Dubai: Sectarianism is adding fuel to an already volatile region of the Middle East.
Why it is happening and who is behind instigating it is a topic of debate among experts.
The region is religiously diverse, with the two most prominent Muslims sects; the Sunnis and Shiites - along with many Christian sects.
Today, there is a rising tension among believers of different sects, especially Muslims ones, to get more rights and equal status for other religious sects or groups.
To some experts, sectarianism has became a “destructive feature of the modern Middle East”, as a recent study described it.
To others, it exists because of geopolitics rather than ideologies.
Ussama Makdisi, Professor of History and the first holder of the Arab-American Educational foundation Chair of Arab Studies at Rice University in Houston, Texas, said sectarianism is an issue “tied to inequality, colonialism, access to resources, politics, and authoritarianism” and it is “simply wrong to analyse sectarianism as if it is age-old and some self-evident phenomenon.”
Makdisi, in a statement to Gulf News, added that there has been always “tension” throughout history of coexistence among the different followers of different sects.
“But today’s struggles across the region are overwhelmingly dictated by geo-politics, not religious ideologies, let alone conflicts over religious dogma,” he said.
“Religious diversity does not have to generate a problem of political sectarianism. What we call sectarianism is often a lazy substitute for genuine historical or political or economic analysis,” said Makdisi, author of several books on different topics related to the Middle East, including “Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History and Violence in nineteenth Century Ottoman Lebanon”.
Sectarianism between Sunnis and Shiites had become a hot discussion issues in the past few decades, starting from the Iran’s 1979 revolution when religious leaders took power, overthrowing the Shah’s regime.
The tension peaked with the overthrown of the Sunni Iraqi president Saddam Hussain in 2003, and his execution in 2006.
The Iraqi Governing Council, which the US established after its 2003 invasion to Iraq, was along sectarian lines, researchers pointed out.
Iran was described as the biggest winner from the US-led war on Iraq, as it spread its influence on its neighbour worrying Sunni countries, which accuse Iran of instigating sectarianism and interfering in their own affairs.
Sectarian tension is most felt in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
The four countries were the focus of a recent study conducted by the US-based research organisation of RAND, and which described sectarianism as a “destructive feature”, and said it is “likely to remain part of the regional landscape” for years to come.
Yet, and despite the fact that the sectarian conflicts were terribly bloody in the region, “sectarian violence is still the exception rather than the norm”, said the study, a copy of which was obtained by Gulf News.
Several factors play a role in either limiting or spreading sectarianism, such as geography, RAND said.
It gave the Syrian case as an example, when sectarian actors managed to cross from Turkey into Idlib much more incidents occurred as opposed to areas along the Jordanian borders, which were “better protected”.
Political elites can either foster or impede sectarianism, it said.
“The Iraq case study also demonstrated that credible local leaders promoting coexistence can counter sectarian pressures. Generational change might also boost the cultivation of political elites with non-sectarian agendas over time.”
The RAND study cited civil society development and narrowing of socio-economic gaps as a way to boost the community’s ability to resist sectarianism.
Among the recommendations of RAND were improving border controls, limiting foreign funding of sectarian leaders and parties and encouraging regional leaders to focus on domestic governance agendas.
To other researchers, including Alexander Henley, sectarianism is a “survival strategy for authoritarian regimes”, that want the “the US to think that “sectarianism is ancient and unfixable so that we will fear democratisation in the Middle East as much as they do.”
Henley wrote in an article published by Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University, “sectarianism is a problem, but let us remember that it’s a new problem, and that what can be made can also be unmade.”.