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Urban Spaces and Sectarian Contestation

By Simon Mabon

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In recent years, politics across the Middle East and beyond has been shaped by myriad forms of social movement contestation that have fed into the re-imagining of relations between rulers and ruled. Across divided societies, this contestation has become increasingly widespread, with serious ramifications for all aspects of political life. Religious identities have previously been located prominently within the ordering of political life, particularly in divided societies such as Lebanon and Iraq. As protests broke out in 2015 in what became known as the ‘You Stink’ movement across Lebanon and in 2018 across Iraq, the prominence of religion was contested, as issues – such as public goods and corruption - took on increasingly important roles in the mobilisation of trans-sectarian actors across urban environments and political projects more broadly. With 65% of the Middle East’s population living in cities, urban environments are prominent sites of political engagement, social projects which are simultaneously a means of production and control. Across the region, urban environments became sites of tension and contestation - between public and private, rulers and ruled - transformed by protesters and regimes alike as actors sought to demonstrate vitality, legitimacy and power. Yet they are also landscapes of the mundane, where daily life operates within the context of regulatory structures. It is in this context that contestation and transformation of political projects, identities and urban environments occurs, with potentially existential repercussions. This report reflects on the urban and spatial dimensions of the protesters in the re-imagining of identities across the contemporary Middle East and beyond. It seeks to contrast events in the Middle East with those of other manifestations of divided societies and to engage with the following questions: 1. What role do urban spaces play in shaping processes of contestation? 2. How have urban spaces been transformed by contestation? 3. To what extent do spatial approaches aid our understanding of contestation and de-sectarianization? 4. What characteristics facilitate the contestation of urban spaces? 5. What theoretical approaches help us understand the relationship between urban space and identity construction This report comes out of a one day workshop held at the University of Lancaster in collaboration with Queen’s University, Belfast. It was organised by Dr Simon Mabon and Professor John Nagle.
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