Abdo: More Understanding Needed of Life in the Middle East
Diving Into Issues that Divide People
By Ryan Woodard
The longtime foreign correspondent will discuss the causes of wars in Iraq and Syria, the role of religion in conflict among Shi'a and Sunni Muslims and more. A scholar of modern Iran and political Islam who spent 20 years as a foreign correspondent covering the Middle East and the Muslim world, Abdo has "always had an interest in the Middle East." She is also Lebanese.
Abdo, who will discuss her book "The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shi'a-Sunni Divide" at the Festival, was born in the United States, but her family is from Beirut. Abdo started writing about Islam during her graduate studies, later working for The Guardian as a foreign correspondent.
After leaving behind a 20-year career in journalism, she joined think tanks in Washington and dove deeper into the intricate and complicated issues that divide the Middle East.
American with Middle Eastern Origins
As an American citizen with Middle Eastern origins, Abdo's understanding of the civil unrest runs as deep as her roots. She believes understanding the dynamics of the struggle is crucial.
Islam is a topic that intimidates some Americans. With political and religious facets that are as foreign to some as the language, it's easier dismissed than comprehended. But understanding Islam is a battle that can – and should – be won with education, Abdo said.
"People say, 'well this is an internal Muslim debate and has nothing to do with us.' But in fact, since 9/11, the conflicts within the Middle East and the conflicts abroad are no longer just abroad," she explained.
"The reason Americans need to learn about these issues is that they could be affected by them and they are affected by them," she said, pointing to terror attacks abroad.
A Complicated Topic
"My primary reason is to educate people," she said, explaining why she speaks at events like the South Dakota Festival of Books. Explaining these complicated issues has never been easy. But she said it's even more difficult in the current political climate.
"It's a huge struggle because of the misconceptions that are in the media and now particularly with the new administration. It's very much an uphill battle."
She said the "Muslim ban" announced by the current administration earlier this year created unnecessary tensions between Americans and Middle Easterners.
Abdo has experienced those tensions firsthand. When returning to the U.S. from Tunisia earlier this year, she was detained and questioned by German police at the Frankfurt airport because of her last name. Experiences like that make her even more determined to promote understanding.
"I think that people all over the country need to understand in a much more substantive way what life is like in the Middle East where my family is from, and that not all people there are terrorists and condone violence. They're just religious, maybe, and that's not a reason for violence."
Abdo's New Book 'The New Sectarianism'
Tensions in the Middle East will be a major point of discussion during Abdo's Festival appearance.
"I will try to explain causes for wars in Iraq and Syria, both from an Islamic perspective and why Americans should be interested in the subject."
Those who attend Abdo's session can also expect to hear about "The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprising and the Rebirth of the Shi'a Sunni Divide."
Abdo's new book:
• Argues religion has a role in the conflict among Shi'a and Sunni Muslims, not just politics, as media reports and analysts emphasize
• Demonstrates how Sunni-Shi'a tension has overtaken the broader conflict between Muslims and the West and the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis
• Examines how religion is utilized for political purposes, and how it is perceived and practiced by Muslims
• Argues that sectarianism poses a threat to regional states and stakeholders in the wider world, including the United States and its allies
"I've been writing about Shi'a Islam and Sunni Islam in separate ways. My latest book is a way to bring both of these topics together in a way that makes sense," she said.