Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the editor, most recently, of Beyond Sunni and Shia: The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East, which has just been published by Hurst Publishers, and which explores the factors behind the spread of sectarianism in the Middle East. Wehrey is also the author of Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings, and his forthcoming book, due in April 2018, will be titled The Burning Shores: Inside the Battle for the New Libya. Diwan met with Wehrey in early November to discuss Beyond Sunni and Shia.

Michael Young: What is the common theme running through your recently published edited book Beyond Sunni and Shia: The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East?

Frederic Wehrey: The study takes as its starting point the limitations of viewing the region’s travails through the lens of religious identity conflict. In particular, it challenges what can be described as the “primordialist” school of thought, a deterministic view that sees religious tensions, particularly between the Shi‘a and Sunni branches of Islam, as preordained and immutable. To be sure, there are important divides between the two sects—over questions of religious and political authority, rituals, jurisprudence, and other matters. But the notion of two hermetic blocs being locked in conflict today—a continuation of an unresolved “age-old” dispute within Islam—is patently false. Few serious scholars subscribe to this school today, but it still exists as a lazy explanation that informs media commentary and, unfortunately, policy views.

At the other end of the spectrum, the study rejects what might be called an excessively materialist or “instrumental” approach to religious identity, which sees sectarianism as simply a proxy for economic or political grievances, or the result of top-down, elite manipulation. Here again, we acknowledge that elements of this are certainly at play. Authoritarian regimes have found it useful to play up sectarian differences as a ruling strategy, “sectarian entrepreneurs” have stoked communal tensions from pulpits and social media platforms, and sect-based antagonisms have been inflamed by state collapse and the unequal distribution of economic resources. But these worldly explanations have their limits as well. At the societal and individual level, beliefs, identity, and doctrines do in fact matter.

Our effort to navigate between these two poles is reflected in both the disciplinary background of our contributors and the topics of the chapters. Our authors include political scientists, sociologists, journalists, and even a criminologist, as well as historians of Islam and a scholar of theology. The topics are both country-based and geographic—the role of Saudi and Iranian foreign policies and the “sectarianization” of Syria’s civil war, for example—as well as thematic: the impact of social media, political economies, and clerical establishments in diffusing and transforming sectarian identities.

MY: How do the authors in the book tend to define sectarianism?

FW: All of these chapters adopt an implicit definition of sectarianism as a set of beliefs, attitudes, and actions that exclude or demonize a religious “other.” This spans a spectrum from soft discrimination all the way to the massacres we see being perpetrated by the Islamic State. Moreover, our authors were not attempting to deny or negate sectarian differences, but only trying to diagnose why and how these identities become toxic and violent. Here, we see great value in a comparative approach: one of our contributors is a scholar of conflict resolution in northern Ireland. Finally, though the study focuses on Shi‘a-Sunni differences, it acknowledges other sect-based relationships—particularly in the case of Lebanon—and it addresses fissures within Sunni currents (between Salafism, Sufism, and the Muslim Brotherhood, for example). On the latter, one of our authors, Cole Bunzel, has actually adopted the novel framework of viewing the enmity between the Islamic State and Saudi Arabia as an expression of intra-Sunni sectarian rivalry, a “contest for the soul of Wahabbism.”

MY: What has been a main driver of Sunni-Shi‘a antagonism in the region in recent years?

FW: Here I can only canvass and briefly highlight the excellent work of the book’s contributors. First, let me address a widely held belief in the Middle East, particularly in the Sunni Arab world, namely that the 1979 Iranian Revolution and Iran’s ensuing behavior are the primary drivers of sectarianism. To be sure, the arrival of Khomeinism had far-reaching effects by politicizing Shi‘a identity, supporting armed Shi‘a groups across the region, and rattling Sunni regimes with a vow to topple Gulf monarchies. But the revolution also professed to be ecumenical and non-sectarian and did in fact inspire many Sunni Islamists. Today, the Iranian regime tries—unconvincingly—to maintain this façade in its pronouncements and statements. The chapter by Afshon Ostovar does a wonderful job of capturing this tension in Iran’s foreign policy, between universalist aspirations and particularist realities. He argues that self-interest, not Shi‘ism, ultimately governs Iranian policies, as shown by Iran’s longstanding links with Sunni groups such as the Taliban, Hamas, and Al-Qaeda. And while he assigns a fair share of the blame to Iran in stoking sectarianism—particularly through its support of non-state armed groups in Iraq and the Levant—he also acknowledges that Iran operates in a deeply sectarian neighborhood.

Here, the role of its geostrategic rival is crucial. It was actually Saudi Arabia’s counterreaction to the Iranian Revolution through the mobilization of anti-Shi‘a Salafism during the 1980s and beyond that had a more determinative effect on sectarianism. The sermons and tracts from that period continue to circulate today and have become embedded in the ideology of multiple Sunni jihadist groups. Today, we see the new Saudi leadership vowing to curtail and police sectarian vitriol, but whether they can put the proverbial genie back in the bottle is an open question. This is why the chapter by Alexandra Sigel on the social media landscape and sectarianism is so important. Two decades ago, one could argue that regimes in the region, principally Saudi Arabia and Iran, could regulate sectarian discourse through state media and their control of clerics, dialing it up or down like a thermostat. But in today’s hyper-connected and hyper-diffuse media environment, as Siegel shows, that is no longer the case. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media provide platforms for the most extreme sectarian voices and create a vast echo chamber that traverses national boundaries and eludes government control.

Other chapters in the study demonstrate why sectarianism is deeply ingrained in the region, at the local and domestic levels, and not solely a product of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. Justin Gengler uses surveys from the Gulf to demonstrate how monarchies have exploited sectarianism to distribute limited economic resources and maximize political loyalty among core constituents. Staci Strobl asserts that sectarianism is a deeply embedded, everyday feature of Bahrain’s policing sector, an affliction she traces farther back than the Iranian Revolution, to the British colonial administration.

MY: It appears that people in the Middle East are understanding better the devastation that has been wrought by violent sectarianism in recent years. Do you agree, and if so what have they done as a response to this realization?

FW: I think people in the region genuinely recognize that the conflicts in the region result from authoritarianism, the inability of states to meet the needs of their citizens, and non-inclusive governance. Sectarianism is both a contributing factor and a by-product. At one level, yes, they have learned and have taken steps. Joseph Bahout’s chapter on the Taif model shows how the Lebanese have attempted to both formalize and temper subnational sectarian identities—an imperfect model, he argues, but one that has held up thus far as a buffer against the chaos engulfing the country’s neighbor, Syria. Bahout is doubtful, however, whether this template can be applied elsewhere. We see isolated cases of resilience to sectarianism in certain towns and locales in Syria and Iraq that often stem from the brave efforts of community leaders, activists, and tribal heads. And at the level of geopolitics, we see some positive steps in the Gulf with the recent overtures between Iraq and Saudi Arabia, demonstrating once again how sectarian identity takes a back seat to state interest.

MY: Is there much reflection taking place on sectarianism in the region?

FW: Unfortunately, there is still an absence of critical reflection on sectarianism and a great deal of blame going on, particularly in the Gulf-controlled media, but also at the popular level. As I mentioned, there is the dominate narrative of pinning sectarianism entirely on Iran but also viewing it as a U.S. “hegemonic” project, a divide-and-conquer strategy stemming from the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq—an assumption refuted by Fanar Haddad in his chapter on Iraq. Ruling elites are unwilling to look in the mirror, to understand how their deficiencies in governance—and in many cases their deliberate policies—have entrenched sectarianism. The space for truly cross-sectarian or non-sectarian civic movements remains abysmally constricted in the region, often because elites want it that way.

That said, one of the findings of our study is that even the most seemingly implacable sectarian actors respond to changes in context and political opportunities. The chapter by Stéphane Lacroix uses the case of Egypt’s Salafi Nour Party to demonstrate this, and Hassan Hassan’s chapter on the Islamic State shows how battlefield setbacks have given rise to internal juridical debates about sectarianism, specifically regarding the application of tafkir—the accusation of apostasy directed against other Muslims.

MY: Do you foresee a resurgence of nationalism in some countries, as an antidote to sectarian polarization? Or is sectarianism too deeply engrained in the societies of the region?

FW: With few exceptions, I do not see the emergence of pluralistic politics and inclusive governance that would permit a healthy nationalism to take root. Various national projects in the region, including pan-Arabism, Ba‘thism, as well as the “modernizing” military officers and so-called republican regimes, have portrayed themselves as antidotes to sectarianism, but these projects invariably became the preserve of narrow communal groups who in turn used sectarianism to maintain their grip on power. In the Gulf monarchies today, especially Bahrain, we see the promotion of a similarly warped, exclusivist nationalism with a strong sectarian component—and an extreme sensitivity to criticism. The vast majority of Shi‘a oppositionists whom the Bahraini monarchy decries as outside the national project—and has often stripped of citizenship as punishment—are in fact deeply nationalist, demanding reforms to the current system rather than its abolition.

MY: How should Western states, particularly the United States, address sectarianism in the Middle East, given that one of its byproducts, the Islamic State, has directed its attacks against them?

FW: Just as the U.S. should steer clear of promoting a “correct” form of Islam to counter extremism so too should it steer clear of efforts at sectarian reconciliation. Rather than addressing sectarianism itself, the U.S. can try to promote good, inclusive governance in the region and civil society—both of which can temper sectarianism. This will ultimately be a generational struggle for the people of the region to resolve, and the U.S. should be rightfully aware of its limited power. But at the very least, Washington can avoid the shorthand narrative of seeing an intractable Sunni-Shi‘a conflict at the root of all the region’s ills.