Home | About LCPS | Contact | Careers
July 06, 2017
Defining and Deconstructing Sectarianism: An Interview with Ziad Abu-Rish

As part of our series on sectarianism in Lebanon, LCPS sat down with Dr. Ziad Abu-Rish, assistant professor in the Department of History and director of the Middle East and North Africa Studies certificate program at Ohio University, to discuss sectarianism in Lebanon from an historical perspective, modern manifestations of sectarianism, and what sectarianism means for the future of the Lebanese state. Below is a transcript of our conversation with Dr. Abu-Rish, which has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you define sectarianism?
 Scholars and activists have long debated the meaning of sectarianism, and in turn have developed competing and complimentary definitions of the term. In my own research and analysis of Lebanon, I’ve found the work of Ussama Makdisi, Maya Mikdashi, and Max Weiss to be some of the most helpful in understanding the phenomenon. I thus define sectarianism on the basis of three distinctions. First, sectarianism is a modern form of politics (both a discourse and a practice of claim making), rather than some primordial identity or relationship. I say it is “modern” because the conditions of possibility of sectarian politics emerged in the modern period of world history, at the intersection of the discourses, institutions, and practices of the modern state, imperialism, and the capitalist world economy. Second, sectarianism is a form of politics in which religion and sect serve as the basis of defining community, segregating those communities, and making political claims vis-à-vis political rivals and the state. Finally, sectarian politics needs to be understood as an overarching framework rather than a series of incidents. In other words, sectarian politics exist, make sense, and/or have meaning only when sectarianism is instantiated in the everyday life of a population—typically through a sectarian system. Given such a definition, religious/sectarian difference and violence between communities alone is not enough to constitute sectarian politics. In the case of Lebanon, the sectarian system is defined by the two overlapping practices of political representation and personal status adjudication: The formal and informal division of official positions on the basis of sect and personal status courts. Combined, these two sets of practices constitute the edifice of the sectarian system, which permeate the daily lives of Lebanese citizens (and many non-citizens living in Lebanon).
Makdisi meticulously analyzes how the emergence and institutionalization of sectarian politics in Mount Lebanon during the nineteenth century represented a sharp break with the non-sectarian social order (premised on a “hierarchical politics of notability") that preceded it. Weiss effectively demonstrates how sectarian politics were expanded within the nascent Lebanese state during the mandate period—both from above and below—so as to transform the Shia of Jabal Amal into Lebanese Shia. Mikdashi, for her part, shows the ways in which Lebanese citizenship is defined and exercised through belonging to personal status, regardless of political practice or representation.
Many wonder whether the manifestation of sectarian violence in Lebanon makes the country unique. But such a question takes sectarian politics as fixed, natural, something to be contained, and a dynamic that is ultimately reflected in state institutions. In my opinion, what is unique about Lebanon vis-à-vis the question of sectarianism are the multilayered incentive structures for individuals, families, neighborhoods, and other constellations of people to make claims on the basis of sect. These incentives are continuously produced and reproduced. Thus, the persistence of sectarianism is a function of the fact that the sectarian system is constantly at play or in place, i.e. you cannot practice modern citizenship in Lebanon without also practicing sectarianism.
How are cross-sectarian popular movements different today than during the early years of the Lebanese Republic?
 When I consider my own research on popular mobilizations and state institutions in the early independence period (1943-1955), I am struck by the ubiquity of cross-sectarian (and non-sectarian) popular movements at that time relative to the present. While much more discussion and debate is needed about this notion, I would preliminarily suggest two main factors. First, there has been an overall demobilization of society since the 1970s, both in Lebanon and throughout the world. In the Lebanese case, one part of this demobilization is the expanding disciplinary power of state institutions such as the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Information, Ministry of Social Affairs, and (even) Ministry of Youth. Second, there was a significant process of sectarianization during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), in large part due to the increasing power of sectarian militias over other forms of political organization. The civil war did not just reflect sectarian tensions but also produced sectarian transformations, the legacies of which continue to shape politics in Lebanon today. In the process, many popular movements were sectarianized. This is not to claim that the war was fundamentally or exclusively sectarian. It was much more than that. Nevertheless, I believe it changed the very meaning of ta’ifiyya in Lebanon, a term that is itself of modern coinage.
In contemporary Lebanon, there are many examples of cross-sectarian mobilizations. You can find them at the neighborhood, city, and regional levels. In the capital alone, we can think of workers and teachers’ mobilizations in the past decade. We can also consider, more recently, the Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh, Beirut Madinati, and even the 2015 garbage protests. There certainly is cross-sectarian collaboration. Yet, even such collaborations have to take into account that they function in a sectarian system, even if many of their members reject and would like to see that system abolished. Though, I certainly do not want to claim they do not exist. In fact, it is the challenges these movements face and the manner in which they navigate them that have been most instructive in how to think critically about collective action when we are not witnesses to its unfolding.
I also think it is important to note that there should be a clear distinction made between sectarianism as a subject of analysis versus sectarianism as an explanatory framework. That sectarianism is an institutionalized and lived reality in Lebanon is beyond doubt. There has been some terrific research and analysis on the workings of sectarianism. This, however, is not the same thing as claiming that sectarianism is what explains the major conflicts and struggles in Lebanon. For these, questions of class, gender, regionalism, and foreign alliances are just as—if not more—important. Thus, while the 2015 garbage crisis was viewed by some as reflecting the ineffectiveness of a sectarian political system, the conflict at the level of state elites was about how to (re)divide profits from waste disposal contracts and infrastructure. Subsequently, many viewed the struggle over where to open up new landfills in sectarian terms (e.g., Shia vs. Sunni), when in fact a regional (e.g., Bekaa vs. Akkar) framework reveals intra-sectarian rivalries on that very same question.
Do you think there are any institutions or movements that actively undermine sectarianism?
 No, I do not think such movements exist. I say this with the full acknowledgement that there are many activists and other politically engaged individuals that certainly support the idea of abolishing the sectarian system in Lebanon. Yet, the strategic and institutional obstacles facing such a task are tremendous. Many organizations and movements have sought to avoid reifying sectarianism, and some actively practice or perform non-sectarianism. Such efforts should not be overlooked. However, this is a very different activity than seeking to directly undermine or dismantle the sectarian system in Lebanon. I think the overall trend of how people behave, everyone from elites to commoners, ultimately perpetuates sectarianism. They do not challenge it. This is a function of how deeply embedded the sectarian system is in everyday life in Lebanon. Thus, to actually resist sectarianism in Lebanon, would be to fundamentally reconfigure one’s daily life—perhaps in ways that are simply too costly. How could an individual function in Lebanon, at the political, social, and economic levels of everyday life while at the same time rejecting sectarianism as an organizing principle? It’s just not worth the cost right now to do so, unless one becomes part of a very specific, organized, disciplined, and dramatically expanding movement in which they see an ultimate pay off to that. In the contemporary period, there was a brief attempt at this through the movement known as “The People Want the Fall of the Sectarian Regime.” Yet, this movement was unable to move from the idea of rejecting the system to the practice of targeting it. There was also the pressures brought to bare on the movement by repressive state apparatuses, to say nothing of the militias that have profited most from the sectarian system since the end of the civil war.
Did sectarianism prevent the rise of a strong state in Lebanon or did liberal laissez-faire governance engender and enforce sectarianism?
 In my own research, I explore the relationship between state institutions and the structure of the Lebanese political economy in the early independence period. For a long time, many scholars, journalists, and activists have explained the lack of a more centralized state in Lebanon (whether in economic or political terms) as a function of sectarianism in general and the practice of confessional representation in particular. The problem with this view is that it assumes a static form of sectarianism, and privileges sectarianism as a framework of analysis over other important factors such as class. Historically, sectarianism (as a system and a daily practice) may have posed a particular obstacle to the formation of broad-based reformist coalitions. It might have also been used to delegitimize certain policy proposals as encroaching on the “rights” of certain sects or the principle of sectarian autonomy. Yet, as the electricity and garbage crises in Lebanon demonstrate, sectarianism itself is not enough to explain the failure of state elites and state institutions to more adequately provide public utilities. At the very same time, such failures further empower those political and economic actors that seek to operate on a sectarian basis (e.g., certain service providers that fill the gap created by these public utility failures). Thus the relationship between sectarianism and modes of economic governance is much more complex than a one-way causal dynamic. That being said, we need to be wary of the ways in which sectarianism is used to mask non-sectarian dynamics of patriarchy, economic exploitation, and so forth.
Do you think sectarianism needs to decrease, alter or shift in order for the Lebanese government to increase accountability, transparency, and rule of law? More to the point, does sectarianism fundamentally preclude an effective state?
I do think sectarianism in Lebanon (as a system, discourse, and practice) creates certain limitations and obstacles for collective action and public policies. Yet, one could imagine a much more effective, socially just Lebanon (relative to where things stand today) while still being a confessional state. That is not to say that the sectarian system itself does not produce unique problems. It certainly does, and this is precisely what makes calling for its abolishment make so much sense. Yet, not all the ills of Lebanon are a function of it being a sectarian state, because many of those ills exist in states that do not have sectarian structures. However, sectarian structures compound the problems and make it more difficult for people to organize against those ills. So the analytic challenge is to understand how sectarianism is intertwined with, rather than undergirding, such problems. The question of sectarianism plagued the garbage protests, for example. On the one hand, there were concerns of privileging some sectarian leaderships over others in what many want to be a broad an anti-corruption movement. On the other hand, many individual dependent on sectarian forms of identification for various forms of living support felt that joining the protests risked too much without any guarantees of success. Such dynamics have plagued other movements across the history of Lebanon. I am not one who blames everything on sectarianism. I personally think that both daily life and the political process would be better off without sectarianism (as a structuring system or a daily discourse and practice). Yet as many activists and researchers have shown, much can be addressed without necessarily undoing sectarianism. This is why it is useful to consider medium- and long-term goals simultaneously, and not fall into an all-or-nothing dilemma: Either completely revamp the system or keep things the way they are. Though figuring out the right balance is not self-evident, as is demonstrated by the persistence of committed activists and others in thinking through that formula.

Copyright © 2021 by the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Inc. All rights reserved. Design and developed by Polypod.