The Middle East Unstitched

It is easy to claim that everything going on in the Middle East today represents a return to the region’s status before World War I. After millennia of pillage, massacre, and looting, the story goes, Western powers brought order to a fractious region and helped create modern states. Now, critics say the borders of the modern Middle East have outlasted their utility. They are no match for the sectarian feuds and ethnic fault lines that have always underlain—and now tear apart—the region’s independent states.

One can use this argument to explain away many of the conflicts in today’s Middle East: the battles inside Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Bahrain, and even the battles between Israel and the Palestinians. These hatreds supposedly go back centuries, so how can anyone hope to sort these countries out?

The argument overlooks the ways in which governments and opposition groups have used sectarian and ethnic identity deliberately as a short-term fix to modern political problems. In point of fact, there is nothing “natural” about the countries’ divisions along ethnic and sectarian lines. While sectarian identities do not easily change, their relevance does, and their centrality to modern politics is a function of their political utility.

Looking at Middle Eastern history, it is the change that is most notable, not what is enduring. Edomites, Moabites, and Kenites existed in biblical times but were long ago absorbed into other populations. Egypt’s Pharaonic religion morphed into Hellenism and then Christianity. Islam flowed out of the Arabian Peninsula and reached from Morocco to India within a century of Muhammad’s preaching. Mongols swept across the Asian steppes and put their own cast on the region. Egypt was a Shi?ite state in the tenth and eleventh centuries, until a Kurdish ruler—Saladin—made Egypt Sunni as part of the Abbasid Empire. Persia adopted Shi?ism in the sixteenth century, in part to more sharply delineate its border with the Ottoman Empire. And so on.

Throughout this period, the region’s cities were persistently diverse. Often polyglot admixtures of Arabs, Persians, Turks, and Franks—the latter being Europeans lumped into a single category—the cities featured Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities, and were further split by class, by divisions between occupations, and by differences between longtime urban dwellers and more recent migrants from the countryside.

This system fostered deep tensions, but it fostered connections, too. Christians had affinities with other Christians, regardless of their origin, blacksmiths shared interests with blacksmiths, and goldsmiths had common cause with other goldsmiths. Trading families related to other trading families, and they shared interests with both those they bought from and those they sold to. Tribes divided rural areas, but some tribes had Sunni and Shi?ite branches. This web of affinities helped mediate hostility between groups and ensure that all groups in society felt some sort of connection to the others. Individuals clung to multiple identities at once, knitting—or sometimes, stitching—together the entire social fabric.

Colonial powers stepped into this environment, and foreign powers have played an ongoing role in more recent years. Foreign rulers often hoped to minimize sectarian difference, seeing it as an embarrassing remnant of traditionalism. Yet they also used sectarian identities as a political tool. They sometimes accentuated differences by bestowing privileges on certain ethnic or sectarian groups, encouraged minorities to cling to foreign embassies for protection against the majority, and used sectarian allies to advance their interests in a country.

For a time, modern politics transcended these divisions. In the twentieth century Middle East, most political identities pivoted on ideology. Ba?athists battled communists, Nasserists battled Wafdists, and secularists battled Islamists, and the fights were often vicious. Importantly, though, in time some Ba?athists became ex-Ba?athists, and some communists became ex-communists. Ideologies are, by their nature, mutable.

Sectarian identities—unlike sectarian conflict—are immutable, and their use as a political marker has risen in the last three decades. In Iraq and Syria, Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad used sectarianism instrumentally to keep majorities off balance and privileged minorities close to the palace. Authoritarian leaders sought to divide societies between an “us” and a “them” to reinforce short-term stability, and sectarian identity provided a useful and clear indicator of loyalty.

Yet, the tactics that gave sectarian identity a larger role in the modern Middle East have led to intractable conflicts. This is in part by design: aspiring political groups seek to highlight identities that are hard to escape, and sectarian identity is certainly one. A Sunni may not feel sympathetic to the Islamic State, for example, but an explicitly Sunni organization is well positioned to protect Sunnis from outside attack or represent their grievances. Shi?ite militias protect Shi?a, and Kurdish groups protect Kurds. Conflict empowers the thugs within a group, and the rise of thugs in one group empowers the thugs in another. When one’s name or place of origin is a telltale sign of identity, vulnerability to attack—and loyalty to group out of necessity—increases. The process creates a spiral of distrust that makes it less likely for individuals to find safe harbor when not embedded in their sectarian or ethnic groups, driving divisions still further. Families flee their homes for safer neighborhoods, creating more unified enclaves and tearing apart the very connections that stitched together the Middle East for centuries before.

What is important to note about this process is that leaders use it consciously in a bid for political control. They seek to erect barriers so that they can govern (and exploit) all that is within their domain. They create threats so that they can then protect their subjects from those threats. They stake their future on the presence of enduring conflict and their ability to protect populations from it.

It is easier to erect these divisions than tear them down, but the first step in doing so is to recognize that they represent a departure from history rather than a return to it. Recreating shared interests that cut across identities is an important step, and creating security for all is another. Sectarian difference isn’t new, but its overwhelming importance is. Allowing that difference to determine everything is not a return to the past but a step into a different—and likely more violent—future.

(The article originally appeared in the August 6, 2014, issue of Middle East Notes and Comment.)

Jon B. Alterman is senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2014 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program