Blog: Sectarianism in Not So Sectarian Places

3rd Sep 2018 by May Darwich

Blog: Sectarianism in Not So Sectarian Places

There is wide consensus that the Middle East is currently plunged into sectarianism; Sunni-Shiite divide became a predominant dynamic in the massive war in Syria, state repression and societal strife in Bahrain, the violent intervention in Yemen, and the conflict in Iraq. In the last half-century, three sectarian waves have evolved following three critical events: the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979; the 2003 Iraq War, and the 2011 Arab Uprisings (Wehrey 2017, 3–5). The spread of sectarianism following the 2011 Arab Uprisings is, however, distinct in scale and nature. After 2011, sectarian tensions not only spread to conflict zones and societies with pre-existing sectarian social fabrics — such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and Pakistan — it also spread in the most unlikely places, where hardly any Shiite communities existed, such as Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, and other countries in the Muslim World. In Indonesia, a Sunni alliance against the Shiites has emerged to marginalise the country’s small Shiite group (approximately 1% of the population) (Human Rights Watch 2013). In Malaysia, anti-Shiite rhetoric intensified and Sunni scholars claimed that Shiites are a ‘threat to Muslim unity’ (Ng 2011). In Morocco, anti-Shiite sentiments have been growing to the extent that conservative Sunni scholars have demanded the ban of Shiites from the Kingdom (Safi-Eddine 2017), and the Minister of Islamic Affairs characterized the Shiites as ‘a virus that threatens the nation’ (Akhbar Al-Youm 2017). In Jordan, where less than 1% of the population is Shiite, conservative Sunni scholars have promoted a ferocious anti-Shiite rhetoric, a phenomenon that Joas Wagemakers (2016) calls ‘anti-Shiism without the Shi’a’. Less than 1% of Egyptians are Shiite, yet Post-Mubarak Egypt has also witnessed a swift growth in anti-Shiite sectarianism (Abou-El-Fadl 2015).[1]

[1] Estimates of Shiite populations are taken from the Pew Research Centre:


Abou-El-Fadl, Reem. 2015. ‘Between Cairo and Washington: Sectarianism and Counter- Revolution in Post- Mubarak Egypt’. In Revolutionary Egypt: Connecting Domestic and International Struggles. London: Routledge.

Akhbar Al-Youm. 2017. ‘Maroc : Un Ministre Traite Les Marocains Chrétiens et Chiites de «virus Qui Menacent La Nation»’. Les Observateurs. 26 May 2017.

Human Rights Watch. 2013. ‘Indonesia: Ensure Safe Return Home of Evicted Shia Villagers’. 30 June 2013.

Ng, Eileen. 2011. ‘Shiites Banned in “Tolerant” Malaysia’. Jakarta Globe. 16 January 2011.

Safi-Eddine, Kenza. 2017. ‘La « chiitophobie » Au Maroc : Entre Réalités et Fantasmes’. L’Orient-Le Jour. 12 April 2017.

Wagemakers, Joas. 2016. ‘Anti-Shi‘ism without the Shi‘a: Salafi Sectarianism in Jordan’. Maydan (blog). 17 October 2016.

Wehrey, Frederic. 2017. ‘Introduction’. In Beyond Sunni and Shia: The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East, edited by Frederic Wehrey, 1–10. London: Hurst Publishers.