The spurt in ethnic violence witnessed in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries illustrate a pernicious sectarianism that was largely repressed by pre-Arab Spring dictators but now threatens much of the Arab world. Unless the newly elected leaders stop exploiting simmering historical animosities and address them constructively, the divisions between Sunnis and Shiites or between Muslims and other minorities like Christians are bound to result in prolonged regional turmoil. The developments witnessed in the Arab region over the last two years have played a major role in creating a tense situation and allowing a hostile sectarian mentality to gain ground in Arab societies.
The politics of clannism, which is rooted in authoritarian patriarchal structure in the Arab world, however, is only one part of a much larger canvas of sectarian violence surfacing in many parts of the world. In countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where Buddhism is confounded with nationalism, it is Muslims who are victims. In India, identity politics is pitting people against each other in the name of caste, creed and language. Even the liberal West is witnessing heightened sectarian clashes. In Ireland, Protestants are clashing with Catholics. From Russia to Germany to Denmark and Austria, and from France to Britain, racism against non-whites is growing.
This is in stark contrast to the earlier narrative of tolerance and pluralism and cannot be explained by the resurgence of religion in response to modern “materialism”. Most of these conflicts are not caused by competing theologies and differences in beliefs. They develop due to the creation of group identities by the ruling elite in a bid to perpetuate its rule. When civil or economic distress generates feelings of chronic anxiety the quest for certainty is sustained by projecting one group’s loss as the gain of the other. The “others”, of course, are invariably followers of an alternative religion, race or colour.