Sectarianism, Identity and Conflict in Islamic Contexts:
Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
April 15-17, 2016
The Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies and the Middle East and Islamic Studies Program at George Mason University, together with the Arab Studies Institute, organized a two-day conference, “Sectarianism, Identity and Conflict in Islamic Contexts: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” on April 15-17, 2016 at George Mason University’s main campus in Fairfax, Virginia. Composed of a keynote address delivered by Ussama Makdisi of Rice University and five panels, the conference brought together more than twenty academics and policy experts to discuss sectarianism. Conference organizers underlined that they wanted to capture the complexity of sectarianism as a tempo-historically specific phenomenon, rather than a static expression that is explained away as an expression of religious dogmatism.
The organizers encouraged the participants to bring forth nuanced, contextually and conceptually rich analysis rather than sectarianism’s more simplistic explanations that dominate most popular as well as some media and academic analysis today. The conference aimed to unpack sectarian framing of identities and conflicts and expose forced dichotomies created around the concept.
The conference opened on the evening of April 15 with a keynote address by Ussama Makdisi. Makdisi provided a nuanced historical analysis of the “discursive framing of sectarianism,” especially in the Middle East. He argued that a long and problematic tradition of scholarship on the Middle East helped perpetuate sectarianism as an “inevitable” outcome in the region. Similarly, this approach presented sectarianism as the result of “age old social and political divisions,” as President Obama put it. Makdisi emphasized that racism in America and Europe was not studied in the same fashion as the phenomenon of sectarianism in the Middle East. He explained the processes by which an ecumenical language and understanding of difference was slowly replaced with a sectarian alternative especially in the nineteenth century.
Over the next two days the conference focused on unpacking sectarianism and its historical and contemporary iterations in multiple geographic areas. In the first panel, titled “Historical and Theoretical Approaches to Sectarianism,” Sumaiya Hamdani explored contending approaches to religious difference within Islam. Building on Makdisi’s keynote speech, Tariq al-Jamil focused on Orientalist scholarship and construction of sectarianism into Orientalist historiography. Mark Farha’s presentation examined how states often exploit sectarian fault lines. Finally, focusing on post-Arab Spring Egypt, Jeffrey Kenney explored the discursive and practical political battle in the context of the “kharijite” label in Egypt.
The second panel on April 16 explored dynamics and processes around sectarianism in Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan. In his presentation on Lebanon, Alex Henley explored the complex relationship between the country’s multi-confessional religious leadership and personal status regime. In a paper about Iraq’s religious learning centers across the Sunni and Shi’i communities, Abdulaziz Sachedina questioned whether sectarian dynamics can be overcome in order to help re-build Iraq. Concluding the panel was Joas Wagemakers’ paper on Salafi politics in Jordan. Wagemakers examined how anti-Shi’i Salafism was often utilized by the state.
The third panel of the conference focused on the Saudi Arabian context where sectarianism poses often complex dynamics and difficult questions for researchers. In this panel, Natana Delong-Bas and Toby Matthiessen focused on the religious hegemony in the Kingdom and the ruling family- both factors that influence not only local but also regional and global dynamics around sectarianism. Both scholars highlighted the sensitive nature of Saudi Arabia’s Shi’i population.
Recognizing the need to deconstruct popular misconceptions about the complexities of the Iraqi and Syrian cases, the conference specifically invited six leading experts with significant experience in both countries to speak about sectarianism and ISIS. Bassam Haddad provided an overall conceptual and historical perspective, highlighting the need to go beyond media accounts in understanding sectarianism in Iraq and Syria.
Mouin Rabbani, Ali Sada and Nir Rosen each provided significant data from the ground, especially highlighting the discursive appeal of a sectarian language in both countries. Fanar Haddad focused on Iraqi history and how ISIS interacts with and exploits that history. Christopher Anzalone focused on the evolution and make up of Middle East’s Al-Qaida affiliated militant groups.
The last panel of the conference explored sectarianism in three geographic contexts: Africa, Indonesia, and Yemen. Mara Leichtaman’s paper presented a case study of a Lebanese community in Senegal, while Diana Coleman examined the interactions between Nahdatul Ulama and a Hadrami diasporic community in Java. Finally, Charles Schmitz provided a historical overview of sectarian dynamics in Yemen and then presented complexities of contemporary Yemeni experience with sectarianism.
The three-day conference served to highlight fluid, often misunderstood and under-contextualized, identities and their relationship with sectarian dynamics. While the papers presented were diverse in their disciplinary and methodological approaches, they came together nicely in providing a nuanced analysis of the complex processes that engender sectarian identities. Scholars, journalists and community activists interacted with a diverse audience throughout the two-day conference and underlined the need to further case-studies that diligently unpack how sectarianism presents itself in today’s world.
In an effort to amplify exposure and diversify public debate the conference organizers decided to share the papers with wider audience and in different formats. The papers will be presented across multiple platforms and in different formats: short blog posts, academic articles and videos.
Friday April 15 – Merten Hall Room 1201
Saturday April 16 – Merten Hall Room 1201
Panel I: Historical and Theoretical Approaches to Sectarianism
Panel II: Sectarian Issues in the Contemporary Middle East
Panel III: Sectarianism & the Shi’ite Minority in Saudi Arabia
Panel IV: Conflict, Sectarianism, and ISIS in Iraq and Syria: Causes and Prospects
Sunday April 17 – Merten Hall Room 1201
Panel V: Sectarian Rhetoric and Politics in Africa, Indonesia, and Yemen