Middle Eastern Communities Can Resist Sectarianism

For Release

January 14, 2019

Scholars and policymakers alike have long sought to understand what drives sectarianism in the Middle East, yet far less attention has been focused on what factors make a community more resilient to sectarianism and how societies might counter it.

A new RAND report finds that Middle Eastern communities are generally resilient to the worst sectarian impulses and even communities that experience sectarian strife can recover from it. Indeed, at least at the local level, the report demonstrates that communities can resist the slide toward sectarianism and draws lessons for how to promote resilience and cross-sectarian cooperation.

“Sectarianism has become a destructive feature of the modern Middle East and is likely to remain part of the regional landscape for years to come. It is driven by political elites as regime survival strategies, by major powers as part of a strategy for building regional influence, or by religious leaders and believers who are unwilling to accept the equal status of other religious groups,” said Jeffrey Martini, lead author on the report and a senior Middle East analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. “That does not mean, however, that sectarianism defines all facets of the Middle East or that the violence that stems from this strand of identity politics is irreversible in all cases.”

RAND researchers took a multidisciplinary approach to explore resilience to sectarianism through four Middle Eastern case studies: Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria and Iraq. These cases count among the toughest since they all have high levels of sectarian diversity and three of the four have experienced civil war.

“The stronger the level of trust, social connections and physical proximity across sectarian lines, the better equipped communities are to keep from sliding into sectarianism when conflict emerges,” said Dalia Dassa Kaye, an author of the report and director of RAND's Center for Middle East Public Policy. “We found that a number of policy measures can help counter sectarianism even in highly divided societies, including improving border controls to cut off the flow of resources and fighters from foreign sources, limiting foreign funding to sectarian leaders and encouraging space for civil society development. In other words, endless bouts of sectarian violence are not inevitable in the Middle East.”

No one factor is likely to be sufficient on its own, but the case studies suggest that formal and informal mechanisms for mediating the early onset of conflict, preexisting levels of trust between community leaders, activists with experience in building movements, strong border monitoring and physical infrastructure that encourages mixing all help to curb sectarianism.

Other authors of “Countering Sectarianism in the Middle East” include Becca Wasser, Amanda Rizkallah, Justine Gengler, Kathleen Reedy and Ami Carpenter.

This research was sponsored by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, under the Foundation's Religion in International Affairs program. The program supports projects that promote a deeper understanding of the role of religion in international affairs and that foster dialogue between the academic community and policymakers.

Within RAND, the research was conducted under the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD). NSRD conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security and intelligence communities, foundations and other nongovernmental organizations that support defense and national security analysis.

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