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مكافحة الطائفيّة في الشرق الأوسط

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Research Questions

  1. What factors make a community resilient to sectarianism?
  2. How can communities recover from sectarianism and associated violence?
  3. How can the international community promote resilience to sectarianism?

Sectarianism has become a destructive feature of the modern Middle East. Whether it is driven by political elites as a regime-survival strategy, by major powers to build regional influence, or by religious leaders and believers who are unwilling to accept the equal status of other religious groups, sectarianism is likely to remain part of the regional landscape for years to come. This does not mean, however, that sectarianism defines all facets of the Middle East or that the violence that stems from sectarianism is irreversible. Middle Eastern communities are generally resilient to the worst sectarian impulses, and even communities that experience sectarian strife can recover from it. This report takes a multidisciplinary approach to explore resilience to sectarianism through four Middle Eastern case studies: Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, and Iraq. 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 sectarian mixing all help. Indeed, this research demonstrates that, at least at the local level, communities can resist the slide toward sectarianism.

Key Findings

Geography matters

  • Border management was critical in several cases, determining whether certain communities became more vulnerable to sectarian actors.
  • Although borders cannot always prevent sectarian mobilization, physical borders still matter in local settings. This is particularly the case in active war zones, where the ability of sectarian militia groups to easily traverse borders can fuel conflicts that otherwise might not turn violent.

Political elites foster and impede sectarianism

  • Political elites with patronage systems, particularly from external sources, tended to foster sectarianism and stymie cross-sectarian cooperation. When elites lose legitimacy, however, opportunities can emerge for leaders with nonsectarian agendas.

Civil-society development is critical

  • Capitalizing on opportunity is difficult if there are no alternative political leaders or movements to seize the moment with nonsectarian agendas. This requires some opening of political space for movements to form around issues that transcend sectarian identities (e.g., economic development, education reform).

Cross-sectarian interaction can be a buffer

  • Cross-sectarian interaction can boost resilience even in the face of sectarian-driven armed conflict. The stronger the level of trust and social connection across sectarian lines, the better equipped communities are to avoid sectarianism when conflict emerges.
  • Conversely, when communities are built to segregate citizens along sectarian lines, the prospects for division and conflict increase.

Smaller socioeconomic gaps improve resistance to sectarianism

  • The narrower the socioeconomic gaps between Sunni and Shi'a residents, the less likely sectarian grievances and violence are to emerge.
  • In neighborhoods where economic grievances and discrimination are greater, communities are more vulnerable to sectarian violence.


  • Programs that focus on physical infrastructure, capacity-building of partners' border security forces, and leveraging of technology (e.g., biometrics) can support improved border control.
  • Preventing sectarian conflict is a common incentive among external powers, even if those powers are at odds on broader policy goals.
  • The international community can use financial leverage to crack down on state funding to groups designated as foreign terrorist organizations.
  • Opening up space for greater cross-sectarian cooperation at the community level would create a peaceful channel for expressing grievances and discussing policy challenges that cut across sectarian agendas.
  • Cultivating leaders who support domestic reform programs aimed to benefit the broader public — not just a particular group or tribe — is critical to reduce sectarianism and solve day-to-day challenges.
  • The international community can bolster incentives for inclusive politics by praising leaders who prioritize public services and refrain from engaging in identity politics.
  • Urban areas designed to integrate different sectors of society and increase economic opportunities are more likely to remain stable and peaceful when societal tensions increase.
  • Global trends in urban renewal can provide new opportunities to improve infrastructure and create more public spaces to enhance economic development and intercommunal mixing.
  • More support for local media could increase coverage of technocratic municipal issues that transcend sectarian difference, such as water challenges, trash collection, youth unemployment, and education gaps.

This research was sponsored by the Henry Luce Foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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