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New Texts Out Now: Max Weiss, "In the Shadow of Sectarianism"

[Cover of Max Weiss, [Cover of Max Weiss, "In the Shadow of Sectarianism"]

Max Weiss, In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi`ism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Jadaliyya: What made you write this book? 

Max Weiss: I suppose the central question at the heart of my book is: How did the Lebanese Shi`a become sectarian? Amidst the flood of writing about the rise to prominence and influence of the Shi'i community in Lebanon during the second half of the twentieth century—with starring roles for Imam Musa al-Sadr and his Movement of the Deprived, and subsequently-emerging figures associated with Hizballah—there was very little appreciation of the fact that the community's empowerment and mobilization had historical roots earlier in the twentieth century. When I began researching this book, which is a development of my dissertation, I was convinced that such a meteoric rise, although certainly not unprecedented or inconceivable, must have had some kind of intellectual, ideological, or institutional foundations. It turned out that this was true, as exemplified by the development of Ja`fari legal institutions and the rise of Shi`i modernist reformism under the French Mandate. Meanwhile, despite an important number of works challenging the primordiality of sectarianism in Lebanon—most importantly, Ussama Makdisi's The Culture of Sectarianism, but also a wide range of writings and debates in Lebanon as it haltingly muddled its way through a process of rebuilding and reconstruction over the past two decades—there were very few studies directly engaging with the problem of sectarianism that weren't characterized by some kind of caricature. Therefore, I concluded that there was some value in considering the institutionalization of sectarianism and Shi`ism together, as part of what might be called a sort of case study in the critical historical analysis of Lebanese sectarianism.

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

MW: The book argues that the Shi`i community in Lebanon became sectarian—which for me also meant starting to practice being sectarian—during the period of French Mandate rule (1918-1943). This was partly accomplished by the extension of political sectarianism to incorporate the Shi`i-majority regions of Jabal `Amil (South Lebanon) and the Biqa` Valley. Even more important, however, this process was also driven by the functioning of new legal institutions, specifically, the official recognition of the Ja`fari madhhab as in independent "legal school" and the formal establishment of Ja`fari`i shari`a courts to adjudicate matters of personal status or family law in 1926 (the community had previously enjoyed no recognition in the eyes of the Ottoman state); and by the increasingly public nature of Shi`i religious culture—not only, but perhaps most importantly, the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn on `Ashura. Throughout this period, the Shi`i community in Lebanon was characterized by great dynamism and diversity: debates raged over questions of political engagement versus cautious quietism, Lebanese particularism versus Arab nationalism, religious modernism versus conventional traditionalism, among other things.


[Photograph reproduced from the September 1927 issue of the Sidon monthly journal al-`Irfan, published by Shaykh Ahmad
`Arif al-Zayn. The three elder figures in the center are, from left to right, Sayyid Muhsin al-Amin, Shaykh Munir `Usayran, and the
Shaykh Ahmad `Arif al-Zayn. The caption above them reads, "A coincidence is better than an appointment." Image via the author.]

Rather than accepting the primordialist's notion that Twelver Shi`i communities in the Arab world have always defined themselves and been defined by others in sectarian terms, but also rejecting the instrumentalist's notion that the French were primarily responsible for the promotion if not "invention" of sectarianism in Lebanon, the book plants its thesis in a middle ground. Over the course of the first half of the twentieth century, there was a qualitative shift in the meaning, experience, and practice of sectarianism within the Shiʿi community, even as the contours of "the Lebanese Shi`i community" were only just starting to come into view. This process needs to be attributed to French colonial policies that privileged certain minority communities at the expense of others, an ensemble of practices that I term "sectarianization from above," but also to the wide-ranging demands for sectarian representation and recognition made by Shi`i politicians, religious scholars (`ulama) and ordinary people themselves, what I have called "sectarianization from below."

Taken all together, the argument demonstrates that there is no single trajectory leading to sectarianization, that is, that communities may become sectarian in different ways, at different moments. By the time that Imam Musa al-Sadr arrived on the Lebanese scene in the late 1950s, therefore, a foundation for the mobilization of a specifically Shi`i politics was well in place. At the same time, the book shows that sectarianism is a complex social, political, and cultural phenomenon, one that is not by definition linked to politics, social disharmony, or even violence, but rather can be built upon and shored up by certain institutions and practices, which might include parochial schools, the allocation of political positions according to sectarian metrics, the primacy afforded to communal law courts over and above other jurisdictions, and a deeply divided media environment. All of these, in turn, might produce certain kinds of sectarian identity while also foreclosing other possible forms of individual and collective identification. 

The upshot of all this is to say, alongside a veritable chorus of academics, activists, policymakers, and citizens in Lebanon and beyond, that sectarianism has been forged over time through specific institutional and discursive practices and, therefore, could be modified or undone. Exactly how to do so, and whether this is indeed a priority for the Lebanese people, are open questions that could still be answered differently, even as a dwindling number of activists continue to bravely pound the pavement in Beirut demanding the fall of the sectarian regime. The main insight provided by the book, I hope, is the following: It will be difficult, if not impossible, to combat or even defeat sectarianism in all its forms without clear-eyed attention to the array of institutional venues in which sectarianism has been and continues to be produced, nurtured, and sustained.

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

MW: Owing to its engagement with unique and unexplored court records from Beirut and South Lebanon, French colonial sources, and a wide range of Arabic journals, memoirs, and secondary sources, I expect that the book will be of interest to scholars and students of and all those with an interest in colonialism, law and society, religion and politics, Middle East studies, and the making of political and cultural identities in the modern world. I would also hope that the contemporary resonance of the book's main themes will not be lost on policymakers and politicians, scholars and analysts, and any readers concerned with the dynamism and the emerging sense of possibility currently flourishing at this moment in Lebanese but also Middle East history more broadly. Nearly a decade after a system of proportional confessional representation—political sectarianism—was instituted from above with the cooperation of a foreign occupying power in Iraq, and as we are on the cusp of momentous political and institutional transformations across the region (including growing murmurs about the potential risks and danger of sectarianism in Syria), it would seem important for politicians, policy analysts, journalists, public intellectuals, and as many citizens as possible—both in the region and abroad—to notice and think carefully about the potential consequences of enshrining sectarianism as the basis for organizing education and law, administering government, and establishing public and private institutions more broadly. 


[Max Weiss. Photo via the author.]

J: What other projects are you working on right now?

MW: I'm writing a history of Syria in the twentieth century, from the late Ottoman period through 2010. The emphasis is going to be on law and society, the nexus of religion, secularism, and sectarianism, and the interplay between culture and ideology in the making of modern Syria. Surprisingly little has been written on these topics, and on Syria more generally speaking, especially when it comes to the post-1963 period. Indeed, there is still no reliable single-volume survey of modern and contemporary Syrian history; certain events, individuals, and periods have received lavish attention from scholars and researchers, while others are only just beginning to be explored. At this dramatic turning point in Syrian history, now is a particularly opportune time to be thinking about how best to put into perspective the periodization, chronicling, and interpretation of modern Syrian history.

I also continue to translate contemporary Arabic fiction, at the moment working on novels by the Syrian writers Fawwaz Haddad and Nihad Sirees.

Excerpt from In the Shadow of Sectarianism

[From the Prologue:]

Whether overtly or tacitly, most Lebanese historiography accepts and authorizes the categorical imperatives underwriting sectarianism. Even the most critical historical narratives tend to explain key concepts such as equality, citizenship, rights, and nationhood with sectarianism, without also simultaneously seeking to explain sectarianism itself. Social, economic, and political circumstances have allowed each community to develop strikingly similar narratives of sectarian independence, autonomy, and legitimacy. Less often remarked upon are the subtle institutional processes and practices that gave rise to stubborn and persistent forms of sectarian affiliation and community. The Janus-faced nature of communal identification—privileging both sameness and difference, or, perhaps, sameness in some sort of essential, naturalized difference—is one intractable contradiction at the heart of Lebanese sectarian-nationalism. Rather than accepting the apparent-ness or natural-ness of sectarian ways of being, institutions, and practices prima facie, historians should strive to understand the persistence of certain key themes in Lebanese history: recognition and erasure, inclusion and exclusion, sectarian difference and national unity. This book exposes some of the contradictions of Lebanese sectarianism by examining some institutional and discursive practices at the fluid and permeable boundary differentiating Lebanese society from the sectarian state.

Lebanese history in the twentieth century can be best conceived as a hodgepodge of mutually comprehensible and relational “cultures of sectarianism” operating within the framework of a broader national sectarianism or sectarian nationalism. Without entirely jettisoning the overarching concept of a sprawling and unitary “culture of sectarianism,” then, historians may recognize how sectarianism becomes a badge of national affiliation even as particular sectarianisms are modulated according to the specific historical trajectory of a particular community. Within this framework for understanding Lebanese history, neither can there be one unitary model for the production of Lebanese sectarianisms, which I understand in the plural, nor is there a universal form of sectarian expression that is common to all sectarian communities at all historical moments. Each sectarian community in Lebanon has become sectarian in its own particular way as a result of specific sets of discursive, institutional, and material transformations. One of the enduring paradoxes of Lebanese political citizenship and cultural identity is that sectarian difference proved integral to the making of the nation while national unity was forged through the making of sectarian difference. If sectarian difference served as a sine qua non for full participation in the national project, modernizationist assumptions about Lebanon may be challenged….Whatever the case, by the autumn of the French Mandate an increasingly subjective identification with “Shi‘i-ness” had been cultivated in the context of a new kind of sectarian sensibility in Lebanon.

Ironically, sectarian institutions bonded Shi‘i society to the state but at the same time marginalized the Shi‘i community within the national body politic. The institutionalization of Shi‘i law and politics cultivated Shi‘i autonomy from the state, which could insulate the community from national political life in some ways even as the gradual popularization of Shi‘ism as a marker of cultural and religious identity continued apace. In this sense, the Lebanese Shi‘i community was transformed during the period of French Mandate rule, becoming sectarian in new ways that were defined by specific institutional relationships and cultural practices. The hegemonic culture of sectarianism cast a shadow over the conditions of possibility of civic participation in Lebanese political, legal, and cultural life, even as the Shi‘i community became sectarian in new ways. Beyond recognizing the Shi‘a as (often unequal) participants in the collaborative endeavors of Lebanese nationalism much earlier in the twentieth century than the historiography has previously recognized, this book explores some of the complex ways in which colonialism, religion, and nationalism collided to produce new sectarianized modes of cultural and political identification. As such, this book may enable the construction of a different narrative of Lebanese Shi‘i social history and the imagination of other trajectories for Lebanese society and culture.

[Excerpted from Max Weiss, In the Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shi`ism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon. @ 2010 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Excerpted by permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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