Many Western observers of the conflict in the Middle East see current events through a sectarian prism which has become the default tool to make sense of the violence that plagues the region. Even President Obama thinks what is happening in the region is 'rooted in conflicts that date back millennia'. It is not that surprising given that this orientalist conceptual framework has changed little over the past century. This prism as an analytical device can serve many purposes, one of which is the convenient ability to shift blame and responsibility away from the policies of the civilised world and onto the uncivilised savages who cannot coexist peacefully.
A simplistic, essentialist and sectarian analysis of the complex and multi-layered conflicts in the Middle East can unfortunately at times also become a self-fulfilling prophecy when the analysis feeds bad policy-making which then rewards sectarian mobilisation. It feeds back into a dangerous cycle which vindicates the sectarian analysis and produces further sectarian tensions. US policy and the creation of the ethno-sectarian political order in post-2003 Iraq is a good example of this.
This is not to deny that there are sectarian actors and factors which impact the multiple conflicts we are witnessing unfold across the region. Today’s sectarian entrepreneurs make the problem worse when they play on the potency of sectarian identity — which of course exists and is real — to galvanise supporters and either maintain support or come to power. The politicisation of religion and instrumentalisation of doctrinal differences can be witnessed in both autocratic countries where rulers distract their citizens with sectarian narratives and fearmongering but also in nascent democracies like Iraq where politicians manipulate religious identity to win votes in their narrow-minded quest for power.
Even when two states are fighting each other for influence and hegemony, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, people often ascribe religious and sectarian motives. Any battlefield where these two regional rivals are involved is immediately declared another episode of the endless Sunni-Shia war. The conflict between them is much more about power in the 21st century than it is about piety or the debate over who should have succeeded Prophet Mohammed in the 7th century.
That Western analysts cannot see the region beyond the sectarian divide does not mean locals are not mobilising on the ground across the supposed division that defines their lives and politics. The reality is much more complicated than the conventional wisdom would have you believe. In Alawite-dominated Syria, the vast majority of government forces are actually Sunnis who are fighting against their supposed own — whether they be members of Islamist rebel groups or their more extreme Salafi-jihadist versions like Al-Qaeda or ISIS. In Iraq, Sunni tribal fighters have mobilised alongside the ‘Shia-dominated’ army and paramilitary units to push ISIS back and liberate their towns and cities.
In 2006, when Shia tribes in Iraq wanted to retaliate after Salafi-jihadists demolished a sacred shrine, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s highest religious authority, told the Shias that the 'Sunnis are ourselves, not just our brothers'. Sunni tribes also aggressively fought and almost defeated Al-Qaeda in Iraq, an earlier incarnation of ISIS.
In Egypt and Libya, there are few Shias to kill but both countries face powerful insurgencies and Sunni jihadist movements that are fighting fellow Sunni fighters, jihadists or their ‘Sunni-dominated’ governments.
Sectarianism in Islam may be as old as Islam itself but the West should be asking tough questions about the causes of the conflict that move beyond a lazy and dangerous narrative which attempts to make sense of a complicated crisis and deflect responsibility to others. The irony is that many Muslims in the region do mobilise across sectarian lines in defence of their countries and each other but Western analysts thousands of miles away cannot see much beyond sectarian actors embroiled in a sectarian war.
Another serious problem with the obsessive focus on the sectarian divide is the logical conclusion — whether this is said explicitly or implicitly — that ‘good fences make good neighbours’. The reality is that the Middle East was never and can never be neatly divided along ethno-sectarian lines. The heavily mixed cities, provinces and intermarriages all complicate the arguments for partition which, far from solving the crises in the Middle East would only complicate them further.
Hayder al-Khoei is the Lowy Institute’s Middle East Visiting Fellow, supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Council for Australian-Arab Relations. He will be speaking at the Lowy Institute on Thursday 21 April on Iraq after Islamic State.