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Scholar: Middle Eastern Conflicts Bound in Orientalist Narratives

Historians and journalists should not use sectarianist narratives to explain conflicts in the Middle East
By: Roba Mazroua

An over-emphasis on sectarianism in Middle East conflicts obscures the deeper complexities of war, says Professor of History at Rice University Ussama Makdisi.

Duirng a lecture titled “The Imperative Of Historical Juxtaposition, Secularism, And Sectarianism In Comparative Perspective”, Makdisi challenged the common and authoritative use of sectarianism in the Middle East as a narrative to explain conflict.

His argument is based on his belief that segregation of different ethnic and racial groups is a colonial and Zionist construct exploited for political gains.

This was driven by his personal experience of the Lebanese Civil War, where vicious inter and intra-faith disputes evolved and continued to inform Lebanon’s sectarian identity today.

This is not to say that sectarianism did not have earlier manifestations in the Middle East — Makdisi argued that the concept was repeatedly used in the 19th century when the  entire Arab World  – save for Morocco – was under Ottoman control.

The transition of the Ottoman Empire from a Christian to a Muslim entity ruling over non-Muslim subjects led to a number of atrocities and feelings of injustice among distinct Christian citizens.

But segregation and sectarianism is not limited to the Middle East.

There  were also other examples of segregation in the West; Makdisi integrated the Jim Crow Laws, which were introduced in the United States after the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, as a system of excluding blacks and other persons of color.

This system, which was largely built on the “separate but equal” rule, was an attempt to institute racial segregation in all political, economic and social aspects of American life.

This apparent constriction of the civil rights and liberties of African Americans consequently led to massive clashes, particularly in Southern states, until the rise of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that provided black emancipation.

Makdisi further added that the fact that segregation existed so prominently in one of the world’s biggest powers challenges the Western orientalist perception of Arabs.

This view most prominently depicts Arabs as non-developing inferiors, who are bound by the sectarianism and inequality in their cultures.

He also used the history of the Arab World’s sectarian conflicts to document the Western obsession with sectarianism in the region.

He recalled the Damascus Massacre in July 1860, which took place during the Ottoman rule and resulted in the mass extermination of Christians.

This, in turn, triggered Western newspapers to document this event from a biased and orientalist understanding of Middle Eastern politics.

“Alternatively, the Damascus Massacre was not covered by any other Arab account in an attempt to effectively censor the discussion about those sectarian issues so that the world would not use those discussions to divide them further,” he said.

Just as the Damascus Massacre’s showed the grotesque brutalities being committed in the name of religion, it also included positive examples of inter-faith unity.

One of the prominent Muslim figures featured is Abdel-Kader Jazaeri, an Algerian prince who protested against French colonization.

He witnessed the massacre during his exile to Syria and had a significant role in saving the lives of thousands of Christians.

Consequently, Makdisi argued that Arabs should be able to unapologetically write about their own history in order to extract authentic non-fabricated lessons from them.

World War I, for instance, was another major global event that stemmed from European racism and segregation .

Yet, as Makdisi pointed out, the ideology of coexistence between Christians and Muslims never faded, but managed to get stronger.

Around the same historic period is another event that marked the co-existence and alignment of Coptic and Muslim voices against British colonial rule and completely challenge the rise of sectarianism in the East, namely the 1919 Egyptian Revolution.

Makdisi ended by directing the public’s attention to the importance of deconstructing concepts such as sectarianism that are constantly taken for granted.

Censorship, he argues, prevents adequate interpretation of massive sectarian disputes in Middle Eastern history.

“The Middle East’s image will be totally enhanced if those globalized misconceptions about the regions have been restructured and re-evaluated, along with the help of Arab writers to document their own history without the Western assistance,” said Nahla Mohamed, a political science junior during the event.

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