This is hardly surprising, given that anti-Muslim prejudice is so pervasive on the right. What is surprising is to find people on the left trafficking in the sectarian narrative. Take the case of Patrick Cockburn, the influential Middle East reporter for The Independent. Cockburn has consistently framed the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms – using language like "sectarian blood-letting" and "demons" – and even criticised others for downplaying sectarianism.

He did this from very early on, seeing sectarianism as immanent even during the nonviolent popular demonstrations of 2011, which were notably devoid of sectarian slogans and involved Syrians of multiple religious backgrounds/identities. The Syrian conflict became sectarian, but it didnʹt start that way and, contra Cockburn, its sectarianisation was by no means inevitable.

In his chapter in our book, the anthropologist Paulo Gabriel Hilu Pinto demonstrates how the Assad regime pursued a deliberate strategy of sectarianising the conflict through the use of sectarian pro-regime militias and the "selective distribution of violence" to punish specific sub-groups of protesters; and by releasing various jihadis from Syriaʹs prisons, to poison the well and produce a "preferred enemy".

Are you suggesting that many political analyses of Middle Eastern politics are not genuine analyses, but merely consist of throwing around certain phrases? It certainly appears that individuals who participate in, or even dominate the discourse, are often just using a template of their ideological world view, mixing it with some facts and calling it "analysis". How can we call tell the difference?

Hashemi: The best way to detect an ideological agenda masquerading as informed/objective analysis of the Middle East is to look for double standards. Many commentators and activists denounce authoritarianism and human rights violations in some countries but not in others. The question of radical Islam is another example. The rise of Islamism (of various strands) as a response to political repression has been extensively documented in social science literature and is widely understood by those on the left.

For example, it is uncontroversial to affirm that the rise of political Islam in Iran during and after the 1979 revolution was directly related to the authoritarian policies of the Pahlavi monarchy. Similarly, in the case of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, Algeria and the rise of the Islamic Salvation Front, we understand this connection between repressive state structures and opposition movements that emerge as a direct response to these dictatorial policies. In the case of Israel and Palestine, leftists have no problem viewing the rise of Hamas in the context of the Israeli occupation, humiliation and repression of Palestinians.

When it comes to Syria, however, many on the left refuse to understand this relationship. The rise of various rebel groups with Islamist ideological orientations after 2011 is not attributed to the policies of the Assad regime, but is rather blamed exclusively on the U.S. and its allies. Many leftist writers and activists adopt this view, while completing downplaying or ignoring the massive state violence perpetrated by Assad (and his Russian and Iranian allies) that has produced social conditions conducive to the rise of radical Islam. This double standard is utterly ideological.

Interview conducted by Emran Feroz

© 2018

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Comments for this article: The West's "intellectually lazy" obsession with sectarianism

Good! Thanks. Class should be added. There is an overlapping between sect and class in some Arab countries, namely Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. In the example of Syria we have seen how the Syrian businessmen and bourgoisie in genral in Aleppo and Damascus did not effectively oppose the regime. They either supported and financed it or stood passive. Only a minority fled the country.

Nadeem20.10.2018 | 11:08 Uhr