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Topics / Arab Region Transitions

What Is Sectarianization?

How identities and pasts are invented and used to produce power in the Middle East and beyond

… there were two revolutions in 1979, one that made headlines and one that unfurled quietly, a black wave with far-reaching consequences for millions.
— Kim Ghattas, Black Wave


What is political sectarianization? It is an alternative to the static concept of sectarianism, which implies that ancient grudges or theological disputes eternally divide religious communities. Today a majority of political scientists see sectarianization as a political tool. It is the political usage of identity to produce power.


While the Iranian Revolution made headlines in 1979, during the same era, governing elites from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan changed the laws and social norms that shaped their countries. As rulers competed for legitimacy at home and for influence overseas, they fabricated new forms of social and political behavior. They refashioned the present by remaking the past, reshaping the identities of citizens and societies. In her vivid new book, Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry that Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, Kim Ghattas asks, “What happened to us?” What dynamics worked against the cultural diversity and coexistence that her home country of Lebanon and its region had known?

Ghattas, a BBC television and radio journalist who spent 20 years reporting from the Middle East and from Washington, D.C., is now a writer and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In search of answers to her question, Ghattas takes her readers on a guided tour through 40 years of state-sponsored religion. Her account embeds the testimony of cultural figures whose lives were upended by an age of politically driven sectarianization.

A Pragmatic Man Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the holy city of Qom, Iran, March 1979. As Kim Ghattas writes in Black Wave, “Khomeini may have been an Islamic revolutionary, but he was pragmatic, as politically shrewd as he was ruthless.” (Credit: Michel Setboun/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

As Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel describe in their 2017 volume Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, sectarianization is often a top-down and “deeply artificial” product of failed governance rather than a cause. It often masks real drivers of conflict, economic and political, with a manufactured religious rivalry.

For example, a functioning state may seek legitimacy by providing public services, opportunities to thrive, and inclusive narratives of national identity that form a credible social contract. However, failed national-level governance brings the famous “absence of the state,” intense inequality, or stifling authoritarianism. When the ruler's toolbox of incentives or coercion falls short, a brittle state seeks other means of power. Ruling elites may construct or mobilize ethnic, sociopolitical, or religious identity groups. They treat citizens not as individuals but as subnational groups or as foreign presences backed by a rival power. Citizens receive benefits and protection unequally on the basis of their assigned identities. By this measure, the opposite of sectarianization is equal citizenship.

In Black Wave, Ghattas recounts the intellectual and social movements that led up to the events of 1979, including the Movement of the Disinherited in Lebanon. She demonstrates that prime drivers of the region’s political reconfiguration lie not in religion but in “dispossession and injustice,” lack of representation, and, in the Shah’s Iran, brutal repression.

By any standard, 1979 is a pivotal year. Young people who did not live through that time will appreciate Ghattas’s navigation of complex, interlocking events. She charts Iran’s fateful course up to and following the departure of the Shah in January and Khomeini’s arrival in Tehran on February 1. She recalls how revolutionary cassette tapes bypassed state-controlled media in the 1970s, similar to how social media has sometimes been able to elude government controls in the 21st century. Ghattas laments Khomeini’s failure to compromise, and his Orwellian inclination to snuff out intellectual and political diversity.

The construction of clerical rule and an Islamic Republic of Iran sent shock waves overseas. The author traces echoes of Iran’s revolution in the circumstances of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s assassination in October 1981. Likewise, she sees reverberations in the cascade of events that followed the siege of the Great Mosque of Mecca, seized that November by fundamentalists inspired in part by Saudi Arabia’s own conservative cleric Abd al-Aziz bin Baz. In the wake of that attack, Saudi leaders remodeled the kingdom to better match the social goals of the fundamentalists. At home, they empowered religious police and restrictions. Overseas, they faced nearby Iran’s enmity to monarchy in general and to the Saudi kingdom in particular. Successive Saudi rulers would seek to delegitimize Iran’s claims of Islamic governance by fostering sectarian, anti-Shia propaganda — propaganda that would resurge horrifically years later in the attempt to overthrow the Assad regime in Syria. Bin Baz would go on to become an influential religious leader supporting the Saudi monarchy, and eventually Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia.

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Still in 1979, bear with me, Ghattas traces the flow of ideas and money leading up to the transformation of Pakistan’s legal code into the Nizam-i-Islam by Zia-ul-Haq in February of that year — the year that also saw the execution of Pakistan’s former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whom General Zia had deposed in a coup. Finally, in December of 1979 came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which would become another landmark in the history of manufactured sectarian conflict. Throughout the 1980s, the invasion was countered by a mobilization of fighters and militias — the mujahideen — infused with jihadist narratives against the Soviet Union. The United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia were leading sponsors of the Afghan mujahideen and foreign fighters in this internationalized conflict. Ghattas traces the interplay of politics and state-sponsored sectarian polemic through the long-running conflicts of the Cold War — arguably made longer by their sectarianization. This includes the devastating Iran-Iraq War (1980–88), the prolonged wars of Lebanon and Afghanistan, and the rise of anti-Shia violence in Pakistan, violence which in some cases draws in Iran to back Shia populations within Pakistan.

Internationalized War U.S. President Ronald Reagan “meeting with Afghan Freedom Fighters to discuss Soviet atrocities in Afghanistan,” February 2, 1983. Shortly thereafter, the United States, together with Saudi Arabia, was pouring hundreds of millions of dollars each year to anti-Soviet militants in Afghanistan. (Credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)


In the years that followed 1979, Iran and Saudi Arabia moved against music, alcohol, cultural institutions, sports, and entertainment. They curtailed women’s employment, mobility, and visibility, and together they became the two countries to impose mandatory veiling. Ghattas finds that changes in the laws and norms affecting women are common denominators of state-sponsored religion. Many of the changes in Iran and Saudi Arabia also happen in Pakistan, which itself becomes a leader in using blasphemy prosecutions against dissidents and political targets.

Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry that Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East | Kim Ghattas | Henry Holt and Company | 377 pp. | 2020 | ISBN: 978-1-250-13120-1

A key trend that Ghattas illuminates in Black Wave is the focus of a research project based at Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution. Led by Peter Mandaville, the project is tracing “the geopolitics of religious soft power” through the export of religious influence. Scholars are mustering fresh and archival research on the global impact of religious propagation activities, sometimes through a flow of financing to religious institutions or charities abroad — a common practice of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other countries, especially during the Cold War. A forthcoming volume, Wahhabism and the World (Oxford University Press, 2021), will examine the impact of that funding. Of course, like sectarianization itself, the use of religion in foreign policy is practiced in every region, not only in the Middle East. The Georgetown/Brookings project has expanded to Western and Eurasian state uses of religious influence abroad.

For her part, Ghattas notes the rise of anti-Shia pamphlets and books across the 1980s. First in sectarianizing publications and then on television and cable networks, Shias are increasingly characterized as heretics to be eliminated. Over time, the propagation of religious hate speech progresses from conferences and broadcasts to fatwas and sect-based militias. Another artifact of this era are the 1985 adaptations of the Qur’an produced with “egregious modifications or footnotes, turning those editions into polemics.” A product of policies we might today identify as sectarianizing, these “Saudi-endorsed versions remain,” as Ghattas writes, “the most widespread, offering non-Arabic speakers a very specific, one-sided reading of Islam.”

Victimhood narratives cast other people as an aggressor to be hated or feared. Difference is thus politicized, and then “securitized.” This means that your neighbor is cast as a physical threat to you and your family. Now an authoritarian leader is needed to protect you from the enemy that he himself has created. Soon a society no longer consists of fellow citizens. Instead, there are only victims, perpetrators, and self-identified saviors or protectors. You choose.


At Lancaster University in the U.K., SEPAD, a growing scholars hub on “sectarianization and de-sectarianization,” convenes international social scientists analyzing how social conflict can be manufactured to produce political power. The raw material for this operation — differences among citizens — can be regional, class, or ethnic differences. We could be talking about innocuous, even trivial differences, or they might be grounded in deep historical injustices. Groups are defined, treated unequally, and sometimes set against each other. Leaders — or “sectarian entrepreneurs” (another term from the academic literature) — incite favored and disfavored groups to suspicion and enmity, deploying victimhood or “protection” narratives. Victimhood narratives cast other people as an aggressor to be hated or feared. Difference is thus politicized, and then “securitized.” This means that your neighbor is cast as a physical threat to you and your family. Now an authoritarian leader is needed to protect you from the enemy that he himself has created. Soon a society no longer consists of fellow citizens. Instead, there are only victims, perpetrators, and self-identified saviors or protectors. You choose.

There is a self-fulfilling quality to sectarianized conflicts, say experts who have experienced these dynamics in their own countries. The discourse may start out as fake, may at first even seem completely absurd. Yet over time, the conflict may grow to resemble the manufactured narrative, planting the seeds of future conflicts. In Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, sometimes rulers’ false assertions materialized as conflicts progressed, both internationalized through the involvement of foreign powers. SEPAD researchers find that, all too often, the narrative of sectarian conflict is used as “camouflage” to cover systemic corruption and the monetization of war.

Ussama Makdisi of Rice University emphasizes the particularity of specific histories because “there is no such thing as a transhistorical sectarianism … a stable, obvious, ever-present, singular social reality that floats above history.” Makdisi examines the 19th century in The Culture of Sectarianism (2000) and in his recent book, Age of Coexistence (2019). He digs into the contexts of unique historical events, because there is “no such thing as an endlessly repeating story of sectarianism.”

Naturally, historians of religion place religious factors in sharper focus. They examine how the roles of religious leaders, doctrines, and narratives are adapted for political conflicts. These dimensions are explored in a major report from Harvard’s Belfer Center, Engaging Sectarian De-Escalation (2019), as well as in the analysis of Geneive Abdo, who interviewed religious actors to include their viewpoints in The New Sectarianism (2017).

In Black Wave, Kim Ghattas keeps her focus on the region’s own leaders and intellectual movements. But the wider picture includes the history of American support to political Islam and sectarianization across the broader Middle East. Religion was sponsored and sectarianized to counter Communism, socialism, and Arab, Turkish, and Persian nationalisms. This story is told in other books, such as Robert Dreyfuss’s Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (2005). The author interviewed officials who funded the international propagation of religious conservativism as a bulwark against Communism. Eventually, these militant ideologies and militias would give rise to al Qaeda and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.



Go Deeper: Check out a curated selection of Corporation grantees offering a range of digital resources on political sectarianization, from online publication to podcasts and more.


Today, in spite of the catastrophic results, states continue to sponsor sectarian militias in other states as a form of “indirect warfare,” and they continue to intervene in internationalized civil wars. With Carnegie Corporation of New York support, the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights produces guidance on regulating the ongoing American policy of war “by, with, and through proxies.” Al Qaeda and ISIS are ongoing repercussions of geopolitical struggles that mobilized and weaponized religious identities for political ends. For some followers, sectarian regimes offered a simulated authenticity, a spurious return to tradition. But these regimes instrumentalized their followers to advance the political goals of their state sponsors.

Sectarianized conflict hit a new low in the tawdry orientalism of ISIS — with its invented Islamic past and spectacle of atrocity crimes. A project based at Central European University (CEU) examines phenomena such as ISIS as major breaks with the past, not as foreseeable continuities. CEU’s Striking from the Margins initiative tracks marginal movements as they progress from the fringes to the mainstream in societies torn by misrule. In Islams and Modernities (2009), Aziz Al-Azmeh writes that a gap in meaning, an “abstraction from contemporary reality … marks all fundamentalism: an absence is engendered, which is filled by interpretations provided by those with the means of enforcing an interpretation.”

In sum, Ghattas’s book elucidates the interface between power and public religion. It debunks the popular narrative of hatreds ancient, religious, and tribal that supposedly drive people — many of whom did not associate themselves with any sect or denomination or were only recently categorized as Sunnis and Shias, and then often by outsiders. Black Wave shows the conflicts to be modern and manufactured by political elites for purposes of domestic regime survival and foreign competition, particularly since 1979. Ghattas detects the wide-ranging fallout from these changes across the lives of the people she profiles.

Following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, a Lebanese-style “muhasasa” political party system was installed in Iraq, in which political parties are essentially comprised of ethnic or religious identity groups. Dependent on the machines of patronage and clientelism, such systems feed endemic corruption, political paralysis, and nonaccountability.


Today, we need the political science and social science analysis of Arab-region scholars to understand the phenomenon of political sectarianization, because it occurs in every region. It can be found in the dynamics of party-political polarization, and in what UNESCO experts call “enemy image creation.” Regional scholars have found it more accurate to speak not of sectarianism but of governance or conflict that becomes sectarianized — what political scientist Bassel Salloukh of Lebanese American University calls “the sectarianization of geopolitics.” His work traces the dysfunction of confessional political systems as found in Lebanon and Iraq. In these systems, one’s religious sect becomes one’s political affiliation. You are born into your political party; it is a state-selected identity. Intended to ensure power-sharing and inclusive governance, these systems perform poorly for constituents. For example, following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, a Lebanese-style “muhasasa” political party system was installed in Iraq, in which political parties are essentially comprised of ethnic or religious identity groups. Dependent on the machines of patronage and clientelism, such systems feed endemic corruption, political paralysis, and nonaccountability. They are currently the object of protest movements seeking to restructure political participation outside of sect identities.

Today in different ways, from Lebanon to Iraq, from Saudi Arabia to Iran, we may be witnessing a generational turn away from sectarian politics. Lina Khatib, director of the MENA Programme at Chatham House, cites popular demand for change in Iraq and Lebanon: “People have figured out that their economic distress is a product of their political system.” When Chatham House surveyed protestors, they heard, I want a nation — a demand for issue-based politics and a functioning nation state. Likewise, international experts trace these themes through the historical interplay of religion, secularism, and politics in Citizenship and Its Discontents (2019), a Century Foundation book edited by Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna.

Has the tide ebbed? Will states instead turn to nationalism to seek their legitimacy? Nationalism can serve as a counterweight to transnational religious movements, although nationalism can also be fused with religion, as seen in the histories of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia has in recent years made efforts to shift its narrative from religion to nationalism. In 2018, it created the nation’s first Ministry of Culture with a mandate to build “arts and culture across Saudi Arabia that enriches lives, celebrates national identity, and builds understanding between people.” Iran also shows sporadic signs of a shift toward nationalist discourse. And yet nationalisms, too, involve the pursuit of invented pasts. Kim Ghattas, time traveler, seeks a state at the service of its people.


A select reading list of essential titles from current and past Carnegie Corporation of New York grantees

Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World. Ussama Makdisi. Oakland, Calif.: University of California Press, 2019.

Beyond Sunni and Shia: The Roots of Sectarianism in a Changing Middle East. Frederic Wehrey, ed. London: Hurst & Company, 2017.

Citizenship and Its Discontents: The Struggle for Rights, Pluralism, and Inclusion in the Middle East. Thanassis Cambanis and Michael Wahid Hanna, eds. New York: Century Foundation, 2019.

Houses Built on Sand: Violence, Sectarianism and Revolution in the Middle East. Simon Mabon. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020.

The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon. Bassel F. Salloukh, Rabie Barakat, Jinan S. Al-Habbal, Lara W. Khattab, and Shoghig Mikaelian. London: Pluto Press, 2015.

Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, eds. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 2017.

Wahhabism and the World: Understanding Saudi Arabia’s Global Influence on Religion. Peter Mandaville, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming in its Religion and Global Politics series, 2021.

TOP A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by U.S. special forces, stands on a building near Raqqa's stadium as they clear the last positions on the front line in the Islamic State’s crumbling stronghold, October 16, 2017. This image starkly captures the results of proxy war and sectarianized conflict, and it should not be forgotten that the final destruction of Raqqa involved the bombing of civilians and civilian infrastructure. (Credit: Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)