Texas Book Festival 2017: After the Uprising: The Shi'a Sunni Divide

Geneive Abdo gets below the surface of Middle East conflicts

My fascination with the Middle East had drawn me to The New Sectarianism, the book in which Geneive Abdo covers in spectacular depth the reality and modern-day impacts of the ancient religious rift between the Shi’a and Sunni sects of Islam.

Geneive Abdo

“Most of the literature on the subject, including mainstream media, only focuses on political and territorial issues as opposed to the religious, which is critical in understanding the dynamics of the region,” Abdo said.

As she spoke, people spilled into the tiny room from the Capitol building hallway and lined the walls. Abdo herself noted, “I thought because it’s such a heavy subject, people might not be so interested. They might not come.” She went on to say, “I’m glad to see this because people sitting here in Austin should learn about this topic. Americans can influence U.S. policy.”

Abdo, who has spent a major part of her career as a journalist and scholar tracking religiosity in the Mideast, discussed how though the media keeps the public rigorously informed about organizations such as Islamic State, it fails to provide a narrative to educate the public on how catastrophic events in the Middle East, such as the invasion of Iraq, dangerously flare religious tensions. Tensions that simmer just below the surface and have for thousands of years.

The New Sectarianism discusses how the West (U.S. in particular) has grossly underestimated the religious fervor of both Sunni and Shiite that underpin modern conflicts and uprisings across the Mideast. She suggests the U.S. has long embedded itself in the region with the surface intention of bringing democracy to Arab countries but that this is a miscalculation. “Arab countries are not looking for Western-style democracy,” she said. She touched on ideas related to religious identity versus national identity. “If you go to Syria and ask someone if they are Syrian, it’s likely they will first tell you whether they are Sunni or Shiite,” she said.

Abdo’s depth of knowledge together with her comfortable presence, clean writing style, and accessibility to the layman make her a scholar and writer I’d recommend to anyone, regardless of their level of knowledge about the Middle East.

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