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Communities Under Sectarian Strife

On April 1st, IDI  partnered with Massey College to explore the topic of sectarian strife. It was organized as a panel discussion between Bessma Momani (Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation) and Miloud Chennoufi (from the Department of Defence Studies, Canadian Forces College), moderated by Robert Austin (Associate Professor at the University of Toronto’s Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies).

Dr. Momani described the Arab world as incredibly multicultural, with sects and ethnicities usually living peacefully side by side. It is recently when political leaders needed people to rally around their causes (to win elections for example) that they begin to evoke divisive sectarian rhetoric.

She explained that the people of Iraq were forced into narrow identities because of the political and ciivl unrest. Dr. Momani said that 30 percent of youth in Baghdad had one parent who was Sunni and one who was Shia. A generation ago intermarriages were this common. Some people did not even know if they were Sunni or Shia, but were forced to choose narrow identities and move whole neighbourhoods (divided by cement walls) based on other people’s opinions of what their name represented.

A young Syrian described sectarianism as a soccer match you didn’t even know was happening on tv, but suddenly you were forced to put on a shirt. In response to this climate, many youth  celebrated their bi-sectarian identity with the hashtag #iamsushi.

The sectarian violence has grown recently (though Lebanon has been experiencing it since the 1970s/80s) with the increasing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both attempting to claim representation for all of the Muslim world.

Dr. Chennoufi echoed Dr. Momani’s political lens. He explained that it is not about religion, the idea of Islamism is a political ideology. He also stressed that not every Muslim is an Islamist, and not every Islamist is an extremist. Religion, however, in the region of the Middle East has become very politicized.

He gave the example of Abdus Salam, the first Muslim Nobel prize winner for physics who should be a national treasure in Pakistan. However in the town where he is buried, authorities had the word Muslim removed from his tombstone because he was from a different sect, that they did not recognize as “true” Muslim, even though he was a proud and practicing Muslim.

“Sectarianism is lethal,” Dr. Chennoufi said. In Scotland, one Muslim killed another because he was from a different group. This stems from an incapacity to tolerate anything that is different, he explained. Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel prize in literature in 1988, was also attacked by a youth with a knife, who had never read his books but had been told that Mahfouz had written things against God.

Dr. Chennoufi explained his definition of sectarianism as twofold. There is a cognitive dimension of diversity and a radical practice based on normative exclusion of the other. There is a provisional aspect to diversity, with the expectation that it will come to an end eventually. In this framework, the other is seen as evil and people have been socialized to see themselves as good, simply because they are not the other. In this instance, the other is seen to present an existential threat that needs to be met with violence, whether verbal or physical. Civil war comes when there are enough political actors to take advantage of this sectarianism.

According to Dr. Chennoufi, Syria had to face its own diversity after WWI. Arab nationalism—which is based on language, not ethnicity—was chosen for this goal. He explained that this diversity was not taken into account when the revolution in Syria began. Additionally, the outside interference was based along these sectarian lines.

He called for the need for Tejdid, which he explains as a renewal. Dr. Chennoufi cited a need to establish a cognitive framework of sectarianism that is both religious and secular. Diversity has always existed and so we must find a way to make it work, because it will not simply disappear. Theological differences though, should not translate into a political practice of exclusion. Dr. Momani echoed the reverse of this, citing the ardent and exclusionary secularism found in France, Belgium, and previously Turkey also did not solve anything.

IDI GTA Massey College

Intercultural Dialogue Institute and The Committee for Interfaith Dialogue at Massey College 

cordially invite you to attend a Panel Discussion on

 Communities under Sectarian Strife:

Re-Examining the Role of Religion and Diplomacy


Robert Austin

Associate Professor; Centre For European, Russian And Eurasian Studies


Bessma Momani

Senior Fellow, Centre for International Governance Innovation

Miloud Chennoufi

Department of Defence Studies, Canadian Forces College

April 1, 2016 – 2:00pm – 4:00pm
Upper Library, Massey College, 4 Devonshire Pl, Toronto, ON M5S 2E1, Canada
2:00pm – Registration | 2:30pm – Panel and Q&A | 4:00pm – Closing

Refreshments will be provided.

Register at

About the theme:

There is a global rise in sectarian and religious conflicts. These conflicts have all taken shape along confessional divides in different regions of the world though their particular root cases are a result of complex historical, political and/or social circumstances. This conference seeks to assess these conflicts –particularly those taking place in the Middle East– from both local and global perspectives and in light of political movements espousing more extreme interpretations of religion, culture, and the West’s varied reactions.

On this important topic, our speakers Prof. Besma Momani (University of Waterloo), and Prof. Miloud Chennoufi (Canadian Forces College) will make an overlook of the situation before engaging in a discussion of more specific issues that have arisen in the past decades. The panel discussion will be followed by a Q&A session, where all will be welcome to participate.

Sectarian Strife- Bessma Momani Miloud Chennouffi