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Sectarian Polarisation in the Middle East

Photos by Dr. Jehan Al-Azzawi

'Ancient sectarian hatreds are tropes we often come across in public discussion of the Middle East', noted Dr Jehan Al Azzawi, seminar leader of the UNHS summer course. Seminar attendees were alerted to the fact that this perspective has the effect of making conflict seem intractable. At least a conflict so appears whilst entrenched communal animosities persist.'

Throughout the first session of UN House Scotland's new summer seminar series, Contemporary Political Identities in the Middle East, Dr Al Azzawi criticised the widespread perception in the West of sectarian identities being the prime factor behind political conflicts in the Middle East.

As a consequence of this perception, Dr Al Azzawi argued that countries where sectarian violence occurs are viewed as resistant to modern political organisation. In the policy arena, this characterisation of violence in the Middle East – as ancient and intractable – has ignited a debate about the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement and the ‘artificial’ borders this colonial era agreement established in the region. This suggests that the present-day borders of the Middle East should be re-drawn to establish more homogenous nation-states. However, Dr Al Azzawi argued that this conclusion is based on radical and classically orientalist views.

The first session of the seminar series was dedicated to sectarianism. Through discussion, participants were able to challenge this concept as the primary frame of reference that informs contemporary Western approaches to the Middle East. The diverse background of participants ensured a holistic understanding of the subject from different cultural and academic viewpoints.

Focussing on media analysis of the Middle East, the session enabled participants to engage with critical scholarship. By understanding processes of conflicts, formations of ethno-religious identities, societal fragmentation and the process-oriented notion of “sectarianisation”, exchanges during the session unveiled ideas that go beyond sectarian approaches to explaining conflict and violence in the Middle East. Drawing on the example of Iraq, the discussion highlighted other important factors that help explain sectarian conflict in the country. These include a holistic understanding of the history and development of different political identities throughout Iraq’s modern history, the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, and the performance of Iraq’s post-war governments.

Dr Al Azzawi also showcased how moving beyond popular starting points of analysis of the Middle East today also removes the label of “intractability” associated with conflicts in the region.

Orientalism remained an important conceptual thread throughout the discussions. The concept of Orientalism was coined by the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said. The concept is used to explain the study of orient civilisations (civilisations of India, China, Japan and Muslims) and near orient civilisations (the Arab lands or territories associated with Islam) by western scholars. Such studies are usually marked by stereotypes and prejudices that depict the orient cultures as needing help to civilise and rid themselves of backwardness.

This week's session was just a small taster of what is to come in UN House Scotland's Seminar Series this summer. Held every Wednesday in June and July, Contemporary Political Identities of the Middle East will address a range of topical issues in the Middle East. Some of the topics Dr Al Azzawi will talk about are identity politics in Lebanon, Islamist political identities and identity politics after the Arab Spring. The course is highly recommended for those interested in politics of the Middle East or discourses associated with conflict studies and identity politics. The next seminar will be on Lebanon on Wednesday 13 June.

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