'Beware of entrepreneurs in sectarian identity'

Toby Matthiesen, an internationally renowned British academic at Cambridge University and expert on the Gulf countries, warns in an interview with MO* for what he calls ‘entrepreneurs in sectarian identity’: elites that are abusing and manipulating sectarian differences for political and economical purposes. He also sheds his light on the protests in Saudi Arabia, the dangers of sectarian divide-and-rule tactics, and how such policies are directly responsible for the success of extremist groups such as Islamic State. 

© Reuters

Shiite protesters in Saudi Arabia were presented as terrorists and Iranian proxies.

Willem Staes

12 December 2014
MO*wereldbloggers

In 2013 your book “Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring that Wasn’t” was published. What was the main message in your book? 

Toby Matthiesen: In any religion there are differences and disputes about historical facts. But one should also keep in mind that there is always a (geo)political use of sectarianism. As such, political and religious violence is often created by states and non-state actors.

That is what people that I call ‘sectarian identity entrepreneurs’ do: powerful people who want people to associate themselves with a certain sect, people who don’t want people to primarily associate themselves with other collective or national identities.

How does that exactly work?

Toby Matthiesen: For example, in the Gulf politics and business are closely intertwined. Powerful business people, often also member of the royal family, own their own newspapers, or have their own charity organisations that cater largely for people of their own sect.

These media are promoting a certain sectarian framing. That’s no coincidence: in Bahrain, for example, the very survival of the royal family depends on the framing of events in sectarian terms. Syria is another example, where you can see how the ruling elite has used the rivalry between different ethnic and sectarian groups since decades to stay in power.

How were such strategies used to suppress protests in the Gulf since 2011?

Toby Matthiesen: Take for example the protests in Saudi Arabia since 2011. The main protests took place in the Eastern Province, and were organised by the shiite population there. The shiites wanted to inspire other Saudis: they tried to convince other Saudis to also protest, and they were shouting national and inclusive slogans. So you had a protest of normal Saudi citizens who demanded political and economic reforms.

The regime, however, accused them of being ‘terrorists’ or ‘Iranian proxies’. Add to that the widespread hatred against shiites in Saudi Arabia – which has been fuelled by the government, media and clergy for decades -, and you know why the protests were not successful in the end.

To what extent is there a danger of such sectarian framing turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy?

‘Islamic State is a direct consequence of sectarianism in the Gulf’

Toby Matthiesen: We already see what came out of this: Islamic State (IS) is a direct consequence of this sectarianism. Basically, what IS is doing right now is implementing the hostile sectarian rhetoric that the Gulf states have used for a long time.

The attack on shiites in the Eastern Province in the beginning of November, by sunni extremists, shows how sectarianism is already coming back to bite Saudi Arabia.

That should not come as a surprise. If you export ant-shiitism abroad and keep on telling people how bad shiites are, one day you will be confronted with violence and possibly civil war-like conditions.

Is this already happening?

Toby Matthiesen: After years of saying how all shiites in the Eastern Province are unbelievers, that you cannot trust them and that they are conspiring with Iran, one should not be too surprised that now there are actual attacks on the shiites in Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi state, however, do not want to go to the level of having violence at home. That is why they organised a very severe crackdown on the people who committed this attack.

But still it is all part of the same logic and policies. It would take us too far to say that IS is a creation of the Saudi government who has now turned against the Saudis. That is a conspiracy theory, but off course one cannot deny that many fighters and private funding for IS are coming from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

This is the direct consequence of the ideology that has been taught for decades in the Gulf countries. The anti-shiitism is one of the main recruitment factors for IS, together with anti-western feelings.

What are the roots of the deep-seated anti-shiitism in Saudi Arabia?

‘After 1979 the Saudi educational system became totally controlled by the anti-shiite clergy. This islamisation process was strenghtened by the influx of oil dollars’

Toby Matthiesen: During the last 2,5 centuries there has been an alliance between the monarchy and the wahhabi clergy in Saudi Arabia. The clergy guarantees the legitimacy of the Sauds in exchange for the monarchy not interfering with the religious policies of the clergy.

Surviving (Sunni) attackers of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. One of the causes of the further islamization of Saudi Arabia

1973 and 1979 are decisive years in this regard. In 1979 not only the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran, but the Grand Mosque of Mecca was also occupied by sunni extremists. This threatened the Islamic legitimacy of the House of Saud, while the revolution in Iran shook the regional balance of power.

Consequently, the monarchy decided to support the further islamisation of the country. In particular, the education system became totally controlled by the intolerant and anti-shiite clergy. This islamisation process was strengthened by the influx of oil dollars that was engulfing the country since the oil boom of 1973. 

Was this a deliberate choice of the House of Saud?

Toby Matthiesen: Many royals are not religious at all. The accelerated islamisation process after 1979 was more a political and strategic choice than it was an ideological one. Nevertheless, it resulted in the creation of a whole generation of Saudis that were taught quite radical views in school and in the media.

Only after the attacks of 9/11 the monarchy realised the dangers these extremists could pose for the Kingdom itself, and started to initiate a huge anti-radicalisation programme from 2003 on. Unfortunately, the protests of 2011 resulted in a return to the familiar sectarian divide-and-rule tactics.

What are the chances on a revitalisation of the protests in Saudi Arabia?

Toby Matthiesen: The bloody turn of the Arab Spring makes people think twice about going out to the streets. In the short term I do not expect much change, although the fundamental causes of the discontent – the state repression- has not been addressed. On the contrary: the state has become even more repressive in the last three years. They managed to crush any kind of protest movement, and the sectarian issue helped them.

At the same time there is a growing group of youth that are very much aware on the political and societal level, for example on Twitter. So it is not the case that nobody thinks anymore, but people do think twice before openly speaking out.

What kind of role do you see for the international community in all this?

Toby Matthiesen: The international community should condemn, loud and clear, the human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, and couple economical and political cooperation to a formal reform process.

This will not happen, however: nobody dares to take a firm stance on Saudi Arabia, their financial power is just too big.

What about cooperation in the fight against Islamic State?

Toby Matthiesen: In an ideal world, one should tackle the ideological root causes that allowed IS and other groups to emerge on the scene. This is an ideology that originates to a big extent from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and it has to be tackled there by educational reform and measures against hate speech.

Can the Saudi monarchy be a partner in such reform process?

‘IS is basically implementing the Saudi geopolitical vision on the ground’

Toby Matthiesen: The monarchy has been surviving for the last 2,5 centuries exactly because its alliance with the wahhabi clergy. They know what they do and why they do it, they are not stupid. So they will not change their policies overnight, even not because of IS.

Also, one should realise that IS is basically implementing the Saudi geopolitical vision on the ground: going against Iran, Assad and the shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. What IS is doing on the ground is in the geopolitical interest of the Gulf states.

Can they be a reliable partner then in the fight against IS?

Toby Matthiesen: I do not think the Saudis are happy with IS, it totally got out of control. But they need to be a partner, because much of the funding and fighters for IS is coming from Saudi Arabia. But one should not just rely on the Saudis and forget that much of the problem originates from there.

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