The Third Annual Conference on Issues of Democratic Governance came to a close on Monday, September 15, at Jordan’s Dead Sea. This year’s meeting was focused on the question of sectarianism in Arab societies, raising the issue of how the ethnic and confessional diversity of Arab countries impacted the prospects for democracy to take hold within Arab states. Dr. Azmi Bishara, General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies provided the participants with the background to the question, by contrasting the way in which sectarian diversity has been posed as an alternative to true democracy: instead of a representative system of government allowing for individual expression for all citizens, sectarian diversity held out to the disenfranchised masses of Arab societies the chance at political power, provided that they identify with the elites of their own sects, both lay and clerical. Events taking place throughout the region made clear how there was an immediate and pressing need to resolve these underlying, fundamental issues.

While there was a consensus on the need to create a citizenship-based sense of national identity to replace sub-national identities as represented by ethnic and sectarian affiliations, there was also a difference of opinion on how to best achieve that. The tensions are most clearly represented in the conflicting loyalties of nation-state patriotism and a broader Arab nationalism: while Bishara’s opening address emphasized the importance of Arab nationalism as an identity which could serve as a counterweight to sectarianism, Haidar Said, an Iraqi scholar who spoke on the second day of the meeting, chose to depict Arab nationalism as “another form of sectarianism”. Such difficulties arise when Arabism becomes—in contrast to the political, linguistic and cultural identity adopted by Bishara—a byword for an ethnic tribalism, and in particular in states such as Iraq, where there are competing ethnic identities.

Another feature that was brought into sharper focus during the proceedings was the geographical diversity of the Arab region, and the consequent diversity of human experiences within the Arab countries. Two exceptional case studies were exemplified by Algeria and Oman. Although spread across opposite extremities—the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula and the western end of the North African shore—both of these countries are host to Ibadi Muslim communities, the modern-day successor to the Kharijite movement in medieval Iraq. Omani researcher Ahmad al Ismaili pointed out one fairly large difference between his home country and the rest of the Arab region: while most of the Arab countries were centered on the Mediterranean Basin and its accumulated religious heritage spanning the Classical Era and the Monotheistic faiths, Oman had been orientated towards the world of the Indian Ocean for centuries, becoming isolated from the cultural trends which shaped the rest of the Middle East. A similar process had allowed an Ibadi identity to form in southern Algeria, where there was no need to conform with the demands a central authority. With modernization, however, came the need to relate to a central state authority, and thus a sectarian tension was born—a theme which had been discussed previously in Bishara’s opening address. 

The significance of conflicts between varying Islamic confessions notwithstanding, tensions between Muslim and Christian populations, prominent since the mid-nineteenth century, were also discussed at the meeting. Former Lebanese minister Tarek Mitri, tackled the sensitive issue of Christian-Muslim relations head-on. Opening the second day of the meeting, Mitri spoke of the economic imperatives which had driven large sections of the Christian community across the Levant—Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan—to emigrate West during the late Ottoman era. Latterly however, stressed Mitri, the rise of extremist Islamist groups had created a fear amongst Christians in the region which accelerated this drive to emigrate. Compounded by a relatively smaller fertility within Christian families, the result was that the Christian communities in the Levant were an acute minority in the region in which Christianity was born.

Only by Recognizing the Problem can it be Solved

Mitri’s open attitude to the discussion of the threats which faced the Christian community—echoed on the following day by comments from the floor by Habin Afram—were a hallmark of the conference, and of the roundtable discussion which concluded it. Long shrouded behind a cloak of political correctness and societal decorum, the ACRPS conference in the Dead Sea was a rare opportunity for scholars and commentators from a variety of Arab countries to discuss the relief of societal tensions. Iraqi academic Haidar Said, speaking during the roundtable, described this new air of openness “the most important contribution which this conference has made” to the public debate.

The severity of the challenges facing the Arab countries no doubt played a role in this new frankness, but the prospective exploitation of the region’s sectarian diversity as a pretext for intervention by colonialist powers, a long standing sore point, continued to be a part of the participants’ deliberations. Chairing the roundtable discussion, Ali Muhafza made clear that the Arab region’s confessional diversity was “deeply rooted in history”, and that diversity was not, in and of itself, the cause of societal tensions. Rather, it was “the way in which we have dealt with this reality”, and the way in which the Arabs had ignored, he said, “the fact that Western imperialist powers had sought to divide societies along sectarian lines”.