Towards a Better Understanding of the Sectarian Problem:
The Required Initiatives to Confront Sectarianism
The root of the problem in Bahrain is political
but its manifestation is sectarian It is a political problem entwined
with sectarianism, The solutions needed for the sectarian problem
|Dr. Sabah Altamimi
Dr. Sabah Altamimi
University lecturer and researcher- Iraq
The sectarian problem can be defined from three different angles:
Firstly: it can be regarded as a result
of religious differences and the belief of each sect that its belief
is the right one, and thus, responsible for guiding others to the
right path even through the use of forceful means. Usually religious
people and activists are responsible for this.
Secondly: it can be regarded as a
social disagreement resulting from a conflict between the interests
of various parties. This is clear when one group attempts to influence
the other politically or culturally for example, by converting some
shias into sunnis or vice versa. This represents a threat and could
cast doubts on the competency or the legitimacy of the social influence
of the group. The reaction to this is usually defensive and involves
each group to protect its own interests by exaggerating their rights
and highlighting the other group’s shortcomings. Usually many social
forces participate in this including religious men, political and
social leaders in addition to the government.
Thirdly: it can be regarded as a reaction
to social injustice- this is according to John Rowel who focuses
on the importance of equal opportunities. This is clear in autocratic
counties, countries lacking constitutional guarantees of minorities
rights or the adoption of unjust measures in distributing resources
and opportunities between the different social classes and sectors.
The nature of the reaction in this case is political and psychological.
The first reaction can take the form of collective rebellion
the political system. The second reaction takes the form of individual
condemnation or ailination uninvolvement in public affairs.
Thirdly: it can be regarded as a reaction to social injustice-
this is according to John Rowel who focuses on the importance of
equal opportunities. This is clear in autocratic counties, countries
lacking constitutional guarantees of minorities rights or the adoption
of unjust measures in distributing resources and opportunities between
the different social classes and sectors. The nature of the reaction
in this case is political and psychological. The first reaction
can take the form of collective rebellion against the political
system. The second reaction takes the form of individual condemnation
or ailination uninvolvement in public affairs.
The political path of the sectarian problem
Despite differences between the various sectarian conflicts,
it is common to use sectarianism as a framework for the conflict.
Social injustice represents a suitable ground for internal divisions,
however, it should be noted that not all societies which are lacking
freedom feel the need to rebel. For some while they feel unhappy
with the prevailing situation,, they do not see rebelling as beneficial.
This is either because their culture justifies the situation and
finds it acceptable or because they have other means for dealing
with the problem without rebelling. It should be noted, that in
addition to the lack of justice, the tendency to rebel is motivated
by other factors:
1- The understanding of individuals that their circumstances
are a result of the dominant political and social system. In other
words, this is an explanation of their situation within the political
2- The availability of a cultural foundation that accepts rebellion
and considers it a legitimate option if no other options are available.
3- The existence of hope in the possibility of dealing with the
crisis through rebellion. The level of hope will determine the objective
and the extent of the rebellion. Lack of hope does not prevent rebellion
but will limit it to individual reactions. On the other hand, a
high level of hope can widen the social margin for rebellion, limit
the use of violence and encourage making compromises. Social elites
also have an important role to play in solving the problem or make
it more complicated.
If these three factors are available, the idea of rebelling will
become a reality and will be reflected in the discourses justifying
rebellion. In this phase in particular individuals can use sectarianism
as a justification. These sectarian discourses depend on two aspects.
The first relates to the group and its ability to mobilise people
and provide legitimacy. The second relates to the group’s ability
to determine the social and geographic boundaries of the problem.
It should be noted that every social demand and every active group
has potential enemies and supporters.
The question is: why is sectarianism and not civil rights constitute
the main framework for expressing demands?
It is clear that lack of justice not sectarian differences sparks
rebellion. The issue does not concern whether sectarianism is accepted
or rejected but relates to other issues such as the role of the
general public who have a simplified view of the problem. An example
of this simplification is giving a sectarian explanation for the
issue of justice. Cultural heritage is also used to justify the
stances of certain groups.
Social agreement is what determines the outcome of these issues
and the acceptance of the public of such sectarian discourses will
create a good cotext which provides supporters of sectorianism..
However, if sectarian discourses are rejected by the public, most
likely it will become a minority movement which has no influence.
The question is: why do people accept and support sectarian discourses
despite the fact that their demands most of the times are not sectarian?
With regards to this, it is possible to point to two possible
explanations. The first focuses on ethnic identities in this modern
age; and the second focuses on the issue of adaptation.
The identity issue: In summary, ethnically
different groups were forced for many years to hide their identity
or subjected to forceful assimilation by dominant cultures. It is
also possible that these groups were also unaware of their identity
and its role in the formation their social relations and unique
character. But with the end of this domination, as in the case of
the Soviet Union, or due to the communication and IT revolution
and the spread of the human rights culture such as civil freedom
and participation in decision making, these societies have become
aware that they are subjected to discrimination, disrespect and
treated unequally. Hence, self-discovery and demands for equality
will make these societies concentrate on the boundaries between
them and the other. This is an important element in determining
the problem and its reasons which is the most obvious factor used
to mobilise a group. This is the summery of the role of identity
in understanding conflicts. This idea also accuses the state of
delaying or hindering national assimilation and identity. I believe
that many people will tend towards this idea due to its simplicity
and the possibility of its implementation on the ground. Based on
this explanation, it is clear that there is a need for accepting
diversity, tolerance as well as building a consociational political
The issue of adaptation
This is based on the explanation of Daniel Lerner, who states
that the most prominent characteristic of modern society is the
ability of individuals to adapt, understand others and establish
relations based on interests. As for traditional societies, relations
are closed and limited to individuals of the same social group making
it difficult to establish relations with new individuals outside
their own social framework. The inability to adapt with social and
cultural changes can be attributed to an absence of diversity and
the tendency to prefer similar cultures. This results in a total
assimilation of individual identities, domination of the collective
identity, anxiety towards other cultures or looking down on them.
The political framework of the problem: the issue of minorities
There is a strong tie between sectarian tension and the issue
of minorities. Most of the time, tension occurs in countries with
diverse sects, ethnicities, and cultures. What is meant here are
political minorities which are the groups that are deprived from
some rights in comparison to other groups in the society. There
are nearly twenty states in the whole world which are populated
by one ethnic or religious group. Nowadays, the issue of minorities
is not subsidiary. Although the existence of minorities is? not a
problem for most countries, it remains a potential problem which
could necessitate early interference in order to prevent further
Sectarian conflicts are not triggered by religion but by social
discrimination and inequality. For the degrading treatment of minorities
is the main reason for rebellion.
The role of the political system in increasing or decreasing
In the past, all state powers were in the hands of the ruler
and submission to this ruler was the basis for the relationship
between the state and society. This has changed due to the fact
that political systems and public participation have changed. The
state has become a representative of the people and derives its
authority from them. Currently, part of the states’ authority is
to promote civil rights, equality between citizens and the rule
of law. This solves the religious and sectarian differences
citizens, especially with the availability of specific legal mechanisms
to deal with discrimination and abuse.
Most Islamic states have not changed their principles and view
themselves as independent from society and have absolute power.
Their political system still has many shortcomings with regard to
the relationship between the various social components and the relations
between society and the state despite public awareness.
Rebellion can be expressed in sectarian terms because sectarian
discourses are able to use the cultural heritage of a group in order
to find justifications and gain public acceptance. In fact, both
parties have some power; the state, for instance, used its authority
to mobilise people using the media. But the real reason behind the
problem is not sectarian differences but sectarian discrimination.
Suggestions for dealing with sectarianism
Legal and political path: this was
used in many countries to solve civil wars. This takes the shape
of providing channels for dealing with the political problems through
the fair representation of ethnic minorities in the political system.
This is in addition to providing political and constitutional channels
for dealing with complaints.
The level of rebellion varies based on the availability of the
means for escalating the situation by both the state and society.
These means can be financial resources or political or constitutional
institutions. Financial support has an important role to play in
decreasing political tensions. Moreover, political institutions
and civil society organizations can and should play an important
role in rationalising the demands and directing the tension away
from sectarianism to civil and legal demands. Constitutional institutions
such as parliament and the judiciary can also play the same role.
Political and constitutional institutions can play the same the
role if the political and social system is diverse, accepts the
existence of diversity and deals with it positively. In such a system,
civil society organizations, political parties and constitutional
institutions can work effectively to tackle ethnic tensions and
transform them into civil and legal framework.
It is also important to help various groups to be represented
effectively and fairly in the political system.
With regard to the legal framework, the following are suggested:
Enacting a law that criminalises sectarianism, regulates and
guarantees the rights of individuals without any prejudice to the
rights of others. This law should be implemented firmly and without
Establishing special committees for monitoring sectarianism in
order to deal with any sectarian problem as soon as it starts.
The economic path: in most cases political
depression is a reflection of the detriration of the economic situation;
which is a direct outcome of an imbalance in distributing national
resources or the slow pace of the government’s development efforts.
The fair distribution of resources and a balanced development will
raise hopes in a better life which will strengthen the national system.
This kind of hope is an alternative to rebellion.
It is essential to provide the largest number of options and
alternatives to individuals. The availability of sufficient options
will encourage ambitious individuals to invent means to solve their
problems through the existing system instead of rebelling against
it. This decreases the need for using the special characteristics
of its group during the rebellion.
The cultural path: This specifically
deals with the isolation and integration in our societies. Due to
contradictions in upbringing, individual identities in our societies
are still undefined or filled with problems. The education system,
school books and media also contain conflicting messages and are
filled with romanticised notions about the homeland. However, this
romantic portrayal of the homeland, which requires loyalty and sacrifice,
is not the real picture of the country which is based on a partnership
of interest?. The gap between the interests of those close to the
regime and ordinary people, who are obliged to make the sacrifices
unlike the regime, is very wide.
The individual as a citizen and partner should be promoted and
any differences on any grounds and specifically on the basis of
beliefs are unimportant in the relationships amongst citizens. This
leads us to an important issue which is the way our religious discourses
revolve around what may be called ‘the heritage of the group’. Most
of our religious discourses, whether it takes place in mosques or
in the media revolve around this particular idea. This results in
emphasising the isolation mentality. Due to the domination o? this
idea, it has been difficult to bring different ethnicities and sects
together. It has also prevented religious leaders from criticising
or ignoring the heritage of the group.
Tackling this cultural aspect is not enough in solving the problem
of sectarianism as long as other political and economic factors
of tension exist. In my opinion, a cultural solution will be effective
if all parties realise that they have interests in being involved
in a genuine national partnership. With regards to the political
and economic aspects, the efforts of religious leaders will be useless
if the outcomes of the political and economic development are not
felt on the ground. Civil and living demands can only be separated
from sectarianism if the overall situation is improved. This will
only be achieved if the general public feels a strong hope in improving
the political and economic situation. If this takes place, people
will be more willing and able to criticise their heritage and their
perceptions of themselves and others.