by Teije Hidde Donker

This memo was presented at a workshop organised by the LSE Middle East Centre on 29 June 2018 looking at the comparative politics of sub-state identity in the Middle East.

Tunis, © Amy Keus.

A spectre of sectarianism is haunting the world. In the last year alone, the New York Times published 204 articles related to the phenomenon – with fourteen articles in the week this piece was written – ranging from the Yemeni civil war, Northern Irish tensions, Rohingya in Bangladesh and the politics of Muqtada al-Sadr in Iraq.[1] The upsurge in journalistic accounts is mirrored in an increasing amount of academic publications on the topic. In response to this upsurge, I will use this post to highlight a number of issues with how the concept is used in public (and often academic) debates, and propose a possible way forward.[2]

Sectarianism is generally understood as the use of religion in articulating political identities, threatening national unity and rendering conflicts more intractable as result.[3] The implied religious challenge to national identities builds on two assumptions. First, it assumes that national and religious identities are cohesive and coherent social constructs. Second, it assumes that political stability is premised on a clear division between the two. I argue that both these assumptions are in reality hard to defend.

Instead, I repeat an often-made point: the construction of national identities and public religion is inherently contested, fluid and embedded in context specific conflicts. How identity and religion are articulated – how actors designate divisions between ‘religion’ and ‘secular’ and how they relate the resulting categories – defines their political implications. To emphasise my point, this post focuses on a non-sectarian country, Tunisia, and shows how these dynamics play out in practice. In essence, it shows that ‘sectarian’ dynamics can be observed in many types of ‘non-sectarian’ conflicts.

In the wake of the 2011 Tunisian revolution, a public debate emerged regarding the position of ‘revolutionary’ imams. These imams had been assigned to mosques by popular demand and lacked formal (state) credentials. As state power reasserted itself around 2014–15, many of these imams were dismissed on the grounds of being ‘politicised’, in reference to Article 6 in the newly redrafted Tunisian constitution. The crucial passage reads as follows:

The state protects religion, guarantees freedom of belief and conscience and religious practices, protects sanctities, and ensures the neutrality of mosques and places of worship away from partisan instrumentalisation.[4]

The question emerged: around what identity should this partisan neutrality be defined? We can discern a number of ideal/typical claims in this debate. These ideal types lay bare the diverging views present regarding the relation of religion and nation in Tunisian public life – and how they influence institutional claims.

The State. A first set of claims are based on the designation of religion as a specialised public sphere – among other sphere such as education, sports and the economy. Othman Battikh, Minister of Religious Affairs between February 2015 and October 2016, stated for instance that Ridha Jaouadi, an infamous ‘revolutionary’ imam, should be fired because his conduct was haram in Islam, clarifying that: ‘houses of God must be kept separate from all political and partisan influences and are for prayer and worship alone’.[5] These actors often claim that the state should supervise the religious sphere. The state is seen to be the neutral arbiter of Tunisian public interests: ‘The role of the state is to support mosque activities. […] But this financial support is controlled by laws, to ensure that it is spend for the public good. [Mosques are] a public service supervised by the state.[6]

Citizenry. A second set of claims draws a division between social life and formal (state) organisations. The former is seen as naturally infused with religion, the latter as a modern secular invention. The ‘Muslim democratic’[7] Ennahda party, for example, stated that ‘society is the one originally entrusted with its mission to develop the world: ‘and let there arise from you a group of people promoting all that is good, enjoining what is right and preventing what is evil’.’[8] Crucially, this perspective does not imply an antipathy to an institutional differentiation between politics, social activism and religious organisations. In 2016, Ennahda decided to focus solely on political activism. They clarified that:

The choice for specialisation in political activities reflects our understanding of Islamic doctrine. Islam as an approach to reform, calls for the use of various reform mechanisms in different areas of human activism.[9]

This implies that that the neutral arbiter in Article 6 conflicts cannot be the state – as it is a secular institution – but has to be citizens: as they stand at the intersection of institutional state authority and religious authority in society.

Society. A third set of claims is similar to the above, but places religion as counterweight – rather than synergy – in relation to an institutionally differentiated society. Ridha Jaouadi, the revolutionary Imam mentioned above, stated that he was ‘also against partisanship at mosques’.[10] When asked what the Friday sermons should then actually be about, he continues:

The Friday sermon […] is a political meeting in the complete understanding of Islam, that brings together Muslims with their imam every week to raise among them problems that Muslims and the people face. […] This is all in accordance with Article 6 of the constitution that prohibits partisan outreach and that provides the right to take on public, political and social affairs of the country. The above does not constitute political work, as it concerns problems and issues related to the people and the ummah.[11]

In other words: Tunisian society is defined as a community of Muslims. What follows is that neutrality means full independence of a religious defined society from any state intervention.

Islam. Finally, there are claims that build on an assumption of a public life completely structured around religion. Islam is then argued to be the fundamental pillar of collective identity in the Muslim world, and religion should be the only basis on which institutions are created. Although very different in many respects, some examples are Hizb ut-Tahrir (2011), the Jihadists of Ansar al-Sharia, and various Salafist groups. For these groups the relation between religion and a differentiated public life is not one of dialectic interaction – as the previous claims was – but one of revolutionary change.

The state, citizenry, society or Islam itself; what embodies ‘neutrality’ in these conflicts depends on how the boundary is drawn between religion and national identity (along functionality or authority?) and how resulting categories are related (through domination, synergy or dialecticism?). Crucially, how neutrality is defined directly conditions institutional claims. In other words, when we explore ‘religious’ conflicts we need to explore boundary-setting dynamics. These dynamics are replete with tension and conflict, but they are not a challenge as such. Assuming these conflicts constitute a religious challenge to national identity, in the best case, confuses the topic of investigation. In the worst case, it obfuscates the actual dynamics at work.


Teije Hidde Donker is Lecturer in Sociology and Fellow of Murray Edwards College at the University of Cambridge. His research interests revolve around questions of power, identity and religion in contexts of political transitions, focusing specifically on Tunisia, Syria and Turkey. He does this in relation to mobilised Islam – or mobilisation aimed at structuring society and politics according to Islam as faith.


[1] See: https://www.nytimes.com/search?query=sectarianism&sort=newest, the periods are from 20 June 2017 until 2018 and 8 to 15 June 2018.

[2] This blog piece is based on ongoing research on the social constructuction of ‘public religion’ through contentious mobilisation in Tunisia, Syria and Turkey. See also www.teijehidde.org for related articles. Sources referenced in this post can be downloaded from this website.

[3] There is no clear consensus on a definition of sectarianism in academic debates. The description here is paraphrased from Gorski, Philip S., and Ateş Altınordu, ‘After Secularization?’, Annual Review of Sociology 34/1 (2008), pp. 55–85.

[4] Tunisian Republic 2014, Article 6. Italics by the author.

[5] Agence Tunis Afrique Presse, ‘Othman Battikh: Continued Disruption of the Friday Prayers Is Haram in Sharia‘ [عثمان بطيخ: تواصل تعطيل أداء صلاة الجمعة بجامع سيدي اللخمي محرم شرعا], Turess.com, 8 November 2015.

[6] Interview with an advisor to the Minister Othman Battikh, 18 November 2015, Tunis. Italics added by the author.

[7] Their own words, see: The Ennahda Movement, ‘The Final Declaration to the Tenth General Conference of the Ennahda Movement‘ [ البيان الختامي للمؤتمر العام العاشر لحركة النهضة ],a2016.

[8] The Ennahda Movement, ‘The Final Declaration to the Ninth Conference of the Ennahda Movement’, [البيان الختامي للمؤتمر العام التاسع لحركة النهضة],a2012. The inner quote is a quranic verse: Al-Imran, 3:11.

[9] The Ennahda Movement, ‘The Final Declaration to the Tenth General Conference of the Ennahda Movement‘ [البيان الختامي للمؤتمر العام العاشر لحركة النهضة],a2016.

[10] Addhamir, ‘The Decision by the Ministry Threatens the Societal Peace in Sfax‘ [قرارات الوزارة هددت السلم االجتماعي بصفاقس],  Addhamir, 28 October 2015.

[11] Ibid.


Other memos in the series:

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