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The Purity Party: Ethno-Sectarianism and International Politics

Iraqis seek shelter from sectarian strife.

Sectarian and ethnic conflicts continue to dominate the headlines. Over the past year, inter-communal violence has wracked the Central African Republic, one of the world’s poorest countries. Beginning with the fall of the capital city of Bangui to the Seleka rebel coalition in late March 2013, conflict between Muslims – supporting the Seleka regime- and Christian and animist militias has occurred. In the mounting cycle of atrocities, over 5000 civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. While tensions between religious and ethnic communities in the Central African Republic have previously existed, mass violence on this scale is new. Historically, Christians and Muslims have lived alongside each other peacefully. In the past year however, attacks on Christians by Seleka mercenaries from Sudan and Chad prompted retaliation by ‘anti-balaka’ Christian militias, careening towards genocide.

Meanwhile, Iraq stands on the edge of a precipice. Militants of the Islamic State (IS), an extremist group too radical in its aims and vicious in its tactics for even al-Qaeda, have seized control of significant chunks of Iraq. Aided by allied Sunni tribal forces disenchanted with the central government, the group controls territory only 40 kilometers from Baghdad. While American support and a new Iraqi prime minister have helped stabilize the frontline, the war has already managed to fan the flames of Iraq’s simmering sectarian struggle: IS forces have slaughtered thousands of Shi’a Muslims and Yazidi Kurds, sparking reprisal killings against Sunnis by pro-government Shi’a militias and worries of a descent into a new round of sectarian chaos.

Conflict between ethnic and, or sectarian (religious) communities has beleaguered the international community for as long as international institutions have existed. The First World War prompted the emergence of the first international refugee system in order to handle the millions displaced by communal violence in the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, setting the stage for similar episodes throughout the 20th century. In recent years, the Middle East has been set aflame with sectarian struggles from Yemen to Syria, as old authoritarian regimes collapse. Sectarian conflict remains a major issue for the international community and understanding it is important for a secure future.

One theory advanced by Andreas Wimmer, is that ethnic conflict emerges as a result of state modernization. As the power and reach of the state grows, control of its institutions becomes increasingly valuable. Groups then tend to mobilize politically in order to seize power. In societies with a relatively homogenous population, groups tend to form along socioeconomic class lines, with nationalism often playing a unifying role. In a state with a multitude of established ethno-sectarian communities however, these identities often lead to the formation of an alternate basis of mobilization, with pre-existing differences and tensions stoked for political purposes. This is especially potent when ethno-sectarian divisions coincide with class divisions. In Lebanon, for example, Christians traditionally dominated the merchant class, while also owning much of the land farmed by mostly Muslim peasants.

Sectarianization and ethnicization can occur without explicit intent, particularly in authoritarian regimes. In Iraq for example, Sunni Muslims were promoted and granted special privileges by Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, even though the Ba’ath Party was explicitly secularist in its platform. Yet, Hussein surrounded himself and promoted members of his own extended family and allied tribes, meaning that the state eventually took on a Sunni character. While there was no religious justification for a sectarian regime, one emerged in Iraq anyway. A similar process occurred in Syria with the Alawi minority, whose stranglehold of power is one of the reasons for the ongoing sectarianization of the Syrian civil war.

As polarization and tensions increase along ethno-sectarian lines, incentives often emerge among politicians to further sectarianize the conflict in a process known as ‘ethnic outbidding’. Political actors use grievances, memories of past violence, and symbols to antagonize their community, forcing more moderate actors to either embrace similar rhetoric or lose power. This prompts a race of extremes, particularly when one ethnic group is politically dominant over the other. In Sri Lanka for example, the multiethnic, bourgeois United National Party abandoned cooperation with Tamil leaders and embraced hardline Singhalese nationalism in order to prevent the left-leaning Sri Lanka Freedom Party from gaining power. The subsequent persecution of Tamils in the north led to the emergence of Tamil extremists, such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, whose actions sparked the decades long Sri Lankan civil war.

This process is often stretched out over generations and involves gradual change, as in Sri Lanka, where discriminatory legislation and periodic outbreaks of anti-Tamil violence intensified from independence onward. However, similar dynamics can be seen even in rapidly escalating conflicts, from Slobodan Milosević’s use of Serbian nationalism to gain power, to the conflict in Syria, where moderate rebel groups have been pushed out in favor of Sunni Islamist groups who have consolidated their control over the government.

Once conflict escalates into violence, it can be very difficult to stop. If an atrocity occurs, it will likely be used as justification for reprisals. As the cycle of violence continues, ingrained animosities and fear of extermination at the hands of the enemy can lead to armed groups performing horrific acts, including mass rape, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. Often, the only way to stop such a conflict without large-scale intervention is to step in before it begins and work to de-escalate the situation through addressing aggrieved parties. However, once politics have become sectarianized or ethnicized, it is generally very difficult to rectify. In the Central African Republic, for example, proposals for partition of the country between Christian and Muslim areas have already been floated, while in Bosnia, twenty years of peace have failed to make significant progress against deep ethnic divides. This suggests that conflicts might be managed, but the risk of escalation will always exist.

The sectarianization of conflict should be important to us for a number of reasons. First, many Western countries, Canada included, have their own ethno-sectarian tensions. Secondly, Canada’s increasingly multicultural society, while valuable, provides more possible points of friction between communities. As ethnicity appears to be both an effective and dangerous means of political mobilization, we must be vigilant that ethnic politics do not become grounds for bad policy, political polarization, and even violence, both at home and abroad.

Alexander Langer
Alexander Langer was a Junior Research Fellow with the NATO Association of Canada. He is a U2 student in the Joint Honours Political Science/History program at McGill University. His research interests focus on ethnic and sectarian conflict, civil war and population movements, particularly in the modern Middle East and Southeastern Europe. He is currently an intern at the Social Justice Committee of Montreal, and is the editor-in-chief of the McGill International Review, a student journal of international affairs