Sectarian Identity Entrepreneurs

Editor's  note: Over the next few weeks Maydan will publish articles presented at the Sectarianism, Identity and Conflict in Islamic Contexts: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives conference held at George Mason University in April 2016. We hope this series will help the broader public to develop a healthier engagement with the concept of sectarianism, an often misunderstood phenomenon.

While the media and some politicians often reiterate that Sectarianism and the Sunni-Shiʻi rivalry date back to a split in the earliest days of Islam, and are the outcome of primordial rivalries resulting from that split, a kind of consensus has emerged in the academic debate on the subject. Most scholars agree today that the sectarianism of the past decades is historically specific, constructed, a modern if not post-modern phenomenon, and related to the domestic and foreign policies of a number of states as well as to the nature of the political economy of the Middle East.

These developments in the scholarly debate are important. But there are specific questions that remain to be answered convincingly, such as how sectarianism became so salient, how it is produced in daily practices, and who profits from it? I argue that the notion of the sectarian identity entrepreneur can be a helpful concept to explain the salience of sectarianism in the politics of the Middle East. Sectarian identity entrepreneurs are “people whose political, social, and economic standing depends on the skillful manipulation of sectarian boundaries and who profit if these boundaries become the defining markers of a particular segment of society.”[1] The notion of the entrepreneur who capitalizes on certain forms of identity formation is taken from the instrumentalist study of ethnicity and ethnic conflict, which argues that collective identities can be used as a political resource by competing interest groups.[2]

” the notion of the sectarian identity entrepreneur can be a helpful concept to explain the salience of sectarianism in the politics of the Middle East.”

Political entrepreneurs have long existed in political movements around the world, in particular in nationalist movements or post-colonial liberation movements that had a notion of cultural authenticity and historical grievances at their cores. Several Shiʻi political movements in Lebanon and the Gulf have produced such political entrepreneurs.[3] In the case of the Shiʻa in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, I have described identity entrepreneurs as members of political movements, who through writing local histories seek to strengthen collective identities of a particular group as well as their own position as leaders of that group. Similar figures exist amongst other movements that seek to change the subaltern position of a particular sect or ethnic group. But while these historians-cum-activists mainly set out to influence the cohesion of their own particular group, there are other sectarian identity entrepreneurs that are much more inflammatory and higher up in the political economy of the Middle East (and they generally do not have time to write books).

Political elites have long played a game of divide and rule in the Middle East, a strategy that former colonial rulers and advisors had perfected, too. So members of Middle Eastern ruling families have long acted as identity entrepreneurs. But the notion of the identity entrepreneur also emphasizes the strong connection between politics and business, and its relationship with identity politics, especially in multi-religious and multi-ethnic societies. In countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait or Bahrain, particular sectarian leaders speak a distinctively sectarian language and in turn seek to secure the support of “their” constituency, which also often operates in a particular sectarian economic orbit. In war-torn societies such as Syria or Iraq, sectarian identity entrepreneurs promise to protect “their” community, while legitimizing their actions based on the foundational myths of that particular community. In such contexts, a proliferation of violence, the rule of militias and the fragmentation of society particularly lend itself to the emergence of sectarian identity entrepreneurs.

While sectarian identity entrepreneurs can have radically different world views, positions, and influence, they all have one thing in common: the heightened sectarianism since 2003 and particularly 2011 has given them renewed popularity, and new strength amongst their “sectarian” core constituencies, even though some of them have paid for this popularity with their lives or with their free movement. In the post-2003 and post-2011 contexts, a particular sectarian discourse has emerged both on the Shiʻi and the Sunni sides. This discourse allows sectarian identity entrepreneurs to thrive by tapping into it and positioning themselves unequivocally on one side or the other. The same discourse is then reproduced in the transnational public spheres of the region, which themselves have been broken down partly along sectarian lines. This means that many “consumers” of media get their information from particular satellite stations, social media accounts, websites or newspapers that usually have taken sides in the sectarian conflicts in the region. A statement by an Iraqi militia leader about Bahrain, or by a Kuwaiti MP about Syria, will, in a very short time be amplified by the public sphere of his side in the regional Cold War, and give him some credibility amongst his core group all the while reinforcing animosity towards him amongst his adversaries

The ubiquity of sectarian discourse is thus one of the key facilitators for the popularity of sectarian identity entrepreneurs. They in turn reinforce this discourse through their use of sectarianized public spheres. By focusing on political and economic elites, the notion of the sectarian identity entrepreneur can help to make the phenomenon of sectarian politics more tangible and more identifiable. For it is these actors that profit from the heightened sectarian atmosphere in the region and that further the sectarianization of the different conflicts.

[1] Toby Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t (Stanford University Press, 2013), p. 127.

[2] See, for example, Fredrik Barth’s Models of Social Organization and  Paul R. Brass, Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparison (London: Sage, 1991), 8.

[3] Shaery-Eisenlohr was the first to apply the term to Shiʻi political movements, using the term “Shia ethnic entrepreneurs” to describe the case of Lebanese Shia. Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr, Shi’ite Lebanon: Transnational Religion and the Making of National Identities (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 6.