|The notion of sectarianism remains one of the most overused and under-theorized of concepts. In journalistic and academic usage, sectarianism is typically evoked as an adjective akin to racism, so that one can talk about sectarian outlooks, actions, and thoughts in a similar manner to how one would talk about racist outlooks, actions and thoughts. Invariably, however, the description of sectarianism in the Middle East suggests a one-dimensional social reality that allegedly corresponds neatly to the region’s religious and ethnic diversity. Just add geo-politics, and it is as Middle Eastern pluralism is a bomb that must inevitably explode. Such a conventional and unimaginative renderings of the allegedly “sectarian” Middle East suggest that sectarianism is, at bottom, an age-old burden, one that gets passed essentially unchanged from generation to generation among perpetually antagonistic communities. So when it comes to the Middle East, we talk about Sunni, Shi‘i, Jew, and Christian as if such identities are set in stone, and as if they are immutable in the face of history. |
Instead of such one-dimensional narratives, we need to uncover the complex, and now obscured, modern culture of coexistence in a region that is rich in religious diversity, but which today encompasses several war-torn countries including Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. To write this history of a new consciousness of coexistence, we need to break with two narratives that have traditionally dominated the story of diversity in the Middle East. The first idealizes coexistence and communal harmony between Muslims and non-Muslims; the second stresses a continuous history of either latent or actual sectarian strife between allegedly antagonistic religious communities.