This talk explores the causes for the prominence of sectarian politics through a historical political sociology of the Middle East. The institutional legacies of Ottoman, French and British imperial rule, as well as the failure of secular ideologies and the rise of Islamism, have paved the way for the rise of sectarian politics. Together with the Iranian revolution and the 2003 Iraq War they led to a change in the status of non-Sunni Islamic sects, thereby undermining the self-perception amongst Sunni elites that they were the “natural” rulers of the Middle East. In addition, the spread of Salafi-Wahhabism fuelled by oil money has provided the language and ideology for the new sectarian politics.
In this new age of sectarian politics two factors are key: On the one hand identity entrepreneurs, who profit from strengthened sectarian identities and conflict, because this entrenches the loyalties of “their” communal group. Their prominence rests on the logic that “sect” is a major category of socio-political organization. The second factor is the internationalization of communal conflict. In the case of Sunni-Shia sectarianism, the fact that two resource-rich countries, Saudi Arabia and Iran, see themselves as protectors of Sunni and Shia respectively, fuels this internationalization of initially localized conflicts. In response to the Arab uprisings since 2011 various state and non-state actors have used sectarian politics to bolster their support base, delegitimize their political opponents, and seek international alliances. Identity entrepreneurs have profited disproportionately from this new sectarianism. Any attempt to defuse tensions in the region and to stop the spread of sectarian hatred needs to take into account the historical genealogies and political economies of sectarianism, as well its international dimension.
About the Speaker:
Toby Matthiesen is a Research Fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. He was previously a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His first book “Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t” was published by Stanford University Press in 2013. The book examined the root causes of sectarianism and outlined how the Gulf states responded to protests at home and in the wider Arab world. From 2007 to 2011 he wrote his doctorate on the politicisation of Saudi Arabia’s Shia community at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His second book, “The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism”, which is based on his PhD, has been published by Cambridge University Press in 2015.