The depth of Shia-Sunni polarisation

The depth of Shia-Sunni polarisation
4 min read
01 Apr, 2015
Comment: The Middle East's powerful elites have deliberately entrenched sectarian divisions to maintain control in the wake of popular uprisings - but the worst may be yet to come.
The rise of sectarian militias is tearing the region apart [AFP]
The strife in Yemen, and the continued turmoil in Syria - despite the differences between the two - have deepened the sectarian rift to an unprecedented extent in the Arab world.

The Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh this weekend served only to officially demarcate this dangerous polarisation, not just in our region, but around the world.

The divide, in essence, is not religious - it is a power struggle that is taking on sectarian undertones, which is being used by Iran and the Arab regimes to win influence and quell dissent.

By portraying an Iranian "threat" by using the blatantly sectarian term "Shia expansion", Arab regimes seek to deflate people's legitimate demands for freedom and social justice.

Meanwhile, Iran, for its part, supports Shia Arab groups - some of which are openly sectarian - with the aim of expanding its cicle of influence, taking advantage of the lack of strong Arab leadership and the mostly unrepresentative pro-Western Arab regimes. 

However, when this divide trickles down to people, it becomes truly and quintessentially sectarian, even among those who are neither devout Shia nor devout Sunni, because it mutates into a conflict of identity that perpetuates sectarian loyalties above all social and political grievances.

What we are witnessing is a longitudinal split dividing the Arab peoples, within the borders of the Arab world, and within each individual Arab nation. We are heading in the direction of the fragmentation of societies and towards existential risks to the very notion of the state, in parallel with the defeat of the aspirations of the Arab peoples for freedom, and political and social justice.
     Sectarian polarisation is the most insidious link in the chain of counter-revolutions

In practice, sectarian polarisation is the most insidious link in the chain of counter-revolutions.

The victory of sectarian and tribal identity politics precludes the survival of not only revolutions, but also the will to change both among peoples and individuals; where the instinctive defence of the sectarian identity that is allegedly under threat replaces the struggle for a society governed by justice and freedom.

What is frightening here is that many intellectuals - and large segments of the Arab youth, who had led and participated in the revolutions - have fallen prey to this sectarian notion of identity.

So much so that joining the Islamic State group, or other sectarian armed groups is now a tempting prospect, especially among the marginalised.

Changing fears

The continuing state of panic and fear has allowed Arab and regional regimes to mobilise and rally people, to appear as saviours - thus enabling them to continue their policies of impoverishment and repression. There are no longer any large protests or loud popular demands, and the erstwhile slogan of "The People Want…" has disappeared. People now fear the terrorism of extremist groups more than they fear police states.

The picture is more complicated than sectarian polarisation, however, despite its dangers. The IS group and its ilk have served as a pretext for a return to "the protective umbrella" of the security-obsessed regimes.

There are even people who believe and argue that the IS group is the most important line of defence against Iranian or Shia "hegemony" - a narrative that has spread well beyond the ranks of religious or sectarian fanatics.

We are seeing sectarianism gradually substituting the leftist and nationalist trends that had led popular movements in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but which declined in the 1980s.

Their decline led to the rise of Islamist movements and the sowing of the seeds of religious and sectarian fervour, with collusion from regimes that saw religious political parties as an instrument to undermine the leftist and nationalist opposition. 
     Leftist and secular movements... have entered a phase of intellectual stagnation


Today, leftist and secular movements are divided over political positions on Syria and to a lesser extent Egypt and Yemen. Thus even if they had not been overtaken by sectarianism, they have entered a phase of intellectual stagnation, which makes some of these movements support Bashar al-Assad under the pretext of protecting secularism and resisting colonialism. By doing so, they turn a blind eye to the crimes of the regimes they support in Iran and Syria.

Thus the arena became wide open for anti-democratic regimes and sectarian movements. The regimes spotted an opportunity to restore their clout, and the Yemeni crisis completed the loop, especially as Iran had taken advantage of the marginalisation of Yemen's Houthis to expand its influence, just as Saudi Arabia had done in Yemen in the past.

The biggest winner is sectarian fragmentation, under the banner of countering Iran's influence, all while the Arab regimes seem unwilling to declare an unequivocal political position on Israeli occupation and expansionism.

What we have on our hands then is the rallying and demarcation of corrosive sectarian divisions, whose entire repercussions have yet to unfold - we are merely seeing the tip of the iceburg.
Lamis Andoni is a veteran journalist and editor-in-chief of al-Araby al-Jadeed English.

A version of this commentary was previously published by our Arabic edition.

Opinions stated in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.