The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi'a-Sunni Divide by Geneive Abdo (review)
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The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi'a-Sunni Divide, by Geneive Abdo. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. 250 pages. $29.85 paper.

Geneive Abdo analyzes how the "Arab Spring" has impacted "how Sunnis and Shi'as perceive one another" (p. 13). Her book begins with a critique of what the author sees as the main flaws of Western expertise when analyzing the "Arab Spring", an expression which she considers a "dangerous misnomer" (p. 7) because it builds on the wrong assumption—in her view—that the 2011 Arab uprisings were mostly driven by secular-minded actors. Instead, she points out that one of the main results of the "Arab Spring" has been the unfolding of sectarianism throughout the Middle East, pitting Sunnis and Shi'a against each other in several countries. As the title indicates, she considers that this sectarianism is new.

How it is actually new is a pending question after reading the book. In the introduction, the author refers to "historical sectarianism" as "a set of institutional arrangements" (p. 7), while the new sectarianism emerged as a result of authoritarian collapse and is more about power and which interpretation of Islam will prevail. One could easily argue that sectarianism as conflict over power is hardly new in the Middle East and that it has existed together with sectarianism as institutional arrangements. In Lebanon, a country the book focuses on a lot, there are plenty of occurrences of violent sectarian conflicts since at least the 19th century, not to mention the 1975–90 civil war. Nowhere does the book explain how sectarian violence is different now beyond the specificity of the current context which is in particular marked by the global Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

Right from the introduction, Abdo also insists that, again, Western analysts have too often dismissed religion per se in explaining sectarian conflicts and in particular the Sunni-Shi'i conflict. In her view, the conflict is indeed mainly about these old questions of "what is Islam?", "who is a Muslim?" and "who gets to decide?" (pp. 2–3). These questions are serious for the actors and should not be taken as epiphenomena, she states. Again, the reader may ask why taking religion seriously should lead to setting aside how religion interplays with other factors in sectarian conflicts. There are indeed many examples where people converted to Shi'ism as a way to express rejection of the central state and of the existing social order. Such was the case in 19th century Iraq, for example; and no one disputes that Shi'ism long coincided with a subaltern position in the political and socioeconomic order of Lebanon.

After this introduction positing the main thread of her analysis, the author proposes six chapters. Most of them deal with a national situation, namely Iraq, Lebanon, and Bahrain. In these chapters, politics very much holds sway over the analysis so that the reader loses sight of the analytical positioning of the introduction. Rather, we are faced with political parties, militias, and clerical authorities behaving as political actors. Ethnicity is also very much called upon as an explanatory factor. For example, the author stresses the distinction between Arab and Iranian Shi'ism. However, this distinction should not be overemphasized and given too much explanatory power. Abdo states that "the Shi'a community in Iraq has distinguished itself through its Arab identity rather than through ties or interaction with the Persian ulama in Iran" (p. 19). On the contrary, however, while the majority of Iraqi Shi'a have been Arabs with tribal backgrounds, the majority of their clerical elites have been Iranian or have enjoyed family connections to Iran. The best example [End Page 691] today is that of 'Ali Sistani, the formidable figure of Iraqi Shi'ism who is actually an Iranian and has reportedly refused to change his citizenship. Neither does the argument stand when analyzing the upward mobility of the Lebanese Shi'i community, which was initially orchestrated by an Iranian-born cleric, Musa Sadr, and then by Hizbullah, a movement that openly claims to abide by the religious rulings of the Iranian head...


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