Studies 20 February, 2018

The Question of Sectarianism and the Manufacturing of Minorities in the Greater Arab Mashreq

Azmi Bishara

Azmi Bishara is the General Director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies and a member of its Executive Board. A prominent researcher and writer, Bishara has published numerous books and academic papers in political thought, social theory, and philosophy, in addition to several literary works. He was Professor of Philosophy and History of Political Thought at Birzeit University, from 1986 to 1996. He also co-founded Muwatin, the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy, and Mada al-Carmel, the Arab Center for Applied Social Research. Bishara was the principal founder of the National Democratic Assembly (Balad), a Palestinian-Arab party inside the Green Line, which supports democratic values irrespective of religious, ethnic or national identity. For four consecutive session, from 1996-2007, he represented his party as an elected member of parliament. In 2007, Bishara was persecuted for his political positions at the hands of the Israeli authorities, and currently resides in Qatar. He is the recipient of the Ibn Rushd Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2002 and the Global Exchange Human Rights Award in 2003.

In its contemporary definition, Bishara argues that political sectarianism is the product of the interaction between a pre-existing social system, modern colonialism, the postcolonial state, and the way in which the state was constructed. Based on institutionalized, or semi-institutionalized quotas for sects, political sectarianism, though primarily operating within the framework of the state, may also be employed transnationally to strengthen ties of solidarity, or for external interference in other states. The paper observes the difference between the Arab-nationalist path (a unifying national culture founded upon a common language) and that of the nation-state (based on citizenship enshrining political and social rights) on the one hand, and sectarianism on the other. These two historical paths represent a means for assimilation that cut across the division of society into tribal or regional groups. In sum, in the Arab Mashreq, Arab nationalism is not the antithesis of the nation state, but rather one of the foundations for its unity. The alternative, argues Bishara, is sectarian, tribal or regional fragmentation. Bishara offers the case of Lebanon and Iraq as examples in the transformation of the religious or confessional community into the political sect and refers to political religiosity, noting that in multi-confessional societies, politicized religiosity automatically turns into political sectarianism. This can be seen in the process of the transformation and dismantling of “other” groups, religions, or confessions into minorities, and the behavior of the majorities as a sects; as if they were minorities. Monitoring these transformations, warns Bishara, constitutes the biggest challenge confronting Arab researchers examining sectarianism. It is sectarianism that produces sects, as imagined entities, and not vice versa in the contemporary period. 

To read the full text of this paper, click on the link above or here to download a PDF version. The Arabic version of this study was originally published in Issue 11 (Winter, 2015) of Omran, a scholarly quarterly published by the ACRPS and devoted to the social sciences and humanities.