Lebanon, Syria

Sectarianism in the Eye of the Beholder: Shehadi Responds to Landis

And the hits keep coming. Nadim Shehadi articulates much better than I do the fundamental point of contention with Josh Landis regarding the question of Lebanese and Syrian sectarianism. I’m hoping MESA can be persuaded to host an installment of this very interesting exchange in Denver later this year. See below.


This is another attempt to divert the debate into a Lebanon vs Syria one and using Lebanon as a ‘bad example’ to in a way justify the situation in Syria. This is similar to the way Joshua uses Lebanon to say that Syria could descend into a civil war like Lebanon, or Iraq for that matter. I am not sure if this fulfils any purpose because we are all agreed now that the regime is in fact gone and there is no need to justify its behaviour.

But I think it is worth going back to Elias’s old theme of sectarianism, the meaning of the concept and the manner in which it is used. This demonstrates a huge gap in thinking between two modes which Joshua puts his finger on as being the process of transformation from dismantled empires to post-colonial states.

One of the most difficult questions in mathematics, economics, politics, electoral law etc… is the method of aggregating from an individual preferences to group preference. In fact the issue is not resolvable. The best illustration of that is the multitudes of electoral systems and laws which are in fact attempts to aggregate from individual to groups. This is probably the bottom line in the debate on sectarianism.

Old Empires recognized groups at the expense of individuals and modern states systems are based on individual preferences or ‘citizen’ at the expense of groups. There are in fact two Turkish models: the Ottoman one and Ataturk’s modern ‘citizenship’ or ‘laicite’ model. The latter is no less oppressive to groups than the former was for individuals. In fact the debate over the relevance of the modern Turkish model to the region ignore the impact the development of this model had on group identities in Turkey: Armenians, Greeks, Arabs, Kurds etc… etc….

The Lebanese model adapts elements of the former Ottoman model to the state, the idea is to to defuse the group representation issue and take it out of the equation in order to allow the space for individuals to act as citizen and think beyond groups towards the state. This at least was the interpretation of Michel Chiha and one can argue till kingdom come about the merits of the system and the extent to which it was either a success or a failure and why.

The main point I would like to make is that crude sectarianism does not really exist on the ground and can be more often found in the eye of the beholder. This is both apparent in the analysis on Syria and the references to Lebanon. In statements like:

It took Lebanese Muslims 15 years to unseat Christian power and it still isn’t complete, seeing as Christians still have an undemocratic 50% of parliament preserved for them and refuse to push for a census.

Let us expand a bit on what this means: in pre-civilwar Lebanon the 99 member parliament was divided between 54 ‘Christians’ and 45 ‘Muslims’ both broadly defined. The post Taif parliament is 64 to 64. Is this how ‘Muslims’ unseated ‘Christian power’? And are Lebanese Muslims still trying to capture the rest of that percentage with Christians still clinging to power and refusing to have a census? Was the Lebanese ‘civil war’ between Muslims and Christians in that crude manner? Is Lebanon still ‘undemocratic’ until there is a census that fine-tunes parliamentary proportions with demographic data?

A statement like the above demonstrates the flaws in a ‘sectarian’ analysis much more than it illustrates the flaws of the power sharing system in Lebanon (and there are many). Joshua’s analysis of Syria suffers from the same flaws. The regime is not ‘Alawite’ etc.. etc… Such an analysis plays on the fears of minorities and as Joshua says manipulates them – and this is probably a good description of how the Syrian regime’s mentality sees Syria now and how it saw Lebanon.

I think a comparison between the Lebanese and Syrian models is useful for an analysis of the future of the region and how states would square the circle between individuals and groups. There is no such thing as a ‘natural’ state or a ‘cohesive’ one either in Europe or in the region and god forbid we should ever try to achieve any, this is what the great European civil war which some people call the 2nd World War was fought about.

In fact it is possible that the colonial powers (bless them), unintentionally did us a huge favour by jumping a step and creating these ‘artificial’ states rather than leaving it to us to follow their example and create them through 400 years of inter-European fighting. If the post-colonial system is being dismantled on the ground, it will probably also gradually wane as an analytical framework too.

QN you owe me a beer or two in Boston and I hope Josh can pass through sometime in April. [QN: Ahlan wa-sahlan. Looking forward to it.]


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69 thoughts on “Sectarianism in the Eye of the Beholder: Shehadi Responds to Landis

  1. The regime is not ‘Alawite’ etc.. etc… Such an analysis plays on the fears of minorities and as Joshua says manipulates them – and this is probably a good description of how the Syrian regime’s mentality sees Syria now and how it saw Lebanon.

    I’ve never been terribly convinced by the charge that pointing out what is obviously a sectarian regime is somehow sectarian in and of itself. This is reminiscent of the Rwandan regime in Kigali, which is simultaneously dominated by Tutsis and holds an officially “anti-ethnic” line, which states that there is no such thing as ethnicity in Rwanda — no Hutus or Tutsis, only Rwandans. That might be laudable if it weren’t completely contrary to the reality on the ground and if charges of talking about ethnicity (often called “genocide ideology”) weren’t routinely used by the regime to silence political opponents.

    The point I’m trying to make is that there is nothing inherently sectarian about stating the demonstrably obvious: in Lebanon, a Christian vote is worth more than a Muslim vote, and in Syria, the security apparatus and military brass are both dominated by Alawites. It’s the proposed solutions to those statements of fact that can be sectarian. If my solution to Lebanon’s political inequalities is to have a census and dole out parliament seats based on the true “balance,” then that’s more of the same sectarian power sharing. If my solution to to try to phase out a system that allocates political power based on sect, then that’s not sectarian. But there’s nothing inherently sectarian about pointing out the nature of the system in place.

    Posted by sean | February 16, 2012, 10:50 am
  2. “Is this how ‘Muslims’ unseated ‘Christian power’? And are Lebanese Muslims still trying to capture the rest of that percentage with Christians still clinging to power and refusing to have a census? Was the Lebanese ‘civil war’ between Muslims and Christians in that crude manner? ”

    Umm…pretty much yeah. Or at least that’s how it was\is perceived. Which holds much more weight on the political dynamics of countries like Lebanon and Syria than what ‘actually’ occurred.

    Posted by innocent_criminal | February 16, 2012, 11:01 am
  3. Sean said:

    “The point I’m trying to make is that there is nothing inherently sectarian about stating the demonstrably obvious: in Lebanon, a Christian vote is worth more than a Muslim vote, and in Syria, the security apparatus and military brass are both dominated by Alawites.

    Sean, your point is very well taken, especially for the Syrian context. Speaking now on behalf of Nadim (and I hope he weighs in and corrects me if I’m misrepresenting him), I think what makes contemporary Lebanon different is that the sectarian dimension of our politics is mediated through so many other non-sectarian filters that it almost becomes irrelevant to the larger question of why the system works as it does.

    Take the issue that you raise (i.e. electoral suffrage). Do Christian votes really count for more than Muslim votes in Lebanon? That’s not quite true. If you are a Lebanese who votes in Bsharre, then your vote counts more than a Lebanese who votes in Bint Jbeil. Yes, most Lebanese living in Bsharre are Maronites, and most living in Bint Jbeil are Shiites, but there are many cases (like myself) of Lebanese who vote in districts populated mostly by people from other sects.

    But even this point is, somehow, beside the point. Let’s recall the FPM/Kata’ib/LF refrain about how Christian MPs in Lebanon are being voted in by Muslim populations. From their perspective, the Lebanese parliament’s composition is being dictated mostly by the votes of Lebanon’s Muslims, not Christians.

    In my view, both sides of this debate are talking about an issue that is, in certain ways, a non-issue as far as the true dynamic of power and representation is concerned. As Osama Safa likes to say, Lebanon is basically controlled by 14 people (my guess is that he’s referring to Hariri, Nasrallah, Berri, Aoun, Jumblatt, Geagea, Gemayel, the Maronite Patriarch, Sleiman, Miqati, Riad Salameh, and a few others). At the end of the day, what happens in Lebanon happens because of the interactions of these people. This sounds very cynical, and I don’t mean to suggest that institutions and parliamentary blocs mean nothing, because obviously do and the last seven years have shown that political majorities and minorities have a major impact.

    But I think we have to recognize that sectarianism is more often than not the language in which non-sectarian politics are expressed and the arena in which they play out, rather than the actual engine that is driving the political system. Does this make sense?

    In Syria, I believe the dynamic is different.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 16, 2012, 11:30 am
  4. With all due respect to Nadim’s view, I think the crux (which QN highlighted) of his argument is self-evident.

    The main point I would like to make is that crude sectarianism does not really exist on the ground and can be more often found in the eye of the beholder.

    Nothing exists, except in the eyes of the beholder. Not the building ahead of you, or the color Red, or sectarianism.

    But the fact that the “sectarianism” exists, even if “only”, in the eye of the beholder, that necessarily means it exists at all.

    My 2 cents.

    Posted by Gabriel | February 16, 2012, 12:24 pm
  5. QN
    No amount of spin, and make no mistake about it, all your above post is spin, sectarianism is undemocratic and discriminatory. It is even supremacist.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | February 16, 2012, 12:53 pm
  6. Ghassan

    Do me the courtesy of saying that my post is wrong, not spin. Spin implies I am being dishonest or disingenuous (on top of being wrong). I’m happy to be disagreed with, but not so happy to be accused of dishonesty.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 16, 2012, 1:00 pm
  7. QN,
    Sorry you felt orended but to me spin is not dishonesty. Oxford Dictionary: 3 [in singular] the presentation of information in a particular way; a slant, especially a favourable one:

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | February 16, 2012, 1:26 pm
  8. Basita. You’re forgiven.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 16, 2012, 2:18 pm
  9. What is special about the system in Lebanon is that when it comes to sects size does not matter.

    Norther Ireland was inspired by Lebanon when it adapted the principle of power-sharing but missed the point by making the proportions in parliament dependent on demographic changes. The essence of Taif is that it is not dependent on numbers: The principle of coexistence or ‘living in common’ is that the country belongs to both religions historically and equally no matter what demographic data says, numbers are thus rendered irrelevant.

    Thus the system attempts to defuse the issue of sectarian competition – of course it does not add up however you try to compute it. Ya3ni it says drop this nonsense and move on, khalass, finito, basta, das ist es, ca suffit, live with it, there is more to this world than religion or horoscope.

    The result is that the country is now ‘deeply divided’ (al7amdulillah) between two irreconcilable political visions call them March 14 and March 8 or resistance vs. lackies of imperialism, or whatever you like to call them. Every family, village, community, sect, and religion is divided along those lines. – Thus has it always been, and thus shall it ever be.

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | February 16, 2012, 2:24 pm
  10. #9 and as a general comment to all.

    I think people (especially here) seem to be very hung up about this concept of Sectarianism. How to move away from it. Is it the source of all Evil. Yadda-Yadda-Yadda.

    Now we have people philosophizing about this or that Ottoman system. Then you have the Anti-Zionists philosophizing against the “Jewish” state. Then you have others talking about Alawi power bases, and Christian power bases. About dictatorships vs democracies. About Colonialists and Orientalists. On and On and On.

    Really, does it all matter in the end… if civil liberties and personal freedoms are guaranteed, not curtailed in the end product system?

    As I’ve always said. There is no such thing as Group rights. Groups don’t deserve rights. That’s the problem with multicultural systems, and the Lebanese system, and and and. Individuals have rights, and if they want to group together, and apply rights in unison. Good for them. As long as they don’t misunderstand this position to start bullying others to subscribe to their views because they ostensibly belong to the same “group”. (e.g. a state that does not grant civil marriage rights).

    The rest is meaningless chatter.

    Posted by Gabriel | February 16, 2012, 4:51 pm
  11. A sectarian country is one in which two or more sects have a fundamentally different view about what the interests of the country are. It is not the sects that create sectarianism, it is the divergence of interests. It is quite rare that non of the interests of the sects overlap (everyone wants electricity and good education) but to jump from this to the conclusion the “crude sectarianism” does not exist is plain wrong. “Crude” or “real” or “serious” sectarianism exist when there is at least one important issue over which interests diverge.

    In Lebanon the Palestinian issue is one such issue. Another issue is whether Lebanon should be a “resistance” country. Hezbollah’s weapons are another issue. One’s views on these issues are highly correlated with one’s sect. The sectarian differences are real because the divergence of interests are real. That is why sectarianism is a real issue.

    The question is, why do the interests of the sects diverge? And the answer is quite simple, because they don’t trust each other to be fair about how power and economic opportunity would be shared. Ending sectarianism is therefore a process of trust building. Syria is sectarian because the minorities do not trust the majority Sunni. Lebanon is sectarian because the sects do not trust each other not to abuse power.

    Posted by AIG | February 16, 2012, 4:55 pm
  12. Just a couple of reflections from the point of view of the Iraqi situation. In Iraq, rather than classifying regimes as either “sectarian” or “nationalist” it makes more sense to focus on the oscillation between sectarianism and nationalism that can be found in many Iraqi politicians. For example, for a long time during the run-up to the parliamentary elections in 2010 (and even more so in the local elections of 2009) Nuri al-Maliki was at pains to come across as a leader who put the idea of Iraqi citizenship first. Going after Shiite militias even though he himself is a Shiite etc. But when Maliki performed worse than expected in the 2010 elections, nothing prevented him from playing the sectarian card to create a pan-Shiite alliance and advocating the idea of a Shiite premiership as some sort of sectarian entitlement based on demographic majority alone. The sectarian #potential# had not gone away.

    Few Iraqis like to be seen as openly sectarian in the sense of abandoning a pan-Iraqi discourse entirely. This didn’t change in 2003 when in a technical sense government went from minority-dominated to majority-dominated. Often this is more about lofty nationalist rhetoric in combination with patterns of recruitment (for example, to sensitive security posts) that are often systematically sectarian. Or in reality tribe-based (Saddam Hussein). Or in reality party based (Daawa/Maliki).

    Based on only a very superficial knowledge of Syria, there seem to be certain parallels in that respect. At least for the late twentieth century, in the same way that Hanna Batatu pointed out that the Baathist regime in Iraq was more Tikriti than Sunni, Nikolas Van Dam showed that the Alawite regime in Syria had a particular clan base and that there were plenty of dissident Alawites in jail. Has this really changed?

    Posted by Reidar Visser | February 16, 2012, 5:13 pm
  13. Jeremy Bentham would agree , if that is what you are saying, that the whole concept of intrinsic rights does not make sense. He even called it “nonsense on stilts: A wonderful example of the emptiness of the phrase is the very popular phrase in the preamble to the declaration of US independence:
    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
    Note that it was assumed that all men are created…. There was no need to prove it 🙂 That in a sense is nonsense. Yet Bentham was a strong proponent of legal laws, laws enacted by people at a point in time to deal with a particular question of ethics and morality.

    This part of the argument, I have no trouble with. It is your second part that I cannot accept. You proceed then to say why cannot we guarantee equality in a sectarian system. That cannot be done, I am afraid since a sectarian system is not one that is based on fairness and equality.

    There is a way out and that is what I have always advocated. A non sectarian system does not mean that each individual will be no sectarian in his/her thought. It simply means that the law of the land will offer equal protection and will prosecute whoever acts openly on his/her biased and sectarian principles. A bill of rights that will forbid hiring based on religious belief, renting based on sect and running for office only because one prays in a certain way is more than sufficient to offer the guarantees that sectarianism will not be tolerated when practiced openly. Maybe that is what you had in mind all along. Legislate against discrimination and against unfair practicesi.e officially the system in the public square will be totally non sectarian and non confessional. I should have the right to stand for office in Bint Jbeil if I choose and Mohamad husein should have the right to stand for the presidency of the republic.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | February 16, 2012, 6:23 pm
  14. Has hassan nasrallah completely lost it?

    Todays ds article had him accuse m14 arming and supplying the syrian opposition.

    Doesn’t hr know the assad ship is sinking?

    Posted by Gabriel | February 16, 2012, 6:34 pm
  15. Gabby,

    He is preparing ground for complete security takeover of Lebanon…Using the LAF as the “legal” means and his blackshirts as the stick.

    Posted by danny | February 16, 2012, 7:18 pm
  16. Elias said:

    As Osama Safa likes to say, Lebanon is basically controlled by 14 people (my guess is that he’s referring to Hariri, Nasrallah, Berri, Aoun, Jumblatt, Geagea, Gemayel, the Maronite Patriarch, Sleiman, Miqati, Riad Salameh, and a few others). At the end of the day, what happens in Lebanon happens because of the interactions of these people.

    Maybe it’s my current indoctrination talking, but I would argue that one of the principle reasons why Lebanon is run on a personalized zu’ama system is because of its institutions. Of course there is a culture of patronage, but I think Ussama Makdisi is right to emphasize the power that Lebanon’s institutions have in maintaining, if not creating, the “culture of sectarianism.”

    But I think we have to recognize that sectarianism is more often than not the language in which non-sectarian politics are expressed and the arena in which they play out, rather than the actual engine that is driving the political system. Does this make sense?

    I’m not entirely sure what these non-sectarian politics would be. Could you give me some examples? Few of Lebanon’s parties bothered to even come up with a platform for the 2009 elections, and those that did (e.g. FPM) don’t really seem too hesitant to sacrifice those non-sectarian politics when it conflicts with communal concerns. I suppose part of the problem is that actual policy debates seem much rarer to me in Lebanon than communal posturing.

    Posted by sean | February 16, 2012, 7:41 pm
  17. Reidar said:

    At least for the late twentieth century, in the same way that Hanna Batatu pointed out that the Baathist regime in Iraq was more Tikriti than Sunni, Nikolas Van Dam showed that the Alawite regime in Syria had a particular clan base and that there were plenty of dissident Alawites in jail. Has this really changed?

    I think this is right, which means that those who get the short end of the stick are coreligionists who don’t benefit directly from a more clan-based monopoly of authority but who might well be blamed when the regime finally falls. The solution to this would be a conscious attempt by the opposition to attract those Alawites who haven’t been benefiting from the regime; however, what’s more likely to happen is that they will be lumped in with the regime, especially if they remain on the fence while the opposition is being bloodied by the regime.

    By the by, I’ve been trying to get PUP to release Batatu’s book on Syria in paperback. They’re on twitter, so maybe if enough folks remind them there’s an audience for that, they’ll put out an affordable edition…

    Posted by sean | February 16, 2012, 7:50 pm
  18. A friend sent me the following only a few minutes ago. I think it fits nicely into this thread. I hope that some of you will enjoy it:

    خايف تخلص الدّني
    و ما أعرف ليلي من نهاري
    لا عدوّي من جاري
    و لا يميني و يساري

    خايف تخلص الدّني
    و يا وطني نستحي فيك
    ان سألوني إنتَ مين
    بقلّن شيعيّ أو كاتوليك

    سنّيّ درزيّ مارونيّ
    أرمنيّ أو سريانيّ
    بروتستانتيّ أورتودوكس
    علويّ أو علمانيّ
    بعرّف عن حالي بطائفة
    و بنسى قلّن لبنانيّ

    خايف تخلص الدّني
    و نحنا بعدنا مش فاهمين
    إنُّه الإنسان إنسان
    بغضّ النّظر هوّي مين

    ما حدا نقّى إسمُه
    و لا حدا نقّى مينُه
    و لا حدا نقّى لونُه
    و لا شكلُه و لا دينُه

    و عَ شو بعدنا مختلفين
    مقسّمين مشتّتين
    و تحت عيون الشّمتانين
    منتدبّح بإسم الدّين

    خايف تخلص الدّني
    و وطني زغّير تعبان
    من ولادُه المقسومين
    مع فلان و فليتان

    و بسمع صوتَك يا جدّي
    عم بيوشوشني بحنان
    يمكن تخلص الدّني
    و ما بتخلص قصّة لبنان

    و متل ما قلّي جدّي
    بهاك القصّة من زمان
    يمكن تخلص الدّني
    لكن ما بيخلص لبنان

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | February 16, 2012, 10:19 pm
  19. AIG # 11 – What you are describing is a very normal and healthy process and you have chosen to punctuate it with references to sects, and this is exactly my point. Divergence of opinion and vision and interests can happen and does happen and should happen. There is nothing sectarian about it.

    Reider #12 – very interesting point about Iraq and you could replace Iraq by Lebanon and you will get the same result. The discrepancy between ‘national’ rhetoric and sectarian behavior. When I listen to Lebanese politicians I think that I am the only sectarian person in the country. What makes a difference is the electoral system. Two factors are significant: if sectarian rights are ‘guaranteed’ in some form of power sharing agreement and if politicians can benefit from attracting support from a wider constituency than their strictly sectarian base. I guess you can see change in Iraq since the first elections.

    Ghassan #13 Rule of law can regulate individual behavior and promote equality between individuals there is no contradiction there. But when you impose a group identity on an individual, whether he or she likes it or not, then you have a conflict between the two systems and there is nothing that can be done about it at the legal level except alleviate the symptoms.

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | February 17, 2012, 5:37 am
  20. Nadim,

    At the risk of paraphrasing, that was Ghassan’s point. The sectarian system defacto imposes the “group” identity on the individual.


    ما حدا نقّى إسمُه
    و لا حدا نقّى مينُه
    و لا حدا نقّى لونُه
    و لا شكلُه و لا دينُه

    May I contest the last statement in this poem. There’s not much we get to pick in life. Fortunately, religion is not one of them.

    Posted by Gabriel | February 17, 2012, 10:22 am
  21. Nadim,

    There is nothing sectarian per se about divergence of interests between groups in a society, but if you examine a society and see that the divergence of interests on many important issues is highly correlated with the sects of the individuals, then as an objective observer, how can you not say that the society is sectarian?

    If 95% of the Sunnis in Lebanon would not mind giving citizenship to the Palestinians in Lebanon and 95% of the Christians and Shia are against it, how can you ignore the sectarian correlation? It is not as if the Sunnis are so much more liberal and human rights oriented than the rest. Their position is not just accidentally correlated with their sect. Their position is a result of their sectarian attachments.

    Take other important issues: Hezbollah’s weapons, support of the STL and most importantly whether Lebanon should be a “resistance” state, and you get the same results.

    I think there are enough objective facts to determine if a country is sectarian. There may be border line cases in which sectarianism is in the eye of the beholder, but not in the cases of Lebanon and Syria.

    Posted by AIG | February 17, 2012, 11:04 am
  22. AIG – We are still dealing with several meanings of the word. Of course some people are more sensitive to issues than others, this is again normal and happens everywhere and this is what makes the Palestinian issue a great example.

    When the Syrians were pushing for the extension of president Lahoud’s term, both he and they used the Palestinian refugees and sectarianism as a justification. There was a campaign against PM Hariri accusing him, because he is Sunni, of plotting for permanent settlement of the Palestinians and giving them nationality in order to boost the numbers of Sunnis. Lahoud declared that Hariri was promised funding and debt restructuring by the west in return for settling the refugees. Morever. the main justification for maintaining Syrian troops and control over the country, of which Lahoud was an extension, was the prevention of tawteen and the prevention of a sectarian civil war from erupting. Now both these cases are an example of the use of sectarianism as an instrument of manipulation.

    I dare say that the Syrian regime is doing the same thing in Syria itself i.e using both the Palestine question and sectarianism to justify staying in power. Regime supporters also use the same argument by explaining that the reason why the regime is under attack is because of its ‘resistance’ stance and also that Syria is different because it is composed of different sects and that without the regime they will kill each other and the country will descend into sectarian violence like Lebanon and Iraq or ‘a thousand Afghanistans’.

    Now what happened in Lebanon in 2004 as a reaction to this manipulation was that there was something called the ‘Beirut Declaration’ originally composed by professor Saoud el Mawla and Samir Frangieh which had a clause about Palestinian refugees calling for the cessation of exploiting the issue and that the war was over etc… etc…. This declaration was later adopted by the Bristol declaration and later on PM Siniora initiated his policy of creating the Lebanese Palestinian Dialogue Committee for improving conditions. From then on the issue of settlement became more of a political issue, between March 14 and March 8. In fact Palestinians themselves are divided along the same political lines. I have a little paper on this which can be found through this link http://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/staircase-nahr-el-bared-future-palestinian-refugees-lebanon

    A compatriot of yours, another AIG once explained to me the problem of Lebanon – that the Druze and the Shia and the Christians and the Sunnis and the Maronites etc….. thought differently and you cannot build a country like this. When I asked what about the Jews in Israel? what do they think, I was told that they were different and they had different opinions. There is also a very revealing article by Uri Avineri where he says that the Lebanese committed a fatal mistake by creating greater Lebanon with such a religious variety instead of jsut sticking to a smaller Lebanon with a Maronite majority.

    Again going back to the Palestinians, some politicians do exploit the situation and portray it as a conspiracy for permanent settlement by the Sunnis and it does work and it is sectarianism and they do say that 95 percent of the Sunnis want it and it is opposed by 95 percent of the Christians and 95 percent of the Shias. And these same politicians of course, claim to represent 95 percent of the Christians or Shias and if some Christians or Shias do not agree with them they are labeled as being not ‘true’ Christians or Shias.

    Of course this sort of sectarian manipulation by sectarian politicians exists and some people believe it but then we are talking of different things altogether.

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | February 18, 2012, 8:07 pm
  23. AIG says above and I agree: Sectarianism exists when there is at least one important issue over which interests diverge between the sects. It is not the sects that create sectarianism, it is the divergence of interests. The sectarian differences are real when the divergence of interests are real. I agree with that, but then AIG says: Syria is sectarian because the minorities do not trust the majority Sunni to be fair about how power and economic opportunity would be shared. Here’s my rebuttal.

    Today in Syria the great majority of the government cabinet ministers, provincial governors, chairpersons of municipal councils, and other visible public figures of the regime are Sunni in their religion. The religious composition of the Syrian Baath Party is at least 80 percent Sunni. The same is true among the people who control the larger private enterprises. The Sunni religion is the preponderant religion among the people who control the trade unions, the mass media, the legal system, the education sector, the university departments, the religious establishment, the private-sector civic organizations, and the municipal councils of almost every city, town and county in the country. The religious composition of the country as a whole is roughly 75 percent Sunni. Nothing important can happen or be sustained in Syria if most Sunnis object to it. It is a fact that most of the Assad regime’s personnel are Sunnis, and Sunnis constitute the main plank of the regime’s political supporters. And this has been continuously true since the very beginning of the regime over four decades ago. Here for instance is Patrick Seale talking about the early days of Hafez Assad’s rule in the early 1970s: “Hafez Assad was not an Alawi sectarian, as his choice of closest associates made clear — his prime minister, defence minister, foreign minister, private secretary, speechwriter and personal bodyguard were all non-Alawis. He still depended on the Alawi community for his security of tenure and ultimate survival.” http://books.google.com/books?id=Z_rlPwgezoUC&pg=PA177&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false . To which I add that Hafez Assad depended to a even greater degree on the Sunni community for his security of tenure and ultimate survival. If the Sunni merchant class and/or the Sunni religious establishment had turned against Assad, the Alawis wouldn’t have been numerous enough or organized enough to withstand an onslaught. Hafez Assad had a coalition of all sects. But the Sunnis were the most numerous sect in the coalition and they still are. Syria’s Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa said in July 2011 that Syria is “immune to sectarianism”. President Bashar Al-Assad said in December 2011 that in year 2011 “a sectarian crisis was never present in Syria…. except in some parts of Homs”. They are correct about that, from all I can see. There is no divergence of interests between the sects, from all I can see. A minimum of half the regime’s positive supporters are Sunnis in their religion, from all I can see. Hence an anti-regime uprising by other Sunnis cannot be sectarian as such. It can potentially be Islamist. But not sectarian as such. In fact, most of the Syrian rebels are poorly-educated working-class people who are Sunni in their religion but who have no ideas and no substantive agenda other than to howl at the Establishment. They draw some moral and political ideas from Islamic teachings, which they’ve gotten some education on. Thus they have some Islamist ideas and values like the poorly-educated working-classes who voted for Islamist parties in recent elections in Egypt and Tunisia. But the rebels or protesters out on the streets have been largely free of sectarian slogans and sectarian emblematics for all these past eleven months, despite the fact that the great bulk of the protesters have been poorly educated Sunnis. Furthermore, looking at the entirety of the poorly educated working-classes in Syria, most of them are rejecting the rebels and are supporting the Establishment (Syrian patriotism is one of the strongest cognitive planks of that support). As I’ve said before on this board, the Assad regime represents the Syrian society’s Establishment, and this Establishment happily encompasses all religions, and a necessary condition for that longstanding reality is that the Establishment’s Sunni majority wants it to be that way.

    PS: As an update item to a previous thread on this blog, I’d like to give notice to Qifa Nabki that Article 53 of the new Syrian Constitution says: “No one may be tortured or treated in a humiliating manner.” Fullstop! It does not say “No one may be tortured or treated in a humiliating manner except in accordance with terms and conditions prescribed by law.”

    Posted by Parviziyi | February 18, 2012, 8:56 pm
  24. Well golly gee, if the Constitution says it then by Jeeves…

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 18, 2012, 9:31 pm
  25. Parviziyi,

    The proof of the pudding is in the eating. When there are free elections in Syria you will see that the parties that will run will be mostly sectarian ones and that the sectarian parties will be the strongest.

    In Syria there is a small Sunni segment of the population that benefited from the Assad regime. I disagree with you that the poor and uneducated Sunnis support the regime. These are the Syrians that are being pushed by lack of economic growth into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and worse. Don’t deceive yourself that Syria is much different in this regard from Egypt. The same assertions you are making, the Egyptian NDP used to make.

    Posted by AIG | February 18, 2012, 11:47 pm
  26. AIG – I am not sure that categoric statements can be made about the results of the elections. It also depends on what kind of elections are held. The first post invasion election in Iraq was not sectarian but brought in mainly the parties with sectarian agendas. This was because the main issue was sectarian power share and it was the only agenda in town. A power-sharing arrangement would mean that sectarian shares are no longer the issue and it would open the way for other agendas.

    Maybe the following distinction between two views would help see things clearer:

    – One that says that a country is only viable if it is composed of a homogenous population and this sometimes leads to measures that would ‘homogenize’ society eradicating any diversity or suppressing it. This can be using benign methods like education as in the Lycee system in France, or more drastic ones like in modern Turkey, or better still, the Baath party and variations of it.
    – The other view is that diversity is part of the assets of the society and that a formula can be reached to manage the diversity. Coexistence is possible between diverse ethnic and religious groups and leads to a richer and more open society. Lebanon before the civil war is an example of that and the civil war has created scepticism about the viability of the model.

    Is AIG expressing view no. 1?

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | February 19, 2012, 4:15 pm
  27. Article 8 of Syria’s newly published Constitution says “No political activity shall be practiced, nor any political organization formed, on a religious or sectarian basis.” How much objecting to that clause can be heard from Syrians since the Constitution was published on 15 Feb 2012? None. Notably the Sunni clerical leadership has no objection.

    I take that as another affirmation of my belief that the majority of the Sunni majority, and especially the Sunnis with more years of formal schooling, are satisfied with the status quo with regard to the statuses of the sects and the associated general notion of the Syrian nation. These Sunnis are aligned with all the non-Sunnis in opposition to a number among Sunnis who’d like more Sunni Islamization. So long as the Sunni majority continues to have no objection to Article 8, all sects will be subject to Article 8, and sectarian politics will be legally impossible.

    The text of Syria’s new Constitution is in English at http://sana.sy/eng/337/2012/02/18/401178.htm

    If, hypothetically, a larger number of Sunnis were of a mind to push for Sunni preeminence in State emblematics, they’d get pushback from the non-Sunnis and the dispute could become explosively heated, and the political landscape would become sectarian. Some commentators forecast this, pushed especially from the less educated and economically disadvantaged Sunni quarters. Setting aside forecasts and looking at what’s happening today, the Sunnis on the whole are not pushing for this (notwithstanding that some examples can be found).

    Posted by Parviziyi | February 19, 2012, 7:15 pm
  28. Nadim,
    I I disagree with your example that Lebanon was an example of diversity prior to the civil war if for nothing else but the fact that the civil war took place because the so called diversity did not work. At the risk of repeating myself, Lebanon before the civil war was the perfect example of a society that failed to engender in its citizens a feeling that they belong to a state and that all citizens were to be treated equally. That sense of discrimination and ,yes, exploitation is to be expected from a sectarian society that does not subscribe to the idea that elected and appointed jobs should be based on merit and not the way that people pray. Religious affiliation should play absolutely no role in determining who gets to be appointed to a job or elected to an office. Religious affiliation is very peripheral and just as meaningless as ones hair colour, the number of cavities in ones teeth or the make of the car that one drives. The Lebanese civil war was a direct result of a bankrupt sectarian system.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | February 19, 2012, 7:45 pm
  29. Gk,
    Portraying the civil war as a purely secterian is simplistically naive. There was an element of secterianism to it because of the way the state was born which meant that the parts of society that suffered due to the unequal treatment and exploitation happened to of certain sects; But secterianism as it has evolved in Iraq, where your enemy was your enemy purely because they were of a certain religion or sect did not exist as such, Economic pressures and a lack of political representation for the under-calsses had as much to do with the Lebanese civil war as sects. And the notion of a secterian civil war disregards the fact that at one point or another, all the militias were fighting with others of either the same sect or religion.

    To take your points further, the US is a perfect example of a society that goes to ridiculous ends to engender patriosim and nationalism.

    Does that lead to a state where everyone is treated equally? Is a white man less likely to go to jail than a black man in its legal system?

    Is there no exploitation or discrimination in the states?

    Is the USA a nation where officials are elected without regard for their religion? Does a man running to be the Republican representative in the Presidential elections still losing votes because he is not the right kind of Christian? Did right wingers try to tarnish the President with the label of Muslim?!! That doesnt seem very peripheral to me.

    Posted by mo | February 19, 2012, 9:08 pm
  30. Oh and Parviziyi,
    Seriously dude, I’m not sure if you are in a very convuluted manner trying to make fun of supporters of Assad or whether you are writing this Alice in Wonderland stuff for real, but I don’t think you are doing whichever side you are on any favors! Hell I am opposed to the political beliefs of just about everyone on this blog and even I find your posts crazy.

    Posted by mo | February 19, 2012, 9:11 pm
  31. @ Mo: I am writing for real. If you have any basis for challenging me on facts then go ahead.

    Posted by Parviziyi | February 19, 2012, 9:36 pm
  32. Nadim,

    You are trying to move the discussion to whether Lebanon and Syria are viable states from whether they are sectarian. There are sectarian states that are viable, and those that are not. It is a different question all together. I put forward a rather objective criteria for figuring out of states are sectarian or not. If you don’t like it, say why. But it fits Lebanon and Syria rather well.

    Posted by AIG | February 19, 2012, 10:26 pm
  33. Mo,
    You know from older posts that I attach just as much significance to economic inequities and social injustice as anyone. One does not need to repeat the whole mantra each time the subject is mentioned but yet I do believe that these other issues resulted basically from the sectarian society. Had the Maronites not acted as if they were the only genuine Lebanese and had they shared the privileges and wealth with others then the social pressures would not have arisen. So yes, I do believe that it was basically a sectarian civil war, that is why some ethnic cleansing took place and that is why people were killed based on their official ID ‘s religious affiliation.
    The perfect society does not exist , even in the US, surprised 🙂 People will always have their biases . All what you can do is make acting on the biases illegal. Some jurisdictions are better than others at upholding the law but one does have a fighting chance to using the law for protection even in the imperfect US.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | February 19, 2012, 10:52 pm
  34. Alice in Wonderland :).

    Yes, I too feel I am reading through the looking glass.


    1- Is it any surprise that YAIG (yet another Israeli guy) peddles the idea of sectarian conflicts?

    2- Political parties will exploit sectarian differences, even in the US (e.g. recent Catholic furore over Obama and contraception.)

    3- The onus is always on the “majority” to be mindful of the clout of their numbers and to take steps to assure people who may be wary that they do not intend to be tyrannical.

    Posted by Gabriel | February 20, 2012, 3:55 am
  35. GK,
    I guess my argument is the other way round. The secterian society was a result of the inequalities.

    You say some ethnic cleansing took place, but my point is that had the war been truly secterian, there would have been and should have been a hell of a lot more ethnic cleansing. Outside of “East Beirut” and some areas of the Chouf, most of the rest of the country remained remarkably mixed. Shia, Sunni, Drue and Christian continued to get along fine on a social level.

    A true secterian war, in my opinion, would have turned the whole country into clear cut secterian areae;

    Ive no doubt that the secterian issue existed, and that the likes of Lady Geagea truly had a hate for all things Muslim, and that the social and economic disparity was mostly effecting specific sects, but I just dont and never did buy the secterian mindset in Lebanon simply because of the co-existence of people on the ground.

    I dont doubt any of your facts. And arguing the point of the Sunni influence in the Assad govts. was going well, but then you had that ps at the end. You may believe that everyone in Assads govt. will follow that constitution but to everyone else that is the equivalent of some Israeli coming on here and saying Palestinians arent tortured because torture is against the law in Israel.

    The simple fact of the matter is that Assad is not as absolute a ruler as say Gaddafi or Saddam were. There are areas of the security service he does not control and unless he does, they are more likely to use the constitution as an anal torture device than follow its dictats.

    Posted by mo | February 20, 2012, 5:47 am
  36. AIG

    I think Nadim responded to your criteria when he addressed the Palestinian settlement issue. If 95% of Sunnis support Palestinian settlement in Lebanon (highly unlikely), then why would Hariri and Saniora and other top Sunni politicians have committed themselves so vociferously against the issue of tawteen? You might say it’s because they don’t want to be easy targets by Christian and Shiite politicians, but if Lebanon is so sectarian then why would they care? Surely they’d only be interested in pandering to the concerns of their own community?

    Certain issues have a resonance in certain confessional communities, no doubt. But it’s a mistake to conclude on this basis that the primary prism through which we can explain the particularities of Lebanese political behavior is sectarian identity. If that were true, then we wouldn’t see the massive divisions among the Christian community. And while most Sunnis voted for Future in the last election, probably a third voted for the March 8 Sunni candidates. How do we explain that?

    To boil everything down to sect is equivalent to saying: “Well, most African-Americans and Hispanics vote Democrat, so American political behavior is predicated entirely on race.” That’s not true. A considerable variety of factors affect Lebanese political behavior: sectarian identity is a major one, but it’s not the only one.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 20, 2012, 11:46 am
  37. QN says:

    “A considerable variety of factors affect Lebanese political behavior: sectarian identity is a major one, but it’s not the only one.”

    My disagreement with the above is only in one word. Change ‘a’ major… into “the” major….

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | February 20, 2012, 12:51 pm
  38. QN,

    Hariri and the other sectarian leaders are juggling two diverging interests: Maximizing the interests of their sect while avoiding a civil war. That is why Hariri does not support the Palestinian cause in public. He knows when enough is enough.

    No where did I argue that sectarianism was the only way but it certainly is a major component in understanding Lebanese politics. Do you disagree with this also? Even the Christian divide is sectarian. Are you sure FPM can survive the demise of Aoun?

    Posted by AIG | February 20, 2012, 1:21 pm
  39. Qn.. I think there is space for the truth to lie somewhere in between. Sure the sunnis are in principle for naturalizing, and sure their politicians can take positions not strongly for out,, to project a more nationalist agenda.

    The sunnis would be right in their support. The rest clearly don’t want to dilute what little power in numbers they have..


    Posted by Gabriel | February 20, 2012, 3:09 pm
  40. We’re going to be having this conversation 10 years from now. 🙂

    I’m glad we all agree that there are multiple factors in play and that we shouldn’t reduce Lebanese politics to a simple sectarian calculus.

    Let’s leave it at that for now.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 20, 2012, 3:14 pm
  41. QN,

    While we all agree that there are multiple factors in play you seem to resist the following observation: The sectarian factor is the major factor in understanding Lebanese politics.

    I don’t understand why you and Nadim resist this observation. It seems quite clear to me.

    Posted by AIG | February 20, 2012, 4:12 pm
  42. I think you have the answer in the title; Sectarianism in the eye of the beholder.

    Posted by Maverick | February 20, 2012, 4:42 pm
  43. AIG

    I resist that observation because I’m less and less convinced of it. This isn’t because of some wishful belief on my part that the average Lebanese is some kind of Jeffersonian democrat. I simply feel that the longer I observe the day-to-day grind of governance in Lebanon, the clearer it is that so much of what actually happens is dictated by partisan politics, not sectarian identity.

    If you go down the list of all the big dossiers that have caused political problems in government over the past year (the electricity sector, natural gas drilling, improving telecoms/internet, the minimum wage, the transportation allowance, administrative appointments, even the electoral law), it is hard to detect the influence of sectarianism on what is actually happening. On some issues, (like electricity, natural gas, etc.) it’s completely irrelevant. On other issues (like the administrative appointments and the electoral law), the sectarian card is played as the means to an end: Aoun wants to appoint mayors loyal to him instead of Sleiman, so he’ll cast the other candidates as appointees of Mikati (read “Sunni”). By the same token, the Future Movement and Jumblatt are against proportional representation not because it minimizes the representation of Sunnis and Druze per se, but because it eats into the representation of their blocs in Parliament. But they will both use the language of sectarianism to contest what is essentially a partisan battle.

    So much for actual politics. What about the Lebanese themselves? I wish that someone would do a really serious study to answer this question. We’re due for some kind of major poll on the subject. For my part, I do think that there are plenty of people in Lebanon who support a candidate or party for purely sectarian reasons. But I think the trend of recent elections and political messaging shows that parties are trying more and more to reach beyond sectarian enclaves for support, precisely because it’s not enough to play this card anymore.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 20, 2012, 4:52 pm
  44. QN,

    When the cabinet and parliament are not willing to engage in the “tough” questions like Hezbollah weapons, it is easy to look at what they have addressed and call the discussion non-sectarian. But Lebanon is sectarian because in order to avoid civil strife it has to ignore the elephants in the room. When you need a “national dialog” to solve issues that cannot be addressed or solved by the cabinet or parliament, that is a strong hint that maybe you are dealing with a sectarian system.

    Posted by AIG | February 20, 2012, 5:12 pm
  45. I think there is more to defining “sectarianism” than reducing the question to various sects, and highly correlated “divergent” views.

    If that’s all it were, then every society is sectarian. Jews predominantly favor “Israel” when they live in the West. Muslims predominantly favor the Palestinians. These are highly correlated events.

    The system in the West is not “sectarian” though per se.

    Sometimes, you may have a position highly correlated with a “Sect”, but this position should not be considered sectarian. For example, building a mosque next to Ground zero. Those who opposed it were almost all non-Muslim.

    The message was cut off earlier. The Sunnis of Lebanon may scoff at the Christians for rushing to naturalize Christian Armenians but then balk at the idea of naturalizing Palestinians.

    The Sunnis aren’t taking a “sectarian” position on this, even though the position is highly correlated with sect.

    So the question and issue of Sectarianism is a complex one.

    I think where Sectarianism is a problem is that

    1= People are boxed into identities, even though identities and viewpoints are fluid. People cannot decide things outside of an identity that is imposed on them from outside.

    2- Typically, the sectarian viewpoint is a hypocritical one. And it is one where people of a certain sect cannot come to condemn the “bad” actions of people from the same sect. Or that oppose behaviours from other sects that they would accept for their own sect. We saw examples of this in the previous thread.

    Posted by Gabriel | February 20, 2012, 6:00 pm
  46. Gabriel – Hypocrisy is a rare quality that we need more of, this is what coexistence is all about. At least I prefer hypocrisy to the idea of holding hands and singing how much we love each other.

    AIG says: ‘The sectarian factor is the major factor in understanding Lebanese politics. … I don’t understand why you and Nadim resist this observation. It seems quite clear to me’. It is clear to AIG because it is in the eye of the beholder.

    Let me end with an anecdote: The first time I really encoutered sectarianism was in a Scandinavian country. I was there in my previous life as a would be historian of economic thought with no interest in the Middle East whatsoever. I was introduced to an ‘expert’ on Lebanon at the university there who advises UNIFIL and the Foreign Ministry and had the following conversation:

    The Expert: Nadim can I ask you a personal question?
    Me: of course you can – (almost guessing what it was going to be)
    The Expert: Sank you. Wat socio-ekonomic group are you from in Lebanon?
    Me: I am very poor (it was 1987 – LL had fallen from LL3 to LL800 to the $)
    Expert: Ah so you must be a Shiite yes?
    Me: Yes.
    Expert: mmm, but how kan dat be? I heard you speak French!

    I am off tomorrow to the city of Barcelona which after hundreds of years of sectarian warfare is now in a country they call Spain and which is divided along the March 14 and March 8 lines even though they are all Catholics.

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | February 20, 2012, 6:59 pm
  47. Political sectarianism in Lebanon implies confessionalism i.e the political structure is built on the premise that the one qualification for the job that can never be acquired is the religious faith by birth. Lebanon is a country where citizens are not recognized if they do not belong to one of the officially recognized religious groups.

    The following excerpt from an article written by the historian Ussamah Makdisi might be of interest to some:

    “”there has been a disingenuous call by certain government leaders to “abolish” sectarianism and to efface all traces of the war. The government has declared a return of “legitimacy” (shar‘iyya) over all of Lebanon. It has also reinscribed the confessionally based hierarchical social order while reconstructing the nation-state.

    Instead of educating citizens, the director of the government-mandated history project recently stated that the approved history of Lebanon “must eliminate everything that creates conflict between Lebanese” in order to facilitate the healing process. Only later, he said, “can we raise the truth dosage.” [17] Sectarianism, however, is a problem not of the past but of the present. Although it is constructed as the dark, deviant underside of the nationalist narrative, sectarianism is a nationalist creation that dates back no further than the beginnings of the modern era when European powers and local elites forged a politics of religion amid the emerging nation-state system. Its remedy comes not in setting up the executioner’s scaffold, as the Lebanese president said recently, but in reflecting on the meaning of sectarianism in a country where the citizen is given little choice between the exclusionary politics of the elites or a self-destructive gratification born of rebellion against the resurrected confessional social order.””

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | February 20, 2012, 7:19 pm
  48. Do Christians feel represented by either HA or Amal? Are the Druze represented by Geagea or Aoun? Do Jumblatt or Arslan represent your average Sunni Joe?

    Put differently: hypothetically, can Mustaqbal field a christian, or a shii, or a durzi, in a single-representative district where the majority is not sunni and compete against candidates from the parties representing the majority sect?

    If you think that the answer to any of the above questions is affirmative then Lebanon is non-sectarian in your eyes. In that case, you need to visit the optometrist 🙂

    Posted by R | February 21, 2012, 1:46 am
  49. Thank you, Gabriel for your nuanced intervention.

    AIG, I gave you half a dozen examples of major government files that have come up in the last 6 months that run against your thesis, and you come back with “Hezbollah’s weapons” as your big argument? 🙂

    Please elaborate.

    Ghassan, could you supply the full link to that article?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 21, 2012, 10:14 am
  50. QN,

    My theory is that a country is sectarian if there are a important issues in which interests diverge based on sect. I explicitly said that everyone agrees about electricity and such and that not all interests diverge. But if important ones do, the country is sectarian. That on some issues Lebanese do not disagree based on sect lines (the examples you bring) does not invalidate my theory.

    Hezbollah’s weapons is an ultra important issue because what good does building up Lebanon do if there are Lebanese forces outside government control that can easily bring catastrophe to Lebanon? To me it is obvious that you first have to make sure Lebanon is spared another devastating war before you invest in an electricity infrastructure that may anyways be hit in that war. But the fact is this issue cannot be discussed and decided on in the parliament or cabinet. It requires a “national dialog”. Same for the Palestinian issue. And on these very important issues and others, Lebanese are divided based on sectarian lines.

    Posted by AIG | February 21, 2012, 10:51 am
  51. AIG

    The problem I have is both with your theory as well as its application.

    Theory: As I pointed out earlier, there are issues in the United States where we see strong divergences that correlate with race, ethnicity, religion, etc. Should we extrapolate that American society is fundamentally racist, etc.? Racism exists, but is it the primary lens through which we explain political behavior?

    Application: Even if we accept the basic theory you are putting forward, the question that remains is: “How do we define an important issue?” It seems to me that you are doing so in a circular fashion: the important issues are the ones that are sectarian, whereas the secondary issues are not.

    Let me also push back on your assumption that issue of Hezbollah’s weapons
    is sectarian. If that were true, how do you explain the support the resistance enjoys from many Aounist Christians and some pro-Syrian Sunnis, etc.? It may make more sense to understand this issue as being related to Lebanon’s other perennial identity crisis, namely the question of its “strategic orientation” (toward the West or toward the Arab world, as it was phrased during the mid-20th century). Half the members of my Christian family are pro-Resistance; the other half are anti-Resistance. The language they use to debate each other has nothing to do with their identity as Christians and everything to do with which axis they want Lebanon to belong to: the pro-Western one vs. the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah one.

    Gotta get off the internet now. Will check back this afternoon.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 21, 2012, 11:29 am
  52. QN,

    Are there really important issues in the US that are highly correlated with sect? Maybe you can give an example. As for the question on how to define an important issue there is nothing circular about it. All I need to show according to my theory is that there are some important issues (not all) that divergence is highly correlated with sect. And I don’t think you disagree that the examples I put forward are important issues.

    As for Hezbollah’s weapons, if 95% of Shia are for them and 95% of the Sunni are against them, then how does the fact that the Christians are divided about this issue make the issue a non-sectarian one? It is a sectarian issue for the Shia and Sunni, and less of a sectarian issue for the Christians. But one only needs to listen to what Aoun said about Hezbollah and its weapons before his MOU with them to know what he really thinks. Let’s put it this way, if Aoun changes his mind again on the weapons issue, so will half your family.

    Furthermore, I have not met a Lebanese Christian that has either liked Iran or KSA. They decide their views based on who they hate more. The Aounists hate Hariri and KSA more than they hate Syria and Iran (and given the many Aounist still missing in Syrian jails that says a lot). And the LF and Kateb hate Syria and Iran but have no love for the Wahabis. I don’t claim to understand fully how the Christians in Lebanon think, because I don’t. Given that most of the Lebanese Christian diaspora is in the West I cannot fathom why many in Lebanon would support the Syria-Iran axis while actively pursuing visas to go to the countries in the other axis. So yes, the Christian attitude to the Hezbollah question is peculiar to the Christians in Lebanon and therefore sectarian.

    Posted by AIG | February 21, 2012, 1:03 pm
  53. AIG said:

    “All I need to show according to my theory is that there are some important issues (not all) that divergence is highly correlated with sect.”

    I think you need to do more than that. Remember, no one here is claiming that sectarianism does not exist in Lebanon. What we are disagreeing on is whether sectarianism is the single most important factor that explains political behavior. I believe that it does not. You believe that it does. And so, if you want to prove that, you need to do more than show that there are “some important issues” in which divergence is highly correlated with sect. You actually need to show that on most important issues, divergence is highly correlated with sect.

    This you have failed to do. I’ve given you a half dozen issues from this year alone, and you’ve mentioned two issues. I could give you many many more examples where sect does not correlate whatsoever.

    You said:“Let’s put it this way, if Aoun changes his mind again on the weapons issue, so will half your family.”

    Precisely. That proves my point that the divergence of opinion on this issue is also dictated by partisan (i.e. “cult of personality) concerns, not sectarian concerns. The fact that the same Christian who once deplored Hizbullah’s weapons now supports them just because they are beneficial for Michel Aoun’s political interests suggests that this choice has nothing to do with this Christian’s sectarian identity, and everything to do with the political leader he supports.

    Furthermore, I think your 95% figures are a little soft. Most AMAL partisans I speak to are not as die-hard about Hizbullah’s weapons as Hizb partisans. In a way, they resent the stature that Hizbullah enjoys because of its weapons. Think back to all the Wikileaks cables featuring prominent AMAL ministers and Nabih Berri himself, talking shit about Hizbullah. Here again we have an example of political opinions being dictated by partisan concerns (i.e. Amal vs. Hizbullah) rather than sectarian concerns (Shiite vs. Sunni).

    As Gabriel says above, I think it’s wrong to frame this debate as an either/or proposition. For some Lebanese, sectarian identity is hugely important. For others, it’s meaningless. For most people, I would hypothesize, sectarian identity is salient on some issues, but is mediated by many other (mostly partisan) factors.

    At the end of the day, the litmus test of any such theory is how well it explains and predicts political behavior. I feel that the one you have put forward doesn’t do a good enough job of that, and that mine gets us closer to the mark. But what do I know? I’m a medievalist. 😉

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 21, 2012, 3:26 pm
  54. QN,

    Ok then, let’s make a list of the most important issues facing Lebanon and let’s examine if divergence on these issues is correlated with sect in many of them:

    Here is a proposal for a list:
    1) Iran vs US
    2) Hezbollah weapons
    3) Palestinians
    4) Foreign debt
    5) Economic growth
    6) Sectarianism 🙂

    Please add or remove from the list.

    Again, I think I showed that the attitude on Hezbollah weapons is peculiar to the Christians in Lebanon and is quite different from that of the other sects. Though the Christians may disagree on the issue they come at it from a very Christian point of view that the other sects do not.

    I do not frame the debate as an either or proposition. The debate is whether Lebanon is sectarian or not. The common sense answer is yes, but you and Nadim want to argue that the question is ill formed and that sectarianism while part of Lebanese political culture, is just one aspect of it with not much explanatory value. You really want to rewrite the textbooks. But I think you have an uphill battle. The most useful information and the basic information needed to begin understanding Lebanese politics is how Lebanon is divided into sects and the relations between the sects over history.

    Posted by AIG | February 21, 2012, 4:26 pm
  55. I can agree with a good bit what Qifa Nabki is trying to get at. But here’s a definitional item where I cannot agree with him: he says that to label any political landscape as “sectarian” you must show more than at least one important issue in which divergence is highly correlated with sect; you must show it for many important issues, he says. Here are some counterexamples. The entire political landscape in Northern Ireland is structured around just one issue, which whether Northern Ireland should remain an integral part of the United Kingom. In parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland a voter’s decision is dictated primarily by that issue. That’s true today and has been true for many decades. On all other issues, which are the “normal” issues, Northern Ireland political parties are normal, and are just like the parties in any other Western European country. In Northern Ireland across the past few decades some splits arose or disapppeared within one side or the other of that big cleavage. The splits produced more than two parties competing in the landscape. But the landscape was still dominated by that one giant canyon sectarian issue. The Northern Ireland sectarian issue is about the evaluation of history, and historical identity stuff, and the use of associated flags and emblems, and the particular question about whether to be an integral part of the UK is just about that stuff. The same is true in Kosovo, Cyprus, etc. In the political landscape of Bahrain it appears if Bahrain had a free election it’d be dominated by just one issue, one highly correlated with sect. So long as Bahrain continues to have no free election, its government will continue with “normal” politics, but nevertheless that big sectarian issue will still be there as a giant canyon, the main thing in the country’s political structure.

    AIG is right at #11 above in his definition that “serious sectarianism exists when there is at least one important issue over which interests diverge.” One is enough. When interests don’t diverge, sectarian identity isn’t serious. Except, however, if sectarian identity is strong when interests don’t diverge, then the landscape has the potential to cleave in a seriously sectarian way at a later date over a new political development. E.g. I mentioned the conceivable case where a larger number of the Syrian Sunnis develop a taste for more Islamization of the Syrian State. If that happened, even if those Sunnis only wanted a few symbols added and a few relatively minor changes to laws, it would cause a sectarian or semi-sectarian cleavage in Syria that would become the primary structure in politics in Syria. Regarding Lebanon, I suppose that at least some of the Lebanese Christians still worry about potential Islamization of the Lebanon State. That fear is totally unfounded from all I can see. But the fact that they’re still uneasy about it can motivate them to vote in a sectarian way in election after election. Practically all Lebanese governing is “normal” stuff, but the Christians keep on voting in a sectarian way, with the result that the country’s political structure is sectarian.

    Posted by Parviziyi | February 21, 2012, 7:31 pm
  56. Parviziyi can agree with something I said?!


    Will respond to this later.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 21, 2012, 7:41 pm
  57. Parviziyi…

    Please elaborate on the Northern Ireland example.

    What is this one burning issue? And what “Sects” are involved in the divisive issues?

    Posted by Gabriel | February 21, 2012, 11:00 pm
  58. In Northern Ireland the sectarian divide is between “UK Unionist” voters, of whom about 90% are from Protestant families, and “Irish Nationalist” voters, of whom about 98% are from Roman Catholic families. (See also breakdowns by religion on two survey questions asked in Northern Ireland in 2010 at http://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2010/Community_Relations/NINATID.html and http://www.ark.ac.uk/nilt/2010/Political_Attitudes/UNINATID.html ). What divides them is evaluation of local history, historical identity, and the use in public of associated flags and emblems. If either side got unrestricted power over writing legislation, they wouldn’t enact any new laws. Rather, they’d change the Symbols of State and the “emblems of the community”, and they’d change some of the tone and content in the secondary school history books. Religion, as such, was the major factor in bygone days. But not at all nowadays. Today it’s all about what I think of flippantly as “mere flagwaving stuff”, or more respectfully as a sense of traditional belonging. That stuff is of great importance to the people on both sides of the divide. Each new generation on each side reproduces the divide as part of their respective community values. In the not-too-distant past each side tried to subordinate and subsume the other. Today each side still pushes on that to a gentler degree even though they both subscribe to the principle of “respect for diversity”, as they say. Political parties trying to bridge the divide get very few votes in elections.

    Posted by Parviziyi | February 22, 2012, 4:51 pm
  59. Parviziyi.

    Thanks for the expansion.

    On that note, don’t you think that this puts into question AIG’s theory about important issue?

    Why do you think the conflict is between two sects- Catholics and Protestant?

    Scotland is predominantly Protestant, and they don’t like to get their marching orders from Westminister either… and they’re stuck to England.

    The “Plantations of Ulster”, implanted settlers into Irish territory. Those implants came from England. There is of course a correlation then between “sect” and political position. But is the correlation between “Sect” or “Ethnicity”.

    Hypothetical: If every Catholic Republic of Ireland fellow became Protestant (Anglican) tomorrow, would the Irish rush to become “British” the same day?

    And bringing this back to Nadim’s original point:

    Is the conflict in Northern Ireland, sectarian (Catholic-Protestant) because:
    a) It is “sectarian” in nature?
    b) because the proverbial “you” believes it to be sectarian in nature?
    c) statistically correlated to “sect”, even though the sect may not be the core issue?

    Posted by Gabriel | February 22, 2012, 10:35 pm
  60. “The Lebanese model adapts elements of the former Ottoman model to the state, the idea is to to defuse the group representation issue and take it out of the equation in order to allow the space for individuals to act as citizen and think beyond groups towards the state.”

    Forgive me if this is a basic question, but how does the Lebanese model do this exactly (at least attempt to defuse the group representation issue?)

    Posted by Layan | February 23, 2012, 1:50 pm
  61. Nadim said above

    Norther Ireland was inspired by Lebanon when it adapted the principle of power-sharing but missed the point by making the proportions in parliament dependent on demographic changes. The essence of Taif is that it is not dependent on numbers: The principle of coexistence or ‘living in common’ is that the country belongs to both religions historically and equally no matter what demographic data says, numbers are thus rendered irrelevant. Thus the system attempts to defuse the issue of sectarian competition.

    In the Northern Ireland People’s Assembly, anything touching on a “sectarian” or “flagwaving” issue requires approval from both sides of the sectarian divide. This is true no matter how many seats each side has in the Assembly. That is, the sectarian issues in the Assembly are not decideable by any majority vote; they require “cross-community consent”. In the elections to the Assembly by the public, there are no sectarian quotas. The sectarian balance in the Assembly can change after any election. The general public does not have a compelling reason to vote in a sectarian way in the Assembly elections because the resolution of a sectarian issue in the Assembly is not dependent on numbers. Nevertheless the public votes overwhelmingly in a sectarian way.

    Over the past decade paralysis has occurred more than once in the People’s Assembly in each of Northern Ireland and Lebanon. A notable point of difference between the two cases involves the fact that Northern Ireland is not a sovereign State. The Northern Ireland Assembly is not a strict necessity. When paralysis occurs in the Northern Ireland Assembly, governance can continue through the UK parent government. The issues that can put the Northern Ireland Assembly in a state of non-functioning paralysis are limited to what I called the “mere flagwaving issues”. Paralysis is more damaging in Lebanon because Lebanon is a sovereign State and needs a functioning parliament. And Lebanon, as a sovereign State, can have it’s parliament potentially be paralyzed by an issue from wider set of potential issues.

    Posted by Parviziyi | February 23, 2012, 3:15 pm
  62. Hello
    I have never seen the Second World War referred to as a “European civil war before” (I am not very well versed in WWII academic literature). I truly found this terminology very interesting and very accurate.
    Can you quote someone on that? (you can just email me a reference if you have enough time on your hands)

    Posted by BA | February 26, 2012, 3:38 pm
  63. @Gabriel

    Speaking as a Northern Irish/Lebanese mongrel hopefully I’ll try to broach your questions as concisely as I can.

    “Q:Hypothetical: If every Catholic Republic of Ireland fellow became Protestant (Anglican) tomorrow, would the Irish rush to become “British” the same day?”

    A: No they wouldnt, the ROI has a sizable minority Protestant community that consider themselves Irish. An oft cited point is that some of most famous exponents of Irish freedom from British rule have been Protestants…Henry Joe McKracken, Wolftone and James Connolly (although he was more “red” than anything and viewed everything as a class war).

    “And bringing this back to Nadim’s original point:

    Is the conflict in Northern Ireland, sectarian (Catholic-Protestant) because:
    a) It is “sectarian” in nature?
    b) because the proverbial “you” believes it to be sectarian in nature?
    c) statistically correlated to “sect”, even though the sect may not be the core issue?”

    A) That the biggy isnt it? The short answer is no, the root factor of Northern Ireland’s conflict is a “self-determination” issue: “Should Northern Ireland be part of the UK or Ireland”……This is inherently NOT a sectarian question.

    HOWEVER, (and its a big however) most family, communal and religious tradition in Northern Ireland is the primary informer of the said political question….and that IS drawn on sect lines in an overwhelmingly large percentage of time.

    This is due to many factors, I’ll try to drop some of them in as I go. Here is the 1st that saw the start of our “troubles”:

    History of subjection of Catholics as 2nd class citizens in Northern Ireland in the pre-1969 Protestant dominated government. (The lack of political agency caused a Civil Rights campaign, which the IRA were able to piggy back their armed campaign and eventually descent into conflict……… The issues effecting Catholics to start a Rights movement were: Electoral suffrage, RUC + security forces picking Catholics and dominated by Protestants…Protestants favoured for work)

    B) No, sadly there is a very real and tangible sectarian dynamic to politics in NI, as it relates to the central conflict issue…as I will explain in the next paragraph.

    C) I agree with what i think you saying, just because you are a Catholic or Protestant should not fuel your political worldview….. but because of the influence of prospective religious organizations (orange order, Catholic church) and influential political elites (Paisley Snr) more often that not the issue was framed as an “Us vrs Them”.. (Paisley was the #1 master of framing the Northern Irish conflict NOT just as UK/Irish state issue, but as Protestantism under attack from the interfering Catholic church, in the form of the Irish state).

    Our civil war also engendered the conflict as a Sectarian issue the more it went on… eventually, because of the nature of paramilitaries here, a game of sectarian “tit for tat” killing became the norm…further removing people who lived here from the root cause of the conflict and replaced it with sectarian hate and mistrust…

    Unfort due to the segregated nature of Northern Ireland, the chance to create to create a cross-political, cross-sect identity is lacking. Trying to untangle the sectarian and political (on the big issue at least) is difficult.

    But the 1998 Belfast Agreement’s main accomplishment was to set aside the “big P issue” and work on the “little p issues”.

    The little political issues are worked on well enough and sectarian issues do not tend to penetrate them deeply (very rarely in fact).

    Come election time though the platform that most major parties work off is on the “big P” stuff and the hardline Unionist and Nationalist groups secured the majority (DUP and Sinn Fein).

    When looking at Northern Ireland + Lebanon and comparing them as Consociational models….. Northern Ireland’s parliament is open to at least try and create a ‘3rd identity’ by categorising the members up for election be either: Unionist, Nationalist or ‘other’.

    Currently, in the 108 member Assembly, there is 9 sitting ‘others’.

    Hopefully we can see an increase in this number before the doomsday clock ticks midnight and a referendum to join the Irish state or not is taken.

    Posted by Drew | March 5, 2012, 11:23 am
  64. Sorry, that wasnt concise!

    For everyones interest, if the Northern Ireland case interests you as it per it relates to Lebanon, I couldnt recommend “Imposing Power Sharing” by Michael Kerr enough. Am sure a lot of you are aware..just in case you’re not!


    Posted by Drew | March 5, 2012, 11:26 am
  65. Thank you Drew. Very helpful.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 5, 2012, 11:28 am
  66. shouldn’t sectarianism be first analysed in the social fabric before the government like the proportion of marriage across sects, average income along sect lines, fertility rates, cousin marriage ratio, ratio of working women as well as their evolution in time or at least for each age bracket.
    In the end these government are supposed to be translation of a dated social situation, so every now and then they will catch up and close some gap [be it trough a violent mean like a civil war, or a soft one like a negotiated transition or electoral process]

    Posted by Crazybear | April 18, 2012, 1:58 am
  67. Anyone want to hear a ghost story?

    Posted by Akbar Palace | April 19, 2012, 11:11 am


  1. Pingback: Lebanon: Federal or Unitary Republic? « Qifa Nabki - January 21, 2013

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