Renowned researcher visits Aarhus University to talk modern sectarianism

Is the Middle East heading down a path to democracy, or will it remain plagued by conflict and violence?

By James Whitehead

Last Thursday, one of the leading scholars of sectarianism and Gulf politics, senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, Toby Matthiesen, visited Aarhus University to speak of the Shia/Sunni question in a sectarian Gulf. Published in various journals and major media outlets, Matthiesen has also published books examining the root causes of sectarianism, in The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism and Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t.

The contours of the Middle East contain some of the most volatile and complicated global issues. In the twentieth century the region became a battleground between two superpowers, as well as an arena of struggle for independence. More recently, the Arab uprisings beginning in 2011 brought waves of demonstrations and hopes of change, yet the revolutionary tides have since receded. The Middle East is marked by continuing conflict and instability, including the formation and rise of ISIS.

Modern sectarianism
Speaking to students and staff in a packed lecture hall, Matthiesen traces the origins of modern sectarianism back to the late 1970s. In this era, often called the “Arab Cold War”, both Islamic sects were more often united, with sectarianism playing almost no role in politics.

The major turning point in Shia-Sunni relations was the Iranian revolution of 1979. When mass demonstrations lead to the toppling of the autocratic leader Shah Reza Pahlavi, the exiled Shia cleric Ayatollah Khomeini returned to establish an Islamic state based on Shia doctrine, or as Mattheisen describes, shiism.

Fast forward into the twenty-first century, and the landscape of the Middle East is cracked with division, conflict and deeply embedded sectarianism. With the hopes of the Arab uprisings all but faded, Mattheisen expands on how it has affected the region.

Arab uprising and growth of ISIS
In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings – with conflict still raging in some regions – the Middle East has seen the breakdown in key states: the lost territory of Iraq and Syria to Daesh; the disintegration in government apparatus in Yemen.

Yet the Middle East in general is still very much under authoritarian control. State repression and retaliation has caused the shrinking of political space, driving people into militancy and extremism. The most notable example being the rise of Daesh.

New hope of a shared threat?
With its extreme version of political Islam, the emergence of Daesh has alerted the whole region. This has lead many to believe that the threat posed by Daesh can unite the Middle East in defeating a common threat. Such was one question given to Matthiesen. Yet this new hope of a shared threat doesn’t hold much weight for him. He notes that while representatives of the region officially declare a shared threat of Daesh, behind the doors they’re shouting at each other in disagreement. To date, appearances of unity are but a façade.

Contemporary academic research focusses on a “new Middle East” facing two trajectories: is it heading down a path to democracy in a post-Islamist region; or is it degenerating into a deeply sectarian Middle East? It’s difficult to predict, but for Matthiesen, the foreseeable future is likely to look just as similar as today. The Middle East will continue to be plagued with conflict, violence and instability.