Friday, May 31, 2013

Writing about Sectarianism

Abdullah Hamidaddin has great advice for how to get past simplistic framings of conflict between Sunnis and Shi'ites:
In the beginning of the 9th century Charles I King of the Francs was crowned Emperor by Pope Leo III. This challenged Empress Irene who ruled the Byzantium Empire from its capital Constantinople (modern Istanbul). This had a long lasting consequence on the relationships between Asia Minor and Europe which were already bad. Today we can see the effect of that event on the relations between modern Turkey and Europe and on the European hesitation to allow Turkey in the EU. It is because of that conflict between Charles and Irene in the 9th century.
I need not say that this is nonsense. But it is such nonsensical analysis which more than often guides the view towards the Middle East and Muslim communities at large. Whenever a writer explains contemporary politics by reference to the civil wars between Muslims in the 8th century he/she is doing exactly the same thing. 
You should read the whole thing, but his two over-arching points are that there is no timeless conflict, nor are Sunnis and Shi'ites two large transnational political blocs where the religious affiliation is the main part of their identity.  Iraqi Sunnis are shaped by the situation in Iraq, Lebanese Shi'ites by the situation in Lebanon, and Bashar al-Assad's Alawite religion is incidental to Hizbullah's support for him.

The above does not mean sectarian narratives are not powerful.  On a broader scale, we see this when Muslims and Christians in the world today look at incidents in Nigeria or Chechnya and posit a grand conflict of one religion against the other, a narrative that can sometimes take on a pernicious power of its own.  However, even then the question becomes why some people see a timeless clash of civilizations, something that goes back to their own political and cultural environment.



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