Violent conflicts pitting Sunni against Shiite and vehement rhetoric from Syria to the Gulf have led many to view the Middle East as inescapably sectarian, notes Bassel F. Salloukh, an associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Sectarianism has filled the institutional and ideological vacuum since the Arab uprisings, and sectarianized geopolitical contests have caused a number of states concomitant collapse as a result. Despite this divisive wave overtaking the Arab world, anti-sectarian voices persist, he writes for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage:
Thousands of mainly young Iraqis poured into the squares and streets of major Iraqi cities on July 31, 2015 in what became a massive popular movement. …As Wadood Hamad contended in an opinion piece in as-Safir newspaper, these protests were shaped by two patent characteristics. The predominantly Shiite protesters in the southern and central parts of the country mobilized independent of both secular and religious parties; parliamentarians affiliated with establishment political parties were denied access to the crowds. The protests were also expressly nonsectarian, as protesters intentionally distanced themselves from sectarian or ethnic symbols and discourse. ….
In Lebanon, the failure of the 2015 protests led to a more focused anti-sectarian and anti-corruption but apolitical campaign in the form of the independent grass-roots movement Beirut Madinati (or “Beirut, my city”). … Though electoral rules and shenanigans denied Beirut Madinati any seats on the new municipal council, its experience suggests there is a broad anti- and cross-sectarian audience fed up with the corruption of the postwar sectarian elite and the paralysis of the country’s power sharing pact. They may be a silent minority given the complex ensemble of institutional, clientelist and discursive practices undergirding the political economy and ideological hegemony of sectarianism, but they are nevertheless waiting to be organized by new movements practicing a new kind of inclusive politics.
This underscores the challenges facing political reforms in weak state institutions crippled by sectarianized geopolitical battles, adds Salloukh, co-author of The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon and Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World:
In Lebanon, grass roots demands have collided with a resilient sectarian system sustaining the privileges of an increasingly overlapping political economic elite. Iraq’s quandary is similar. The prognosis for Iraq by Maria Fantappie, senior Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group, resonates aptly in Lebanon: “The system cannot generate renewal of the political class — whether through elections or legislative changes — nor will the political class genuinely try to reform that system.”