Taking sectarian and ethnic sides in the MENA region

Sunday 15/01/2017

Taking sectarian or ethnic sides in the Middle East and North Africa is neither new nor exclusive to the region but there is a growing, less straightforward aspect to the phenomenon.

The norm has generally been that people side with members of their own faith, confession or ethnicity.

This could be done via the ballot box, in which political pro­grammes become less important to the electorate than the identity of candidates. People could very well end up voting against their own interests.

In the worst scenarios, it is manifested when people are ready to kill, maim or displace others because of their sectarian or ethnic backgrounds. Those who are not involved in such acts could still engage in seeking to justify them.

However, with the increase of media and social media atten­tion on the Middle East, many from outside the region, as well as from within, are more fre­quently taking sectarian or ethnic sides.

These people could be in positions of power or influence, such as decision-makers, politicians, analysts at think-tanks or journalists. Or they could be laymen whose views contribute to public opinion, which would yield influence on the media and government.

The reasons for taking such sides are often ideological but sometimes it is more about hating a particular group. The end result is often a consistent, cartoonish, black and white worldview.

The actions matter less than who carried them out. In many cases, people’s reaction to the death of Yemenis would depend on how they were killed. Was it a shell by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels or an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition that supports the government? By people, I do not mean Yemenis or Saudis who are supporting one of the warring sides but people from other parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the West or the world in general.

The same, more shockingly, could be applied to Syria. Who raped, tortured, killed and mutilated the corpses of Syrian civilians? Was it militants of the self-proclaimed Sunni caliphate of the Islamic State (ISIS) or was it carried out by forces loyal to the secular/Alawite Assad regime, backed by Shia militias from Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan? The strength of condemnation (if any) would depend on who carried out such acts, systemati­cally.

If you are a staunch Western advocate of Kurdish separatism, then the lives and views of Kurds who support the Turkish govern­ment — and they are many — might not matter much to you. If you could overlook the plight of Kurds suffering at the hands of Kurdish militias or authorities, then the persecution of Arabs and Turkmen by Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq will not cause you to lose much sleep at night. Interestingly, Iran’s Kurds appear to matter even less.

Sometimes you would find that some Sunni Islamists only advocate minority rights or slam human rights abuses when it suits them.

On occasion, you would find alliances between ultra-secular Sunnis and Shia fundamentalists against Islamist Sunnis. For example, an atheist Tunisian might express greater concern over Sunni Islamists advocating the hijab in Egypt than Shia Islamists imposing the hijab in Iran.

Such alliances are no longer based on ideology or principle but rather depend on which side you hate more — or if a perceived threat is closer to home. In such a case, you would stand against those who are closer to you in sect, ethnicity and even ideology because they are your foes at home or regionally.

Some leaders can never do anything right. The same leaders can never do anything wrong, depending on whom you’re asking. Even solidarity with victims of terror sometimes depends on ethnicity, faith or sect.

The dangers of blindly taking sides in this manner are not restricted to the on-the-ground actors in the MENA region but also to anyone or anything that could influence them — from policymakers to public opinion.