Sectarianism and sectarian conflict in the Middle East are often presented as having centuries-old religious and theological roots. It is often said that sectarianism runs so deep in the region that it cannot be defeated, and we shouldn’t bother trying.
This is a widespread view in the media, policy circles, and in some corners of the academia as well. People as high in the echelons of power as former US President Barack Obama have embraced this way of thinking. In his 2016 State of the Union Address, Obama said, “The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia”.
In reality, the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Middle East is a modern, revisionist phenomenon – mostly a reaction to specific modern-day events and problems. Its roots can be traced back to the failure of state-building in the Middle East and the 1979 Iranian revolution rather than centuries-old religious and political divisions.
It has also been exacerbated by a set of subsequent developments, chief among them the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, the 2011 Syrian revolution, the war in Yemen and other ongoing issues.
The roots of present-day sectarianism
The 1979 Iranian revolution brought to power the first religious regime in the modern history of the Middle East. Until then, secular regimes reigned across the region, and although religion was present in public life, it was not a key factor in Middle Eastern politics.
Indeed, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war may have led to the rise of political Islam on the ruins of pan-Arabism, but the movements that embraced it were never close to gaining power anywhere in the Middle East before the Iranian revolution.
The Islamic Revolution not only put religious figures in charge of a key Middle Eastern powerhouse, but it also stirred sectarian tensions. Attempts to export the revolution to neighbouring Arab countries led to a backlash, culminating in the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s.
Contained and humbled by the failure to win over Shia communities in the Gulf states, Iran turned inward temporarily. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which removed the Saddam Hussein regime, a key bastion against Iranian expansionism, opened a new window of opportunity for Tehran to establish a Shia crescent stretching from western Afghanistan to the shores of the Mediterranean.
The Shia revival, and the surge in sectarian politics in Iraq and later in Syria, within the contexts of the Arab Spring, led to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other radical Sunni groups. ISIL presented itself as the champion of Sunni Islam against the rise of Shia power and Iran’s expansionist policies.
To counteract ISIL and Sunni rebellions in Syria and in Iraq, Iran established Shia militias, while the Gulf states supported Sunni groups, which resulted in proxy war between the two sides wreaking havoc across the region.
Armed non-state sectarian actors have emerged as a reaction to a set of domestic and external conditions that are all related to the failure of state building in the Middle East and particularly the states’ inability to perform their key functions, such as warding off external threats, providing adequate public services and protecting the civil rights of its citizens.
The dismantling of the Iraqi state and the failure to replace it with a state based on the rule of law that is neutral in its relation with all its citizens was instrumental in the rise of sectarianism in the country. In fact, the post-US invasion political system in Iraq was built to reflect and consolidate sectarian cleavages.
Key posts in the country were divided along sectarian and ethnic lines, reflecting the shifting balance of power between winners and losers. Sectarian policies of the Dawah Party, especially under former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, killed almost every possibility to establish a state for all Iraqi citizens.
In Syria, the use of indiscriminate force by the regime of Bashar al-Assad to suppress the 2011 protest movement, as well as Iran and Iraq’s support for these drastic measures led to the emergence of regional sectarian axes. During these turbulent times, Syria moved from being a weak state – wherein the government could provide poor quality public services to its citizens, exercise a monopoly of violence within its territories, and still function as a sovereign entity in regional and world politics – to being a failed one.
As such, the Syrian state could no longer provide almost any public services or security and lost control over large swaths of its territory. This allowed sectarian militias to emerge and thrive and forced the civilian population to seek protection from them.
Trapped in a vicious circle of violence and pitted against each other, sectarian groups in Syria have needed the support from external actors to survive. This blurred the lines between local and regional conflicts.
The absence of strong centralised states also allowed intra-communal links to be established across national borders, undermining national identities and solidifying sectarian ones, which effectively is reversing the historic state-building trend in the Middle East (and elsewhere) from religious states or empires to nation-states.
If we are to overcome sectarianism, it is imperative that we cease to characterise sectarian conflict in the Middle East in religious or ideological terms or referring to the early days of Islam. We must instead understand it in its modern context as a political, economic and geo-strategic conflict that can be resolved.
Religion and sect are being used for mass mobilisation by various forces who ultimately pursue power and wealth. The only way to counter them is by rebuilding strong nation-states which embrace human rights and the rule of law, but also retain a monopoly over the use of force. What this means is not the return of state repression, which produced the current sectarian mess we are in, but the departure of militias and armed groups from the political and security scene.
For strong nation-states to be built, a Westphalian peace must be established in the Middle East, wherein no country is allowed to interfere in the internal affairs of others. Democratic practices must be established and national governments must be elected and must be representative of their people.
Democracies are more capable of resolving conflicts and building collective security regimes, which allows more resources to be allocated for economic development and guarantees the loyalty of the citizenry.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.