Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 30, 2015

Sectarianism Unbound

Filed under: middle east,religion — louisproyect @ 7:43 pm

On August 22, 2013,  a letter to the Financial Times went viral on the Internet:

A short guide to the Middle East

Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!

Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.

But Gulf states are pro Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!

Iran is pro Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!

Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!

Gulf states are pro US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!

Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.

K N Al-Sabah, London EC4, UK

Not long after the letter began making the rounds, some bright chap at Slate created a graphic to illustrate the points being made by K.N. Al-Sabah:

Screen shot 2015-03-30 at 1.04.15 PM

About a year later, an article appeared on the Think Progress website that took up the same pretzel-logic Byzantine alliances:

And one year later, and within the past few days, the ultimate graphic on the schizoid alliances in the Middle East and North Africa showed up at Karl reMarks, a very smart and witty blog about the region.

I suppose none of this matters to the conspiracy theorists on the left who continue to insist that the USA and Saudi Arabia are responsible for all the woes in the Middle East and North Africa that stem from their desire to crush the secular and progressive Baathist government in Syria as a prelude to war with Iran.

One supposes that the wind has been blowing the sails of this analysis given the situation in Yemen, where the USA has lined up behind Saudi attacks on the Houthi who are depicted as Iranian puppets even if that is a simplification. More often right than wrong, Juan Cole provided some useful insights to the conflict at the Nation:

The Houthis have pledged to topple the Saudi throne; they chant “death to America” and have friendly relations with Iran. Nothing could be more threatening to the Saudis than a grassroots populist movement of this militant sort, and that it springs from a Shiite population makes it worse. The Saud dynasty is allied at home with the Wahhabi movement, which typically views Shiite Muslims as worse idolators than Hindus. Still, the late King Abdullah appointed two Shiites to his national Advisory Council, the embryonic Saudi parliament, and deployed the Ismaili Shiites of Najran against Yemen. It is not Shiite Islam that is the red line for the kingdom, but populist movements that talk dirty about the Saudi monarchy.

Not long after General al-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, he pledged his support to Bashar al-Assad who he saw as fighting a common enemy, the dreaded Islamist terrorists. Given his hatred for alleged Sunni extremists, you’d think he’d take the same side as the Shiites in Yemen. But as the bizarro chart put up by Karl Sharro would indicate, politics is not that simple. The NY Times reported on March 26 that Egypt was about to join with Saudi Arabia in crushing the Houthis:

Egypt said Thursday that it was prepared to send troops into Yemen as part of a Saudi-led campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi movement, signaling the possibility of a protracted ground war on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

A day after Saudi Arabia and a coalition of nine other states began hammering the Houthis with airstrikes and blockading the Yemeni coast, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt said in a statement that the country’s navy and air force would join the campaign. The Egyptian Army, the largest in the Arab world, was ready to send ground troops “if necessary,” Mr. Sisi said.

So, if the Egyptian military shared the Baathist determination to root out and destroy religious extremists, why would it now side with their ultimate source, the geopolitical equivalent of the Queen monster that Ripley ejects from the spaceship in the final moments of “Aliens”? Or maybe, as Cole points out, the real enemy is any social or political formation that challenges oligarchic rule whether it upholds Sunni or Shia theological precepts. In Syria, it was the Sunni farmers and small businessmen who rose up against crony capitalism.

In a very useful article by Gabriele vom Bruck, an anthropologist with a focus on Yemen, that appeared on CounterPunch, you can get an idea of why the Saudis might have it in for them:

Against the background of the wars fought by the Houthis since 2004 and the distribution of power in the new government, it comes as no surprise that when they entered Sanaa, their first targets were Al-Iman University (a Salafist-inspired college run by the controversial Islahi leader Abd al-Majid al-Zindani and illegally built on an endowment belonging to the Houthi family), a military complex under the command of General Ali Muhsin, and the homes of members of the al-Ahmar family and other leaders of Islah [the former ruling party].

Reminiscent of the pictures of the luxurious homes of the Qaddafi family in 2011, Yemenis are now presented with images of the villas of Islah leaders on a television channel owned by the Houthis. Sanaa residents tell tales of beautifully lush gardens with gazelles and swimming pools, large diwans and automatic generators — aware of the fact that half of Yemen’s population lives under the poverty line. The underlying moral discourse serves to reinforce the Houthis’ claim that the “real” revolution is only now occurring. By the time Houthi militias occupied central government buildings in Sanaa, the losers appeared to be Islah and the GCC countries [Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance led by Saudi Arabia]. Those countries sponsored the transition agreement because they saw it as a way to demobilize the very social and political forces who had in 2011 demanded wide reaching structural changes which might have collided with their interests in Yemen and the demands of their own domestic constituencies.

Just as is the case in Syria and was true in Libya earlier, the Houthis are rebels that combine religious, tribal and other non-class allegiances that stand in the way of them becoming an instrument of national salvation as was the case with the July 26th Movement in Cuba or the NLF in Vietnam.

Indeed, at the outset the Houthis had a distinctly ISIS ring, even if based on a different lineage as Charles Schmitz explained in an article in the Middle East Institute, a think-tank run by Richard A. Clarke, a career State Department official who opposed the war in Iraq. Schmitz refers to Zaydism, the religion of the Houthis:

Zaydism, the religion of the imams that ruled Yemen for a thousand years, was severely repressed by Republican leaders during the years of the Yemen Arab Republic. A key component of Zaydism under the Imams was the idea that only the Sada, those in the blood line of the family of Fatima and Ali, are eligible to rule the Muslim community. In spite of the political diversity among the Sada, Republican leaders attack them all as agents of the ancient regime; the government promoted Sunni Salafism and Wahhabism, imports from Saudi Arabia, in the Zaydi heartland as alternatives.

The notion that bloodlines have any value in creating a modern state that is committed to the welfare of all its citizens strikes one as counterproductive to say the least. If some Sunnis dream of restoring the caliphate and beheading anybody who gets in the way, what makes Zaydism any better even if its adherents forsake beheading?

My last article for Critical Muslim appeared in issue #10 that was devoted to an examination of the Sect form. A number of articles can be read on the journal’s website that I strongly recommend, starting with an article by editor Ziauddin Sardar and co-author Merryl Wyn Davies titled “Sectarianism Unbound” that begins:

Taz’, a new channel on the Pakistani Geo TV network, is dedicated to twenty-four-hour news. There is a rapid-fire news bulletin every fifteen minutes: hence the name, Taz, or fast. But even after an endless stream of stories about sectarian violence, terrorist atrocities, suicide bombings, ‘target killings’, ‘load shedding’, political corruption and the defeats of the Pakistani cricket team with mundane regularity, there is still ample time left in the schedule. So the slots between the news bulletins are filled with what they call tazaabi tottas – acidic bits, short satirical skits. In one particular sketch, a man, sitting on a bridge, is about to commit suicide by jumping into the river. He is spotted by a passer-by who runs towards him shouting ‘Stop! Stop!’ The two men then engage in the following dialogue:

‘Why are you committing suicide?’

‘Let me die! No one loves me.’

‘God loves you. Do you believe in God?’


‘Are you a Muslim, or…’

‘Allah be Praised! I am a Muslim.’

‘I too am a Muslim. Are you a Shia or a Sunni?’


‘I too am a Sunni. What is your school of law?’


‘Me too! Do you belong to the Deobandi or Bralevi sect?’


‘Me too! Are you a Tanzihi (pure) Deobandi or a Takfiri (extremist) Deobandi?’


‘Me too! Tanzihi of Azmati branch or Farhati branch?’

‘Tanzihi Farhati branch.’

‘Me too!’ Tanzihi Farhati educated at University of Amjair or Tanzihi Farhati educated at Noor University of Mawad?’

‘Tanzihi Farhati educated at Noor University of Mawad.’

‘Infidel, kaffir! You deserve to die!’

The man who came to help then pushes the suicidal man over the bridge.

As someone who has been struggling against socialist sectarianism for the past 35 years, I of course am in no position to feel superior to Muslims dealing with a similar problem. And in a very real sense, the surmounting of sectarianism on the left is a possible key to surmounting it in the Middle East and North Africa beset by tribalism and confessional hair-splitting.

As long as there are insecurities in a world based on commodity exchange and wage labor, religion will meet certain emotional and psychological needs. But perhaps an injection of godless communism in a region that has been torn apart by different notions of obeisance to god will create the conditions in which Muslim leaders will arise who see the world as El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz did: “True Islam taught me that it takes all of the religious, political, economic, psychological, and racial ingredients, or characteristics, to make the Human Family and the Human Society complete.”

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was better known as Malcolm X.


  1. Some sources claim that Sisi does not support Assad: http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2014/08/24/egypt-support-syrian-regime-opposition-al-sisi/ Egypt does not support the Syrian regime or opposition: Al-Sisi

    Daily News Egypt / August 24, 2014 / 4 Comments

    Egypt is a member of the Friends of Syria group, which is made up of countries that oppose Syrian president Al-Assad

    Comment by ken — March 30, 2015 @ 8:07 pm

  2. Finally a worldview of the seemingly intractably complicated Mid-East that can be digested quickly & sensibly by your average daily wage toiler that still has a sense of Internationalist Solidarity — as they still are out there in droves.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — March 31, 2015 @ 12:34 am

  3. this article shows the importance of militant atheism, and in particular, Bob Avakian’s ‘Away With All Gods’. Only by getting rid of all religious oppression through a scientific world view can this sectarianism end. Yes, there is sectarianism between left groups, but this is also party due to them misunderstanding the nature of the present epoch, and of the need to engage with the New Synthesis of Communism, put forward by the RCP USA.

    Bob Avakian is very serious.

    Comment by bobak — March 31, 2015 @ 8:02 pm

  4. Here’s a nice bit of history that was posted a couple days ago.

    The punch line: “These sectarian wars are what’s left when you’ve killed everybody else who was attempting to provide Arabs with an effective, secular, modern existence.”

    Also includes a couple of mentions of communism, for those who are interested in such things.

    Comment by godoggo — March 31, 2015 @ 11:46 pm

  5. Brilliant, Louis. Great post.

    Comment by aaron — April 1, 2015 @ 2:10 am

  6. Re comment 1: The Saudi-Sisi difference over Syria is actually rather sharp, diplomatic language aside, Saudi Arabia and Egypt show discord over Syria:

    Comment by mkaradjis — April 1, 2015 @ 2:32 pm

  7. Curious – I read the little “sectarian drama” recounted in “Sectarianism Unbound” a number of years ago (I think it originated with Abraham Brumberg) and have used it on a few occasions myself – it was word-for-word the same except the sects referred to were not Muslim but Trotskyist. Wonder how it made it to Pakistan? Or maybe the authors just couldn’t help recyciing it. It certainly fits admirably in either scenario.

    Comment by magpie68 — April 2, 2015 @ 5:19 pm

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