Sectarianism, Proxies and De‑sectarianisation

The Sectarianism, Proxies and De-sectarianisation (SEPAD) project based at Lancaster University’s Richardson Institute is a collaborative project aimed at understanding the conditions that give rise to sectarian violence and proxy conflicts along religious lines with the aim of creating space for a ‘de-sectarianisation’ of socio-political life.

After the onset of the Arab Uprisings and the fragmentation of regime-society relations, communal relations across the Middle East have become increasingly strained as societal actors retreat into sub-state identities whilst difference becomes increasingly violent, spilling out beyond state borders. The power of religion - and trans-state nature of belief and linkages - has provided the means for external actors to exert influence over a number of groups across the region. Moving beyond such static views, this project seeks to explore the conditions that give rise to such conditions, looking at political, legal and theological factors to create space for a 'de-sectarianisation' of socio-political life. The idea of de-sectarianism seeks to erode “primordialist” and deterministic views that see religious tensions, in particular between Sunnis and Shi’as, as preordained and immutable and as the unmovable source of conflicts in the region. By focusing on other factors that influence the transformation and diffusion of sectarian identities, ‘de-sectarianisation’ is the process of deconstructing exclusionary and binary forms of identity to reveal the contingent factors that shape life.

Since 2003, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has occupied a central role in shaping the nature of Middle Eastern politics. Amidst fragmentation of state-society relations across the region, both states have attempted to increase their regional power by exerting influence across a number of proxies along ethnic and religious lines. In Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, both states have cultivated relationships with indigenous groups that has fed into the entrenchment of political and sectarian difference, often spilling over into violence with catastrophic consequences. This project seeks to understand how and why such relationships operate, along with proposing strategies and a conceptual toolkit to a) mitigate the capacity for proxy rivalries to emerge and b) de-escalate tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Efforts to understand the rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran have produced a body of literature that can be separated into three camps: The first suggests that the rivalry is best understood through a balance of power in the Gulf. The second camp suggests that religion plays a prominent role in shaping the nature of the rivalry and that proxy conflicts have been drawn along sectarian lines. The third camp suggests that a more nuanced approach is needed, drawing upon concerns about regime power and legitimacy - externally and internally - with instrumentalised use of religious difference.

The use of Islamic rhetoric serves not only to legitimise rulers domestically, but also provides opportunities to increase power and influence across the region. The spread of identities across Middle Eastern states - which are predominantly Arab and Sunni - mean that Shi'a and Persian (Iranian) identities have often been securitized as a means of ensuring control and regime survival. This trend has indeed facilitated the rise of sectarian tensions both within and across state, which consequently lead to the proliferation of proxy actors and tensions. Because of this, the project seeks to identify and documents the conditions that give rise through proxy conflicts by analysing them through the lens of sectarianism, as these two phenomena are too tightly interrelated to be unpacked separately.