Time was, across the Arab world, that it was simply rude to ask people their religion or sect, even if it was obvious from their name, their accent, from where they lived or worshipped or the pictures on their walls that they were a Sunni Muslim, Shia, or Christian.
In the glory days of the post-colonial era the focus was on creating an overarching Arab and national identity. Syria, with its mosaic of Sunnis, Alawites, Druze and many Christian communities, boasted of being the “beating heart of Arabism”. Even in Lebanon, with its elaborate power-sharing arrangements, confessional identity remained a private matter. Intermarriage was common.
The Ba’ath party, which ruled in both Baghdad and Damascus, was the creation of a Christian ideologue, Michel Aflaq. Two radical Palestinian leaders, George Habash and Nayef Hawatmeh, were Christians. So was George Antonius, the great historian of Arab nationalism.
In Iraq, carved by the British out of three Ottoman provinces, a poor, largely rural, Shia majority, a Sunni minority, and the Kurds were the predominant groups. Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, tried to co-opt them all; all were oppressed.
Change was driven by Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979, a cataclysmic moment in Middle Eastern history and an inspiring one for downtrodden Shia everywhere. Saddam’s invasion of Iran in 1980 was billed as an Arab war against Persians – and was bankrolled by the Arab and Sunni Gulf states. In 2003, when Saddam was overthrown, Iraqi Shia celebrated by invoking the martyrdom of their revered Imam Hussein at the hands of the Sunni Umayyads at the battle of Kerbala in 680.
Sectarianism reflects real religious differences and defines “otherness”, but it has always been linked to power, resources and territory. In Bahrain, the Sunni Al Khalifa dynasty rules over a Shia majority denied its rightful place in the system, but Manama blames Tehran for fomenting unrest. Saudi Arabia similarly accuses Iran of causing trouble in the Shia-dominated east. In both cases the accusation masks genuine local problems.
This article by Ian Black originally appeared in the UK Guardian newspaper