January 16, 2018

Hassan Nasir: The man who wasn’t there


Nadeem F. ParachaUpdated November 08, 2015

A political party poster with Hassan Nasir’s image

On October 31, during the first phase of the local bodies’ elections in Sindh and Punjab, I was going through the many images (of the event) that were being uploaded on my Facebook timeline.

Since the PPP (in Sindh) and the PML-N (in the Punjab) were clearly sweeping the polls, most of the uploaded pictures were of workers and supporters of the two parties celebrating their big wins in the elections.

However, as I was flicking through the photos on my iPad, I suddenly came across images of two celebratory gatherings — one in Sindh and one in Punjab. In these pictures more than a dozen or so supporters were carrying posters of a bygone communist activist, Hassan Nasir.

His face has become a symbol of defiance on political parties’ posters, since the 1970s

What is this, I wondered? Initially I supposed that the photos were of some PPP workers trying to link their party’s victory (in the area where the photo was taken) to the PPP’s distant socialist past. But I couldn’t see any PPP flags in the photos.


Intrigued, I messaged the young gentleman (on Facebook) who had uploaded the pictures. I asked him who the folks in the photos were.

The young man was a Sindhi and a student at the University of Sindh in Jamshoro. He told me that he was a member of the Awami Workers Party (AWP) — a leftist grouping of various small Marxist outfits who had merged in 2010 to form the AWP.

One of the photos was taken in the city of Okara in the Punjab, and the other was taken in Naseerabad, a town in upper Sindh’s Qambar Shahdadkot District.

The AWP had won a seat in Okara, Punjab so the Okara photo was of young AWP workers celebrating their contestant’s victory which they claim was achieved by putting up a committed party worker.

The other photo was of Naseerabad where the AWP had won a couple of seats in the mentioned elections. But I pondered, what was Hassan Nasir (who passed away in 1960) symbolising in a gathering of a left-wing group in this day and age; and / or 25 years after the demise of the Soviet Union and with it, communism?

I had first come to know about Nasir when I was a teenaged college student in Karachi in the early 1980s. Posters with his image had continued to crop up during the many movements that emerged against the reactionary Ziaul Haq dictatorship (1977-88).

At the time, the posters were mostly being issued by left-wing student groups such as the NSF, and parties such as the Mazdoor Kissan Party (MKP), and also the PPP.

In 1985, a MKP activist had told me that posters of Nasir had even emerged during the 1977 movement against the first PPP government of Z.A. Bhutto (1971-77). Some leftist groups, after being incensed by Bhutto’s ‘authoritarian personality’ and his regime’s ‘betrayal of its socialist agenda’, had joined hands with the right-wing alliance (the PNA) in a bid to topple Bhutto.

Ironically, before all this, Hassan Nasir’s image had actually first been used on PPP posters during the 1970 election when the party was positioning itself as a socialist alternative to the religious right and the ‘capitalist / feudal statuesque’.

So Nasir’s face continued to crop up (as a symbol of defiance) in the early 1970s, the late 1970s, and the early 1980s. It continues to pop up even today.

However, unlike Che Guevara (the celebrated Latin American revolutionary who was killed in 1967), and whose image too continues to be used by various protest groups around the world, Nasir’s image is yet to get his very own ‘post- modernist’ makeover by also appearing on coffee cups and on baseball hats!

But who was Hassan Nasir?

Hassan Nasir was born into an aristocratic Muslim family in Hyderabad Deccan, India. After finishing school in his hometown, Nasir got admission in UK’s prestigious Cambridge University where he came into contact with various young British and Indian Marxists.

On his return to India, and against his family’s wishes, he plunged into a peasants’ uprising against feudal lords and British Colonial overlords in the Telangana region.

When the movement collapsed after the departure of the British in 1947, Nasir decided to migrate to Pakistan. In 1950, he arrived in Karachi and joined the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). His family stayed back in India.

Though just 22 years old at the time, he greatly impressed the CPP leadership with his profound knowledge of Marxism.

Soon, Nasir’s revolutionary outlook and charisma made him popular among college students, peasants and factory workers. In 1954 he was arrested by the government, jailed, tortured and then forcibly flown back to India.

However, in 1955, he quietly slipped back in. Since the CPP had been banned, Punjabi and Urdu-speaking leftists began joining progressive Sindhi, Baloch, Bengali and Pashtun nationalists to form the National Awami Party (NAP). In 1957 Nasir was made the party’s secretary general in Karachi.

He turned his office into a busy working and planning area for leftist students and trade unionists. Though his aristocratic background could have easily guaranteed him a rich and comfortable life in Karachi, he chose to live among labourers cramped in and around the make-shift shanty towns that had sprung up in the glittering metropolis.

In 1958, when Field Marshal Ayub Khan launched a military coup, he ordered a crackdown against leftists as well as against the religious parties. Nasir went underground.

Veteran communist leader, Jamal Naqvi, in his 2014 memoir writes that in 1960, Ayub, while being briefed by Karachi’s police chief, lost his cool when Nasir’s name came up. He is reported to have lashed out and shouted, ‘How is that bloody communist still free … ?’

The Ayub regime was equally harsh towards the religious parties. But Nasir’s activities and his popularity among the students and labourers had begun to greatly perturb the regime.

Nasir was finally located, hiding in a shanty town in Karachi. He was picked up by the police and then flown in chains to a special cell that had been set-up by the police in Lahore’s historical Lahore Fort.

Naqvi informs that here Nasir was continuously tortured, beaten up and refused food and water for days. Then finally, he was slayed in his muggy, tiny cell. He was just 32.

The Muslim aristocrat’s son who had become a communist rebel was never seen or heard from again.

The press was told that Nasir had died in an accident. The news of his death left his father suffering a mental breakdown. He had wanted his son to become a civil servant. His mother refused to believe that the body that the police had shown to the press was his.

With Nasir’s father indisposed, his mother travelled alone to Lahore to reclaim the body. ‘This is not my son’s body,’ the ailing old woman shouted and then fell to the ground. She was escorted out by the police and put in a waiting rickshaw.

She returned home empty-handed. Till this day, nobody is quite sure what happened to the young man’s body and where is it buried. His father passed away and the family eventually lost its aristocratic status in India. The mother too died soon after.

The country’s leftists consider Nasir to be their first modern ‘martyr’. That’s why his face has continued to emerge on posters ever since the 1970s.

‘He still symbolises defiance and clarity of purpose beyond the political cynicism and rightest demagoguery of today,’ (sic). This is how the young man who had uploaded the pictures described Nasir when he wrote back to me.

Indeed. Well, as long as Nasir (like Che) too doesn’t end up on coffee mugs …

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 8th, 2015

Policing Practices in a Global Perspective



5 JANUARY 2018

From Aarhus to Manila

Peter Albrecht, Maya Mynster Christensen, Mette-Louise Johansen, Helene Maria Kyed, Paul Mutsaers, Dennis Pauschinger, Finn Stepputat, Francesco Colona, Jairo Matallana-Villarreal, Louise Wiuff Moe, Naomi von Stapele, Anna Warburg, Morten Koch Andersen


■   Prioritize support to the establishment and maintenance of bureaucratic checks and
balances, as this is essential to ensure legitimacy of the police.

■   Question forms of policing that rely on suspicionbased
preventive practices or arbitrary use of violence, even if popularly normalised.

■   Pay attention to how positive and negative aspects of CVE/counter-terrorist strategies to counter violence, extremism or terror directly and indirectly
shape contemporary policing across the global North and South.

Policing in the global North and the global South is becoming more alike. An increasingly common characteristic is the blurring of boundaries between rule-based and more personalized policing styles. Reasons for this approximation include a growing focus on fighting or preventing radicalisation globally, and a general debureaucratisation of policing that has occurred in the global North.

More than half of the world’s population live in cities,
and urban centres will absorb almost all population
growth in the coming decades. The growing size and density of cities combined with increasing inequality between their inhabitants, means that urban areas have become sites of intensified insecurity and violence. This occurs in a context where a multitude of actors makes claims to policing urban violence. While the mandate of the police is to enforce the law, police work in practice often extends beyond the official mandate of state-sanctioned law enforcement and crime regulation, breaking down clear-cut divisions between public and private. Policing in the global South and North is usually characterized as vastly different by researchers and policy-makers alike. However, by exploring how the state police make order in urban settings around the world, global commonalities emerge, including the blurring of boundaries between bureaucratic and more
intuitive policing styles.

Policing across the North-South divide
Policing in the global South is commonly seen as taking place in a context of limited statehood. In turn, this means that a multitude of actors – such as gangs, ex-combatants and private security firms – engages in and makes claims to policing the city in the absence of the state police. This emphasis tends to put the role of the state police in the background and means that the global South is approached as somewhat unique, even exotic, when it comes to the role of so-called non-state actors.

Yet, contemporary policing practices in the global South are not necessarily substantially different from those in the North. One of the reasons for this is that policing of complex urban security threats in the North associated with radicalization and terrorism have given rise to an expansion of policing beyond securityrelated aspects of law enforcement.

Covert policing and security as social welfare
A major shift in policing practices, which has contributed to greater resemblance on a global cale,
began in the early 2000s in the context of the “War on Terror”. Across the world, countering violence and extremism has gradually legitimized more covert policing practices that push and sometimes cross the boundary of what is within the rule of law. In Nairobi, for instance, where terrorist attacks are linked to Somali refugees, policing has translated into arbitrary arrests, and practices that disregard national and international law.

Policing in many parts of the world is often accompanied by
considerable fear among the police and policed alike.

In Europe, the agenda to counter violence and extremism has legitimized the extension of policing
practices into new sectors of the welfare system, and thereby blurred boundaries between security and other public services. The ‘Aarhus Model’ in Denmark was established as a counter-radicalization initiative that is run by a variety of social services, including the youth sector, unemployment centre, street-based workers, social-psychiatric services – and the police.

The partial dissolution of what constitutes a particular policing task is reinforced further by the way in which radicalization is depicted. The ‘Aarhus Model’ uses the World Health Organization’s model for how epidemics spread to explain the dangers of radicalisation. While Danish authorities do not see the relationship between radicalization and a virus as one-to-one, they see radicalization as something that spreads, and while some are more at risk than others are, everyone can be ‘infected’.

Proximity and plural policing
An emerging commonality between policing in the global South and North is the blurring of boundaries between bureaucratic, rule-based and more personalized and intuitive policing styles. When states are considered fragile or failing, a central characteristic is a weak bureaucratic system that lacks administrative and political checks and balances. Fragility and failure are labels that are applied to a number of states in the global South. At the same time, the perception that bureaucratisation – or too much of it – is negative and even, anti-liberal, influences the evolution of policing practices in the global North.

Police reform in the Netherlands, for instance, has over the past years sought to minimize the distance between the public and the police by debureaucratising policing practices. This involves minimizing the paperwork and administration that is part of working within state institutions, but creates distance between police and population. The rationale behind debureaucratisation is that police officers should be in the streets, not behind desks.

This has led to a move from ‘state externality’ to ‘state proximity’, which blurs the boundary between professional and private identities of police officers. These processes of blurring have facilitated a shift from criminal to popular justice, including racial profiling, which is increasingly central to policing practices across both the global South and North.

The move from rule-based to more intuitive policing styles has also facilitated the appropriation of military techniques. This ranges from the employment of military equipment in the fight against urban crime to an array of propaganda methods to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the population.

Debureaucratisation in the global North may have diminished the distance between the police and the policed, and made the demarcation of competencies between state institutions progressively blurred. However, in several countries, primarily across the global South, the extension of policing beyond state-sanctioned law enforcement has never diminished, because bureaucratic practices always played a limited role in this regard. In Maputo, for instance, the police in many cases work through constant negotiation of legality and popular legitimacy. What is at stake is the status of the police, indeed, the definition of what the state should and should not do.

Violence against the police and police violence
Police violence is rarely applied without a degree of acceptance from a cross-section of the population that fears crime, terrorism or both. However, the police is not only the perpetrator, but also a victim of violence.

In Dhaka, Bangladesh, kneecapping is used methodically to punish suspects, and in Rio de Janeiro politicians and the police depict policing as warfare in certain parts of the city. Policing in these contexts is often accompanied by considerable risk for local communities, but also for the officers themselves. In Rio, officers perceive their routines inside and outside their job as unsafe. They risk assassinations, for instance, during armed assaults when they respond to a robbery or if the perpetrators realise that they are robbing a member of the police. At times, they are
victims of targeted attacks.

As the police seek to maintain and enforce urban order, different rules and practices often apply to
different socio-economic and ethnic groups. Indeed, a moral boundary may be drawn between those who are allowed to live and those who are not. In poor urban settlements, in Nairobi for instance, policing strategies are built up around the explicit use of violence. The
target of extra-judicial killings is commonly young men suspected of being thieves, (potential) terrorists or both.

Policing is a form of social control that includes
processes of surveillance and the threat or use of
physical punishment to make and sustain order.

Violent forms of policing are also prominent in the Philippine government’s War on Drugs. In Manila, the police portray themselves as working inside the law, yet act outside it. This form of policing has created a climate of fear that is used as an order-making strategy; yet, fear and insecurity are experienced by the policed and police alike.

The broader population in Nairobi and Manila observes extra-judicial killings ambiguously. In Manila, the government’s War on Drugs is legitimate in the sense that the visibility of drugs and crime have decreased. Fundamentally, the public accepts the premise of the war on drugs, that is, the existence of a drug crisis in the Philippines. In Nairobi, violent actions by the police are to some extent accepted both inside and outside poor urban settlements, because they are linked to
perceived corruption and inefficiency of the judiciary.

This policy brief presents notable points of discussion from a workshop on urban policing held in Copenhagen on 22-23 June 2017. The workshop was hosted by DIIS · Danish Institute for International Studies and the Danish Institute against Torture (DIGNITY).

The policy brief is written by:
Peter Albrecht & Maya Mynster Christensen with: Mette-Louise Johansen, Helene Maria Kyed, Paul Mutsaers, Dennis Pauschinger, Finn Stepputat, Francesco Colona, Jairo Matallana-Villarreal, Louise Wiuff Moe, Naomi von Stapele, Anna Warburg, Morten Koch Andersen, Kari Øygard Larsen, Birgitte Dragsted Mutengwa og Steffen Bo Jensen

Will the Dollar Survive the Rise of the Yuan and the End of the Petrodollar?

Source: Mises.org

01/10/2018Alasdair Macleod

This might seem a frivolous question, while the dollar still retains its might, and is universally accepted in preference to other, less stable fiat currencies. However, it is becoming clear, at least to independent monetary observers, that in 2018 the dollar’s primacy will be challenged by the yuan as the pricing medium for energy and other key industrial commodities. After all, the dollar’s role as the legacy trade medium is no longer appropriate, given that China’s trade is now driving the global economy, not America’s.

At the very least, if the dollar’s future role diminishes, then there will be surplus dollars, which unless they are withdrawn from circulation entirely, will result in a lower dollar on the foreign exchanges. While it is possible for the Fed to contract the quantity of base money (indeed this is the implication of its desire to reduce its balance sheet anyway), it would also have to discourage and even reverse the expansion of bank credit, which would be judged by central bankers to be economic suicide. For that to occur, the US Government itself would also have to move firmly and rapidly towards eliminating its budget deficit. But that is being deliberately increased by the Trump administration instead.

Explaining the consequences of these monetary dynamics was the purpose of an essay written by Ludwig von Mises almost a century ago. At that time, the German hyperinflation was entering its final phase ahead of the mark’s eventual collapse in November 1923. Von Mises had already helped to stabilize the Austrian crown, whose own collapse was stabilized at about the time he wrote his essay, so he wrote with both practical knowledge and authority.

The dollar, of course, is nowhere near the circumstances faced by the German mark at that time. However, the conditions that led to the mark’s collapse are beginning to resonate with a familiarity that should serve as an early warning. The situation, was of course, different. Germany had lost the First World War and financed herself by printing money. In fact, she started down that route before the war, seizing upon the new Chartalist doctrine that money should rightfully be issued by the state, in preference to the established knowledge that money’s validity was determined by markets. Without abandoning gold for her own state-issued currency, Germany would never have managed to build and finance her war machine, which she did by printing currency. The ultimate collapse of the mark was not mainly due to the Allies’ reparations set at the treaty of Versailles, as commonly thought today, because the inflation had started long before.

The dollar has enjoyed a considerably longer life as an unbacked state-issued currency than the mark did, but do not think the monetary factors have been much different. The Bretton Woods agreement, designed to make the dollar appear “as good as gold”, was cover for the US Government to fund Korea, Vietnam and other foreign ventures by monetary inflation, which it did without restraint. That deceit ended in 1971, and today the ratio of an ounce of gold to the dollar has moved to about 1:1310 from the post-war rate of 1:35, giving a loss of the dollar’s purchasing power, measured in the money of the market, of 97.3%.

True, this is not on the hyperinflationary scale of the mark — yet. Since the Nixon shock in 1971, the Americans have been adept at perpetuating the myth of King Dollar, insisting gold now has no monetary role at all. By cutting a deal with the Saudis in 1974, Nixon and Kissinger ensured that all energy, and in consequence all other commodities, would continue to be priced in dollars. Global demand for dollars was assured, and the banking system of correspondent nostro accounts meant that all the world’s trade was settled in New York through the mighty American banks. And having printed dollars to ensure higher energy prices would be paid, they would then be recycled as loan capital to America and her friends. The world had been bought, and anyone not prepared to accept US monetary and military domination would pay the price.

That was until now. The dollar’s hegemony is being directly challenged by China, which is not shy about promoting her own currency as her preferred settlement medium. Later this month an oil futures contract priced in yuan is expected to start trading in Shanghai.1 Only last week, the Governor of China’s central bank met the Saudi finance minister, presumably to agree, amongst other topics, the date when Saudi Arabia will start to accept yuan for oil sales to China. The proximity of these two developments certainly suggest they are closely related, and that the end of the Nixon/Saudi deal of 1974, which created the petrodollar, is in sight.

Do not underestimate the importance of this development, because it marks the beginning of a new monetary era, which will be increasingly understood to be post-dollar. The commencement of the new yuan for oil futures contract may seem a small crack in the dollar’s edifice, but it is almost certainly the beginning of its shattering.

America’s response to China’s monetary maneuvring has always been that of a nation on the back foot. For the last year, the yuan has been rising against the dollar, following President Trump’s inauguration. Instead of responding to China’s hegemonic threat by increasing America’s role in foreign trade, President Trump has threatened all and sundry with trade restrictions and punitive tariffs. It is a policy which could not be more designed to undermine America’s global economic status, and with it the role of the dollar.

In monetary terms, this leads us to a further important parallel with Germany nearly a century ago, and that is the contraction of the territory and population over which the mark was legal tender then, and the acceptance of the dollar today. The loss of Germany’s colonies in Asia and Africa, Alsace-Lorraine to France, and large parts of Prussia to Poland, reduced the population that used the mark without a compensating reduction of the quantity of marks in circulation. Until very recently, most of the world was America’s monetary colony, and in that context, she is losing Asia, the Middle East and some countries in Africa as well. The territory that offers fealty to the dollar is definitely contracting, just as it did for the German mark after 1918, and as it did for the Austro-Hungarians, whose Austrian crown suffered a similar fate.

The relative slowness of the dollar’s decline so far should not fool us. The factors that led to the collapse of the German mark in 1923 are with us in our fiat currencies today. As Mises put it,

If the practice persists of covering government deficits with the issue of notes, then the day will come without fail, sooner or later, when the monetary systems of those nations pursuing this course will break down completely.

Updated for today’s monetary system, this is precisely how the American government finances itself. Instead of printing notes, it is the expansion of bank credit, issued by banks licensed by the government with this purpose in mind, that ends up being subscribed for government bonds. The same methods are employed by all advanced nations, giving us a worrying global dimension to the ultimate failure of fiat currencies, whose only backing is confidence in the issuers.

Now that America is being forced back from the post-war, post-Nixon-shock strategy of making the dollar indispensable for global trade, the underlying monetary inflation of decades will almost certainly begin to be reflected in the foreign and commodity exchanges. There is little to stand in the way of the global fiat monetary system, led by the dollar, to begin a breakdown in its purchasing power, as prophesied by Mises nearly a century ago. Whether other currencies follow the dollar down the rabbit hole of diminishing purchasing power will to a large extent depend on the management of the currencies concerned

How a Fiat Currency Dies

The last thing anyone owning units of a state-issued currency will admit to is that they may be valueless. Only long after it has become clear to an educated impartial monetary observer that this is the case, will they abandon the currency and get rid of it for anything while someone else will still take it in exchange for goods. In the case of the German hyperinflation, it was probably only in the last six months or so that the general public finally abandoned the mark, despite its legal status as money.

Mises reported that throughout the monetary collapse, until only the final months, there persists a general belief that the collapse in the currency would soon end, there always being a shortage of it. The change in this attitude was marked by the moment people no longer just bought what they needed ahead of actually needing it. Instead, they began to buy anything, just to get rid of the currency. This final phase is what Mises called the crack-up boom, though some far-sighted individuals had already acted well ahead of the crowd. Both these phases are still ahead for the American citizen. However, we can now anticipate how the first is likely to start, and that will be through dollars in foreign hands being replaced for trade purposes with the yuan, and then sold into the foreign exchanges.

Once the process starts, triggered perhaps by the petrodollar’s loss of its trade settlement monopoly, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility for the dollar to initially lose between a third and a half of its purchasing power against a basket of commodities, and a similar amount against the yuan, which is likely to be managed by the Chinese to retain its purchasing power. It will be in the interests of the Chinese authorities to promote the yuan as a sounder currency than the dollar to further encourage foreign traders to abandon the dollar. From China’s point of view, a stronger yuan would also help ensure price stability in her domestic markets, at a time when countries choosing to remain on a dollar-linked monetary policy will be struggling with rising price inflation.

There then emerges a secondary problem for the dollar. A fiat currency depends in large measure for its value on the credibility of the issuer. A weakening dollar, and the bear market in bonds that accompanies it, will undermine the US Government’s finances, in turn further eroding the government’s financial credibility. This will be happening after an extended period of the US Government being able to finance its deficits at artificially low interest rates, and is therefore unprepared for this radical change in circumstances.

As the dollar’s purchasing power comes under attack, lenders, whether they be those with surplus funds, or their banks acting as their agents, will increasingly take into account the declining purchasing power of the dollar in setting a loan rate. In other words, time-preference will again begin to dominate forward rates, and not central bank interest rate policy. This will be reflected in a significantly steeper yield curve in the bond market, forcing borrowers into very short-term financing or using other, more stable monetary media to obtain capital for longer-term projects. This, again, plays into the yuan becoming the preferred currency, possibly with a rapidity that will be unexpected.

The US Government is obviously ill-equipped for this drastic change in its circumstances. The correct response is to eliminate its budget deficit entirely, and refuse to bail out failing banks and businesses. Bankruptcies will be required to send surplus dollars to money heaven and therefore stabilise the dollar’s purchasing power. A change in the Fed’s attitude towards its banks and currency is, however, as unlikely as that of the Reichsbank subsequent to the Versailles Treaty.

Therefore, it follows that capital markets in dollars will inevitably be severely disrupted, and market participants will seek alternatives. Remember that the dollar’s strength has been based on its function in trade settlement and its subsequent deployment as the international monetary capital of choice. Both these functions can be expected to go into reverse as the trade settlement function is undermined.

Whether China will be tempted to employ the same methods in future to support the yuan as the Americans have during the last forty-three years for the dollar, remains to be seen. It may not be a trick that can be repeated. There is a great danger that a significant fall in the dollar will lead to global economic stagnation, coupled with escalating price inflation, affecting many of China’s trading partners. China will want to insulate herself from these dangers without adding to them by going for full-blown hegemony.

We are beginning, perhaps, to see this reflected in rising prices for gold and silver. China has effectively cornered the market for physical gold, the only sound money of the market that over millennia has survived all attempts by governments to replace it. Her central planners appear to have long been aware of the West’s Achilles’ heel in its monetary affairs, and have merely been playing along to China’s own advantage. As the dollar weakens in the coming years, her wisdom in securing for herself and her citizens the one form of money that’s no one else’s liability will ensure her survival in increasingly turbulent times.

Now that’s strategic thinking

January 13, 2018

Sectarianization: An Interview with Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel

Riad Alarian

Nader Hashemi

Danny Postel

January 10th, 2018

The following is a transcription of an interview with Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, editors of the pioneering new book, Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. At the site of last year’s Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference in Washington, D.C. (November 18 – 21, 2017), I sat with Hashemi and Postel to discuss their book and many of the important contributions it provides to the study of the Middle East. This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity, but is otherwise presented in its entirety:

Riad Alarian (RA): Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. I wanted to start by asking you to briefly explain the sectarianization thesis and some of the novel ideas it introduces to the discussion on sectarianism.

Nader Hashemi (NH): We contrast the concept of sectarianization with the more popular term, sectarianism, and we try to highlight a set of core differences between these two concepts. Sectarianism sort of presupposes there is this enduring, ongoing tension or conflict between different sects in the Muslim world that has deep historical roots and has always played itself out throughout the course of Islamic history. That is very much the dominant view, not only among “Westerners,” but among many Muslims too, who believe that Sunnis and Shias have always been in conflict. In the book, we try and push back against that narrative. To be sure, we acknowledge that there are differences between sects. But, we employ the term sectarianization to identify a much more immediate set of political conditions that give rise to conflict between Muslim sects. These conditions are fundamentally rooted in the project of political actors that are pursuing goals rooted in the acquisition of power, or the perpetuation of power, by the mobilization of sectarian identities, and deliberately so. In other words, we try and historicize this question of sectarian conflict by pushing back against the idea that it has deep historical roots, claiming—as many people do in the book—that it is a modern phenomenon, and it has a history, and the history is not as deep as people think. It actually goes back to 1979, when political actors in the Middle East (primarily Saudi Arabia and Iran) started to use sectarian narratives to advance the political agendas of ruling elites. So, in a nutshell, sectarianization is a project that involves the deliberate, calculated mobilization of social and religious groups around sectarian markers of identity in pursuit of political goals.


RA: And how does the book help locate sectarian conflict as a distinctly modern phenomenon? What are some of the ways this is apparent?

Danny Postel (DP): Ussama Makdisi’s chapter, which is the first chapter of the book, really sets the historical stage for the story of sectarianization. Makdisi locates sectarianization in the transition from Ottoman rule into the colonial period. It’s not as if sectarian identities didn’t exist under Ottoman rule. They did. The question is how they were organized, why they were organized in the particular way they were, and how sectarian fault lines in the region were transformed under colonial rule. A lot of people react to our argument as if we’re claiming that sects are completely artificial and don’t exist. That is not what we are arguing. Of course there are different sects of Islam, just like there are different sects of Christianity and other religions. The question is, when did sects, or sectarian fault lines, become key political identities in the region? Makdisi claims this is a very recent phenomenon, and argues that sectarianism has distinctly modern roots.

In the introduction to the book, Nader and I bring the story forward even more and suggest that sectarian conflict is a really recent phenomenon—we’re really talking about the last thirty to forty years, essentially. The three key years in this intensification of sectarian identity and violence in the Middle East are 1979, 2003, and 2011. I always say 2011 dash. Meaning, if you just say 2011, it implies that the “Arab Spring” created all of this sectarian chaos and violence. That’s actually not what we argue. It wasn’t the Arab uprisings of 2011 in themselves that created sectarian violence. Quite the contrary, we show in the book, in case after case, how the slogans, demands, and animating impulses of the Arab uprisings had nothing to do with sectarianism, or religion at all. They had to do with broad-based political demands: social justice, human rights, dignity, bread, and freedom. It was through the response of the regimes in the region to those uprisings that the sectarianization process became operationalized, with crackdowns on peaceful, non-sectarian demonstrations characterized by regime after regime as either an “Iranian plot,” or the “Shiite crescent,” or, in the eyes of the Assad regime, “Sunni extremism.” This is all despite the fact that the Syrian uprising, like the other uprisings of the region, were cross-sectarian, non-sectarian, and arguably anti-sectarian. Still, they were characterized from day one as sectarian, which is demonstrably false and straight-up propaganda.

But, over time—and this is the darker story the book tells—that narrative became a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is partly because of regime policy, which fomented sectarianism. As Paulo Pinto demonstrates in his chapter on Syria, the Assad regime used targeted repression—what he calls a “selective distribution of violence” against different groups, depending on the sectarian identities—in response to the protests. What happened was not only sectarianization “from above,” but also sectarianization “from below,” where people take the bait and buy into the sectarian narrative. Certain “sectarian entrepreneurs,” from imams to grassroots activists, began to see things in sectarian terms themselves. They bought into the false regime narrative and made it real. But, the point of the book is that this is a process; it was not inevitable, and it’s not the “natural” playing out of primordial forces. That idea is an Orientalist fantasy. These are specific regime policies and they’ve been taking place in a very recent time frame.

RA: So why now? What made you decide to write this book at this particular moment in history? What sort of readers did you have in mind when you wrote it?

NH: That’s a good question. We were, I guess, looking for a new project to work on at our Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, where Danny and I worked very closely together. We felt there was an emerging sense that the Middle East is heading toward greater sectarian conflict. We also came to the realization that, in the academic literature, there was very little serious work that had been done to try and explain and theorize what had been happening in the region. So we just had a meeting of the minds where we thought that this would be a good project to work on, and we gradually identified a number of people based on what we had been reading who we thought would be good potential contributors to the book. Most people we approached were enthusiastic about it, and we were able to invite some of the contributors to Denver to give preliminary lectures, which then became book chapters. That was really the background for the book. Unfortunately, our prediction and our prognosis have been proven correct, because things in the region are heading toward greater sectarian conflict, driven by a number of factors—some of which Danny identified. It is really a result of the growing regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which we argue in the book is fundamentally driven by politics, not theology.

DP: Let me add to that point about “why now?” One thing that really started getting under our skin was the international conversation on Syria. As you might know, our previous book is titled The Syria Dilemma, and we spent a good two to three years focused exclusively on that conflict. We organized two major international conferences on Syria on top of writing the book, and that became the central focus of our research and energies. One of the most striking things about the international conversation on Syria was the development of this new “conventional wisdom” in diplomatic and policy circles, media debates, and amongst the pundit class, where the Syrian conflict was referred to as a “Sunni uprising.” Nader and I would look at each other and say, “What Sunni uprising?” The Syrian uprising had nothing to do with Sunni versus Shia. It had to do with the struggle for democratic rights, human dignity, and social justice—the same things that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings were about. Where did this new “conventional wisdom” come from? We started hearing, from voices in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, about the “sectarian knife fight” going on in Syria, and questions like “Why should we [the West] be dragged into these ancient conflicts?” Nader and I started realizing that this narrative is an ideological miasma that was being trotted out at a very specific moment in history.

If you go back to the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war, remember that the pundit class (especially the more militaristic wing communicating through Fox News) was very, very triumphalist about the U.S. invasion. “We’re toppling Saddam Hussein and bringing freedom,” they said. Then, over the course of the first three years of the U.S. occupation, there was a clear shift in the discourse; a palpable sense of “What’s wrong, why aren’t Iraqis happy about this?” In fact, Bill O’Reilly and other right-wing pundits started explicitly saying, “Wait a minute, why aren’t the Iraqi people more grateful for these gifts that we’re bringing?” Then O’Reilly started saying things on his show like, “You know what? We have to get the hell out of Iraq, these people are savages, they don’t appreciate freedom, they can’t accept the freedom that we gave them because—

NH: —because they “enjoy killing each other!”

DP: He literally said that! We quote it in the introduction to the book. You know why Sunnis and Shias are killing each other in Iraq? Because Allah tells them to, and they love it!

NH: But, it’s also on the left too, Danny. Don’t leave the left off the hook here.

DP: Yes, there is a left-wing version of this narrative. The Independent’sPatrick Cockburn, for example, adopts a decidedly sectarian narrative. The way he and others on the left frame the Syrian conflict reproduces harmful, sectarian understandings riddled with essentialist and Orientalist baggage. Madawi Al-Rasheed and I debated Cockburn on the BBC Radio 4 program Thinking Allowed about this. He was quite explicit in his defense of the sectarian narrative.

Basically, across the board, there’s this new conventional wisdom swirling around in Washington, London, Brussels, and in the media. People are saying, you know what the problem is in the Middle East? It’s these ancient religious conflicts and passions. This is what drives these people. How are you going to have democracy in this region? That’s why the Arab uprisings failed. That’s why the invasion of Iraq failed. These people “can’t do” democracy—it’s all about religious passions and sectarian conflict for them. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, asserts that the conflict in Yemen is rooted in the 7th century, over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad. So, this becomes, I think, a convenient story that the West tells itself about why the region is in such turmoil. It has nothing to do with Western policy, it has nothing to do with colonial history, it has nothing to do with U.S. militarism, it has nothing to do with the authoritarian regimes we’ve been propping up and funding. Rather, it’s because “those people” are just incapable of being like “us”! I think this is an imperial narrative that the West wants to tell itself—it’s a soothing, comforting story.

NH: And it draws upon deeply held Orientalist stereotypes and prejudices about Muslims; that they’re just fundamentally savages and they can’t be democratic. Then there’s the scary policy consequence that Danny just alluded to, which is that authoritarianism is basically a good thing, because it keeps those savages in control!

DP: “Bring back the dictators!”

NH: “If only we could bring Saddam and Gaddafi back. What a wonderful world the Middle East would be!”

DP: That is actually more or less the new wisdom in diplomatic circles.

NH: And I hate to say this because I’m a big fan of his, but Bernie Sanders, who I think is a very decent and moral person, and in my view the only hope for this country, has actually come pretty close to arguing that point.

DP: The point is this new conventional wisdom, Riad, is so widespread. There’s a right-wing version of it, which is explicitly Islamophobic, and demonizes Islam and Muslims. There’s also a left-wing version of it, and a more centrist foreign-policy establishment version of it. From 2012 to 2015, as things got worse and worse in the region, this new “wisdom” started to pick up and take hold, and you could hear it everywhere, all across the spectrum. That was a huge part of the reason we decided to write this book. We told ourselves we have to show systematically, in case study after case study after case study, how this narrative is wrong and mystifies, rather than clarifies, the politics of the region.

RA: Let’s talk a little about the approach of the book in assessing the question and problem of sectarianization. It accomplishes this in two ways: First, through a “big picture,” theoretical framework, and second, through a more particular, contextual approach. Could you elaborate on these two approaches, how they present themselves in the book, and why you chose to assess the sectarianization thesis this way?

NH: Well, we thought first of all that there was very little good political history on the question of sectarianism in terms of its origins and the argument that it’s a modern phenomenon, as we talked about. There’s also very little work in the scholarship (and we hope that we make a contribution) to try and provide a political theory of sectarianism in terms of how it actually develops, its political manifestations, and the social conditions that produce it. And so we thought that we needed to really address this, which is why the first few chapters in the book speak specifically to these points—to the history and the “religious studies underpinnings” of where the concept of sectarianism emerges and how it manifests itself—

DP: —and the geopolitics

NH: —and then the geopolitics, right. So, it’s the history, the theory, and the geopolitics of the topic. It has an international relations dimension, a comparative politics dimension, and a political theory dimension. So, we lay that out in the beginning of the book, with people who are very well credentialed scholars, and then we look at the case studies. To our credit, if I can sound a bit proud of what we’ve done, the case studies actually affirm the theoretical framework laid out at the beginning of the book. This is true in case study after case study, which look at all the major countries. So that’s really the layout and framework of the book.

DP: Yeah, that first section of the book is very important because it’s the “big picture” of sectarianization, putting the sectarianization argument in historical perspective—with Ussama Makdisi and Yezid Sayigh’s chapters—and the geopolitical dimensions of sectarianization, which Bassel Salloukh does brilliantly. Then Adam Gaiser’s chapter adds a very rich theoretical framework to understanding how sectarianization operationally takes root in individual psyches. He uses narrative identity theory to show how the sectarian narrative can actually speak to individuals. How do individuals “emplot” themselves in these sectarian stories? That’s his question.

But, for me, the heart and soul of the book are the actual case studies. Let’s say a reader does not find the “big picture,” theoretical arguments in the first section terribly convincing—because they’re highly debatable, to be sure. To me, it’s all about taking a closer look at how the sectarianization process actually worked in Syria, and in Yemen, and elsewhere. What’s so striking, for all the profound differences between and among those cases, is that you see the same basic pattern over and over. The real issues, if you will, the really defining fault lines in these societies, have nothing to do with sect. They have to do with power, they have to do with injustice, they have to do with corrupt authoritarian rule and repression, and with class and economic inequalities. But in case after case, you have these conflicts that then morph into sectarian conflicts. How? That’s what the case studies show. And, again, what’s striking is how connected they are. To be sure, sectarian compositions differ from society to society. Some societies are Sunni majority ruled by a Shiite minority. Other societies are Shiite majority ruled by a Sunni minority. But in each case, it doesn’t matter which sect is in power, or which one is the majority or minority. It’s about regimes manipulating people and scapegoating the “Other,” deflecting attention from the central question of corrupt, despotic rule. The late historian Peter Gay called this the “cultivation of hatred.”

RA: One of the things the book points out quite well is the way in which societies in the Middle East went from understanding and conceptualizing politics primarily through the lens of anti-imperialism, to adopting points of view which became increasingly defined by sectarian language and tensions. What is the nature of this shift, and what are some of the major turning points that led to it?

NH: That’s actually a very good question. For much of the modern history of the Middle East, the primary organizing theme that mobilized people was indeed the question of national independence and resistance against imperialism. In that broad mobilization, Sunnis, Shias, and people from different sects were all united. This is why you don’t see sectarian conflict until much later, until the end of the 20th century. One example, which is so revealing to cite, is Iraq, where people today think that sects have been fighting forever. In 1920, in the early days of the British occupation, there was actually a major uprising against British imperial rule, and it was a Sunni-Shia joint uprising against the common enemy. It’s only once we get to the post-colonial phase, when there is at least some nominal political independence, and when the regimes of the region start to face a series of political and economic crises, that sectarianism really enters the equation at all. Because these regimes started to fail, and because the promises they made to their people were not delivered, frustrations and demands for political change arose. As a result, you begin to see the attempt by many of these regimes to play the sectarian card in exactly the ways Danny described. Fomenting sectarian strife was a way of deflecting attention from their own corrupt rule, and it made it seem as though “foreigners who are intervening in our country” were the real problem. This allowed regimes to mobilize people around particular sectarian narratives, primarily as a project of retaining and perpetuating power. So I think that’s the broad historical context, where the question of imperialism sort of recedes in the background.

The bigger political crisis that is now shaping the politics of the region is the politics of authoritarian regimes. These are regimes that lack a base for political legitimacy. They don’t have elections, there’s no accountability, and there’s rising political, economic, and social frustration. Consequently, these regimes have to figure out a way to deal with this issue. 1979 becomes a key turning point in all of this. That year is so significant because it’s when the revolution in Iran announces itself as a non-sectarian revolution, as a revolution geared toward mobilizing Muslim populations—

DP: —including anti-imperialist motifs

NH: —and it claims to be a revolution with broad appeal across the Muslim world—

DP: —which it did actually, to some extent

NH: —yes it did, in the Sunni world. And the Saudis were petrified. They were petrified firstly because there’s now another regional entity that claims to represent the leadership of the Muslim world, but they were also much more petrified because what happened in Iran—a pro-Western monarchy, toppled by a popular mobilization—is something they fear might also happen within their own society, and within the Gulf states more generally. So they play the sectarian card, and you actually see a deliberate increase in sectarian publications, fatwas, and mobilization as a way of trying to portray the Iranian revolution as a sectarian revolution. In their eyes, it has nothing to do with Islam, or with being a good Muslim, it’s actually a “Safavid, Persian, Shiite heresy.” That’s when you begin to see a deliberate attempt to deepen and mobilize people around these sectarian identities, and the fundamental driver of it is really the crisis of authoritarian state projects, which are failing and are relying on these new narratives and plans as a way of trying to perpetuate their political lives.

RA: Earlier in the book, there’s discussion about “weak states” and how they’re essentially more prone to sectarianism because they manipulate identity cleavages, which is a dominant feature of their politics. Could you touch on this in the context of a few examples?

NH: Yeah, in many ways the inspiration for at least the theoretical framework of the book was based on this wonderful chapter that was republished with a little bit of an update by Vali Nasr, who is a prominent political scientist of the Islamic world—now the Dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has a fascinating case study about Pakistan, where he says this whole process of a weak state and the rise of sectarianism, or sectarianization, plays itself out. What happens in the late 1970s is that Pakistan, like other authoritarian regimes, begins to suffer a serious crisis of legitimacy. There’s a lot of frustration and anger from the people, and the dictator at the time, Muhammad Zia Ul-Haq, decides to pursue a policy of “Islamization” of Pakistan, essentially as a way of mobilizing people around a particular sectarian narrative, but primarily to perpetuate his own political rule. He starts pursuing this policy by mobilizing people around a particular Sunni narrative of Islam that alienated the roughly 20% Shia population. That’s when you begin to see this deep rise in tension and conflict between different groups in Pakistan, which is driven by state policies that attempt to mobilize people around certain identities.

You also have other things happening around the Islamic world at this time, which play a role in this, including the beginning of the Irani-Saudi conflict, and the spread of a particular Saudi-Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that finds its way into Pakistan. That’s when you begin to see the first forays of something that has no historical precedent in Pakistan, namely, of people going into a mosque of a rival sectarian group and massacring people en masse, claiming that those people are heretics. Pakistan is actually one of the first places where this sectarianization process—state exploitation of fault-lines in society—begins to take its most toxic form. I think that’s one crystal clear example and one of the earliest manifestations of sectarianization by a weak state, and I think one of the strongest chapters in the book overall is the case study that Vali Nasr narrates on Pakistan and sectarian conflict.

DP: And Iraq is another obvious example. Iraq post-2003, where you have not just a weak state, but you basically have the destruction of a state—

NH: —a collapsed state

DP: —a “politicide,” a “state-icide,” if you will, from outside. The destruction of the Iraqi state was the destruction of a very problematic state under Saddam, to be sure. But, when the leviathan dissolves and melts away so quickly, there’s mass violence, insecurity, and chaos. What do people revert to in this scenario, if not sectarianism? It’s not because of primordial impulses. The sectarian narrative would be, “these regimes, the strong men, kept the lid on sectarian passions, and when you let the people rule, look what they do, they want to kill one another, and they’ll go for a majoritarian sectarianism.” In reality the situation is much simpler. When there is physical insecurity and chaos, in a situation like post-2003 Iraq, people need protection. And when you need protection just for your basic survival—just to get through the day and be able to feed your children without being murdered—you look for protection networks. And the protection networks are these “sectarian entrepreneurs” who create militias and who identify the enemies in sectarian terms. Now, it’s not shocking that this happens in a situation of state-collapse imposed from the outside, which includes mass violence. Let’s also remember that while a lot of that had to do with the imperial invasion of Iraq by the United States, it also had to do with the incredible brutality of Saddam’s rule. The fantasy that Saddam solved the sectarian problem is really just that—it’s a fantasy. Fanar Haddad has a brilliant chapter in the book on what Iraq was actually like before 2003, what sectarian relations looked like. It’s not as if sectarianism was introduced to Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the invasion in 2003. There was an incredibly elaborate sectarian grid that Saddam manipulated in a highly Machiavellian way before 2003. What we have post-2003 is a massive intensification of the sectarianization process. But, the sectarian picture of Iraq before 2003 is incredibly important to understand.

NH: These two things actually work together. The legacy of authoritarianism in Iraq laid the foundations for very tense relations. Then when the external shock of a U.S. invasion came, it exacerbated the tensions that were already there—including much of the anger and the animosity Saddam fomented. When the state collapsed, everyone just went for their own local sectarian identities as a way of trying to get security and support.

RA: Okay, I want to touch on the Arab Spring again, because this is very important, I think. Could you talk in some more detail about the specific ways in which the Arab Spring was sectarianized and why and how this happened?

NH: There are a lot of great studies that we have in the book, and so many ones we could talk about. The Syria case is of much more interest to us, because it’s such a part of the destabilized Middle East today. The uprising in Syria was non-sectarian and democratic, and one of the responses of the Assad regime was to deliberately pursue a strategy of sectarianization as a way of retaining power. The regime does it with two goals in mind. The first is to send a message to the international community, that what this conflict is about is not the forty-plus year rule of the Assad family, but rather these sectarian narratives that are coming in from the outside inspired by Al-Qaeda that want to take over this region—so “international community, support me!” The idea was “you guys are fighting Al-Qaeda, and I’m fighting Al-Qaeda here, so we’re fighting the same fight.” The other goal of the Assad regime was to try and break up the unity of the Syrian protesters; to say that, look, if you’re a minority Alawite or a Christian, you shouldn’t be part of that uprising, because this is an uprising that’s fundamentally sectarian, and if “they” come to power, you’re all dead. So there’s a double goal here. And the sad tragedy of what’s happened in Syria is that this narrative has broadly taken root, internationally and domestically, largely as a result of the brutality of the Assad regime. There’s good documentation of how in the first five years of the Syrian uprising, there were roughly fifty-five deliberate sectarian attacks which took place, chronicled by the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Out of those fifty-five attacks, forty-nine of them were attacks that were organized and perpetuated by the Assad regime—

DP: —or shabbiha militias, i.e. pro-regime forces

NH: —yeah, to try and sectarianize this conflict as a way of accomplishing the goals that I just stated. So that’s the Syrian case, but it also plays itself out elsewhere. Basically, it’s the same kind of narrative: It’s these authoritarian regimes feeling that their shelf-life—their longevity—is threatened, so they play the sectarian card as a way of mobilizing people and dividing the opposition, and sending a message to the international community saying, “Look, you need to come and join us in this fight against Al-Qaeda.”

DP: Right, and in case after case, the specter of a foreign source of these sectarian threats is always invoked. When the Assad regime spoke of Al-Qaeda, it wasn’t just “domestic Al-Qaeda,” but also “foreign Al-Qaeda” and “transnational jihadi networks.” This happens to appeal to a certain kind of Syrian national identity or nationalist sentiment, in that the threat is not only domestic Salafi murderers, but also crazy, foreign ones. Never mind the fact that hundreds of thousands of Shiite foreign fighters are in Syria fighting for Assad—including Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iraqi militias, Lebanese Hezbollah, and even Pakistani mercenaries and Afghan children, who the Iranian government is sending—but they’re not “foreign fighters,” right? No, of course not, it’s only the opposition that has “foreign” fighters. Anyway, my point is that in case after case, not only do you have the sectarian narrative, but also the specter of a foreign entity. Even Saddam Hussein characterized the Shia, who are the majority in Iraq, as “foreigners.” And these are Arabs who identify as Iraqi. Anthropologists and historians of Iraq agree that Iraqi Shia are very, very Arab and very, very Iraqi. But in Saddam’s eyes, they were “Persians.” They are and were always “foreigners”—outsiders and “Others” coming to destroy Iraqi society.

RA: How do you respond to those who are still unconvinced by what you’re saying, and who insist that, even if sectarianism today has a distinctly modern tint to it, that many religious groups currently fighting among each other seem to be more or less the same as those that were fighting in the premodern era? What do you say to those who believe that religious infighting today is not entirely detached from religious infighting in the past?

NH: Well, I would push back against the premise of your question that there were similar forms of religious conflict between groups in the past as there are in the present. I would argue that today it’s much more frequent, the intensity is much greater, and the difference between the premodern era and the contemporary moment is that, now, we’re seeing the deliberate manipulation and mobilization of identity by authoritarian regimes with the goal of perpetuating their own shelf life. That’s what’s driving this process. In the premodern era, we do not have the same types of states, or the same types of political actors. You certainly had conflict between different groups, and they would clash periodically, but then things would be calm. The deliberate attempt to mobilize people around a particular identity for the sake of political power is much more infrequent in the premodern era.

Admittedly, you did see it happening in the premodern period, particularly with the rise and the clash between Ottoman Turkey and the Safavid Persian empire. The dynamics in that sense are very similar and they do have a modern resonance. In the case of the “new” Safavid Persian empire, there was an attempt to distinguish itself from its regional rival, and so it underwent a process of “Shiafication.” People generally don’t know this, but prior to 1501 Iran was a majority Sunni country. It’s only because the “new” Safavid regime that came to power wanted to distinguish itself from its neighbors that it imported imams from Lebanon and the Arab world to convert people to Shiism. This was done to deliberately defame and denigrate key themes within Sunni Islam for the sake of political power and the political projection of power. In that sense, there’s a parallel, but otherwise the sectarianization process today is distinctly modern, for the reasons we previously discussed.

DP: Shiism came to Iran through the Arabs.

NH: Yeah, through Arabs, and actually driven by a process very similar to the modern phenomenon of sectarianization—which is where the parallel lies. But, I think what we’re seeing right now is fundamentally the project of authoritarian regimes suffering deep crises of legitimacy in the eyes of their own populations. These regimes don’t have answers; they refuse to share or relinquish power, and so they have to fall back on these projects of state manipulation and mobilization of sectarian identities—of which there is some basis in reality, as there are different religious groups and there are tensions between them. That exists everywhere. I like to bring it back to the United States, because a lot of Americans think “sectarianism is over there, where those backwards people are.” But, look at what’s happening in the United States today. We’re seeing deep conflict. Perhaps it is not sectarian conflict, but it is at least communal conflict between races. And the key difference, the “why now” question, is Donald Trump, who has deliberately mobilized white nationalist sentiments around a particular narrative to perpetuate his power, and to deflect from his own failed agenda. It’s not at the same level—

DP: —it’s not sectarian, but it’s identitarian.

NH: —it’s identitarian, it’s communal. It’s racial. It’s not “sectarian,” but it’s different groups that exist in tension, and we’re seeing a significant rise of it. This is happening particularly through the mobilization of white nationalist, populist sentiment inspired by Trump, who is going out into the public in ways we haven’t seen before and saying, “Look, we’re a victimized group here.” It’s a parallel phenomenon that I think is driven by a very similar process as sectarianization.

DP: To add a question to that parallel, what exactly is a key component of the white nationalist populist narrative? It’s that “you’re in bad shape, you’ve got economic troubles, and you don’t have the same wages as you used to. Your jobs are being shipped overseas.” Who is to blame for this? It’s not capitalism. It’s not neoliberal policies. It’s not the ruling class or the billionaires. It’s the Mexican rapists. It’s the Muslims. It’s the immigrants. It’s the foreigners. And, of course, it’s also the liberals, who sold our country and let these rapists and Muslims in to begin with. That’s all a scapegoat!

NH: There are some dangerous opinion polls, and they’re quite shocking, that show a significant majority of white Americans believe they face greater discrimination than any other group in the country.

DP: Right, and this gets back to the sectarianization story in the Middle East because that demonization, scapegoating, and outsourcing of problems to the “Other” is a broader phenomenon. In the final chapter of the book on de-sectarianization, Tim Sisk looks at the case of Northern Ireland, which faced its own sectarian problem. When I was growing up, the word “sectarian” was mainly used in reference to Northern Ireland and the troubles there. That came to a political conclusion in the late 1990s—just 20 years ago. So I think it’s very important to remember that, yes, the Middle East today is engulfed in a spasm of sectarian violence, but this is by no means exclusive to the Middle East. Europe had to fight religious wars for centuries, and in Northern Ireland they only came to a resolution very recently. The sectarian story is actually a global story.

RA: Insofar as a key claim of this book is that sectarianism fails to explain the current disorder in the Middle East, and that it obfuscates more than it clarifies, it seems there are two main challenges we are being asked to tackle. The first, and perhaps the simpler one, is to erase and do away with sectarianism as an explanatory force in academia, journalism, and popular media representations about the region. The second, arguably more ominous challenge, is “de-sectarianizing” sectarianized regions. These are both profound challenges. How exactly do we address them and what’s the way forward?

NH: Well, I think for the first part, in terms of how we get away from the narrative that sectarianism explains the turmoil in the Middle East, I think you have to do very much what we’ve been arguing in this interview and in the book: try and look for alternative explanations. We have to advance the idea that sectarian conflict is not something that’s deeply rooted in the culture and history of the Middle East. It is historically a new phenomenon. We then have to try and prove that empirically, while showing how the process of sectarian conflict is driven by the projects of state actors. It’s rooted in authoritarianism, collapsed states, and regional rivalries. It’s fundamentally rooted in politics, not piety. So, I think we have to try and make an argument for that and provide the examples that affirm that position. In terms of how we deal with the second part of your question, as we sort of acknowledge in the book (perhaps not as forcefully as we should have), it’s very easy to start sectarian conflict, but once it gets started, ending it and rolling it back is much more difficult. When you have deeply entrenched views of “The Other,” when blood is shed, and when people lose their lives, trying to roll that back becomes, I think, the immense challenge of our world and of the Middle East.

There are no clear and easy answers. I think fundamentally that what we have to focus on in terms of arriving at a “de-sectarian moment” is changing the underlying social conditions that perpetuate sectarianism. We emphasize heavily in the book the problem and persistence of authoritarianism, but also the need to transition to democracy, arrive at consensus-based politics, give different groups a seat at the table, and write strong constitutions that give people meaningful rights and representation. These are all things I think need to happen.

In the case of Northern Ireland, there was strong support from the international community to try and end the conflict. In the case of the Middle East today, however, it’s in many ways the reverse. We have the U.S. government under Trump openly embracing the sectarian narrative of the Saudi royal family, quite directly. I say that not to let Obama off the hook, because the Obama position was not as vocal in terms of supporting the Saudi position on Yemen and other places, but it was still cautiously and quietly supportive of their allies in the region. So, I think the international community’s approach to the Middle East has to change in ways that should, in fact, follow what we’ve been hearing recently from the German Foreign Ministry. They came out with a position that said the Saudi policy of trying to quarantine and isolate Qatar is a disaster for everyone. They took a very strong position on this, and the Saudis got upset and pulled their ambassador out of Germany. I think the international community’s position should follow more the German example, as opposed to the Trump/Obama example. And there are other, difficult internal issues that have to be addressed in the cases of Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. We need truth and reconciliation commissions. There are a lot of injustices that have taken place, and you can’t heal these societies unless there is some sense of accountability, and a sense that people can get justice. I think these are some of the things that have to happen, in order for us to be able to de-sectarianize the Middle East.

DP: On a sobering note, it really is a lot harder to get the genie back in the bottle than it is to unleash it. We can demonstrate, as we try to do in the book, the artificiality of the sectarianization process—the sense in which it is a constructed, conscious project of states, power brokers, and entrepreneurs to manipulate peoples’ sentiments. We can also show the historical genealogy of the process and map the way it gets operationalized. But, at the end of the day, it takes on a life of its own. Once you unleash these forces, it almost doesn’t matter how they came to be. Once they lodge themselves in peoples’ hearts and psyches, and when people are willing to kill and die on the basis of these narratives, I mean that’s real—that actually happens. We can argue and theorize and talk about the artificiality of the sectarianization process till kingdom come, but it’s not going to affect people on the ground.

Still, we’re very excited about the fact that the book will be translated into Arabic soon. That’s very important because, at the end of the day, if only English-speaking academics, intellectuals, and journalists are reading this stuff in the Anglosphere, who cares? We want the book to be read and discussed and debated in the Arab world. That’s very, very important. But even beyond that, it can’t just be intellectuals. It has to be organizers, civil society activists, imams, and people doing work on the ground—not just amongst the educated elite, because the educated elite are mostly already against these sectarian narratives. It has to be people who are actually in these communities. It has to be religious leaders.

RA: This is a good way to segue into my final question. I found it very refreshing that the book kind of ends on a hopeful note. It ends optimistically but also qualifies that optimism with a sort of caution that, artificial as it may be, sectarianism can become “naturalized”—like the self- fulfilling prophecy you mentioned earlier. How fearful should we be of this possibility, and are you more optimistic than pessimistic, or is it the other way around?

NH: Well, the prognosis for the region looks very bleak, so yes, the book ends on an optimistic note. But, the reality on the ground is that it looks like we’re headed, at least in the short term, for greater sectarian conflict. Still, as you said, and as we argue in the book, there’s nothing natural about sectarian conflict. These are projects and policies that are pursued by state actors. So, since this is a project and a byproduct of politics, then only through politics, properly configured, can we start to de-sectarianize the politics of the region (if the proper policies and the proper politicians and political processes are put in place). There’s nothing inevitable about it. It requires serious commitment to try and roll back the social, political, economic, international and even theological conditions that give rise to sectarianization in the first place. It’s about human commitment, and it’s about credible leadership that’s willing to stand up and push back against this current. It’s also really a question of getting all of the proper stars aligned in an ideal sense to try and roll back this process.

I think fundamentally that what has to happen is there has to be a serious commitment by actors within and outside these societies to try and work toward a non-sectarian future. In that sense, because politics is in the hands of individuals, there’s nothing inevitable about this. At some point, I think people are going to get tired of it, and you can already see signs of that happening, and there’s going to be an attempt to push back. So, there’s hope. But, I think it’s a longer-term hope. The short-term prognosis looks quite bleak, and I think the bigger recent developments, not just the Saudi-Iran rivalry, but really the destructive role that the Trump administration is playing in fueling the sectarianization process, is going to make things very ugly and very bleak for a while.

DP: I will only add that it’s important to remember that even in the very recent past, between 2015 and 2016, the “You Stink” garbage protests in Lebanon were cross-sectarian, if not indeed anti-sectarian, protests. The “You Stink” protests were a beautiful example of protesting horrible mismanagement on a municipal and policy level. It had nothing to do with sect. There were people of all sects in Lebanon out in the streets together. Now, did it translate electorally? Not really. But, the point is those protests are one of many examples of non-sectarian, cross-sectarian, and anti-sectarian organizing that is going on, about all kinds of issues. Labor issues, economic inequality, and mismanagement are things that draw people together across boundaries. It’s going on in small ways across the region. It’s not the dominant narrative and it doesn’t get the headlines, and it’s certainly not what’s defining the politics of the region, unfortunately. But, it is valuable.

Let’s remember that the Arab uprisings occurred only six years ago. People were demanding bread, freedom, and dignity. People were struggling for democratic rights, peacefully, across sectarian lines. Sunnis, Alawaites, Christians, Ismailis, Druze, and atheists stood, side-by-side, demanding democratic rights and the end of the torture mafia state. A lot has happened since then, and there has been a sectarian nightmare that has unfolded both “from above” and “from below,” which is the saddest part to me. But let’s remember that it was actually very recently when people organized around different issues—not sectarian identities—and had common projects of social justice. That can happen again, very quickly. The tide can turn overnight