Prof. Ussama Makdisi - A Problem of Politics and History, not Religion

Understanding Sectarianism in the Modern Arab World

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The Emergence of Sectarianism as a Modern Historical Problem

In a full room at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto,Prof. Ussama Makdisi laid out the problem of taking the historical record at face value when analysing the problem of sectarianism in the Arab world. The second lecture in the series, Perspectives on a Changing Middle East, presented by the Bill Graham Centre and the Canadian Arab Institute, explored “The Emergence of Sectarianism as a Modern Historical Problem."  Makdisi talked about wars, Western perspectives of Eastern problems, empires past and present, diversity versus equality, as well as the reconstruction of reality through a closer and more nuanced examination of history.
“Sectarian affiliations are overplayed in the understanding of the Middle East,” stated Makdisi before he proceeded to explain the myth of perpetual co-existence paralleled by the myth of perpetual strife that are often used to characterize the Middle East. These are myths that have been produced and are being reproduced by Western historians, rendering the Middle East as a region that is either idolized or demonized, and that allows for no middle ground.
He explained that sectarianism was part of the nationalism and citizenship that amalgamated in the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe and the Ottoman Empire alike. Sectarianism started to appear after the re-ordering of the Ottoman Empire, and not necessarily at the onset of Islam or the genesis of human life in the Middle East. In order to re-examine that prejudice, Makdisi suggested we study historic conflict through the following prism: was this event a systemic or an episodic one? Had it been done before or was it a one-timer that was hyperbolized to complement the Western myth of perpetual strife?
He emphasized the idea that history is both created by and contingent upon the era in which it’s written, a way of thinking that can be reproduced just as it had been initially produced. If studied well, history can be employed to better reflect on the present. If studied well, it can prove to be open to new interpretations and not carved in stone. It can be deconstructed and used to debunk outdated ideas. “Sectarianism is always a work in progress, not a natural, obvious state,” Makdisi concluded.
Sectarianism, then, is as much invented as it is real, an invention that without the collective agreement of history books may not have existed in the first place. For history books and newspapers can both document and invent historic trends. They can claim a people sectarian and laud another as tolerant. Thus, Makdisi paid homage to the critique of those history books and challenged the discourse typically used to paint the Levant.