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Politics of Sectarianism: Rethinking Religion and Politics in the Middle East

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image of Middle East Law and Governance

Allegations of sectarian violence and discrimination saturate popular and scholarly accounts of developments in the mena region, particularly in the wake of renewed violence in Syria and Iraq. These accounts should sound a warning bell to scholars of religion and politics. The discourse of sectarianism is a modern discourse of religion-in-politics authorized by particular authorities in particular times and places. It relies on a fixed and stable representation of the shifting roles played by that which is named as “religion” or “sect” in politics and society. The complex and often conflicting forces that come together in any given episode of violence or discrimination subvert the stable notions of sectarian motivation and causation that form the bedrock in which such accounts rest. This essay disaggregates and politicizes the discourse of sectarianism, drawing on examples from Egypt, Bahrain, and Israel. It argues for distinguishing between religious difference as construed by those in positions of power, and religious difference as construed and experienced—and at times downplayed or ignored—by individuals and communities that are subjected to, and shaped by, sectarian projects, policies, and narratives.

Affiliations: 1: Northwestern University,


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