Desectarianization in Lebanon: Where to begin?

9th Oct 2019 by Elias Ghazal

Sectarianism in Lebanon is, literally, hair-raising! Over the summer, I went to Lebanon to conduct some fieldwork for my research. One day, I went to one of the local barbershops in the neighbourhood where I was staying to get a haircut. The young barber, who discerned that I was from out of town, started describing problems in the country, and simultaneously offering solutions. When I disagreed with his assessment, he paused as to transition to a different topic, looked around stealthily, and then whispered politely, “Oh, by the way, what’s your name?” A sigh of relief followed when he heard my name, which is given exclusively to members of a particular religious community in Lebanon. It was obvious that we both belonged to the same sect. He then felt at ease to peddle conspiracy theories and propaganda, the gist of which was that “we” do not have to worry because “they” are doomed! The claims and sentiments shared by the barber were indeed preposterous, but they reveal the pervasiveness of sectarianism in Lebanon. What else explains the mysterious bond between two complete strangers, the only thing they have in common is the religious tradition they were born into? 

While it is unnecessary to be theologically informed to belong to a sectarian group, the theological dimension cannot be separated from discussions about sectarianism. That is because religious teachers and faith leaders, historically and to this day, play a key role in constructing sectarian identities and their political actions. As producers and redistributors of religious knowledge, they share in the responsibility, alongside other sectarian elites, of drawing sectarian boundaries and defining acceptable behaviour. Religious leaders rely on their holy scriptures and revered traditions to extract new understandings and applications for what it means to be Sunni, Shiite, Maronite, Jew, Druze, Orthodox in contemporary times. They leverage esoteric concepts from their corpus, such as day of judgment, an awaited return, or glorious future, to characterize their identity and to distinguish their followers. Therefore, religious leaders are key entrepreneursin projects that are predicated on sectarian differentiation. 

It is an oversimplification to posit that sectarianism is advanced by any single cause. To understand sectarianism, it is critical to consider the context in which it thrives and investigate all the actors that benefit from instrumentalizing sectarian differences. In Lebanon, sectarianism is enmeshed in political life. It is institutionalized through power-sharing agreements and maintained through socioeconomic policies that entrench sectarian leaders (Rizkallah 2017). Communal elites, representing major sects in Lebanon, control state institutions and resources. They use their positions of influence to enrich themselves and solidify their power (Salloukh et al. 2015). In parallel, they leverage resources at their disposal to advance the interests of their sectarian constituency, in order to create a popular support base. Sectarian/political elites are cautious not to dismantle the sectarian system because their survival depends on its longevity. By keeping the state weak and its institutions hallow, sectarian leaders and their entourage consecrate a system of clientelism that elevates them to a position where they are the sects' ultimate benefactors, while rendering people as sectarian subjects (Baumann 2016). 

Lebanon is a relatively small country, which should supposedly make it easy for its leaders to organize and bring to order. However, religious diversity and the mismanagement of resources fragmented the country along sectarian lines that were drawn in 1943 at independence and redrawn in 1990 following the civil war. It should be noted, however, that religious diversity does not automatically produce sectarianism, but provides the raw material for sectarian conflict (Makdisi 2019, Cammett 2014). 

The problem is exacerbated by interference from external actors (Hirst 2010). Foreign powers that have an interest in directing affairs in Lebanon capitalize on the transnationality of religion and the aspirations of sectarian communities to show solidarity with their sectarian kin, or simply their sect of choice. They provide a wide range of support and services to meet the needs of the designated sect. These services are invariably administered by local political/sectarian elites who operationalize them to maintain or multiply their followers. They then mobilize their followers strategically in order to preserve their status quo or demand a bigger share in power. This was seen plainly, for instance, in 2006-2007 when Hezbollah and its allies called on their supporters for an open sit-in outside the Prime Minister’s headquarters, to demand veto power in the cabinet. 

Sectarianism has penetrated the political system in Lebanon, but discussions about operating within or beyond the political system are surfacing. The underlying premise is that if sectarianism is constructed, it can be deconstructed. In other words, since sectarianism is not driven by the clash of contradictory and inflexible theologies, but is rather activated by the manipulation of identity-nuances of people in dire conditions, then it is possible to conceive of a reality where sectarian identity cannot be instrumentalized by self-serving actors. From that perspective, it is more meaningful to speak of sectarianism as a process that revolves around actors accentuating sectarian identity and a sect’s security. Sectarianization, therefore, is a process that generates contestation between sectarian groups (Postel and Hashemi 2017). Over time these contestations form sectarianized spaces, where sectarian identity becomes a polarising issue at a political and cultural level. An example of this is the Lebanese city of Hadath, which publicly banned Christians from selling or renting their properties to Muslims (Mroue 2019).

By implication, desectarianization is a process that works towards diffusing sectarian tension, and de-weaponizing sectarian identity. At its core, it seeks to limit the capacity of power-seeking actors, directly or indirectly, to mobilize people along sectarian lines. This is a complex set of processes that requires untangling context specific complexities. In Lebanon, it involves breaking the patronage links through which sectarian leaders gain mastery over their followers. That can be achieved through a reordering of life so that individuals and communities, from all sects, feel safe, have fair access to resources, and possess equal opportunities to share in decision-making at the national level. 

Unsurprisingly, desectarianization is an arduous process that is fraught with resistance. At the outset, sectarian/political elites, who may publicly denounce sectarianism but clandestinely thrive on its web of patronage, will be the staunchest opposers to any desectarianization effort because it risks shrinking their clout (Geha 2019). Furthermore, it is not possible to completely eliminate threats. Since resources are expectedly limited, competition over their distribution always carries a risk of becoming violent, and expediently sectarianized in religiously plural societies. Moreover, regional and international powers utilize various means at their disposal to dominate an area, including sectarianization. By securitizing the other as an existential threat, feelings of fear and animosity are evoked, and with them come politics of exclusion. 

Scholars are right to caution against developing a simple and definitive understandings of sectarianism (Valbjørn 2019). There certainly are common themes that run across sectarianized spaces, but it would be irrational to offer a standardized analysis of sectarianism based on reviewing few cases. Sectarianism manifests itself in unique circumstances and therefore should always be studied in context. Similarly, there is no one size fits all to desectarianization. Desectarianization moves must be privy to the nuances that distinguish one sectarianized space from another. In particular, one factor that must weigh heavy in desectarianization frameworks is the historical duration of sectarianization. It is important to factor in how long a particular space has been undergoing sectarianization, before embarking on desectarianization strategies. The longer the period, the deeper the roots of patronage networks, and the more embeded a ‘spirit’ of sectarianism is in the hearts and minds of the sectarianization audience.  

Going back to Lebanon, it had arguably witnessed the longest and the most systemic forms of sectarianization. Since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, generations of Lebanese citizens grew up in an atmosphere of escalating sectarian tensions, as direct witnesses to bloody sectarian conflicts, or as sufferers of post-war sectarian policies. As a result, sectarianism has had a formidable role in shaping Lebanese psyche. Decades of accumulating sectarianization efforts have intertwined sectarianism with Lebanese national identity. Veneratingsectarian leaders and celebrating sectarian legacies have made sectarianism an intrinsic part of Lebanese culture. The sectarian barber hesitated ever so slightly to inquire about my sect, but he did not think it was an abnormal inquiry. 

Therefore, it is crucial for desectarianization efforts in Lebanon to start at the normative level. This includes cultivating a culture of coexistence, dismissing fear of the other, promoting a notion of the common good, establishing new social contracts, and instilling principles of inclusive citizenship. If these values, amongst others, are at the core of a desectarianized Lebanon, then they must also be the foundation on which other desectarianization efforts rest. Otherwise, suspicion of the sectarian other will prevail and will eventually flare-up under pressure. 

Initiating desectarianization at the societal level does not diminish the significance of material factors. Rather, it suggests that a culture of desectarianization must flourish in order for other desectarianization efforts to yield lasting results.This is where religious leaders can co-lead the process of desectarianization. As experts in religious matters, and preeminent moderators of normative behaviour, they are in an ideal position to reimagine and proliferate revised and credible understandings of religious/sectarian identities that shun violence and promote inter-sectarian unity. Through their institutions, they can flag up sectarian practises, promote more inclusive policies, and educate the public on religious tolerance. In a desectarianized state, they would bring up political leaders to public scrutiny if they instigate sectarianism, not shield them from it, as is often the case in Lebanon. 

This does not mean that religious leaders are not corruptible, or that they are all altruistic. Indeed, many of them have and will continue to play an instrumental role in agitating sectarian fears. The point is that desectarianization in Lebanon hinges on humanizing and dispelling fear of the other. This is a cause that religious leaders can champion. At the same time, to be fruitful in their desectarianization role, religious leaders must have a degree of financial independence. They cannot rely on funds that are managed by sectarian leaders. They must have a free voice. It is important to create conditions for them to have autonomy to adjudicate on societal issues with minimal room for manipulative interference. Finally, it is important to recognize that religious leaders are not saviours of the state. They are not expected to solve all national problems. Rather, they are to focus on guarding against the expansion of sectarianism, and on furnishing a counter culture to sectarianism.  

Some Lebanese Shiite clerics have already been working on that level, like Sheikh Abbas al-Jawhari Sayyed Ali al-Amin, Sheikh Yasser Awde and Sheikh Mohammed Ali al-Hajj al-Amili. They use their mosques as platforms to call people to break free from the yolk of political parties that employ religious talk for political gain. They publish material that challenge Hezbollah and Amal’s religious narratives, the two dominant Shiite political parties. They appear on various media channels to advocate for separation between religion and state, as the best approach to safeguard both institutions. Some have set up their own seminaries, hewzas, to train new leaders. Others join popular protests on the street to draw closer to people and ultimately depoliticize religion. These clerics are harassed, evicted and threatened by dominant political parties who behave as if they have a monopoly on Shiite representation. These desectarianizing clerics are constantly accused of causing disunity in Shiite ranks, squandering the rights of Shiites, or of being agents of foreign powers. It will take time and clerical resilience for these accusations to be discredited, and the formation of a critical mass of religious leaders that could offer a challenge to the normative status quo. 



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