There is a false narrative of sectarianism that colours the Middle East, creating a rivalry that jeopardises the region's quest for personal and political rights and decent, competent governance.
A simplistic sectarian lens magnifies extremist agenda
These days, there is a dark meta-narrative spreading in parts of the Arab world and beyond: if the previous decade was that of Shia ascendancy, this one will be about the revenge of the Sunnis.
The chasm between Islam's two main branches, many believe, already shapes internal Arab politics and mirrors a great regional competition that pits Iran against the Gulf states, in particular Saudi Arabia.
The story reads this way: Iran won the first rounds, when it helped Shia parties grab Iraq from Sunni clutches, groomed Hizbollah into a powerful force in Lebanon, and consolidated its alliance with the Alawite House of Assad in Syria. This drive has now been stopped and is being reversed, starting in Syria.
This view, as narrow, simplistic and offensive as it may be, has come to colour the perception of the uprisings that have shaken heterogeneous Arab societies. It helps some people to find a pattern amid the chaotic uncertainty brought about by the massive changes unfolding in the region. It is also circular and self-serving: the more sectarian one is, the more one is likely to subscribe to this reading. Interestingly, many Arabs on both sides of that divide propagate it to mobilise their allies.
A Shia Lebanese politician once confided that since minorities in the Levant faced a "sea of Sunnis", they needed to coalesce around the most powerful sect among them - which conveniently happens to be the Shia - to survive. He was even more vehement about this point during a meeting last week.
Likewise, a radical Sunni politician in the Gulf recently described to me a grand plan hatched by Shia groups to take over the region. Pressed to explain serious inconsistencies in his argument, he resorted to the ultimate sectarian get-out-of-jail card: blaming taqqiya - the religiously sanctioned right to conceal facts in the face of threatening circumstances - that sectarian Sunnis interpret as a Shia licence to lie at will.
Sadly, no one can deny the existence and potency of sectarian identity. Some are tempted to do so, often blaming foreign actors. A year ago in Delhi, an eminent professor insisted that "sectarianism in the Arab world doesn't exist and if it does, it is the doing of western powers". But there is enough brewing bigotry and intolerance among Arab elites and peoples. Foreigners, at worst, serve as catalysts, like the United States did in Iraq.
That said, sectarian identity coexists with other identities, for instance sub-national. While sectarian identity is not manufactured, its expression can undoubtedly be manipulated by political actors or accentuated in specific contexts. Hizbollah has long tried to appeal beyond its natural constituency, thus underplaying its Shia identity. Under criticism from other segments of Lebanese society, the guerrilla group now brandishes its Shia shield, equating its armed status with its community's security.
I have been struck by the return of sectarianism in my many discussions with Syrians of all stripes in recent months. Syrians used to look with disdain at the overtly sectarian way most Lebanese went about their business, in politics or elsewhere. They felt - or at least pretended to feel - less sectarian and more nationalist in their outlook.
Today, many Syrians feel surprised, if not shocked at their own display of sectarianism. It turns out that four decades of the Assad Baathist ideology had only subdued it, just as it did with tribal identities, rather than infused a stronger, genuine sense of national identity. It is now back with a vengeance. However disgraceful, unfair and counterproductive, acknowledged Lebanese sectarianism provides a degree of certainty about the behaviour of a group and allows for precious pockets of social and political liberalism.
Some Lebanese and Syrians opposed to the Assads now celebrate Saddam Hussein on Facebook as their champion against creeping Shiism, but they seem oblivious to the sad irony that the two men, perhaps more than being Alawite and Sunni, essentially subscribed to the same model of a brutal, exploitative state.
To be sure, sectarianism alone cannot explain the behaviour of every group or elucidate the region's complex politics. How does it account for the alliance between the Assad regime and the Salafi group Tawheed in northern Lebanon? How do cross-confessional alliances in Iraq fit the narrative of a Sunni versus Shia struggle over the country? Is the rapprochement between the Alawite sect and Shia Islam, initiated in the 1970s, as organic as some make it out to be?
Many people tend to forget that the Arab world is religiously and ethnically one of the world's most diverse regions. The political game is almost always about triangulation, with an assortment of other sects and ethnic groups, as well as secular forces, engaged in complex deal making and competition. Iraq may have tragically lost its Christian minority, but its Kurds are going nowhere. Syria's substantial minorities will hardly be subservient to potential Sunni rule.
In fact, using sectarianism as the main prism to interpret the region's developments often obscures rather than reveals. Of course, Alawite men got preferential access to security jobs in Syria but the available data doesn't show that the fortunes of the long-ostracised Alawite community were lifted after 42 years of Assad rule. Rather, the Assads purposely kept them economically and socially marginalised and angry. After all, why would a well-educated, well-integrated person want to sacrifice his life to defend a brutal ruling clique?
Rather, assabiyyah - loosely translated into kinship or group solidarity - helps us better understand group behaviour. It explains how ruling elites organise to preserve their power, including by manipulating other segments of the population. It also explains why those segments are responsive, and how foreign actors find a way to insert themselves in complex societies.
As Saudi Arabia and Iran compete, communities in the Arab world, afraid for their future, and leaders, eager to seize or preserve, will turn to them for protection and patronage. Sadly, this rivalry will exacerbate sectarianism at the cost of the real quest for personal and political rights and decent, competent governance.
Emile Hokayem is the senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the former political editor of The National
On Twitter: @Emile_Hokayem