The Roots of a Sectarian Middle East

Tahrir Square protestor with photo of former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, May 2011. Photo/Flickr

Opinion

The Roots of a Sectarian Middle East

Gerald Butt

25 Jun 2015

The rise of sectarianism in the Middle East is partly a consequence of the failure of nationalist politics. Turning the clock back requires strong national institutions and better education, writes Gerald Butt.

Many years will be required, decades perhaps, before a new political order in the Middle East becomes sufficiently robust to challenge the sectarianism that permeates Arab countries. Time and patience are needed because the roots of old orders that might have fulfilled this role have withered and new ones are yet to appear.

The popular revolutions around the Arab world over recent years have, with the exception of Tunisia, failed to produce political systems that are either democratic or sympathetic to groups committed to policies for the benefit of nations as a whole. Nationalist and secular political slogans today are but faint rattles in the throats of those who look nostalgically back to the decades of the mid-20th century.

This was an era, the old-timers will tell you, when the Arabs coalesced around populist policies promising an end to the remnants of colonial domination and the emergence of a new regional order that would restore pride and self-esteem. In the excitement of the day there was no inclination to worry whether the person next to you chanting the anti-British or anti-American slogans happened to be a Sunni, a Shia or a Christian. 

The champion of this era was President Nasser of Egypt. His oratory, beamed around the Middle East by the 'Voice of the Arabs' radio station, did more than anything else to electrify the pan-Arab nationalist movement. So when that voice faltered, it was only natural that the movement as a whole would suffer. It faltered in large part because of one event: the devastating defeat of Egypt in the Six-Day War with Israel in June 1967.

Opponents turned inwards and sought refuge and comfort in their religious and tribal roots.

The trauma of the Arabs' failure during that brief conflict, which led to the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, revealed some of the shortcomings of the movement that Nasser had espoused. At the end of the day it had failed to live up to its promises of defeating Israel, achieving the national rights of the Palestinians and uniting the Arab world. Nasser's faltering voice never regained its full strength and he died three years later trying to resolve yet another inter-Arab conflict; the war between the Jordanian army and the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

Nationalist and secular Arab politics limped on for a time. But stripped of its credibility by the 1967 fiasco and increasingly associated with brutal dictators like Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, its street appeal diminished fast. A crowning metaphor for the evaporating vision of Arab unity was the fact that the Syrian and Iraqi wings of the Arab Socialist Baath Party – a fully equipped vehicle of secular politics if ever there was one – remained at loggerheads.

With Anwar Sadat taking over as president of Egypt, the Arab world's most influential country changed course, discarding the nationalist map. Sadat opened the country up to Western investment and allowed members of the Muslim Brotherhood, locked up by Nasser, to leave prison. The complexion of Arab politics was about to change.

True, power rested still in the hands of autocrats – monarchs or presidents – with or without compliant state parties that performed unconvincing charades of democracy. But opponents of the status quo, excluded from the political system and denied basic rights, turned inwards and sought refuge and comfort in their traditional religious and tribal roots. Sectarian politics was born.

Thus the pattern that has emerged in recent years since the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. We were naïve to expect a democratic revolution because the infrastructure for politics in the broadest sense of the word remains absent: in general, Arab states lack sound independent institutions, there is no tradition of open political discussion with the important principle of agreeing peacefully to disagree, and public education systems are sub-standard and continue to teach by rote methods rather than encouraging creative analysis.

Arab states lack sound independent institutions, there is no tradition of open political discussion.

Little wonder that there is a sense of anti-climax in Arab countries after the euphoria that saw the toppling of dictators. No leader matching Nasser's charisma has emerged with a vision to guide the Arab world forward, and politics offers either blind allegiance to a dictator or a vote for a party seeking to advance the cause of a particular sectarian or ethnic community. Freedom of choice, the essential pillar of independent, democratic life, is therefore limited.

In time, perhaps new political parties might be established, rooted in Islamic traditions but espousing modern economic and social policies that could appeal to voters from all backgrounds. But can this process be fast-tracked? The evidence in Lebanon and Iraq, two countries where sectarian politics is entrenched, points unequivocally to the fact that turning the political machine around, once it has headed off down the sectarian and ethnic route, is well nigh impossible.

The Taif Agreement of 1989 was supposed to bring an end to political sectarianism in Lebanon. But cross-community politics is as elusive as ever. Iraq, for its part, has slipped into a political system where Shia, Sunni and Kurdish loyalties are paramount. Iraqi national politics, as a result, is paralysed, while the major sectarian and ethnic groups vie for ascendency. Iraqis today face the unwelcome realisation that despite the removal of Saddam Hussein and the subsequent departure of international troops, they are not in a position of independence as autonomous citizens of Iraq facing a range of political choices that are free of religious association.

Against this background, liberal and secular Arabs are bound to feel uneasy. For them, the euphoria experienced during those early days of the Arab Spring has passed. Al-Hayat columnist Raghida Dergham, writing way back in December 2011, observed: "We are on a swing of uncertainty, going up in celebration of the ouster of regimes that monopolised power for thirty or forty odd years, then down in frustration over the alternative that is now coming to monopolise power with theocratic authoritarianism."

Jihadis offer a clear choice to people growing up in a political wilderness.

Those words were written several years before the emergence of ISIS, among the most authoritarian of all jihadi movements, which conquered many square miles of Arab territory in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, and gained the support of thousands of Muslims. Repugnant though ISIS might be, the jihadis offer a clear ideological choice to young people growing up in a political wilderness, a region dominated by corrupt, autocratic regimes that give scant attention to the economic and social needs of their people.

The problem is that ISIS is not only repugnant, but it is also a fundamentalist Sunni group that will not tolerate other interpretations of Islam, let alone other religions. Yet its appeal continues to grow. The only way to weaken the attraction, columnist Maha Yahya wrote earlier this year, "is to prioritise changing the way in which young Arabs view the world by presenting them with genuine alternatives for reform and progress." But this option will remain out of reach until Arabs can once again be offered a political choice that extends beyond sectarian boundaries. In the current climate, that goal remains distant.

 

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