Blog: Ontological Security and the Security of Sectarianism

3rd Sep 2018 by May Darwich

Blog: Ontological Security and the Security of Sectarianism

In recent year, there has been an unprecedented increase in sectarianism in the International Relations of the Middle East. While sectarianism can be the driver of conflict and divides or mere instruments in justifying particular foreign policy decisions, it can be a source of security for actors seeking distinctiveness in their identity narrative. Building on the assumption that states have a basic need for ontological security, which refers to ‘the need to experience oneself as a whole’ (Mitzen 2006, 342), I argued in a more elaborate piece that security is enforced through a stable conception of self-identity. The essence of such a conception of self-identity is the distinctiveness of the Self vis-a-vis the Other. Accordingly, situations leading to the erosion of such distinctiveness trigger anxiety and insecurity, as regimes’ identities become equivocal. Sectarian narrative can be an imperative mechanism to restore ontological security (Darwich 2016).

Saudi Arabia’s policies toward the rise of Islamic regimes and movements in the region reflect ontological insecurity. The rise of a pan-Islamic regime in Iran after 1979 threatened Saudi’s distinctive identity as leader of the Islamic umma. The rise of the trans-state Muslim Brotherhood movement to power briefly in Egypt and Tunisia posed a similar threat to the Kingdom. Against Iran’s revolutionary and republican Islam, which challenged the Saudi’s conservative, monarchic Islam, the Saudi elites responded with a sectarian discourse demonizing Shias and depicting them as unbelievers. The threat of the Muslim Brotherhood to the Saudi family-state’s top-down Islam, was countered by propagation of a Salafist Islam submissive to authority. Sectarianism emerged as a discourse of exclusion, based on religious otherness, and highlighted Saudi Arabia’s identity distinctiveness. In other words, sectarianism was simply a strategy for re-establishing the Kingdom’s ontological security.


Darwich, May. 2016. ‘The Ontological (In)Security of Similarity Wahhabism Versus Islamism in Saudi Foreign Policy’. Foreign Policy Analysis 12 (3): 469–88.

Mitzen, Jennifer. 2006. ‘Ontological Security in World Politics: State Identity and the Security Dilemma’. European Journal of International Relations 12 (3): 341–70.