Understanding ‘Sectarianism’

Sunni–Shi’a Relations in the Modern Arab World

February 2020 9781787382060 368pp
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‘Sectarianism’ is one of the most over-discussed yet under-analysed concepts in debates about the Middle East. Despite the deluge of commentary, there is no agreement on what ‘sectarianism’ is. Is it a social issue, one of dogmatic incompatibility, a historic one or one purely related to modern power politics? Is it something innately felt or politically imposed? Is it a product of modernity or its antithesis? Is it a function of the nation-state or its negation?

This book seeks to move the study of modern sectarian dynamics beyond these analytically paralysing dichotomies by shifting the focus away from the meaningless ‘-ism’ towards the root: sectarian identity. How are Sunni and Shi’a identities imagined, experienced and negotiated and how do they relate to and interact with other identities?

Looking at the modern history of the Arab world, Haddad seeks to understand sectarian identity not as a monochrome frame of identification but as a multi-layered concept that operates on several dimensions: religious, subnational, national and transnational. Far from a uniquely Middle Eastern, Arab, or Islamic phenomenon, a better understanding of sectarian identity reveals that the many facets of sectarian relations that are misleadingly labelled ‘sectarianism’ are echoed in intergroup relations worldwide.


‘No one has written with more theoretical and practical insight on Muslim sectarianism than Fanar Haddad. In this volume, he brings together the best of his insights on a topic that remains poorly understood. An essential read for anyone who is serious about understanding “sectarianism” in the Arab world today.’ — Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies, University of Denver, and co-author of Sectarianization

‘A clear-sighted and highly readable analysis of the shifting contexts and meanings of sectarian identification in the modern Arab world. Detailed and politically astute, this book makes a critical contribution to the literature on sectarian political identities.’ — Charles Tripp, Professor of Politics, SOAS University of London

‘A timely book that debunks several myths about the persistent Sunni–Shi’a divide in the Arab world. Haddad inspires us to reconsider common wisdom and offers a theoretically nuanced interpretation of a phenomenon that has dominated analyses of Iraq and beyond in the last decades.’ — Madawi Al-Rasheed, Visiting Professor, Middle East Centre, LSE, and editor of Salman’s Legacy

‘A brilliant exploration of sectarianism. Haddad’s unmatched combination of theoretical sophistication, historical perspective and political insight makes this one of the best books available on a critically important topic, and an essential read for understanding the real dynamics of religion, identity and political contention.’ — Marc Lynch, Professor of Political Science, George Washington University

‘A thought-provoking account of Sunni–Shi’a relations in the Arab world that critiques how the term “sectarianism” has often been used.’ — Toby Matthiesen, Senior Research Fellow, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford


Fanar Haddad is a London based analyst of Middle Eastern and Iraqi affairs. This is his first book.

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