Sectarian tendencies and antagonisms grew into levels unknown before in the modern Middle East. They were exacerbated by conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Lebanon, and by the social and political uprisings following the “Arab spring”.
In dealing with this heightened sectarianism there are two common approaches: the primordialist approach which views sectarian identities as largely fixed collectivities influenced by deep ancient hatreds and irreconcilable differences; and the instrumentalist approach which tends to exclusively focus on the ways elites use sectarian categories and discourses to promote their agendas. While rejecting the first approach, this paper argues that elite’s instrumentalism gives important explanation as to how sectarian identities and narratives were exploited by political entrepreneurs. Using sectarian discourse and mobilization as a political tool has been a significant factor in the reconstruction of sectarian identities in the region. However, alone this approach does not explain why sectarian identities have become functional tool of mobilization. The heightened sectarianism is generated by complex social, economic and political transformations. There are sociological and cultural conditions that strengthened sectarian solidarities in societies characterized by weak ‘national’ identities.