ActivismConflictCultureDemocracyIdentity PoliticsMiddle East

Decent Into State Led Sectarianism In Yemen And Syria

How authoritarian regimes in the Middle East have manipulated identities in a once cooperative region for their own ends.

Across Europe, the societies of the Middle East are considered by many deeply divided and sectarian. Identity politics runs deep in the region. Loyalties are based on primordial divisions since time immemorial. Politics in the region is often described by commentators in terms of the Sunni – Shia split, complete with insightful histories of Islam – ‘oh now you see, it all began 1,400 years ago with the first fitnah between Uthman and Ali over who should succeed to lead the Muslim world…’, accompanied by detailed diagrams of the various sects of Islam accurately mapping a way through the chaos like Indiana Jones to his trove.

While there does exist a debate among Muslims regarding the succession of the Prophet, essentialist discourses conveniently gloss over hundreds of years of peaceful coexistence. Passive sectarianism has long existed in the Middle East, merely amounting to the social recognition of a plurality of religions in society. However, a more active, political sectarianism occur when these religious differences become mobilised and recognised as a primary point of departure in politics.

This active sectarianism in the Middle East is a modern phenomenon since the heightened competition between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic in Iran. This feud primarily began in 1979 after Iran’s revolution, and intensified after the 2003 US occupation of Iraq, destabilising the delicate power balance in the region. More recently, the Arab Spring has caused even deeper polarisation. A more detailed look may reveal the mechanisms that are creating the rifts which we see today.

Syrians are organising campaigns on Facebook and Twitter which call for a “day of rage” in the capital Damascus. Photo: Michael Thompson, The Egyptian Liberal/Wikimedia Commons.

Instead of timeless feuds, the prevalence of identity politics in the Middle East has more to do with the high density of authoritarian regimes in the region. These regimes, often considered illegitimate, rely on manipulating the various identities to stir up chaos and instability among the population. In many cases, their power is then cemented on presenting themselves as the only ones capable of steadying the ship. In times when populations demand political change, regimes tend to fend them off and hijack largely peaceful and cross sectarian movements, contorting them into much darker entities.

The Arab uprisings were an example of the people demanding political change loud and clear, and like clockwork, the corresponding cauldron stirring from the authoritarian regimes soon followed, pulling all the tricks out the hat as a matter of political, and in some cases physical survival.

In Syria’s case, which we now recognise to be rife with a multitude of competing identities, citizens once marched the streets in unison. Bashar al – Assad had long identified Syrian nationalism with Sunni Islamic religious discourse. So, in the first months of the Syrian protests, the population chanted a variety of religion – nationalist slogans, this being the only nationalism they knew. But these protests were inclusive, with Syrians of all identities participating in the nationalist sense. Christians, ‘Alawis, Druze, Ismailis all took to the streets to chant Islamic slogans in opposition to the Syrian regime. Many protests also took place in mosques, as these were the only public spaces left for people to gather safely.

Assad capitalised on this. Pointing to the Islamic chants and occupying of mosques, he painted the protesters as extremist Salafi jihadists hell bent on destroying Syria and enslaving minorities. Assad wanted to be seen as a humanist, defending the honour of honest Syrians in the “War on Terror” against those extremists dancing and singing in the streets, chanting anti – sectarian slogans of national unity and peace. Assad’s propaganda machinery rolled on relentlessly, and slowly began to cause rifts and fissures in the protesters’ armoury. Marginal figures using sectarian language were amplified by the regime to douse the protest movement with threatening shades. As a result, minorities slowly began to question the Sunni nature of the protests, causing them to retreat and entrench into their most basic religious identities. Assad directed his brutal violence exclusively against certain groups and spared others, causing mistrust to spread like a virus. In Syria, the regime manipulated and politicised previously dormant identities creating a more Sunni dominated opposition movement which had originally been diverse and unified.

Yemen is also another country often cited to be engaged in a deeply sectarian proxy war as Shia and Sunni battle it out, causing total devastation to the country. Although much of the same tendencies as with the Syrian conflict, can be seen in Yemen too.

Similarly, in the beginning, the February 2011 protests in Yemen had a remarkably inclusive nature considering the situation we see today. And yet again, the same process led this movement down its dark and divisive road. The protests forged fantastic solidarity among the population who were united against the corrupt regime of Ali Abdullah Salih and inspired by the regional fervor for freedom. The youth played a leading role. Many constructive youth initiatives took place that put aside the bickering of the older generation to come together in cross party dialogues that denounced identity politics. The two largest groups, the Islamist Islah party and the populist resistance Houthi movement joined forces to work to create a republican system. The Houthis are often shown as a group representing the Shia minority in Yemen. This is only partly true. They can also be seen as nationalists who had traditionally resisted President Salih’s oppressive and corrupt regime. They were calling for a more transparent, accountable and representative government for all Yemenis.

The sign reading: “The people created true unity with their peaceful revolution.” Photo: Mr. Ibrahem/Wikimedia Commons.

Eventually, the Gulf Corporation Council and international organisations waded in and hijacked the transition process. They created a system which side-lined the Houthis and simply reinstated the old guard of traditional elites who had long dominated Yemen’s system. They cut the head off the snake but left the body writhing and wrangling.

Whereas in other Arab Spring transition countries there was an emphasis on removing the whole regime, in Yemen the situation was approached differently. The old opposition parties were maintained, which were seen by many to be intricately linked to the regime itself as some kind of farcical facade. The Houthis were excluded, portrayed as trouble makers and a Shia proxy of Iran. The UN and US imposed sanctions on its leaders and froze their assets. In reality they had been a key resistance movement to the authoritarian and dictatorial regime for years.

A dormant sectarianism was activated by these processes which hadn’t taken into account a proper reading of the national context. When the Houthis had originally been involved in the open and inclusive transition debates for the future of the country, they were subsequently carelessly kicked out by outside forces. This had the effect of politicising Yemen’s various identities, resulting in the sectarianizing of the conflict.

In the Middle East there is a plethora of different identities, but this shouldn’t be perceived as a negative quality and an inevitable road to conflict. It is only when these identities are manipulated and politicised that they become a hindrance, and this is largely due to authoritarian and corrupt regimes, who often enjoy substantial support from the international community.

George Gale


The Author would also like to credit the book Sectarianization (2017)by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel. 

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