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Three questions to Morten Valbjørn

Morten Valbjørn.Picture

Thursday 20 May Morten is giving a CMES Research Seminar on the topic: What is so Sectarian about Sectarian Politics? Identity Politics and Authoritarianism in a New Middle East.

1.    How has sectarian politics been debated before, during and after the Arab Revolts?

The public debate on sectarianism easily leaves the impression that this is a very recent issue emerging in the wake of the Arab revolts, or alternatively a defining feature in discussions about Middle East politics since the Battle of Karbala in 680. However, neither is true. On the one hand, sectarianism is not a completely new topic in discussions about the Middle East.

In the decade before the Arab revolts sectarianism figured prominently in discussions about the post-2003 conflict in Iraq and the notion about a ‘rising Shiite crescent’, coined by Jordanian King Abdallah II, was also much discussed at the time of the 2006 Summer War.

Shia-Sunni divide

In the wake of the Iranian revolution, the Shia-Sunni divide also held a prominent position on the academic – and public – agenda. On the other hand, sectarianism only received limited scholarly attention before the Iranian revolution, where knowledge about and interest in Shia Islam was very limited, and since 1979, the scholarly attention to the Shia-Sunni has also ebbed and flowed.

By comparing the time before and after 2011, it moreover turns out that the nature of the debate on sectarianism has changed. While the role of the divisions between Shia‒Sunni (Islam/Muslims) figured prominently on the scholarly agenda in the years just before the Arab revolts, much of the debate revolved around the question of whether ‘conflicts within Islam will shape the future’, as Vali Nasr put it, or if the notion about a ‘Shiite crescent’ was more ‘myth than reality’ as other argued. After sectarianism receded into the background of the scholarly agenda in the early days of the Arab revolts, it soon reappeared.

Debate about what sectarianism really is

Instead of discussing whether or not sectarianism was a relevant analytical lens through which to understand Middle East politics, however, even previous sceptics now acknowledged that sectarianism had become ‘a real factor in politics’, which one had to take into account. But this acknowledgement did not translate into much scholarly consensus.

Instead, it gave rise to occasionally heated discussions about what sectarianism is, where, how and why it matters, and what its implications are for future Middle East politics. Although there is little agreement about the exact answers to these questions, this discussion about sectarianism can be said to have progressed in the sense that the debate has not only become more refined and sophisticated, but also more attentive to how questions about sectarianism can draw on and contribute to broader debates in the social sciences. 

2.    Can you just briefly explain these concepts: banal, instrumentalist, radical sectarianism?

Sectarianism is a concept that has been described as ‘notoriously difficult to define’ and ‘imbued with considerable ambiguity.’ Nevertheless, conceptual reflections on sectarianism have traditionally been quite limited.

However, in last decade there has been a growing awareness of the ‘essentially contested nature’ of this concept. Some have argued that the concept of sectarianism should be abandoned altogether owing to its slippery, emotionally charged and politicized nature, and replaced by new terms such as the more process-oriented ‘sectarianization’, or subsumed as part of a broader concept of identity.

Others have suggested that the confusion about what sectarianism actually is, partly stems from the fact that it is not an undifferentiated phenomenon, for which reason it is necessary to distinguish between manifestations of sectarianism.

Among plenty of suggestions for typologies of sectarianism, a distinction has, for instance, been made between:

  • banal sectarianism, which is a quite unpoliticised identity that may be accompanied by a non-sectarian political identity/ideology as it goes no further than the basic acknowledgment that one might hold a sect-specific identity associated with differentiating markers of everyday rituals, such as differences in prayer or the participation in specific religious festivals;
  • instrumental sectarianism, which is a politicised identity through which ‘identity entrepreneurs’ mobilise a community in order to keep or seek power or for collective interests (such as representation, jobs, autonomy, security), but which is not about religious doctrine;
  • radical or doctrinal sectarianism, which is not only highly politicised, but also moralistic, as it involves competing notions about the nature of the single true religion, and exclusivist, as the ‘other’ is seen as infidel or apostate (i.e. takfirist). Moreover, it often involves violence and transnational mobilisation.

By distinguishing between these different forms of sectarianism, it will, for instance, appear that religion and doctrinal differences play a larger role for the latter form, whereas dynamics associated with sectarianism in its instrumentalist version carries many similarities with ethnic politics more broadly.

3.    In what ways does sectarianism play a role for democratization and authoritarianism in the Middle East?

Much of the traditional debate on Middle East politics has been framed around a democracy/autocracy nexus and this framing can also be found in recent discussions about sectarian politics in the wake of the Arab revolts. Part of this debate has focused on whether sectarianism plays a role for the likelihood of democratization in the Middle East.

Some have focused on whether sectarian divisions influence people’s views of whether democracy is desirable in general and in their own country.

Does the process of democratization inflame sectarian divisions?

Others have discussed whether the process of democratization inflames sectarian divisions, which might then prevent democratic consolidation.

Still others have asked whether some rather than other democratic models are best suited to societies divided along sectarian lines, and against this background debated whether consociationalism keeps sectarian competition peaceful by allowing all communities to represented or does it rather obstructs inter-sectarian cooperation and ignite rather than impede sectarian conflict.

The relation between authoritarianism and sectarianism

Another part of the debate focuses on the relation between authoritarianism and sectarianism. This has not only been reflected in an interest in exploring the multiple ways authoritarian regimes, as part of a regime survival strategy, can and do ‘play the sectarian card’, and how and why regimes, that may appear quite similar, are doing so in quite different ways.

It has moreover given rise to a discussion about whether sectarianism per se is associated with distinct and more violent forms of authoritarian governance, or should authoritarian techniques and strategies that involve playing the ‘sectarian card’ be subsumed under a broader category of authoritarian identity politics, where the dynamics related to a Shia/Sunni schism are no different than in authoritarian regimes using other kinds of sub- or supra-state identities based on tribe, ethnicity, nationality etc.


Morten Valbjørn
The SWAR project on sectarian politics

Suggestions for further reading:

Valbjørn, Morten (2021). "Observing (the debate on) sectarianism: On conceptualizing, grasping and explaining sectarian politics in a new Middle East". Mediterranean Politics, first-view. 
Valbjørn, Morten (2020). "Beyond the beyond(s): On the (many) third way(s) beyond primordialism and instrumentalism in the study of sectarianism". Nations and Nationalism, vol. 26, no. 1, pp. 91-107.
Valbjørn, Morten (2019). "What is so Sectarian about Sectarian Politics: Identity Politics and Authoritarianism in a New Middle East". Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, vol 19, no. 1.
Valbjørn, Morten (2019). "Shia-Sunni sekterisme til debat i et nyt Mellemøsten". TIFO: Tidsskrift for Islamforskning (Islamic Studies Journal), vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 8-34. 
Hinnebusch, Raymond & Morten Valbjørn (2019). "Exploring the Nexus between Sectarianism and Regime Formation in a New Middle East: Theoretical Points of Departure". Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, vol. 19, no. 1.
Valbjørn, Morten (2018). "Unpacking a puzzling case: on how the Yemeni conflict became sectarianised". Orient, vol. 59, no. 2.