Professor Rima Majed, in her talk at the New York Office, pushed back against the idea that sectarianism is the main driver of the conflict in the Middle East and the primary narrative through which the region's conflicts might be understood. She says that while the sectarianism remains an important political reality, it does not touch on many of the underlying forces driving activity in the region. “Sectarianism is a readily available framework, a kind of fast food," Majed says. The bulk of her work as an academic has focused on deconstructing the sectarian narrative and its origins.
“Political scientists in the 1950s and 60s were preoccupied with the questions of democracy and stability. Can we apply liberal western democracy to those post-war societies?" They came to the conclusion, Majed says, that the ethno-sectarian divisions in newly-independent countries meant that they had to be treated differently; regular democracy assumes a degree of flexibility and openness to dialogue lacking in those countries. Hence their being classified as “deeply-divided."
“This is where theories of consociational democracy came about. It started as a discussion about divided systems and became a discussion about divided societies," she says. “Academics always want to have an impact on policy. Well, in this subfield, they're literally shaping how we're writing constitutions." Implicit in the system of consociational democracy is the idea “that at any level below the leader if people talk to each other it's going to be a civil war."
Majed pokes holes in this paradigm, starting with the definitions that underpin it. “How are we defining [sectarianism]? Are we talking about social sectarianism? Are we looking at religion? Are we talking about it as a legal system? Are we talking about it as a political phenomenon?"
And she wonders why, given prevailing social conditions in the West, this paradigm has only been applied to developing countries. “If we are coming up with policy prescriptions based on what society is, why doesn't the US figure in this literature of deeply divided societies? Is race not a deep division?"
Ultimately, she calls for a change in terminology. “Instead of talking about sectarianism, we should be talking about sectarianization." This is because the phenomenon of sectarian conflict that pundits see as central to understanding the Middle East should be treated not as a 'given', but rather as a constructed and permanently changing one. She says that various social inequalities—sharpened during the spread of the neoliberal economic system—are being exploited by “political entrepreneurs."
“Think protestant Catholics in the United States versus in Northern Ireland. Why is it a religion [in the United States] and a sectarian divide [in Northern Ireland]? There's an active effort at politicizing it [in Northern Ireland], right?"
“Lebanon, for example, has had four main shifts in sectarian dichotomies, from Druze-Maronite, to Sunni-Maronite, to Christian-Muslim, to Sunni-Shia. So clearly these are not enduring. So why base a policy prescription on something so unstable?"
In attacking the sectarianism narrative, Majed has also attacked the idea that diversity predisposes a society to violence, and that people who don't worship in the same way or have the same history or ethnic background are bound to spontaneously attack the other. “Wars are not social explosions, they are political decisions. They require funding, arms, leaders, fighters. So it doesn't just happen overnight. Some of the most socially sectarian people I've interviewed are people who haven't participated in violence."
She equally opposes the idea that if we desegregate societies, everyone “will realize we're all humans, that we all have ears and eyes, we'll love each other." Instead she points to conditions, like unequal access to capital and services that predispose a country to sectarian violence; research shows conflict is lower in states that provide their citizens with a strong social safety net. “So why is this not taken seriously? Given what the research shows, why are constitutions not saying, you should redistribute wealth in a certain way?"
She says that a delicate balance must be struck when it comes to politicizing identities. Repeating narratives of identity politics in the media can serve to retrench those narratives in people's minds. “It's a self-fulfilling prophecy." Yet politicization can be necessary when it comes to righting past wrongs committed along gender, ethnic, or racial lines. In those cases, “you politicize but it's a first step toward depoliticizing in the long run."
Professor Sarah Parkinson characterized the sect versus sectarianism dynamic as “how people live their lives versus how actors politicize those lives.” She spoke of her fieldwork experiences, how in Saida and Sour most of the Palestinian families were intermarried. She also discussed the distinction between responses to political and social questions given to outsiders versus not. People respond to outsiders with a narrative that can be easily consumed. "For some it can be hard to think about families or communities who fought each other," she says.