Sectarianism and De-Sectarianisation as Equivalents

13th Apr 2022 by Mustafa Menshawy

If one follows interviews with leaders of countries such as Syria’s Bashar al-Assad about rising waves of sectarianism in their countries, one quickly expects the following refrain: ‘there is no such as thing in my country.’

In many of his interviews, Assad celebrated a harmonious social fabric, national unity and full co-existence. The celebration went unabated even as the country has been engulfed by darker waves of identity politics based on nefarious factionalism and acute polarisation.

My recent report, already published on the website of SEPAD, traces this process of ‘acting as if’ not established by Assad during his rule. The case of Syria offers important scope for reflection of this narrative of ‘acting as if’ not, with sectarian difference shaping the political, social and spatial fabric of the state. Moving beyond Syria, the report compares Assad’s rhetoric with that of Kuwait’s Emir Sabah al-Ahmed (2006-2020). Although often touted as a ‘success story’ in circumventing sectarian difference, Kuwait has its own share of sectarianism, especially if we consider grievances of minority Shias towards the majority Sunnis to which the ruling family belongs.

The report draws on a forensic discourse analysis of speeches given by Syrian and Kuwaiti leaders over the past decade. In doing so, it identifies many similarities in the language of the two leaders, most interestingly with regard to how they re-shape sectarianism as de-sectarianisation. Specifically, there are two major patterns of commonalities:

The first pattern is based on denying and hiding sectarianism. These are citations from some of Assad’s various speeches: ‘The Syrian society has never been sectarian’. As such, it is important for Syrians to celebrate a ‘perfect sense of commonality and shared living in Syria’.

These are citations from some of al-Ahmed’s various speeches as identified on the official government archive: There is no sectarianism in Kuwait as the ‘the Kuwaitis are fully united by heart and pathways’, ‘It is God’s well for Kuwaitis to stand in one line as a fully patterned structure’, ‘the safety of the community lies in its unity and cohesiveness.’

Assad takes it further, going beyond bragging about the ‘non-sectarian’ nature of his country. He considered the post 2011 an opportunity for social redemption. The conflict helped save Syrians who have ‘sectarianism in their souls as fire under ashes’ from the evil of such difference. The Syrian leader stretched his discourse further. The unfolding of the crisis in 2011, he claimed, was perfectly timed as ‘a few more years down the line, those sectarian tendencies among doubtful Syrians would have gone deeper into their souls’.

The second pattern is externalisation. Both al-Assad and al-Ahmed considered sectarianism a foreign import or threat to the internalised situation of integrity, unity and national consensus.

Al-Assad accused Western forces of plotting to ‘destroy and divide Syria … through sectarian channels’. Similarly, Al-Ahmed accused ‘external forces’ of vicious plans to sectarianise Kuwait by ‘targeting our cohesiveness’.

Different Contexts

Context matters, of course, conditioning the actions and discourse of Syrian and Kuwaiti leaders. For example, al-Assad differs from the Kuwaiti emir as his ‘external’ forces are named as ‘the West’, the ‘US’ or regional forces such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

In contrast, the Kuwaiti emir kept it vague and ambiguous, avoiding specific reference to external threats. We have thus to move beyond texts to understand these differences. The Kuwaiti leadership’s historic strategy is based on co-opting and placating internal and external enemies. It is more of ‘balancing’ relations with three neighbours more powerful and predominant (if we judge Kuwait’s vulnerability by area and population). Indeed, historically Kuwait has sought to maintain cordial with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The rhetoric thus needs all these gestures of caution and a desire to keep it quiet and maintain balance.

Against this accommodationist attitude, Assad and the Baathist ideology is based on confronting the outside. Supporting by a nationalist pan-Arab ideology, Assad’s Baathist regime has always given prominence to foreign ‘conspiracies’ targeting Syria’s stability and unity. The very state formation of Syria evolved within moments of confrontation with the coloniser, and the Assad dynasty have used this legacy to maintain legitimacy and survival.

Along with solving the puzzle of contradiction between realities, I find the process of de-sectarianisation, defined by denial and externalisation patterns, ends up perpetuating (or re-inventing perhaps) the very sectarian sentiments, tendencies and policies it is meant to fight.

Their understandings of sectarianism and its opposites are similarly drawn on boundary-making, othering or ‘becoming different.’  

Both leaders made this clear in speeches, saying that ‘sectarianism means dividing, fragmenting and destroying society.’ This means that de-sectarianisation is constructed as unity, a term under which pluralism is denied and critical voices are suppressed or punished. De-sectarianisation is thus another level of othering similar to that adopted in sectarianism.

Attempts to reach a mutually exclusive classifactory system where one of them cancels out the other or presents a solution to the problems induced by the other could fail in an authoritarian context, conflating both terms and benefitting from this conflation.

The binary opposition, as reductionist and over-simplified, swallows up all pluralities, differences, intricacies and distinctions in Arab politics and turns them into essentialised entities: De-sectarianised internal entities and sectarianised external entities.

Sectarianisation and de-sectarianisation are two elements of a process that has functions, clearly articulated and operationalised in the Arab polities towards the goal of staying in power.

The full report explores these arguments in more detail. It also includes new insights, such as exploring ‘pan-Arabism’ and ‘secularism’ presented by Assad as bulwarks against sectarianism albeit as ideas that entrench the opposite reality.

In this vein, authoritarian leaders draw their durability in power not only on stability and fixity of conditions, situations and discourses, but also on an ability to construct – and reconstruct – terminology and division for their own instrumental purposes.