Panel 6C

Sectarianism and Regime Trajectories after the Arab Uprisings

15.00 – 17.00
Chair: Ray Hinnebusch, University of St Andrews

What is so Sectarian about Sectarian Politics: Identity Politics and Authoritarianism in a New Middle East

Morten Valbjørn, Aarhus University

This paper asks what – if anything – is so sectarian about sectarian politics, when it comes to dynamics of autho­ritarianism? First, the paper surveys the post-2011 debate on Arab authoritarianism and identifies a growing attention to a new – and ‘darker’ – form of authoritarianism drawing on exclusionary and xenophobic forms of identity politics. While this often is substantiated with reference to the current Shia/Sunni sectarian surge in the Middle East, there has been too little attention to whether sectarianism per se is associated with a distinct form of authoritarianism or if authoritarian techniques involving the use of the ‘sectarian card’ should be subsumed under a broader category of authoritarian identity politics. Then, the paper introduces Brubaker’s analytical distinction between the ‘diacritical’ and ‘normative ordering power’ aspect of religion and their different expectations on whether sectarianism will lead to more violent forms of repression than other forms of identity politics. Lastly, the paper compares four different forms of authoritarian identity politics in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, all authoritarian regimes using identity politics in their ruling strategy) divided as to whether the key identity cleavage was a Shia/Sunni distinction and extent of challenge to the regime by protests during the Arab uprisings and how it responded and restored its rule. The paper concludes, with particular reference to Egypt and Bahrain, that sectarianism not, per se, is more associated with greater violence, but suggests that religious-secular divisions might be merely variations on sectarianism since such conflicts also have powerful normative content.

Sectarianism and Governance in Syria and the Levant

Ray Hinnebusch, University of St Andrews

This paper examines how the interaction between the societal distribution of sectarian groups and regime institutions, with variations in political identity an intervening variable, shape variable trajectories in the Levant, with a focus on Syria. Sectarian distibutions vary from balanced among two or three major groups (Lebanon, Iraq) to a majority with smaller minorities (Syria); instittuions range from semi-democracies to inclusive populist and post-populist authoritarian regimes. The inclusiveness of institutions affects whether sectarian identity is reproduced or diluted by cross-sectarian identities. Three major questions will be addressed in the Syrian case. Why Syria’s large Sunni majority, with multiple minorities, not produce stable majoritarian democracy. How B’athist populist authoritarianism both generated and contained sectarianism while. post-populist authoritarianism stimulated it,  destabilizing the state. How the instrumentalisation of sectarianism shaped civil war, obstructing democratic transition and mass revolution, and generates more sectarian exclusivistic governance by both regime and opposition. Comparing Syria with Lebanon and Iraq suggests that sectarianism is compatible with several governance forms. . In Lebanon a politicized inter-sectarian power balance led to consociational democracy vulnerable to periodic civil war. Democratization was aborted in Syria and Iraq owing to class conflict, and sectarianism instrumentalized but contained in populist authoritarian regime-building under the Ba’th party. Post-populist authoritarianism prepared the way for civil wars that generated militant exclusionary versions of sectarianism supporting hard authoritarianism in Syria and exclusionary consociationalism in Iraq.

Download Paper (Hinnebusch)

Civic Space and Sectarianism in GCC States: Dynamics of “Informal” Civil Society in Kuwait and Bahrain beyond State Institutions.

Thomas Fibiger, Aarhus University and Hasan Hafidh, University of Leeds

This paper is an analysis of the role of “informal” civil society in sustaining and challenging sectarianism in reciprocal relationship with regime discourses. The paper is based on empirical observations in Kuwait and Bahrain. In these two liberal autocracies, relative to their Gulf neighbours, spaces of informal civil society range from youth societies to more traditional arenas for social networking such as the Kuwaiti Dewanniya or the Bahraini Majlis. Unlike the more formal NGOs these settings are not typically dominated and co-opted by the state, and their marked distinction lies in their ability to operate outside the remit of government authorities. Departing from the discourse on democratization, this paper will therefore explain how, depending on certain social variables, (i.e. where the space is located, the individuals who frequent the space and the discussions that take place etc.), informal civil society can be used to mobilize against the state or alternatively can be used to amplify state power, which is the case in both countries. By observing banal and everyday sectarianism at work, the paper will defy the conventional wisdom of sectarianism being a post-79 or post-03 phenomenon in the context of Kuwait and Bahrain, and to illustrate how there is a reciprocal relationship between state and non-governmental/societal actors that amplify sectarian tensions. Focusing on the pressing issue of sectarianism, the paper therefore addresses more general debates of how regimes and civil society interact and are interdependent, and how a variety of identities are at play at societal level.

Instrumentalising Sectarianism and Preserving Authoritarianism in the Saudi State

Courtney Freer, London School of Economics & Political Science

Saudi Arabia provides a compelling example of how sectarianism both influences prospects for democratic reform and sustains the dynamics of authoritarianism, thus linking this case study to clusters two and three referenced in the framing paper. Sectarianism bolsters a longstanding state-supported strategy of divide and rule that allows al-Saud family, alongside its Wahhabi allies, to maintain a monopoly over political power. The Arab Spring and ensuing protests in predominantly Shi?i areas reinforced the Saudi commitment to promoting sectarianism and limiting political openings. The regime’s authoritarianism and sectarianism are inextricably connected: in promoting a divide and rule scenario between Shi?as and Sunnis, the government demonstrates that it is the only entity defending the state from chaos. Sectarianism is also, uniquely, institutionalised in the Saudi system, due to the regime’s long-standing alliance with Wahhabi clerics; Wahhabism is essentially a type of sectarianism, precluding cooperation with non-Wahhabis as a matter of religious conviction. In this paper, we investigate two claims: (1) sectarianism influences the trajectory toward democratisation and political reform, and (2) sectarianism affects the dynamics and structure of authoritarian rule inside Saudi Arabia, leading the regime to exercise increasingly exclusivist authoritarian policies of divide and rule, to promote sectarianism through economic and political policies, the media, and its arrangement of the security sector. Using qualitative methods and historical examples, we aim to clarify the link between sectarianism and authoritarianism in a state in which the Sunni-Shi?i division has emerged as a powerful means of maintaining the political status quo.