Confessionalization fundamentalism: commodifying religious identities in the Middle East

Middle Eastern revolutionaries and spectators alike, deprived in the media of any representation of their own agency and denied the chance of producing their own new life chances, end up commodifying the identities they are exposed to within their social pattern

Estella Carpi
16 July 2012

As Maya Mikdashi has argued in an interview released to Istituto di Studi Politici Internazionali (ISPI), published on Jadaliyya on June 21, the uprising in Syria itself is becoming more sectarian now, packaged in a way such that ‘sect’ seems to be the political marker that matters the most.

This development could be taken as a starting point to point to a more widespread arbitrary confessionalization of Middle Eastern conflicts, and of the Syrian revolution in particular. “Crisis”, “sunnization of the revolt”, “new balance between Sunnis and Shiites” and “civil war” are key terms used by the media in reporting the current events. 

Voices from think-tank and news analysts actually unfamiliar with the Arab world have largely contributed to portraying a patchwork image of the Middle East composed of ethnic and religious groups that do not fight each other only thanks to the power of dictators that discipline and guide these irrational individualities.

Different confessional subjectivities are considered tribal bigots, frustrated by their jealous desire of an impossible modernization, about to plunge into a confessional Hobbesian war that would involve the whole region.

As Mona Abaza wrote last September on Ahram online, European thinkers remain pervasively the “knowing subjects” in this account, whereas non-Europeans continue to be the “objects of observations and analyses of European theorists”. To unmask the touristic and orientalist nature of such research approaches is urgently needed, as they often produce a distorted image of Middle Eastern confessional dynamics. 

The religious plurality of many Middle Eastern countries captures the attention of western reporters and photographers setting foot for the first time in ‘post-conflict’ Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq or Syria. They hasten to take pictures of mosques alongside churches to prove, in their capacity as good secular and paternalistic missionaries, that in the Middle East they do have fraternity. On the other side, this multi-religiousness is depicted as the factor that makes such realities constantly on the brink of a crisis, challenging the status quo. We can find the same photographers and reporters, in the latter case, lurking around the corner impatiently awaiting new disorders. This is due to the fact that both Arabness and Islam are interpreted according to a preconceived dogmatic frame. As American anthropologist Daniel Martin Varisco brilliantly puts it, outsiders and biased insiders are still reluctant to recognize that flesh-and-blood Muslims not only can differ individually, but even culturally. Many Christians too do not eschew this reification process. 

Jean and John Comaroffs have recently advanced the concept of the commodification of collective being: before feeling it, identity is consumed by others in the first place. This ongoing branding is seen as an “allegiance to one’s own culture”, and it is the primary way of shaping ethnic or religious consciousness. I believe this is the key to an understanding of such confessionalized representations of Middle Eastern upheavals and changes.

Ethnicity and religiousness are increasingly deployed as political identities, insofar as they serve political purposes. This is not meant to diminish the importance and rich complexity of asabyya - the ethnic and clan ties - somehow still present in the Arab world, as well as to minimize any religious solidarity across the national boundaries, such as Shiites predominantly located in Bahrain and Iraq, with a complex plurality in Yemen and Lebanon. What is totally betrayed and undercut in such interpretative perspectives is the concept of identity as voluntary self-production.

In doing so, Middle Eastern individuals, combatants and civilians, revolutionaries and spectators, deprived in the media of any  representation of their own agency and denied the chance of producing their own new life chances, end up commodifying the identities they are exposed to within their social pattern, in the attempt to uphold a high social status or achieve a better one, and to finally have access to resources. Human rights activists, NGOs and a great deal of western spectators, mostly moved by generous piety and moral superiority, too often end up legalizing such identity discourses.

By using Comaroffs’ lens, then, the ethno-economy - or in our case I would rather say the faith-economy - is the new emerging phenomenon. People that for historical reasons share the same ideological imaginary and that perceive themselves as affiliated to a certain faith group are given the label of confessional – and therefore belligerent - enterprises turning into ethnicities. Everything nowadays, in order to get legitimized, must be ethnicized and confessionalized. Nor is this by any means a phenomenon limited to the Middle East.

We have gradually inherited, to our detriment, a tribal interpretation of Middle Eastern realities, even from such great historians as Kamal Salibi, who in some way overstated the parallelism between current Lebanese political parties and ancient tribal groups. In other words, going back to the Comaroffs’ concept, ‘sustainable’ faiths are those that brand best, as they sell their ideological truths more effectively at a particular time. Alawites, in the current Syrian scenario, undoubtedly rock. Sunnis instead are the bugbear.

Pierre Bourdieu used to say that anything that is named, defined and told, although yet not materially existing, ends up existing for real just through this reifying rhetorical process. It is indeed the phenomenon of war, controversially produced by greed and grievances in a domestic/international duality, that has often set up the confessional bedrock on which political opponents fight each other in a bid to identify a truly inherent element to struggle for as well as to find a traditionally hostile ground where they would be able to shed the politically constructed blood of the Other. Religion readily supplies this incentive.

Today’s commodification of confessional identities that peppers the media underpins essentialized visions of social dynamics. This encourages religious community groups to copyright their confessional imprint in order to get their basic rights addressed. A deeper understanding of this need for confessional belonging will allow us to unravel our muddled pluralistic contexts, as well as to liberate ourselves from this form of representational decolonization.

Will we ever be able to recognize rights and realize similarities and differences without resorting to confessional taxonomies? Will we ever be willing to study ‘political Arabs’, rather than ‘sectarian Arabs’? When will we be able to see that religious communities, in the Middle East as anywhere else, are nothing but ideological orientations, not even mono-directional, only reflecting the phenomenologies of power?

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