This article is part of the World Economic Forum's Geostrategy platform

Sectarianism has become a destructive feature of the modern Middle East.

Whether it is driven by political elites to preserve their regimes, by regional powers to build influence, or by religious leaders who are unwilling to accept the legitimacy of other faiths, sectarianism is likely to remain part of the Middle East's landscape for years to come.

However, the results of a study by the RAND Corporation suggest that endless bouts of sectarian violence and religious conflict are not inevitable and that Middle Eastern societies can become more resilient to sectarianism by pursuing a range of actions.

The study, Countering Sectarianism in the Middle East, which was funded by the Henry Luce Foundation's Religion in International Affairs programme, arrives at a unique understanding of how communities inoculate against or recover from sectarianism.

Collaborating with scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds, RAND researchers explored the experiences of four countries in the region with mixed sectarian populations and histories of sectarian tension or conflict — Lebanon, Bahrain, Syria, and Iraq.

Researchers analyzed why some communities were better able to remain resilient in the face of sectarianism. Those findings informed the authors' identification of broader lessons and policy recommendations to bolster resilience and, ultimately, to prevent or reduce the intensity of violent conflict in the region.

Key Policies for Countering Sectarianism

States seeking to counter sectarianism should consider the following national and local measures:

  • Improve border controls. Cutting off the flow of resources, supplies, and fighters coming from foreign sources to fuel sectarian conflict is critical.
  • Limit foreign funding of sectarian leaders and parties. Crimping funds from external sources and patronage systems will tamp down sectarian tension and violence in the region.
  • Encourage civil-society development. Pressing for freedom of expression and association in dialogues with regional partners is crucial.
  • Take urban planning seriously. Developing urban areas that integrate different social sectors and increase economic and social interactions can create communities that are more stable and more peaceful.
  • Promote local media. Broadening international donor investments to support media coverage with nonsectarian agendas can foster social dialogue and integration.
Levels of Sectarian Division and Conflict in the Middle East

Five Broader Lessons

The authors identified the following five wider lessons from the four case studies:

1) Geography matters. Borders were critical in determining whether certain communities became more vulnerable to sectarian actors, often originating from outside the country. In Syria, for example, the ability of sectarian actors to cross over from Turkey was a key driver behind Idlib's higher levels of sectarian violence. In Iraq, the ability to prevent the physical entry of sectarian militias into some neighborhoods helps explain the different levels of sectarian violence in communities.

2) Political elites can both foster and impede sectarianism. Political elites with patronage systems, particularly from external sources, can foster sectarianism and stymie cross-sectarian cooperation. However, when such elites lose legitimacy and cannot deliver to their constituencies, as was the case in Lebanon, opportunities can emerge for alternative leaders and movements with nonsectarian agendas.

3) Civil-society development is critical. Nonsectarian movements require some opening of political space, at least at the local level, so that movements can form around issues that transcend sectarian identities, such as economic development, education reform, female empowerment, and environmental challenges. In the case of Lebanon's Beirut Madinati movement, a trash collection crisis created the focal point for grassroots organization and political mobilization across sectarian lines.

4) Cross-sectarian interaction can be a buffer to sectarianism. As the levels of trust and social connection among community members across sectarian lines increase, social capital also increases, which can better equip communities to resist the slide into sectarianism when conflict emerges. Conversely, when communities are built to segregate citizens along sectarian lines and create economic disparities, as occurred in Bahrain's Hamad Town, prospects for sectarian division and conflict increase.

5) Less pronounced socioeconomic gaps improve a community's ability to resist sectarianism. The 'Isa Town example from Bahrain demonstrates that as the socioeconomic gaps between Sunni and Shi'a residents narrow, sectarian grievances and violence are less likely to emerge. But in neighborhoods where economic grievances and discrimination are greater, communities are vulnerable to sectarian violence.

Conclusion

In conducting this study, RAND researchers did not aim to solve the problem of sectarianism in the Middle East or to pretend that it does not exist. Rather, this effort sought to fill important gaps in policymakers' understanding of how resilience might already be at work and the factors that might boost or undermine it.

Although research has already illuminated what might be driving sectarianism in the region, policymakers have far less understanding about how they might counter it. Identifying resilience at local community levels in highly divided societies in the Middle East is a step in that direction, but it is only the beginning in tackling a complex challenge that is likely to stay with the region for years to come.