On Sectarianism and Utopias

“An emancipated society, on the other hand, would not be a unitary state, but the realization of universality in the reconciliation of differences.” Theodor Adorno

Pervasive problems can give rise to insidious solutions. Sectarianism in the Middle East is often cited as the root of most, if not all, of the region’s problems. Western and Middle Eastern thinkers alike treat sect as an outdated, archaic tribal institution that must be done away with if the region is ever to see some sort of “progress.”

The construction of an alternative ideology that supersedes sect and has support across sectarian barriers is often touted as the only way to get rid of hostility between different sects. This is seen throughout secular discourse in the region. For example, a Lebanese would advocate for this by saying, “When will we stop belonging to sect X or sect Y. When will we all just be Lebanese?” or, alternatively, “When will we all just be Lebanese first?”

This view, as well as any other view that aims to replace or deprioritize sect with a nationalist or supra-nationalist ideology (Pan-Arab nationalism, Greater Syrian nationalism) will not lead to any sort of salvation for the region.

While it is true that the pervasive sectarian sentiments (i.e. feeling of belonging to a sect, not necessarily animosity towards other sects) amongst many in the Middle East are not ‘inherent,’ nor are they the product of ‘ancient battles,’ as some assert, for the time being, they are here to stay. To think we can construct an ideology out of thin air is not only ambitious, but is also a form of elitism. People are not fickle sheep whereby you can construct an alternative ideology and expect them to instantly follow suit.

That is why when so many have tried, from Saddam Hussein to Hafez al-Assad (no doubt, while also utilizing sectarianism when they thought it would serve them), they encountered resistance from many segments of society. First, a note: the claim that Saddam and Hafez were themselves sectarian leaders is a false one. Whereas both depended on their communities for much of their diehard support, Saddam never posited himself as Leader of the Sunnis, nor did Hafez posit himself as King of the Alawites. They both posited themselves as nationalist leaders of their respective nations, and supported this with a national, not sectarian, narrative. Nor did they want to simply be leaders of their sects. They wanted to be leaders of nations. The simple fact that they often appealed to sect for help and support does not negate this fact.

The reason why advocacy of an alternative ideology to replace sect is elitist and authoritarian is because the only way the national narrative or ideology can survive is by stamping out any resistance to the rule and ideology, which is exactly what the dictators did. From Shias and Kurds in Iraq, to Sunnis in Hama, the imposition of a supra-sect plan will inevitably lead to resistance (militarily or discursively). The supra-sect plan can only succeed if this resistance is crushed. In other words, the only way these supposedly inclusive ideologies can survive is to bathe them in the blood of those who reject it. Otherwise, they will fail.

Therefore, the argument that sectarianism is the root of conflict in the region, and thus, we must get rid of it, is not the answer we have been looking for, as getting rid of it requires conflict and bloodshed as well. Centralized authoritarianism is not much more appealing than de-centralized sectarian hostility.

Even when it does look like it is working, as in Syria before the uprising, this can simply be a facade that veils sectarianism brewing under the surface. Despite jolly tales of coexistence before the uprising, it is evident now that sectarian hostility can spring up very easily, even after being curbed or ignored. Pretending that sectarian tension and differences did not exist did not accomplish anything in Syria. On the contrary, it made sectarian hostility emerge with a vengeance. That is because the differences between sects were never reconciled. They were simply ignored. They were not resolved. They were just brushed under the rug.

The utopia where sect does not exist, or is no longer an issue, will not come about through utopian means. Thus, it would be wise to no longer picture a utopia whereby sect disappears in favor of something more ‘inclusive.’ The ideal should be a situation whereby sects recognize their differences, but embrace them. The fact that sects differ in their beliefs, traditions, and customs does not inevitably lead to animosity. These differences can be reconciled and celebrated, rather than done away with. Indeed, this is the most realistic and least “idealistic” option. What this will look like in practice is not so clear. However, what the alternatives look like in practice is clear: centralized nationalist authoritarianism, or sectarian hatred, bigotry, and conflict.

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