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The securitisation of the ‘Masculinist’ other in the Syrian conflict

Article by Dr Rahaf Aldoughli

November 12, 2018

The securitisation of the ‘Masculinist’ other in the Syrian conflict

Amidst the violence that has spread across Syria since 2011, most scholarship concerned with the Syrian conflict has focused on questions related to how the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has shaped the Syrian crisis.[1] The escalated rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia over Syria has stemmed from both regional and geopolitical interests in determining the leader of the region. The existing literature has approached this regional conflict using a sectarian lens, yet such account of the development of the Syrian conflict from a secular movement, calling for social justice to be a regional rivalry that brought sect and identity to the fore, needs to be further analysed in relation to how both states and non-state actors define identity and belonging.

Starting with a simple definition of sectarianism by Makdisi, he elaborates that it is often ‘characterized as the violent and illiberal manifestation of competing, age-old antagonistic religious identities in the region’.[2] This sectarian affiliation is rooted in a fixed, one-dimensional conceptualisation of identity that has evolved in the Arab world very much in tandem with the emergence of modern nation-states. It is worth noting that the Syrian uprising was not a clean-cut sectarian conflict at the outset. While many scholars have argued the securitisation of the ‘other’ as an existential threat that has sectarianised the Syrian conflict, consequently, the pressing question is: What can be done politically to overcome the mobilisation of sectarian narrative in the region and in Syria particularly?[3]

This research aims to highlight the importance of deconstructing the official rhetoric perpetuated by state actors that designates particular models of national identities and belonging. Asking the question: What role does masculinism play in the shaping, defining or legitimising sectarianism in the Syrian conflict? entails proposing a shift from the standard practice of taking identities (whether Sunni or Shi’a) as given, which might then inform regional politics in the Middle East, toward a more sophisticated one that sees cross-cutting influences in both directions. The simple answer to the question is that men’s dominance of the political and military dimensions of the Syrian conflict has meant that the story of the conflict has generally been a story about men.

This nationalist and sectarian antagonism reinforced men’s roles as protectors and defenders of national and sectarian communities and shaped violent expressions of masculinities. Due to the primacy of using primordiaism and instrumentalism as key frameworks of analysis in research on sectarianism in the Middle East,[4] the relationships between the construction of identity both before and during the conflict as driven by gender has been overlooked.[5] Therefore, the existing debate on understanding sectarianism in the Middle East overlooks identity formation in tandem with the rise of hyper masculinity and competing masculinities.

Since the main objective of this publication and the SEPAD project is how to solve this religious tension and how can we go beyond looking at sectarian identities in the Middle East as tool of explanation and analysis, we need to deconstruct and challenge narratives that idealize violence, militarism and masculine prowess. The power of religion in the Middle East, is only one factor among many multilayered and dimensional spectrums in which identity and the sense of belonging become entrenched with characteristics that glorify manliness and masculinist protection as means for survival. The pressing question is: what have instigated, encouraged, provoked and intensified the sectarian divide in the Syrian war?

My starting point for thinking about the relationship between masculinity and sectarianism in the Syrian context is Iris Young’s proposition about the logic of masculinist protection. Central to the logic of masculinist protection is the subordinate status of those perceived as in need of protection. This logic is based on dominative masculinity that defines protective masculinity as its other. Such conceptualization of masculine men as protectors therefore entails gratification of fighting and sacrificing for the sake of the nation. Employing Young’s model of ‘the logic of masculinist protection’ as being associated with ‘ideas of chivalry’ is central to the subordinate status of those perceived as in need of protection.[6] By constructing and perpetuating an image of the man as courageous, dominating and active, this idealisation of heroism is traced back to Hobbes’s view of the state of nature as a state of war – a dangerous and wild place where men had to rely on their masculine prowess to survive.[7] The Middle East post-Arab Uprisings was deemed to be anarchic and, as such, like a state of nature. Therefore, while ‘othering’ in the Syrian conflict is masked with sectarian affiliation, the attempt to deconstruct how the constructions of identity and belonging are premediated with the ethos of chivalric masculinity is essential. I argue that the perpetuation and gratification of the chivalric male model in Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and depending on militarism (whether in Iran, Syria, and a sheikhdom in Saudi Arabia) in the early formation of the state, instigate violence.

Evaluating the official narratives of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the securitisation of the ‘other’ has not been fuelled by using an explicit sectarian rhetoric, rather through perpetuating masculinist traits as the main characteristics of national  belonging and identity. In this sense, belonging to the nation becomes synonymous with the ability to die and kill the other to preserve nation’s dignity. Iran’s official rhetoric is full of references to heroism, strength and physical prowess. For example, the slogan used by the Iranian militias configures Zainab and Ali as symbols of both religious and national significance.[8] Arguing that the use of these two slogans ‘Labik ya Zainab’ and ‘Labik ya Hussein’ is rather not sectarian stems from the fact that both Sunnis and Shi’as love Zainab and Ali, however, have the Iranian militias used the terms Muˈa̅wia or Aisha[9], then it would be said that sectarianism gives the ultimate form of the current conflict.

At the same time, the Saudi official narrative has shifted in its approach towards defining belonging to the Kingdom. Before 2011, the rhetoric that had dominated most nationalist songs defined belonging to the nation in romantic and soft terms that idealise religious supremacy[10], belonging being measured by your loyalty to religion and the king. However, after 2011, most nationalist songs have substituted this primordial expression that defined belonging to the nation instead with militarised and masculinist notions such as greater use of the words: bullet, fight and act courageously.[11]

It is a commonplace observation that the sectarian violence in Syria reflects a world of men in that they influence regional affairs through their physical capabilities, through masculinist prowess at both regional levels, and through the symbolic links between sectarianism and masculinity. As soldiering universally disciplines the male body, it determines the national and, at times, sectarian contours of a conflict. Therefore, there is a need to examine the relationship between masculinities and embodiment of national identity in Iran and Saudi Arabia in relation to the Syrian conflict, when conscripting soldiers became intimately bound up with notions of masculinity. This shaping in the Syrian conflict was inflected by sectarianism. Therefore, one approach towards what is needed for a democratic transition in the region is deconstructing and challenging official national narratives that define belonging to the nation in masculinist terms, while seeking to breakdown the gendered hierarchies in these countries.

[1] Hurd, E. S. 2015. Politics of Sectarianism: Rethinking Religion and Politics in the Middle East. Middle East Law and Governance 7 (1): 61–75

[2]Makdisi, Usama. The Mythology of Sectarian Middle East. Centre for the Middle East, February 2017,

[3] May Darwich & Tamirace Fakhoury,2016. Casting the Other as an existential threat: The securitisation of sectarianism in the international relations of the Syria crisis, Global Discourse, 6:4, 712-732

[4] The primordialist approach attributes the break of sectarianism in the region to the ancient hatred and irreconcilable differences between Sunni and Shi’a. However, the instrumentalist approach focuses on how sectarianism is a constructed narrative used and mobilised by political elites to maintaine regional power and interest.

[5] See Nasr, V. 2006. The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future. New York: W.W. Norton.

[6] Young, Iris Marion. 2003. The Logic of Masculinist Protection: Reflections on the Current Security State.  Journal of Women in Culture and Society 29 (1): 1-26.

[7] Hobbes, Thomas. (1668) 1994. Leviathan. Indianapolis: Hackett.

[8] Zainab is the daughter of Prophet Mohammad and the wife of Ali. They are both perceived as loved religious figures and no sectarian division on their roles by Sunnis or Shi’ia.

[9]Muˈa̅wia  was the founder and first caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate. He led the Battle of the Camel against Ali which marks the first Islamic civil war. Aisha in turn supported   Muˈa̅wia and further tentions between the two groups led to the emergence of Shi’a and Sunni sects in Islam. Therefore, these two figures are perceived as not true followers of Prophet Mohammad and hated by Shi’a.

[10] For example, the song (Above the Sky) [Fawq al-sahaab].

[11] An obvious example to this shift is the song (Lions of Al-Jazeera) [Usuud Al-Jazeera]

Author: Dr Rahaf Aldoughli is Lecturer in Middle East and North Africa studies at Lancaster University. She teaches courses on the Comparative Politics and International Relations of the Middle East and is a Visiting Fellow at LSE Middle East Centre. Her areas of research expertise include identifying the ideological borrowings between European and Arab nationalism, the rise of the nation-state in the Middle East, the Syria crisis, militarism and the construction of masculinity in the Arab world. She is working on her book Constructing the Nation: Masculinism and Gender Bias in Syrian Nationalism.

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