By Seyma Nazli
16 October 2018
Sectarianism is the main source of disunity and conflict among Muslim society, particularly in the Middle East, experts said yesterday.
Speaking at a conference organized by Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University's Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) Dr. Nader Hashemi from the University of Denver said that in order to have a better Muslim world, Muslims should think about how to "de-sectarianize" the Middle East.
The theme of the conference was "Fault Lines and Perils Facing Muslim Societies: The Challenges of Sectarianism, Secularism, Nationalism, and Colonialism."
According to Hashemi, the political context of the Middle East necessitates the political mobilization and manipulation of sectarian identities in order to survive.
"Authoritarianism is the [political] context that allows sectarianism to flourish," Hashemi explained, adding that in order to combat sectarianism, the opposite of this political context is needed, which is, in Hashemi's opinion, democracy."We need to name and shame whoever perpetuates sectarianism," he said.
In the conference, religious pluralism, interreligious dialogue, democracy and a good functioning secular state are seen as the main tools to overcome the sectarianism within the Muslim community.
Focusing on the historical background of sectarianism in the Muslim world, it was further argued that the last two decades have witnessed the rise of Shiite powers all over the Middle East.
"Sunni rulers have viewed with much anxiety the new ‘Shiite crescent' that extends from Iran to Lebanon," said Dr. Ahmad Mousalli from the American University of Beirut, indicating that this is the main reason why the Syrian crisis became more of a regional problem rather than a local one, as it was seen as an opportunity to weaken the Shiites and replace them with a Sunni government.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been the two main actors of sectarian conflicts in the Middle East for some time. Saudi Arabia overwhelmingly represents the ideology of Salafism, which is a branch of Sunni Islam that aims to imitate the actions of the early followers of the Prophet Muhammed as closely as possible. The country historically sees itself as the leader of the Muslim world since its territory includes the birth place of the Islam. Iran, on the other hand, is directed by Shiite policies, especially since 1979 when the Islamic Revolution of Iran took place, forming a theocracy that aims to spread its ideology to the outside world. Representing opposing sides of Islam, the two countries have been engrossed in a rivalry that has surfaced in almost every regional crisis, including the Syrian civil war, in which they support opposing sides.
Dr. Mehmet Ali Büyükkara from Istanbul Şehir University, on the other hand, focused on the theoretical aspect of sectarianism and said that in order to overcome sectarianism-related problems, two main theories exist: modernist and post-modernist.
According to Büyükkara, modernists, who are also supported by the nationalists, argue that Muslims should turn to the main religious sources while leaving the sects behind.
"Nationalists used this approach while establishing nation-states to get rid of religious thoughts that might be rivalries [to the nationalist ideas]," he said.
"They combined it with the secularism," Büyükkara added.
However, he argued that, although this idea suggests that if sects are diminished sectarian conflicts would also disappear, there is no such a thing, since this approach only makes the sects angry against the states.
Stating that sectarian thoughts are both power and weakness for the Muslims, Büyükkara said that both the inner and outer political powers use sectarian differences to fuel conflicts within the Middle East.
The international conference was held by the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA) at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University - in cooperation with the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., and the College of Islamic Studies at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha, Qatar.
It was meant to discuss some of the most significant challenges facing the Muslim world today. Two dozen renowned scholars participated in this year's conference, with nearly half coming from abroad.