Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Sectarianism in the Persian Gulf

The importance of sectarian identity in the Persian Gulf has risen to global importance, especially in the worldwide media in the last decade. Yet stories of “sectarian clashes” and “sectarian tensions” that make the headlines do little to explain the relationship between overlapping tribal, regional, and national identities and one’s religious sect. Upon closer examination, identity becomes a shifting, ever-changing concept and thus broadly labeling the people of the Gulf as being only either Sunni or Shi’i is not only a broad generalization, but also can lead to misconceptions about the advancing and receding nature of sectarian identity’s importance. By examining the cases of the Sunni and Shi’i populations of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, it is easier to demonstrate the nuances of sectarian identity, particularly in relation to questions of regime security, tribalism, regionalism, and nationalism.

A sign at a protest in Bahrain reads "Not Sunni, Not Shi'ite, United for the Homeland"

The clarification of what exactly constitutes identity and how human beings construct this very personal concept is essential to understanding Sunni-Shi’i relations. As defined by Dale Eickelman in “Culture and Identity in the Middle East,” identity is an ever-changing concept of self that consists of overlapping layers: family, tribe, religion, social strata; all of these and much more make up identity. Religious identity is built upon a shared “myth-symbol complex” according to Fanar Haddad in his book Sectarianism in Iraq. That complex emphasizes shared beliefs, shames, and glories that bind people of a certain sect together. This identity can be assertive (the extreme side of which is aggressive), passive (extreme: apologetic), or banal according to Haddad, and is constantly moving along that scale given socioeconomic and political circumstances in an area. It is also not mutually exclusive of the other identities present in a person, and especially when it comes to national identity there are often competing sectarian groups who also view themselves as either a part of or the leaders of a national identity.

The complex nature of identity, specifically sectarian identity, belies the use of generalizations across an entire region but for one: when dealing with how sectarian identities affect politics, a major concern in the Persian Gulf states will always be the influence of Shi’a Iran on their own Shi’ite populations. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the collapse of the Saudi-Iranian “dual pillar” system of regional security, there has been significant concern on the part of the Arab Gulf over the exportation of either an Islamist or Shi’ite revolution in their own countries. This has been central in regional security strategies and led to the creation of the Gulf Cooperation Council in 1981 as a political and economic bulwark against the Islamic Republic of Iran.

What the Gulf leaders are afraid of: protests in Iran in 1979.

Within individual countries in the Gulf, however, the interplay of sectarian identity with politics, society and the economy is much more diverse and specific to the situation in the state under examination. The Kingdom of Bahrain, led by the Sunni al-Khalifa family, is made up of about 65-70 percent Shi’ites who view themselves as discriminated against and marginalized in a state that is rightfully their own. Both in the early 1990s and 2011 to the present day, significant portions of the Bahraini population rose up against the monarchy, something that did not occur in Sunni majority-led monarchies to the same extent. In Bahrain, the minority-led government shapes the sectarian debate, as does its brutal suppression of protests and violations of human rights. Because of its strategic location on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s eastern border where much of the Saudi Shi’ite population lives, GCC troops led by Saudi Arabia arrived in 2011 to violently put down Shi’a unrest so that protests in Bahrain did not spread outside of the country and Iran (a traditional claimant on Bahrain) was not given an opportunity to retake the archipelago. Due to its government and strategic value to wealthy Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s sectarian identities form the basis of political unrest as well as external intervention in a way unheard of in other Gulf states.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself presents a very different demographic situation as well as an example of tribal and regional identities overlapping with sectarian ones. The Kingdom is composed of 10-20 percent Shi’ites, mostly located in the oil-sodden Eastern Province. The economic importance of the Eastern Province ensures that King Abdullah and his successor will not easily part with total control over the region and its inhabitants. In 1979-1980, when the Shi’ite population began protesting rule by Riyadh, the government swiftly put down the unrest given the timing and the perceived threat to regime security. 1979 was a dangerous year in Saudi Arabia: the Islamic Revolution was toppling the Shah in Iran, the Great Mosque in Mecca was taken over by extremists, and the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan, leading to calls by Muslims the world over for Saudi intervention.

Since that time, Saudi Shi’ites have switched tactics from armed conflict to seeking to establish cultural authenticity (al-asala al-Shi`yya) within Saudi society in the 1990s. Concurrently, the Saudi government has begun a process of coopting the Shi’a (especially the elite) to discourage horizontal collaboration among opposition groups. The rise of the Sunni-led Sahwa opposition movement in the 1980s and 1990s meant that Shi’ites were no longer the only internal threat in the Kingdom, and they were certainly not the most dangerous. Tribalism and regionalism have played major roles in the search for cultural authenticity within the Shi’ite population of Saudi Arabia. Tribal identity is of paramount importance in establishing “ownership” of the Saudi national identity, as is pointing to the marginalization of Sunni Hejazis by those from the Najd region as a basis for cross-group cooperation. Although the Saudi Shi’a community rose up in the Arab Awakening, it was to a lesser degree than their neighbors in Bahrain and the Shi’a elites were quick to side with King Abdullah and the government, calling for an end to the protests.

Iraq provides yet another unique example of sectarian identities within a Gulf state that has many important cultural groups all under the banner of the “Iraqi people.” Perhaps the poster child for global formulations of a Sunni-Shi’i divide, Iraq in reality is a mixture of regional, tribal, and religious identities. The 1991 uprisings in both the Kurdish (but Sunni) north and mostly (but not all) Shi’a south saw the country divided regionally rather than by sect during the economic crisis of the 1990s (the Sanctions Era). Tribalism also played a key role in the disproportionate economic privation of the south, as Saddam Hussein’s family was of the centrally located Tikritis who were thus favored due to tribal affiliations with the ruling family. Shrinking resources meant the state relied on tribal leaders to provide services it had in the past, and tribal lines often cut across sects and, to a lesser degree, regions. Iraq also includes multiple other religious sects than just Sunnis and Shi'ites: Mandaeans, Christians, Assyrians, Yazidis, and Turkmen also make up large swathes of the population.

Major ethno-religious groups in Iraq 
   Shiite Arabs
   Sunni Arabs

Sectarian identity did, however, play a role in the violence in Iraq in recent years. Following the US invasion in 2003, Iraqi Shi’ites saw themselves as able to assert their sectarian identity for the first time in more than a decade. As they make up 55-60 percent of the population, such assertions of identity, even if not on the extreme-aggressive end of the spectrum, led to increasing tensions with the Sunni population that exploded in violence. “Sectarian clashes” escalated through 2007, when the US-led surge helped to significantly decrease casualties. Still, domestic political concerns abound over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s increasingly Saddam-esque control of security forces and the intelligence branches of government, and national cohesion in the face of multiple tribal, regional, and sectarian differences remains elusive. With so many competing identities at play, the convenience of labeling Iraqis as simply Sunni or Shi’i is a gross over-generalization.

While understanding the overarching differences between the Sunnis and Shi’ites of the Gulf is certainly important to forming a deeper understanding of regional politics and security, in reality painting people in the broad strokes of sect alone leaves no room for the consideration of the multiple identities at play within all human beings. Tribal, regional, national, economic, and social identities play just as an important role in people’s conceptions of self at any given time, and years of economic hardship or social and political marginalization often lead to people turning to any of these identities for support and mobilization mechanisms. The importance of the domestic political situation also cannot be emphasized enough in explaining the unique situation of Sunni-Shi’i relations in individual Gulf states, as demonstrated by the cases of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. In the end, identity of any kind proves to be a complex concept and thus to generalize what it means to be Sunni or Shi’i in the Gulf renders sectarian identity static, simplified, and altogether much less interesting than the reality on the ground.

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