The authoritarian roots of Muslim sectarianism


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IN his critically acclaimed book, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future, Vali Nasr has suggested that traditional concepts and categories used to explicate the Middle East, such as modernity, democracy, fundamentalism and nationalism no longer adequately explain the politics of the region. ‘It is rather the old feud between Shias and Sunnis that forges attitudes, defines prejudices, draws political boundary lines, and even decides whether and to what extent those other trends have relevance.’1

Moreover, Nasr astutely observers that even though Shias comprise only 10 to 15 per cent of the 1.5 billion Muslim population, in ‘the Islamic heartland, from Lebanon to Pakistan …there are roughly as many Shias as there are Sunnis, and around the economically and geostrategically sensitive rim of the Persian Gulf, Shias constitute 80 per cent of the population.’2 Conflict in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and most recently in Yemen, and the sectarian and regional tensions that have flowed from these events, seems to give credence to Nasr’s claim. Is Vali Nasr correct and, if so, how can we objectively interpret the rise of religious sectarianism in the Middle East today?

This essay seeks to provide a tentative answer to these questions. First, it provides some theoretical background to the question of sectarianism in the Middle East by drawing on the literature on ethnic political mobilization to illuminate the question of religious sectarianism. I argue that this scholarship is useful in understanding Sunni-Shia conflict in our contemporary world due to the functional similarities between ethnic and religious mobilization.

Second, it discusses the recent political history of the Middle East that has contributed to the rise of sectarianism in the region, with special reference to the question of political authoritarianism. I argue that authoritarian regimes in the Arab-Islamic world deliberately manipulate sectarian identities as a way of deflecting demands for political change and perpetuating their control of the state. This non-democratic political context is essential for understanding this issue. In other words, according to a famous aphorism attributed to Clausewitz, if ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’ then in the context of today’s Middle East: ‘sectarian war is the perpetuation of political rule by other means.’3


There are at least three schools of thought in the social sciences that explain ethno-nationalist mobilization: primordialism, instrumentalism and constructivism.4 They are useful in explaining the rise of religious sectarianism and political mobilization in Muslim societies given that most mainstream forms of politicized Islam are religious forms of nationalism whose actors have accepted the borders of the post-colonial state and are fundamentally concerned with the internal national politics of their home countries.5 Moreover, Muslim sectarian discourses on power and their underlying paradigm of politics are ‘ethnic’ in the sense that they are concerned with the politics of group identity where the group in question self-identifies with religion as a key marker of its identity.6


Furthermore, as the Harvard scholar David Little has written, there are several other ways in which ethnicity and religion are connected. In his survey and analysis of nationalist conflicts, he observes that ‘there is a widespread tendency of ethnic groups in all cultural contexts to authenticate themselves religiously that lends plausibility to the term, "ethno-religious".’ He goes on to note that ‘in particular cases it is artificial to try to distinguish too sharply between religious and non-religious ethnic attributes. In those instances where religious identity becomes ethnically salient, language, customs, even genealogy, take on strongly religious overtones.’7 This suggests that functionally speaking, ethnicity and religion are deeply intertwined and often overlap and mutually reinforce each other. Aspects of the Sunni-Shia divide, particularly between Iranian Shias and Arab Sunnis, support this view, thus giving credence to the utilization of the social scientific literature on nationalism and ethnic politics in assessing religious sectarianism and conflict in Muslim societies today.


Returning to the three schools of thought on what we can now call ‘ethno-religious’, the first school, primordialism, views ethnicity as a shared sense of group identity that is natural and deeply embedded in social relations and human psychology. For primordialists, ethnicity is based on a set of intangible elements rooted in biology, history and tradition that tie an individual to a larger collectivity. Ethnic mobilization is tied to emotional and often irrational notions of group solidarity and support.8 In societies where other forms of social solidarity around gender, labour or class are weak, ethno-religious mobilization is often an integral part of political life. One of the major criticisms levelled at primordialism is that it does not explicate the link between identity and conflict. While primordialism has utility in identifying where ethnic ties are prevalent, it does tell us how it can be a factor in mobilizing identity during times of conflict. The existence of multiple identities among social actors suggests that they are often manipulated as part of a mobilization process into cause and effect scenarios.9


Instrumentalism, by contrast, suggests that ethnicity is malleable and should be treated as part of the political process. The idea of manipulation is thus an inherent part of this school of thought. By emphasizing in-group similarities and out-group differences, as well as invoking the fear of assimilation, domination or annihilation, ethno-religious leaders can stimulate identity mobilization.10 For instrumentalists, ethnic mobilization is a byproduct of the personal political project of leaders and elites who are interested in advancing their political and economic interests via social conflict. Placed within a larger context of conflict escalation, instrumentalism allows us to make cross-comparisons between societies with similar social cleavages.

Constructivism adopts a middle ground between primordialism and instrumentalism. Its proponents argue that ethnicity is not fixed but is rather a political construct based on a dense web of social relationships.11 Like primordialists, constructivists recognize the importance of seemingly immutable features of ethnic/religious identity but disagree that this inevitably leads to conflict. On the other hand, constructivists share with instrumentalists the view that elites and leaders play a critical role in the mobilization process; disagreement emerges, however, on the degree to which these identities can be manipulated. In brief, constructivists do not believe that ethnicity/religion is inherently conflictual but rather that conflict flows from ‘pathological social systems’ and ‘political opportunity structures’ that breed conflict from many social cleavages and which are beyond the control of the individual.12


With this as a backdrop, religious sectarianism in the world today becomes more intelligible. Sectarian identities could not be politicized unless differences in beliefs, values and historical memory compelled religious groups to collective action around particularistic identities. The critical question, however, that demands an answer in explaining sectarian conflict is: why now? What explains the outburst of ethnic/religious conflict at a particular moment in time and not before? Sunni-Shia relations, for example, were not always conflict-ridden, nor was sectarianism a strong political force in modern Muslim politics until relatively recently. What factors contributed to this change? While the role of elites and leadership is particularly salient in answering these questions, Vali Nasr suggests that we must also take into account the agency of state actors in identity mobilization.13

In the past, theories of ethnic conflict have generally treated the state as a passive actor in identity mobilization. The standard narrative held that competition from within society among competing ethnic groups would inevitably shift to the arena of the state, as these sub-state actors compete for control of various state institutions as a means of enhancing their power over rival groups. The intensification of these struggles would eventually lead to the weakening, collapse and failure of the state.

Drawing on research from South and Southeast Asia, Vali Nasr has suggested, however, that far from being passive victims of identity mobilization’, states have a logic of their own and ‘can be directly instrumental in ... manipulating the protagonists and entrenching identity cleavages. Identity mobilization here is rooted in the project of power of state actors, not an elite or a community. These actors do not champion the cause of any one community but see political gain in the conflict between the competing identities.’14 Nasr’s insight helps deepen our theoretical understanding of identity mobilization in that it pushes the conversation beyond primordial differences and elite manipulation and focuses attention on state behaviour and state-society relations. This brings us to the national context that shapes sectarian differences in the Muslim world today.


While most Muslim majority societies are Sunni, comprising about 85-90 per cent of the total global Muslim population, Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain are Shia majority societies. Significant Shia populations also live in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Syria.15 Critically, what these societies share in common is that most of their political systems are decidedly non-democratic and various forms of authoritarianism dominate the political landscape. It is this overarching fact which determines the ebb and flow of political life and influences the relationship between sects, the rise of sectarianism and the behaviour of political and religious leaders.


Authoritarian states in the Muslim world have several distinguishing features which influence sectarian relations. They suffer from a crisis of legitimacy and as a result closely monitor and attempt to control civil society by limiting access to information and the freedom of association of their citizens. Joel Midgal’s concept of a ‘weak state’ best describes these regimes.16 In his formulation, based on an innovative model of state-society relations, ‘weak states’ suffer from limited power and capacity to exert social control. They often cannot and do not control sections of the country, both within urban and rural areas, over which they claim sovereignty. Moreover, they confront highly complex societies made up of a ‘mélange of social organizations’ such as ethnic and religious groups, villages, landlords, clans, and various economic interest groups which limit the state’s reach into society and compromise its autonomy. ‘Dispersed domination’, describes these states where ‘neither the state (nor any other social force) manages to achieve countrywide domination.’17 While the state is too weak to dominate society it is often strong enough to manipulate and effectively respond to crises that threaten national security and regime survival.18

In weak states, politics revolves around ‘strategies of survival.’19 State leaders and political elites are fundamentally concerned with both their staying power and staying in power. Thwarting rivals who might threaten them both from within society and among various state organizations is a key political obsession that drives and informs political decisions. A common tactic to preserve and perpetuate political rule in a weak state is to manipulate social and political cleavages via a divide and rule strategy. This gives ruling elites greater room to manoeuvre in the short term but often at the cost of social cohesion in the long term.


This dominant feature of the politics of weak states also suggest why ‘state actors are principal agents in identity mobilization and conflict in culturally plural societies, and the manner in which politics of identity unfolds in a weak state, is a product of the dialectic of state-society relations.’20 Weak states, therefore, are more prone to sectarianism given that manipulating cleavages of identity is a dominant feature of their politics or as David Little has observed in his analysis of religion, nationalism and intolerance, ‘authoritarian states appear to draw life from ethnic or religious intolerance as a way of justifying the degree of violence required to maintain [and perpetuate] power.’21


During the 1960s and 1970s, in several Muslim countries, political opposition to the ruling regimes was in the form of various socialist, communist and left wing political formations. In an attempt to pacify these oppositional currents, Islamic political groups were allowed greater freedom of movement and association in the hope that they would challenge the popularity of these secular opposition groups, thus immunizing the state from criticism and scrutiny. The most dramatic case of this was in Egypt when Anwar Sadat released scores of Muslim Brotherhood members from jail and allowed exiled leaders to return home.22 Similarly, in an attempt to enhance the capacity of the Pakistani state and solidify political control, General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq launched an Islamization programme in the late 1970s which, despite its pretensions to Islamic universalism, was in essence an attempt at the Sunnification of political and social life of Pakistan. This was, therefore, viewed as a threat by religious minorities in Pakistan, the Shia community in particular, who considered these policies detrimental to their sociopolitical interests. The severe rupture in sectarian relations in Pakistan that soon followed was significantly shaped by this development, but as Vali Nasr has demonstrated it was deeply influenced by regional and international variables as well.23

The key regional development that deeply shaped the rise of sectarianism was the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Western-backed dictatorships in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, felt vulnerable. They feared that the spread of revolutionary Islam could cross the Persian Gulf and sweep them from power in the same way the Pahlavi monarchy had been toppled. In response, these Sunni authoritarian regimes, primarily Saudi Arabia, invested significant resources in undermining the power and ideals of the Iranian revolution by seeking to portray it as a distinctly Shia/Persian phenomenon based on corruption of the Islamic tradition.24 Sunni Muslims, they argued, should not be duped by this distortion of the Prophet Muhammad’s message. Anti-Shia polemics in the Sunni world increased dramatically after this period and were backed by significant sums of Gulf money. Sunni-Shia relations were deeply affected by this development and Pakistan was an early battleground where this conflict played out.25


The key international event at this time was the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Western support for the Afghan mujahedeen, backed by Saudi petrodollars, produced a Sunni militant movement that attracted radical Islamists from around the world, most notably Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri. This constellation of forces aligned, and eventually morphed into Al-Qaeda. The ideological orientation of these Salafist-jihadi groups was decidedly anti-Shia both in theory and practice, buttressed by a neo-Wahhabi reading of the world.26

The Iranian-Saudi rivalry is critical to understanding the rise of sectarianism in Muslim societies at the end of the 20th century. Both Tehran and Riyadh lay claim to leadership of the Islamic world and since 1979, the two have battled for hearts and minds across the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia.27 The Iranian-Saudi conflict, however, has experienced an ebb and flow, and sectarian relations have mirrored this pattern. It was particularly acrimonious during the 1980s when Saudi Arabia strongly backed Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. 1987 was perhaps the worst year when 400 Iranian pilgrims were killed in Mecca during a protest march at the annual Haj pilgrimage and the Saudi and Kuwait embassies in Tehran were attacked as a consequence.


Following the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1988) and the death of Ayatullah Khomeini (1989) tensions gradually subsided and relations improved. The coming to power within Iran of more pragmatist and reformist leaders such as Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami led to a restoring of diplomatic relations and a cold peace was established that lasted for most of the 1990s. The 2003 American-Anglo invasion and occupation of Iraq marked a turning point in Iran-Saudi relations and subsequently in sectarian relations.

The toppling of Saddam Hussein affected the regional balance of power. The rise in Iraq of Shia Islamist parties who were allied to Iran was a key event during this period, setting off alarm bells among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. The subsequent Iraqi civil war, which after 2006 had a clear sectarian dimension to it, further inflamed Sunni-Shia relations across the Middle East. The rise of Hezbollah in Lebanon was also a factor during this period. Its ability to expel Israel from southern Lebanon in 2000 and its perceived victory against Israel in the summer of 2006 increased its popularity and prestige as a revolutionary force on the Sunni Arab street. It was during this time period that King Abdullah II of Jordan, reflecting a common concern among Sunni Arab regimes, spoke of a ‘Shia Crescent’ linking Beirut and Tehran and running through Damascus and Baghdad, that was seeking to dominate the politics of the region based on a new brand of Shia solidarity.28 This brings us to the year 2011 when the Arab Spring marked another turning point in Sunni-Shia relations in the Middle East.


The response of most Arab regimes, principally those of the GCC, to the Arab Spring is revealing. It serves to highlight the salience of authoritarianism over theology in understanding the dynamics of Sunni-Shia relations today. Fearing that the demand for political change would sweep across the Arab world and destabilize their own societies, several of these regimes relied on a strategy of exploiting sectarianism to deflect demands for democratization. This policy went far beyond simply invoking an alleged Shia threat emanating from Iran as the principle source of the problem. The response from these governments can be situated within the framework of Joel Migdal’s thesis, as discussed above, on the nature of ‘weak states’ and the ‘strategies of survival’ that define their politics.


In writing about the House of Saud’s reaction to the Arab Spring, Madawi Al-Rasheed observes that ‘sectarianism became a Saudi pre-emptive counter-revolutionary strategy that exaggerates religious difference and hatred and prevents the development of national non-sectarian politics. Through religious discourse and practices, sectarianism in the Saudi context involves not only politicizing religious differences, but also creating a rift between the majority Sunnis and the Shia minority.’29 This was made easier when only Shias in the eastern province came out to demonstrate during the Arab Spring while similar protests in the rest of Saudi Arabia failed to materialize. The spectre of an Iranian Shia/Savafid threat was invoked and the usual Wahhabi court ulema were given air time to issue fatwas against public demonstrations and to warn people of the wrath of God that would fall upon those who defied their rulers.30 The security forces were then brought in as a backup to restore order via the usual tactics of repression that are common in non-democratic regimes.

Al-Rasheed, however, notes that it is wrong to characterize relations between the Saudi regime and its Shia population as a one-way street that relies exclusively on repression. The House of Saud ‘deploys multiple strategies when it comes to its religious minorities and their leadership’, she observes. ‘Wholesale systematic discrimination against the Shia may be a characteristic of one particular historical moment, but this can be reversed. A political situation may require alternatives to repression. Sometimes repression is combined with co-optation and even promotion of minority interests and rights.’31

For example, when ISIS bombed Shia worshippers on two occasions in May 2015, the Saudi regime strongly condemned the attacks and vowed to hunt down perpetrators. Expressions of solidarity with the Shia soon followed and were widely disseminated on official state media. Summarizing this strategy, Al-Rasheed concludes that, ‘It is important to note that there is no regular and predictable strategy deployed by Saudi authoritarianism against the Shia. Each historical moment requires a particular response towards this community, ranging from straightforward repression to co-optation and concession. The Arab Spring and its potential impact on the country pushed the regime to reinvigorate sectarian discourse against the Shia in order to renew the loyalty of the Sunni majority.’32


The story of sectarianism in Kuwait reveals a different narrative, but the underlying context is the same. Political authoritarianism and a fear of democracy shape the relations between state and society. Sunni-Shia relations can best be understood in this context.

The demographics of Kuwait are different than the other GCC countries in that 30 per cent of the population is Shia. As a consequence this demographic reality has contributed to more stable sectarian relations in comparison to its repressive neighbours. Stability has also been enhanced by the fact that Kuwaiti politics have far greater democratic underpinnings than in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates. Competitive elections and a functioning Parliament that can remove individual ministers and override the preferences of the Emir based on a majority vote have been a part of Kuwait’s modern political history. At the same time, however, the cabinet is appointed by the Emir and it serves at his discretion. This has produced a unique dynamic where oppositional politics matter, especially for the Kuwait monarchy; where threats to its ability to govern can emerge from society (both from Shia and Sunni constituencies). This problem came to a head during the 2011 Arab Spring.


While not as dramatic as the protests that brought down regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, Kuwait was also rocked by pro-democracy demonstrations. They lasted for over a year; tens of thousands of people were mobilized, leading to the storming of Parliament and the resignation of the government. A powerful opposition from different constituencies emerged that challenged the al-Sabah family, demanding a deepening of democracy. The regime responded by dissolving the opposition-led Parliament and replacing it with a more compliant one. Arrests, intimidation and the cancellation of citizenship from political activists and opposition leaders marked a general authoritarian crackdown which persists until today.33

In analyzing these events, Madeleine Wells suggests that sectarian relations in Kuwait can be ‘better explained by addressing the regime’s increasing authoritarianism than by international threats. Rather than focusing on the rise of the spectre of Iran in the region, and its ostensible local lackeys, the Kuwaiti government is more focused on internal domestic challenges, specifically, the ongoing reformist demands of a vociferous tribal-Islamist-youth opposition that crystallized during the Arab Spring. Without understanding this domestic oppositional context’, she argues, ‘it is impossible to understand the unique shape of regime-Shi’i relations.’34

The crux of her explanation can be located in Kuwait’s semi-authoritarian political structure and the type of state-society political dynamic it engenders. Wells argues that, ‘Government policies have very little to do with Shi’i ethno-religious characteristics or their perceived links to Iran. Rather, the extent to which policies toward the Shi’a are inclusive or exclusive depends upon their political oppositional potential.’35 In Kuwait, post-Arab Spring, this has proven to be a serious problem, given the new assertiveness of the opposition. A divide and conquer strategy that can weaken opposition to the Al-Sabah monarchy is what shapes state-Shia relations today, not questions of theology or external threats from abroad. The primary threat is internal, rooted in a crisis of legitimacy, which has parallels in other authoritarian regimes in the Arab-Islamic world.


The key claim of this essay is that sectarianism fails to explain the current disorder in the Middle East. It is argued that the prism of sectarianism, rooted in an alleged enduring Sunni-Shia chasm, clouds rather than illuminates the complex realities of the politics of the region which has its roots in a series of developmental crises (both political and economic) that the region has been facing since independence. The policies of leading western liberal democracies toward this region and foreign intervention have only exacerbated these problems.

While it is true that religious identities are more salient in the politics of the Middle East than before, it is also true that these identities have been politicized by state actors in pursuit of political gain. The politics of authoritarian regimes is the key context for understanding this problem. In other words, there is a symbiotic relationship between pressure from society down below, which demands greater inclusion, respect, and representation, versus the refusal by ruling elites from above to share or relinquish power. This produces a crisis of legitimacy that needs to be carefully managed. The politics of sectarianism or sectarianization – the deliberate manipulation of religious identities – is a result of this political dynamic.


Notwithstanding the rhetoric we hear from Sunni monarchies or from presidents-for-life in various Arab republics, ruling elites are not embedded into a particular sectarian identity. The driver of politics is a not a defence of theological doctrine or loyalty to the collective interests of a religious sect. The core allegiance for ruling elites is to their political thrones and various clients, whether Sunni or Shia, who can help sustain their power.

As Madawi Al-Rasheed has noted, ‘sectarianism is not an inherent historical quality of the Arab masses.’ There are ‘sectarian entrepreneurs and religious scholars who continue to flourish in the present’ by manipulating these identities in the interest of ruling regimes often at their request. Sectarianism, in other words, ‘is a modern political phenomenon that is nourished by persistent dictators whose rule depends on invoking these old religious identities that become lethally politicized.’ In short, sectarianism does not explain the current turmoil in the Middle East, dictatorship does.



1. Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future. W.W. Norton, New York, 2006, p. 82.

2. Ibid., p. 34.

3. The original quote is: ‘War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.’ See Carl von Clausewitz, On War. Trans. and edited by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Everyman’s Library, New York, 1993, pp. 98-99.

4. This section of my paper is informed by two excellent studies: Vali Nasr, ‘International Politics, Domestic Imperatives, and Identity Mobilization: Sectarianism in Pakistan, 1979-1998’, Comparative Politics 32, January 2000, pp. 171-190 and Alana Tiemessen, ‘From Genocide to Jihad: Islam and Ethnicity in Post-Genocide Rwanda’, Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, 2-5 June 2005, London, Canada.

5. Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA,2002, pp. 23-135 and Mohammed Ayoob, The Many Faces of Political Islam. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 2007, pp. 1-22.

6. Vali Nasr, ‘International Politics, Domestic Imperatives, and Identity Mobilization: Sectarianism in Pakistan, 1979-1998’, Comparative Politics 32, January 2000, p. 172.

7. David Little, ‘Religion, Nationalism and Intolerance’, in Tim Sisk (ed.), Between Terror and Tolerance: Religious Leaders in Deeply Divided Societies. Georgetown University Press, Washington DC, 2011, pp. 9-28.

8. Anthony D. Smith, Nationalism and Modernism: A Critical Survey of Recent Theories of Nations and Nationalism. Routledge, New York, 1998; and Walker Connor, ‘Beyond Reason: The Nature of the Ethnonational Bond’, Ethnic and Racial Studies 16, July 1993, pp. 373-389; David Lake and Donald Rothchild (eds.), The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict: Fear, Diffusion, and Escalation. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998, p. 5; and John F. Stack Jr., ‘Ethnic Mobilization in World Politics: The Primordial Perspective’, in John F. Stack Jr. (ed.), The Primordial Challenge: Ethnicity in the Contemporary World. Greenwood Press, New York, 1986, pp. 1-2.

9. Alana Tiemessen, ‘From Genocide to Jihad: Islam and Ethnicity in Post-Genocide Rwanda’, Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Political Science Association, 2-5 June 2005, London, Canada.

10. David Laitin, Hegemony and Culture: Politics and Religious Change Among the Yoruba. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1986; and David Lake and Donald Rothchild, ‘Spreading Fear: The Genesis of Transnational Ethnic Conflict’, in David Lake and Donald Rothchild (eds.), The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict: Fear, Diffusion, and Escalation. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998, p. 8; Paul Brass, Ethnicity and Nationalism: Theory and Comparison. Sage, London, 1991; and Paul R. Brass, ‘Elite Groups, Symbol Manipulation and Ethnic Identity Among the Muslims of South Asia’, in David Taylor and Malcolm Yapp (eds.), Political Identity in South Asia. Curzon Press, London, 1979, pp. 35-77.

11. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, New York, 1983; Crawford Young (ed.), The Rising Tide of Cultural Pluralism: The Nation-State at Bay? University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1993.

12. David Lake and Donald Rothchild (eds.), The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict: Fear, Diffusion and Escalation. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998, p. 6.

13. Vali Nasr, op. cit., fn. 6, p. 173.

14. Ibid.

15. Pew Research Center, ‘Mapping the Global Muslim Population’, 7 October 2009.

16. Joel Migdal, Strong Societies and Weak States: State-Society Relations and State Capabilities in the Third World. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1988, pp. 3-41.

17. Joel Migdal, ‘The State in Society: An Approach to Struggles for Domination’, in Joel Migdal, Atul Kohli and Vivienne Shue (eds.), State Power and Social Forces: Domination and Transformation in the Third World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1994, p. 9.

18. Vali Nasr, op. cit., fn. 6, p. 174.

19. Joel Migdal, op. cit., fn. 16, pp. 206-237.

20. Vali Nasr, op. cit., p. 174.

21. David Little, op. cit., fn. 4, p. 10.

22. Abdullah Al-Arian, Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Egypt. Oxford University Press, New York, 2014 and Gilles Kepel, op. cit., fn. 5.

23. Vali Nasr, op. cit., fn. 6, pp. 171-190.

24. Khaled Abou El Fald, Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari’ah in the Modern Age. Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MY, 2014, pp. 203-270.

25. S.V.R. Nasr, ‘The Rise of Sunni Militancy in Pakistan’, Modern Asian Studies 34, 2000, pp. 139-180.

26. Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion Until September 10. Penguin Books, New York, 2004; and Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism Since 1979. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010.

27. Simon Mabon, Saudi Arabia and Iran: Soft Power Rivalry in the Middle East. I.B. Tauris, New York, 2013; and Ben Hubbard and Mayy El Sheikh, ‘Wikileaks Show a Saudi Obsession With Iran’, New York Times, 16 July 2015.

28. Ian Black, ‘Fear of a Shia Full Moon’, The Guardian, 27 January 2007. The inclusion of Syria in this list might seem odd given that a majority of Syrians are Sunni. The ruling Asad family, however, comes from the minority Alawi sect of Shia Islam. For background on the Shia threat debate, see Augustus Richard Norton, ‘The Shiite "Threat" Revisited’, Current History, December 2007, pp. 434-439.

29. Madawi Al-Rasheed, ‘Sectarianism as Counter Revolution: The Saudi Response to the Arab Spring’, forthcoming.

30. Madawi Al-Rasheed, ibid.

31. Madawi Al-Rasheed, ibid.

32. Madawi Al Rasheed, ibid.

33. Shafeeq Ghabra, ‘Kuwait: At the Crossroad of Change or Political Stagnation’, Middle East Institute, 20 May 2014.

34. Madeleine Wells, forthcoming.

35. Ibid.