In his critically acclaimed book, The Shi’a Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, Vali Nasr has suggested that traditional concepts and categories used to explicate the Middle East, such as modernity, democracy, fundamentalism and nationalism, no longer adequately explain the politics of the region. It “is rather the old feud between Shi’as and Sunnis that forges attitudes, defines prejudices, draws political boundary lines, and even decides whether and to what extent those other trends have relevance.” In keeping with this argument, President Obama has on numerous occasions invoked the phrase “ancient sectarian differences” to explain the turmoil and conflict in the Arab-Islamic world today. This raises the question how old is the feud between Shi’as and Sunnis and how far back in history can we trace the origins of sectarianism that is currently destabilizing the Middle East? Rejecting the paradigm of “ancient sectarian hatreds” this paper locates the roots of sectarian conflict in the late twentieth century and not in the seventh century. More specifically, the political context that illuminates the question of sectarianism is the persistence of authoritarianism – as the dominant feature of the politics of the Middle East – and the crisis of legitimacy facing ruling regimes that has followed as a consequence. The political mobilization and manipulation of sectarian identities, it will be argued, is a key strategy for regime survival and it is within this framework that the question of sectarianism can be better understood. Drawing on the literature of “ethnic political mobilization” and the literature in international relations that explains the regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the question of sectarianism will be analyzed as the function of the “broken politics” of the Middle East and not due to irreconcilable theological differences between Sunnis and Shi’as.


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pp. 65-76
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