Religious and sectarian interpretations of political conflict

Religious and sectarian interpretations of political conflict
Comment: Globalisation has led to division rather than union in the world, argues Regis Debray, and in the Middle East, sect and religion again denote identities.
5 min read
31 Mar, 2015
Sectarian differences are being amplified in the Middle East [AFP]

There are several hotbeds of conflict and tension in the Arab region, prompting a flurry of analyses that more often than not focus on the sectarian factor in explaining events.

This is in line with "Orientalist" analyses that can only see the conflicts in the region through the Sunni v Shia filter. This narrative is reinforced by the existence of political forces that have a sectarian discourse.

Clash of culture

Internationally, the religious-civilisational interpretation of conflict is widespread. The narrative that follows violent acts such as the 9/11 attacks in the United States, or the Charlie Hebso massacre in France recently, focuses on the crisis between Islam and the Christian (or Judeo-Christian) West.

This is despite Western politicians rushing to pick their favourite version of Islam and discard other versions, and insist on invoking the "civilisational" dimension when interpreting events.

The issue here is a return of religion to the forefront of political conflicts. This is an important subject of discussion in the West, as well as in the Arab world.

A debate bringing together French philosopher Regis Debray and Lebanese historian and economist Georges Corm organised by the French magazine Afrique Asie, had tackled the causes and manifestations of the return of religious identities to the forefront of political discourses around the world.

Debray noted that there is a return to Confucius's tradition in China, while Russia is reconciling itself with its Orthodox roots, the Shinto is doing well in Japan, and religion remains highly relevant in US politics.

Debray argued that religions are useful in creating the enemies that every community needs in order to assert its own identity.

The French philosopher said that globalisation produces cultural-political Balkanisation, and that contrary to the illusion that it transforms the world into a global village and abolishes differences and ideologies. What happens, he said, is that more differences are created because technological homogeneity creates a sense of a lack of belonging and loss of identity.

     Debray argued that religions are useful in creating enemies that every community needs.

The homogeneity that globalisation preaches, argued Debray, reproduces identity markers and differences where religion is better able to address the globalisation-induced alienation because it is older than ideologies, as Debray said.

George Corm agreed with the diagnosis related to globalisation, but in the context of the failures of the export of European secular nationalisms to the third world.

Concerning the religious question, Corm did not see it as something spontaneous, but rather as something related to the political exploitation of religion as a deliberate act supported by colonial powers.

Cold war lessons

The examples he cites are the war on communism using religion, the war on secular nationalisms in the third world led by Western powers, and the collaboration with fundamentalist groups to counter leftist groups in the world.

Consequently, Corm believes the growth of the religious phenomenon is not spontaneous but is in part the work of colonial powers.

Corm argued that neoliberalism itself amplified this regression to identity politics, and cites what some Anglo-Saxon theorists have called a global market of religions and ethnicities, which presents itself in commercial, media and even academic forms.

The religious factor in politics cannot be considered in isolation from the pragmatic use of religion in mobilising and rallying people, especially by colonial powers in the nations they seek to dominate.

The colonial powers revive ethnic and religious divisions to conquer and control, and the examples of this are too many to count, whether in the Arab world or the developing world generally.

Dobray, despite admitting to this, believes that the existence of the sectarian factor should not be denied, citing the historical Sunni-Shia divide in the context of conflicts in the Arab region, past and present.

Religious identities

Corm does not agree with this narrative, and argues that religions cannot be all placed in one basket. He also argues that religions are not standalone entities, but rather, says that it is people who shape religions and their rituals differently in each era.

In addition to all this, Corm insists that adherents of religions are not monolithic blocks, where each member of the religious community has the same ideas and behaviours. For this reason, the Sunni and Shia narrative to him is not the key to explaining conflicts or a serious and reliable narrative to begin with.

The debate highlights the impact of the political resurgence of religious and sectarian identities on the analysis of current conflicts, including analyses that purport the historical conflict among religious-sectarian identities persists and influences present-day conflicts.

However, the notion of the sect as it is proposed today is in fact the product of modernism. Some forces in the present conflicts in the region use historical Islamic symbols to create a collective memory for different religious communities, to establish sectarian political entities that use historical symbols for mobilisation towards worldly objectives related to power, influence, and quotas within countries, rather than to settle contentious issues in Islamic history, as some might imagine.

Perhaps the task of the Arab intellectual who refuses to reduce conflicts in the region to sectarian interpretations then, is to shed light on worldly factors shaping these conflicts, such as the contradiction among political projects in the region that seek worldly gains, even if they dress themselves in religious and sectarian garb.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.