Ethnic, tribal and sectarian conflicts in the Middle East


Three important dynamics emerge when we consider the social dimensions of conflicts in the Middle East. These are the current dimensions of a social milieu that forms the fault lines of Middle Eastern societies historically. Social structure in the Middle East is divided along the lines of broader kinfolk, peoples and sects. Within this historical social setting, Khawarij, Batiniyya, Qarmatians, and Wahhabism amid this division and variety have always caused significant conflicts. Societies waged various conflicts and wars around these movements. Instead of the class wars observed in the West, wars of a different nature were fought in the Middle East along sectarian and tribal lines.

We see that political oppositions within societies arose by mobilizing these sectarian and ethnic differences. Grounded upon Sufism and a sectarian and ethnic based social milieu, these opposition movements turned into insurgencies. The traditional form emerged first as Khawarij and finally as Wahhabism. Both had mixed sectarian and tribal social structures with political revolt. As Middle Eastern societies became modernized, the social structure that is based on sectarian, tribal and ethic differentiation continued to exist. The new political entities that had been established during the period of post-Ottoman regimes started off with utopias to completely change traditional structures. They were organized around Arab nationalism as an ideology above tribal, ethnic and sectarian allegiances. They had set out to build modern Arab states with the values espoused by modern Arab nationalism. Indeed, from Gadhafi to Saddam, from Nasser to Assad and from even King Hussein of Jordan to the emirs of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), rulers imagined themselves as peoples' leaders in modern dress. Further, education received in Western schools, mastery of Western languages and marriages between Western women and Arab elites came to be viewed as the social leadership of the modernization thrust. Modernization projects coupled with the personal power of rulers are the most important aspect of Middle Eastern modernization. Hence, as late prominent Turkish sociologist Şerif Mardin described, the method of "top-down modernization" was adopted. These were mostly modernization attempts accompanied by coups. It was assumed that the desired change would be achieved through making laws and implementing state interventions by disregarding the social structure, which was seen as archaic.

These utopian moves by political superstructures helped to conceal the realities of the social structure for a while. They stirred excitement and hopes among the youth. People lived by the belief and ambition that "Creating a modern state would bring along a modern society." There was an effort to indoctrinate people through modern entertainment practices, protocols in palaces and central government spaces, national celebrations, and by opening modern schools.

The rulers of these countries resorted to reconciling with the social structure when the fervor sparked by revolutions and coups subsided, when they were defeated by Israel and when they could not get support from the Western hegemony. Thus, they had tried to re-establish the alliances within traditional state and social structures. They had formed various alliances with the kindred, sectarian, tribal, denominational and ethnic groups. Further, they rediscovered their allegiances to these structures. Saddam had established deep relations with his tribe again and begun to wear traditional Arab clothing. Gadhafi, who represented a consensus-based government of an alliance of Libyan tribes and clans, had never given up his desert tent. He wanted the tribes to feel that he was part of their everyday life. Hafez Assad had integrated sect-based broader family ties with the state, grounding the state's core upon an Arab Alawite ethno-sectarian community. Saudi Arabia has relied on a confederation of tribes and kinsmen since its establishment. Gulf monarchies have similar structures, too.

The severe political crises and vacuums that emerged in Syria and Iraq due to successive American invasions in the region have deeply upset the ongoing tribal, ethnic and sectarian relations in the social structures. As a result, these structures have become activated. As political superstructures drifted into chaos, the dynamism of the social structure further increased. Additionally, in Iraq, Saddam's covert policy of excluding Shiite Arabs was replaced by overt Shiite rule under Nouri al-Maliki's government. Sunnis faced serious exclusion together with tribes. In Syria, in the face of a repressive and violence-prone political structure dominated by an ethno-sectarian minority, a majority of opponents conceived themselves aggrieved and excluded due to their Sunni identity.

Emergence of terrorist doctrines

Daesh was born out of this social setting. As compared to al-Qaida's understanding of a global and universal religion, Daesh recognized this social reality and rode a wave of sectarian and ethnic differentiation. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (Founder of Daesh) pursued an anti-Shiite Sunni policy despite warnings from Ayman al-Zawahiri (al-Qaida's deputy leader). He set out on a destructive path after mixing a sense of sectarian and tribal exclusion with anger. Syria has also seen regional division and conflict of an ethnic character led by the PKK and its Syrian offshoot the Democratic Union Party (PYD).There are many different groups taking part in wars within the Middle East, along with states like Russia, U.S., Iran, Turkey and Syria. These wars use the sectarian, ethnic and tribal social setting to a great extent. They shatter the integrity of societies and their collective experience. Not only the crises of political order but also crises of social order intensify. There are groups armed with ethnic, tribal and sectarian fervor and gripped by a frenzy of killing and massacre. In this regard, what we see in the Middle East is a conflict of sectarian and ethnic groups. Warring groups and terrorist organizations such as al-Qaida, Daesh and Al-Nusra Front act with sectarian motivations. However, we also observe significant cases involving tribes and clans. The Hashd al-Shaabi militias, who are supported by Iran and Iraq and said to have around 100,000 fighters, together with Hezbollah, fight for the Shiite cause. On the other hand, the PKK, the PYD and its armed People's Protection Units (YPG) bring along destruction based on Kurdish ethnic nationalism and ethnicity, threatening Turkey. According to a 2015 report by Amnesty International, they carry out ethnic cleansing against their Kurdish opponents.

The sectarian, tribal and ethnic conflicts across the Middle East cause not only physical destruction. At the same time, Muslims become divided along these differences. They adopt a belligerent and antagonistic attitude around these collective sub-identities. The social structure is shaken and becomes segmented around various layers. Common political visions are shattered to pieces. It would require enormous effort to create anew a common sociological and political vision at this point.

* Professor, Marmara University

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