Urban Spaces and Sectarian Contestation: Concluding Remarks
8th Mar 2020 by John Nagle
Cities are laboratories in which sectarian divisions are dialectically constructed and contested in constant tension. The premise that sectarian identities are the result of ancient hatreds - primordial expressions of group-based belonging - has long been dismissed. Yet, when it is said that sectarianism is constructed, we need to look at urban environments as a core matrix through which sectarian practices are (re)imagined into life and constituted. It is the city where urban planning strategies are deliberately devised to produce and embed long term sectarian divisions, evident particularly in residential segregation. Sectarianism is renewed on a daily basis in the city through the sectarianized provision of essential services and infrastructure, encompassing electricity, medical care, and microcredit, but reinforced through security practices. Such clientelistic processes are used to create cultures of dependency, tightly binding communities with elites. Cities, furthermore, often contain key public spaces, such as city centres, which are symbolically charged areas that evoke state power and hegemony.
While the urban is constitutive of sectarian identities and practices, it is also the place where they are challenged. Groups that transcend sectarian divisions can come together, temporarily or even for sustained periods of time, to engender alternative forms of politics and living that do not cohere to simple sectarian formulas. They take to the streets to demand an end to corruption, declining public services and for the human rights of women and LGBTQ populations, amongst others marginalised from political life. Symbolic spaces in the city, such as public parks and squares, are often the focus of non-sectarian movements, who appropriate these sites and creatively reimagine their meaning and usage as part of right to the city claims. In so doing, these non-sectarian groups are challenging the very grammar the sustains sectarian power and hegemony, engaging in acts of desectarianization.
In recognizing these dynamics new issues arise that require further consideration and analysis as part of a future research agenda. First, as many of the various articles in this report indicate, the construction of the sectarian city is bound up with neoliberal forms of urban planning, governance and reconstruction. Sectarian elites and regimes have increasingly devolved public services and goods to the market, and this has often had disastrous consequences for citizens left without a safety net. In one sense, this makes ordinary people even more reliant on sectarian factions for welfare and social assistance, thus potentially strengthening the hold such sectarian groups have on their constituency. On the other hand, the weakening of the state leads to excessive inequality and mobilization of considerable sections of the public demanding change. Second, reflections as to the outcomes of popular expressions of non-sectarian action and protest are required. The articles in this report have highlighted the complex and multifaceted ways in which these groups challenge the sectarian order. But, does this lead to any change or transformation? If so, how do we isolate and measure the changes that have been wrought? While these groups may not always bring about policy change, we should consider how they foment attitudinal transformation amongst the public, the ways in which they form new ways of imagining a political community, and in eroding the hegemony of sectarianism.