Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Moving Beyond Orientalist Fantasy, Sectarian Polemic, and Nationalist Denial

Iraqi Arab shaykhs (tribal leaders), from the Sunni district of Adhamiyya and the adjacent Shi'i district of Kadhimiyya, meet as what they are, countrymen, at the 'Unity Bridge,' a bridge linking the two districts across the Tigris River, at a re-opening ceremony held today in Baghdad. The bridge has been closed since 2005, when mortar attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents, and rumors that suicide bombers were amidst a large crowd of Arab Shi'i pilgrims, created a panicked stampede which left over 1,000 people dead.

"This bridge is the symbol of the true spirit and solidarity of the Iraqi people," said Shaykh Salah al-Haydari, a religious leader fro
m the Shi'i district of Kadhimiyya, on the west bank of the Tigris River, which houses a major Shi'i shrine where two of the Twelver Shi'i Imams are buried. "It is a day of joy for the Iraqi people because we have shown to the world that we are one united people," he added.

Adhamiyya houses a major Sunni shrine, that of Imam Abu Hanifa al-Nu'man, the founder of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, one of the four major surviving schools of Sunni jurisprudence. The imam is buried inside the shrine. When the two districts were controlled by Shi'i and Sunni militias and insurgents, attacks from one district on the other, often in the form of rockets, mortars, and automatic weapons' fire, was not uncommon. The militias and insurgents have largely been driven out, thankfully.

Pensée 4: Moving Beyond Orientalist Fantasy, Sectarian Polemic,
and Nationalist Denial

By Ussama Makdisi

Professor of History, Rice University

International Journal of Middle East Studies
(2008), Vol. 40, No. 4: 559-560

The notion of sectarianism can be useful in understanding the Middle East. As in India and Ireland, sectarian (or communal) identities have been crucial to the elaboration of modern politics in many parts of the region. Unlike India and Ireland today, however, the Middle East is subject to American domination. The result is that the study of Middle Eastern sectarianism is extraordinarily politicized. As scholars struggle to study sectarianism in such a climate, they need to recognize—and, ideally, find a way to move beyond—several problematic assumptions.

First, the term “sectarianism” more often than not conjures up notions of age-old religious struggles that date back to the 7th century, if not earlier. That is because most people think of sectarianism as religion in violent motion and hence believe that the same religious struggles are reenacted perpetually over time. Rather than emphasizing the religious aspect of sectarianism, and thus encouraging distorted and historically untenable comparisons, we ought to put politics first in order to think of sectarianism as what it is: politics organized along sectarian lines. Instead of trying to come up with some universal theory of sectarianism, we should historicize and trace the evolution of specific sectarian arrangements, laws, institutions, and structures in the modern Middle East. Sectarianism, as I understand it, refers to a process—not an object, not an event, and certainly not a primordial trait. It is a process through which a kind of religious identity is politicized, even secularized, as part of an obvious struggle for power.

Second, and flowing directly from the first point, is the imperative that we as scholars of the Middle East unburden ourselves once and for all of the need to explain every instance of sectarian conflict as if it were in some way related to every other. The story we tell in the modern world is a modern one, not a medieval one. Those interested in the medieval world should not feel compelled to relate their research immediately or even necessarily to the modern. We would not for a moment ask a historian of medieval Europe to explain an American Protestant fundamentalist such as John Hagee from San Antonio; yet scholars who are medievalists by training (Bernard Lewis, RIGHT, is the obvious example) are repeatedly asked to comment on, and to draw connections between, the medieval Muslim world and contemporary Islamist figures. This medievalization of modern sectarianism confuses the ideological with the historical. It also conveniently ignores the crucial role of Western imperialism in shaping the political context within which modern bouts of sectarian violence in the Middle East have occurred.

Third, we should recognize that the problem with the traditional Orientalist paradigm of sectarianism, which began crystallizing in the 19th century and has quite literally exploded following the events of 9/11, is not that it has highlighted the discriminatory aspect of Islamic rule in the Middle East. There was indeed religious discrimination in the Ottoman Empire, and there are today real sectarian fears and hatreds. Rather, the Orientalist paradigm has mistakenly sought to naturalize Muslim–Christian (and later) Muslim–Jewish violence in the modern Middle East as an age-old religious feud rather than a modern political struggle. The problem with the Orientalist paradigm, even more, is that it judges—not simply analyzes—sectarianism in the Orient as something utterly unconnected to the West, something that had no parallel in the West, something that emanated from an Oriental or Turkish or Arab deficiency, something tied to an innate fanaticism absent in the supposedly liberal West. The Orientalist paradigm of sectarianism, in short, is suffused with assumptions not only about Islam, the East, the Ottomans, Lebanon, and Iraq, but also with a core assumption about the liberalism of the West. To criticize the Orientalist paradigm of sectarianism—to question the notion of religious violence as an expression of immutable and atavistic religious solidarities in the East—we must take issue with not only what it says about the East but also what it assumes about the putatively “tolerant” West.

Fourth, if Orientalists such as Lewis are promoting Orientalist fantasies of both the East and the West, nationalists—Arab or Turkish or Lebanese or Iraqi—have, in acute denial, proposed their own paradigm in an equally one-dimensional manner. Although Orientalists insist that sectarianism is an endemic condition, nationalists insist that sectarianism has no relationship to modern national concerns, that it has no basis in modern thought, that it is an anachronistic, unnatural force stirred up by an imperial will to divide and rule, something antithetical to national coexistence. In place of agency or responsibility, nationalists emphasize foreign agents and conspiracies.

In place of Orientalist fantasy, sectarian polemic, or nationalist denial scholars need to insert common sense. Our task is to understand and study manifestations of religious identity within specific local and historical contexts: how and why and in what context it has been mobilized, affected, transformed, and enacted. When it comes to the modern Middle East, from 19th-century Mount Lebanon to Mandatory Palestine to American-occupied Iraq, this often, if not invariably, means acknowledging the intersection between Western intervention and local aspirations. Sectarianism in the modern Middle East reflects a set of unequal choices made by unequal players. It is this unequal relationship that has so often created the problem we seek to study. To have any meaning to scholars, sectarianism as discourse and practice must always be historicized.

Ussama Makdisi is Professor of History and the first holder of the Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair of Arab Studies at Rice University. He is the author of The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon (University of California Press, 2000). He is also the author of “Anti-Americanism in the Arab World: An Interpretation of Brief History” which appeared in the Journal of American History and “Ottoman Orientalism” and “Reclaiming the Land of the Bible: Missionaries, Secularism, and Evangelical Modernity” both of which appeared in the American Historical Review. Makdisi's latest book is Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Cornell University Press, 2007).

In Artillery of Heaven, Makdisi presents a foundational American encounter with the Arab world that occurred in the nineteenth century, shortly after the arrival of the first American Protestant missionaries in the Middle East. He tells the dramatic tale of the conversion and death of As'ad Shidyaq, the earliest Arab convert to American Protestantism. The struggle over this man's body and soul—and over how his story might be told—changed the actors and cultures on both sides.


ISCZ said...

Mutashakarin, ya 'Ali. I discovered Dr. Makdisi's work through his brilliantly written book on the first American missionaries to the Middle East. I, in fact, am doing my dissertation on these men, using a Saidian mode of analysis to examine their collected works.

Did you know that Makdisi is Said's nephew?

Thanks for making this lecture available. Brilliant insights, as usual.


Anonymous said...

It is funny that Makdisi thinks that a historian of the Middle Ages by training is unable to theorize accurately on the modern world, but does not mind Edward Said, who is a linguist by training, theorizing about Orientalism.