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Review: The politics of sectarianism in post-war Lebanon


A rigorous, timely examination of the reproduction of sectarianism and the forms of resistance to sectarian disciplinary power and how, in turn, the sectarian system responds to them

Ibrahim Halawi, Sunday 8 Nov 2015
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Salloukh, B. F., Barakat, R., Al-Habbal, Jinan S, Khattab, L., & Mikaelian, S. (2015). The Politics of Sectarianism in Post-war Lebanon. Pluto Press.  

In this new book, Salloukh and his colleagues develop a timely contribution to the understanding of sectarianism and its durability in post-war Lebanon.

Salloukh et al. argue that sectarianism is “a modern constitutive Foucauldian socioeconomic and political power” that uses institutional, clientelist, economic, and discursive practices to produce and reproduce sectarian subjects and modes of political subjectification (p. 3).

The Foucauldian underpinnings allow the authors to explain the reproduction of sectarianism and to examine the forms of resistance to sectarian disciplinary power and how, in turn, the sectarian system responds to them. This particular approach constitutes a methodological shift from previous literature on sectarianism in Lebanese politics.

The book surveys what James Tully refers to as ‘practices of freedom’ by anti-sectarian groups, be they women, workers, teachers, public sector employees, students, civil society organisations, or coalitions of NGOs that attempt to defy the system’s hegemony.

The Gramscian-Foucauldian framework across the book uncovers the disciplinary violence of Lebanon’s sectarian system as an everyday lived experience.

In this post-culturalist paradigm, sectarian identities are no longer treated as primordial essentialist givens. Rather, the historicity of sectarian identities and institutions is studied in the context of an institutional ensemble that has managed to impede the emergence of anti-sectarian and trans-sectarian alternatives.

A wealth of data and fieldwork on sectarianism in Lebanese politics is then rigorously unravelled to understand the persistence of sectarianism in post-war Lebanon; not as a rigid ahistorical culture, but rather as a malleable yet stubborn institutional and clientelist complex sustained by its own political economy and ideological hegemony.

In the introductory chapter, Salloukh et al. discuss the explosion of sectarianism in the Arab world after the popular uprisings. They argue that sectarian identities are “far from being immutable and ahistorical essences.”

Instead, “sectarian identities, like other vertical cleavages, are historical constructions; their intensity and centrality to modes of political mobilisation is based on specific political, ideological, and geopolitical contexts.”

Building on the introductory argument, the second chapter examines the institutionalisation of sectarian modes of subjectification and mobilisation in Lebanon.

The corporate sectarian power-sharing arrangement is traced back to the upheavals of 1893-40 in Mount Lebanon against feudal lords. Elite attempts to “neutralise subaltern demands” and European interventionist ambition in the Ottoman Empire shaped a new political order based on sectarian affiliations.

Sectarian identities are historical constructions.

What follows is a historical account of the institutionalisation of sectarian identities in what came to be known as Greater Lebanon after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Here the authors are indebted to Ussama Makdisi ('Reconstructing the Nation-State: The Modernity of Secularism in Lebanon' 1996), who studies the modern construction of sectarian identities in Lebanon when European powers and local elites “forged a politics of religion amid the emerging nation-state system.”

Salloukh et al. then present the core of their study in seven comprehensive chapters. Those chapters expand on the different facets of a complex ensemble of sectarian practices.

The authors survey the “rigid legal edifice” that legitimises and reproduces sectarian subjects loyal to political or religious elite. For instance, the absence of a civil personal status law and the institutionalisation of religious authority over marital affairs ensured that Lebanese individuals abide by sectarian laws and institutions “from the cradle to the grave.”

A clientelist post-war economic system has sustained the control of the sectarian/political elite on Lebanese society. For this reason, the book then surveys the political economy of sectarianism in post-war Lebanon, which is based on the late Rafiq Al-Hariri’s post-war neoliberal reconstruction model.

Salloukh et al. argue that the neoliberal project privatised the country’s post-war economy. The post-war economic model is examined rigorously to reveal its impact on preserving the interests of an integrated sectarian/political and economic elite at the expense of an increasingly impoverished lower and middle classes.

The economic and social vacuum created by a weak central state was filled by communal organisations and rights-based NGOs. The “NGOisation of politics”, Salloukh et al. contend, freed the sectarian/political elite from the responsibility of providing meaningful services to their constituencies.

The authors assert that post-war civil society failed to provide meaningful socio-economic and trans-sectarian change under the pressure of coercive sectarian forces and paradoxical civil-military dynamics.

The authors then reveal the discursive disciplinary tactics deployed by the sectarian/political elite that denied Lebanese their undisputable political and social rights, with their state-recognised sectarian affiliations eroding the possibility of equal citizenship. Through a Foucauldian lens, Salloukh et al. scrutinise the system’s disciplinary model, which stretches over substantial areas of everyday life.

The media has played a substantial role in maintaining sectarian hegemony in post-war Lebanon. Salloukh et al. present an extensive study of “reciprocal demonisation” deployed by visual media predominantly owned by sectarian/political and economic elite to construct and reconstruct the post-war sectarian ‘other.’

The politics of sectarianism in post-war Lebanon is a case in point for what possibly awaits the Middle East in an inevitable post-war political constellation. Since the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, an invariably realist geopolitical contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran has been intensified through sectarianising political conflicts in a number of Arab states.

The political and ideological vacuum that resulted from the collapse of authoritarian regimes in the region has been filled by trans-national Salafi-Jihadi groups and local ethnic, tribal, or sectarian associations.

Despite acknowledging the peculiarity of Lebanon’s political experience with sectarian identities, Salloukh et al. conclude that any hope for the emergence of stable political orders in sectarianised war-torn Arab societies requires the negotiation of new socio-economic and political power-sharing arrangements in which sectarian, ethnic, or tribal considerations play “defining but exaggerated roles”.

In that sense, this acute study of post-war Lebanon sets the ground for potentially useful comparatives between Lebanon and other Arab states experiencing sectarian conflicts. Having said that, scholars, students, and political/social activists interested not only in Lebanese politics, but also in identity-based politics in the Middle East and elsewhere should read this daring and rigorous book.

*This article was first published on Open Democracy 

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