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 are political

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 against 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 context.

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 system.

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 escalation.

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 tension

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 between 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 any discrimination.

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.