Last Thursday, Erasmus Pavilion theatre slowly filled with students and professors who came to attend the lecture by professor Dick Douwes, dean of the faculty of History, Culture and Communication. The aim of the seminar was to tackle the urgent issue of sectarianism, often portrayed as one dimensional and beyond comprehension for westerners
'An act of violence between sects'
The term sectarianism means extreme devotion to a particular sect or group. It is often used in a religious context and, in the last decade, the term has often being linked to the unsettled situation that haunts the Middle East. From sectarianism stems the term sectarian violence which indicates, as the name suggests, acts of violence perpetrated between different sects. Violence originates from the differences in the groups’ credo or ideology.
Challenging dominant views
Professor Douwes’ views on the topic of sectarianism seemed to consistently differ from the dominant opinions purveyed with the help of western media. For instance, he opposed to the common belief that ‘they’ need ‘our’ help, arguing that “we are very much part of the problem”. Sectarianism is often addressed as the reason behind the destruction of shrines or religious monuments by the Islamic State in Syria and Lebanon.
While this can be held as true for some cases, Douwes calls for caution when generalizing to others. On this matter, he pointed out that most to the fights and monuments’ destruction happens between groups of Sunnite Muslims which follow the same credo. Sunnite Muslims are in majority in countries like Syria and Lebanon, although both countries present a much diversified group of religious minorities.
'Sectarianism is a modern concept'
Contrary to the common belief that sectarianism has always existed and laid at the basis of Middle East’s internal unrests, professor Douwes argued that sectarianism is a relatively recent concept which has being fueled by [post] colonialism. He reckoned Syria and Lebanon have always being home of great diversities, yet sectarianism has never arose as an issue in previous centuries. Not only that, but this appears to be connected to, what Douwes called, the crisis of citizenship in the Middle East which the Arab Spring is a prime example of.
Relatively recent concepts such as identity, representation and recognition have contributed to the rise of sectarianism as religious communities fight to have rights. Douwes left the audience reflecting upon the fact that sectarian deaths have been significantly lower compared to other figures.
"There will be a time when ISIS is exahusted"
During the discussion that followed the lecture, few students asked questions about Douwes’ view on related matters. One student asked the professor’s opinion about the role natural resources, especially oil, play in the Middle Eastern conflict. “Natural resources are at the basis of some of these conflicts, especially in the Gulf countries. This has pushed western countries to pomp weapons into Gulf countries. Alliances have been made because of the availability of natural resources such as oil, western countries have interests in protecting ties with oil rich countries.” said Douwes.
When a student asked if there would eventually be an end to this conflict, Douwes replied yes. “There will be a moment when ISIS is exhausted, the counter forces are stronger. But what will happen after that is uncertain.” Critiques weren’t spared, as a few students opposed the professor’s views mostly, making for an interesting debate which there was not enough time for.