Sectarianism without Sects by Azmi Bishara

Azmi Bishara's Sectarianism without Sects: A meticulous exploration into the origins of sectarianism in the Middle East
6 min read
16 July, 2021
Book Club: In his latest interdisciplinary, extensively researched book Sectarianism without Sects, Azmi Bishara methodically wades through the phenomenon of sectarianism with a new light, reconceptualising it in the Arab Middle Eastern context.

The concept of sectarianism in the Arab Mashreq arguably entered the Arabic lexicon with the eruption of the Lebanese civil war, which took a sectarian form and ended with a political settlement based on sectarian consociationalism. With the US invasion of Iraq and the societal collapse that followed, a Shia-Sunni divide appeared, bringing the sectarian problem to a more defined level. As the Arab uprisings broke out nearly a decade later, regime-society tension developed into conflict, and then in countries like Syria, Yemen, Iraq, and Bahrain, escalated to clashes taking place along sectarian lines.  

Many scholars attribute regional sectarianism to modern geopolitical factors, such as the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. But a geopolitical analysis is insufficient as it does not take into account the complexities of human identity and regional culture(s), nor does it use history as an effective analytical device. 

Bishara aims to distinguish the phenomenon from similar phenomena in the region, allowing the terms to become a conceptual analysis and developed into a theoretical framework 

In his latest interdisciplinary, extensively researched book Sectarianism without Sects, Bishara methodically wades through the phenomenon of sectarianism with a new light, reconceptualising it in the Arab Middle Eastern context and providing a fresh, rather multi-dimensional, outlook on its root causes, dynamics, and repercussions. 

The book, which was first published in Arabic in early 2018, is an ambitious attempt to develop a theory of sectarianism.

Academic validity and methodological rigour are bound by terminological accuracy. As such, the book thoroughly investigates the common concepts and terms surrounding sectarianism in the Arab Mashreq. Bishara aims to distinguish the phenomenon from similar phenomena in the region, allowing the terms to become a conceptual analysis and developed into a theoretical framework. 

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Although Bishara uses 'sectarianism' to translate ta'ifiyya in English and recognises that ta'ifa is often used as an equivalent to 'sect', he argues that this is a false equivalence. A 'sect' in English more closely resembles what has historically been called in Arabic a firqa, a tight-knit ideological community. A ta'ifa is an imagined community that has very little to do with a given ideology and everything to do with a common identity.

The term is closer to what was meant in the past by firqah (plural: firaq), a religious group, and not modern ta’ifa (sect), which broadly signifies a group of followers of religious, philosophical, or political orientation. In this context, he also explains the differences between sectarianism and confessionalism. Using history and sociology as evidential and analytical devices, Bishara highlights the differences between confessionalism (and, transition to sectarianism) in Europe during the religious wars and an equivalent process in the Islamic World, using that, among other things, to explain the historical dynamics that fed into the Sunni-Shia divide. 

Bishara sees that modern religious communities (tawa’if: plural: ta’ifa) do not produce sectarianism in the literal sense; rather, it is sectarianism that breeds the ‘imagined communities,’ also referred to as ‘imagined sects.’ The act of imagination here is neither intellectual nor theoretically founded; rather, it is built on primordial bonds, religious/ethnic being ones.

The author explains from the outset that his theoretical analysis of ‘imagined communities' primarily draws on Benedict Anderson’s notion of ‘imagined communities,’ which he coined in his 1983 book Imagined Communities and in which he analysed nationalism, and on Charles Taylor’s concept of ‘social imaginary.’ 

Although not directly mentioned, part of Bishara’s conceptualisation of imagined communities may also have a social psychological dimension; it fits into Vamik Volkan’s large-group identity and Tajfel and Turner’s Social Identity Theory, both theoretical frameworks refer to people's self-concepts as based on their membership in social groups, sometimes framed in terms of in-group versus out-group dynamics. 

Bishara insightfully hypothesises that since there was no political sphere in the Islamic World until the Ottoman Tanzimat – a period of reforms that began in 1839 and ended in 1876 in the Ottoman Empire – political sectarianism could not have existed, the kind of political mobilisation required for sectarianism. As such, “neither Shiaism nor Sunnism is analytical concepts, sociologically, unless they constitute Ta’ifa – delineated social units.” That is, a Shia-Sunni divide does not necessarily conceptualise sectarian conflict. 

Bishara insightfully hypothesises that since there was no political sphere in the Islamic World until the Ottoman Tanzimat – a period of reforms that began in 1839 and ended in 1876 in the Ottoman Empire – political sectarianism could not have existed, the kind of political mobilisation required for sectarianism

He critiques the orthodox and occasionally too-simplistic diagnoses by local scholars and thinkers who either attribute political sectarianism to conspiracy theories where external powers intervene to divide what is otherwise unified, homogenous groups, or believe that sectarianism is natural and authentic in the region.

Both accounts, argues Bishara, fail to provide an objective conceptualisation or multi-levelled understanding of sectarian conflicts and, instead, abdicate the responsibility for explaining the phenomenon as fundamentally inscrutable.

By tracing back the emergence of sectarian divides in the region in the 19th century, when the Tanzimat reforms created a nascent Ottoman public sphere, the author concludes that the interplay of local conflicts that plagued the region; the top-down reform; and the foreign interventions (as custodians of religious and ethnic minorities) sowed the seeds of political sectarianism. 

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Sectarianism is also a product of the crisis of the Arab state, Bishara contends, and that “the issue lies not with the confessional or religious diversity per se but with the failure of the process of building states on the basis of citizenship.”  As it stands for most Arab countries today, the state uses tribal, sectarian, or regional identity to mediate its relationship with citizens, replacing equal citizenship with loyalty and political unity.

Religion and ethnicity are therefore politicised for purposes related to alternative ideology, collective identity, and even, in the case of the opposition, anti-state mobilisation. As such, sectarianism has grown into a modern political reality, which has transformed even the majority group into a ta’ifa. 

Bishara refuses the claim that sectarianism is eternal in Arab societies. It may disappear along with the circumstances that gave rise to it. 

Sectarianism without Sects is an engaging seminal study that builds on a multitude of theoretical frameworks as well as historical evidence

Sectarianism without Sects is an engaging seminal study that builds on a multitude of theoretical frameworks as well as historical evidence, so much so that at times it feels like a multi-dimensional, transhistorical intellectual debate, yet without compromising clarity and fluidity and, more importantly, without scattering the reader’s attention.

For those in the field of sectarian studies, and those in social sciences and humanities in general, Sectarianism without Sects is undoubtedly a valuable source of fresh academic insight. For the non-specialised readers, the book may provide a paradigm shift in their understanding of sectarianism in the Arab Mashreq, well beyond biases and conceptions which many have taken for granted. 

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa