Sectarianism in unlikely places: The case of Jordan

King Abdullah I Mosque, Amman, Jordan.

By Dr May Darwich, CBRL Trustee and lecturer at the University of Birmingham

My ongoing research project, funded by the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant Scheme, explores the rise of anti-Shiite sentiments and rhetoric in countries almost devoid of Shiites in the post-2011 Arab uprisings, with particular focus on the cases of Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco.  

There is wide consensus that the Middle East is currently plunged into religious sectarianism. The massive war in Syria, state repression and societal strife in Bahrain, the violent intervention in Yemen, and the conflict in Iraq have been grappling with the Sunni-Shiite divide. In the last half-century, three sectarian waves have evolved in the region following three critical events: the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979; the 2003 Iraq War, and the 2011 Arab Uprisings. Sectarian tensions also intensified with the deterioration in Saudi-Iranian relations under Iranian President Ahmadinejad, the performance of the Lebanese Hezbollah against Israel in 2006, and the increasing Iranian influence in the Syria crisis, which all provoked anti-Shiite reactions by Sunni Arab regimes over the last decade.   

The spread of sectarianism following the 2011 Arab Uprisings is, however, distinct in scale and nature. Although all the protests were initially cross-sectarian in nature, demanding changes to long-lasting authoritarian structures in the region, a sectarian dimension quickly dominated domestic unrests. After 2011, sectarian tensions not only spread to conflict zones and societies with pre-existing sectarian social fabrics — such as Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Bahrain, and Pakistan — it also spread in the most unlikely places, where hardly any Shiite communities existed, such as Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, and other countries in the Muslim World. In Jordan, where less than 1% of the population is Shiite, conservative Sunni scholars have promoted a ferocious anti-Shiite rhetoric, a phenomenon that Joas Wagemakers calls ‘anti-Shiism without the Shi’a’. Less than 1% of Egyptians are Shiite, yet Post-Mubarak Egypt has also witnessed a swift growth in anti-Shiite sectarianism (About El-Fadl 2015). Al-Azhar, one of the most authoritative Sunni institutions in the Muslim World, has relinquished its traditional approach fostering a rapprochement between Sunni and Shiite theology throughout the 20th century and adopted an explicit anti-Shiite rhetoric in the Post-Mubarak era (Brunner 2013). In Morocco, anti-Shiite sentiments have been growing to the extent that conservative Sunni scholars have demanded the ban of Shiites from the Kingdom, and the Minister of Islamic Affairs characterized the Shiites as ‘a virus that threatens the nation.’ In Indonesia, a Sunni alliance against the Shiites has emerged to marginalise the country’s small Shiite group (approximately 1% of the population). In Malaysia, anti-Shiite rhetoric intensified and Sunni scholars claimed that Shiites are a ‘threat to Muslim unity’ (Ng 2011). 

My project aims to examine why and how this anti-Shiism spread at the popular level after 2011 in these unlikely places. The case of Jordan is particularly intriguing. In 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan warned against a ‘Shiite crescent’ in the region. In the meantime, Jordan has been trying to promote a ‘moderate Islam’, that brings all Muslims together – including some Shia groups – to counter militant groups like Al-Qaeda. The view of moderate Islam was illustrated in the Amman Message (2004), a document written by Muslim scholars from across the world. While this document seeks to counter the practice of takfir (excommunication), it excluded some Shia groups, such as the Alawis, thereby leaving room for anti-Shiite discourses. In the Kingdom, the regime was particularly ferocious in inciting sectarianism before 2011 to discredit regional rivals, namely Iran, but the public opinion contested and disputed these narratives. Sectarianism found little resonance in Jordan, where Nasrallah, Assad, and Ahmadinejad were among the most popular leaders for their resistance against Israel. In the post-2011 order, a heightened sectarian discourse became widespread at the popular level, with visible manifestations on Twitter and other social media. More importantly, Jordanian Salafis have contributed to the secterianisation of the public domain by relying on anti-Shiite discourses to gain legitimacy, prove their loyalty to the regime, and often discredit their other Sunni rivals who take a less sectarian stance, including the Muslim Brotherhood. One might argue that due to its geopolitical location, Jordan has been much more vulnerable to spill-overs from the sectarianised civil war in Syria as reflected by the presence of large numbers of recently arrived Syrian refugees in the small Kingdom. Yet, the 2003 Iraq war and the ensuing sectarian strife in neighbouring Iraq, with similar flow of Iraqis to the Kingdom, did not create a similar effect.  

This project contributes to the debate on sectarianism through developing a more nuanced approach to examine how religion informs the development of identities and political conflict, and it goes a step further by relying on political science and social psychology approaches. In Jordan, the ruling elites found in sectarianism an opportunity to gather support around their autocratic rule and their regional politics. In the post-2011, societies undergoing instability and identity crises across the region experience a deep sense of insecurity. In this context, societies found in sectarianism a source of security and stability emanating from internalising a narrative of a negative other which strengthen feelings of self-cohesion and stability. The findings of this project will contribute to knowledge production on the rise of sectarianism in the Middle East beyond morally charged narratives.   


Abou-El-Fadl, Reem. 2015. ‘Between Cairo and Washington: Sectarianism and Counter- Revolution in Post- Mubarak Egypt’. In Revolutionary Egypt: Connecting Domestic and International Struggles. London: Routledge.  

Brunner, Rainer. 2013. ‘Sunni and Shiites in the Modern Islam: Politics, Rapprochement, and the Role of Al-Azhar’. In The Dynamics of Sunni-Shia Relationships: Doctrine, Transnationalism, Intellectuals and the Media, edited by Brigitte Marechal and Sami Zemni, 25–39. London: Hurst Publishers.  

Ng, Eileen. 2011. ‘Shiites Banned in “Tolerant” Malaysia’. Jakarta Globe. January 16.

May Darwich is Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East at the University of Birmingham. Her research attempts to bring Middle East cases to debates within IR theory while surmounting the challenge to the study of state behaviour in the Middle East through theoretical lenses. She is the author of Threats and Alliances in the Middle East: Saudi and Syrian Policies in a Turbulent Region (Cambridge University Press, 2019). Her research has appeared in internationally renowned journals, namely Foreign Policy Analysis, the  Journal of Global Security Studies, Democratization, Mediterranean Politics, Global Discourse and in volumes on the international relations of the Middle East.   She serves as Trustee of the Council for British Research in the Levant (CBRL), a member of the Steering Committee on the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS) and Director of the Arab Political Science Network (APSN).

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