I was interviewed yesterday for an hour about sectarianism today, after nearly two years since the start of the Arab Spring. Specifically, the interviewer wanted to know developments in Bahrain and how things have changed. Before me, the interviewer conducted numerous interviews on this issue, some of which are very influential and famous figures in this part of the world. The interviewer also wanted to know what I thought about what they have said.
To begin with, many so-called analysts in Middle Eastern Affairs falsely say that the Arab Spring brought about sectarianism in the Middle East, like here in Bahrain, Kuwait, and perhaps Egypt to some extent. I totally disagree. These analysts either don’t know what they’re talking about, or they are in absolute denial about the reality on ground.
What I explained to my interviewer is that sectarianism was always there inside a jar, but a de facto lid mitigated it. In Bahrain for particular, Shiasm was in a jar by itself and Sunnism was in a separate jar as well. The fact is that they existed but had no voice and appearance and just because we were not able to hear it or see it, doesn’t mean that it was not there. When leaders of the Shia opposition decided to take the lid out of their jar to make use of the Arab Spring wave, they were met by a surprise lid lift of the Sunni jar, which I should say, the first time it ever happened in Bahrain. This is because Sunnis in general are not as politically active as Shias, for various reasons, one of which I will explain below. Thus, any dialogue or attempts to resolve the situation in this part of the world will only be able to discuss how to take back sectarianism into the jar and place a lid over it again, not eliminating it.
Why do sects differ in how active in politics they are? This has to do with ideology and belief. Today, we live in a world confined to a concept new to religion, something we all call nation-states. A state, is a country with land, people, government, and most importantly borders. Religions are much older where some do not recognize the state’s existence while others do to a certain magnitude. After the fall of the Shah, Khomeini introduced a constitution that calls for a Shia nation where Shias live, the exportation of the revolution. He began assigning religious figures to represent him in where Shia populations live, including Bahrain.
On the other hand, Sunni ideology (Not Muslim Brotherhood) does make way for the nation-state concept to some degree. The difference here is that Sunnis believe that societies must merge whether following one or various rulers, while Shias believe that aligning under a single ruler is the priority. Thus, we end up seeing Shias as more politically active, while Sunnis are more socially active.
The world today speaks many views but using one language, which is the acceptance of the definition of nation-states. However, the Ayatollahs who follow the Khomeini ideology are a few who remain living today speaking a language we all do not recognize and reject. We cannot afford waiting to change an outdated ideology that does not believe in nation-states. All we can do today is generate a legal structure that constrain ideologies into respecting this relatively new concept and making sure that political and social organizations are legally confined into working constructively to develop societies under the basis of a nation-state.