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  • Sectarian Dimensions
  • Sami Zubaida
Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Spring that Wasn’t, by Toby Matthiesen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013. 192pages. $12.99 paper.
Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings, by Frederic M. Wehrey, New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 328pages. $45.
The Sunni-Shi‘a Divide: Islam’s Internal Divisions and Their Global Consequences, by Robert Brenton Betts. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2013. 179pages. $27.50.

The sectarian dimension is ever more prominent in the conflicts and battles of the current Middle East situation. There is a great temptation, in the media as well as academic accounts, to see sectarianism as a historical constant, part of the image of the Middle East, or to see the “Islamic world” as being imbued with religion as its moving force in politics, society, and culture. Others, including myself, have argued that while sectarian divisions have always existed, their politicization has taken different forms at various points of history, and their present forms of politicization have to be understood in terms of political maneuvering by state actors and sectarian entrepreneurs, in relation to emerging geopolitical alignments.

Both Wehrey’s and Matthiesen’s books, centered on Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, fall within the latter category of a political rather than an essentialist framework. Matthiesen’s Sectarian Gulf is focused on the recent events initiated by the Arab uprisings of 2011, while Wehrey’s Sectarian Politics in the Gulf traces a longer time perspective, starting with the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and through the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Shi‘i populations in the Gulf had been marginalized and oppressed for much of modern history, especially with the dominance of Wahhabi sectarianism in the governing regime of Saudi Arabia and its wide influence elsewhere. In the earlier decades of the 20th century, Shi‘i political activists responded by making common cause with Arab secular leftist and nationalist ideologies, such as Nasserism, Ba‘thism, and Communism. These ideologies and allegiances played important parts in political opposition and labor activism from the middle of the 20th century until the rise of Islamism in the later decades. For the most part, they eschewed sectarianism and religion. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 was a watershed in the reorientation of the politics of the region, and a point elaborated in Wehrey’s Chapter Two, “The Long Shadow of the Iranian Revolution.” It played an important part in raising the sectarian stakes, but not in one direction. The revolution was seen as an example and inspiration by many Sunni thinkers and activists: Islam as a liberation ideology, for the people and against tyranny and the imperialism of America and the West, and their cultural invasions. In predominantly Sunni Egypt, leftist as well as Islamist thinkers turned to revolutionary Islam and the example of the Iranian Revolution. This trend posed a vital danger to the Saudi claim to Islamic legitimacy and leadership, as well as a challenge to the dynastic rulers of that country and its neighbors, and an inspiration to their oppressed Shi‘i populations.

Saudi and Gulf concerns about Iranian ascendancy and Shi‘a revival were reinforced by the outcome of the Iraq war of 2003. The American invasion removed the regime of Saddam Husayn, empowering the majority Shi‘i population, as well as the Kurds. The decades [End Page 318] of Ba‘thist repression had enfeebled the once active civil society and secular politics, and into that vacuum stepped religious leadership and sectarian entrepreneurs, fostered by American easy-fix policies. It was the well-organized and well-funded Shi‘i factions that came to the fore and ultimately won elections and referenda that established their ascendancy, mainly challenged by Sunni jihadi violence, initiating ongoing sectarian strife. Shi‘i ascendancy in Iraq, and its opening up to Iranian influence and intrusion, altered the balance of power and influence in the region, ringing alarm bells for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf regimes, and their Sunni/Wahhabi constituencies. At the same time it gave their Shi‘i minorities confidence and hope and stimulated intensified demands for reforms and access to political and economic resources.The vital significance of...


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