Transcribed from the 31 March 2021 episode of The Fire These Times podcast and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
We want to debunk the “ancient sectarian hatreds” narrative, and provide an alternative explanation for what was actually driving the intensification of sectarian conflict across the region over the last several years. We feel that the term sectarianization captures this. It’s not some kind of fixed, transhistorical, frozen-in-history phenomenon; the intensification of sectarian violence and conflict across the region is a process being driven by very specific actors and forces.
Joey Ayoub: This is a conversation with Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel. Nader is the director of the center for Middle East studies at the University of Denver, and Danny is assistant director of the center for international and area studies at Northwestern University. We primarily spoke about their book, Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, which was published in 2017.
We start with a discussion of what the term sectarianization actually means. We discuss the legacy of 1979 with the Iranian revolution, and then fast forward to today and look at the case of Bahrain and the case of Syria, two regimes that found themselves utilizing sectarianism and therefore promoting a process that we are calling sectarianization. We also discuss how sectarianization is not just top-down. It can be bottom-up; it can be multidirectional.
I then ask them how we balance the need to be specific without generalizing too much. We have a wider discussion over how sectarianization differs in Lebanon and Iraq, compared to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, and Bahrain.
Let’s start from the beginning, to anchor this conversation. What does sectarianization actually mean and how is it different from sectarianism?
Danny Postel: Nader and I have been deeply immersed in debates about the Syrian conflict, starting pretty much when it began in 2011. In 2012, we began to organize an international conference around the Syrian crisis at the University of Denver, where we both were at the time (eventually a book came out of that conference, entitled The Syria Dilemma ). One of the things that struck us as we were immersed in this debate and research around Syria was how right, left and center—across the ideological spectrum—the narrative about what the Syrian conflict was about so often reverted to tired, lazy, orientalist tropes about how “that’s just how these people are; what do you expect from a region awash in sectarian hatreds that go back centuries.”
Again, this was across the spectrum—Fox News was of course talking about how these people are “savages animated by religious passions and have always hated each other;” “You just have to let it bleed;” and “That’s just what they do in that part of the world.” There were people like Thomas Friedman in the center: he wrote a column on Yemen where he said something like “This is a conflict based on a dispute over who the rightful heir to the Prophet Mohammed should have been—how do you expect a conflict rooted in an issue like that to be resolved?” And even on the left, there were people like Patrick Cockburn of the Independent who used almost the identical language but framed with a left slant.
It really struck us. We were having conversations in the center for Middle East studies in Denver about our next project: what do we do after this Syria book? And we realized we really needed to do something to confront and combat this reliance on “ancient sectarian hatreds” as an explanation for the conflicts gripping the Middle East. This narrative had become so pervasive and so problematic, and had wildly oversimplified and distorted what was happening in the region.
That was the impetus. But we realized in order to make this argument we would need really concrete, deep-dive case studies that go into tremendous texture about the core cases: Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Lebanon. Nader and I are not experts on all of those countries, so this would be an edited volume, and we would tap leading thinkers and scholars studying those countries. To our tremendous and pleasant surprise, the A-list people we reached out to all said yes.
We not only wanted to debunk the “ancient sectarian hatreds” narrative, but we wanted to provide an alternative explanation for what actually was driving the intensification of sectarian conflict across the region over the last several years. We can talk about how many years—the key years we identify in the book are 1979, 2003, and 2011 on. But the basic impetus was to combat this pervasive narrative that had taken hold in Western capitals and in the pundit class and even in academia, and also to provide an alternative set of explanations for what was driving this horrific process.
We felt that the term sectarianization captured this as not some kind of fixed, transhistorical, frozen-in-history phenomenon, but that the intensification of sectarian violence and sectarian conflict across the region was a process—a process being driven by very specific actors and forces: regimes, movements, and the like. That’s where the project came from.
Nader Hashemi: We coined the term sectarianization as an active process shaped by political actors operating within specific contexts pursuing political goals that involve the deliberate mobilization of popular sentiments around particular identity markers, in this case sectarian identity markers. We acknowledge that there are class dynamics at play here; fragile and failed states feed into this process; and also geopolitical rivalries shape the sectarianization process. We contrast the term sectarianization with the more common term sectarianism, which presupposes that there has always been this transhistorical, enduring force within the politics of the Arab and Islamic world, going back to the seventh century, that has allegedly shaped the politics of this part of the world.
We focus on the theme of political authoritarianism as being central to the sectarianization process. It provides the social conditions, and a certain set of political incentives for political actors to play the sectarian game. One of our contributors coins the term sectarian entrepreneurs: there are people who benefit politically from playing the sectarian card as a way of advancing their own political interests. We play on that famous statement by von Clausewitz, who talked about war being the continuation of politics by other means. We argue in the book, paraphrasing Clausewitz’s aphorism, that sectarian conflict in the Middle East is really the perpetuation of political rule via identity mobilization.
We are pushing back against the very popular mainstream view; these conflicts are fundamentally about politics and political interests, not necessarily piety. We’re not into a framing of sectarian relations as being romantically wonderful and peaceful among different religious sects in the Middle East—we acknowledge doctrinal differences and tensions. But critically, we are trying to historicize sectarian conflict in the Middle East. We say specifically that it has a history, and that history really begins, in terms of its modern manifestation, in 1979.
DP: 1979 was obviously the year of the Iranian revolution and its aftershocks across the region. But it’s not as if sectarian identities came into existence in 1979. Obviously, sectarian identities have a much longer history. But that’s not the argument. The argument is that the lethal politicization and mobilization of sectarian identities and the intensification of sectarian conflict in the region was exacerbated and intensified following 1979. That doesn’t mean that everything was idyllic and without conflict before 1979. But it really intensified sharply following 1979.
Starting with 1979 flies in the face of the “ancient hatreds” narrative that wants to take us back centuries, if not millennia. What we argue is basically that the intensification and lethalization of sectarian identities across the region is a fairly recent phenomenon, a little over forty years old.
The Saudi and Iranian regimes may be adversaries, but they fundamentally share an authoritarian response to democratic protests in the region. They claim that they are foreign plots. They sectarianized these issues, in other words, through narrative rhetorical strategies. And in a way, these became self-fulfilling prophecies.
JA: One of the themes of this podcast is looking at the links between authoritarian regimes around the world and how authoritarianism manifests itself in different ways. Nader, you mentioned the Clausewitz aphorism and that sectarian conflict in the Middle East today is a perpetuation of political rule via identity mobilization. To link it to the previous question, can we also argue that sectarianization is an authoritarian process, that it’s an act of violence? Symbolic first, maybe, but then manifesting itself physically in many contexts?
NH: It’s not an act of violence in and of itself. It often leads to acts of violence, bloodshed, conflict, and tension. But the authoritarian context, at least in the region of the Middle East, is absolutely essential. When we trace the history of this, there are political interests at stake that deliberately perpetuate sectarian identity mobilization as a way of achieving certain political goals. This has had its ups and downs in terms of the regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and it intensified and took on new dimensions after the 2011 Arab Spring, when pro-democracy protests rocked the foundation of authoritarianism in the Middle East, and various regimes, as a way of deflecting demands for political change, played the sectarianization card.
One of the best essays in the book is the chapter on Syria that chronicles exactly how Bashar al-Assad tried to deflect demands for political change by playing the sectarianization card in various ways to divide the opposition, and to send a message to the West that what’s happening here has nothing to do with democracy, it’s about extremism and radicalization and extreme sectarianism. We cannot understand dynamics of sectarian conflict in the Middle East over the last forty years unless we understand the broader theme of political authoritarianism and how it has a certain logic and set of incentives that produces these types of mobilizations as a way of achieving political goals. The political goal, primarily, is obtaining or retaining political power, and the Arab Spring was a perfect illustration of this.
Countries play it in different ways; Iran’s process of sectarianization was different than Saudi Arabia’s, but the fundamental goals and drivers are the same. It is rooted in a certain authoritarian conception of politics. The best example that often gets ignored is the case of Bahrain. If you followed exactly what happened, it was a case study of how the royal family in Bahrain played a sectarian card as a way of dividing the opposition and staying in power.
DP: There is an interesting contrast in those two cases, Syria and Bahrain. There is a regional rivalry playing out, with Saudi Arabia and Iran on opposite sides. As Paulo Pinto (the author of the chapter in the book that Nader mentioned) illustrates very vividly, the uprising in Syria started as non-sectarian (some would say “cross-sectarian” or even “anti-sectarian,” and we can get into the distinctions between those different terms). There were members of multiple religious and ethnic groups, and people who had no sectarian identification at all, out on the streets protesting. The slogans and demands of the Syrian uprising had literally nothing to do with sect. They were the same demands we saw in Tunisia and Egypt: demands for freedom, democratic rights, social justice, dignity, and the end to dictatorship. Those were the demands and slogans that animated the Syrian protests in the spring and summer of 2011.
Of course, how did the Assad regime respond? By saying that this was an al-Qaeda-Sunni-extremist-foreign-terrorist plot against the Syrian nation which the Assad family protects in its great benevolence. Absolutely false. But then they took steps to create a self-fulfilling prophecy, letting Salafis out of prison, pumping the sectarian narrative—this message of fear—into Syrian society. “The extremists are coming to get you; they’re going to kill all of the minorities, particular the Alawis and also the Christians and the Druze, so we need to rally around the regime.” This narrative was completely false; the messaging was designed to preserve the regime in the face of a popular protest movement that had nothing to do with sect.
But over time, sadly, as Paulo Pinto demonstrates in the chapter, this narrative, although it started out as completely false and in bad faith, became less false. Partly because of the regime’s own sectarianization of the conflict, letting Salafis out of prison in the hopes of saturating the protest movement with religious fanaticism, but also because there were people in the opposition who took the bait, who did embrace and reproduce these sectarian messages. That was partly in response to the brutality of the regime, of course, but the fact is that it had a multiplier effect. There were Salafi imams pushing anti-Alawi and anti-Christian messages, and this in turn scared elements of the population, and then there’s a feedback loop and a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In Bahrain it was the reverse. Again, there was a non-sectarian popular movement—and it was even milder in Bahrain, in the sense that in Tunisia and Egypt and Syria people were calling for the downfall of the regime, and in Bahrain they weren’t even calling for that! They were calling for a constitutional monarchy. They were calling for very mild reforms. How did the Bahraini regime and its Saudi sponsors respond? Exactly the same way but with different villains: “This is a foreign plot inspired by Iran, inspired by Shia terrorists, and the Shia menace is coming to get you.” This is how the Saudis respond to all sorts of protests, of course. Madawi al-Rasheed has a great chapter on that in our book, “Sectarianism as Counterrevolution.”
The Saudi and Iranian regimes may be adversaries, but they fundamentally share an authoritarian response to democratic protests in the region. They claim that they are foreign plots; they sectarianized these issues, in other words, through narrative rhetorical strategies. And these became self-fulfilling prophecies.
So yes, the behavior of authoritarian regimes is central to our argument, but it’s not the whole story. There are other forces, other vectors of sectarianization. Sometimes sectarianization is very top-down, regime-driven; sometimes it’s bottom-up. Usually it’s a combination of both. But in the cases of Syria and Bahrain, the regime is not exclusively responsible for the entire sectarianization process, but it is the principal culprit. There are other cases with sectarian entrepreneurs like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was a sectarian soldier of fortune going from country to country intensifying the sectarian narrative and strategy. Sectarianization is a multidimensional, polyvalent phenomenon driven largely by regimes—but it also has this social bottom-up grassroots dimension as well.
Sectarian conflict in 1979 was not the same as it was in 2011, and each country has its own story. There are broad similarities: the authoritarian context, the pursuit of political gain. But if we really want to understand what’s going on we have to look at each individual case study on its own terms and point out similarities and differences.
JA: In terms of the Syrian opposition, in retrospect it seems fairly obvious that they took the bait—and not just on the sectarianism front but also on the ethnic front: subscribing to an Arabization narrative and failing to appeal to parts of the Kurdish population of Syria (despite some early attempts).
It also makes me think of the specific roles of these “sectarian entrepreneurs,” as you call them. In the case of Lebanon, it’s very easy to focus on the Amal and Hezbollah supporters who go and beat up protesters and chant “Shia, Shia” in a very sectarian way—these are the foot soldiers, but for the entire infrastructures to exist in the first place, what we might call a sectarian infrastructure, you need all of them. You need the people in between, the people who maintain the clientelist networks. Those clientelist networks are a material basis for sectarianism—of course you’ve published Bassel Salloukh, so you know this very well.
My question before about whether it’s an act of violence—I’m using the term violence in a more structural level than how we usually think of violence—takes me to the link I wanted to make with the narrative of the War on Terror. You are both based in the US, and even in the Arab world when people think of the War on Terror they think of the American War on Terror. They think of the invasion of Iraq and the post-9/11 landscape—and of course that’s a massive part of it. But many of the regimes in the area happily took over that narrative to suit their own purposes. And not just regimes but also militias, like Hezbollah.
I recently wrote an essay about Hezbollah’s own War on Terror, because Hezbollah describes Sunnis they don’t like as takfiris, and Christians they don’t like as agents of Israel, and Shias they don’t like as “embassy Shias.” They use different slurs and terminologies, but it’s the same thing. The flipside of this is the Bahrain example, as you mentioned.
You two do a very good job in the book of dispelling the problem of how we balance out the need to be very specific without running the risk of essentializing. This is a whole problem with area studies, as I’m sure you know very well.
NH: To avoid the trap of essentialism, we first try to historicize the topic of sectarian conflict. We push back very strongly against the thesis that it goes back thousands of years and there’s nothing you can do about it. Many people contributed to that thesis, so we have to historicize it; we have to trace its history. We have to be aware of the nuances and the different shapes this historical process has taken.
Sectarian conflict in 1979 was not the same as it was in 2011, and each country has its own story. There are broad similarities: the authoritarian context, the pursuit of political gain. But if we really want to understand what’s going on we have to look at each individual case study on its own terms and point out similarities and differences.
After we published the book and gave a few talks, it dawned on me that our thesis is more valid in some cases than in others. It applies much better to the politics of Iran and Saudi Arabia, and regimes in Syria and Bahrain. When we look at Iraq and Lebanon, we’re looking at very different internal dynamics. States have basically collapsed there; there isn’t a strong authoritarian state in the same way that there is in Syria or in Iran or in Saudi Arabia. There is a lot more complexity in terms of the manifestation of sectarianism in these broad patronage and clientelist networks that mobilize people and keep ruling elites in power.
So first you historicize, but then you have to look at individual case studies and acknowledge where the thesis, at least in our case, has more applicability. When you get to important cases like Iraq and Lebanon, there’s a lot more complexity going on there.
DP: Joey, you know the Lebanese case better than either of us does, but you mentioned Bassel Salloukh’s essay in the book, his chapter on what he calls the “architecture of sectarianization” in Lebanon. I’m interested in hearing your take, but we were tremendously impressed by Bassel’s analysis. He has two chapters in the book, one on Lebanon and one on the regional geopolitics of sectarianization across the Middle East.
What makes the Lebanese case so interesting and instructive is that sectarian faultlines in Lebanon are less recent; they didn’t just erupt all of a sudden, the way they have done in Syria. They have been institutionalized. They are, in a sense, baked into the cake of the post-civil war arrangement. The architecture of power in Lebanon actually grants these different sectarian groups the particular dispensations of political power that they enjoy today. Since the 1990s, there has been this sectarian system in place; it’s a legal-constitutional order that actually enshrines sectarian difference, and as a result there is a revolt against sectarianism. You’ve written about this very lyrically yourself, Joey, in the context of the October 2019 uprising, which you argued was an uprising against sectarianism.
It didn’t start in 2019, either—there were the garbage protests, the #YouStink protests in 2015 in Lebanon, which also brought people together from across sectarian divides, focusing on the delivery of services—material issues, class politics, social justice, economic policy, and an explicit rejection of the sectarian logic that’s superimposed not by an authoritarian dictatorship but in this case by the consociational democracy in Lebanon, which makes it complicated.
So one of the reasons Lebanon is so instructive—and Iraq now as well—is that there are social movements, particularly of the young, who are sick of the sectarian system. They’re sick of the way political life (and this gets back to your previous question, Joey) may be form of violence, the way your identity, your existence is defined by the state in sectarian terms. As Bassel Salloukh emphasizes in his chapter, to be Lebanese today, you have no rights as a human being; you have rights as a member of a sectarian group. That has also been the case increasingly in Iraq since 2003. People are realizing this doesn’t work. It’s not delivering. This sectarian arrangement coincides with failed states, failed policies.
So these uprisings are cross-sectarian, multi-sectarian, post-sectarian—Fanar Haddad in his chapter talked about the “post-sectarian” phase of post-2003 Iraq—or as our friend Ussama Makdisi prefers, anti-sectarian. He doesn’t like the term cross-sectarian because while it describes people belonging to different sectarian groups coming together for common purposes, it still accepts the idea that the foundation of your existence is your sectarian identity. Anti-sectarian suggests that you reject that very logic, the very notion that your political existence depends on your membership in a sect.
What I’m saying is that Lebanon and Iraq are showing us, through the special cases where sectarianism has become more formalized, more institutionalized, that people are rejecting it and showing the way towards a de-sectarianized, or post-sectarian, or anti-sectarian future.
JA: Bringing up the context of Lebanon, one thing I’ve learned is just how deeply entrenched sectarianism is in the legal code. I’ll give concrete example. I can’t vote where I’m from. I have to vote in a different area of Lebanon because that’s where my family is “originally” from, technically or legally speaking. There’s a patriarchal logic to this as well, because it’s not where the mother is from, it’s where the father is from. And you can’t vote other than for your sect. That’s one of the many ways it’s very difficult to organize independently. Independent activists have to put forward a Shia person and a Christian person to run for this or that seat, and that obviously makes it more difficult to organize, simply because sectarians are much better at playing their game. It is their game; the game is rigged.
One of the unknown aspects of Tunisia’s democratic transition is that it began a decade before the Arab Spring. Groups and leaders who opposed the Ben Ali regime started to organize a series of cross-ideological meetings in France, to try and focus on areas of common grievance and common strategy for fighting the Ben Ali regime.
This brings me to a concrete question. I’ll try to preface it briefly, but I want to get your views on this. About a year ago I interviewed Fadi Bardawil. He has a book called Revolution and Disenchantment: Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation. We focused a lot on Lebanon because that’s where he focuses as well, especially what he calls the ‘socialist Lebanon’ which was active in the sixties. I asked Fadi how he interpreted the then-recent moment of October 2019, especially the question of how to deal with sectarianism as activists, as secular leftists, liberals, progressives—the only thing that would link these people from different political backgrounds was secularism, or some idea of anti-sectarianism.
Then there’s the question of religiosity, the question of links between someone’s faith or personal beliefs and sectarianism or sectarianization. I’ll cite an Irish joke because I think it’s very relevant to the Lebanese case: an atheist tourist was walking around Belfast and noticed all the events on a community board were for either Catholics or Protestants. After checking out yet another board he asked a staff member, “what do you do in this town if you’re an atheist?” And the staff member replied, “Well, sir, that depends on whether you are a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist.”
I can easily use that joke replaced with Shia, Maronite, Sunni, Druze, and so on. There is a class component here. If you are middle class or upper class it’s a bit more flexible for you, but the general idea stands. Personally, for me growing up, many people couldn’t care less whether I believed in god or not. What mattered to them were the social functions that I was performing in my community or in my neighborhood, in my school or in my work or in my family. Only going to mass once a year was a bigger deal than not going to mass at all, if you know what I mean.
So my question is just that: the topic of religiosity tends to be conflated with sectarianism or with sectarianization, and this can unfortunately lead to very dark conclusions. How do you deal with that topic? It’s a very sensitive topic in that region (as well as many other places, but in the Middle East it is very sensitive). As activists in Lebanon, in Iraq, it’s not an easy one. It’s a very difficult one to approach.
NH: That’s a great question. I want to draw upon something Danny and I discovered when we were working together at the center for Middle East studies, some lessons from Tunisia’s democratic experiment that I think speak to your question. One of the unknown aspects of Tunisia’s democratic transition is that it began a decade before the Arab Spring. Groups and leaders who opposed the Ben Ali regime started to organize a series of cross-ideological meetings in France, to try and focus on areas of common grievance and common strategy for fighting the Ben Ali regime.
If you follow the story, the early meetings were very acrimonious. People who went to those meetings were criticized by folks back home for selling out. But the big takeaway is that those types of cross-ideological meetings developed some important social capital and political trust that played a significant role after 2011 when they had the first elections, and basically it was the moderate secularists and moderate Islamists who were able to own the center of political space, marginalizing the anti-democratic forces on both the secular and the religious sides. That navigated Tunisia through its stormy waters of the transition period.
I think there are lessons to be learned there for countries that have been deeply divided across these lines, to start similar processes of establishing coalitions across these divides and trying to build some sort of political force that can start to think through this problem. It’s more pronounced, obviously, in Lebanon. As Danny said, it’s baked into the very fabric of the country, and it doesn’t go back just to the civil war but to the founding of the state itself in the 1940s.
That’s the only hope that I see. Of course it’s very difficult because you don’t have the resources, you don’t have the emotional pull, you don’t have the opportunity to break the sectarian stranglehold that is so powerful and has resources it can mobilize. But other than that I don’t know how you push forward.
DP: I absolutely love that example. Nader and I first heard that story of the decade leading up to the Tunisian uprising from Monica Marks. Monica gave a brilliant talk about that at a conference at Columbia University that was devoted to comparing the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences with their uprisings and their very different transitions. It appeared as a chapter in a book—the chapter is titled “Purists and Pluralists: Cross-Ideological Coalition Building in Tunisia’s Democratic Transition” by Monica Marks, in the book Democratic Transition in the Muslim World: A Global Perspective, edited by the late Alfred Stepan, who died not long after that book came out. I think it was his final book.
Anyway, these Tunisian activists—Islamists (associated with Ennahda) and secular, socialist, Marxist, leftist types—met in France and had this series of meetings. They didn’t really trust each other. The secular leftists who agreed to meet with some of the Islamists were denounced by their fellow leftists in Tunisia as traitors and as soft on Islamic fascism. There were passionate, acrimonious debates about this on the Tunisian left. But the happy ending to the story, if you will, is that they all realized they were not going to settle differences or agree on deep, fundamental questions, but they must agree on an end to this torture state—they could not go back to these conditions. One thing they all had in common was that they’d been in Ben Ali’s torture cells and had experienced the brutality of that regime.
Monica Marks ends up arguing that these conversations, these confidence-building encounters in the decade the leading up to the revolution—despite all their differences, people learned how to trust each other and work through their differences and that’s why this coalition government was formed right after Ben Ali’s departure. Monica Marks argues this is why the democratic transition is still on track, and for all its faults and all its problems, Tunisia is actually a democracy.
Why is that case so important? Like you say, Joey, these differences exist. Sectarianism is not a purely doctrinal or religious issue. There is such a thing as secular sectarianism. I’m borrowing that phrase from an essay by Mohammad Dibo for openDemocracy. Sectarianism is used by all sorts of secular regimes. We know that in the case of Lebanon there are proudly secular so-called Marxists who have a soft spot for Hezbollah. This is a phenomenon. I don’t know how much that may have changed now in the aftermath of the 2019 uprisings when Hezbollah came out, if you will, as counterrevolutionary, literally beating up protesters and denouncing them and so on.
But the point is, we don’t need to fetishize. The book is about the phenomenon of sectarian conflict, but we’re not fetishizing sectarianism. In the introduction (Nader really deserves credit for this, because he was steeped for years in the literature on ethnic conflict) there’s a whole section in which we place the phenomenon of sectarian conflict or sectarianization in the context of the wider scholarly literature on ethnic conflict and inter-communal conflict.
Sectarianism or sectarian conflict is not really a totally unique phenomenon, it’s certainly not unique to the Middle East. There is sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. Famously there is sectarian conflict in Bosnia and in the Balkans. But sectarian conflict itself is not a completely unique problem. It’s arguably a subset of a larger phenomenon of inter-communal conflict or group conflict that includes ethnic conflict as well as other forms of conflict.
Yes, there is top-down regime-driven sectarianization, but people have the choice of whether to take the bait. And the fact is that it has taken root. It may start as top-down messaging, but then people start believing and internalizing sectarian narratives and plotting themselves into those stories.
JA: The episode before this one was with Aida Hozić, and we compare Bosnia and Lebanon.
Lebanon is supposed to have its elections next year—whether it will actually happen or not I have no idea, but assuming it does, this is going to be a question. Even with supporters of sectarian parties, I can say from firsthand experience: there are people who would call themselves supporters of Hezbollah, for example, who are more flexible in what they mean by that. There are people who say they support “the resistance” but they have issues with the party, and if they have issues with the party, that means they are in theory willing to vote a different way.
I appreciate the Tunisian experience; I would also mention the Sudan experience. But in Syria, one of the many reasons why it was very complicated for people to create local councils and local revolutionary committees and so on—they did manage to do that, but it was incredibly difficult because all the unions and student groups were completely exterminated during the Assad regime’s hegemonic rule. Assad replicated this in Lebanon for that matter as well, destroying the unions in the 1990s. These things are happening at different levels.
Danny, you mentioned an important critique about suggesting that sectarianization only works top-down, that it’s a genius behind closed doors manipulating people and so on. We already answered part of that question by talking about sectarian entrepreneurs, but would you mind just expanding on that critique, just fleshing out the point of how this is a multi-dimensional, multi-vectored issue?
DP: The main focus of our book is what you might call top-down sectarianization, or regime-driven sectarianization, because the Syrian case looms so large for us. And on balance, if we were really to do a quantitative analysis, I think we’d find that authoritarian regimes are probably responsible for the vast majority of the sectarianization process across the region. But certainly not all of it.
We have to drill down into the level of popular opinion. Yes, regimes manipulate popular opinion and they control media, which is very important; they have this megaphone where they’re broadcasting messages and scaring people. That’s absolutely true. But let’s face it: people are also not completely passive. Lisa Wedeen has a brilliant discussion on this in both of her books, Ambiguities of Domination and Authoritarian Apprehensions. She talks about how Syrians learned very well to interpret and create this ironic distance from the propaganda of the Assad regime. People know propaganda, and they don’t really believe it, but they behave as if it were true.
So we have to look at the level of popular opinion. I’ll give you an example that we use in the book. In 2006—it’s kind of amazing to remember this—according to Arab public opinion polls, the two most popular figures in the Arab world were Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad. Most of your audience will know this, but I will emphasize that the Arab world is overwhelmingly Sunni. Both of these men are Shia, one not even Arab. But we know why they were popular that particular year. That was the year that Israel was bombing the hell out of Lebanon. Obviously Hezbollah’s whole identity is based on resistance to Israeli and American aggression. Ahmadinejad was this fiery so-called anti-imperialist (fake anti-imperialist, I’d say, but that’s a whole other discussion).
The point is, that was only fifteen years ago. It’s kind of amazing to imagine now. That’s not going to happen after the Syrian civil war. That’s not in the cards. This is just one example of how popular opinion has changed. There are a lot of studies of messaging on Twitter—not only of regime troll armies and top-down messaging, but really popular-level. On Twitter we can see the saturation of anti-Shia messaging shoot way up after 2011, and continue as the Syrian war got uglier and uglier. We know this: there is anti-Iranian, anti-Shia sentiment in the Sunni Arab world. Sometimes those two things get conflated; Arab nationalist and anti-Persian ethnonationalist sentiment gets conflated with anti-Shiism, depending on how the messaging works.
So yes, there is top-down regime-driven sectarianization, but people have the choice of whether to take the bait. And the fact is that it has taken root. It may have started as top-down messaging, but then people start believing and internalizing sectarian narratives and plotting themselves into those stories. There’s a brilliant chapter in our book by Adam Gaiser that I’m borrowing that language from. He uses narrative identity theory to show how sectarian logics and narratives can take hold at the level of the individual psyche. In 2006 they loved Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad. No problem! Who cares if they’re Shia? They’re resisting Israel, they’re resisting America, good! Seven, eight, nine years later, “Death to Iran, Death to Shia” from the same exact people. How does this happen?
So it’s not just the regimes. People internalize it, and even if it starts with regime propaganda, once it’s internalized, once people believe this stuff, it takes on a life of its own. It’s not permanent; it’s not irreversible; as we discussed, there are prospects for de-sectarianizing, post-sectarian, anti-sectarian coalition building. But it’s a very tall order once these things take root. It’s a serious problem.
JA: I’ll also add quickly: Nasrallah didn’t just switch gears rhetorically before sending his men to Syria; initially he was a supporter of the Arab Spring. There are statements you can find on YouTube from his speeches (I’ve unfortunately watched most of them) where he endorses the Tunisian uprising and the Egyptian one and the Libyan one. Of course that changed when it came to Syria, for reasons I think most people know by now. Nasrallah tends to be very careful about the language that he uses. Syria is when he started using terms like takfiri, which he didn’t use much before. Before, he would be careful before to say things like, “Our Christian and Sunni brothers,” and so on. This was part of his narrative; he was (relative to the others) more sophisticated and more coherent in the image that Hezbollah was putting forward.
Fast-forward to 2019: this is part of why for me it wasn’t much of a shock. I’m unfortunately one of the few Lebanese who is paying attention to Syria. I was one of the co-organizers of the 2015 movement, and I remember there was a lot of hesitation about mentioning Hezbollah or mentioning Nasrallah by name. Not because people liked him, but because there was still this image that they are sort of an exception; there’s a different trajectory to the Shia story in Lebanon. Which is true! Part of Hezbollah’s strength has been that it is the hegemonic party within a community that has historically been oppressed. Of course they became hegemonic by assassinating all the other alternatives, as we know, especially the communists in the south.
Just on the point of internalization: I see this all the time. I see this with activists whom I know (I won’t mention names, and no one does it on purpose). During the protests of October 2019 and since then, when there were younger men, usually from the suburbs, that would be sent to beat people up, of course it’s understandable that people would be afraid. But that gets mixed with the generalizations people have about “members of that community.” What’s extraordinary for me is not that there might be someone from a Sunni or Christian or Druze background having these biases, because that’s how sectarianism is internalized. Many Shia have these biases as well. Now with Lokman Slim’s assassination a month and a half ago, it’s coming out even more.
The positive side of a backlash against Hezbollah is that there will be many anti-Hezbollah Shias who were previously scared and are now less scared, calculating differently. But there will be others within the same community who go to the other extreme, and say that there’s no way of changing things, there’s no way of tackling Hezbollah, they’re just too strong. I don’t want to mix these debates too much; there are concrete problems with the specific party but the phenomenon itself is not just about Hezbollah.
Do you have any comments on this?
How ironic that in 2011 and 2012, with the Syrian uprising and the Libyan uprising, the very same anti-imperialist, antiwar leftists who had denounced Hitchens and Berman as Islamophobes were themselves deploying the same exact Islamophobic rhetoric about Salafis and al-Qaeda extremists and Islamists and terrorists in Libya and Syria.
DP: What you describe with Nasrallah supporting the Arab uprisings at first—that was also true of the Islamic Republic of Iran. It praised the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. Its statement about the Egyptian revolution was actually very paternalistic; it was a backhanded support like, “Twenty-five years after the Iranians overthrew their Western-backed dictator, our Egyptians brothers have now finally at long last figured it out and followed suit,” putting themselves in the vanguard. But the point is that Iran supported, at least rhetorically, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, and of course supported the Bahraini uprising (although Iran’s role in that was totally exaggerated by Saudi Arabia and by the Bahraini regime). Iran positioned itself rhetorically on the side of the protesters and against the regimes…until Syria.
There was this famous moment where then-president Mohamed Morsi was in Tehran for the summit of the non-aligned movement in 2012, and he gave a speech denouncing the Assad regime’s brutal repression of unarmed demonstrators in Syria. Morsi didn’t know this until later, but the Arabic-to-Persian translator for his speech changed “Syria” to “Bahrain” so it sounded like Morsi was denouncing the Bahraini regime’s repression of unarmed demonstrators in Bahrain, and they scrubbed Syria from it. When Morsi found out about this, of course he was enraged.
So Syria was a fault line for both Hezbollah and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
JA: Another relevant phenomenon to our discussion, at least when it comes to authoritarianism more broadly, is one that I discussed with Rohini Hensman a couple of months ago: namely this very shallow notion of anti-imperialism. I’ve called it alt-imperialism; Leila Shami called it “the anti-imperialism of idiots;” Rohini Hensman called it pseudo anti-imperialism. One element I didn’t get into as much with Rohini is how linked to orientalism these approaches tend to be, even as they borrow anti-orientalist language. They love to quote Edward Said.
Without focusing on individual names (I hate these people and I don’t want to give them too much of a platform), can we get into this leftwing orientalism as you understand it, and how can you explain it? If you don’t mind, describe it a bit for those who have no idea what I’m talking about.
DP: It would be hard to avoid naming names, because Patrick Cockburn is such a glaring example of this. He’s not completely alone, but he’s such a unique case. In 2017 there was a BBC4 radio debate program devoted to our book, Sectarianization, and Madawi al-Rasheed and I were interviewed, and they invited Patrick Cockburn on as well to provide something of a skeptical or adversarial perspective. I had already suspected Cockburn of having this left-orientalism or engaging in left-Islamophobic tropes.
I have to credit our friend Louis Proyect with coming up with the term left Islamophobia; he pointed out several years ago that there are a lot of people on the Western left who had denounced people like Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman after 9/11 for using terms like Islamofascism and for echoing the rhetoric of the War on Terror, for seeing Islam itself as the enemy of reason, enlightenment, democracy, and progressive values. Hitchens and Berman were indeed guilty of exactly this. But how ironic that in 2011 and 2012, there is the Syrian uprising and the Libyan uprising, and these very same leftists—anti-imperialist, antiwar leftists—who had denounced Hitchens and Berman as Islamophobes were themselves deploying the same exact Islamophobic rhetoric about Salafis and al-Qaeda extremists and Islamists and terrorists in Libya and Syria, as if the secular regimes of Gaddafi and Assad were somehow a bulwark against “Islamofascism” or Islamic terrorism or Islamic extremism.
It was so ironic that this rhetoric, this narrative of Islamofascism had migrated within the very same heads; some of the very same people who were denouncing Hitchens and Berman were now adopting their very same rhetoric, and they sounded very much like the people they had been attacking.
JA: Patrick Cockburn was a guest on Democracy Now! In 2013 after the Ghouta massacre, the chemical attack. That’s not the extraordinary bit—that would be bad itself—but he was on Democracy Now! alongside Razan Zeitouneh. That as a few months before she was kidnapped by Jaysh al-Islam in eastern Ghouta. It’s one of the most disturbing interviews. Razan was still in shock; she had witnessed the massacre—she went there immediately after. And Democracy Now! unfortunately had Cockburn on to make some sort of both-sides situation. He questioned why Assad would do it: it wouldn’t benefit him, he knows Obama would bomb him if he does this, and so on. Fast forward a few months, we know what happened to the “red line,” nothing much. And it’s a separate event, but we also know that unfortunately Razan was kidnapped soon after.
That narrative didn’t really go away, either. There was no accountability to what Cockburn said. He said that Obama would surely bomb and therefore Assad wouldn’t have done this. That interview is still up and people can watch it if they want. I wouldn’t recommend it, because it’s very disturbing.
DP: We don’t want to give Cockburn any more airtime, he doesn’t deserve it. But in a nutshell, if you go listen to that BBC4 radio debate that Madawi al-Rasheed had with Cockburn, Cockburn not only essentially defends the Assad regime (we knew he was in that camp with Fisk and many others), but even more bizarrely, he says things like, “Well, Postel and al-Rasheed are arguing that sectarianism has been overused as an explanation for all of these conflicts in the Middle East, but actually I think that it’s been underused! I think people are afraid of talking about the issue of sectarianism, which is the fundamental driving force of conflict.”
And he goes on to the case of Bahrain—this was the most bizarre thing. We know a lot of leftists defend the Assad regime in various ways; I had never heard anyone who thinks of himself as a leftist defending the Bahraini regime. I was arguing that the Bahraini uprising was a democratic uprising, not a sectarian uprising; it included both Shia and Sunni Bahrainis, and it was really about the same things as the Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings: democratic rights, dignity, social justice. And then it was crushed with extreme violence. And Cockburn defended the Bahraini regime, basically saying, “What were they supposed to do? There is a Shia majority in Bahrain! What does democracy mean in a country like that? If the regime were to allow the demands of the protesters, it would be voted out of existence.” Basically he’s saying that sectarian identity is destiny. Same thing with Syria: “You have a Sunni majority! What is the Assad regime supposed to do? If there were democracy, if Sunnis took over, the minorities would have to leave, or they would be killed!”
He is adopting the orientalist, sectarian, essentialist, primordialist, narrative that Thomas Friedman and Bill O’Reilly and all of these characters do. He’s saying that unlike Europe, unlike the West, what drives the Middle East fundamentally is sectarian passions and atavistic religious emotions. They’re not enlightened, they’re not civilized, they’re not ready for democracy, they’re not capable of democracy, so you need strongman regimes, you need authoritarian dictators to keep these sectarian savages from murdering one another. Because that’s what would happen if the lid popped off!
This is a familiar argument, but it’s almost exclusively associated with the right, with defenders of dictatorship. To hear a so-called leftist like Cockburn making this argument was truly bizarre. So I ended up writing a piece about this called “Leftwing Orientalism: the Curious Case of Patrick Cockburn.”
But this is part of a wider and deeper problem, and I’ll give you one more example. In 2019, when Trump announced that the US was going to withdraw troops from Syria, a lot of people in the antiwar movement celebrated this. Whatever their criticisms of Trump on other issues, they said, “This is wonderful and he should be praised.” Senator Rand Paul, a reactionary libertarian isolationist, a racist, a horrible human being, Republican of Kentucky, issued a tweet praising Trump’s decision to withdraw, and he framed it in sectarian terms. He said, “These people have been murdering each other since the battle of Karbala, and we have no business there. Pull the troops out, let the savages kill one another.” That was not surprising at all, that’s Rand Paul’s worldview. What was surprising, and deeply disturbing, was how many antiwar activists and so-called progressives retweeted that tweet and said, “Yeah we disagree with Rand Paul on some things but he’s right on this.”
Here are a bunch of so-called leftists who might quote Edward Said, people who would in principle think of themselves as anti-orientalist, anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, and here they are retweeting a racist, Islamophobic, essentialist, orientalist message from a rightwing senator because it happened to support the withdrawal of US troops. Okay, you can support the withdrawal of US troops. You can agree with Trump on that without retweeting and amplifying an explicitly orientalist, racist message by Rand Paul.
This is the sickness that we’re dealing with here. There are so many people on the so-called left who are so confused, so muddled, and there is a red-brown fusion going on. You’re one of the leading commentators on and critics of this phenomenon, Joey. There are a lot of people on the left who are amplifying and reproducing this sectarian, orientalist, and basically fascist message, whether they realize it or not, and it’s very widespread.
NH: Joey, you’ve opened up a can of worms here talking about the Western left and Syria and the Arab Spring. A lot of these people don’t really care or have a deep interest in the internal struggles for democracy and human rights in the Arab world. They have an ideological cause, and that’s what’s front and center. And they will manipulate the facts, and even invoke orientalist language in order to defend the purity of their ideology.
JA: Thank you both for your time, this has really been an amazing chat.
DP: Thank you, Joey.
NH: Take care guys.
Featured image: “Syria is for all of us and you are my brother” by Damascus-born artist Boutros Al Maari