Sectarianism Without Sects
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Sectarianism Without Sects

Azmi Bishara

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Sectarianism Without Sects

Azmi Bishara

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About This Book

This volume analyses the transformation of social sectarianism into political sectarianism across the Arab world. Using a framework of social theories and socio-historical analysis, the book distinguishes between ta'ifa, or 'sect', and modern ta'ifiyya, 'sectarianism', arguing that sectarianism itself produces 'imaginary sects'. It charts and explains the evolution of these phenomena and their development in Arab and Islamic history, as distinct from other concepts used to study religious groups within Western contexts.

Bishara documents the role played by internal and external factors and rivalries among political elites in the formulation of sectarian identity, citing both historical and contemporary models. He contends that sectarianism does not derive from sect, but rather that sectarianism resurrects the sect in the collective consciousness and reproduces it as an imagined community under modern political and historical conditions.

Sectarianism Without Sects is a vital resource for engaging with the sectarian crisis in the Arab world. It provides a detailed historical background to the emergence of sect in the region, as well as a complex theoretical exploration of how social identities have assumed political significance in the struggle for power over the state.


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1
ON THE PROBLEMATIC OF SECTARIANISM
This book is an attempt to develop a theory of sectarianism (ta’ifiyya in Arabic) and its relationship with communities of shared religion (ta’ifa)1 on the one hand, and with the emergence of imagined communities of this kind on the other.2 I will consider the significant role played by these imaginaries in the construction of social facts and the selves that ‘experience and reproduce’ them, in the words of Maurice Godelier, without ignoring the fact that ‘there are also cultural facts which are broader than the local social relations in which the actors are involved and which have an impact on the history of their societies.’3
My concept of the social imaginary here is close to that given by Charles Taylor: ‘the way ordinary people “imagine” their social surroundings … often not expressed in theoretical terms, [but] carried in images, stories, and legends,’ or ‘that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy’—and not only these, as I will explain, but also the creation of imagined communities.4 I thus hope to enrich the theory of social imaginaries, the conditions for their politicisation, and their relationship with the state. In the case of an imagined community of religion, what is meant by the social imaginary is membership (usually by birth) of a community of religion or confession as envisioned by millions of people who do not know one another and who have never truly constituted a community; a sense of belonging to a greater community of shared religion on the basis of a mutual past of narratives, myths and legends; and the practices and specific understandings of legitimacy that flow from such communities and simultaneously reproduce them.
I distinguish here between social sectarianism and political sectarianism. There are points of overlap between the two in traditional premodern societies, where the political is conflated with the social in communities, and where politics qua politics is a solely external force, a matter for the ruling authorities. In a traditional society, the division between political and social sectarianism, and even between sectarianism and communities of shared religion, so-called ‘communities of faith’, is meaningless. In such a context, there is no such thing as sectarianism in the sense of an ideology separate from the social structure itself.
In this book, I will discuss the relationship of political sectarianism to communities of religion as pre-existing social-historical entities. The main subject of the study, however, is how modern sectarianism forms—actually invents—communities of this kind. I will approach such communities as imagined, based on a dormant sense of belonging that political sectarianism ‘resurrects’ by utilising selective elements from the historical trajectory of the group—reproducing communities in an entirely different form, under new historical-political conditions, and with new functions.
This will require comparative study of different historical examples and will revolve around sectarianism in some Arab countries. The theoretical discussion will be based on extrapolation from comparisons between these countries. Arguments will be developed using their experiences—albeit by placing them in dialogue with concepts developed over the course of research in Europe, establishing the typological validity or (as is mostly the case) invalidity of these concepts in the context we are trying to understand.
That this book is being written now is no coincidence. Nor is it engaging in theoretical exercises in a moral vacuum. Rather, it attempts to provide theoretical answers, using the tools of different social sciences, to crucial questions concerning a subject that is the source of both fiery political-ideological-rhetorical debates in the media and bloody armed conflicts which devastate societies. Sectarian conflicts, or conflicts which take a sectarian form, are not restricted to Arab countries; barely a month goes by without us hearing about conflicts (between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs, or Sunnis and Shi’as) in the Indian subcontinent, in Afghanistan, or in the Central African Republic, for example.5 But the Arab Mashreq—particularly Iraq, Syria and Yemen (and previously Lebanon)—is currently witnessing sectarian conflict, or political conflict taking a sectarian form and expressed in sectarian language. Zealous religious movements have been able to foment or exploit sectarian resentments in Iraq and Syria; the desire to rid these countries of despotism has become intermixed with sectarian feeling. The ta’ifa question is no longer a mere cover for class conflicts or an expression of colonialist policies aiming to divide and conquer.6 It is now a matter of urgency to contend with it through historical enquiry and critical-theoretical analysis.
From 1975 to 1990, Lebanon was the scene of a lengthy and bloody civil war, which took the sectarian form of a conflict among ta’ifas and was brought to an end by a sectarian-political settlement—the Taif Agreement (1989). Since the implementation of this agreement and the enshrining of its main points in the constitution, Lebanon has only become more sectarian. The ta’ifas have become the exclusive political actors in Lebanese politics, and the end point assumed by the Agreement—that is, the abolition of political sectarianism at a later stage—has not come about.7
The first stirrings of regional sectarian conflict appeared after the American occupation of Iraq in 2003. Sectarianism has since spread like wildfire in the wake of the popular revolutions and uprisings that shook the Arab regimes and exposed their fragility in 2011. In Egypt, meanwhile, it is no longer possible to ignore the Coptic issue, which sees periodic instances of sectarian violence in areas inhabited by Muslims and Coptic Christians. Even denunciation of these actions is often articulated in sectarian language that does not begin from the premise of equal citizenship.
In Syria, the state long promoted a narrative that Syrians had abandoned sectarian disagreements and that the regime was the only guarantor of national unity and sectarian coexistence; hence any threat to the regime had to be the work of foreign conspirators. The ongoing events in Syria are certainly far too complex and multifaceted to be reduced to a sectarian conflict. But the insistence on ignoring the sectarian element (that is, the element of sectarian identity in the conflict) demonstrated by researchers and even some Syrian revolutionary democratic activists and civil movements is either naive or a pretence to naiveté which avoids addressing the topic.8 Since the beginning of the revolution, suspicious slogans such as ‘Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut’ have been promoted in Damascus, most probably by the regime itself—the same regime that has presented itself as the protector of minorities. Deliberate attempts have been made to appeal to religious minorities’ fear of the religious majority and secular forces’ fear of Islamist control should the regime fall. Civil forces within the revolution have tried to thwart this propaganda with counterpropaganda, encapsulated by the slogan ‘the Syrian people are one’. However, by its second year—with the ‘kidnapping’ of the movement by certain Jihadist organisations well practised in mobilisation—a distinct sectarian tone, formerly the exclusive preserve of demagogue preachers or private conversations, had spread within the revolution, or civil war, embodied in mobilisation against the regime based on the idea that it is an Alawite minority regime that oppresses the Sunnis. The many non-sectarian relationships that had previously developed in Syria, based on regional solidarities or mutual exchange, have retreated in the face of sectarian anxieties.
The structural fragility of superficially ‘strong’ Arab states has made it easy for political elites and regional powers to invoke sectarianism in order to defend or else to mobilise forces against the existing regime. A sectarian interpretation of the state order and some of its actions and policies is well established in popular consciousness, whether covertly or overtly expressed in the private sphere. The feeling and ideology of sectarian oppression summoned up in the heat of conflict were already established in the minds of rulers and ruled. Political regimes in various Arab countries (where sectarianism has fermented or exploded) have thus been united in their affirmation of a national unity, within which they are the guarantor against chaos. The constant emphasis on national unity itself serves as camouflage for a sense of social and national fragility.
We might add that the modern Arab states, for the most part, emerged in regions that did not represent unified geographical-political entities. Their establishment entailed the severing of connections between regions falling within their borders and neighbouring regions with which they had previously formed geographical and demographic units, but which now found themselves outside of those borders. This produced border disputes—few Arab countries have avoided such disputes with one or more of their neighbours. Equally, it meant that new connections were formed between more distant regions which had not constituted geographical or demographic units and which had no solid prior relationship with one another. In the national liberation phase, the desire for unity prevailed. But under authoritarian regimes, regional division and integration contributed to a sense of injustice in certain regions that were religiously or confessionally distinct from other regions within the same country—especially regions dominated by a single ethnicity or confession. Any perceived injustice, whether disparity in political representation or in the distribution of wealth, could be interpreted as sectarian, ethnic or simply regional discrimination.
In Arab states weakened by the revolutions of 2011 (or the 2003 invasion in the case of Iraq), regional conflict and sectarian divisions have come to overlap. A whole generation has witnessed the subordination of the just struggle against dictatorships and authoritarian regimes in the Arab Mashreq to a regional struggle between two axes (Iran and Saudi Arabia)9 that both use sectarian and confessional rhetoric and exploit sectarianism for their own ends. This generation has also been able to observe international political action fomenting sectarianism. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, the establishment of an Islamic Republic with an official confessional ideology, and the expansion of Iranian influence (given an unexpected boost by the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq) all contributed to a general Islamic awakening among both Sunnis and Shi’a. Moreover, some organs of the Republic have focused on areas of Shi’i demographic concentration, expecting to establish sympathy or even political loyalty to Iran through sectarian political parties; in some areas it has attempted to confessionally convert certain communities to Shi’ism, a practice even more likely to enflame reciprocal sectarian feeling.10 This is paralleled by missionary activities carried out by Salafist Sunni groups supported by Saudi Arabia, a state that has adopted Wahhabism as its official doctrine and whose substantial Shi’i minority are branded heretics by that same doctrine.
In place of the policy of ‘bringing together the confessions’ (taqrib al-madhahib) adopted by the religious establishments of the 1950s during the high noon of Arab nationalism, Islamist proselytisation based on confessional distinctions has worked to reinforce difference, to the extent that the two sides now accuse one another of being infidels. Nonetheless, Iran’s regional strategy cannot be reduced to sectarianism. It hinges on supporting various forces in the region, be they Shi’i Islamist movements akin to the Islamic Republic, non-Shi’i resistance movements like Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Palestine, or secular regimes like that of Hafiz al-Asad.
The Saudi axis, meanwhile, has adopted a conservative discourse opposed to any regional political transformation, but has (exceptionally) supported the Syrian Revolution solely because of the conflict with Iran, couching this in explicitly confessional language in its media rhetoric. Non-Shi’i Islamist movements have in turn turned to post-Kemalist Turkey, hoping that it might support Sunnis as Iran has Shi’a. These high expectations have produced disappointments rooted in the sharp structural difference between Iran and the secular Turkish political system, but this difference has not stopped Turkey—which does not use sectarian political language—from exploiting political Sunnism to bolster its influence. Regional conflicts have not only regionalised sectarian divisions but securitised them, turning imagined confessional communities into an existential threat.11 Sectarianism—or even a sense of sectarian injustice—did not occupy a central position in the Arab Mashreq until quite recently. It had been neutralised by other interpretations of the nature of the state and its policies, ascribed generally to non-sectarian ideologies, and by other kinds of belonging that banished it to the margins: local, ethnonational (qawmi) and state-national (watani). In some cases, it was even trumped by the sense of belonging to a nationalist or leftist political party. It seemed, in fact, that communities of religion (ta’ifas) had lost their significance and were not able to acquire a new function as socio-political entities. But sectarian feeling continued to exist, whether inwardly or outwardly. And when the right historical moment arrived for sectarianism to be transformed into a political discourse and a consciousness creating and governing ‘othering’ attitudes, it reproduced ta’ifas in an entirely different and novel form. It reproduced them as imagined ta’ifas.
Arab leftists, and nationalists generally, have preferred to avoid the topic of sectarianism, which is now forbidden or at the very least unacceptable. It is as if mere discussion of it will wake the dragon from its slumber; as if mentioning the ta’ifa is in itself a talisman that summons up ghosts from the dark depths of society, awakening memories and enmities that might threaten national unity—an unbreakable curse.
This unwillingness to contend with the topic continues to prevail even as sectarian conflicts are being openly fought in the region. The drive to absolve oneself of any sectarian pollution sometimes extends to retroactively cleansing the ‘national history’ of any stains of this kind: it is claimed that there is and always has been a spirit of brotherhood and coexistence, and that the local people and the local culture are naturally peaceable and not responsible for any contemporary sectarian disputes. ‘The people’, in this context, means ‘the national unit’, which has always been unified, peace-loving and benevolent by its very nature. Sectarianism, therefore, can only be the product of some invisible hand’s machinations, the fruit of some foreign conspiracy.12
The widespread objections to focusing on minority issues include attempts to question the criteria by which the borders of identity are established and who is included; dismissals of identity groups as historically obsolete, with less contemporary relevance than class formations or urban/rural divisions, for example; and interrogation—rightful interrogation, most of the time—of the categorisation of groups based on religion because it fragments the nation-state, especially if this definition is adopted in political life.13 Joshua Castellino and Kathleen Cavanaugh argue that these objections must be taken into account, but that they must nonetheless be weighed against the danger of ignoring claims based on identity ‘in the belief that these can be subsumed at the altar of “national-identi...

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