I’ll be the first to confess that I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Despite longstanding commitments to theoretical and methodological precepts which tell me I will surely go blind, or at the very least veer into dangerous forms of reductionism if I do it too often, I can’t stop thinking about sects. To summarise the problem: even though I am a card carrying member of post-Orientalist Islamic Studies, I often find it difficult to resist the urge to grant explanatory power to sectarian categories when seeking to understand Muslims and Muslim societies. While roundly rejecting approaches that reduce Islam or Muslimness to a set of immutable attributes, I sometimes find myself – and a good many of my scholarly colleagues – all too ready to treat sectarian divisions within Islam as disproportionately constitutive of particular Muslim identities. In other words, I’ll quickly rail against those who claim to understand how someone thinks because ‘she’s a Muslim’ while being all too willing to entertain similar claims that derive from the fact that ‘she’s a Shi’a’.

At some level I blame my training. Social scientists are taught to think in terms of ideal type categories that reduce complexity to something more manageable – entailing, of course, inevitable trade-offs when it comes to accurately reflecting the nuances of social reality. But this whole question also reflects a deeper set of problems that has occupied anthropologists of Islam for several decades now. How to think about Islam, and religion more broadly, as a category of social inquiry without granting it undue ascriptive power? I would contend that the basic contours of this debate also apply to how we think about and treat sects and sectarianism in Islam.

In a famous 1977 article, Abdul Hamid el-Zein reviewed a series of contemporary anthropological studies of Islam and Muslim societies. He found each of them guilty, to varying degrees, of conflating the particularism of Islam in specific settings – and indeed religion as social category more broadly – with a supposedly universal Islamic (or religious) essence. But when faced with the seemingly endless variety of social spaces, functions, and forms assumed by religion, he ultimately argues, religion itself ‘becomes an arbitrary category which as a unified and bounded form has no necessary existence’. And then the definitive knock-out punch: ‘“Islam” as an analytical category dissolves as well’. El-Zein concludes that since there is no single common core across different worldly manifestations of Islam then ‘Islam’ itself lacks utility as a category of social analysis. Ever pesky, the world’s Muslims roundly ignored this pronouncement, meaning that even after El-Zein had dissolved Islam he was still left with the inconvenience of having to account for all manner of ongoing social claims to Islamic identity and normativity. His solution to this problem, a bit of an ugly kludge to be sure, was to propose that we think instead in terms of ‘Islams’ in the plural. Such a remedy is problematic on various levels, not least of all because it still presumes the presence of some criteria by which we can determine whether or not something counts as one (among many) Islams – not to mention the fact that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, in all their diversity, still understand themselves to adhere to a singular Islam.

While some lauded El-Zein’s efforts to combat the reductionism latent in much anthropological writing on Islam (and note that his article appeared a year before Edward Said’s celebrated critique of Orientalism), many were left unsatisfied by his proposal to deal with the problem by merely pluralising the object of analysis. A decade after his article appeared, another solution to the same problem – one that has proven to be more intellectually satisfying and enduring – was provided by Talal Asad. Asad suggested that it would be most useful to think about Islam first and foremost as a ‘discursive tradition’. That is to say, as a historically grounded and socially transmitted system of meanings and practices that, while varying in time and space, consistently invokes a common set of conceptual, textual, and historical reference points. The function and social significance of these referents is not seen to be static and unchanging but rather – as per any understanding of discourse – continually negotiated amidst changing relations of social power. These include but are by no means limited to, for example, the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad, sharia, and so on. For Asad, such an approach permitted him to avoid, on the one hand, imputing any particular essence to Islam while, at the other extreme, also not giving up on the idea of Islam in the singular as a meaningful concept for social analysis.

Working in an Asadian spirit, I would suggest that we can think of sect in relation to Muslimness in much the same way as we think of Islam in relation to personhood. Just as saying that someone is a Muslim does not tell you everything about who they are as a person, the interjection of sect in matters of Islam similarly fails to account entirely for one’s Muslimness. This way, we are also better able to make sense of the presence of significant variation within sect and sectarian identities. To treat Shi’a Islam as a discursive tradition, for example, is to recognise that while Shi’ism does not possess a single, universal essence, it is certainly possible to talk about an inter-subjectively constructed historical experience of Shi’a identity and practice that grants varying meaning and significance to a common repertoire of figures, events and rituals. In other words – and trying now to better explain the heuristic work that the concept of discursive tradition performs – to invoke Shi’ism is not to provide a totalising account of one’s Muslimness. Rather, Shi’ism understood as a discursive tradition helps us to identify some of the parameters that govern the ongoing process of Muslim being and becoming as particular Islamic meanings and interpretations are negotiated and renegotiated.

While there is, no doubt, valuable insight to be gleaned from positing better ways of treating sect and sectarianism in academic discourse, I would be remiss here if I were to ignore the real world effects of particular ways of talking and thinking about sects – particularly in light of recent events in the Arab world and, before that, the fallout of 9/11. What I have in mind here is the importance of recognising that when particular assumptions and understandings about the nature and significance of sectarianism begin to circulate amongst media pundits, policymakers, and even national security officials, the kinds of damage that can be done become deeply alarming.

Just as malignant ethno-religious entrepreneurs sought to mobilise forms of sectarian identity in the Balkans for political gain after the Cold War, the US military failed to understand how their invasion of Iraq in 2003 would enable the very same dynamics in the Arab world. One of the more alarming things I observed from my vantage point in Washington DC was the ease with which US national security officials discussed sectarian violence in Iraq in ways that suggested that they understood contemporary bloodletting to be rooted in centuries-old theological disputes rather than in the coincidence of sectarian boundaries and the (uneven) distribution of political and economic power in postcolonial Iraq. After all, to claim that you’re dealing with long-running and culturally distant blood feuds is a way to avoid having to take responsibility for present actions.

Sect talk – particularly of the Sunni/Shi’a variety – has been rampant over the past decade. With Iran’s growing influence in Iraq forefront in the minds of Western policymakers and regional leaders alike, Jordan’s King Abdullah pointed in 2004 to an emerging ‘Shi’a Crescent.’ In 2006, noted academic and future State Department official Vali Nasr posited a ‘Shi’a revival’ in which ‘conflicts within Islam will shape its future’. More recently, in the aftermath of the Arab Uprisings, the ongoing violence in Syria, quashed aspirations in Bahrain, resurgent Salafism, and Iranian efforts to leverage all of the above seem to be driving a current trend to read the aftermath of 2011 primarily in sectarian terms – particularly among Middle East watchers in Western capitals. At some level, references to new sectarian tension simply function as a proxy for the Iranian-Saudi rivalry that – despite the Saudi religious establishment’s virulently anti-Shi’a orientation – has always been at root a conventional struggle for regional hegemony. As the battle lines are drawn, Washington DC seems once again to be tempted by sects and ready to accept such divisions as a given reality and natural starting point for constructing new political arrangements rather than asking tougher questions about the circumstances and methods through which sectarianism becomes a political tool.

But the post-9/11 period has also generated its own odd encounters between state and sect much closer to home. It is not too much of an exaggeration to say that Western governments engaged in a comprehensive inventorying of the ummah post-9/11 in an effort to not only map perceived risks but to figure out what kinds of Muslims might be out there who could be counted on to advance and secure Western interests. At its height this produced a thoroughly bizarre politics of what Mahmood Mamdani has called ‘good Muslim/bad Muslim’ as Western governments teased out the sectarian geographies of friend and foe. A clear example of this is the discourse on Sufism that emerged in London and Washington DC in the mid-2000s. Because Sufis were understood to be ‘mystical’, ‘introspective’, and ‘inherently non-violent’ they came to be regarded as a potential antidote to the radicalised, al-Qaeda types that Western powers were hunting across the world. In 2006, for example, the British government backed a newly created Sufi Muslim Council as a counterweight to the Muslim Council of Britain, perceived by some in HMG to harbour Islamists and radicals within its ranks. Then in a 2007 report entitled Building Moderate Muslim Networks, the RAND Corporation provided a blueprint for how to selectively engage the ‘right kind’ of Muslims to serve US national security interests. This is a fascinating document through which to read a neoconservative mapping of the Muslim world, replete as it is with efforts to paint all manner of sectarian categories with broad brushstrokes of good, bad, and ugly. Spoiler alert: they’re also all about the Sufis.

Western governments also seemed to be largely blind to the fact that the bizarre post-9/11 logic that led them to place renewed emphasis on sect, madhhab, and the differences between Islamic movements actually exacerbated polarisation within their own Muslim communities. It also flew in the face of a longer term and arguably far more important trend that had been brewing within the second and third generation of young Muslims in the West. Whereas the first generation of Muslim immigrants in, for example, the UK had been plagued by transplanted sectarian differences, rivalries, and chauvinism (for example Barelwis vs Deobandis, rejection of the Ahmadiyya, inter-madhhab debates, Sufis vs Salafis), the younger generation of British Muslims had displayed, since the 1990s, a marked tendency to downplay sectarian divisions in favour of an approach that would allow a common British Muslim identity to emerge. And whereas most academic studies of British Islam, not to mention the British government, continued to focus on the differences between various Muslim organisations as an analytical framework, the reality is that the vast majority of British Muslims neither belonged to nor felt themselves to be particularly well represented by these organisations. Only very recently have a few studies begun to appear that seek to comprehend Muslim life in the West by starting from the assumption that sectarian affiliations are not the sine qua non of Muslim identity. In 2011, for example, an entire special issue of the journal Ethnic and Racial Studies was given over to the question of ‘Methods in the Study of Non-Organised Muslim Minorities’. This is an approach that seeks to discover the making of Muslim identities in the mundane interstices of everyday life rather than as a response to the diktats of sect and sheikh.

So all this leads me, finally, to a plea for the decentring of sects in our efforts to understand and engage Muslim societies. In its 2012 survey The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that sectarian identities, especially the distinction between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, seem to be unfamiliar or unimportant to many Muslims. This is especially true across Southern and Eastern Europe, as well as in Central Asia, where medians of at least 50 per cent describe themselves as ‘just a Muslim’ rather than as a follower of any particular branch of Islam. Substantial minorities in sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia also identify as ‘just a Muslim’.

How, I want to ask, can we think about and build space for the many millions of Muslims today who understand their religious identity in terms that reject – or perhaps fail to recognise altogether – sectarian limitations, requirements, or encumbrances? My own shorthand, and it might also sound a little offhand, for those who fall into this category is ‘Vanilla Muslims’. No special sectarian sauces, no madhhabi sprinklings, no tariqa toppings. I should clarify a couple of points about this particular choice of terminology. First, one hears vanilla and thinks about creamy purity, but there is no intention here to connote any sense of orthodoxy or any particular conception of Islamic normativity. This is not Salafism; far from it. Second, the kind of designation and the approach it signifies does not deny the relevance, presence, or reality of sect in Islam. Rather it simply invites us to consider what we might discover about how Muslimness comes into being by treating sect as merely one facet of a discursive tradition rather than as the natural starting point or ground zero for the making of Muslim identity. To decentre sect, or to unassume the hegemony of sectarian sway, also provides a critical vantage point for understanding the nature of power relations within and between competing claims to Islamic normativity. When sects no longer colonise how we think about Islam, we also learn something about those sects themselves. Thinking about the religion and its fragments is ultimately an exercise that allows us to recover the constitutive history of Islam as a discursive tradition – to explore the very contingency that enables its stability.

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