The Evolution of Sectarianism

David Mitchell | February 17, 2019

Is it a primordial feature of certain cultures? Or just the outcome of politicians’ manipulations? Sectarianism is neither of these.

The Ottoline Club met on 25 th September 2018 in the Vault to hear a talk by Dr. Sebastian Ille, Senior Lecturer in Economics, with the title “Why Are They Fighting? The Evolution of Sectarianism.” Those present were: Sebastian Ille, Yaprak Tavman (Faculty of Economics), Brian Ball (Faculty of Philosophy), Anthony Grayling (Master), George Zouros (Faculty of Economics), Ioannis Votsis (Faculty of Philosophy), Marianna Koli (Faculty of Economics) and David Mitchell (Faculty of Philosophy).

Non-cooperation can in some circumstances be as much of a puzzle to certain modes of understanding as in other circumstances cooperation is. When for instance Lebanese Shias refuse to ride in Sunni-driven taxis and vice versa, this is in a certain sense costly to everyone, and so, said Sebastian, stands in need of explanation. Thus, after a brief introduction to the current situation in the Middle East, and with the help, characteristically, of some formidable visuals, he put forward a theoretical account of the emergence of sectarianism in societies, using the analytical tools of evolutionary game theory and ‘agent-based modelling’. He tried to show how this account turned out to favour a particular one of the three types of explanation of sectarianism that tend to be entertained among political scientists, a ‘constructivist’ type that is roughly speaking a hybrid of the other two, simpler alternatives, which are (i) the view that sectarianism has ‘primordial’ roots largely independent of institutional circumstances, and, diametrically opposed to this, (ii) the view that it is always simply a tool devised by powerful state or political actors in pursuit of their interests.

In Sebastian’s model, individuals engage in pairwise dealings, and each has the same several options as to how much of the fruits of cooperation to demand. Depending on how much a given pair demands in total, either there is a deal from which both parties gain or there is no deal. In the latter case, each individual has the option of trying to coerce the other into accepting his or her own terms. The model then also supposes that interacting individuals belong to separate groups, without these groups being distinguished in characteristics or beliefs.

Sebastian’s results, some obtained by solving equations and others by repeated computer simulations, were subtle and complex. Among the points which stood out were, on the one hand, that egalitarian equilibria are eminently possible, while on the other hand sectarianisation, in which one individual is able to force another to accept a lower share of the spoils on the basis simply of group affiliation, can occur endogenously (not to speak of exogenous provocation). This occurs if power relations between groups are unbalanced, or alternatively if there is a tendency for groups to identify with the strategy and views of some dominating member, or finally if a group experiences an internal power struggle which can spill over to the other group and take on a sectarian aspect. According to Sebastian’s results, therefore, sectarianism is driven by political and economic imbalances, not by religious beliefs. Religious affiliation turns out to be nothing more than a signal that assigns an individual to a position in a sectarian social contract.

It was a longer than usual talk, and the discussion began with some of us a little dazed by Sebastian’s masterly elaborations. So what followed was in part a matter of his running through again in a more painstaking way some of the key passages. But Ioannis raised one general issue, namely whether Sebastian’s model could be used predictively. Thus for instance one of its independent variables was how long certain memories last and remain effective. Could that sort of factor be measured in real life? Sebastian said he aspired mainly to explanation ex post, and that in the quantifications he came up with it was in general the sign, i.e. whether a factor contributes to or suppresses sectarianism, and not the exact figure, that was important: the key findings took the form of correlations between increases in one variable and increases in another. Yaprak by contrast had a refreshingly simple explanation to cite in the Muslim case: it’s said to be because Shias are less religious that Sunnis are against them. Sebastian classified this as a Saudi-diffused idea, and acknowledged that a main point of his argument was that ideas such as these are far short of being sufficient to explain sectarianisation. His model, by contrast, shows how, under specific conditions, sectarianism can emerge from non-sectarian beginnings.

David Mitchell

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy