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Sectarian tensions figure in contemporary commentaries on certain regions of the world as exemplary manifestations of religious violence or, among the more cautious ones, of its conditions. As the darker corollaries of religious diversity, the bête noire of an otherwise peaceful multiculturalism, they point to the bloody outcomes of unreason and intolerance evoked in age-old images of inter-religious slaughter. As such, sectarian tensions are a permanent trace of that forgotten past, its continuous din in the anxious ears of the self-proclaimed secular who sees a potential threat in any religious multiplicity. In that capacity they are seen to be propitious for the causes of dictators, who opportunistically exploit them for their own purposes, as an expert on Middle Eastern affairs writing about Syria has recently warned. “[I]t is now clear,” he writes, “that Assad's strategy is to divide the opposition by stoking sectarian tensions” (Nasr 2011). They also occasion “consternation” and “condemnation” which, while “ultimately provid[ing] the main democratic guarantee against the narrowly factional exploitation of sectarianism” (Sen 1999, 5), may also entail a justification of political intervention. The same expert advises Washington that while it “can hope for a peaceful and democratic future […] we should guard against sectarian conflicts that, once in the open, would likely run their destructive course at great cost to the region and the world” (Nasr 2011).
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