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Dividing Lines – Introduction: Sectarianism as a boundary making process

Article by Prof Simon Mabon

July 19, 2022

Dividing Lines – Introduction: Sectarianism as a boundary making process

“There are few areas in the sociology of religion that are of greater inherent interest than that of sectarianism. In the study of religious sects, we come across a range of human passions and motivations hardly rivalled in any other sector of social life […]. On the modern scene we find the dynamics of sectarianism at work in places far removed from religion proper – in politics, arts literature, and even within the sacred precincts of science itself. It is not too much to say that in a deepening analysis of sectarianism, its structure and dynamics, the sociology of religion may make a formidable contribution to the general effort of the social sciences to understand the inner forces of our society”.[1]


On 14th November 2018, an independent working group from the Scottish Parliament published a report exploring sectarianism in Scotland. While the language of sectarianism is commonly used across Scotland, it lacks a formal definition in Scots law. As scholars of sectarianism will attest, efforts to define sectarianism have provoked widespread debate leading some to view sectarianism as an essentially contested concept. The introduction to the working group’s report describes sectarianism as a “persistent intersectional issue”, a phenomenon originating in religious division but also drawing in other identities ranging from race, ethnicity, class, geographic location, and football allegiance. Those who have watched football (soccer) games between the two main Glasgow teams – Rangers and Celtic – are all too aware of the sectarian nature of the rivalry, which is mapped onto complex identity markers


As the Scottish working group observes, the intersectionality of sectarianism and its amorphous manifestation in and across political, social, and economic life raises a range of challenges with regard to understanding the manifestation of acts of violence or xenophobia inspired by sectarian difference. Such instances of sectarian difference are not restricted to Scotland and Christianity, but rather occur within and across faith communities, in Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and also in the context of national identities, where faith plays a role.


The etymology of the concept of sectarianism points to deviation from a collective whole. Historically, Max Weber’s concept of the sect served as a starting point for intellectual inquiry, distinguishing sect from the church through type of membership: one is born into a church but joins a sect. Scholars of the Sociology of Religion, such as Peter Berger, H. Richard Niebuhr, Ernst Troeltsch, and Gerardus van dear Leeuw, have all engaged with Weber’s remarks, seeking to develop the concept, focussing on phenomenology, epistemology, metaphysics and other philosophical lines of inquiry in the process. At the heart of these approaches are different forms of boundary making in order to distinguish between church and sect. Whilst undeniably influential, this body of work struggles to understand sectarianism beyond the Christian tradition, beyond the abstract engagement with boundary making and the engagement between sect and world.[2] In Islam, for example, the organisation of the faith – which differs from the hierarchical structure of the Christian church – and existence of different madhab (schools of orthodox thought) means that sectarianism takes different forms from that presented by Weber and those who followed him.


Whilst questions of faith play an important role in understanding sectarian difference, the intersectional nature of such tensions mean that to understand the emergence, evolution and contestation of sectarian identities requires a reflection on political, legal, social, spatial and economic factors that also shape the lives of those who belong to such communities. Sectarian identities carry personal meaning, resonating across both the social world and the more formal areas of political life. Yet such identities are also deeply intersectional, meaning that sectarianism cannot be understood independent of the broader social, political or economic worlds within which they operate.


Put another way, context matters. In acknowledging this, we position sectarian identities within the complex rhythms of local, national and international politics, which are determined by the contingencies of life within such arenas. Yet as Doreen Massey acknowledges when reflecting on the importance of a spatial approach, the “intimately tiny” aspects of local politics are also conditioned by the broader hegemonic factors of global capitalism and international politics.[3] The rise of identity politics as a key feature of national and international politics has opened an array of different cleavages between and within communal groups. These cleavages can cut across class, ideology, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and sect, often in an intersectional manner. The idea of identity politics reflects membership of a constituency that is based upon shared experiences of injustice and ordered around efforts to challenge discrimination and marginalisation.


Central to this discussion are questions of boundary making and efforts to understand the ways in which communal difference is (re)produced, transcended and contested. Understanding the process of boundary making – defining those who are included and those who are excluded – has serious implications for the political community and everyday life in the state. For example, in Kuwait, members of the bidoon community are considered stateless, excluded from political life and the social goods that the state provides.


While the emergence of approaches, such as Critical Race Theory, have provided scholars with the theoretical tools to engage with questions brought up by identity politics, more work is needed understanding the ways in which identities intersect with one another, how lines of inclusion and exclusion are drawn, how identities and communal relations evolve over time, and how identities relate to the broader collective.


It is here where the concept of sectarianism can offer valuable insight in understanding identity politics. Although the concept of sectarianism has historically been used in a purely religious context to denote deviation from a collective whole, its ability to understand the process of boundary making within a collective whole means that the concept provides a useful analytical approach to the study of identity politics. This application ranges from communal difference in Scotland, Northern Ireland and across the Middle East, where intra-religious tensions have become increasingly prominent, particularly in media coverage of regional politics.


Sectarianism in the Middle East

In the decade after the Arab Uprisings of 2011, violence across the Middle East has caused close to one million deaths with a further 28 million people displaced from their homes.[4] Efforts to understand this violence in both public discourse and the academy have regularly reduced conflict to a consequence of sectarian difference. Although the vast majority of the Middle East’s 450 million people are Sunni – and all but three of the region’s Muslim majority states are majority Sunni – sizeable Shi’a minorities exist in states across the region, many of whom have experienced forms of discrimination and marginalisation in the recent past. Yet sectarian difference and relations between Sunni and Shi’a is context specific, products of the complexities and contingencies of life in particular places. Moreover, to speak of homogenous Sunni and/or Shi’a populations misses a great deal of complexity, including doctrinal difference, ethnicity, ideology, political stance, class, and geopolitical affiliation.


Although the concept of sectarianism features prominently in media coverage of Middle Eastern politics, scant attention has been paid to understanding the ways in which sectarian difference emerges, evolves over time, or is contested. Instead, the “spectre of sectarianism” is regularly posited as something haunting the Middle East, shaping policy engagement in the process. In media and policy circles, sectarianism is regularly viewed as a product of “ancient hatreds” dating back to the Battle of Karbala in 680, a position articulated by President Barack Obama in the 2016 State of the Union.[5]


Such an approach suggests that relations between Sunni and Shi’a have remained hostile across time and space, ignoring 1,400 years of history and the complexity and contingency of local context. Although sectarianism emerges from theological difference, closer examination of interactions between Sunni and Shi’a reveals schisms between heterogenous forms of Sunni and Shi’a identities, which are given meaning by political, legal, urban, economic, geographic, ethnic, and tribal factors. As a result, sectarian tensions differ across space and time, conditioned by context, contingency, and the interplay of local and regional politics. Sectarian identities are fundamentally intersectional, conditioned by the rhythms of time and place. Understanding these rhythms is fundamental in gaining more nuanced awareness of the impact of sectarian difference on violence across the Middle East, and of everyday lives more broadly.


A common factor inherent within sectarian tensions is the manipulation of communal difference by those in positions of power.[6] As relations between rulers and ruled faced increased pressure following the Arab Uprisings, the manipulation and mobilisation of sect-based identities became an increasingly common tactic as elites sought to consolidate and retain power.[7] These processes of manipulation and mobilisation have had devastating implications for societies and states, resulting in violence, repression, and war.[8] It is here where understanding sectarianism as a form of boundary making becomes incredibly valuable.


Studying sectarianism

In recent years, academic debate on sectarianism has moved beyond the stilted ‘primordialist’ – ‘instrumentalist’ – ‘third ways’ approach, to offer more nuanced appreciation of the ways in which sectarian identities operate in the Middle East.[9] In doing so, scholars have begun to position sectarian identities within the broader intersectionality of identity politics.[10] Whilst compelling, these approaches are often constrained by disciplinary or geographical analysis.[11]


Acknowledging the complexity of the concept – which often leaves people talking past one another – some, such as Fanar Haddad, have argued for the term sectarianism to be discarded, in favour of a “more coherent lexical framework” which allows for a delineation of what aspect of the group is of interest. Put another way, Haddad suggests using the term sectarian as “a modifier relating to sects or the relationships between or within them: sectarian identity, sectarian unity, sectarian mobilisation, and so forth”.[12]


Whilst certainly compelling, Haddad’s call for a more coherent framework risks throwing the baby out with the bath water. Instead, as this report shall demonstrate, the concept of sectarianism allows for implicit and explicit recognition of the processes of boundary making across time and space. Such boundary making requires navigating the complex interplay of different (intersectional) identities and the ways in which boundaries are (re)produced and contested over time. This report seeks to contribute to these developments on communal difference by using the concept of sectarianism as a means of understanding the construction, reproduction and contestation of boundaries over time and place.


[1] Berger, Peter. The Sociological Study of Sectarianism, Social Research 51, no. 1/2 (1984): 367.

[2] Ibid, p380

[3] Massey. Doreen. 2005. For space. London, UK: Sage Publications.

[4] Editorial, The Guardian view on the Arab Spring, a decade on: a haunting legacy, The Guardian, January 2021,; Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, A decade of displacement in the Middle East and North Africa, February 2021,

[5] The Obama White House, President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union Address, Medium, January 2016,

[6] Hashemi, Nader and Postel, Danny. 2017. Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (eds). London UK: Hurst.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Mabon, Simon. 2020. Houses built on sand: Violence, sectarianism and revolution in the Middle East. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[9] Valbjorn, Morten. Beyond the Beyond(s): On the (many) third way(s) beyond primordialism and instrumentalism in the study of sectarianism. Nations and Nationalism 26, no. 1 (2020): 91-107. See for an overview of stilted academic debates.

[10] See, for example: Mikdashi, Maya. 2022. Sextarianism: Sovereignty, Secularism, and the State in Lebanon. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

[11] See, for example: Matthiesen, Toby. 2014. The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[12] Haddad, Fanar. ‘Sectarianism’ and its discontents in the Study of the Middle East. Middle East Journal 71, no. 3 (2017):363-382., p381.

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