The Perils of Sectarianism

Throughout the Middle East, sectarianism is a problem that has existed for decades but more recently has reached catastrophic dimensions with ISIS declaring just about ever religious rival as a takfiri. This has led to stoning, beheadings, the rape of Yazidi women and an iron enforcement of sharia law that makes every person living under its sway worried about becoming the next victim of its religious enforcers.

While ISIS was a virulent strain of sectarianism from its outset, you also see a level of brutal and relentless warfare between the majoritarian Sunni sect and its rivals in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere unknown in the past, no matter how sharp the differences over who inherited Mohammad’s mantle of authority. For people who have more than the usual interest in Syrian politics, the problem of sectarianism is particularly acute since the early days of the revolution were largely devoid of such conflicts.

Addressing the need for serious scholarship on the origins of these seemingly intractable fissures, Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel have put together a collection of articles by experts in the field that is must reading for both those within the academy and those working for the cause of peace in the Middle East. Hashemi is the Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. His co-editor Danny Postel is the Assistant Director of the Middle East and North African Studies Program at Northwestern University. I have been in contact with the two authors over the past six years and have had a high regard for their scholarly integrity and even more so after reading their Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East.

While I was familiar with the British Empire’s policy of divide and conquer, it never quite dawned on me how postcolonial elites both adopted and adapted this method of rule to their own purposes. Given the infinitesimally small number of people who belong to a ruling class, there will always be a need to set those who belong to the lower classes against each other. In the USA, there have been sharp debates about identity politics in which “old school” socialists urge gays, women, Blacks and Latinos to subordinate their struggles to united class actions in pursuit of economic demands such as universal health care, etc. In the Middle East, identity politics takes on an order of magnitude far weightier since it involves “confessional” dimensions that in of themselves are based on faith rather than reason.

In the early 2000s, there was one Marxist tendency that had a rather simple solution to the problem of sectarianism. Instead of worrying about rivalries between different groups of Muslims, the Workers Communist Party of Iran and the group it spawned in Iraq, they carved out a niche for themselves as enemies of Islam tout court—sounding like a mixture of Bill Maher and Bill Haywood. In a 1999 interview titled Islam and De-Islamisation, the leader of the Iranian wing Mansoor Hekmat took an approach that probably accounts for the group’s failure to gather more than a few hundred members: “In Islam, freethinking is a sin deserving of punishment. Music is corrupt. Sex without permission and religious certification, is the greatest of sins. This is the religion of death. In reality, all religions are such but most religions have been restrained by freethinking and freedom-loving humanity over hundreds of years. This one was never restrained or controlled. With every move, it brings abominations and misery.”

We reminded their activists that despite Karl Marx referring to religion as an “opium”, he also said in the same paragraph that it was “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” This reminder fell on deaf ears, obviously reflecting their inability to understand that as long as there were “soulless conditions”, faith would serve as an anodyne.

If you are going to assess the role of Islam in the Middle East, you have begin with an understanding of how it functions as an instrument of state policy, something that Hashemi and Postel interpret in their introduction as crucial to resolving a crisis of legitimacy. There tends to be a relationship between “weak states” and sectarianization since normal means of hegemonic control such as parliamentary democracy are inadequate. Indeed, since pre-statal institutions based on ethnic or religious ties often extend back for centuries, there will always been a tendency to rely upon them for support rather than constitutional systems based on the vote, a free press, etc. In the case of the Baathist states in both Iraq and Syria, such pre-statal networks have served both Sunni and Alawite elites respectively.

When confronted by leftist political parties, even those as feckless as the Worker Communists, secularist-minded bourgeois nationalists are not above mobilizing religious sects. Despite the Assad dynasty’s reputation for secularism, Hafez al-Assad promoted a pan-Islamism that even mollified the Muslim Brotherhood whose members were drowned in blood in the Hama massacre of 1982. Taking the senior Assad at his word that he was for Islamic rule, the Brotherhood announced in 1997 that it as ready to “Restore Syrian national unity on behalf of the interests of the [Syrian] homeland and the [Islamic] nation, in view of threats facing it and in order to withstand the Zionist attack.” Such sectarian benediction was key to the Assads cementing the support of Sunni elites who are as critical to their survival as the Alawites.

The articles in the Hashemi/Postel collection are grouped into two sections, one dealing with historical, geopolitical and theoretical perspectives; the second dealing with case studies ranging across the entire region.

Usama Makdisi, a history professor at Rice University, has an article titled “The Problem of Sectarianism in the Middle East in an Age of Western Hegemony” that makes some persuasive points about the role of the Ottoman Empire, the hegemon that preceded Great Britain and lesser European imperial powers. Unlike the Europeans, the Ottomans preferred to rule with a light footprint that gave various religious groups the freedom to worship as they pleased, as long as they supplied tribute to the Sultan and his minions.

However, within the Ottoman Empire, the Muslims were always considered a privileged group even if this did not translate into oppressive social policies. As Europe penetrated into the Ottoman realm in the 1800s, it used its superior military and economic power to extract concessions from the Sultan to cease what it considered anti-Christian discrimination. Despite the “enlightened” character of the reforms, Muslims interpreted them as an attack on established norms just as they would react to the Zionist project in the 1900s. In the 1850s, tensions built until Muslims launched a virtual war against Christians in both Syria and Lebanon. To resolve these conflicts, the Europeans and the Ottomans agreed to sectarian power-sharing arrangements epitomized in the Lebanese constitution that perpetuated a division of the political spoils between Christians, Sunnis and Shias—a formula for disaster that in the name of de-sectarianism created permanent sectarian rifts.

As someone who has often had the lonely task of trying to get the rest of the left to look at Syrian politics without bias, I was particularly interested to see what Paulo Gabriel Hilu Pinto, an Anthropology professor and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Brazil, had to say in a case study titled “The Shattered Nation: the Sectarianization of the Syrian Conflict”.

As mentioned earlier, the Assads deployed Islamic language and symbols to their own advantage so it is not that surprising that the protests beginning in March 2011 would share the regime’s Islamist stance, especially since the poor farmers from the countryside who ended up in places like Daraa tended to be genuinely pious as opposed to Bashar al-Assad who was seen in photographs kissing a Quran and who appeared on billboards alongside a map of Syria with words “Allah yahmiki ya Suriya” (God protects you, O Syria) all over the country.

In 2012, even when protesters would perform a Sufi dhikr, a form of devotion, Christians marched side by side with them in al-Qusayr, a town near Homs. Given the tendency to use mosques as gathering places, which often were the only spaces available, Assad exploited their use to disparage the movement as Salafist extremism. In reality, the Salafists in Syria were like most of their co-religionists for hundreds of years—quietist observers of a faith that emphasized strict adherence to the written word of the Quran. Like the Hasidic Jews or hard-core Lutherans, their main goal was to be left alone, not engage in revolutionary struggle. Growing weary of the regime’s smear of them as Salafi jihadists, the protesters began to use mockery:

The accusations of Sunni sectarianism and radicalism coming from the regime were refuted with irony by the protesters, who stressed the participation of non-Sunnis and non-Muslims in the demonstrations. A poster in a protest in the coastal city of Baniyas in 2011 read: “Hal a-shahid Hatim Hanna massihi salafi?” (Was the martyr Hatem Salafi Christian?), a reference to a Christian protester killed by the security forces. In the same year, a banner in a demonstration in Zabadani, near Damascus, stated: “La salafi wa la ikhwani…ana ta’ifati al-huriyya” (Neither Salafi, nor [Muslim] Brother … My Sect is Freedom). Similarly, in ethnically or religiously mixed areas such as the regions of northern Syria or the Sunni/Christian/‘Alawi cities of the coast, the chanting of “Wahid, Wahid, Wahid, al-Sh’ab al-Suri Wahid” (One, One, One, the Syrian People are One) became a common practice in the protests in 2011 and 2012.

This now seems like ancient history as Assad has successfully made it possible for jihadists to flourish in Syria by militarizing the conflict in the early stages and making peaceful protests impossible. When arms and financial support are only available from Islamist states like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, it will be Islamist militias that get favored.

Even when the FSA took pains to distinguish itself from sectarian militias, it could not help but being perceived as Sunni since most of the defecting soldiers who joined its ranks had become alienated from the Alawite domination of the state and the officer corps. Pinto, who was sympathetic to the revolution, is honest enough of a scholar to recount one incident. When an Ismaili (a subsect of Shiism) defector went to join the FSA, he was told: “But you are not Sunni…So, why are you defecting?” And even more negatively, when Alawite militias began to slaughter civilians in Sunni villages, the FSA would often take revenge on Alawite civilians even though this would alienate possible allies. All of this, needless to say, was exactly what Assad planned.

Without the discipline found in armed revolutionary movements bound together by an ideology such as exhibited by Mao’s Red Army or the Cuban July 26th Movement, militia members began to operate like gangs. Pinto describes how this inevitably led to the ascent of the jihadi groups who were bound together by an ideology, even if it was in conflict with the early goals of the revolution:

Besides military strength and greater resources, the rise of the Islamic groups was also due to their strong internal discipline and capacity of establishing some kind of institutional order in the territories they had conquered. Criminal activities became so widespread under the disorder created by the civil war that the inhabitants of Aleppo, which was partially occupied by the opposition in 2012, humorously fashioned a verb, wala (to take away/lift/sting), to designate the systematic racket and pillage practiced by different militias. A friend from Aleppo said that when his father passed away in 2012, he only managed to bury body after paying the “fees” (bribe) asked by the militia fighter who controlled the cemetery.

As I pointed out in a review of Gilbert Achcar’s Morbid Symptoms, the author’s hope for peace in Syria resonated with my own. If it is understandable why rebels took up arms six years ago as purely a defensive measure, it has been obvious since 2013 that the continuance of war only serves Assad’s aims. Unlike China or Cuba, Syria was never able to develop a revolutionary movement. A pro-Moscow Communist Party did come into existence but as might be expected, it was a solid pillar of support for the Baathists who were aligned with Moscow during the Cold War.

Peace will make it possible for civil society to reemerge, out of which anarchists following in the footsteps of the late Omar Aziz or Marxists like Yassin Al-Haj Saleh can gain a hearing. While mindful of the religious traditions of the Syrian poor, men and women like Aziz and Saleh were far more capable of building a powerful movement because they prioritized class.

In an article on Aziz for Tahrir-ICN, Burning Country co-author Leila al-Sham paid tribute to his legacy:

Through his writing and activity he promoted local self-governance, horizontal organization, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid as the means by which people could emancipate themselves from the tyranny of the state. Together with comrades, Aziz founded the first local committee in Barzeh, Damascus. The example spread across Syria and with it some of the most promising and lasting examples of non-hierarchical self organization to have emerged from the countries of the Arab Spring.

With all due respect to the revolutionary Kurds who are trying to build a new society in Rojava, there were Syrians like Omar Aziz who aspired to the same goals. There is little doubt that Assad considered people like Aziz to be a much greater threat than any jihadist.

Yassin Al-Haj Saleh was forced into exile in 2013. A heterodox communist who left the official CP over its support for the Baathists, Saleh spent 16 years in Syrian prisons for writing articles calling for democratic rights. In an October 26, 2016 interview with The Intercept, he explained how Salafists got the upper hand:

For 30 years, the Baath Party has made a project of crushing all political life in Syria. So when the uprising came, we had no real political organizations, only individuals here and there. Islam, in our society, is the limit of political poverty. When you don’t have any political life, people will mobilize according to the lowest stratum of an imaginary community. This deeper identity is religion. When you have political and cultural life, you can have trade unions, leftist groups, and people are able to organize along any number of identities. But when you crush politics, when there is no political life, religious identity will prosper.

For both Syria and the other case studies in Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, you always find men and women like Aziz and Saleh who despite their small numbers speak for the broader interests of society. As the futility of sectarianism grows ever more obvious, the people of the Middle East will be open to alternative political strategies that place an emphasis on their common class interests. For the emerging vanguard of a new Middle East, Hashemi and Postel’s book should be required reading since it puts a spotlight on the damage that has been done by a “divide and conquer” strategy used by their native ruling classes. One hopes that the book will be the opening salvo in a new struggle to put the region on new and much more humane basis.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.