Department of Political Science

What's so Sectarian about Sectarian Politics? Identity Politics and Authoritarianism in a New Middle East

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Shia/Sunni sectarianism figures prominently in post-Arab uprising claims that the Middle East is witnessing a darker kind of authoritarianism drawing on exclusionary and xenophobic forms of identity politics. This article explores whether sectarianism per se is associated with a distinct form of identity politics or if authoritarian techniques involving the use of the ‘sectarian card’ should be subsumed under a broader category of authoritarian identity politics involving the inclusion or exclusion of social groups based on identity and implemented with varying degrees of repression. The article shows how Brubaker's analytical distinction between a ‘diacritical’ and ‘normative ordering power’ understanding of religious identities gives rise to different expectations in regard to whether sectarianism leads to different and more violent forms of repression than other forms of identity politics. Against this background, the article compares authoritarian identity politics in Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, and Egypt, which all differ from each other both in terms of the importance of a Shia/Sunni distinction compared to other identity cleavages, and also as regards the intensity and level of the regime's response to the Arab uprisings. From this comparison five general lessons about sectarianism and authoritarian identity politics can be drawn.

Original languageEnglish
JournalStudies in Ethnicity and Nationalism
Pages (from-to)127-149
Number of pages23
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2019

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