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Civility and Sectarianism in Syria: What Now?

A lecture by Lindsay Gifford, UCLA


Sectarianism and sectarian violence have come to be considered among the central problems confronting the contemporary era of nation-states, especially in the Middle East. With violence continually escalating in Syria, the specter of sectarianism is a major concern for all those affected by the conflict, from civilians on the ground to the highest levels of the Asad regime. On a day-to-day level, sectarianism can of course disrupt quotidian life, generate mistrust, and create tensions between neighbors, coworkers, and even family members, as well as interfere with the business of state structures and institutions. Sectarianism is often portrayed and understood as an intractable quagmire, something to be dealt with by the state but not necessarily overcome, a mode of sociability that has been entrenched in the global south for generations and which isn't going anywhere anytime soon. This position is particularly tangible in both popular and policy discussions focusing on the Middle East.

In contrast to these pervasive views, this talk argues that an autochthonous form of intersectarian civility has actually been present in the popular neighborhoods of contemporary Damascus. Contrary to the Asad regime's official stance, this civility has not merely been imposed top-down by the state onto the complex sociocultural milieu of Syrian society. The talk will deal with how, when, and in what ways intersectarian civility is deployed, as well as the ways in which this civility is challenged both by individuals and by structural violence in Syrian state and society. Finally, Dr. Gifford will address the current uprising taking place in Syria and some of the implications this violent conflict has for the future of intersectarian civility in the country.


Lindsay Gifford is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at UCLA, supported by the National Science Foundation’s Minority Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (2011-2013). She is also the recipient of the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship (2006-2007), the Senior Teaching Fellowship at Boston University (2007-2009), and the Research Scholar Award at UCLA’s Center for the Study of Women (2010-2011). She completed her Ph.D. in Sociocultural Anthropology at Boston University (2009), conducting research on civil society and associational life under the authoritarian state in Damascus’ religiously diverse popular neighborhoods. Her current project examines Iraqi refugee strategies toward patterns of urban violence in refugee communities located in both the U.S. and the Middle East.

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