January 13, 2018

Sectarianization: An Interview with Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel

Riad Alarian

Nader Hashemi

Danny Postel

January 10th, 2018

The following is a transcription of an interview with Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, editors of the pioneering new book, Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East. At the site of last year’s Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference in Washington, D.C. (November 18 – 21, 2017), I sat with Hashemi and Postel to discuss their book and many of the important contributions it provides to the study of the Middle East. This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity, but is otherwise presented in its entirety:

Riad Alarian (RA): Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview. I wanted to start by asking you to briefly explain the sectarianization thesis and some of the novel ideas it introduces to the discussion on sectarianism.

Nader Hashemi (NH): We contrast the concept of sectarianization with the more popular term, sectarianism, and we try to highlight a set of core differences between these two concepts. Sectarianism sort of presupposes there is this enduring, ongoing tension or conflict between different sects in the Muslim world that has deep historical roots and has always played itself out throughout the course of Islamic history. That is very much the dominant view, not only among “Westerners,” but among many Muslims too, who believe that Sunnis and Shias have always been in conflict. In the book, we try and push back against that narrative. To be sure, we acknowledge that there are differences between sects. But, we employ the term sectarianization to identify a much more immediate set of political conditions that give rise to conflict between Muslim sects. These conditions are fundamentally rooted in the project of political actors that are pursuing goals rooted in the acquisition of power, or the perpetuation of power, by the mobilization of sectarian identities, and deliberately so. In other words, we try and historicize this question of sectarian conflict by pushing back against the idea that it has deep historical roots, claiming—as many people do in the book—that it is a modern phenomenon, and it has a history, and the history is not as deep as people think. It actually goes back to 1979, when political actors in the Middle East (primarily Saudi Arabia and Iran) started to use sectarian narratives to advance the political agendas of ruling elites. So, in a nutshell, sectarianization is a project that involves the deliberate, calculated mobilization of social and religious groups around sectarian markers of identity in pursuit of political goals.


RA: And how does the book help locate sectarian conflict as a distinctly modern phenomenon? What are some of the ways this is apparent?

Danny Postel (DP): Ussama Makdisi’s chapter, which is the first chapter of the book, really sets the historical stage for the story of sectarianization. Makdisi locates sectarianization in the transition from Ottoman rule into the colonial period. It’s not as if sectarian identities didn’t exist under Ottoman rule. They did. The question is how they were organized, why they were organized in the particular way they were, and how sectarian fault lines in the region were transformed under colonial rule. A lot of people react to our argument as if we’re claiming that sects are completely artificial and don’t exist. That is not what we are arguing. Of course there are different sects of Islam, just like there are different sects of Christianity and other religions. The question is, when did sects, or sectarian fault lines, become key political identities in the region? Makdisi claims this is a very recent phenomenon, and argues that sectarianism has distinctly modern roots.

In the introduction to the book, Nader and I bring the story forward even more and suggest that sectarian conflict is a really recent phenomenon—we’re really talking about the last thirty to forty years, essentially. The three key years in this intensification of sectarian identity and violence in the Middle East are 1979, 2003, and 2011. I always say 2011 dash. Meaning, if you just say 2011, it implies that the “Arab Spring” created all of this sectarian chaos and violence. That’s actually not what we argue. It wasn’t the Arab uprisings of 2011 in themselves that created sectarian violence. Quite the contrary, we show in the book, in case after case, how the slogans, demands, and animating impulses of the Arab uprisings had nothing to do with sectarianism, or religion at all. They had to do with broad-based political demands: social justice, human rights, dignity, bread, and freedom. It was through the response of the regimes in the region to those uprisings that the sectarianization process became operationalized, with crackdowns on peaceful, non-sectarian demonstrations characterized by regime after regime as either an “Iranian plot,” or the “Shiite crescent,” or, in the eyes of the Assad regime, “Sunni extremism.” This is all despite the fact that the Syrian uprising, like the other uprisings of the region, were cross-sectarian, non-sectarian, and arguably anti-sectarian. Still, they were characterized from day one as sectarian, which is demonstrably false and straight-up propaganda.

But, over time—and this is the darker story the book tells—that narrative became a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is partly because of regime policy, which fomented sectarianism. As Paulo Pinto demonstrates in his chapter on Syria, the Assad regime used targeted repression—what he calls a “selective distribution of violence” against different groups, depending on the sectarian identities—in response to the protests. What happened was not only sectarianization “from above,” but also sectarianization “from below,” where people take the bait and buy into the sectarian narrative. Certain “sectarian entrepreneurs,” from imams to grassroots activists, began to see things in sectarian terms themselves. They bought into the false regime narrative and made it real. But, the point of the book is that this is a process; it was not inevitable, and it’s not the “natural” playing out of primordial forces. That idea is an Orientalist fantasy. These are specific regime policies and they’ve been taking place in a very recent time frame.

RA: So why now? What made you decide to write this book at this particular moment in history? What sort of readers did you have in mind when you wrote it?

NH: That’s a good question. We were, I guess, looking for a new project to work on at our Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, where Danny and I worked very closely together. We felt there was an emerging sense that the Middle East is heading toward greater sectarian conflict. We also came to the realization that, in the academic literature, there was very little serious work that had been done to try and explain and theorize what had been happening in the region. So we just had a meeting of the minds where we thought that this would be a good project to work on, and we gradually identified a number of people based on what we had been reading who we thought would be good potential contributors to the book. Most people we approached were enthusiastic about it, and we were able to invite some of the contributors to Denver to give preliminary lectures, which then became book chapters. That was really the background for the book. Unfortunately, our prediction and our prognosis have been proven correct, because things in the region are heading toward greater sectarian conflict, driven by a number of factors—some of which Danny identified. It is really a result of the growing regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which we argue in the book is fundamentally driven by politics, not theology.

DP: Let me add to that point about “why now?” One thing that really started getting under our skin was the international conversation on Syria. As you might know, our previous book is titled The Syria Dilemma, and we spent a good two to three years focused exclusively on that conflict. We organized two major international conferences on Syria on top of writing the book, and that became the central focus of our research and energies. One of the most striking things about the international conversation on Syria was the development of this new “conventional wisdom” in diplomatic and policy circles, media debates, and amongst the pundit class, where the Syrian conflict was referred to as a “Sunni uprising.” Nader and I would look at each other and say, “What Sunni uprising?” The Syrian uprising had nothing to do with Sunni versus Shia. It had to do with the struggle for democratic rights, human dignity, and social justice—the same things that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings were about. Where did this new “conventional wisdom” come from? We started hearing, from voices in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, about the “sectarian knife fight” going on in Syria, and questions like “Why should we [the West] be dragged into these ancient conflicts?” Nader and I started realizing that this narrative is an ideological miasma that was being trotted out at a very specific moment in history.

If you go back to the immediate aftermath of the Iraq war, remember that the pundit class (especially the more militaristic wing communicating through Fox News) was very, very triumphalist about the U.S. invasion. “We’re toppling Saddam Hussein and bringing freedom,” they said. Then, over the course of the first three years of the U.S. occupation, there was a clear shift in the discourse; a palpable sense of “What’s wrong, why aren’t Iraqis happy about this?” In fact, Bill O’Reilly and other right-wing pundits started explicitly saying, “Wait a minute, why aren’t the Iraqi people more grateful for these gifts that we’re bringing?” Then O’Reilly started saying things on his show like, “You know what? We have to get the hell out of Iraq, these people are savages, they don’t appreciate freedom, they can’t accept the freedom that we gave them because—

NH: —because they “enjoy killing each other!”

DP: He literally said that! We quote it in the introduction to the book. You know why Sunnis and Shias are killing each other in Iraq? Because Allah tells them to, and they love it!

NH: But, it’s also on the left too, Danny. Don’t leave the left off the hook here.

DP: Yes, there is a left-wing version of this narrative. The Independent’sPatrick Cockburn, for example, adopts a decidedly sectarian narrative. The way he and others on the left frame the Syrian conflict reproduces harmful, sectarian understandings riddled with essentialist and Orientalist baggage. Madawi Al-Rasheed and I debated Cockburn on the BBC Radio 4 program Thinking Allowed about this. He was quite explicit in his defense of the sectarian narrative.

Basically, across the board, there’s this new conventional wisdom swirling around in Washington, London, Brussels, and in the media. People are saying, you know what the problem is in the Middle East? It’s these ancient religious conflicts and passions. This is what drives these people. How are you going to have democracy in this region? That’s why the Arab uprisings failed. That’s why the invasion of Iraq failed. These people “can’t do” democracy—it’s all about religious passions and sectarian conflict for them. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, asserts that the conflict in Yemen is rooted in the 7th century, over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad. So, this becomes, I think, a convenient story that the West tells itself about why the region is in such turmoil. It has nothing to do with Western policy, it has nothing to do with colonial history, it has nothing to do with U.S. militarism, it has nothing to do with the authoritarian regimes we’ve been propping up and funding. Rather, it’s because “those people” are just incapable of being like “us”! I think this is an imperial narrative that the West wants to tell itself—it’s a soothing, comforting story.

NH: And it draws upon deeply held Orientalist stereotypes and prejudices about Muslims; that they’re just fundamentally savages and they can’t be democratic. Then there’s the scary policy consequence that Danny just alluded to, which is that authoritarianism is basically a good thing, because it keeps those savages in control!

DP: “Bring back the dictators!”

NH: “If only we could bring Saddam and Gaddafi back. What a wonderful world the Middle East would be!”

DP: That is actually more or less the new wisdom in diplomatic circles.

NH: And I hate to say this because I’m a big fan of his, but Bernie Sanders, who I think is a very decent and moral person, and in my view the only hope for this country, has actually come pretty close to arguing that point.

DP: The point is this new conventional wisdom, Riad, is so widespread. There’s a right-wing version of it, which is explicitly Islamophobic, and demonizes Islam and Muslims. There’s also a left-wing version of it, and a more centrist foreign-policy establishment version of it. From 2012 to 2015, as things got worse and worse in the region, this new “wisdom” started to pick up and take hold, and you could hear it everywhere, all across the spectrum. That was a huge part of the reason we decided to write this book. We told ourselves we have to show systematically, in case study after case study after case study, how this narrative is wrong and mystifies, rather than clarifies, the politics of the region.

RA: Let’s talk a little about the approach of the book in assessing the question and problem of sectarianization. It accomplishes this in two ways: First, through a “big picture,” theoretical framework, and second, through a more particular, contextual approach. Could you elaborate on these two approaches, how they present themselves in the book, and why you chose to assess the sectarianization thesis this way?

NH: Well, we thought first of all that there was very little good political history on the question of sectarianism in terms of its origins and the argument that it’s a modern phenomenon, as we talked about. There’s also very little work in the scholarship (and we hope that we make a contribution) to try and provide a political theory of sectarianism in terms of how it actually develops, its political manifestations, and the social conditions that produce it. And so we thought that we needed to really address this, which is why the first few chapters in the book speak specifically to these points—to the history and the “religious studies underpinnings” of where the concept of sectarianism emerges and how it manifests itself—

DP: —and the geopolitics

NH: —and then the geopolitics, right. So, it’s the history, the theory, and the geopolitics of the topic. It has an international relations dimension, a comparative politics dimension, and a political theory dimension. So, we lay that out in the beginning of the book, with people who are very well credentialed scholars, and then we look at the case studies. To our credit, if I can sound a bit proud of what we’ve done, the case studies actually affirm the theoretical framework laid out at the beginning of the book. This is true in case study after case study, which look at all the major countries. So that’s really the layout and framework of the book.

DP: Yeah, that first section of the book is very important because it’s the “big picture” of sectarianization, putting the sectarianization argument in historical perspective—with Ussama Makdisi and Yezid Sayigh’s chapters—and the geopolitical dimensions of sectarianization, which Bassel Salloukh does brilliantly. Then Adam Gaiser’s chapter adds a very rich theoretical framework to understanding how sectarianization operationally takes root in individual psyches. He uses narrative identity theory to show how the sectarian narrative can actually speak to individuals. How do individuals “emplot” themselves in these sectarian stories? That’s his question.

But, for me, the heart and soul of the book are the actual case studies. Let’s say a reader does not find the “big picture,” theoretical arguments in the first section terribly convincing—because they’re highly debatable, to be sure. To me, it’s all about taking a closer look at how the sectarianization process actually worked in Syria, and in Yemen, and elsewhere. What’s so striking, for all the profound differences between and among those cases, is that you see the same basic pattern over and over. The real issues, if you will, the really defining fault lines in these societies, have nothing to do with sect. They have to do with power, they have to do with injustice, they have to do with corrupt authoritarian rule and repression, and with class and economic inequalities. But in case after case, you have these conflicts that then morph into sectarian conflicts. How? That’s what the case studies show. And, again, what’s striking is how connected they are. To be sure, sectarian compositions differ from society to society. Some societies are Sunni majority ruled by a Shiite minority. Other societies are Shiite majority ruled by a Sunni minority. But in each case, it doesn’t matter which sect is in power, or which one is the majority or minority. It’s about regimes manipulating people and scapegoating the “Other,” deflecting attention from the central question of corrupt, despotic rule. The late historian Peter Gay called this the “cultivation of hatred.”

RA: One of the things the book points out quite well is the way in which societies in the Middle East went from understanding and conceptualizing politics primarily through the lens of anti-imperialism, to adopting points of view which became increasingly defined by sectarian language and tensions. What is the nature of this shift, and what are some of the major turning points that led to it?

NH: That’s actually a very good question. For much of the modern history of the Middle East, the primary organizing theme that mobilized people was indeed the question of national independence and resistance against imperialism. In that broad mobilization, Sunnis, Shias, and people from different sects were all united. This is why you don’t see sectarian conflict until much later, until the end of the 20th century. One example, which is so revealing to cite, is Iraq, where people today think that sects have been fighting forever. In 1920, in the early days of the British occupation, there was actually a major uprising against British imperial rule, and it was a Sunni-Shia joint uprising against the common enemy. It’s only once we get to the post-colonial phase, when there is at least some nominal political independence, and when the regimes of the region start to face a series of political and economic crises, that sectarianism really enters the equation at all. Because these regimes started to fail, and because the promises they made to their people were not delivered, frustrations and demands for political change arose. As a result, you begin to see the attempt by many of these regimes to play the sectarian card in exactly the ways Danny described. Fomenting sectarian strife was a way of deflecting attention from their own corrupt rule, and it made it seem as though “foreigners who are intervening in our country” were the real problem. This allowed regimes to mobilize people around particular sectarian narratives, primarily as a project of retaining and perpetuating power. So I think that’s the broad historical context, where the question of imperialism sort of recedes in the background.

The bigger political crisis that is now shaping the politics of the region is the politics of authoritarian regimes. These are regimes that lack a base for political legitimacy. They don’t have elections, there’s no accountability, and there’s rising political, economic, and social frustration. Consequently, these regimes have to figure out a way to deal with this issue. 1979 becomes a key turning point in all of this. That year is so significant because it’s when the revolution in Iran announces itself as a non-sectarian revolution, as a revolution geared toward mobilizing Muslim populations—

DP: —including anti-imperialist motifs

NH: —and it claims to be a revolution with broad appeal across the Muslim world—

DP: —which it did actually, to some extent

NH: —yes it did, in the Sunni world. And the Saudis were petrified. They were petrified firstly because there’s now another regional entity that claims to represent the leadership of the Muslim world, but they were also much more petrified because what happened in Iran—a pro-Western monarchy, toppled by a popular mobilization—is something they fear might also happen within their own society, and within the Gulf states more generally. So they play the sectarian card, and you actually see a deliberate increase in sectarian publications, fatwas, and mobilization as a way of trying to portray the Iranian revolution as a sectarian revolution. In their eyes, it has nothing to do with Islam, or with being a good Muslim, it’s actually a “Safavid, Persian, Shiite heresy.” That’s when you begin to see a deliberate attempt to deepen and mobilize people around these sectarian identities, and the fundamental driver of it is really the crisis of authoritarian state projects, which are failing and are relying on these new narratives and plans as a way of trying to perpetuate their political lives.

RA: Earlier in the book, there’s discussion about “weak states” and how they’re essentially more prone to sectarianism because they manipulate identity cleavages, which is a dominant feature of their politics. Could you touch on this in the context of a few examples?

NH: Yeah, in many ways the inspiration for at least the theoretical framework of the book was based on this wonderful chapter that was republished with a little bit of an update by Vali Nasr, who is a prominent political scientist of the Islamic world—now the Dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has a fascinating case study about Pakistan, where he says this whole process of a weak state and the rise of sectarianism, or sectarianization, plays itself out. What happens in the late 1970s is that Pakistan, like other authoritarian regimes, begins to suffer a serious crisis of legitimacy. There’s a lot of frustration and anger from the people, and the dictator at the time, Muhammad Zia Ul-Haq, decides to pursue a policy of “Islamization” of Pakistan, essentially as a way of mobilizing people around a particular sectarian narrative, but primarily to perpetuate his own political rule. He starts pursuing this policy by mobilizing people around a particular Sunni narrative of Islam that alienated the roughly 20% Shia population. That’s when you begin to see this deep rise in tension and conflict between different groups in Pakistan, which is driven by state policies that attempt to mobilize people around certain identities.

You also have other things happening around the Islamic world at this time, which play a role in this, including the beginning of the Irani-Saudi conflict, and the spread of a particular Saudi-Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that finds its way into Pakistan. That’s when you begin to see the first forays of something that has no historical precedent in Pakistan, namely, of people going into a mosque of a rival sectarian group and massacring people en masse, claiming that those people are heretics. Pakistan is actually one of the first places where this sectarianization process—state exploitation of fault-lines in society—begins to take its most toxic form. I think that’s one crystal clear example and one of the earliest manifestations of sectarianization by a weak state, and I think one of the strongest chapters in the book overall is the case study that Vali Nasr narrates on Pakistan and sectarian conflict.

DP: And Iraq is another obvious example. Iraq post-2003, where you have not just a weak state, but you basically have the destruction of a state—

NH: —a collapsed state

DP: —a “politicide,” a “state-icide,” if you will, from outside. The destruction of the Iraqi state was the destruction of a very problematic state under Saddam, to be sure. But, when the leviathan dissolves and melts away so quickly, there’s mass violence, insecurity, and chaos. What do people revert to in this scenario, if not sectarianism? It’s not because of primordial impulses. The sectarian narrative would be, “these regimes, the strong men, kept the lid on sectarian passions, and when you let the people rule, look what they do, they want to kill one another, and they’ll go for a majoritarian sectarianism.” In reality the situation is much simpler. When there is physical insecurity and chaos, in a situation like post-2003 Iraq, people need protection. And when you need protection just for your basic survival—just to get through the day and be able to feed your children without being murdered—you look for protection networks. And the protection networks are these “sectarian entrepreneurs” who create militias and who identify the enemies in sectarian terms. Now, it’s not shocking that this happens in a situation of state-collapse imposed from the outside, which includes mass violence. Let’s also remember that while a lot of that had to do with the imperial invasion of Iraq by the United States, it also had to do with the incredible brutality of Saddam’s rule. The fantasy that Saddam solved the sectarian problem is really just that—it’s a fantasy. Fanar Haddad has a brilliant chapter in the book on what Iraq was actually like before 2003, what sectarian relations looked like. It’s not as if sectarianism was introduced to Iraq in the immediate aftermath of the invasion in 2003. There was an incredibly elaborate sectarian grid that Saddam manipulated in a highly Machiavellian way before 2003. What we have post-2003 is a massive intensification of the sectarianization process. But, the sectarian picture of Iraq before 2003 is incredibly important to understand.

NH: These two things actually work together. The legacy of authoritarianism in Iraq laid the foundations for very tense relations. Then when the external shock of a U.S. invasion came, it exacerbated the tensions that were already there—including much of the anger and the animosity Saddam fomented. When the state collapsed, everyone just went for their own local sectarian identities as a way of trying to get security and support.

RA: Okay, I want to touch on the Arab Spring again, because this is very important, I think. Could you talk in some more detail about the specific ways in which the Arab Spring was sectarianized and why and how this happened?

NH: There are a lot of great studies that we have in the book, and so many ones we could talk about. The Syria case is of much more interest to us, because it’s such a part of the destabilized Middle East today. The uprising in Syria was non-sectarian and democratic, and one of the responses of the Assad regime was to deliberately pursue a strategy of sectarianization as a way of retaining power. The regime does it with two goals in mind. The first is to send a message to the international community, that what this conflict is about is not the forty-plus year rule of the Assad family, but rather these sectarian narratives that are coming in from the outside inspired by Al-Qaeda that want to take over this region—so “international community, support me!” The idea was “you guys are fighting Al-Qaeda, and I’m fighting Al-Qaeda here, so we’re fighting the same fight.” The other goal of the Assad regime was to try and break up the unity of the Syrian protesters; to say that, look, if you’re a minority Alawite or a Christian, you shouldn’t be part of that uprising, because this is an uprising that’s fundamentally sectarian, and if “they” come to power, you’re all dead. So there’s a double goal here. And the sad tragedy of what’s happened in Syria is that this narrative has broadly taken root, internationally and domestically, largely as a result of the brutality of the Assad regime. There’s good documentation of how in the first five years of the Syrian uprising, there were roughly fifty-five deliberate sectarian attacks which took place, chronicled by the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Out of those fifty-five attacks, forty-nine of them were attacks that were organized and perpetuated by the Assad regime—

DP: —or shabbiha militias, i.e. pro-regime forces

NH: —yeah, to try and sectarianize this conflict as a way of accomplishing the goals that I just stated. So that’s the Syrian case, but it also plays itself out elsewhere. Basically, it’s the same kind of narrative: It’s these authoritarian regimes feeling that their shelf-life—their longevity—is threatened, so they play the sectarian card as a way of mobilizing people and dividing the opposition, and sending a message to the international community saying, “Look, you need to come and join us in this fight against Al-Qaeda.”

DP: Right, and in case after case, the specter of a foreign source of these sectarian threats is always invoked. When the Assad regime spoke of Al-Qaeda, it wasn’t just “domestic Al-Qaeda,” but also “foreign Al-Qaeda” and “transnational jihadi networks.” This happens to appeal to a certain kind of Syrian national identity or nationalist sentiment, in that the threat is not only domestic Salafi murderers, but also crazy, foreign ones. Never mind the fact that hundreds of thousands of Shiite foreign fighters are in Syria fighting for Assad—including Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iraqi militias, Lebanese Hezbollah, and even Pakistani mercenaries and Afghan children, who the Iranian government is sending—but they’re not “foreign fighters,” right? No, of course not, it’s only the opposition that has “foreign” fighters. Anyway, my point is that in case after case, not only do you have the sectarian narrative, but also the specter of a foreign entity. Even Saddam Hussein characterized the Shia, who are the majority in Iraq, as “foreigners.” And these are Arabs who identify as Iraqi. Anthropologists and historians of Iraq agree that Iraqi Shia are very, very Arab and very, very Iraqi. But in Saddam’s eyes, they were “Persians.” They are and were always “foreigners”—outsiders and “Others” coming to destroy Iraqi society.

RA: How do you respond to those who are still unconvinced by what you’re saying, and who insist that, even if sectarianism today has a distinctly modern tint to it, that many religious groups currently fighting among each other seem to be more or less the same as those that were fighting in the premodern era? What do you say to those who believe that religious infighting today is not entirely detached from religious infighting in the past?

NH: Well, I would push back against the premise of your question that there were similar forms of religious conflict between groups in the past as there are in the present. I would argue that today it’s much more frequent, the intensity is much greater, and the difference between the premodern era and the contemporary moment is that, now, we’re seeing the deliberate manipulation and mobilization of identity by authoritarian regimes with the goal of perpetuating their own shelf life. That’s what’s driving this process. In the premodern era, we do not have the same types of states, or the same types of political actors. You certainly had conflict between different groups, and they would clash periodically, but then things would be calm. The deliberate attempt to mobilize people around a particular identity for the sake of political power is much more infrequent in the premodern era.

Admittedly, you did see it happening in the premodern period, particularly with the rise and the clash between Ottoman Turkey and the Safavid Persian empire. The dynamics in that sense are very similar and they do have a modern resonance. In the case of the “new” Safavid Persian empire, there was an attempt to distinguish itself from its regional rival, and so it underwent a process of “Shiafication.” People generally don’t know this, but prior to 1501 Iran was a majority Sunni country. It’s only because the “new” Safavid regime that came to power wanted to distinguish itself from its neighbors that it imported imams from Lebanon and the Arab world to convert people to Shiism. This was done to deliberately defame and denigrate key themes within Sunni Islam for the sake of political power and the political projection of power. In that sense, there’s a parallel, but otherwise the sectarianization process today is distinctly modern, for the reasons we previously discussed.

DP: Shiism came to Iran through the Arabs.

NH: Yeah, through Arabs, and actually driven by a process very similar to the modern phenomenon of sectarianization—which is where the parallel lies. But, I think what we’re seeing right now is fundamentally the project of authoritarian regimes suffering deep crises of legitimacy in the eyes of their own populations. These regimes don’t have answers; they refuse to share or relinquish power, and so they have to fall back on these projects of state manipulation and mobilization of sectarian identities—of which there is some basis in reality, as there are different religious groups and there are tensions between them. That exists everywhere. I like to bring it back to the United States, because a lot of Americans think “sectarianism is over there, where those backwards people are.” But, look at what’s happening in the United States today. We’re seeing deep conflict. Perhaps it is not sectarian conflict, but it is at least communal conflict between races. And the key difference, the “why now” question, is Donald Trump, who has deliberately mobilized white nationalist sentiments around a particular narrative to perpetuate his power, and to deflect from his own failed agenda. It’s not at the same level—

DP: —it’s not sectarian, but it’s identitarian.

NH: —it’s identitarian, it’s communal. It’s racial. It’s not “sectarian,” but it’s different groups that exist in tension, and we’re seeing a significant rise of it. This is happening particularly through the mobilization of white nationalist, populist sentiment inspired by Trump, who is going out into the public in ways we haven’t seen before and saying, “Look, we’re a victimized group here.” It’s a parallel phenomenon that I think is driven by a very similar process as sectarianization.

DP: To add a question to that parallel, what exactly is a key component of the white nationalist populist narrative? It’s that “you’re in bad shape, you’ve got economic troubles, and you don’t have the same wages as you used to. Your jobs are being shipped overseas.” Who is to blame for this? It’s not capitalism. It’s not neoliberal policies. It’s not the ruling class or the billionaires. It’s the Mexican rapists. It’s the Muslims. It’s the immigrants. It’s the foreigners. And, of course, it’s also the liberals, who sold our country and let these rapists and Muslims in to begin with. That’s all a scapegoat!

NH: There are some dangerous opinion polls, and they’re quite shocking, that show a significant majority of white Americans believe they face greater discrimination than any other group in the country.

DP: Right, and this gets back to the sectarianization story in the Middle East because that demonization, scapegoating, and outsourcing of problems to the “Other” is a broader phenomenon. In the final chapter of the book on de-sectarianization, Tim Sisk looks at the case of Northern Ireland, which faced its own sectarian problem. When I was growing up, the word “sectarian” was mainly used in reference to Northern Ireland and the troubles there. That came to a political conclusion in the late 1990s—just 20 years ago. So I think it’s very important to remember that, yes, the Middle East today is engulfed in a spasm of sectarian violence, but this is by no means exclusive to the Middle East. Europe had to fight religious wars for centuries, and in Northern Ireland they only came to a resolution very recently. The sectarian story is actually a global story.

RA: Insofar as a key claim of this book is that sectarianism fails to explain the current disorder in the Middle East, and that it obfuscates more than it clarifies, it seems there are two main challenges we are being asked to tackle. The first, and perhaps the simpler one, is to erase and do away with sectarianism as an explanatory force in academia, journalism, and popular media representations about the region. The second, arguably more ominous challenge, is “de-sectarianizing” sectarianized regions. These are both profound challenges. How exactly do we address them and what’s the way forward?

NH: Well, I think for the first part, in terms of how we get away from the narrative that sectarianism explains the turmoil in the Middle East, I think you have to do very much what we’ve been arguing in this interview and in the book: try and look for alternative explanations. We have to advance the idea that sectarian conflict is not something that’s deeply rooted in the culture and history of the Middle East. It is historically a new phenomenon. We then have to try and prove that empirically, while showing how the process of sectarian conflict is driven by the projects of state actors. It’s rooted in authoritarianism, collapsed states, and regional rivalries. It’s fundamentally rooted in politics, not piety. So, I think we have to try and make an argument for that and provide the examples that affirm that position. In terms of how we deal with the second part of your question, as we sort of acknowledge in the book (perhaps not as forcefully as we should have), it’s very easy to start sectarian conflict, but once it gets started, ending it and rolling it back is much more difficult. When you have deeply entrenched views of “The Other,” when blood is shed, and when people lose their lives, trying to roll that back becomes, I think, the immense challenge of our world and of the Middle East.

There are no clear and easy answers. I think fundamentally that what we have to focus on in terms of arriving at a “de-sectarian moment” is changing the underlying social conditions that perpetuate sectarianism. We emphasize heavily in the book the problem and persistence of authoritarianism, but also the need to transition to democracy, arrive at consensus-based politics, give different groups a seat at the table, and write strong constitutions that give people meaningful rights and representation. These are all things I think need to happen.

In the case of Northern Ireland, there was strong support from the international community to try and end the conflict. In the case of the Middle East today, however, it’s in many ways the reverse. We have the U.S. government under Trump openly embracing the sectarian narrative of the Saudi royal family, quite directly. I say that not to let Obama off the hook, because the Obama position was not as vocal in terms of supporting the Saudi position on Yemen and other places, but it was still cautiously and quietly supportive of their allies in the region. So, I think the international community’s approach to the Middle East has to change in ways that should, in fact, follow what we’ve been hearing recently from the German Foreign Ministry. They came out with a position that said the Saudi policy of trying to quarantine and isolate Qatar is a disaster for everyone. They took a very strong position on this, and the Saudis got upset and pulled their ambassador out of Germany. I think the international community’s position should follow more the German example, as opposed to the Trump/Obama example. And there are other, difficult internal issues that have to be addressed in the cases of Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. We need truth and reconciliation commissions. There are a lot of injustices that have taken place, and you can’t heal these societies unless there is some sense of accountability, and a sense that people can get justice. I think these are some of the things that have to happen, in order for us to be able to de-sectarianize the Middle East.

DP: On a sobering note, it really is a lot harder to get the genie back in the bottle than it is to unleash it. We can demonstrate, as we try to do in the book, the artificiality of the sectarianization process—the sense in which it is a constructed, conscious project of states, power brokers, and entrepreneurs to manipulate peoples’ sentiments. We can also show the historical genealogy of the process and map the way it gets operationalized. But, at the end of the day, it takes on a life of its own. Once you unleash these forces, it almost doesn’t matter how they came to be. Once they lodge themselves in peoples’ hearts and psyches, and when people are willing to kill and die on the basis of these narratives, I mean that’s real—that actually happens. We can argue and theorize and talk about the artificiality of the sectarianization process till kingdom come, but it’s not going to affect people on the ground.

Still, we’re very excited about the fact that the book will be translated into Arabic soon. That’s very important because, at the end of the day, if only English-speaking academics, intellectuals, and journalists are reading this stuff in the Anglosphere, who cares? We want the book to be read and discussed and debated in the Arab world. That’s very, very important. But even beyond that, it can’t just be intellectuals. It has to be organizers, civil society activists, imams, and people doing work on the ground—not just amongst the educated elite, because the educated elite are mostly already against these sectarian narratives. It has to be people who are actually in these communities. It has to be religious leaders.

RA: This is a good way to segue into my final question. I found it very refreshing that the book kind of ends on a hopeful note. It ends optimistically but also qualifies that optimism with a sort of caution that, artificial as it may be, sectarianism can become “naturalized”—like the self- fulfilling prophecy you mentioned earlier. How fearful should we be of this possibility, and are you more optimistic than pessimistic, or is it the other way around?

NH: Well, the prognosis for the region looks very bleak, so yes, the book ends on an optimistic note. But, the reality on the ground is that it looks like we’re headed, at least in the short term, for greater sectarian conflict. Still, as you said, and as we argue in the book, there’s nothing natural about sectarian conflict. These are projects and policies that are pursued by state actors. So, since this is a project and a byproduct of politics, then only through politics, properly configured, can we start to de-sectarianize the politics of the region (if the proper policies and the proper politicians and political processes are put in place). There’s nothing inevitable about it. It requires serious commitment to try and roll back the social, political, economic, international and even theological conditions that give rise to sectarianization in the first place. It’s about human commitment, and it’s about credible leadership that’s willing to stand up and push back against this current. It’s also really a question of getting all of the proper stars aligned in an ideal sense to try and roll back this process.

I think fundamentally that what has to happen is there has to be a serious commitment by actors within and outside these societies to try and work toward a non-sectarian future. In that sense, because politics is in the hands of individuals, there’s nothing inevitable about this. At some point, I think people are going to get tired of it, and you can already see signs of that happening, and there’s going to be an attempt to push back. So, there’s hope. But, I think it’s a longer-term hope. The short-term prognosis looks quite bleak, and I think the bigger recent developments, not just the Saudi-Iran rivalry, but really the destructive role that the Trump administration is playing in fueling the sectarianization process, is going to make things very ugly and very bleak for a while.

DP: I will only add that it’s important to remember that even in the very recent past, between 2015 and 2016, the “You Stink” garbage protests in Lebanon were cross-sectarian, if not indeed anti-sectarian, protests. The “You Stink” protests were a beautiful example of protesting horrible mismanagement on a municipal and policy level. It had nothing to do with sect. There were people of all sects in Lebanon out in the streets together. Now, did it translate electorally? Not really. But, the point is those protests are one of many examples of non-sectarian, cross-sectarian, and anti-sectarian organizing that is going on, about all kinds of issues. Labor issues, economic inequality, and mismanagement are things that draw people together across boundaries. It’s going on in small ways across the region. It’s not the dominant narrative and it doesn’t get the headlines, and it’s certainly not what’s defining the politics of the region, unfortunately. But, it is valuable.

Let’s remember that the Arab uprisings occurred only six years ago. People were demanding bread, freedom, and dignity. People were struggling for democratic rights, peacefully, across sectarian lines. Sunnis, Alawaites, Christians, Ismailis, Druze, and atheists stood, side-by-side, demanding democratic rights and the end of the torture mafia state. A lot has happened since then, and there has been a sectarian nightmare that has unfolded both “from above” and “from below,” which is the saddest part to me. But let’s remember that it was actually very recently when people organized around different issues—not sectarian identities—and had common projects of social justice. That can happen again, very quickly. The tide can turn overnight

The Durand Line - A razor's edge between Afghanistan & Pakistan



When Sir Mortimer Durand outlined the margins between Afghanistan and British India in 1893, he might have satisfied the British Empire by endorsing and effectuating their interests, but today the existence of a boundary that bisects the Pashtun region, which divides the indigenous people and squeezes them between two adversarial forces, has not only given rise to serious military hostilities, socio-economic issues and geo-political clashes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but has also let the territory become a hub for terrorist outfits, violent insurgent groups and criminal organizations, which in return nourishes the state of instability and promotes an arms race between the two neighbours.

The Durand Line stretches from the Pamirs in the north to the Arabian Sea in the south, covering a distance of 2,430-kilometres. It starts from the snow caped mountains in the north, passes through the fertile mid territories, leading to the dry and barren south areas. The Durand Line cuts through the Pashtun tribal areas and further south through the Baluchistan region, politically dividing ethnic Pashtuns, as well as the Baluch and other ethnic groups, who live on both sides of the border. It demarcates Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Baluchistan and Gilgit-Baltistan (Part of Jammu & Kashmir) of northern and western Pakistan from the north-eastern and southern provinces of Afghanistan.

Geo-political and geo-strategic analysts have characterised it as one of the most perilous hot spots in the world, stained with a long history of bloodshed and war. In addition, the origins of the Durand Line still remain one of the most under-researched aspects of the border dispute. Illuminating those details would help clarify the contradictory claims of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This paper will explore thoroughly the historical background, which gave birth to the 2,430 km border, since legacy is an essential factor which affects the nature of foreign relations of countries altogether with domestic and external variables. The complexities surrounding the legitimacy of the Durand Line could be better understood in terms of the history, ethnicity and culture of its demographics. This paper will further juxtapose Afghanistan’s narrative based on the support of the native Pashtun population, which refutes the legality of the border, with Pakistan’s narrative constructed around national sovereignty and colonial heritage, which defends the existing demarcations. It will explore and evaluate the raison d'être on which the two powers rest their contentions, while also articulate the standpoint of the indigenous people, whose voices have been silenced, while their land, language, resources, honour, cultural-social norms and values have been subjects of undue encroachment. Ultimately, one of the main arguments of this paper will be that since the frontier has not been demarcated by the local ethnic tribes, but by colonial powers, nobody can insist on its inviolability. Nineteenth-century border arrangements of an Empire can no longer provide a stable foundation and respond to the current twenty-first-century realities. Furthermore, Pakistan’s standpoint, that is based on the principles of International Law will be questioned. Since on numerous occasions senior Government officials publicly disavow International Law as a Western concept alien to Pakistan’s values, and often impertinently act against it, this paper will claim that ‘International Law’ for the Pakistani Government seems to be merely a term of convenience used to legitimize the stance it wishes to take.

Hence, the international community must review the current Pak-Afghan border and facilitate the processes of reconciliation; otherwise, the region faces the risk of escalating into a dangerous flashpoint. The myriad of serious challenges the AfPak border is facing, appears as an alarming call for Islamabad and Kabul that is high time to re-establish their relationship and resolve those issues together, rather than remaining hostages to the embittered conflicts of the past. The solution for contested borders like the Durand Line does not lie in the continuation of confrontational policies, but in new strategies in order to foster cooperation. The two countries must formulate guidelines for promoting the peaceful and prosperous future of the region, collaborate on counteracting the violent non-State and State actors operating at the border and aim on safeguarding the interests of the local population in order to reach a comprehensive settlement.

The Great Game

Growing Russian expansionism and influence in Central Asia during the nineteenth century induced anxiety in British authorities in India and prompted many political and diplomatic confrontations between the two Empires, which later became known as ‘The Great Game’.  The construction of the Trans-Caspian railway and particularly the extension built in 1890, that was reaching the Afghan border at Gushgy was a further source of concern for the British Government of India, as it enabled Russia to bring large forces to Afghanistan. Russia was fearful of British commercial and military raids into Central Asia, while Britain was worried of Russia adding the ‘jewel in the crown’, India, to its vast territory. As a result, an atmosphere of suspicion, distrust and permanent fear of war between the two Empires emerged. Although, the Russians never actually intended to occupy the entire territory of Afghanistan and a Russian invasion of India was considered unlikely by most British political strategists, the British feared that even a small-scale advancement in northern Afghanistan would put on display the British shortcomings and therefore trigger internal unrest in British India. It was also thought that Pashtuns might be susceptible to Russian manipulations and administer assaults on their behalf, which would amplify British India’s security and defence apprehensions. Moreover, there were also economic and cultural considerations at stake: Russian incentives in Afghanistan could obstruct British plans to control trade with Central Asia and contravened with British expansionist ideas.

The British strategy towards Afghanistan has been prominent with its rotating policies of forwardness and passivity. Yet, when Central Asia Persia increasingly fell under Russian influence, British objectives developed a clear outline. By the end of the 1850s, the regions of Punjab and Sindh had been annexed by the British, who were able to determine the perimeters of the border and establish it at the foothills of the mountains inhabited by Pashtun tribes. In the following years, the British annexed further territory, which allowed them to control and fortify the hills. Since they failed on two occasions to impose a direct control over Afghanistan - in the first (1839–1842) and second (1878–80) Anglo-Afghan Wars - they settled the issue by turning the country into a buffer state. In order to fulfil that plan, the British Government supplied the Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman, with military weapons and equipment in order to defend Afghan northern areas from the Russian influence they were fearing. The British further supported the Pashtun colonization of northern Afghanistan as British Major Charles Yate has summarized it: “Only the non-Pashtun tribes have any contact and interactions with the Russians, thus surrounding these tribes with Pashtuns would end these tribes' interactions with the Russians”.

Since none of these strategies were secure or promising enough, as part of their desire to control Afghan foreign policy, the British believed it was of vital importance to define Afghanistan’s external borders. While the borders in the north and west had the purpose of ceasing any Russian advancement, the aim of the southern border was to retain the Pashtun tribes which occasionally entered northern India. Another reason was the need to protect the territory of British India from the rising Jihad, which had the potential of inciting tribal unrest. Demarcating the frontiers would also hinder Russian attempts to use the tribes to weaken the British control in India, to collect and send intelligence on their behalf or to sabotage the main British routes into Afghanistan. Before giving rise to the 1893 Border Agreement, the British aimed to annex as much territory as possible in order to meet their economic, geo-political and strategic needs, stripping Afghanistan from most of its land and leaving it with weaker administrative control over what was remaining.

The justification behind this grand-scale invasion of territories is well captured by Lord Lansdowne, the Viceroy of India between 1888 and 1893, who stated that “In political geography nature abhors vacuum and any space left vacant upon our Indian frontiers will be filled up by others, if we do not step in ourselves”. During that time the Afghan Amir Abdur Rahman moved towards Asmar, Chageh, Bajaur, Dir and Chitral districts in order to prevent further occupations, yet his movements were considered by the British not as defensive but as inexcusable provocations.

The 1893 Border Agreement

Sir Mortimer Durand arrived in Kabul on the 2ndof October 1893, to start negotiations with the Amir of Afghanistan, Abdur Rahman on demarcating the southern border of Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s eastern border was settled on 12th of November 1893, after intricate disputations between the Foreign Secretary of the British Government in India and the Amir. The latter opposed Britain’s proposed Afghan-Indian border that would coerce him to abandon his formal sovereignty over the Pashtun tribes, which would remain outside the Afghan border. The desire of Abdur Rahman to object the audacious division of Pashtuns should not be downplayed. Historically, the idea of being ‘Afghan’ was associated to being from the Pashtun ethnic group. Ultimately, the Durand Line divided half of a population intimately related by culture, history, and blood.

Persuading Abdur Rahman to give up Pahstun territories was very difficult. Furthermore, it seems that the British could not really grasp the rationale behind the Amir’s reluctance, since they perceived him as very irrational and selfish. Historians provide an insight into Durand’s correspondence and illustrate how, while he was negotiating with the Amir, he was baffled by the Amir’s disagreement of ceding Pashtun territories. When Durand asked him why he wanted to keep Waziristan, which was very poor on natural resources and was scarcely populated, Abdur Rahman answered with one word: ‘nam’ (honour). The British looked upon such reasoning in a very condescending manner, after all, nam was just an exotic element of what was seen at the time as the irrational Orient. As Durand commented in a letter to Lord Lansdowne, “His jealousy as to our interference in his internal affairs amounts to insanity”.

The British could not understand that the concept of ‘nam’ was closely related to power politics. Afghanistan has always been dominated by Pashtun, the Amir himself was Pashtun, and therefore giving away Pashtun territories would have increased the claim of other actors to political power and would have meant losing the support of Pashtun tribes which had backed the Amir against other tribes and non-State and State actors. Moreover, although the British considered the tribes independent from Kabul, while being free and autonomous in their daily lives, they were actually highly reliant on the Afghan Government in relation to welfare and protection against external enemies.

Historians and scholars still debate on what were the Amir’s and Durand’s exact reasons behind singing the agreement. Some argue that they were standing on very divergent grounds. Abdur Rahman, for instance, influenced by notions of administering authority and governance over tribal areas, might have perceived the Line as merely delimiting zones of dominion and responsibility, while Durand, acting according with modern ideas of sovereignty, was planning on establishing an international border. Other historians claim that the Amir clearly understood the nature of the border and himself promoted the idea of a Nation-State that has clearly delineated frontiers, yet the fact that he continued being involved in the tribal territories south of the Durand Line after 1893, appeared to consolidate the argument that the border was neither entirely settled nor absolute. According to Sykes, Durand’s biographer, the intentions of the British were not in administering tribal territories, but merely exerting political control; hence, the Durand Line sought to outline the limits of their respective spheres of influence. 

This statement is supported by a quote by Durand himself, who after the negotiations said: “The tribes on the Indian side are not to be considered as within British territory. They are simply under our influence in the technical sense of the term, that is to say, so far as the Amir is concerned and as far as they submit to our influence or we exert it”.

Similarly, the Viceroy, Lord Elgin, writing in 1896, said: “The Durand Line was an agreement to define the respective spheres of influence of the British Government and of the Amir. Its object was to preserve and to obtain the Amir’s acceptance of the status quo”.

The argument of Afghanistan’s Government that the line is not a legitimate border, since it was intended to be merely a line of control, which for the sake of security, divided the area into zones of influence, seems solidified by these claims. Another assertion on behalf of Kabul, which disclaims the legitimacy of the frontier is that the Border Agreement was signed under duress. Although many historians provide proof that the Amir was fully aware of the content and the consequences of the Agreement, one should not fail to admit that Abdur Rahman was forced to sign it under the threat of an economic embargo. He relied on British subsidies, arms and ammunitions to maintain his central Government’s control, and was especially in need of them when the border was established because he was engaged in warfare against the Hazaras at the time. Furthermore, Abdur Rahman wanted to avoid war between Britain and Russia on his territory, which would have inevitably had disastrous consequences for Afghanistan. The country had little space for negotiations when facing the pressure of a global Superpower such as Britain and as a result, the Durand Line Agreement was signed, yet until present day Afghanistan does not accept the legitimacy of the border. 

Under the agreement, British India kept most of the Pashtun territories, which they had already occupied, namely, the frontier tribal areas of Swat, Bajaur, Chitral, Chageh, Buner, Dir, Kurram, part of Waziristan, Chagai and the Khyber Pass. In some areas, tribes such as the Waziri and Mohmands were virtually bisected. The reason the Amir was allowed to keep the Wakhan corridor - a narrow strip of land in northeaster Afghanistan, which currently separates Tajikistan from Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan (Part of Jammu & Kashmir) – was because the British utilised it as a preventative strategy against the Russians. The tribes that became administered by the British were kept quiet through a combination of semi‐autonomy, agreements with and subsidies paid to their tribal leaders, as well as coercive means such as punitive measures and collective punishments.

Although the British expected that the Durand agreement would commemorate the end of an era of uncertainties, mutual distrust and suspicion, the border remained troublesome largely due to its arbitrary self-imposed character. The Amir warned the British concerning not including the hill tribes within his borders, which became true: "If you should cut them out of my dominions, they will never be of any use to you nor to me. You will always be engaged in fighting or other trouble with them, and they will always go on plundering."

As a result, the Durand Line was established without any consideration of the ethnicity, language, values and desires of the tribal population. The British Empire technically further contributed towards the present-day hostilities and skirmishes between the two South Asian countries.

Pakistan’s claim over the Durand Line

Pakistan inherited the 1893 agreement and the subsequent 1919 Treaty of Rawalpindi after the partition of British India in 1947. There has never been a formal agreement or ratification between Islamabad and Kabul of these agreements. Furthermore, when the British plan for partition was accepted and put into action, the Pashtun leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan declared that his people did not want to join Pakistan and should be permitted to decide their future through a referendum. The resulting referendum offered the choice only of joining Pakistan or India—but not of independence or union with Afghanistan—so Khan’s party decided to establish a separate state for Pashtuns. The combination of strong pressure from the British and the Muslim League and a very limited electorate vote among the Pashtuns, resulted in a pro-Pakistan vote by a narrow margin.

Pakistan further upholds the norms of International Law and believes that under the international convention of uti possidetis jurisit automatically inherits the border and does not need an agreement from Afghanistan. Indeed, courts in several countries around the world and the Vienna Convention have universally upheld uti possidetis juris, which claims that newly formed sovereign States should have the same borders that their preceding dependent area had before their independence; hence, binding bilateral agreements are ‘passed down’ to successor States. Therefore, a unilateral declaration by one party has no effect; boundary changes must be made bilaterally. The British have on several occasions endorsed this stance. For instance, in 1950, Philip Noel-Baker, the British Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations stated: "It is His Majesty’s view that Pakistan is in international law, the inheritor of the rights and duties of the old government of India, and of his Majesty’s government in the United Kingdom, in these territories, and that the Duran Line is the international frontier." Pakistan’s position was also supported by its international allies such as the members of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which in 1956, said that "The Council declared that their Governments recognized that the sovereignty of Pakistan extends up to the Durand Line, the international boundary between Pakistan and Afghanistan”.

This paper does not refute the principles of International Law; on the contrary, it fully supports them. However, it aims to expose the ‘cherry-picking’ approach of Pakistan when the latter uses the doctrines of International Law in order to either validate or disprove a certain stance that suits or does not suits its self-interests.

Parallels with the Jammu & Kashmir Conflict

One could take as a very clear example from the Jammu & Kashmir conflict. On the 22nd of October 1947, Pakistan invaded Jammu & Kashmir provinces from the north after having signed a ‘Stand-Still Agreement’ with the legal ruler of the State of Jammu & Kashmir. The invaders comprised hordes of tribesmen from Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and regulars from its Army. The invaders were organized in company-level units and armed with lethal weapons. Houses were burnt, property looted and destroyed and large scale rapes and abductions of women took place. The panic-stricken  Jammu & Kashmir Maharaja Hari Singh made an appeal to India to come to its rescue, to which India agreed, asking the Maharaja to sign an Instrument of Accession. Yet, Pakistan till present day denies the legal status of the Instrument of Accession at numerous occasions, which can be explained since if it would acknowledge the legality of the accession, it would admit to their own illegal occupation of the territory of Jammu & Kashmir.

According to Article 257 of the Pakistani Constitution, which is a provision related to the State of Jammu and Kashmir defining the relation between the State of Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan, the State of Jammu & Kashmir is not part of Pakistan. It states, “When the people of the State of Jammu and Kashmir decide to accede to Pakistan, the relationship between Pakistan and the State shall be determined in accordance with the wishes of the people of that State”. Any unilateral alterations, without that possible accession, have to be examined in the backdrop of this constitutional provision, which by definition makes the abrogation of the State Subject Rule in Gilgit-Baltistan, the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order and the proposed transformation of Gilgit-Baltistan into a province of Pakistan, illegal. It also comes as a great contradiction to the ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir Interim Constitution Act of 1974’, the Constitution which governs part of Pakistan Administered Jammu & Kashmir, which clearly states that, “No person or political party in Azad Jammu and Kashmir is permitted to propagate against, or take part in activities prejudicial or detrimental to, the ideology of the State’s accession to Pakistan”. It further states that, “No person can assume office unless he/she takes the oath of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan and nobody can be appointed to any government job unless he/she expresses loyalty to the concept of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to Pakistan”.

In addition, Pakistan continues to show no compliance with the United Nations Charter and its resolutions drafted in order to mediate the dispute of Jammu & Kashmir between Indian and Pakistan. In pursuance to the resolution of UN Security Council (August 13th, 1948) signed by both countries, Pakistan is legally (in terms of International Law) obliged to withdraw its military forces out of the region first and yet, failed to do so till date which meant that the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan was unable to communicate to India ratification of implementation of the truce arrangements set forth in Parts I and II of the Commission's resolution of 13th of August 1948, which stated that the withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the State of Jammu & Kashmir was the first step in implementing the other sub-sequential articles of the UN Resolutions. In accordance with this condition, the UN Security Council foresaw a Plebiscite to determine the future of the territory, but because of non-compliance of the truce arrangements by Pakistan, the question of a possible Plebiscite fell through and was never revived at the UN level. The invasion led by Pakistan on Jammu & Kashmir was against all canons of International Law and a clear contravention of the UN Charter. In July 1948, the Pakistani Foreign Minister admitted complicity but cited fear of Indian aggression as a main reason behind Pakistan’s actions, of which there were no evidences. However, under the United Nations Charter, Pakistan had ‘no right of self-defense in the absence of an armed invasion or attack on its territory’. Complicity of the Pakistani State was later reconfirmed by General Akbar Khan, then Brigadier, in his book, ‘Raiders in Kashmir’, who led the attack.

Furthermore, the current building of the multibillion-dollar infrastructural project of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through the disputed territory of Gilgit-Baltistan - a region of Jammu & Kashmir under the administration of Pakistan - comes as a direct violation of the doctrines of International Law. China has no legal right to build in an occupied territory, the same way Pakistan does not have the right to sell territories, which does not belong to it. The implementation of the project is being enforced violently, leading to the large-scale displacement of the local population from their homes and farmlands in several areas of Gilgit-Baltistan in order to make the land available for the construction of the corridor. Moreover, the indigenous people will be completely excluded from the high profits that the multibillion-dollar project will bring, which is a direct violation of their human rights, which further will have severe negative impacts on the ecology of the region. A large number of political and human rights activists from Pakistan Administered Jammu & Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan, Baluchistan and Sindh have been facing sedition charges for opposing the Chinese-Pakistani project. Many of them have been charged under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act, which legally does not have any jurisdiction in Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan Administered Jammu & Kashmir, and are languishing in prisons across Pakistan. Evidently, it shows how the people of Jammu & Kashmir have experienced the dreadful consequences of Pakistan’s illegal annexation of their territories, unlawful sale deal to China, and steps in contravention of the same International Law, which the State invokes vis-á-vis the Durand Line.   

The Pashtun

The fate of the Pashtun population, which lives on both sides of the Durand Line, resembles the day-to-day struggles the Kashmiris face. Yet, unlike in the situation of Jammu & Kashmir, Pakistan abides to the international legal provisions in regards to the 1893 Border Agreement, because it fits with its self-interests of maintaining the territories annexed by the British Empire, and if Islamabad happens to acknowledge the right of self-determination of the local tribes and scrape away the Durand Line, it will automatically make its standpoint on the legality of the Line of Control void. The same way, the day of Independence when the British Raj left the subcontinent, meant nothing close to liberation and right of self-determination for the Kashmiri population, the Pashtun people are currently left Stateless and divided.

Meanwhile, the Pashtun population has a very distinctive culture and characteristics. Originating from what is today southern Afghanistan, the Pashtuns form the world's largest (patriarchal) segmentary lineage ethnic group, sharing a common ancestry and historical background, and having a very prominent moral code, rules of behaviours and a sense of spiritual and communal identity. Pashtuns’ patrimonial ethical code of conduct is called Pashtunwali or Pakhtunwali. It is a system of governance and jurisprudence that is preserved to present day times, mostly in the rural tribal areas. In addition to being practiced by members of the Pashtun population, it has been adopted by some non-Pashtun Afghans and Pakistanis that live in the Pashtun regions or close to the Pashtuns, who have gradually become ‘Pashtunized’ over time. Pashtunwali promotes self-respect, independence, justice, hospitality, love, forgiveness, bravery, righteousness, revenge, tolerance toward all (especially to strangers or guests) and protection of women, honour and land. It is a personal responsibility of every Pashtun to discover and rediscover Pashtunwali's essence and meaning.

However, the last doctrine of Pashtunwali, ‘Hewaad’- (Country) - A Pashtun is obliged to protect the land of the Pashtuns. Defense of the nation means the defense of Pashtun culture, countrymen, and the self, creates a paradoxical situation where one of the core rules for the Pashtun people is to defend their land, while they are virtually Stateless. The Line splits numerous villages in half and divides others from their agricultural territories; it cuts tribes and tribal groups in half. As Sir William Kerr Fraser-Tytler, a British soldier and diplomat has evaluated the demarcation of the border:  “Illogical from the point of view of ethnography, strategy and geography”. Louis Dupree, another Afghan scholar, commented that, “It was a classic example of an artificial political boundary cutting through a culture area”.

Moreover, because the border goes through many mountainous territories, which tend to be in a distant proximity from big urban areas, it is particularly difficult to police and control the flow of people, especially when family groups and tribes are on both sides and there is a constant influx and cross overs. Particularly in Waziristan, there are many passes through which it is easy to move from Pakistan into Afghanistan and vice versa.


Undoubtedly, the existence of such porous border creates a favourable environment for the flourishment of terrorist and criminal groups. Moreover, the failure of Pakistan to fully integrate into its national policy, the Pashtun population, which is prominent with its very distinctive ethos and mindset, explains the problems it suffers from uncontrollable State actors. Until the border dispute is not settled, effective border management will continue lacking. Neither country currently has managed to apply a substantive control over the territories around the Durand Line. Instead, both have ‘ceded’ control to militants and organized crime.

The fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992, and the subsequent chaos, which gave green light for the rise of the Afghan Taliban in 1996, has also enabled the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agency, to emerge as a power-broker, since it became the Taliban’s principal financial, military, and diplomatic patron. The Taliban were the ultimate ISI ‘strategic assets’ in its campaign to secure control in Afghanistan. During their rule over Afghanistan, the Pakistani military establishment believed that the Taliban would not only recognize the Durand Line, but would also curb ongoing Pashtun nationalism in the northwest frontier, thus providing an outlet for Pakistani Islamists. The actual outcome was, exactly the opposite, since not only did the Taliban refuse to recognize the border, but also further fostered Pashtun nationalism. The Taliban aggravated exactly the problems, the ISI were hoping to solve. The overthrow of the Taliban following the U.S. invasion in 2001, additionally transformed the nature and dimension of Pakistan’s Afghan policy. Pakistan’s pro-Taliban policy resulted in the loss of the loyalty and support of many Pashtun and non-Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan.

In Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban or Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has also profited from the situation. It has used South Waziristan as a safe haven in the last couple of years to expand its presence. The TTP network has expanded in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and has included many local militants throughout the disputed border region of Pakistan. The overall lack of harmonization on border patrols and cooperation in intelligence-sharing has contributed to the resurgence of the Taliban. Police on both sides has been mostly ineffective. The insurgents in these provinces have benefitted tremendously from the support of networks in Pakistan that need not fear any effective border control. Militants from both countries frequently cross the border illegally due in large part to the lack of communication and intelligence sharing between border troops on both sides of the Durand Line. Ultimately, such border skirmishes lead to the killing of innocent tribal people and the resurgence of tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, highlighting the importance of resolving the issue. The pressing need for stable relations between the two countries illustrates the importance of reaching a final agreement on the Durand Line.

Yet, Pakistani reluctance has been a major factor in the failure to launch joint patrols; the Government in Islamabad wants a greater commitment from Afghan leaders before acknowledging that such operations might be successful. On the other side, the lack of security, sound governance and effective control in the tribal territories of Pakistan is a legitimate and serious concern for Afghanistan. Comprehensible policy and clear-cut steps towards reforms in those tribal areas are essential factors in resolving the issues between the two countries. While international law holds that the tribal territories belong to Pakistan, Islamabad has not demonstrated that it can deliver even the most basic governance in the those tribal territories and thus take adequate care of them. The old administrative border structures put in place by the British Empire are no longer sufficient and cannot prevent the growth of extremism or contribute to sustainable development in the border region. Furthermore, the Pakistani proposition for building a razor wire fence alongside the frontier will not address the real drivers of terrorism and will further alienate the local population. The barrier will increase the resentment between the two countries and deteriorate their already sore relationship. As the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, responded to this ludicrous plan: "Nobody can change the course of history by erecting a barbed wire fence. Our blood and love are inseparable.”

The Vice President of the European Parliament, Ryszard Czarnecki also claimed in a recent meeting in Brussels, in May 2017, that: "As long as this demarcation, which was initially drawn to mark areas of influence rather than as an international border, is given sanctity by the international community, Pakistan will continue to play its own 'great game' in this area, even if it is at the cost of peace in the region".

His statement additionally illuminates the culpability of the global powers in exacerbating the animosity between the two neighbours via attempting to fulfil their own strategic objectives. Czarnecki added that the historical mischief committed by British colonial powers by dividing the Pashtun homeland, has been further perpetuated by the U.S. and other Western countries as they continue to ignore the conflict. According to him, the state of instability in the region must not be so easily neglected, since it has direct repercussions for the western world, as the continuous flows of Afghan refugees into Europe and terrorist incidents linked to the AfPak region illustrate. One of the strategies that must be adopted and would have a long-term positive effect in the war on terror is the revisiting of the Durand Line; otherwise, the safe sanctuaries of terrorist outfits in the region will continue to operate under a state of territorial ambiguity.

Impact on Federally Administered Tribal Areas

Another vivid example, which indicates the need for alteration of the current border arrangements, is the outdated judicial framework in the areas around the border. The Constitution of Pakistan governs the Federally Administered Tribal Areas through the same rules which were framed by the British in 1901 as Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). The law states that three basic rights are not applicable to the residents of FATA – the right to appeal, the right to legal representation and the right to present reasoned evidence. The FCR has its origins in the Murderous Outrages Regulation, which was enacted by the British Empire to prosecute crimes in British India and was specifically devised to counter the opposition of the Pashtuns to British rule; Their main objective was to protect the interests of the British Empire. In 1947, Pakistan added the clause that residents can be arrested without specifying the crime. Furthermore, the FCR permits collective punishment of family or tribe members for crimes of individuals. It permits punishment to be given out by unelected tribal jirgas and denies the accused the right to trial by a modern State Judiciary, thereby violating the basic human rights of the population by such severe and outdated regulations. It gives the Federal Government the right to seize private property in FATA and to convict an individual without due process while it also allows the Government to restrict the entry of a FATA tribe member into a settled district in the rest of Pakistan.

When the line was drawn many of the British officials, such as Sir Denis Fitzpatrick, the Governor General of the Punjab, claimed that the Durand Line would develop into a proper international border only when they could get rid of the Frontier Crimes Regulation and regularise the status of the tribal areas. Yet, this oppressive and outdated set of laws is still in practice, which further questions the legality of the border. Not only are the people living under conditions of unjust treatment and control, but their socio-economic circumstances are also deplorable. The Federally Administered Tribal Areas are the most impoverished part of Pakistan, and have one of the highest levels of poverty in the world. With total population of 6.5 million, which makes up only 1.5% of Pakistan's economy and a per capita income of only $250 per year, 65% of the households are under the poverty level. The extreme poverty in FATA has led about half of the population to live outside of the territories as migrant labourers or displaced persons. Those who stay, usually because they have no other choice, have limited political rights and are isolated from mainland Pakistani society. In this way, they become an easy target for radical militant groups, terrorist outfits and organised crime groups, who exploit and abuse them, or decide to recruit them forcefully. It is not surprising that the region has turned into a major hub for opium trafficking, arms trade, human trafficking as well as the smuggling of other contraband.

This generates a vice circle where obsolete laws, which are inherently based on the violation of human rights, create a favourable loop hole for terrorists to turn the war-torn region into a safe haven for the perpetration of their operations. Clearing the tribal territories of extremist and terrorist hubs should be the first step toward reform, yet this can only happen once the outdated colonial arrangements are revised. The international community must acknowledge that if it desires to put an end to terrorism in the region and ensure durable peace and stability, the Durand Line, which had been imposed on the Pashtuns living on both sides of the Line, and which serves as cancer for humanity of the entire region, must be reconsidered and amended. True success depends on the implementation of comprehensive and contemporary developmental plans, which are not based on nineteenth-century colonial ideas. Pakistan’s double standards in relation to abiding to the principles of international law must also be reviewed, debated upon and revisited, otherwise that might give rise to the misinterpretation of and disobedience to those principles by other States, which observe how certain countries receive preferential treatment.


Frontiers are by nature contentious and divisive lines, often prominent with their bloodstained history. As Lord Curzon of Kedleston has said during a lecture in Oxford in 1907: “Frontiers are the chief anxiety of nearly every Foreign Office in the civilised world……. They are moreover the razor’s edge on which hang suspended the modern issues of war or peace, of life or death to nations.”

The Durand Line precisely embodies this description, since from the very first moment of its creation it has managed to generate problems of various types: legal, territorial, socio-economic, ethnographic, military and geopolitical. If one looks more carefully, it would be noticed that the conflict comprises of various State and non-State actors and does not involve merely the Governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan as the only two adversarial forces. There are many parties involved: the ISI, the Pakistani army, the tribesmen, the local notables, the insurgents, the terrorist outfits and the organised crime groups. There are smugglers and business interests at stake as well, which should further pinpoint the desire of the international community to resolve the dispute and establish a legitimate profit-making trade route.

The common people, especially the Pashtun, are eager for any positive, peaceful and developmental change to be brought.  The international community must give them the fundamental right to be a civilized part of the global village, which would be only possible by revisiting the Durand Line. One of the steps towards finding a long-term peaceful solution to the conflict would be an increased sense of trust between the two powers, otherwise, any attempts of the international community to persuade the two adversarial forces on cooperating and reaching an agreement will continue to fail. Yet, this could only take place when both countries commit to work together on improvement of political and economic reforms and joint policing of the region. There needs to be an immediate collaboration between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the assistance of regional powers, some means of demilitarisation of the Tribal Areas, and investment on both sides of the line. In addition, the double standards of Pakistan in regards to abiding to the principles of international law, especially with regard to the territories part of Jammu & Kashmir, must be brought to light, in order to open a dialogue for revision of its selective approach.

Lord Curzon’s speech at Oxford in 1907, was loaded with a feeling of positive assurances about the future of the world’s frontier zones: “The evolution of Frontiers is perhaps an art rather than a science, so plastic and malleable are its forms and manifestations. But the general tendency is forward, not backward; neither arrogance nor ignorance is any longer supreme… Thus Frontiers, which have so frequently and recently been the cause of war, are capable of being converted into the instruments and evidences of peace”.

More than hundred years later, the current realities ask for a more pragmatic approach. One solution, which this paper puts forward, is about the possibility of an open border between the two countries, which will also benefit the entire region. Such a border would clarify that all Pashtuns have rights as citizens of whichever State they choose, and would enable them to communicate, trade, and develop both their economy and their culture in cooperation with one another. Such accord would finally provide Afghanistan with access to the sea, as well as facilitate Pakistan’s connection with Central Asia. It would lessen the ethnic tensions between the two countries as long as they agree on putting an end to all hostilities, which has stained their long history of adversarial relations.

The major key to such strategic success will be the disrupting of the operations of terrorist and militant outfits with support from State actors like the Pakistan intelligence agencies. A resolution to the Durand Line dispute is fundamental to the War on Terror, since the existence of safe havens for the Taliban around the border, threatens international peace and security. Fencing the border is clearly not the solution since it further isolates the people around the border region socio-economically. Establishing a twenty-first-century border settlement will also require ending the nineteenth-century regime in the tribal areas. Pashtun nationalists are calling for the fast-paced economic development and reforms in FATA. The Frontier Crimes Regulations have remained virtually unchanged until present day and human rights activists and tribal members are urgently demanding its revision.

Overall, the Durand Line has estranged the two neighbours, exacerbating a sense of insecurity and incompleteness, while generating many complex identity issues in relation to the local Pashtun people, who have been left voiceless and Stateless. As a consequence, the political tensions have remained high and manifested itself through border skirmishes, wars, acts of terrorism and the destruction of lives and property within both the countries. The values of peace, protection of human rights and security are internal to the normative structure of international affairs, yet this can happen only through a comprehensive dialogue, when the parties agree on the benefits of peaceful coexistence rather than the continuation of conflict. In international relations parlance is often described as a ‘rational calculation’. It is high time for the two South Asian countries to resort to rational calculated dialogue and decision-making process rather than warfare.

Both countries need to cooperate to ensure an effective border settlement rather than undermining each other, which only benefits terrorist- and organised crime groups operating in the region. If they continue using strategies based on animosity and rivalry, repugnance and volatility will continue to plague the region only to the advantage of transnational militant networks

January 12, 2018

PN geared up for CPEC challenges


, Gwadar Port operations: Kaleem



Coastal Command annual efficiency parade held at PNS Qasim Manora


Pakistan Navy’s Coastal Command Annual Efficiency Competition Parade was held on Friday at PNS Qasim, Manora.
Vice Chief of the Naval Staff Vice, Admiral Kaleem Shaukat was the chief guest on the occasion, a statement issued here by directorate of public relations of Pakistan Navy said.
Efficiency Competition Parade is conducted annually by Coastal Command of Pakistan Navy to mark the achievements of its operational year wherein efficiency shields are awarded to the selected units based on their achievements throughout the year.
Addressing the officers and CPOs and sailors, the chief guest highlighted that Coastal Command of Pakistan Navy had been entrusted with the onerous task of safeguarding the coastal are as from Sir Creek to Jiwani, under the challenging internal and external security situation.
He said Pakistan Navy’s Coastal Command was fully geared up for the challenges of China Pakistan Economic Corridor and operationalization of Gwadar Port.
Taking stock of the overall security situation, he highlighted that Pakistan Navy was fully aware of the external as well as internal threats the country was faced with. He said as a result of untiring collective efforts of the nation during last many years, Pakistan had been able to eradicate the menace of terrorism to a greater extent. This effort, however, required constant struggle and Pakistan Navy was ready to defend the motherland from all external and internal threats at all costs, he added.
Earlier, in his welcome address, Commander Coast Rear Admiral Moazzam Ilyas highlighted the operational achievements of Coastal Command and presented the resume of activities undertaken during the year 2017. He said Coastal Command besides operational activities, had actively participated in several major exercises including Aman 2017, Burq-VII, Tahafuz-E-Sahil, joint exercises with International Special Forces Difa-E-Sahil and Air Defence Guns Firing.
Later, the chief guest gave away efficiency shields to the units for their overall best performance during the year 2017. The ceremony was attended by a large number of senior naval officers, CPOs and sailors.
Meanwhile, it is reported that Flag Officer, Sea Training, Pakistan Navy (PN), Rear Admiral Zaka-ur-Rehman has assumed the command of Pakistan Maritime Security Agency (PMSA) as its Director General.
According to a PMSA announcement on Friday, Rear Admiral Zaka was commissioned in PN in 1988 and had realized his professional obligations in different capacities including commanding officer and squadron command of PN warships. He had served in Bahrain as Chief Staff Officer, Commander Coalition Task Force 151. —APP