relative power, then, which is why it has not been produced anything like the declinist panics which used to erupt during the Cold War.  The American-constructed and American-backed regional architecture is rusty and creaking, but nobody is stepping up to try to build a new one.

Moving to the regional level, the power vacuum is even more obvious.  There is arguably not a single great power remaining in the region.  The states traditionally at the core of Arab power politics -- Egypt, Syria, and Iraq -- are all flat on their backs, torn by political failure and societal division and unable to play any kind of meaningful role. Qatar learned the limits of buying loyalty through unlimited cash, influencing mass publics through al-Jazeera and working with Islamist networks. It  suffered a fierce regional backlash from competitors in the Gulf and resentful forces in the targeted countries which probably contributed to the deposing of the emir and his foreign policy mastermind. Saudi Arabia wants to lead a reinvigorated alliance of Gulf Cooperation Council states and weak, dependent allies such as Jordan and Egypt. But its failures in Syria have already shown the limits of its money and sectarian incitement, and its bid for regional leadership is likely to follow the same trajectory as Qatar's.

Nor are the non-Arab states in the region looking much more like real great powers. Turkey's bid for regional leadership, which seemed so promising (at least in Ankara) a few years ago, crashed and burned over Syria and domestic discontent.  Iran's economic crisis and diplomatic isolation have taken their toll; the "resistance" identity it deployed so effectively in the mid-2000s has evaporated and few Arabs today look to Tehran for leadership. Israel exercises little influence or appeal, huddled behind its real and virtual security walls as it eyes Iran and the United States suspiciously and passively watches the prospect of a two-state solution with the Palestinians fade away.  

The power failure is even more graphically clear at the level of domestic politics.  Almost every state in the region is suffering from some degree of debilitating state incapacity, political gridlock, and governance failure.  The most obvious examples are the countries which struggle to stand up any state at all.  In Libya, militias gleefully kidnap the prime minister to prove the state has no monopoly on the legitimate means of violence. Yemen's state, always weak, has largely ceased functioning for much of the country, and rising southern separatism puts its territorial integrity at risk.   No Syrian government, whether Assad or a post-Assad transitional government, is likely to be able to reassert any serious state control over a shattered country dominated by increasingly entrenched local armed groups.

These pathologies impose real limits the ability of leaders who want to reinstate semi-authoritarian regimes.  Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has demonstrated profoundly autocratic instincts and a desire to centralize control during his seven years in power.  But the Iraqi state has never recovered from Saddam's predation or the destructive shock of American occupation and civil war. Maliki now confronts not only the de facto separation of the Kurdish areas, but the rapid deterioration of state control -- or even presence -- in large parts of the Sunni-dominated western provinces and the steady efforts of the al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to erase its border with Syria.

In Egypt, Gen. el-Sisi sought to re-impose state control through a military coup, which he now hopes to legitimate abroad with a carefully stage-managed show of democratic transition.  But nobody should be fooled. Sisi's genius was to turn the restless rage of the frustrated Egyptian public against an internal enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, instead of against the state (any scapegoat -- Communists, Shiites, Jews -- would have done for such a role had the Brothers not made themselves such a tempting target).  But this isn't likely to work over the longer term, not for a state utterly incapable of providing for economic growth, political consensus, or personal security.  Sisi's Egypt will suffer from the same grinding economic, governance and institutional failings which undid Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsy.

The region's non-transitional states may look better off, but this is only a matter of degree.  Jordan's and Morocco's monarchs are just hanging on.  Even the most secure Gulf leaders are so shaken that they have to jail poets and Twitter jokers. The most insecure, such as Bahrain's, are ordering more canisters of tear gas than they have citizens. And Saudi Arabia is projecting regional power from an increasingly shaky internal position and an impending leadership transition.  Even the most robust of the remaining Arab states are unable to stop their citizens from protesting.  The return to repression is a sign of their deep weakness and lack of legitimacy, not a sign of new power.

But once again, the power lost by states has not flowed in any meaningful way towards societal or alternative political forces.  The Muslim Brotherhood, traditionally the strongest and best organized opposition force in most Arab countries, has been battered by the Egyptian disaster and faces its most serious existential crisis in half a century.  There is no obvious single alternative force to capture Islamist-leaning citizens.  Salafi movements seem to be growing in vigor and public presence, but tend to be disorganized and internally divided, and to struggle to expand beyond their base or to reassure non-Islamists.  Meanwhile, the variety of al Qaeda-inspired movements have staged something of a comeback thanks to the Syrian jihad, state weakness, and struggling Islamist competitors.  But this, too, should not be exaggerated: such movements remain marginal and only loosely connected.  

Meanwhile, new popular movements have proven themselves far better at protest than at politics.  There are vanishingly few examples of these protest movements making an effective transition to political parties, robust civil society or sustainable models of positive political engagement. Egypt's Tamarod represents the worst possible trajectory, depoliticizing and neutering popular movements by harnessing them to the interests of the state. 

This power diffusion permeates almost every available diplomatic initiative.  The Geneva 2 conference for Syria, if it even happens, is handicapped by the long-standing difficulty of pulling together any representation for the Syrian opposition which could actually negotiate in their name and enforce any subsequent deal.  The struggling, weak Palestinian Authority would be hard-pressed to deliver on its end even if a deal could against the odds be reached in the current talks with Israel.  Yemen's National Dialogue seems disconnected from developments across the country.  This may explain the relative enthusiasm for the diplomacy with Iran, where there is at least the possibility of a competent government which might be able to make and deliver a deal.

What, if anything, can be done about the pathologies associated with this diffusion of power at all levels? For one, the response should most assuredly not be the passive acceptance of renewed authoritarianism in the name of stability.  Whatever the conditions which might have in the past made dictators stable, they no longer exist -- and Washington backing them will be a losing bet, whether in Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, or Riyadh. At the same time, the United States is going to have to work with local partners to pool scarce resources if it hopes to get anything done on security, diplomacy, or political reforms.  The problem of alliance management which this tension creates is likely to only get worse as we move towards difficult periods in almost every key regional crisis zone.  

MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images