Sectarianism in the Wake of the Arab Revolts

The SWAR project (Sectarianism in the Wake of the Arab Revolts – beyond primordialist and instrumentalist understandings of Shia/Sunni divisions in a new Middle East) takes its point of departure in the recognition of the fact that a Shia/Sunni divide has become a significant factor in Middle East politics. Against this background, it examines the causes, nature and consequences of the so-called ‘new sectarianism’ in the post-Arab Revolts Middle East based on an analytical approach inspired by historical sociology and constructivism. Couched in an interdisciplinary framework, it draws on and combines theories and methods from Political Science, Anthropology, Islamic Studies, and Middle East Studies.

The SWAR Project is funded by the Danish Social Science Research Council (3.326.891,00 DKK) and will be running from August 2015 till February 2019. A number of activities are, moreover, partly funded by grants from the Danish Institute in Damascus, the Carlsberg Foundation and AUFF: Aarhus University Research Foundation.

The project is organized into four work packages: 

  • The first work package addresses a range of (meta)theoretical questions and challenges related to an inter-disciplinary study of sectarianism, including how sectarianism is conceptualized in different disciplinary contexts and outside/inside of academia; whether Shia/Sunni sectarianism is different from other forms of sectarianism (e.g. Catholicism/Protestantism) and whether Shia/Sunni sectarianism outside of the Middle East (e.g. South Asia) is different from within this region; to what extent sectarianism can be compared to other forms of identity politics and also grasped with general theories about collective identities; what is the role of religion in sectarian politics etc.
  • The purpose of the second work package is to characterize and map the current sectarian surge or what some observers have coined as the ‘new sectarianism' and to put it into comparative historical perspective. This implies a mapping of where, to what extent and in which forms (banal, instrumentalist, radical sectarianism) sectarianism has manifested itself in the Middle East today; as a way of examining its allegedly ‘new-ness,’ it also involves a historical comparison of how sectarianism has manifested itself in earlier historical eras.
  • The third work package focuses on explanations for why sectarianism has (re)emerged as an important factor in Middle East politics after the Arab revolts. Based on the view that is it necessary to go beyond both primordialist and instrumentalist explanations of sectarianism, it explores the relative importance and the specific role of ideational/material elements, historical/contemporary factors and the role of dynamics at global/regional/state/society levels.
  • The fourth work package concerns consequences of the new sectarianism: whether and how it impacts different dimensions of Middle East politics, including state(de)formation, regional patterns of conflict and cooperation, prospects for democratization and authoritarian regime survival strategies and finally transformations of the ‘Islamist scene'.


- Two-day Seminar on Comparative Sectarianism in Syria’s Regions, University of St Andrews and the Department of Political Science, Aarhus University, August 13-14, 2020 

- New special Issue of Nations and Nationalism, vol. 26, no. 1 with contributions by Raymond Hinnebusch and Morten Valbjørn.

- New special Issue of Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism on 'Sectarianism and Regime Formation in a New Middle East' (19, 1) edited by Raymond Hinnebusch and Morten Valbjørn

- New special issue of TIFO (Islamic Studies Journal) with contributions from members of SWAR project: Sekterisme før, under og efter de arabiske revolter ". TIFO: Tidsskrift for Islamforskning (Islamic Studies Journal), vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 4-133. Available at: https://tifoislam.dk/issue/view/8086