Sect Supreme

The End of Realist Politics in the Middle East

A member of the Saudi border guards force looks through binoculars on Saudi Arabia's northern borderline with Iraq, July 14, 2014. Faisal Al Nasser / Courtesy Reuters

The stunning recent military successes by the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have triggered a wave of gloomy prognoses about the demise of the Sykes-Picot regional order in the Levant and the withering away of the Iraqi and Syrian territorial states. However, the stakes are higher than the disintegration of what have always been permeable borders and the collapse of a long bygone Anglo-French agreement. Indeed, this year could mark the birth of a new regional order, one that dismisses the all-too-realist geopolitical contests of the past and clings, instead, to sectarianism. 

The trend toward sectarianism in otherwise realist geopolitical contests commenced shortly after the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq and has culminated, for now, in ISIS’ blitzkrieg throughout the country. In other words, ISIS’ gains are consecrating rather than creating the politicization of narrow and exclusionary sectarian, ethnic, religious, and tribal identities, which appeared to have weakened during the Arab Spring. Now many countries in the Arab world are starting to look like Lebanon -- once considered an Arab anomaly -- in which historically-constructed sectarian identities have been institutionalized and hardened by a consociational power-sharing arrangement. Over time, sectarian identities across the region may, like in Lebanon, come to seem continuous and permanent. And if Lebanon’s cyclical patterns of political crises, internal wars, and external interventions are any guide, that future won’t be a pleasant one.

To be sure, the growing sectarian regional order has deep roots, for which authoritarianism is partly to blame. Liberal oligarchies briefly ruled the region after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the First World War. But they were short-lived. Due to the stress of the 1948 loss of Palestine, external interventions, and internal praetorian pressures, those regimes gave way to authoritarian ones that prioritized a centralized unitary state. That model ultimately concentrated political and coercive power in the hands of a family, sect, tribe, class, region, or a combination thereof, thus alienating and excluding other groups. The homogenizing

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