On Sectarian Politics

The New York Times ran a, uh, questionable piece suggesting that 7th century theology could explain present day tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. This is excellently refuted by Marc Lynch in The Washington Post.

I am only stepping into the fray because a friend posted this piece, and I would like to issue a concurring opinion that looks at it a bit differently. The thrust here is that it is Orientalist to suggest that medieval theology drives current politics in the Arab world and that the West has moved beyond that. In broad strokes, I agree. And I want to zero in on the thought experiment that backs that assertion:

Let’s try a thought experiment to see the absurdity of Orientalist analysis. Let’s say Germany and France got into a dispute over the future of Europe. Would the New York Times run a sidebar informing its readers about Martin Luther and the rise of Protestant Germany in the 16th century, and the religious differences with Catholic France?

Agreed. Now, remember when a bunch of economies were failing in Europe? Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain? (PIIGS, because, ugh.) And France was on the edge? Now, the things these countries all have in common is that they are Orthodox, either Eastern Orthodox or Catholic. France was more mixed. There exists a reading in which this is somehow related to that curiosity. And James North’s point is that no self-respecting journalist would put their byline on that.

Here’s the twist: I think there is something going on there. No, I don’t think Catholic values or some other simplistic hypothesis explains the Euro crisis. I think Europe has had the same geography for a long time and that the same conflicts keep coming up. Southern Europe has faced resource shortages in a way that Northern Europe never has. Embracing a large, centrally organized institution to help redistribute wealth and maintain order makes more sense there. Church or State, it is the same broad functions.

This does not hold up to very fine scrutiny. Remember the time Germany hopped on the Fascist train with Southern Europe. (Of course, they had just been artificially impoverished.) And orthodox Russia and Eastern Europe have played the field against central Europe. But in North-South conflicts, sectarian affiliation has for centuries been predictive, not causative.

Viewing the conflicts in the Middle East as structural, and sects as a response to those structures, goes a long way to explaining why the same lines keep getting drawn. Persia (Iran) and the Arabs have long been fighting over the same resources, influence, and borders. Sect affiliation becomes part of the political identity and part of the fight. It is about who should lead Muslims, yes, but it is not stuck in the seventh century. Islam would have unified if those problems could have been solved. Until Tehran and Riyadh find a durable way to share resources and territory (spoiler alert: they can’t), they will continue to be pitted against each other. As long Protestant Europe and Orthodox Europe continue to have conflicting economies, they will be pitted against each other.

And sectarian identification with deep roots will keep growing into the present.


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