Sectarian Games in the Longue Durée

26th Nov 2019 by Simon Mabon

Sectarian Games in the Longue Durée

This piece is taken from the SEPAD report ‘Sectarianism in the Longue Duree’ available here:

Since the emergence of Arab states from the embers of the Ottoman Empire, political projects have been sites of contestation as elites engage in struggles with a range of parabolic forces that often undermine the stability of states. The establishment of political projects is closely tied to the development of exclusionary identities which seek to derive support from a collective. Within this, the cultivation of sect-based difference has been a prominent feature of the biopolitical governance strategies of sovereign power in divided societies across the Middle East. While the study of sectarianism gained momentum after developments across the region – notably revolutionary events in Iran, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the Arab Uprisings- sectarian identities have been a prominent feature of political projects from the creation of states in the formative years of the 20th century. At this time, regimes across the region sought to ensure their survival amidst precarious environments by cultivating support from key constituencies, with sectarian affinity offering an easy means to achieve this. 

Moving beyond the traditional understandings of sectarianism which group analysis into primordial, instrumentalist or constructivist, and so-called ‘third ways’, I argue that sectarian identities are routinely deployed and mobilised within political projects as a fundamental feature of biopolitical projects. Yet the inherent ‘stickiness’ of sectarian identities - notably their capacity to resonate within society - means that the mobilization of sectarian identities is not always without repercussions. This is pertinently stressed by Staci Strobl who argues that sectarianism is a strong force, a “heartfelt anxiety that cannot easily be put aside or shoved under the rug”.[1] These anxieties play out within and across the fabric - and development - of political projects across the Middle East, meaning that the regulation of sectarian identities is of existential importance for regimes across the region.

Reflecting on state building projects facilitates awareness of how regimes have positioned sectarian identities within the biopolitical machineries of power. Across the formative years of states, the biopolitical machineries of sovereign power were typically mobilised in such a way that privileged co-sectarian kin at the expense of others who were marginalised and routinely cast into what Giorgio Agamben termed bare life. Agamben’s work on sovereign power provides rich theoretical tools to reflect on the processes through which ruling elites ensure their survival and the possible repercussions for those marginalized from political projects by the sovereign.

Debate over the source of sovereign power has been a prominent feature of scholarship on the Middle East and beyond, revealing philosophical differences about the understanding of states. For the likes of Talal Asad, states should be viewed as the embodiment of sovereignty “independent of the entire population”, while others suggest that sovereignty should be located in offices or individuals.[2] It is here where Political Philosophers have a great deal to contribute to discussions. For Giorgio Agamben, building on the ideas of Michel Foucault, sovereignty possesses a biopolitical dimension, concerned with the regulation of life in spite of the presence of often violent contestation. In such conditions, the cultivation of biopolitical projects privileges and mobilizes sectarian identities in pursuit of survival.[3]

Identifying and exploring such processes is important when seeking to understand the ways in which sectarian identities operate across political life, and the means through which they are regulated. While sharing similarities with points made by scholars such as Morten Valbjorn and Ray Hinnebusch, Justin Gengler, Courtney Freer, Toby Dodge and others, this approach – as put forward in a recent article in Middle East Law and Governance - suggests that this is an on-going process amidst the drive for regime survival but one that cannot solely be reduced to elite interests.[4] Instead, to understand the position of sectarian identities within political projects and the ways through which these identities are located within sovereign power we must reflect on the regulation of life across the longue durée. 

Across Agamben’s canon of work, sovereign power operates biopolitically, predicated on the ability to strip meaning from life. For Agamben, derogation from the rule of law in times of crisis establishes the state of exception as the prevailing paradigm of government. In this context, Agamben maps out a complex picture of the ways in which sovereign power operates, regulating life through biopolitical structures of governance which cast individuals into bare life. With the creation of these structures designed to regulate life, regimes were armed with the capacity to rapidly respond to threats to their rule. 

Concerns about stability and regime survival are especially pronounced in divided societies which are often exacerbated when particular groups are charged with allegations of conflicting loyalties. Dating back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the states that followed sought to curb the potentially destabilising impact of these groups by generally – although not exclusively – locating sectarian identities within the governance structures and biopolitical machinery of state power. At stake, for those concerned about the presence of the sectarian other, was the presentation of an alternative ordering, drawing on contending memories, experiences and visions of the nature of political projects, and exacerbating concerns about survival. To understand how this operates, let us explore the way in which sectarian identities have been positioned within political projects across Iraq and Bahrain, which provide rich examples of the struggle over the regulation of life and the ways in which sectarian identities are regulated within political projects.

Sectarianism in Bahrain and Iraq 

Closer examination of state building projects in Bahrain and Iraq sheds some light on this which reveal the manipulation of sect-based identities in pursuit of regime survival, using the biopolitical tools of sovereign power in pursuit of this goal. This often plays out across a range of different aspects of political projects, notably access to institutions, the regulation of political space, and deployment of the coercive infrastructures of the state. For some such as Omar AlShehabi, sectarianism became a gaze through which life was understood and regulated. Here, fundamental political, social and economic questions were reduced to the reified categories of sect and ethnicity.[5] In the formative years of the 20th century, a new biopolitical system of governance was established that sought to prevent intra-Sunni tensions, while reinforcing sectarian schisms. 

This process of ensuring the Al Khalifa dynasty’s survival created a “Sunni-normative environment” against the Shi’a-Persian other, seen to be a threat to the organisational structure of the state.[6] Socio-economic challenges hit Shi’a groups the hardest, prompting strikes and protests, further exacerbating regime concerns in the process.[7]  Shi’a festivals took on additional meaning in this context, prompting further repression and cycles of violence. In the decades that followed, the biopolitical machinery of the Al Khalifa’s rule continued to deploy its coercive apparatus, targeting Shi’a members of the lower classes, most prominently seen what Fred Wehrey referred to as in Bahrain’s “decade of discontent”.[8]

These practices were documented in a report for Bahrain’s Ministry of Cabinet Affairs, known as the Bandar Report, which articulated a strategy of responding to the perceived “Shi’a threat”. This included a range of strategies such as gerrymandering, election rigging, naturalization and the abandonment of Shi’a figures into bare life.[9] Al Wefaq, the main Shi’a party was targeted by the state apparatus, with Sheikh Isa Qassem – the country’s top Shi’a cleric – imprisoned, while others including Jawad and Jalal Fairouz had their nationalities revoked. A fundamental feature of this strategy was the evisceration of political meaning from Shi’a agency, both collectively and individually, yet a number of wealthy Shi’a continued to support the Al Khalifa in an attempt to continue benefitting from the status quo.

Similar experiences are traced across Iraq which, in the early stages of the 20th century was described by Hana Batatu as “a congeries of distinct, discordant, self-involved societies” underpinned by class, tribalism, sectarianism and urban-rural tensions.[10] Moreover, as the intrepid British explorer Gertrude Bell articulated, the large Shi’a presence across the south of the state posed a threat to its survival, with strong “Persian influences”. [11] The installation of a Sunni monarch over an Iraqi society with a Shi’a majority albeit wracked with cross-cutting socio-economic issues posed a serious challenge to the nascent state.   

Over the coming decades, Shi’a communities were typically viewed with trepidation, whilst also captured by the biopolitical structures of the state which sought to ensure its survival. At this time, it was generally accepted that Shi’a were prohibited from accessing high school, administrative bureaucracies and military colleges, further exacerbating grievances amongst communities.[12] As the state developed, these processes became both more sophisticated and more explicit, particularly under Saddam Hussein. Following the Iranian revolution, regime fears were exacerbated – subjugated to death – prompting the execution of prominent Shi’a figures.[13]

The re-imagining of politics in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein created space for Shi’a groups to exert agency, perhaps best documented in a claim from the United Iraqi Alliance that “Iraq is the Shi’a […] And the Shi’a are Iraq”.[14] The establishment of the Muhassassa System, explored elsewhere in this report by Toby Dodge, created conditions for a process of Shi’a centric state building, resulting in widespread feelings of abandonment amongst Sunni communities previously empowered by the political system.[15] A cycle of mistrust quickly emerged, driven by sectarian identities and the narratives that resonated around the identities, resulting in militia violence exacerbated the presence of Al Qa’ida in Iraq and Da’ish, both of whom articulated a vehemently anti-Shi’a agenda. While the governments of Haider al Abadi and his successor, Adil Abdul Mahdi, appeared to pursue efforts to eradicate sectarian difference, the extent to which sectarianism has been embedded within the Iraqi state, not only in its system of Muhassasa but also across history, means that this was ultimately unsuccessful.

Reflecting on the histories of Bahrain and Iraq reveals that the development of political projects across the 20thand 21st centuries has been plagued by existential fears about regime survival across different forms of government. The resonance of sectarian identities was seen to offer a means through which opponents of the state could coalesce, meaning that sect-based identities were drawn into the governance strategies of the state in an effort to ensure survival. 

Repercussions of Sectarian Games 

In October 2019, protesters took to the streets of Iraq and Lebanon articulating anger at the dominance of sectarian identities in the political organisation of life. This anger manifested in calls for a re-ordering of life – a process of de-sectarianization – away from sectarian coteries which had created conditions where elites gained vast wealth while those marginalised from political structures struggled for survival. At the time of writing, protesters continue to engage in resistance against the dominance of sectarianism within political life, yet untangling these identities from the fabric of the state proves incredibly difficult. 

Across Iraq, Lebanon and Bahrain, the actions of actors are conditioned by experience across the longue durée of the 20th and 21st century’s political machinations. Sectarian identities have been positioned prominently in the biopolitical structures of sovereign power designed to ensure regime survival amidst divided societies. Sectarian allegiance posed an alternative ordering to that proposed by regimes, provoking existential concerns about the status quo, sovereignty, and the survival of political projects. In both Bahrain and Iraq, the manipulation of sectarian differences within the context of efforts to regulate life was not without resistance. The stickiness of sectarian identities provided a means through which regime opponents could easily mobilise through shared identities in an attempt to circumvent the biopolitical structures of sovereign power. 

The socio-economic repercussions of these processes created and exacerbated divisions between rulers and ruled which largely - although not exclusively – has mapped onto sect based difference. This provided rulers with the means of surrounding themselves with loyalists and concentric circles of supporters in an attempt to circumvent domestic tension. As we have seen, this is not a new process, but one that dates back to the establishment of states across the region. Given this, to understand the position of sectarian groups within political projects and the mechanisms through which regimes seek to regulate their activity, it is imperative to trace these interactions over the evolution of states from their formation to the present day.


[1] Staci Strobl, Sectarian Order in Bahrain: The Social and Colonial Origins of Criminal Justice (London: Lexington Books, 2018), 117. 

[2] Talal Asad, “Where are the Margins of the State?” In Anthropology in the Margins of the State, eds. Veena Das and Deborah Poole (Santa Fe, New Mexico: School of American Research Press, 2004), 281; Nazih N. Aubui, Over-Stating the Arab State (London: I.B. Tauris, 1995)Lisa Anderson, “The State in the Middle East and North Africa,” Comparative Politics 20, no. 1 (1987): 1–18; Charles Tripp, “The State as an Always- Unfinished Performance Improvisation and Performativity in the Face of Crisis,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 50, no 2 (2018): 337–342; Fred Halliday, The Middle East in International Relations: Power, Politics and Ideology. Vol. 4. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Joel S Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States: state-society relations and state capabilities in the Third World(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988).

[3] See: Toby Dodge, “Seeking to Explain the Rise of Sectarianism in the Middle East: The Case Study of Iraq,” in POMPES Studies No. 25 Visions of Gulf Security (2014): 30–35; and Bassel F. Salloukh, Rabie Barakat, Jinan S. Al-Habbal, Lara W. Khattab, and Shoghig Mikaelian, The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (London: Pluto Press, 2015).

[4] Morten Valbjorn and Raymond Hinnebusch, “Exploring the Nexus between Sectarianism and Regime Formation in a New Middle East: Theoretical Points of Departure,” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 19 no. 1 (2019): 2–22; Justin Gengler, “Understanding Sectarianism in the Persian Gulf,” in Sectarian Politics in the Persian Gulf, ed. L. G. Potter (London: Hurst and Company, 2013); Courtney Freer, “The Symbiosis of Sectarianism, Authoritarianism, and Rentierism in the Saudi State,” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 19, no.1 (2019): 88–108; Toby Dodge, “Seeking to Explain the Rise of Sectarianism in the Middle East: The Case Study of Iraq,” in POMEPS Studies No. 25 Visions of Gulf Security (2014): 30–35. See also: Simon Mabon, “Sectarian Games: Sovereign Power, War Machines, and Regional Order in the Middle East”, Middle East Law and Governance 12, no.1 (2020) 1-36.

[5] Omar H AlShehabi, Contested Modernity: Sectarianism, Nationalism and Colonialism in Bahrain (London: Oneworld, 2019) p235. 

[6] Sophia Pandya, “Women’s Shi’i Ma’atim in Bahrain,” Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 6 no. 2 (2010): 40.

[7] Amy Austin Holmes “Working in the Revolution on Bahrain: From the Mass Strike to Everyday Forms of Medical Provision,” Social Movement Studies 15, no. 1 (2016): 105–14.

[8]Frederic Wehrey, “Bahrain’s Decade of Discontent,” Journal of Democracy 24, no. 3 (2013): 116–26. 

[9] Justin J. Gengler, “Royal Factionalism, the Khawalid, and the Securitization of ‘the Shīʿa Problem’ in Bahrain,” Journal of Arabian Studies 3 no. 1 (2013): 69–70; and Wehrey, “Bahrain’s Decade,” 120. 

[10] Hanna Batatu, The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq’s Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba’athists and Free Officers (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978), 13. 

[11] Gertrude Bell, A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert (New York: Penguin, 2015), 169. 

[12] Adeeda Dawisha, Iraq: A Political History from Independence to Occupation (Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2013), 72. 

[13] Adeed Dawisha, “‘Identity’ and Political Survival in Saddam’s Iraq,” Middle East Journal 53, no. 4 (1999): 553–567; and Rodger Shanahan, “Shi’a Political Development in Iraq: The Islamic Da’wa Party,” Third World Quarterly 25, no. 5 (2004): 943–954. 

[14] Fanar Haddad, “Shi’a Centric State-Building and Sunni Rejection in Post 2003 Iraq,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2015, 6, CP261_Haddad_Shia_Final.pdf.

[15] Simon Mabon and Ana Maria Kumarasamy, “Da’ish, Stasis and Bare Life in Iraq,” in Iraq After ISIS: The Challenges of Post War Recovery, eds. Jacob Erikson and Ahmed Khaleel (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).