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Durham University

Durham Global Security Institute

Sectarianism in Not So Sectarian Societies

Workshop at Durham University, UK, 16 November 2018

Place: The Pennington room, Grey College, Durham University

Organiser: Dr May Darwich

Funded by the Durham Global Security Institute (DGSi)

To take part in the event please register by 29th of October via email:

The workshop examines Sunni-Shiite sectarianism in non-sectarian societies in the Muslim World, with a focus on the Middle East. There is a consensus that the Middle East is currently plunged into sectarianism. The massive war in Syria, state repression and societal strife in Bahrain, the violent intervention in Yemen, and the conflict in Iraq have been grappling with the Sunni-Shiite divide (Hashemi and Postel 2017). Such a reading is not new; in the last half-century, three sectarian waves have evolved in the Middle East following three critical events: the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979; the 2003 Iraq War, and the 2011 Arab Uprisings (Wehrey 2017b, 3–5). These waves were also intensified with the deterioration in Saudi-Iranian relations under Iranian President Ahmadinejad, and the performance of the Lebanese Hezbollah against Israel in 2006, and the increasing Iranian influence in the Syria crisis, which all provoked anti-Shiite reactions by Sunni Arab regimes.

This third wave is, however, distinct in scale and nature. Although all the protests were initially cross-sectarian in nature, demanding changes to long-lasting authoritarian structures in the region, a sectarian dimension quickly dominated domestic unrests. In the post-2011 regional order, sectarian tensions not only spread to conflict zones and societies with pre-existing sectarian social fabrics — such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and Pakistan — it has also spread in the most unlikely places, where hardly any Shiite communities existed, such as Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, and many other countries in the Muslim World. In Indonesia, a Sunni alliance against the Shiites has emerged and attempted to marginalise the country's small Shiite group (approximately 1% of the population) (Human Rights Watch 2013). In Malaysia, anti-Shiite rhetoric intensified and Sunni scholars claimed that Shiites are a ‘threat to Muslim unity’ (Ng 2011). In Morocco, anti-Shiite rhetoric and sentiments have been surprisingly growing to the extent that conservative Sunni scholars have demanded the ban of Shiites from the Kingdom (Safi-Eddine 2017), and the Minister of Islamic Affairs characterised the Shiites as ‘a virus that threatens the nation’ (Akhbar Al-Youm 2017). In Jordan, where less than 1% of the population is Shiite, conservative Sunni scholars have promoted a surprisingly violent anti-Shiite rhetoric, a phenomenon that Joas Wagemakers (2016) calls ‘anti-Shiism without the Shi'a’. Similarly, less than 1% of Egyptians are Shiite, yet Post-Mubarak Egypt has witnessed a sudden growth of anti-Shiite sectarianism (Abou-El-Fadl 2015).[1] Furthermore, Al-Azhar, one of the most authoritative Sunni institutions in the Muslim World, has relinquished its traditional approach fostering a rapprochement between Sunni and Shiite theology throughout the 20th century and adopted explicit anti-Shiite rhetoric in the Post-Mubarak era (Brunner 2013).

Both in Egypt and Jordan among other Arab countries, elites have incited sectarianism for over a decade and warned against the rise of a ‘Shiite Crescent’ in the Middle East, but anti-Shiite sentiments have only resonated at the popular level after 2011. In 2012, 53% of Egyptians and 42% of Jordanians say Shias are not Muslims (Pew Research Centre 2012). In 2012, 83% of Egyptians and 87% of Jordanians are ‘concerned’ about sectarian divisions growing across the region (Zogby Research Services 2014, 31). In 2016-17, findings from the Arab barometer show that 74% of Jordanians and 77% of Egyptians are concerned about growing sectarian divisions in the region (‘Egypt – Arab Barometer’ 2017; ‘Jordan – Arab Barometer’ 2017).

Attempts to explain sectarianism have oscillated between several poles in the academic literature and policy debates: primordialism (Abdo 2017; Nasr 2006; Ghobadzdeh and Akbarzadeh 2015), instrumentalism (Gause 2014), historical sociology (Hinnebusch 2016; Dodge 2014), political economy (Gengler 2016), and constructivism (Darwich and Fakhoury 2017; Dixon 2017). The existing literature suffers from two limitations, particularly relevant to this project: First, most of the analyses have focused on elite incitement of sectarian narratives while the resonance of these identities at the popular level has been almost absent (an exception is Brooke 2017). Second, such analyses focus on empirical cases with large Shiite populations, such as Iraq,[2] Syria[3] Lebanon,[4] the Persian Gulf,[5] and Pakistan[6] whereas puzzling, unlikely cases of sectarian spread were overlooked. So why and how has sectarianism spread at the popular level in non-sectarian societies?

Programme and further information

[1] Estimates of Shiite populations are taken from the Pew Research Centre:

[2] Haddad (2011).

[3] Phillips (2015).

[4] Di Peri (2017).

[5] Wehrey (2013, 2017a) and Potter (2014).

[6] Nasr (2017).