De-Sectarianization: Some initial thoughts

19th Aug 2019 by Simon Mabon

De-Sectarianization: Some initial thoughts

In recent months, a number of academics and commentators have begun to reflect on the resonance and relevance of sectarian identities, albeit in a range of different ways. At a SEPAD event in London earlier this year, Morten Valbjorn and I both gave papers on the theme of de-sectarianization. Unbeknownst to the other, we deployed similar approaches to the topic but ended with dramatically different understandings. This plurality of ideas is seen in pieces by Bassel SalloukhZeidon AlkinaniJessica WatkinsBen Robin-D’Cruzand others. Of course, the complexity of these questions emerges amidst the different contexts within which authors are exploring, from the YouStink movement in Lebanon to the fallout from the 2018 elections in Iraq. 

Referred to as a move towards de-sectarianization, post-sectarianism, or anti-sectarianism, the concepts refer to the contestation and apparent erosion of the prevalence of sectarian identities in socio-political life. The terms seemingly refer to different processes, with post-sectarianism suggesting a move beyond sectarian identities and anti-sectarianism acknowledging the existence of groups that actively reject the existence of sectarian identities, yet de-sectarianization operates as an umbrella term referring to the broad spectrum of ways in which sectarian identities are contested and the politically charged aspects of sectarianism are reduced. 

Fundamental understanding de-sectarianization are discussions about identity and security. Identity is mobilized by actors who seek to emphasize similarities with in-group members and differences amongst those of the out-group. Whilst state actors were traditionally seen as the principle agents of identity mobilization as articulated by the likes of Michael Barnett, in recent years the emergence of sectarian entrepreneurs reveals a far more fluid way of manipulating identities that plays out in a range of ways across political, social and economic life. The rise of sectarian entrepreneurs adds an additional dimension to sectarian politics, embedding it in local dynamics as it served to reinforce the power and influence of neo-patrimonial networks.

One of the more prominent pieces of scholarship seeking to understand the ways in which sectarian politics has taken hold across the Middle East is the sectarianization thesis, set out by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel. Underpinning the sectarianization thesis is the intellectual work of the Copenhagen School and processes of securitization, which play a prominent role in the broadening of the security agenda through the framing of issues as existential threats. For Barry Buzan, one of the school’s founding fathers, securitization requires the shifting of issues out of emergency mode and into the normal bargaining process of the political sphere. The process of framing an event in such a way expresses “a need for and a right to treat it by extraordinary means”. A direct consequence of this, as Thierry Balzacqnotes, is that “the enunciation of security itself creates a new social order wherein ‘normal politics’ is bracketed” (171).

Securitizing moves take place within space, shaped by the interaction of domestic, regional and international actors and it is through this process that identities become securitized, framed as an existentialthreat. As Matt McDonaldargues, securitizing moves occur over three stages: the designation of threat, the facilitating conditions, and the audience.  These three stages allow for greater analysis of the sector in which securitization occurs, shaping the designation in the process, along with the conditions that allow securitizing moves to find traction, and consideration of the target audience of securitizing acts. As I have suggestedelsewhere, there are myriad problems when applying securitization approaches to the Middle East, based around the organisation of society, nature of ‘normal politics’ and problems with the ‘Westphalian straitjacket’ that limits the audience to predominantly domestic constituencies. The prominence of religion within the fabric of states means that when securitizing moves occur along sect-based lines then these speech acts speak to audiences across the region. Indeed, the mélange of identities and spread across the region means that securitizing moves often have unintended audiences, fueling sectarianization processes and increasing the challenge for des-ectarianization.

In spite of these problems, the nod to securitization helps to shed light on a number of aspects of the sectarianization thesis, namely the importance of framing events within domestic and regional contexts and speaking to particular audiences. Securitization processes have clear political consequences through the ways in which threat construction shapes identity construction. From this, actors are not independent of securitization – or sectarianization – moves but rather are re-constructed across the narrative through the particular understanding of the threat.  

As Geneive Abdoargues, sectarian entrepreneurs engage in a rewriting of the “history of the present” (10), where memory and tradition are shaped by the context and contingency of local and regional factors, with implications for the ordering of space. Ultimately, as Yassin Al Hajj Saleh suggests in The Impossible Revolution, the strategy of sectarianizing politics created a collective paranoia and resulted in a descent into fear, through murdering “the very concept of truth” (61).

Much like sectarianization is underpinned by securitization logics, de-sectarianization is underpinned by de-securitization logics which have the capacity to change the facilitating conditions that help securitizing moves gain traction. As Ole Waeversuggests, de-securitization can occur in three forms: to not frame an issue as a threat, to manage the securitization so it does not spiral, or to return the securitized issue to normal politics. Fundamental to this approach is the idea of de-securitization which, for Jeff Huysmans, is the unmaking of securitization. A burgeoning literature on de-securitization exists as a possible way out of the existentialist fear of securitizing moves yet a great deal of this literature considers the analytical and philosophical component parts. Whilst certainly important, there are perhaps other more pertinent aspects for our approach. As Claudia Aradauargues, de-securitization first has to be tackled politically before it can be tackled analytically, requiring consideration of the very nature of political life. Whilst securitization and de-securitization help to demonstrate the underlying logic of sectarianization – and de-sectarianization – processes, these are all shaped by the contingencies of local context. 

Much like securitizing moves create threats and identities, in an attempt to de-securitize, one must challenge the very definition of threats and politics broadly. Central to this is the need to move beyondthe Schmittian understanding of the political, one that pits the friend against the enemy: “how to formulate a positive concept of the political which allows value determination in the context of modern societies torn between a formal process of rationalization and an aesthetic, irrational, subjective process of value determination which cannot be a successful counter-force to societal rationalization because of its subjectivism.” For Huysmans, the need to simultaneously create a process of identity construction along with an identity fragmentation is key to prevent the emergence of a dominant identity. As Claudia Aradauarticulates, de-securitization should thus be viewed as “a process of dis-identification, a rupture from the assigned identity and a partaking of a universal principle.” Similar claims can be made about processes of de-sectarianization, albeit manifesting in a range of different ways contingent upon time and space. 

This process of dis-identification is seen across the Middle East in the behavior of groups rejecting sectarian politics and identities. As John Nagle has documentedand others have reflected on in SEPADPods, de-sectarianization moves take place in a range of different guises, most notably environmental, LGBTQ and nationalist, and typically occur beyond the political system that reinforces sectarian politics and identities, yet it should be noted that in Bahrain, the Al Khalifa regime has sought to move beyond sectarian difference to eradicate the perceived threat from Shi’a groups. Moreover, these processes themselves are shaped by a range of socio-political factors that can limit – or indeed facilitate – access to movements. As a consequence, de-sectarianization processes differ across time and space, resulting in a range of different outcomes shaped by the actors involved and the context in which these processes occur.  

Working towards the de-sectarianization of political life is a complex process that requires the acknowledgement and engagement with a range of different phenomena which will be explored in more detail in future SEPAD events and publications. The journal of Faith and International Affairs is publishing an extended discussion on these thoughts in December of 2019 and will publish an entire special issue on the theme of de-sectarianization, comprised of contributions from key SEPAD members. 

In conclusion, de-sectarianization involves the re-imagining of the place of identities in the contemporary socio-political landscape, which can have far reaching repercussions for the ordering of life. In pursuit of more nuanced understanding of these processes, it requires far greater analysis of a range of factors including: a) the actors involved; b) the different processes of re-imagining identity politics; c) the context that shapes this possibility (domestic, regional and international); and d) the capacity of actors to exert agency in the face of sovereign power and structural pressures.