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Can the Good Friday Agreement be a Model for Deescalating Sectarianism in the Middle East?

BY Matthew Robinson



Can the Good Friday Agreement be a Model for Deescalating Sectarianism in the Middle East?

Many European observers of the contemporary Middle East tend to couch recent history solely in a regional context. This comes at the expense of thematic representations and delineates Middle Eastern experiences from similar events that may have occurred elsewhere. This approach is shortsighted and prevents national experiences dealing with certain phenomena from being able to inform policy makers about similar situations in other places around the world. Nowhere is this clearer than the long history of sectarian violence in Ireland. From escalation and deescalation to confidence building and peace, the Irish experience — including the creation of a Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland — speaks of people divided by sect but united by fate. And the lessons of this division within the British and Irish Isles are transmutable to the Middle East.

3 May 2021 marked 100 years since the establishment of Northern Ireland, its centenary, an occasion much more muted than in other states, such as its southern neighbour, the Republic of Ireland. Peace in this small province has been hard fought by its people, buttressed by American and European friends, and guaranteed by successive British and Irish governments since the historic peace accord, known as the Good Friday Agreement, was signed in 1998. Nonetheless, 23 years on, while Northern Ireland remains stable from a security perspective, political divisions still pose challenges, of which sectarianism casts a shadow.

Around the same time, in a different part of the world, new states were springing up—unsure of their national identities, ideologies or even interests. The Middle East of 2021 would not be recognisable to observers in 1921 or 1949 or even 1979. The newfound states were preoccupied with state-building and territoriality; sect and spirituality arrived much later on the back of a failed pan-Arabist movement and super-power trifling. When it did arrive, however, it caught on alarmingly fast and it continues to echo today.

The first major eruption of sectarianism in the Middle East unfolded in a Pandoras Box—Lebanon. Home to an intimidating amount of sects, religions, ethnicities and ideologies, Lebanese identity was initially forged as a melting pot. But, the political machinery was unable to keep apace of the country’s rapidly changing demographics. The 1958 Lebanon Crisis saw violence rip through the Christian, Druze, Sunni and Shia communities. Weapons smuggled in from Syria kept the embers burning as the United Arab Republic — the short-lived amalgamation of Egypt and Syria — sought to stoke violence to justify direct intervention. This crisis only ended with direct US intervention under Operation Blue Bat, which viewed events in Lebanon as part of a wider communist plot to drag yet another country into the Soviet sphere of influence. While Operation Blue Bat has, by now, been regulated to a historic footnote, the underlying sectarianism that pit Lebanese against Lebanese has gone from strength-to-strength ever since.

Sectarianism is now an accepted reality in parts of the Middle East. The 1979 Iranian revolution may have inspired some Shia groups towards a renewed sectarian identity, but so too has decades of Muslim Brotherhood-esq groups which, ultimately led to Al Qaeda and the faux Islamic State. Post-Saddam Iraq has not seen a single day of peace and neither has Syria since the 2011 Dara’a massacre. Those conflicts have morphed into full-blown sectarian war—and without a comprehensive settlement the worst is yet to come.

But why wait? Why not take a page out of the Good Friday Agreement playbook? While the peace settlement in Northern Ireland is far from perfect, it is a sustainable one—rooted in good faith and cooperation across communities locally, and the UK and Ireland intergovernmentally. The actors are, of course, different in the Middle East, however, in both, the root challenges of sectarianism are evident, and perhaps most importantly, so is the enthusiasm of the region’s people to safeguard a stable and enduring peace. It is time for an Eid Peace Agreement and the setting out of a workable mechanism to reduce regional tensions and build inter-communal trust. This is not a herculean task but does require the knowhow and engagement of the international community—and the experiences of those, like in Northern Ireland, that have marched through the upheaval of nearly a century of sectarianism, have valuable lessons to impart.