Fighting sectarianism is about more than just countering Iran

The recent rapprochement between Iraq and the GCC should be the default position, especially as the region's communities increasingly reject divisive and extremist rhetoric

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan meets with Iraqi Shi'ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, August 13, 2017. Picture taken August 13, 2017. Emirates News Agency WAM/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
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The rise of ISIL in 2014 should have left no doubt about the dangers of sectarianism to the region. Seemingly benign hate speech, which long defined much of the discourse in media and at mosques' pulpits, served as a base for some of the worst atrocities to have ever taken place in the Middle East.

But it seems to have taken the region three years to begin a process of scaling back sectarian hatred. Moqtada Al Sadr, the noted Iraqi Shiite leader, visited Saudi Arabia last month and the UAE this week. His visits to the Gulf followed a rare diplomatic opening between Iraq and the Gulf states.

The opening began with a surprise visit to Baghdad by the Saudi foreign minister, Adel Al Jubeir, to Iraq in February. It was the first such visit in almost three decades. The visit also came eight months after Riyadh's appointment of an ambassador in Iraq, also for the first time since the mid-1990s. Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi visited Riyadh in June, followed by the interior minister, Qassim Al Araji, a month later.


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During Mr Al Sadr's visit, the two sides pledged to improve ties and work together to reduce sectarian tension. According to the cleric's office, the two sides agreed on an extraordinary list of 11 issues that include the establishment of a general consulate in Najaf to ease communication, the promotion of a moderate media and religious narrative for peaceful coexistence.

The opening with Iraq and the outreach to Shiite religious leaders is an overdue step in the right direction. Many observers interpreted the moves, in geopolitical terms, as part of the Gulf states' attempts to roll back the Iranian influence in Iraq by peeling off some of the Shiite leadership from Iraqi groups and blocs beholden to Tehran.

Such a relationship should be a baseline and a rebalancing act to reduce sectarian tension regardless of any geopolitical calculations. Building normal ties with Iraq's Shiite clergy and combating sectarianism in general should be the default position of any regional policy. Estrangement of Shiites in the region has been one of the factors that enabled Iran to entrench itself in the first place, and so dealing with such grievances must not be conditional on pivoting away from Iran.


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The good news is that some Gulf states have taken other steps to address hate speech that was long regarded as benign or entirely overlooked. This week, for example, Saudi authorities met with a group of Twitter users and warned against the spreading of hate speech online. The Department of Public Prosecution said the Twitter users were accused of inciting violence and hate speech towards minorities.

Such measures also come against the backdrop of popular resistance to "celebrity clerics" who tended to spew hatred with impunity, before and in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Whereas such clerics could issue fatwas or make ambiguous statements in favour of extremists in countries like Syria and Iraq, they are now steadily discredited by young voices and sometimes stopped by governments.

Those clerics have noticeably "fallen in line", as one senior official recently said, due to a growing tendency by their governments to demand compliance with official positions, to clamp down on unsolicited fatwas or to side with voices opposed to the clerics.

Youssef Al Naimi, a Saudi analyst, recounted how people reacted to the death of a famous Kuwaiti actor. A public backlash was ignited online after some Twitter users scolded Sunnis who prayed for the Kuwaiti actor, a Shiite, on the grounds that it was forbidden for a Sunni to do so for a Shiite. "The tweets caused major public backlash, triggering writers and intellectuals to share articles condemning sectarian hatred and calling for the punishment of the people who promoted it, and asking that people debate the effectiveness of introducing hate speech laws."

As the episode demonstrated, social media amplified voices that was previously obscured by powerful media dominated by clerics who enjoyed a celebrity status. Despite having millions of followers on Twitter, celebrity clerics are being resisted by young users with lower following. This bottom-up – or "lower-up" – online resistance could encourage governments to take bold decisions against hate speech spewed by these clerics. With young people fed up with the cycle of violence and hatred, the time to make badly needed changes is now.

The past few years have shown that what may look like benign hate speech could have serious consequences. There is no shortage of moderate people who understand this well and are willing to speak up against extremism in all its forms. A decade ago, platforms for their voices lacked. With social media today, many of these people are speaking up.

With such voices growing, governments in the region have a golden opportunity to seize on these trends to roll back sectarianism in the region. Such moves will have greater impact on their communities and the neighbourhood than confused attempts to roll back Iranian influence – and ultimately makes the latter task easier.

Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy