The politics animating Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict

Nader Hashemi writes: The response by most Arab regimes, principally those of the GCC, to the Arab Spring is revealing. It serves to highlight the salience of authoritarianism over theology in understanding the dynamics of Sunni-Shi‘i relations today. Fearing that the demand for political change would sweep across the Arab world and destabilize their own societies, several of these regimes relied on a strategy of exploiting sectarianism to deflect demands for democratization. The response from these governments can be situated within the framework of Joel Migdal’s thesis [discussed earlier in this article] on the nature of “weak states” and the “strategies of survival” that shape their politics.

In writing about the House of Saud’s reaction to the Arab Spring, Madawi al-Rasheed observes that:

Sectarianism became a Saudi pre-emptive counter-revolutionary strategy that exaggerates religious difference and hatred and prevents the development of national non-sectarian politics. Through religious discourse and practices, sectarianism in the Saudi context involves not only politicizing religious differences, but also creating a rift between the majority Sunnis and the Shia minority.

This was made easier when only Shi‘as in the Eastern province came out to demonstrate during the Arab Spring, while similar protests in the rest of Saudi Arabia failed to materialize. The specter of an Iranian Shi‘i/Savafid threat was invoked, and the usual Wahhabi court (Ulema) were given air time to issue fatwas against public demonstrations and to warn people of the wrath of God that would fall upon those who defied their rulers. The security forces were then brought in as backup to restore order via the usual tactics of repression that are common in non-democratic regimes.

Al-Rasheed, however, notes that it is wrong to characterize relations between the Saudi regime and its Shi‘i population as a one-way street that relies exclusively on repression. The House of Saud “deploys multiple strategies when it comes to its religious minorities and their leadership,” she observes. “Wholesale systematic discrimination against the Shia may be a characteristic of one particular historical moment, but this can be reversed. A political situation may require alternatives to repression. Sometimes repression is combined with co-optation and even promotion of minority interests and rights.”

For example, when ISIS bombed Shi‘i worshippers on two occasions in May 2015, the Saudi regime strongly condemned the attacks and vowed to hunt down the perpetrators. Expressions of solidarity with the Shi‘a soon followed and were widely disseminated on official state media. Summarizing this strategy, al-Rasheed concludes that:

It is important to note that there is no regular and predictable strategy deployed by Saudi authoritarianism against the Shia. Each historical moment requires a particular response towards this community, ranging from straightforward repression to co-optation and concession. The Arab Spring and its potential impact on the country pushed the regime to reinvigorate sectarian discourse against the Shia in order to renew the loyalty of the Sunni majority.

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