Sectarian passions are once again inflaming the Middle East. Syria’s ferocious civil war has spilled over into fragile Lebanon and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Iran are at loggerheads, funding and equipping protagonists in conflict zones that are arrayed along sectarian lines. The winds of Shi’a-Sunni strife are spreading, and the referee of American power is nowhere to be seen.

The sectarian lens has long been an appealing, shorthand way to make sense of a confounding, complex region. President Obama, in his September 2013 speech before the United Nations General Assembly, attributed Bahrain’s violence to “sectarian tensions.” But focusing exclusively on the Shiite-Sunni split conflates symptoms with root causes. Often what seems to be a religious or doctrinal difference is more accurately a byproduct of political repression, provincial marginalization or uneven access to economic resources...

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