Beyond the Veil of Sectarianism: How Domestic Differences Affect Sectarianism in the Middle East

By Alyssa Russell


Western media sources frequently portray the Middle East as strictly divided into camps of Sunni and Shi’a Muslims waging war against one another under the direction of Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran. David Kirkpatrick’s article “Power Struggles in Middle East Exploit Islam’s Ancient Sectarian Rift” featured in the New York Times is an example of this common Western media oversimplification.[1] However, such a portrayal neglects the many complexities and differences among the states involved. This article will look at some common misperceptions concerning sectarianism in the Middle East through a close reading of Kirkpatrick’s November 2015 article. It will then go on to critique assertions found in the article by taking a historical view of the story of sectarianism in the Middle East. This approach will highlight the fact that the sectarianism we see in the region today originated in particular historical moments of conflict and is not simply a constant feature of Islam and Muslim societies.

Case Study

Kirkpatrick’s piece centers on Bahrain’s 2o11 uprising, which was quashed by a Saudi invasion aimed at bolstering the Sunni al-Khalifa regime’s rule over a predominantly Shiite population. His piece also invokes the cases of Iraq and Syria by highlighting what he views as similar themes between the two countries and Bahrain. Kirkpatrick’s article certainly has accurate information to offer concerning Bahrain, but much of his article incorrectly emphasizes the idea that Iran and Saudi Arabia are controlling states such as Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria. To Kirkpatrick, the Middle East region is an area he characterizes as infused with ancient sectarian warfare.

In some ways, Kirkpatrick does a fine job detailing Bahrain’s uprising. He notes the economic divide between the wealthier, often migrants from Saudi Arabia, Sunni minority population and the generally more impoverished native Bahraini Shi’a majority. It is common knowledge the Shi’a in Bahrain are economically repressed.[2] There is an uneven distribution of resources that favors the much smaller population of Sunni. In addition to economic repression, the Shi’a are politically repressed as well with a vast underrepresentation in key ministries and the inability to join Bahraini security forces.[3]

Kirkpatrick also accurately notes that sectarianism is a difficult force to control, especially when government leaders attempt to exploit it to serve their own interests. He is specifically referencing Bashar al-Assad’s invocation of the Alawite community’s Shi’a identity to antagonize other religious minorities, which created the structure of the current war in Syria. Further, Kirkpatrick begins to discuss how this mobilization of Shi’a identity provoked, in turn, the formation of a collective identity among Syria’s Sunnis, which invited surrounding Sunni-ruled states such as Saudi Arabia to support, especially monetarily, Sunni opposition to the Assad regime. In cases other than Syria, Middle Eastern political leaders and aspiring movement leaders have not only exploited sectarian tensions as Kirkpatrick suggests, but have also created them in many cases to gain political favor and/or for personal reasons. For example, the Bahraini people lived in almost egalitarian conditions in regard to their sectarian relations with a stable social order until the al-Khalifa family took control of the region in the early portion of the 20th century. Following this Bahraini change in power, the al-Khalifa family changed the power dynamic that had previously favored Bahraini Shi’a and shifted it towards one that favored the Sunni population, encouraged Sunni migration from Saudi Arabia, and repressed the Bahraini Shi’a majority.[4]

Kirkpatrick further acknowledges that U. S. policy aims to foster and maintain stability in the region by engaging both sides of the sectarian divide. He cites U.S. engagement with Iran, which led to the recent nuclear deal, along with the maintenance of normal relations with Saudi Arabia despite its military move to crush a peaceful protest movement demanding rights and popular representation in neighboring Bahrain. He also analyzes the United States’ decision to stay silent during al-Maliki’s exclusion of Sunnis within Iraq. However, Kirkpatrick almost contradicts himself by pointing out that the United States and other actors, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, in the region do not follow sectarian lines in their actions but rather search for ways in which to create and foster regional stability.

The accuracy of Kirkpatrick’s analysis has limits, however, and he draws conclusions that distort the political and historical realities in Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria. His first claim, that “their [Shi’a and Sunni Middle Eastern inhabitants] battles are an extension of sectarian hostilities nearly as old as Islam,”[5] is quite inaccurate. Kirkpatrick supports this point by providing a brief history of Islam with the split between Shi’a and Sunni originating to the time of Abu Bakr. He states that this historic divide is relevant and even attempts to directly link the past with the modern tensions in Iraq under al-Maliki. Although almost every state in the Middle East offers a counter-example to Kirkpatrick’s assertion about the existence of ancient sectarianism, the example of Iraq is a simple case that disproves this claim. On the eve of the First World War, for example, Iraqi peoples of every religion lived together in peace and even intermarried across religious lines.[6] More recently, in 2015, Iraqi citizens came together across sectarian lines to protest the corruption within the government under President Nouri al-Maliki.[7]  Iraqi people, despite Kirkpatrick’s assumption, have not primarily identified in terms of their religious identity throughout their history.[8]

Kirkpatrick then characterizes the broader reality of the contemporary Middle East as a larger proxy war between the two regional hegemons, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’a Iran. He quotes Vali Nasr, a scholar of Middle East studies, who argues that the two nations “play the game of great power politics and the chess pieces they choose inflame the sectarianism.”[9] Although this point in itself may not be wrong, with these two powers involving themselves in the domestic situation of states in the Middle East region, the emphasis exclusively on the power these regional hegemons have in the area significantly downplays the role of the domestic situation. The domestic context within each Middle Eastern country creates a unique situation for each state, rather than the generalized image Kirkpatrick depicts. The importance of the domestic context specifically within Bahrain, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia will be explored further in later sections of this paper.

Finally, Kirkpatrick asserts that, “the weakening of the old states leads anxious citizens to fall back on sectarian identity.”[10] There is an actual basis for this statement with some citizens relying on their religious identities when their governments fail them. However, Kirkpatrick again engages in oversimplification, overlooking the complex identities that many citizens of these states hold. Other identities, such as socio-economic identification or military ties, can often supersede religious identity for many Middle Eastern citizens. One specific example of this can be found among Sunni soldiers in Syria today who, despite their perceived religious allegiance to the Sunni sects, have largely continued to serve the Assad regime due to their economic dependence on the regime as well as their allegiance to other officers in their community.[11]

Many who make similar arguments to Kirkpatrick’s employ that argument in order to characterize the Middle East as a simple and ancient sectarian battle presided over by Saudi Arabia and Iran. The agenda of those who make similar arguments is to write-off any hope for peace in the region on the basis that the fighting is supposedly “inherent” in the region and the area is “naturally” religiously divided. Additionally, by focusing his attention on Iran and Saudi Arabia to explain the conflict in the region, Kirkpatrick ignores the role domestic rulers and peoples may have in choosing the path of their own country. It also makes it easier to ignore stable polities in the region, such as Turkey, Qatar, and Kuwait, which serve as counterexamples to the narrative of the turbulent Middle East Kirkpatrick and many others put forth.

The central failure of Kirkpatrick’s article is overlooking the domestic factors that lead to the sectarian conflicts in the states of the Middle East, especially those states to which he draws specific attention, such as Bahrain. Bahrain was under the authoritarian rule of a Sunni emir and a prime minister from 1961 until 1999. During this authoritarian rule, there was a brief experimentation with democracy from 1973 to 1975 but this was suspended because the state was fearful of an alliance between Sunni liberals and the Shi’a religious blocs.[12] Almost twenty years later, there was another move for democratic reform and, although the reform was initially only cosmetic, further reform came about a subsequent surge in political violence. A 2001 proposition for a constitutional monarchy was even considered but deteriorated.[13]  In short, Bahrain has a past, since 1961, of Sunni leadership clinging to power, tightening their grip over the country when heavily pressured by the country’s predominantly Shi’a population. The Sunni minority has been able to maintain and grow its power mainly from the support the faction receives from Saudi Arabia, financially, politically, and militarily.

Middle Eastern Context

In addition to Bahrain, Kirkpatrick invokes Iraq in his discussion about sectarianism. He briefly mentions that Iraq, like Bahrain, has had rulers that exploit sectarian tensions for their own purposes, but it is important to explore the domestic sectarianism of Iraq in more than a simple sentence and with a focus on its specific internal circumstances that have shaped the sectarianism seen within the country today. Sectarianism in Iraq, similar to Bahrain and in the Middle East generally, has roots in its domestic context. Following the end of World War I, there was vast linguistic and ethnic diversity that included an Arabic linguistic majority and Muslim ethnic majority.[17] Previously, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire and during that time Ottoman laws were not strictly enforced, thereby accommodating local forms of law and order to continue. This situation changed when the British took control in 1917. The British forces mistreated the Iraqis with burdensome taxation, harsh treatment, and arbitrary justice beginning in 1918. After many Iraqis began to revolt against the British, London adopted a hands-off policy and established a constitutional monarchy under Faisal bin Hussein, a man from the Hijaz with little connection to Iraq or the Iraqi people.[18] This government, which lasted until a military coup in 1958, was a kleptocracy dominated by a Sunni ethno-sectarian minority that did not respect community rights.[19]

Four military coups took place in Iraq between 1958 and 1968. Between the coups of 1958 and 1963, ideological groups and political parties multiplied, with some political parties splitting off from traditional or religious groups. During the two 1963 coups, the first by the Baath party and the second by pro-Nasserist military officers, the Revolutionary Command Council was created and then reformed to allow for a presidency that had executive and legislative authority for a one-year period with the opportunity of extending the period of rule.[20] The 1968 coup by the Baath party placed Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr in power as president with vice president, Saddam Hussein. During this time, the Baath regime was ideologically-based and focused on establishing a solid basis of power, even if it meant working with groups it would normally be opposed to. For example, the Baath regime negotiated with the Kurds to establish Kurdish autonomy and granted other concessions in order to gain Kurdish complacency; a similar approach was taken with the Communist Party.[21] Although al-Bakr likely did not carry out these actions honestly, he did work with these groups, at least superficially, in order to establish greater power for himself and his regime. This brief point serves to demonstrate that sectarianism was not always the defining factor for al-Bakr’s regime, as it was not for other regimes in the region; rather, regime stability was the highest objective.

The stability towards which al-Bakr worked continued under Saddam Hussein, who took control of the country in 1979 when al-Bakr stepped down due to his poor health condition. However, Hussein took more extreme measures in order to solidify his power. Hussein began to target entire groups of people because of their religious and ethnic background or their political affiliation in order to solidify his new role. His position became less a representation of a Baathist political ideology and more of a cult of personality. He used his following to fight Iran during a bloody eight-year war, even against the his advisers’ counsel, and once that venture failed, moved into Kuwait in order to pay for the lost war with Iran.[22] The annexation of Kuwait also failed and had the serious repercussion of sanctions for members of all ethno-religious groups, which affected their daily lives under a tanking economy, although the senior leadership emerged from the sanctions almost completely unscathed.[23] Hussein worked to create a division between the religious groups in Iraq, and although there was fighting between different religious sects, the large majority of these populations did not develop any permanent hatred for one another, as evidenced by the cooperation of these groups to establish a new government years after Hussein was deposed.

The current order, or disorder, in Iraq has been shaped mostly by the US invasion in 2003 and the attempt to reconstruct a government that would be completely different than the Hussein’s Baathist regime that preceded it. It is important to first note that most of the citizens within Iraqi borders were unwilling or unable to work towards establishing the new government constructed with the help of the United States because they viewed it as illegitimate given its construction by an outside Western power.[24]  Only groups outside of Iraq were willing to work with the United States to establish a new government, which is evidenced by the five groups that met with the United States in 2002, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the Waqif, the Iraqi National Congress, and two major Kurdish groups.[25]  Former exiles gained positions of power although they were unaware of the changes that had occurred within the country over the past decades and were largely unprepared for their positions professionally.[26] In short, the people who represented this new government were not representative of the vast majority of Iraqi citizens.

The new government, largely made up of the aforementioned exiles, also consisted of religious or sectarian parties, which did not resemble the reality in Iraq. The positions of government were based on ethno-sectarian divisions with little regard for whether the candidate had actual experience that allowed him to do the job to which he or she was assigned. There were plenty of government positions available in the government because anyone in a position of power during the Baathist regime was effectively run out of their positions, although many had not committed crimes and knew how to do their jobs effectively.[27] This sectarian-divided government was not reflective of the population, which was willing to be unified under a non-federal Iraq. Further, the 2005 Constitution was created behind closed doors, and although 80% of the population supported it, the support was clearly along sectarian lines with the supporters being Shi’a and Kurds while almost all those opposed to it were Sunni.[28] Democracy and any true choice by the people was simply brushed aside in favor of secretive arrangements, as it was with the Constitution, in order to serve special interests.

This brief history of Iraq in the past century shows how Kirkpatrick’s analysis of an Iraq that has had leaders who have exploited pre-existing sectarianism is not completely accurate. Sectarianism was not simply exploited by Iraqi leaders. Sectarianism was created by Iraqi leaders throughout the last century.

A last country Kirkpatrick calls upon in his article is Syria. The case of Syria is important to analyze, like the previous cases of Bahrain and Iraq, because its domestic circumstances greatly affect how sectarianism has surfaced within the country. Syria is and historically has been predominantly populated by Sunni Muslims. Syria also has a sizable minority of Alawites, a group classified by some to be Shi’a, and by others to be another branch of Islam altogether.[29] Prior to 1920, the Alawites were viewed as infidels by most of the Sunni population and were forced to live in the mountains in order to avoid persecution. The religious ostracism of the Alawites led them to great poverty during this time. However, during the period of the French mandate from 1920 to 1946, the Alawites were able to benefit from French rule and join the army in large numbers, so much that at one point, approximately half of the infantry was made up of Alawite soldiers. Once the French mandate ended due to a Sunni resistance movement, the Alawites saw their previously achieved freedoms rolled back. The Alawite state they had previously gained during the French mandate was eliminated as well as some of their other personal freedoms. Importantly, the Alawites retained their position in the armed forces and belonged to the Ba’th Party. The period of Sunni dominance from 1946 to 1963 allowed for the rapid rise of Alawite power through the military and the political structure, leading to the era known as the period of Alawite consolidation from 1963 to 1970. During these seven years, there were three different coups, one by the Ba’th party, another by the Alawites and the last by Hafiz al-Assad over ruler Salah Jadid.[30]

Assad emerged in 1970 as the sole source of authority in Syria, an Alawite authority. The concentration of power in the hands of a religious minority that had been historically ostracized by the Sunni population of Syria, 69 per cent of the total population, fostered an opposition to the government.[31] The Alawites created a system of sectarian patronage that gave benefits unevenly to the Alawite peoples such as state employment. This patronage did not lead to a higher standard of living for all Alawites but did unfairly benefit the Alawite population at the expense of the Sunni populations.[32] It is important to note that Assad was not distributing resources along sectarian lines alone, but rather was unfairly allocating resources and opportunities along a clan-based system to those that were close to the Assad regime. This division of resources may appear sectarian at first because those benefiting from the Assad regime are largely Alawite, but recognizing that many Alawites do not benefit directly from the regime shows that the nature of the Assad regime is not truly sectarian.

The Syrian case is domestically entrenched in tension between the ruling Alawite and oppressed Sunni majority. In this case, there are obvious sectarian roots between these two groups, but the tension has been furthered by the Assad regime’s oppression of the Sunni population especially. Specifically, the Assad regime has disproportionately allocated resources to Alawites close to the Assad regime. The attacks waged on any opposition to the regime, whether those attacks were for solely political or religious reasons as well, has only fostered resentment among the people. The long-rooted sectarian argument that Kirkpatrick deploys in his article is much stronger in Syria than other areas. However, he still oversimplifies his argument by not touching on the economic reasons for tension and overemphasizes the role that outside forces, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, play in the turmoil in Syria today.

Global Context

The greater lesson we can take away from the cases of Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria above, as well as from the mistakes Kirkpatrick has made, is that the domestic sectarian context of each Middle Eastern country should not be generalized under any circumstances. Rather, the nuanced differences at the domestic level of each of these states should be highlighted and incorporated into the foreign policy actions of the United States. The outside forces of Saudi Arabia and Iran should not be seen as the defining forces in the turmoil in any of these states, but only as an additional complication to the domestic issues that have caused the sectarian conflicts in each country.

Recognizing the importance of domestic circumstances will have a profound effect on how the United States addresses the issues facing each country. For example, if the United States were to focus on the domestic causes of the turmoil that has led to the Syrian Civil War today, there would be a greater likelihood of greater cooperation among the powers invested in that conflict. Rather than trying to balance the influence between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the United States might act as a better mediator in coordinating the efforts of these two countries and other powers invested in the conflict to address the violence in Syria today.

Additionally, understanding the nuanced differences in the domestic situation of each country might allow the United States to help create more sustainable policy propositions toward Middle Eastern countries. If the United States had recognized that sectarian differences were not defining Iraqi everyday life, there might not have been the tendency towards establishing institutions that served to worsen sectarian tensions. The United States and outside groups, such as former exiles, must realize that they do not always fully comprehend the domestic situation within each country. In actuality, the people who live in these countries best understand the situation of their countries and would best serve as advisors on the situation of sectarianism in their country. If the United States had allowed the Iraqi people to take on leadership roles, rather than exiles such as al-Maliki, those making critical decisions would have been more informed about the state of the country, and more prepared to take on the issues facing Iraq at the time. Although it is impossible to correct the past U.S. mistakes that have led to the current situation in Iraq, the lessons of the past are still important to remember as the U.S. moves forward. While it is not yet clear when the turmoil in Iraq will end, it will one day end, and when it does, the U.S. needs to remember the importance of the domestic situation so that Iraq is not once again doomed to descend into the abyss.

Works Cited

Al-Ali, Zaid. The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and            Sectarianism have Undermined Democracy. New Haven: Yale University Press,            2014.

Balanche, Fabrice.“The Alawi Community and the Syria Crisis,” Middle East Institute,               May 14, 2015.     crisis.

Hernick, Anna and Fulbright, Charles. November 10, 2015, “Dysfunction in Iraq: Inevitable or Imposed?. Sects and Violence Blog. November 29, 2015.          fall2015/2015/11/10/dysfunction-in-iraq-inevitable-or-imposed.

Khaddour, Khedur. “Assad’s Officer Ghetto: Why the Syrian Army Remains Loyal.”         Accessed November 29, 2015. officer-ghetto-why-syrian-army-remains-loyal/iigr.

Kinninmont, Jane. Bahrain: Beyond the Impasse. London: Chatham House, 2012.

Kirkpatrick, David. “Power Struggles in Middle East Exploit Islam’s Ancient Sectarian     Rift.” New York Times, July 5, 2015. Accessed November 29, 2015.     middle-east-exploit-islams-ancient-sectarian-rift.html?_r=1.

Pipes, Daniel. Syria Beyond the Peace Process. Washington: Washington Institute for    Near East Policy, 1995.

Wehrey, Frederic. Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab            Uprisings. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.


[1] This article will be referred to throughout the rest of the paper as the premise of the paper. David   Kirkpatrick, “Power Struggles in Middle East Exploit Islam’s Ancient Sectarian Rift,”New York Times,  July 5, 2015, accessed November 29, 2015,

[2] Jane Kinninmont, Bahrain: Beyond the Impasse, (London: Chatham House, 2012), 1-2.

[3] Frederic Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (New York: Columbia Univeristy Press, 2014), 15-17.

[4] Frederic Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf, 11-13.

[5] Kirkpatrick, “Power Struggles in Middle East Exploit Islam’s Ancient Sectarian Rift.”

[6] Zaid Al-Ali, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism have Undermined Democracy (Yale University Press, 2014), 17-20.

[7] Anna Hernick and Charles Fulbright, November 10, 2015, “Dysfunction in Iraq: Inevitable or Imposed?,” Sects and Violence Blog, November 29, 2015,

[8] A more nuanced history of sectarianism in Iraq will be discussed in a later section of this paper.

[9] Kirkpatrick, “Power Struggles in Middle East Exploit Islam’s Ancient Sectarian Rift.”

[10] Kirkpatrick, “Power Struggles in Middle East Exploit Islam’s Ancient Sectarian Rift.”

[11] Khedur Khaddour,“Assad’s Officer Ghetto: Why the Syrian Army Remains Loyal,” accessed November 29, 2015,

[12] Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings, 9-11.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 11-13.

[15] Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings, 28-31.

[16] Ibid, 141-144.

[17] The language diversity included an Arabic majority with substantial Kurdish, Turkish, Chaldean, Farsi and other language groups present within Iraq. Ethnic diversity included a Muslim majority (majority Shia, minority Sunni), as well as Christians, Jews, Mandeans, and Yazidis. Al-Ali, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, 18-19.

[18] (Faisal’s father, Sharif Hussein of Mecca, had joined the British war effort in 1916 in what British propaganda termed “The Arab Revolt” against the Ottoman Empire.)

[19] Al-Ali, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, 19-24.

[20] Al-Ali, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, 25-29.

[21] Ibid, 29-31.

[22] Al-Ali, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, 31-35.

[23] Ibid, 35-37.

[24] Ibid, 39-40.

[25] Al-Ali, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future, 40-41.

[26] Ibid, 51-61.

[27] Ibid, 73-75.

[28] Ibid, 82-84.

[29] Daniel Pipes, Syria Beyond the Peace Process (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1995), 9-12.

[30] Daniel Pipes, Syria Beyond the Peace Process, 4-8.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Fabrice Balanche,“The Alawi Community and the Syria Crisis,” Middle East Institute, May 14, 2015,