Study suggests sectarian identity in the Middle East is tied to domestic affairs, not a broader transnational religious divide



Fieldwork suggests that sectarian identity in the Middle East is tied to domestic affairs and not part of a larger transnational religious divide. To conduct the study, the researchers designed a survey of Shia pilgrims traveling to Karbala for the holy day of Arba’een. Pictured are people walking during the annual pilgrimage in 2015. Credit: MIT

As the old saying goes, all politics is local. It might seem like a quaint idea in the age of social media and global connectivity. And yet, as a study co-led by an MIT political scientist reveals, it can describe Middle East politics more accurately than many people realize.

Specifically, sectarian identity in the Muslim world – particularly the split between the Shia and Sunni sects of Islam – is often portrayed as a transnational issue, in which people see themselves as part of a larger divide spanning the Middle East and North Africa regions. .

But a field survey of Shia Muslims (those who are Shia) engaged in a massive annual pilgrimage to the Iraqi city of Karbala reveals something different: sectarian identity is often tied to domestic politics and shaped in relation to local social interactions.

“We found another type of sectarian identity that was certainly not so much focused on the transnational dimension,” says Professor Fotini Christia, who led the study.

Among other things, Muslim sectarian identity for study participants is not a doctrinal issue, emerging from religious study. Moreover, it also appears that men and women often develop sectarian identities in different ways.

“It seems that it is actually local politics that seeps into an interpretation of faith or sectarian identity, rather than the other way around, with religion affecting people’s engagement,” says Christia. “There is also a gender dimension to this that has been overlooked.”

The article, “Evidence on the Nature of Sectarian Animosity: The Shia Case,” is published today in Nature Human behavior. The authors are Christia, who directs the Center for Sociotechnical Systems Research at MIT; Elizabeth Dekeyser, post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Toulouse, France; and Dean Knox, assistant professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Research on the road to Karbala

To conduct the study, the researchers designed a survey of Shia pilgrims traveling to Karbala for the holy day of Arba’een – a collective mourning ritual at the shrine of Imam Husayn, one of the grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad. This annual pilgrimage, banned under Saddam Hussein, is now one of the largest such annual events in the world, attracting Shiites from many places.

Indeed, the structure of the pilgrimage helped the researchers conduct the study. The road from Najaf to Karbala, an 80 km stretch which is the busiest part of the pilgrimage, includes service tents organized around the regions where people come from. This structure enabled Christia, working on the ground in Iraq with a local research team, to develop a sophisticated survey of a geographically diverse group of over 4,000 people from the Shiite sect. About 60% of the participants came from Iraq and 40% from Iran; the survey was roughly evenly split by gender.

Overall, Shia make up only about 20% of Muslims worldwide; they are predominant in Iran, but minority in nearly all other predominantly Muslim countries, and have received relatively less attention from social scientists and other scholars.

“When you think of the Muslim world, you focus much more on the Sunni side,” says Christia. “It was like a big missing piece not to have engaged the Shia population in this type of research.”

Because of the complexity of conducting research in Iran, she adds, “it’s really a chance to engage a religious population of Iran that we could never access in Iran.”

All in all, as the researchers state in the paper, the survey results show that sectarian animosity “is linked to economic deprivation, political disillusionment, lack of contact with an outside group, and sectarian view of domestic politics”. Rather than representing a transnational, pan-Muslim vision of social solidarity, sectarianism seems to function more like ethno-nationalism, derived from local experiences and addressing national political issues.

Survey data shows, for example, that an increase in household wealth leads to a slight decline in sectarian animosity, while greater disillusionment with democratic government leads to an increase in sectarian animosity. And women in predominantly Shia regions, with less social contact between sects, have more sectarian animosity. In each case, domestic economic and political factors influence the variation in bigotry more than transnational issues.

“One of the reasons it’s so difficult to study the origins and correlates of animosity is that the concepts involved are inherently difficult to quantify,” says Knox. “We take these issues seriously and validate our measures in many ways. For example, we quantify animosity through multiple approaches, including experiments, and we measure out-of-group contact with everything from self-reported information to follow-up. of smartphone tracking. Ultimately, we are able to use a variety of data sources to test the observable implications of existing theories about how and why individuals sustain this animosity.”

Gender Separation and Lived Experience

At the same time, the survey results also reveal some distinctive gender differences. Among Iraqi women, for example, individuals who are more religious tend to be more bigoted, but men who are more religious tend to be less bigoted. Why? Scholars suggest that while Shia doctrine discourages sectarianism, the social activities of religious practice encourage it, bringing people together from a single sect. For men who already work outside the home and have other means of socializing, this may have little impact on their worldview. But for women for whom sectarian religious gatherings are a primary form of socialization, practicing religion more actively may therefore increase sectarian views.

Similarly, the link between democratic disillusionment and sectarianism in the survey is primarily driven by women (unlike the public image of young Muslim men leading sectarian conflict). Researchers hypothesize that it also stems from greater opportunities for men to absorb differing viewpoints in the public sphere, while more limited socialization opportunities for women reinforce sectarian views.

“Providing a full and nuanced analysis of the divergent ways in which men and women understand bigotry is essential,” says Dekeyser. “For behaviors and beliefs that are strongly influenced by socialization, such as intergroup relations, ignoring entirely different gendered lived experiences can both fail to examine critical variation in beliefs and lead to incorrect social and political conclusions. .”

And the fact that lived experience itself is largely localized, for most people, in turn means that their opinions are grounded in these concerns. After all, observes Christia, consider that even people engaged in the Karbala pilgrimage, an international event, organize themselves according to their places of origin.

“Even in this event which is transnational, because there are Shias from everywhere, even there, it’s kind of a celebration of their local identity,” says Christia.

All in all, studying sectarian animosity in depth, rather than relying on conventional wisdom about it, is necessary to fully understand the opinions of people in the Muslim world.

“So many other places where politics is problematic and we [the U.S.] have been engaged in the Middle East, such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon or Yemen, have this sectarian dimension,” says Christia. “We need to think about religion and politics, and how it actually manifests. … The fact that there is this [political] religious dimension, more than this transnational religious dimension, [and that] is an important lesson.”

Book examines scope of political and social attitudes among devout Muslims

More information:
Fotini Christia et al, Evidence on the Nature of Sectarian Animosity from a Geographically Representative Survey of Iraqi and Iranian Shia Pilgrims, Nature Human behavior (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-022-01358-y

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