Sectarian cancer festers in the Arab world

Hisham Melhem

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There’s an incurable cancer called sectarianism eroding the brittle Arab political body. We have witnessed its latest frightening manifestations through explosions, massacres, clashes between Sunnis and Shiite in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt.

Sunni-Shiite tension is present regardless of its variations in all the countries where both sects are present. When sectarian grudges become limited to differences between religions, doctrinal grudges against Arab Christians, despite their sects, appear.

Sunni-Shiite tension is present regardless of its variations in all the countries

In the past decade, half of the Christian Iraqis, whose origins date back to Mesopotamia since the early days of Christianity, immigrated after Sunni fundamentalists burnt their churches and killed their bishops. In Syria, where the first Christian church was established and where Christ’s Aramaic language is still alive in Saydnya and Maalula, the Christians feel that their future is not guaranteed amid the presence of a tyrannical regime that claims the monopoly of the Alawite sect and the presence of spiteful Sunni fundamentalist movements.

In Egypt, where intimidating and provoking Copts began during Mubarak’s era, we see that violence against them and against their churches has reached unprecedented extents amid the control of the military, the Brotherhood’s governance and the emergence of fanatic Salafi movements.

Today’s sectarian instincts are the result of the “security state,” military republics and nationally chauvinistic parties, particularly the Baath Party, that succeeded in murdering the political life which existed, and was sometimes extremely active during the period between the two world wars.

When sectarianism was asleep

During the more liberal era in Egypt, Iraq and Syria, between the two world wars, there was a pluralistic political parliamentary life, with political parties and relative press freedoms. During that period, opposition parties (who were at first opposing British and French occupation) emerged, like Al-Wafd in Egypt and Hizb al-Istiqlal and others in Iraq. These opposition parties attempted to limit the king’s jurisdictions and strengthen the prime minister’s jurisdictions. What’s more important than all of this is that politicians, intellectuals and journalists opposing the regime knew that opposition will not cost them their lives and that the worst punishment they can suffer from was exile or jail. Political and intellectual life was distinguished with a relatively progressive extent of civility, tolerance and openness. During that period, Iraq and Syria did not know of the massacres and mass graves, as seen during the Baath era. In Egypt, no one attempted to murder pioneers like Taha Hussein and Ali Abdelrazak, like Farag Fouda who was assassinated during Mubarak's era.

The sectarian cancer was asleep back then. Compare the sectarian hell in Syria today with Syria’s openness in the 40s and 50s when Christian Protestant Fares al-Khoury was elected prime minister (four times). Back then, it was said that electing him was a precedent that indicates “the national maturity Syria has reached.” The sectarian cancer today can kill Syria and Iraq as though they are united countries.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based Annahar on June 27, 2013.

Hisham Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. Melhem's writings appear in publications ranging from the literary journal Al-Mawaqef to the LA Times, as well as in magazines such as Foreign Policy and Middle East Report. Melhem focuses on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media. In addition, Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Twitter: @Hisham_Melhem

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