A New Sectarianism is Reshaping the Arab World

Across the Arab world, terrifying sectarian dynamics are starting to
emerge, essentially pitting Arab Sunnis versus all religious
minorities. The elements of this have been obvious for quite a while,
but the pattern has become so pronounced and almost pervasive that it
demands to be recognized no matter how frightening the prospects.

Throughout the region, political forces are lining up time and again
along this extremely dangerous binary divide. For instance, the
ecumenism of the Egyptian revolution has given way to the most
gruesome sectarian violence between the military and Islamist mobs on
the one hand and Coptic protesters on the other hand. This was
particularly evident over the weekend, with deadly clashes and
sectarian incitement raging throughout Cairo.

The Syrian regime has done its best to cast the uprising in that
country in a sectarian light, with a disturbing degree of success.
Regional support for Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-minority rule is now
almost entirely restricted to non-Sunni Arabs (as well as Iran),
including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Shia-led Iraqi government, Shia
parliamentarians and activists in Kuwait and other Gulf States, and a
significant number of Christians in Lebanon and Syria.

By contrast, Assad’s alliance with Hamas, the Palestinian branch of
the Muslim Brotherhood, has collapsed largely along sectarian lines.
Support for Assad among Arab Sunnis has dropped to virtually zero,
including all Sunni-dominated governments. Support for his rule has
also further exacerbated the already deeply-damaged reputation of
Hezbollah among Arab Sunnis.

The Sunni Arab world, meanwhile, has been largely silent about the
campaign of relentless persecution and repression against the Shia
majority in Bahrain, implicitly backing the oppressive rule of the
Sunni-minority royal family.

Sectarian tensions simmer in Kuwait but are held at bay by the
country’s wealth and small population. In Saudi Arabia, however, they
have been bubbling away for months, particularly in the country’s
oil-rich eastern provinces. Last week they boiled over in Al-Awamiyah,
as Shia rioters were fired on by security forces. Saudi spokespersons
dismissed the incident as “nonsectarian” and merely criminal in
nature, but immediately undermined their arguments by blaming Iran for
the unrest.

The narrative of the last few years of the previous decade—the
“culture of resistance” (which supposedly included both Sunni and Shia
Islamists and some Arab nationalists) versus the “culture of
accommodation” (a term of abuse for all moderate or pro-Western forces
in the Arab world)—has been completely subsumed by this emerging
sectarian narrative.

It will be rightly objected that this scattershot analysis is
superficial, and that in each society there are many detailed and
specific forces at play, particularly in countries as diverse as
Lebanon or Iraq. It will further be observed that there are many
exceptions to this pattern, such as the role of imprisoned Sunni
social democrat Ibrahim Sharif in Bahrain or the presence of
Christians, Alawites and others in the Syrian opposition.

It is absolutely true that when you look at individual groves, there
are many details that do not correspond to this narrative or dynamic;
but it’s also plainly the new shape the broader forest is taking. I’ve
been watching this pattern emerge for a long time without being
willing to clearly identify it in writing, both because there are so
many details that complicate, and even contradict, such a reading, and
in hope that other dynamics would prevent a regional sectarian divide
from becoming definitive.

I now think it’s impossible to deny that the single most important
factor shaping the Arab regional dynamic is a sectarian divide, not
between Sunnis and Shia, but between Sunnis and everybody else. On the
sidelines are also significant divisions between Arabs and ethnic
minorities such as Kurds or Berbers, but it is the sectarian split
that is the real dividing line these days. This new sectarian
consciousness has greatly assisted the rise of Turkey as a regional
power, strongly aligned with Arab Sunnis, at least for the moment.

Iran is probably the biggest single loser in the regional realignment
so far, and the mainstay of many governments trying to blame unrest on
“foreign powers” (along with al Qaeda, Israel, the United States,
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, depending on which government is
making excuses). However, an Arab world divided along sectarian lines
will continue to provide potential openings for Iran in Shia and other
non-Sunni areas, even where they have had little or no influence in
the past.

The emerging sectarian narrative threatens to rip apart many Arab
societies, and indeed the Arab world in general. More than military
dictatorships or violent organizations that may seek to exploit these
tensions, the illusions that Sunni Arabs across the region are seeking
to impose a new and repressive order on non-Sunni Arabs, or that
non-Sunni Arabs are subversive elements or disloyal agents of Iran or
other foreign powers, pose the gravest threat to a better future in
the Middle East.

These narratives are almost always implicit, but they are on the brink
of becoming hegemonic. Counter-narratives, based on deeds as well as
words, are more urgently needed than ever. If they wish to avoid it,
Arab political and religious leaders are going to have to move quickly
to prevent this stark sectarian divide from defining the regional
landscape into the future.