5 Maps That Explain The New Middle East.
Islamic sectarianism is real. It is neither a myth, nor an illusion. It is real in its implications and its revelations in our everyday life. In many countries in the Middle East and beyond, sectarianism is experienced as a tool for identification, political organisation, discrimination, othering or alienation. It operates at the social level as a form of everyday identity marker; but, more importantly, it also operates at the political and economic level and becomes a tool for party recruitment and mobilisation, as we are witnessing today in many parts of the Arab world. Since its inception, sectarianism has been consciously devised and used by local political leaders and regional powers to either maintain their positions of power or to access more power. Equally, sectarianism has also been used by ordinary people to access goods and services through systems of clientelism that quickly flourish in the absence of state-provided welfare. Thus, far from being a question of emotions or fixed cultural identities, sectarianism is a rational phenomenon that functions to the benefit of its adopters, however irrational that might appear. In his famous book, The Shia Revival, Vali Nasr argues that the conflict between the “Sunnis” and the “Shias” will shape the future. But who are the “Sunnis” and who are the “Shias”? Are they homogeneous groups? Are all the “Shias” on one side and all the “Sunnis” on the other? How do they operate? Through big sectarian collectives or through political parties and political organisations? Is the war in Syria today really one between the “Alawis” and the “Sunnis”? This article profiles cartographically the Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle Eastern nations today.
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