Emerging Sectarian Fault-Lines and Regional Security in the Arab Revolutions

The National Priorities Research Program (NRPR), an initiative of the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), funds this project. The project is being conducted by researchers at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, Australia and the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Qatar.

At the outset, the Arab revolutions appeared like many other popular revolts against corrupt and despotic regimes. The colour revolutions of the Eastern European states, which raged against local autocratic rulers throughout the early 2000s, provided a fitting story within which to cast the events that took place across the Arab world in early 2011. The Arab revolutions that started in Tunisia at the end of 2010 appeared to follow this familiar pattern. This was a revolt against decades of economic mismanagement, nepotism and political repression. The desire for political accountability seemed to be contagious, as the popular revolt spread from one country to the next, testing the incumbent regimes and their hold on power. The seemingly unstoppable wave of bottom-up demands for change inspired many commentators to herald 2011 as ushering in the dawn of grass-roots democracy in the Middle East. Even US President Barack Obama, who initially tried to assume a degree of impartiality, found it impossible not to welcome the popular uprising that overthrew Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, America's long standing ally in the region. But the democratic future of the Middle East remains far from certain. While Egypt and Tunisia have made some tentative steps towards political accountability, the future direction is still unclear. Instead, popular uprisings have been managed and diffused, or descended into civil war. This experience has major implications for the direction of political developments in the region, including US foreign policy choices. Current and emerging research on these issues has tended to underplay a particularly sensitive and difficult aspect of the revolutions. That is, the Shi'a-Sunni divide. This issue deserves special attention as it presents significant risks for regional stability and international peace.

This project assesses the extent to which religious discourse is an integral part of identity politics in the Middle East, and/or is instrumentalised for political gain. It analyzes the relationship between internal and external dynamics in the Arab world and factors that contribute to regional instability. This research will shed new light on the role and significance of Islamist discourse, culture, and religion in setting foreign policy agendas in the post-revolutionary Arab states. The key question addressed by this project is: How and why have sectarian tensions become so prominent in the political discourse of the post-revolutionary Arab states?

Researching the above question is supported by the following supplementary and related questions to contextualise the project:

➔     Are sectarian tensions the result of the political instrumentalisation of the Islamic discourse - Sunni versus Shia' - by existing regimes to pursue material national interests?

➔     If so, why is it seen to be politically expedient to play the sectarian card?

➔     Are the regimes actually appealing to shared understandings of what it is to be Sunni or Shia amongst their own populations, in order to advance a domestically 'acceptable' foreign policy?

➔     If this is the case, is foreign policy likely to change as people's understandings of self, place, and space change?

➔     Or alternatively, are we dealing with primordial Sunni/Shia divide, wherein deep-rooted historical and cultural differences are the primary cause of tension and conflict in the Arab states?

By exploring these questions, this project will shed new light on the role and significance of Islamist discourse, culture and religion in setting foreign policy agendas in the post-revolutionary Arab states.

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