From the Editors
The New York Times says Jadaliyya "Brings New Life to Arab Studies." Read about it by clicking here.
*Note: This analysis refers to political sectarianism in Lebanon, it cannot be “applied” to the workings of sectarianism in other contexts, such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Bahrain or Bosnia Herzigovina.
There is an ongoing spasm of activism in Lebanon directed towards changing the sectarian structure and ethos of the state. For the past five weeks, growing numbers of people have taken to the streets stating their refusal of both the March 14 and March 8 coalitions and demanding the end of sectarianism in Lebanon. It has been inspiring to see men and women from all age groups, areas and socio-economic strata march together through parts of Southern Beirut, East Beirut, West Beirut and the rest of the country shouting slogans such as “we want the end of political sectarianism”. By some counts (although it is always prudent to be wary of protestor counts) more than 10,000 people participated in the last protest. While it is still early to call what is happening a “movement” and it is definitely too early to call it an uprising, what is happening cannot, and should not, be discounted or cynically dismissed as doomed to failure. Even if it does fail in its stated goal of “overthrowing political sectarianism” it will have succeeded in inspiring thousands of people across Lebanon and its diaspora. It will have succeeded in being the impetus for the formation of networks that will last far beyond these weekly protests. However, before predictions of this group’s failure or success are made it is incumbent upon us to think seriously and critically about what ending political sectarianism entails, and consequently, about what sectarianism is and the myriad ways in which it functions to produce and animate the conditions of possibility for both “Lebanon” as a nation state and “Lebanese citizenship” as a category of everyday practice. Before entering a more in-depth analysis of these questions, I begin with a table that summarizes some of my claims.
Political Sectarianism IS:
Political Sectarianism is NOT:
_A political system that claims to tame the inherently violent excesses of “sectarianism”
_A philosophy of rule
_A colonial technology of rule that protects elite interest
_A productive system; it produces a unitary citizenship that is differentiated according to sex and sect
_A political system that projects itself as the solution to a historical problem; sectarianism and Christian persecution in Mount Lebanon and muslim majority areas of the Ottoman Empire.
_A political system that posits the modern state as an arbiter between these sectarian communities that precede it.
_The legal, bureaucratic, and historical architecture of both Lebanese state and Lebanese citizens.
_(only) A Ottoman or French inheritance
_A political reality that the Lebanese state came into formation through/because of
_A layer that can be peeled away from the state, its laws and institutions, its history, and the consciousness of citizens
_(only) A frame of mind that a person can transcend
_To be solely blamed for war/removing political sectarianism does not guarantee civil peace
_Finally, political sectarianism is not the same thing as sectarianism. Rather, political sectarianism is a political technology that claims to represent, channel, and thus transcend the sectarian prison that Lebanese citizens are, in this logic, enclosed within.
An Archive of Rule
Lebanon was supposed to be a Christian state. In the minds of many early Lebanese nationalists (also academically known as Maronite Nationalists), the post Ottoman map of the Middle East was an opportunity to create an independent state where Christians would be at the very least a small majority and thus, in their minds, Christians would have one place in the Middle East where they would be secure and sovereign. This project never came to be, and ultimately the borders of greater Lebanon were drawn to embrace a demography that made the idea of a Christian Lebanon all but impossible. The French imperial government, who had perfected their technology of rule by division through decades of colonial experimentation in French colonial Africa, French Indochina, and Algeria, applied the same logic in what was Mandate Syria. In Mandate Syria, the French set up what they determined to be ethnically differentiated mini states such as the Alawi State, the Druze State, and the State of Allepo. The aim of this policy was to weaken the ability of resistance movements to centralize, unite and rebel against French rule, while in fact in 1925 it led to the opposite. The French government had lobbied hard and long for a colonial presence in the Middle East and were not about to let the anti-imperial sentiments of the peoples residing in historic Syria get in their way. In fact, in the eyes of many historians “Lebanon” was one of these “mini states” that was carved out of historic Syria (hence the title of the mandate as the mandate for Syria and The Lebanon –usually a reference to the Mount Lebanon mountain range). The French experiment in mini states failed in what became the nation-state of Syria, and inspired much resistance in what became the nation state of Lebanon.
In Lebanon, French imperialists saw political sectarianism as a win-win situation; it would make a widespread revolt less likely given the institutionalization and politicization of sectarian difference, and it would benefit their “historic allies”, the Maronites, who could claim a slight (and cooked) demographic majority in the territory of Lebanon. This slight demographic majority and overall demographic competitiveness was essential to making two claims; 1) that Lebanon is a country of minorities and that, 2) as the largest minority, the Maronites should be the most represented political community in the Lebanese state. While the Ta’if Accord of 1990 effectively smothered the second claim, that same accord reinscribed the first statement and in fact extended it by amending the constitution to state that "Lebanon is the Final Homeland of all its communities" no matter what the demographics are. We have come full circle; while the constitution of 1926, the census of 1936, and the national pact of 1943 inspired an obsession with demographic number crunching among sectarian political leaders, the Ta'if Accord tries to allay these fears by stating that even if the sectarian demographic reality has changed (other demographies, such as the economic class structure, have not), all sects have an equal claim and an equal investment in the Lebanese state. Sectarianism occupies a hegemonic position in Lebanese political discourse and in political discourse about Lebanon. Thus words such as “tolerance”, “diversity,” “plurality,” and "coexistence", saturate both the language of political power and the language of political opposition.
The Work of a Remedial State
In fact, it is not true that in 1920 or 1936 Lebanon was a territory with no clear majority. In 1920, after the disaster that was WWI, there was a clear majority of economically lower class people living in Lebanon, just as there was a clear majority of women and a clear majority of people who identified as Arab. Political sectarianism was a political choice made by an imperial power with its own interests and agendas that sometimes aligned with the interests and agendas of Lebanese parties; it was not a destiny leftover from a “sectarian history” riddled with outbreaks of “sectarian violence” (as if it were an illness, or a plague). In fact, the reading of political sectarianism as a leftover of the Ottoman mutassariffa accomplishes two goals; it posits Mount Lebanon as a historical precedent and stepping stone to the Lebanese nation state and therefore legitimates both the nation-state project and the political system of confessional “power sharing”, and it posits political sectarianism as unchanging and as preceding the nation state, which in this analysis is formed as a compromise to serve as an “arbiter” between these pre-existing political communities. Both these statements are ideological, and both depoliticize and naturalize “sectarianism” as something that is innate, primordial, and something that must be overcome if we are to achieve modernity and true citizenship. In fact, this has been the ideological basis of the Lebanese state itself, which claims that “political sectarianism” is only a temporary system and it is the state’s job to prepare citizens for “true democracy” by weaning them away from primordial attachments towards national ones. Thus the modernity of sectarianism is elided, as is the state's role in producing difference as a mode of politics and in producing its own legitimacy as a state that “arbitrates difference” and, more cynically, protects Lebanese citizens from each other.
While the idea that political sectarianism is a temporary and necessarily evil is as old as the Lebanese constitution of 1926 (and was subsequently reiterated and re-institutionalized in 1943 and 1990) there has never been a sustained program for the formation of a non-confessional state, a goal that has always been projected into the undefined and fuzzy future. In fact political leaders (most recently Nabih Berri) have wielded the end of political sectarianism as a threat, and other political leaders have responded as such, claiming that such statements are an attack on the Lebanese ideal of "co-existence". At these moments, government leaders reveal themselves to be primarily invested in sectarian politics.Today, the reason why many political elites and Lebanese citizens argue that ending political sectarianism is a "threat" to co-existence is because there actually is a confessionally articulated demographic majority. This time, however, it is a (slight) Shiite majority. When members of Hizballah call for an end to the sectarian system it is with the knowledge that not only will the Shi`ite community gain most from direct elections, but also that Maronites, a community that has long been over-represented in the state, have the most to lose. Similarly, when Sunni MPs discuss the need to ameliorate the living conditions of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, it is not a coincidence that almost all of the 400,000 refugees are Sunni Muslims. If they were ever nationalized, a prospect that even the Sunni leadership cannot openly endorse because of the symbolic weight of the Right to Return, their numbers would represent a 10 percentage point increase in the Sunni ‘slice’ of Lebanon’s demographic pie. The idea is, always, that Lebanon cannot get rid of sectarianism until the population is "ready," thus positing the state as a remedial structure that makes its citizenry ready for liberal democracy. In fact, in this way to logic of the modern Lebanese state mimics that of the French mandate, which was supposed to “make the population ready” for the modern idea of a nation-state. Many activists have repeated this logic, actively lobbying the state for reforms aimed at desectarianizing the law rather than realizing that the state itself is a complex knot of bureaucratic and legal institutions that produce both gendered and sectarian difference as the architecture (the rights and duties) of Lebanese citizenship.
A History of War, A History of Peace
One cannot write about political sectarianism in Lebanon without turning to the subject of war. Lebanon has been an independent state since 1943. There was a civil war in 1958, a civil war that began in 1975 and ended in 1990, an Israeli occupation that began in 1978 and lasted until 2000, a war with Israel in 2006, and an ominous “mini” civil war in in 2008. This impossibility of disentangling the history of the Lebanese nation state from a history of violence is precisely what inspires many activists to try to change the sectarian system. That a country (and a “post” colonial country at that) should self-destruct along the same “ethnic,” “religious,” “sectarian,” “tribal” or “national” channels through which citizens are incorporated into the state is not a particularly revelatory argument to make. However, it is important to remember that wars are fought for many reasons, and many discourses and ideologies undergirded much of the fighting in 1860 Ottoman Mount Lebanon, 1958 Lebanon, and 1975-1990 Lebanon. Most importantly, in each of these historical moments a different articulation of sectarianism was being expressed. Sectarianism is not a category of belonging that operates outside the influence of shifting economic, political, gendered, and social terrains. One cannot understand the events of May 7th and the military bravado of Hezbollah and Amal by referencing the battle of Karbala, and one cannot understand the posturing of Saad al Hariri or Samir Geagea by reading the history of the Ottoman Empire or by citing patriarch Hayek’s address to the conference of Versailles in 1920. Certainly, one can and should be informed by these historical sources, but their importance lies in how they both represent trends and transformations in the history of what we call, perhaps too simply, sectarianism.
In fact, “peace” may be just as implicated in reproducing a normalized discourse of sectarianism as “war”. In this analysis, the Ta’if Accord is only the latest example of how the inscription of the terms of peace can be used to retroactively transcribe the politics of conflict. In 1861 a sectarian formula was adopted to assuage what was to a large extent class conflict. In 1943 a sectarian formula was readopted to address the competing nationalisms of Arabism and Lebanon-ism. In 1958 a civil war fought over ideology was ‘solved’ by foreign interference and retrenchment (and gerrymandering) of the same sectarian formula. In 1975 another civil war began, this time over the issues of solidarity with the Arab-Israeli conflict, growing dissatisfaction with uneven sectarian delegation of power under the sectarian system as well as with the sectarian system itself, and economic disparities that had been stretched to a breaking point. In these 15 years Lebanon was invaded twice by Israel and was host to three other foreign and partisan armies, was a testing ground for new weapons technologies, and was a site where communists fought ‘different’ communists, Christians fought Christians, Shi`a fought Shi`a, and at one point or the other, (most) everybody fought against Palestinians. In 1989 a peace was proposed that effectively ‘evened out’ the lopsided state and promised, as the Constitution of 1927 and the National pact of 1943 had promised, that the sectarian nature of the state was a necessary but temporary evil. The Tai’f Accord effectively chooses which aspects of the conflict to focus on and ameliorate, and which aspects of the conflict to background and leave unaddressed. Again, the early transformative anti-sectarian possibilities of war were channeled into constitutional amendments. By using this discourse the Ta’if Accord effectively neutralizes alternative analysis of both the causes of war and its sociality. It protects elite interest by obviating critiques that are thicker than the employment of Orientalist tropes such as the ‘essential’ and self-perpetuating presence of primordialism, tribalism, and sectarianism in Arab politics. The function of this type of ‘pre-emptive’ peacemaking is to ensure that violence that has transformative goals (such as rejections of sectarianism) is always articulated into law preserving peace (such as the redistribution of power according to sectarian lines), which in turn functions to perpetuate economic and political elite interest. In this analysis, the Ta’if Accord is seen as perpetuating if not violence itself, then at least the omnipresent threat of violence. Perhaps even more ominously, this state of perpetual ceasfire clothes itself in the symbolic capital of peace making. If, as the political theorist Slavoj Zizek argues, “the struggle for ideological and political hegemony is thus always the struggle for the appropriation of words which are spontaneously experienced as ‘apolitical’ as crossing political lines,” then the claim that the Ta'if Republic embodies “peace” is essentially a power-producing gesture. While peace is a universal desire for the victims of war, it is anything but apolitical. Instead, to again think with Zizek, much like his example of the word ‘solidarity,’ ‘peace’ as a signifier has been “emptied of all positive content” and raised to the “privileged empty point of universality.” If the continued colonization of Palestine has taught us anything, it is that pandering to the call of peacemaking enables one to continue violence with less illegitimacy.
Reading the history of Lebanon as a history of violence is important because it begins to explain how to be a Lebanese citizen is to be implicated in the system of political sectarianism and the ever present threat of its violent breakdown. Not only is the citizen produced bureaucratically and legally through the stitching together of sectarianism and nationalism, but she is also refracted through a historical narrative that emphasizes sectarian violence and difference. Furthermore, these narratives of war and violence are not shared. For example, I remember clearly the day that “peace” was declared in Lebanon after the civil war. I remember feeling that the early 90s were a time of possibility; expatriates were returning, money was being pumped in to the country, bullet-holes were being quickly covered over with billboards. The war was over. It was not till 1996 and Israel's “Grapes of Wrath” campaign on Lebanon that I realized that this was a lie. Even if peace had come to me in 1990 it had not come to Lebanese citizens who were living in or were from the 1/3 of the country that was still living under brutal Israeli occupation. In fact, “peace” did not come to Lebanon as a whole until 2000, when the Israeli military finally withdrew and South Lebanon was free from foreign occupation. Six years later, the same army returned to South Lebanon. Once again, it became so easy for war and violence to be confined to “over there” or “to them.” Indeed, modern political sectarianism has succeeded in creating a large, elastic, and differentiated mode of citizenship in Lebanon. To be a Lebanese citizen is to be 'marked'---but the universality implicit in such a mode of politics is that all citizens are marked. The state claims to incorporate and thus tame the difference that is itself produced and channeled by state institutions. The success of political sectarianism can be evidenced by the fact that most Lebanese citizens believe that it is a historical and primordial trope that you can be (if you are modern, or nationalist enough) outside of.
Desiring A (Different) State
Removing political sectarianism is not a matter of changing a few laws, adding a secular personal status law, immersing oneself in alternative histories, and transforming the system of political representation in the government. Calling for the end of political sectarianism is the same as calling for the end of the modern Lebanese state. While this may seem to be a daunting task, it is also an opportunity to re-imagine the type of political community we want to live in and form and I commend many of today's activists for grappling with the utopic space that they themselves have opened. Do we want to build a state where economic justice and legal equality, and the protected freedom of expression and difference is part of the political philosophy? If, for example, we want to build a state where female citizens are afforded the same rights as their male counterparts, this project would entail revamping criminal, civil, constitutional, business, and not just personal status law. It would also necessitate the complete transformation of the laws and procedures governing the census registry (nufus)-not only to remove the “sectarian” differentiation but perhaps, even more importantly, to change the ways in which citizenship in Lebanon is gendered within a patriarchal legal philosophy and practice. Do we want to live in a state where citizens and non- citizens are afforded the same civil rights, where being a Palestinian or a Kurdish refugee is not an excuse for legal and social discrimination? Do we want to live in a state where the question of “public morality” is not used as an excuse to punish (and arbitrarily punish) non-normative practices of sex and of life? These questions are not about building a secular state, but they are about moving to a more just system of political inclusion and practice. You can have a secular state that is sexist, hyper capitalist, racist, xenophobic, patriarchal, oppressive, and repressive of public opinion. In fact, one could argue that the Lebanese state is already a secular state that is all of these things. But is that the type of political community that, given the opportunity, we would want to (re) build? If not, then one must grapple seriously with the question of justice and its relationship to law, both theoretically and in practice. The conversation cannot begin and end with a condemnation of political sectarianism and slogans such as “secularism is the answer” (mimicking the often criticized as “empty” slogan, “Islam is the answer.”)
Since the Lebanese state was created under the French mandate, activists and revolutionaries have struggled against its mode of producing and incorporating politicized difference. At each stage, the character of these struggles and the demands of these activists/revolutionaries has been different. Today's activists do not speak the same language as the revolutionaries of 1958 because they live under different circumstances and are faced with different challenges. Many of today's activists speak of the “culture” and “racism” of sectarianism rather than of its consecration of elite interest and its French designed system of minority rule, they complain about the lack of available jobs and a living wage rather than demanding the restructuring of the economy to allow for buffers against the unevenly distributed ravages of hyper-capitalism and neo-liberalism. Most importantly, most activists of today are Lebanese nationalists. They raise the flag, they sing the anthem, they say (or post) things like “lebanon first” and “Lebanon free from foreign intervention” and they imagine a different way to be Lebanese. In this fashion, the activists of perhaps today index the unlikely success of the Lebanese state at producing a nationalism that does not need the trope of political sectarianism anymore. The mandate inspired remedial state has perhaps achieved its stated goal; it has produced a body of people that believe they are a distinct nation (or at least members of distinct and legitimate country) that should all equally belong to the same state. Many activists today speak this success; they are calling for a unified and distinct Lebanese state where they will be fully incorporated into that state as members of the same nation and country, not as politically differentiated members of sects. Because in effect they are calling for the complete overhaul of this “remedial” state, they represent an opportunity to re imagine what a political community is, what it can be, and the possibilities of re-imagining both the shared past and shared future of this political community. As I suggested earlier, removing political sectarianism will not necessarily make the Lebanese state more just, more equitable, or more “modern” or “liberal.” The question is not one of titles; rather, it is a question of content.
 By 1948, following the resettlement of Kurdish and Palestinian refugees, there was a clear majority of Muslims living in the territory of Lebanon. This influx also exacerbated the economic disparity in the country and reinscribed the reality that the majority of people living in Lebanon were poor and or/working class. One can in fact read the demographic anxiety these populations inspired among political leaders and their constituents by studying how the state moved to naturalize parts of the Palestinian refugee population; (not all)Christians and the wealthy. Furthermore, in 1948 Lebanon was the only Arab country that experienced an enlargement of its Jewish community, due tot he arrival of wealthy Arab Jews from Syria, Iraq and Egypt and their prompt naturalization. Thus the "problem" of Palestinian refugees (and Kurdish refugees, we should never forget) is actually a problem of poor Sunni Moslem Palestinian refugees.
 The ‘public face’ of the state, mediated through its national anthem and its flag, reflected (and still reflect) this decision. Lebanon’s national anthem, written in 1927 by a Lebanese Maronite nationalist living in France, stresses the importance of the residents of the Lebanese mountains and their valleys (which were predominantly Maronite and Christian), but does not mention the residents of the coastal cities. Similarly, the Lebanese National Anthem does not include the word “Arab,” an anomaly for the national anthem of a state which was a founding member of the Arab League and whose citizenry largely self-identifies as Arab. Written in 1927, the National Anthem has never been changed, although it represents an ideological image of a “Lebanon” that has never been realized.
7 comments for "What is Political Sectarianism?"
If you prefer, email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hot on Facebook
Jadalicious / جدلشس
"It is remarkable that the critical link between Islamic art and Modernism would emerge from an art scene that has convinced itself of its “cosmopolitan” nature with endless attempts to gain distance from regional markers, historic or otherwise."click | email | tweet
Latest EntriesView All Entries »
- Expropriation, Lawlessness, and Resistance in Yirca's Olive Groves: An Interview with Olcay Bingol and Deniz Bayram
- Faculty Support Student-Workers of UAW 2865 in Solidarity with Palestinian Students and Workers
- Syria Media Roundup (November 25)
- Turkey Media Roundup (November 25)
- Moving in the Maze with Cairene Artist Qarm Qart
- Larissa Sansour
- Event at GMU: The Double Execution of Saddam Hussein: Diaspora, Media, and Images, with Zainab Saleh
- Last Week on Jadaliyya (November 17-23)
- A French Atlas of the Gulf States
- Egypt Media Roundup (November 24)
- O.I.L. Media Roundup (23 November)
- Arab Jewish Identity and the Art of Hospitality: A Conversation with Michael Rakowitz
- Visit Our Jadaliyya/ASI/GMU Booths at MESA! #83 and #84
- Maghreb Media Roundup (November 21)
- Give Palestinian Children a Voice
- On the Margins Roundup (November)
- Arabian Peninsula Media Roundup (November 19)
- شعراء ما بعد الطوفان
- New Texts Out Now: Lina Khatib, Dina Matar, and Atef Alshaer, The Hizbullah Phenomenon: Politics and Communication
- New Texts Out Now: Rula Jurdi Abisaab and Malek Abisaab, The Shi‘ites of Lebanon: Modernism, Communism, and Hizbullah’s Islamists