Beyond Sunni and Shia

The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East

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Frederic Wehrey
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , February
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Across much of the post-Arab Spring Middle East, political systems have either regressed into more repressive versions of their former selves or have seriously unraveled into partially collapsed or collapsed states. A key feature of this crisis of governance has been the increased prevalence of sectarian tension and conflict. Frederick Wehrey’s edited volume, Beyond Sunni and Shi’a, brings together some leading regional specialists in the field of “sectarian politics” of the Middle East with the purpose of explaining both why sectarian dynamics have become so prevalent – why it has become “all of the rage” as Wehrey writes (2) – with an additional though not primary focus on how analysts and policy makers might intelligently approach mitigating these dynamics in the future. The stated aim of the volume as a whole is to produce an accessible but theoretically informed volume useful to policy makers, the informed public and the media.

The volume has twelve chapters and a useful introduction by Wehrey in which he highlights three recent critical junctures – the Iranian revolution of 1979, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Arab uprisings of 2011– that have set the scene for the subsequent erosion of the capacity of governments in the region to manage sectarianism (5). This is followed by an initial chapter aimed at placing the debates about sectarian politics in the Middle East in comparative and conceptual context.  Along with Wehrey’s introduction, this chapter sets out a conceptual middle ground for the study of sectarian politics between the two binaries approaches of primordialism – a long critiqued approach that ties sectarian tensions to long-standing and immutable religious and doctrinal fault lines – and instrumentalism, a conceptual approach that often underplays the broader contextualized and historicized factors that have created opportunities for the manipulation of sectarian identities. Most of the chapters that follow navigate “a path between these two poles” (6), either in the form of country case studies or profiles of particular religious actors. To organize this wide array of contributions, Wehrey divides the volume into three thematic sections focusing on geopolitical, institutional, and doctrinaire and/or clerical roots of the region’s sectarian climate.

It is here, however, that the volume is open to critique. Many of the chapters that follow do not fit easily or neatly into this particular framework. Some chapters - such as that on Lebanon – would have been more usefully placed in the section of “geopolitics” given the strong emphasis that Bahout placed in the chapter on the role of Syria and the Syrian civil war in transforming Lebanon’s sectarian politics into a “zero-sum” game (152). More importantly, these categorizations did not usefully bring out what I see as the most important contributions of the chapters in this volume. Let me take the rest of this short review to focus on what I see these contributions to be.

First, there are some very strong chapters in this volume that focus on the importance of placing the rise of destabilizing sectarian politics in the region in the historicized context of state formation. Excellent contributions by Heiko Wimmen on Syria, Fanar Haddad on Iraq, and Staci Strobl on Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia all focus on the cumulative impact of state-building processes over time in explaining the salient nature of sectarian political dynamics in these states. While all treat sectarian dynamics as being deeply entrenched within these various polities, none treat them as primordial, seeing them instead, as Wimmen notes in the case of Syria, as the result of ‘botched state-building projects” (64) and the cumulative effect of decades of regime ruling practices that “turned social relations [in Syria] into a sectarian time bomb that any serious challenge to the status quo would set off” (81). Haddad makes a similar argument, noting that rather than treating sectarian tension and violence in Iraq as inevitable, they are better seen as the result of the historical accumulation of effects unleashed by authoritarian governance, failed nation-building projects, and the consequent struggles to manage communal plurality (121). Finally, Strobl, in an excellent article on the development of sect-centered systems of law and order in Bahrain and the eastern region of Saudi Arabia, similarly takes “the long term view of sectarian competition” (209) by arguing that it has been “part of a working routine of institutions and institutional actors within these countries for at least two hundred years, since the historical expansion of Sunni interior tribes into the Gulf coast region” (206).

Second, the chapters that focus on religious actors might have usefully been organized around the parallel theme of the weakness and fragmentation of religious authority structures in the region. Hassan’s article on the ideology and the political context of the rise of the Islamic State, for example, notes that the power of emerging hybrid jihadist ideologies is inextricably linked to the weakness of the mainstream religious institutions and leaders in the region (59). Bunzel’s article on Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State contextualizes this argument more deeply by linking the doctrinal rise of the latter to the weakening legitimacy of Wahhabi clerics as a result of their association with the “apostate” Saudi state (247). This theme is further reinforced in Henley’s chapter on clerical elites in Lebanon, elites he describes as “imperfect representatives” as a result of their closer connections with the country’s elite political class than to their own religious community and followers (285).

Finally, having used historical analysis to explain the weakness of political and religious institutions in the region, the stage would have been set to examine a third theme of the “political instrumentalism of sectarianism.” Here, the volume also has some useful contributions that include that of Joseph Bahout – who largely focuses on Syrian policies in Lebanon; Alexandra Siegel – who provides an interesting analysis of sectarian discourse on twitter during times of sectarian crisis in the region; and Justin Gengler – who focuses on mass survey data to explain why the various forms of protection-racquet politics in Gulf countries, ones that combine the deft use of religious social cleavages with threats and fear-mongering, have been so effectively employed by its leaders to reinforce the quiescence and backing of their “loyalist” sectarian majorities  (184).

In short, this volume consists of many excellent contributions to our understanding of why sectarian politics are so salient and destabilizing in the Middle East of today. However, its collective contribution to these debates would have been even stronger if its organizational structure had been realigned to reflect more explicitly the excellent insights that these contributors have made.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Kingston is Professor, Political Science and International Development at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Date of Review: 
December 9, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Frederic Wehrey is a senior associate of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is the author of Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (2013), chosen as a Best Book on the Middle East by Foreign Affairs magazine. He holds a DPhil in International Relations from Oxford University.


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