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New Texts Out Now: Melani Cammett, Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon

[Cover of Melani Cammett, [Cover of Melani Cammett, "Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon"]

Melani Cammett, Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Melani Cammett (MC): The aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq first got me thinking about the connections between identity politics and social service provision. Years of war with Iran as well as more than a decade of sanctions after the First Gulf War had eroded the public welfare infrastructure in Iraq. The dismantling of the state in the aftermath of the US invasion destroyed much of what was left of it, creating a vacuum in parts of the country. I began to think about how “ordinary” people were able to meet their basic needs while everything seemed to be crumbling around them.

In March 2003, the New York Times published an article that mentioned the takeover of a health center in Baghdad by a newly formed Islamic political party. With the fall of the Ba’ath party, many new political groups were sprouting up and some opted to establish welfare institutions. By taking over existing facilities or creating their own, these parties could build support among the population or exert their control over territory. The Iraqi experience therefore suggested to me that, in some societies, social welfare is a lens through which we can study identity politics, whether based on religion, ethnicity, or other social categories. The provision of welfare and the dynamics of sectarian or ethnic politics share an important commonality, namely that they both involve the construction and maintenance of boundaries of inclusion. In other words, both phenomena fundamentally concern notions and experiences of membership within both in- and out-group communities.

With political violence ratcheting up, it soon became clear that it would be hard to carry out field research in Iraq. Based on personal observations and a review of relevant academic literature and media accounts, I realized that political organizations ran their own welfare programs in other countries in the Middle East and in other global regions. In summer 2004, I visited Lebanon to carry out preliminary research on the topic with the support of a seed grant from Brown University. The information I collected and interviews I carried out that summer and during a subsequent trip in 2006 enabled me to develop a more precise question and research design.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MC: The core questions I pose in the book aim to explain why some sectarian providers distribute welfare goods broadly, even to out-group members, while others concentrate service provision within their in-group communities. Similarly, I ask why sectarian organizations purposively target members of out-groups to a greater or lesser degree in different time periods or geographic areas. I also pose a second set of questions about what it means to serve in-group members. Even if sectarian organizations primarily serve “their own,” all in-group members are not treated equally. Given resource constraints, do sectarian organizations distribute welfare goods unevenly among different categories of in-group members? Charitable and political motivations are not mutually exclusive; however, the book focuses on the political dimensions of social service provision.

I argue that two primary factors shape how sectarian or ethnic parties distribute welfare goods: first, whether a party engages in what I call a “state-centric” or “extra-state” political strategy—that is, whether it largely operates through formal state institutions and emphasizes electoral politics or whether it mobilizes through other channels such as mass protests, riots, and militia politics; and second, whether it faces intra-group competition, or competition from other parties claiming to represent the same community. The empirical material in the book focuses on the major Christian, Shi`a Muslim, and Sunni Muslim political parties and movements in Lebanon, with short case studies of the Sadrist Movement in Iraq and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India.

The book is as much about the politics of social welfare as it is about the dynamics of sectarianism as a political phenomenon. Some people misinterpret my arguments to be a reification of sectarian identity or to adopt an essentialist understanding of identity. This is a profound misreading of the book. Ultimately, the Lebanese political system, which is based on a power-sharing system that enshrines religion as the basis of representation, institutionalizes sect as a social category, but this does not mean that people base their identities primarily or even partially in terms of ascribed sectarian categories. Furthermore, as I emphasize in the book, even in the context of the Lebanese sectarian power-sharing system, the rigidity of the sect as a social category varies in its political salience across time and space. Sectarian parties play upon sectarian differences to varying degrees, depending on their political goals and strategies, on their audiences, and on the particular historical moment.

In addition to contributing to debates about Middle East politics, the book speaks to broader debates about the dynamics of ethnic politics, clientelism, and welfare regimes. In recent years, much social science research on clientelism, and even ethnic politics, prioritizes electoral politics. Elections are important but are by no means the only game in town, especially in “unconsolidated” democracies, hybrid regimes, and of course non-democracies. As a result, studies of electoral clientelism tend to highlight short-term material exchanges. This narrow focus, however, overlooks the complexities of the relationships between parties and ordinary people. Parties establish more iterated and protracted relationships with some citizens more than others, and may seek to gain power through other means beyond electoral contests.

I also view the book as a part of a new research agenda on the politics of non-state social welfare. On this topic, I recently published a book (co-edited with Lauren Morris MacLean at Indiana University), The Politics of Non-State Social Welfare. The book covers a wide range of non-state actors in welfare regimes across Latin America, the Middle East, South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and even the former Soviet Union and the United States. This broadly comparative book develops an analytical framework for assessing the consequences of non-state provision for access to welfare, accountability for citizens, and state capacity.

J:  What methodologies did you use in your research for this book?

MC: In the research for Compassionate Communalism, I relied on mixed methods of data collection and analysis, including in-depth interviews with elites and non-elites, spatial analyses, a national household survey, and archival research. Throughout the research process, I carried out in-depth elite interviews with party representatives, management and staff at welfare institutions, government officials, journalists, and others. In response to questions about which types of people and communities parties aim to serve with their social programs, many key informants—including representatives of the very parties that I was studying—advised me to “look at where they locate.” I therefore collected spatial data on the locations of schools, hospitals, and health clinics and dispensaries and corresponding demographic data to assess the religious and socioeconomic profiles of the communities where they operate. I then designed and executed a nationally representative survey to identify patterns of access to welfare at the household level. Based on the work of a team of excellent Lebanese graduate research assistants,[1] interviews with “ordinary” citizens concerning their efforts to access social welfare by diverse public and non-state providers were a crucial supplement to these methods. Finally, thorough reviews of archival materials, particularly the publications of the sectarian parties sometimes dating back decades, provided valuable contextual and historical perspective on their welfare activities.

J: Who do you hope will read this book and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MC: I hope that the book will have a diverse audience. Of course, I would like fellow scholars to read it, but I would also like policy-makers and development practitioners to read and engage with it. By now it is well known that politics are a vital piece of the puzzle in any policy-making process. Development specialists routinely find that the best-laid plans do not work unless they adapt to political realities. Thus, I hope that Compassionate Communalism will resonate far beyond the ivory tower. I also hope that people from the region, especially those generally unconcerned with academic debates yet directly affected will read it. Ideally, the book will become part of an ongoing conversation about politics and welfare and, more generally, about how to build more just societies in the Middle East and across the world, including in my own country, the United States.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

MC: In many ways, Compassionate Communalism marks a radical departure from my prior work, which focused on economic liberalization and business politics, largely in North Africa. The research for my new book required me to learn about new countries, academic literatures, and methodologies, all of which was time consuming and at times daunting, particularly for an assistant professor nearing the tenure review process. On a meta-level, however, my new and prior work both have a common theme. They share a focus on the ways in which politics create inequalities of access to economic and social resources and the ways in which local actors use these resources to their advantage. This is a wide-open research agenda that can go in many directions and will keep me, as well as many others, busy for years to come.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MC: I am currently working a wide array of projects—too many, in fact! My next major research project was directly inspired by things I observed during the field research for Compassionate Communalism. In researching the book, I did not have the opportunity to delve into what people experience. In particular, what kinds of services do they receive when they go to a welfare facility run by the sectarian parties or any other types of providers? From both an academic and policy perspective, however, the question of which organizations—whether public, private, for-profit, or charitable—provide good quality services is important. So is why they do so. I am now working on a large-scale, multi-country project on the quality of social services in the Middle East, with a focus on primary health care. This is a multi-methods research project involving four different surveys of staff members and patients at health care facilities. It also includes interviews with government officials and the heads of welfare networks. I am currently completing a series of pilot surveys in Lebanon, and am laying the groundwork to take this project across multiple countries in the region. A related set of collaborative projects focuses on governance and the quality of health services in selected Arab countries.

I am also the co-author, with Ishac Diwan (J.F.K. School, Harvard University), of the new and updated edition of A Political Economy of the Middle East. Alan Richards and John Waterbury co-authored three editions of this classic text, which I have read over and over as a student of the Middle East. Revising the book in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings is an enormous task, but it is very rewarding. It has enabled me to learn so many new things about the region, which I have been studying and visiting for more than two decades. I am also part of the team working on the 2015 edition of the UNDP Arab Human Development Report, which focuses on youth. Nisreen Salti (Economics, American University of Beirut) and I are co-authoring a chapter on the effects of violence and conflict on youth in the region. (We are simultaneously working on another co-authored paper on cross-class and cross-national variation in citizen attitudes towards welfare regimes in the Arab world.) Finally, I am working on several other papers on topics related to welfare and politics, mainly but not exclusively in the Middle East.

I am passionate about this broad research agenda. Now more than ever, researchers and practitioners need to address a variety of vital questions about the politics of welfare. This is especially true in the current economic and political context. Across the Middle East, millions of people are forced to meet the basic needs of their families under conditions of duress, whether due to war and violence or to the decline or underdevelopment of welfare regimes and systems of social protection. In these circumstances, how do they cope? What local and national governance arrangements enable people to live healthier lives, attain higher levels of education, and find jobs that enable them to support themselves and their families? What can be done to create more equitable and just societies? My research focus is the Middle East, but of course these are vital questions for the entire world.


[1] In the acknowledgements of the book, I inadvertently failed to mention the excellent research assistance and feedback of Lana Salman. I regret this oversight and would like to take this opportunity to recognize her singular contributions and to thank her for her brilliant input throughout the research and writing of the book.

Excerpt from Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon

In June 2007, Hamza Shahrour, a twenty-four-year-old Lebanese man, died of heart failure in Beirut. Hamza’s death might have been prevented had he received timely medical attention, but the hospital where his family first took him refused to admit him. In Lebanon, examples abound of low-income patients who are turned away from hospital emergency rooms because they cannot cover the costs of treatment, and the Lebanese media periodically feature stories about patients who die in ambulances outside private hospitals that have refused to accept them on financial grounds (Al-Nahar Staff 1998; Balaa 2005). In the case of Hamza Shahrour, however, it was not poverty but sectarian identity that allegedly compelled the hospital staff to refuse to treat him. A Shi‘i Muslim, Hamza was taken to the Rafiq Al-Hariri Hospital, which is officially public but which at various times has been controlled by the Future Movement, a predominantly Sunni Muslim political party and an important force in Lebanese politics. After his death, Hamza’s mother lamented, “I wish my son had been a Sunni. Maybe he would be sitting next to me now instead of dying, having been turned away from the Hariri hospital” (IRIN News 2008). This account of Hamza’s treatment suggests that the Future Movement allocates social benefits along sectarian lines. But this claim is surprising in light of the history of the Future Movement. For years, the organization was seen as relatively open to all Lebanese, regardless of sect, even though its founder was a prominent Sunni leader. Thus, the interpretation by Hamza’s mother suggests that Lebanese citizens view the organization as “sectarian,” despite its history of cross-sectarian generosity.

The Future Movement is hardly the only political party in Lebanon accused of discrimination along sectarian lines in recent years. Doctors from the Rasoul al-‘Azam Hospital, a hospital in the southern suburbs of Beirut run by the Shi‘a Muslim party Hezbollah, admit that Hezbollah members and their families receive priority treatment (IRIN News 2008). Although their own welfare institutions are currently far less developed than those of their Sunni and Shi‘a counterparts, Christian political parties use connections with religious charities and other provider organizations to ensure that their supporters receive preferential access to social services. Christian leaders with bases of regional support, such as Nayla Moawad or Suleiman Franjieh, both of whom come from important political families in North Lebanon, run welfare networks that are widely perceived by Lebanese citizens to favor their own supporters. Long-standing Christian political parties, such as the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb, whose welfare programs were largely dismantled after the end of the fifteen-year Lebanese civil war in 1990, are resuscitating and building their social service wings at present. Political leaders of these parties openly acknowledge that they must reward their supporters with services as they rebuild party institutions; “We know we need to help our supporters, especially now that we are constituting ourselves into a real political party,” explained one Lebanese Forces official.[1]

Social welfare, then, not only concerns the ways in which people meet their basic social needs; in Lebanon and in other countries in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, and other regions of the Global South, where public welfare functions are underdeveloped and identity-based organizations provide social protection, it is a lens through which to study sectarian and ethnic politics. At its core, sectarianism refers to processes of constructing and maintaining the boundaries of a religious community, demarcating who belongs and who is excluded. Social welfare, too, entails processes of inclusion and exclusion, shaping both the constitution and experiences of membership in a political community. At the national level, for example, access to social services and benefits is at the heart of contests over citizenship, a status that determines one’s rights and obligations and their entailments within the polity. Similarly, who benefits from the provision of social services by sectarian organizations—whether based on formal or informal eligibility criteria—effectively constitutes membership in these groups. Through the direct provision of social services or through indirect access to benefits provided by other public and private organizations, these organizations aim to build support, consolidate their control over territory and people, and present themselves as protectors and guarantors of well-being. A focus on the relationship between provider and beneficiary exposes the kinds of linkages—material and immaterial—that sectarian organizations[2] construct with ordinary people, enabling identity-based groups to lock in their control over social and political life.

In light of standard expectations of sectarian politics in academic and journalistic accounts, the account of Hamza’s death by his mother is tragic but not surprising; sectarian or ethnic groups generally favor “their own”—in access to social services, jobs, the distribution of patronage, or other forms of resource allocation—especially when resources are scarce and a larger, cross-cutting sense of solidarity is absent or underdeveloped (Alesina et al. 2003; Easterly and Levine 1997; Habyarimana et al. 2007; Lieberman 2003; Tsai 2007). Far more puzzling, then, are instances when sectarian organizations purposively serve people from other sects. Sunnis and Christians attest that they receive medical care, financial assistance, and even educational scholarships from Hezbollah institutions,[3] and Hezbollah emphasizes that it welcomed Christian business owners and residents in neighborhoods located in the southern suburbs of Beirut, such as Shiyah and Baabda, after the civil war (Harik 2004). Likewise, Shi‘a Lebanese report that they benefit from similar services provided by Sunni institutions linked to political parties and religious charities.[4] Even their harshest critics in Lebanon attest that sectarian parties make deliberate efforts to serve members of out-groups.[5]

This book takes these apparently anomalous cases of cross-sectarian welfare provision as a starting point for studying the broader phenomenon of sectarianism: How does sectarianism affect the efforts of ordinary people to meet their basic needs? This broad concern points to more targeted questions about the behavior of sectarian parties: Why do some sectarian providers distribute welfare goods broadly, even to out-group members, while others concentrate service provision within their associated communities? Similarly, why do sectarian organizations purposively cater to members of out-groups to a greater or lesser degree in different time periods or geographical areas? The book also poses a second set of questions about what it means for organizations to serve their own communities: Even if sectarian organizations primarily serve in-group members, are all treated equally or are some favored over others? Given resource limitations, sectarian organizations are compelled to distribute welfare goods unevenly among different categories of in-group members.

The logic of welfare outreach cannot be reduced to a single factor, nor are charitable and political motivations mutually exclusive, as I emphasize in the next chapter. In focusing on the political dimensions of the provision of social services, however, I argue that two key factors shape how a sectarian or ethnic party distributes welfare goods: (1) whether the party engages in a “state-centric” or “extra-state” political strategy and (2) whether it faces competition from other parties claiming to represent the same community (intrasect competition).

The first factor—the type of political strategy that parties prioritize—shapes both whether organizations target out-group members with welfare benefits and the degree to which they favor core versus passive supporters and the politically uncommitted. When parties pursue a state-centric strategy, or opt to work through formal state institutions to seek national power, they are more likely to serve members of other religious communities and to target more passive supporters and even those with no record of support for the party. When they engage in an extra-state strategy, which might include protests, riots, or even militia politics, they favor core supporters, who tend to be in-group members.

The second factor, intrasect competition, is most applicable to political systems premised on power sharing, in which political life is effectively structured around ethnic, religious, or other social identities. If a party has achieved dominance within its group, it is more likely to distribute welfare goods inclusively, perhaps even to out-group members. Conversely, when a party faces competition from other parties within its sect, it tends to focus services on in-group members and, under some conditions, to a narrow group of hard-core activists. Thus, who benefits from the welfare activities of a given sectarian party is shaped by the type of political strategy it prioritizes and whether it faces competition from in-group rivals.

Focusing on Lebanon, in this book I compare the welfare distribution strategies of Christian, Shi‘a Muslim, and Sunni Muslim political parties, with background comparisons to other ostensibly identity-based political groups in Iraq and India. In Lebanon, a quintessential case of a weak state[6] in which power-sharing arrangements enshrine the political salience of religion and ethnicity, welfare is a terrain of political contestation. The distribution of welfare goods varies across different parties, however: the Sunni Muslim Future Movement offers services relatively broadly, even locating some health clinics in Christian neighborhoods, whereas the Shi‘i Muslim Hezbollah provides services mainly in Shi‘a areas, although it welcomes members of other sects in its welfare institutions and has recently expressed interest in branching out beyond its core areas of operation. Christian political parties tend to focus social assistance efforts in heavily Christian communities. The degree to which these parties face serious competition within their respective sects and the types of politics they prioritize help to explain the variation in the propensities of these organizations to serve out-group communities or to reach out beyond their core base of supporters. In all cases, service provision is used not only to address pressing social needs but also to build political support. In the allocation of basic health care, educational services, food, and other forms of material assistance—the main sectors on which I focus—service providers linked to Lebanese political parties make choices about whom to reward, attract, or exclude.


[1] Author interview: official, Lebanese Forces, Jounieh, 30 October 2007.

[2] Although I do not assume fixed categories or identities, I employ language such as sectarian organizations or parties to refer to groups that either express linkages to or are associated with particular religious communities. In chapter one, I elaborate on my understanding of sectarianism and sectarian groups.

[3] Interview by Zina Sawaf: Sunni woman, Beirut, 7 December 2007.

[4] Interviews by Lamia Moghnie: Shi‘i woman, Shiyah, 1 November 2007; Shi‘i woman, Shiyah, 8 November 2007; Shi‘i woman, Sidon, 15 December 2007.

[5] Author interviews: official, UN Development Program (UNDP)-Lebanon, Beirut, 13 April 2006; director, Lebanese nongovernmental organization (NGO), Jel el-Dib, 7 June 2006; Ministry of Public Health official, Beirut, 13 June 2006; director, Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Beirut, 29 October 2007; official, Lebanese Red Cross, Beirut, 17 December 2007; Lebanese journalist, Beirut, 16 January 2008.

[6] Indicators of state weakness and failure arguably encompass a broader array of factors than the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence within a given territory (Weber 1946 [1919]), including the ability of the state to provide basic public services such as sanitation, clean water, national transportation systems, and even programs to assure the basic welfare needs of its population (Fund for Peace 2011; Rice and Stewart 2008; Soifer 2012).

[Excerpted from Melani Cammett, Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon, p. 1-6, by permission of the author. © 2014 Cornell University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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