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Ed Webb

Coexistence, Sectarianism and Racism - An Interview with Ussama Makdisi - MERIP - 0 views

  • What is the ecumenical frame and how does it revise Orientalist understandings of sectarianism?
  • My book seeks to offer a critical and empathetic story of coexistence without defensiveness—that is, to write a history that neither glorifies the Arab past nor denigrates the present and that explores the grim significance of sectarian tensions in the modern Middle East without being seduced by their sensationalism
  • I wanted to understand how they sought to imagine and build a world greater than the sum of their religious or ethnic parts—commitments that remain evident, if one is prepared to recognize them, in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and beyond. I call this modern iteration of coexistence the “ecumenical frame” to underscore the modern active attempt on the part of individuals and communities in the region to both recognize the salience of religious pluralism and yet also to try and transcend sectarian difference into a secular, unifying political community
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  • a project of modern coexistence that not only had to be imagined and designed, but also built
  • to trace how an extraordinary idea of Muslim and Christian and Jewish civic and political community rooted in secular equality went from unimaginability to ubiquity in the course of a single century, and nowhere more so than in the Arab East after 1860
  • subject to conflicting interpretations that valorized “real” religion and demonized sectarianism, often in contradictory and conservative modes, but also in more liberal and even radical ways
  • The Orientalist view of sectarianism frequently analogizes sect as “like race” and, furthermore, it assumes that sectarian differences are inherent cultural and political differences similar to race. What do you think is the relationship of sect to race?  How should race figure in the story of coexistence you relate?
  • the Orientalists idealize the West in order to Orientalize the East. Second, as you suggest, this view transforms religious pluralism in the Middle East into a structure of age-old monolithic antagonistic communities so that one can speak of medieval and modern Maronites, Jews, Muslims and so on as if these have been unchanging communities and as if all ideological diversity in the Middle East ultimately is reducible to religion and religious community
  • The religious sect is conflated with the political sect; the secular is understood to be a thin veneer that conceals the allegedly “real” and unchanging religious essence of the Middle East. This view is dangerous, misleading and tendentious.
  • both race and sect urgently need to be historicized and contextualized—race belongs to US (and Western) political vocabulary; sect to Arab political vocabulary. Both the notion of age-old sects and that of immutable races are ideological fictions that have been manipulated to serve power
  • US scholars Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields have suggested we think of “racecraft” rather than “race relations” to underscore the ideological fundament of racist thinking that appears totally natural to its proponents. As I allude to in my book, so too might we think of “sectcraft” rather than sectarian or communal relations, both to underscore the ideological aspect of sectarianism and to emphasize the amount of work that goes into making sectarianism appear to be inherent, inevitable and unchangeable
  • many scholars gravitate toward using categories and experiences that emerge in the US context and apply them, sometimes indiscriminately and often very problematically, to other parts of the world. I think it is important at some level to respect the fact that in the modern Middle East, progressive scholars and laypeople, men and women belonging to different religious communities, have throughout the twentieth century typically described and conceptualized their struggles against injustice and tyranny as struggles against sectarianism and colonialism, but not necessarily as a struggle against racism.
  • Tribalism, communalism and sectarianism all refer to parallel formations in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East respectively that assume an unchanging essence that separates members of a single sovereignty or putative sovereignty. They are all static ideological interpretations of pluralism, and have all, to a greater or lesser degree, been massively influenced and even in many ways formally classified and invented by Western colonial powers
  • the national polities of the post-Ottoman period in the Arab East were established by European colonial powers. These European powers massively distorted the ecumenical trajectory evident in the late Ottoman Arab East. First, they broke up the region into dependent and weak states, and second, they divided the region along explicitly sectarian lines
  • the colonial dimension is crucial, and it clearly separates the US and the European period of nationalization from that of the colonized Middle East
  • why the investment in and privileging of certain epistemic categories of domination as opposed to others? The question of migrant labor illustrates how race and class and geography and history are intertwined in very specific ways—the Middle Eastern cases (whether the Gulf or in Lebanon) are indeed different from that of the history of migrant labor in the United States, which has always been implicated in settler colonialism.
  • One key difference, of course, between modern Western colonialism and early modern Islamic empires is that the latter, like their early modern Christian counterparts, did not pretend to uphold liberal representation, political equality or self-determination. So, temporality is one essential difference: ethnic, racist or sectarian discrimination in the Islamic empires was not justified or imagined as a benevolent burden to uplift others into an ostensibly equal level of civilization. There was no pretense of a colonial tutelage to help natives achieve independence in the fullness of time
  • In the Ottoman Islamic empire, there were indeed professions of Islamic superiority, notions of ethnic, tribal and religious discrimination, forms of bondage and slavery, and myriad chauvinisms and prejudices tied to kinship, geography, language, culture and ethnicity and so on, but not a notion of biological racism or the obsession with racial segregation and miscegenation that has been the hallmark of modern Western colonialism
  • a new and distinctive defensiveness among leading Muslim Arab intellectuals—that is, their need to defend Islam and Islamic society from missionary and colonial assault whilst also embracing or reconciling themselves to compatriotship with Arab Christians and Jews. This defensiveness persists
  • the great problem of scholars and governments in the West who have long instrumentalized and Orientalized discrimination against non-Muslims to suggest that there is some peculiar problem with Islam and Muslims
  • I think that scholars of gender and women’s history have a lot to teach us in this regard: that is Arab, Turkish, Iranian and other scholars who have explored the long history of gender discrimination—who have defied the fundamentalists—without succumbing to racist Orientalism or self-loathing
  • really historicize! It really is an effective antidote in the face of those who peddle in chauvinism, racism, sectarianism, tribalism and communalism
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