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Sectarianism in disguise: de-sectarianisation in Syria and Kuwait

By Mustafa Menshawy

Politics in the Arab region is marked with a specific striking contradiction: regimes witnessing sectarian tensions and divisions have always claimed the opposite. Rulers have touted their countries as home to a unique sense of faultless social harmony, ideal cross-sect unity, and unquestionable national consensus. This report investigates the process of constructing the ‘as if not’ (Wedeen 1998) case as a process of discourse-making traced through the speeches of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (2000-present) and Kuwaiti Emir Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah (2006-2020). The discourse analysis found that the two countries are not opposite poles, as runs the dominant impression separating Kuwait as a ‘success story’ in de-sectarianisation. Assad and al-Sabah are two sides of the same coin as they have built discourses that deny, falsify, or hide sectarianism regardless of its different levels or volumes across the two cases. They share not only this twisted process of discourse-making, but also the function of it. That is, an attempt to ensure their regime security and consolidate their power strategies. Depending on specific understandings of sectarianisation and de-sectarianisation as markers of boundary- making and othering, the two leaders both end up with what I call ‘sectarianisation in de-sectarianisation’, that is entrenching the very problem which they claim that they are fighting against. Sectarianisation and de-sectarianisation are thus not opposites, as the two leaders construct their discourses through the interplay between both terms. Nevertheless, Assad and al-Ahmed have their own points of dissimilarities relating to history and political culture in each one country.

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