17 January 2016 | Corey Oakley

For the vast majority of commentators and politicians, who neither anticipated nor wanted the unruly democratic uprising of the masses that was the 2011 Arab revolt, the region’s subsequent descent into sectarian violence has been a welcome relief.

It appears to them a vindication of all the stale orientalist tropes with which they deny the possibility of a Middle East ruled by its people rather than colonialists or vicious local despots.

“See?”, they say. “The Arabs were never cut out for democracy. Their archaic religion is the antithesis of the revolutionary demands of equality and self-rule that animated the protests from Tahrir Square to Damascus in 2011. The Arab world is wracked by ancient prejudices that if not held in check by a strong state will lead to the complete collapse of social order.”

There is no denying the existence of vicious sectarianism sweeping the region. The wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have taken on an increasingly sectarian dimension. The killings of Shiites and Christians by ISIS are endlessly documented by the Western media. Less reported are the massacres carried out by Shiite militias against Sunni Arabs in Iraq, or the savage sectarian violence of the Assad regime and its backers in Syria.

The execution of dissident Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr by the Saudi monarchy in January, a cruel provocation that was clearly calculated to inflame sectarian tensions, has escalated the Saudi conflict with Iran to new levels, and ended any talk of a peaceful resolution to the conflicts in Yemen and Syria.

But is sectarianism the cause or the product of conflict? Harriet Sherwood, writing in the Guardian after the execution of al-Nimr, argued that “sectarianism is at the root of much of the present day violence in the Middle East”. According to her, “the schism goes back to the death of prophet Muhammad in 632AD, and a disagreement over who should succeed him. Some Muslims believed that his successor should be chosen; others wanted a continuation of Muhammad’s bloodline”.

The idea that the modern Middle East can be understood in these terms is as nonsensical as claiming the conflict in Northern Ireland was rooted in theological disputes over transubstantiation, and began when Martin Luther nailed his thoughts on a church door in Wittenberg in 1517.

The religious divisions in the Middle East, as elsewhere, have social and political roots.

The backdrop to the current maelstrom is the long history of Western colonial intervention in the region, beginning with the Sykes-Picot Treaty that led to the division of the Arab world into spheres of influence of the great powers at the end of World War One. The starting point for understanding the situation is the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

By the end of that year, the US, faced with a growing resistance movement, had lost control of most of the country. Its strategy for survival from then on was divide and conquer, adopted with devastating results across the globe, from the Belgians in Rwanda to the British in India.

In Iraq the persecution of the Sunni minority by the US, consolidated by the installation of a sectarian Shiite government in Baghdad, led more or less directly to the rise of al Qaeda in Iraq – the precursor of ISIS. By the time the US withdrew from Iraq, the country had essentially been divided into three: a Shiite government in Baghdad and the south, an autonomous Kurdish area in the North, and a Sunni belt through the west of the country.

But it was the response of the ruling regimes to the Arab uprising in 2011 that generalised sectarian conflict across the region.

From the beginning of the protest movement in Syria, president Bashar al-Assad slandered democracy protesters as Sunni jihadi extremists. Assad presided over a highly sectarian Alawite state, which, despite its secularist rhetoric, had long oppressed the Sunni majority.

But while the uprising was based among the predominantly Sunni rural and urban poor, the revolution was dominated by democratic and anti-sectarian slogans and included many non-Sunnis in its ranks.

To help turn his narrative about a revolt by “Sunni extremists” into reality, Assad released hundreds of Islamist militants from jail. As savage state repression turned the civil uprising into a military conflict, Assad ignored ISIS and directed the firepower of his regime at the most democratic and non-sectarian elements of the rebellion.

In Bahrain, another flashpoint of the 2011 revolt, it was the Shia majority who were oppressed by a minority Sunni regime closely tied to the Saudi monarchy. There too, protests were characterised by democratic demands and anti-sectarian attitudes. A sizeable proportion of the protesters were in fact Sunni. But the government – backed by hysterical rhetoric from the Saudis – denounced protesters as agents of an Iranian Shiite conspiracy.

Toby Mattieson, who was in the Bahraini capital Manama at the time, later wrote:

“Just as president Bashar al-Assad is doing in Syria, this strategy of sectarian polarisation was aimed at delegitimising the opposition, and scaring the minority Sunnis of a possible alternative political system and into total allegiance with the royal family.

“A month after the protests started, Saudi troops rolled over the causeway that links the Saudi eastern province with Bahrain. The king of Bahrain imposed a state of emergency, and a campaign of arrests, torture, mass dismissals and extrajudicial killings started, mainly directed against members of the Shiite sect.”

Even in countries with a relatively homogeneous religious population, stoking such divisions was an important part of the strategy of the old order. In Egypt, which is overwhelmingly Sunni, the overthrow of Mubarak was followed by anonymous attacks on the small Coptic Christian minority and their churches. These attacks were almost certainly orchestrated by the state security apparatus, which used the resulting fear to press its case for the restoration of “stability”.

This points to the other aspect of the way sectarianism and religious animosity have been used to defeat the revolutionary movements. Whether Sunni or Shia, oppositional groups have been characterised by the authorities they oppose as violent religious extremists, thus justifying the reimposition of an authoritarian state.

In Syria this has meant attempting to mobilise not simply on the basis of anti-Sunni sectarianism, but also by convincing Alawites, Christians and Druze that the mostly Sunni rebellion is led by extremist jihadis who will viciously persecute minorities if they do gain power.

In Saudi Arabia, anti-Shia rhetoric is increasingly open, but is couched in the language of “anti-terrorism” – the main terrorist threat being that posed by the Iranian regime.

In Egypt, the military and the deep state with which it is intertwined, fuelled sectarian hatred of Christians and gave a free rein to Saudi-aligned Salafi groups in the period after 2011. But it also posed itself as the guarantor of stability – against what since 2012 has been deemed the “terrorist” Muslim Brotherhood.

Although attempts to use sectarianism and fears about terrorist extremists were a part of the counter-revolutionary strategy from the outset of the 2011 uprising, that has not always been a winning strategy.

In the early period, when millions of people were on the streets, the sectarian narrative was relatively easy to combat. Some of the most iconic images of the revolution were of Christians and Muslims, Shiites and Sunnis, people of all religions, ethnicities and genders, standing in solidarity and declaring their common interests against the parasitic ruling elite.

But as the counter-revolution gained ground, so did the ability of the old order to determine the narrative. While the Middle East remains in a state of unprecedented turmoil, the masses have – for now – been forced from the centre stage of politics.

The old order used sectarianism, militarisation of conflict and the fear of terrorism to push back the demands for democracy and social justice. The same narrative is now being used by almost all elements of the regional ruling classes to mobilise support as they fight among themselves to carve up influence in a region in which all the old certainties and borders have been torn apart.

So while the Saudi monarchy has funded Islamist groupings in Syria to prevent the emergence of a democratic movement outside its control, it has also intervened to overthrow an ally of its key regional competitor – Iran.

The ratcheting up of sectarian tensions between a Saudi-led Sunni bloc and an Iranian-led Shiite one serves the interests of both sides. Not only does it provide an ideological rationale for what is in reality bog-standard geopolitical rivalry, it also serves to dampen opposition at home to what are in both cases deeply repressive and reactionary regimes.

There are contradictions in this strategy. The Saudis have encouraged Sunni sectarianism as part of their attempt to overthrow Assad in Syria. But the Wahhabi politics the regime promotes has also led to the rise of al Qaeda and ISIS, both of which have as a central aim the overthrow of what they consider to be the apostate Saudi monarchy.

The promotion of a sectarian framework by the Saudi regime and others, the failure of left and liberal opposition groups to carry through the promise of the 2011 uprising and the declaration by the likes of Assad in Syria and al-Sisi in Egypt that any opponents of the current order are terrorists, have all led to a genuine Islamist radicalisation among many young Arabs who were politicised in the democratic uprising of 2011.

When so many leftists and liberals sided with tyrants like Assad, or advocated compromise with the old order instead of an intransigent fight, is it any wonder many were attracted to groups that – however great their flaws – offered a continuation of the struggle?

One reaction to the rise of sectarian Islamist groups has been, however reluctantly, to defend either imperialist Western intervention in the region, or to advocate the backing of one or another authoritarian state that might, whatever its problems, “restore order”.

Such an approach is the road to ruin. It is precisely Western imperialism and local despotism (invariably aligned with one or another imperial power) that have led to the current maelstrom. If an alternative to the politics of sectarian extremism is to emerge, it can only be by a new movement of the masses that draws from the last years the conclusion that the Arab revolution has stalled, not because it went too far, but because it did not go far enough.