Lebanon's second republic: secular talk, sectarian application.

AuthorOfeish, Sami A.

During a trip to lebanon in December 1996, I observed a very interesting and intriguing phenomenon in one neighborhood of Beirut's southern suburbs. I was visiting with a friend who lives in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of al-Shiyya. His residence is located in a newly built area very close to the predominantly Christian area of al-Tayyuna. At dusk, he pointed to me a reemerging tradition in the community; we saw candles lit and arranged in different formations on some balconies and windowsills in adjacent buildings. My Shiite friend had to inquire from his wife about the occasion. We learned that it is in celebration of the advent of mid-Sha'ban. (Sha'ban is the month that immediately precedes the fasting month of Ramadan according to the Muslim calendar.)

When we revisited the scene a few minutes later I noticed a very intriguing fact. Some of the apartments displaying the burning candles also had illuminated Christmas trees in their living rooms. It was not unusual for me to see decorated Christmas trees in Muslim households in Lebanon. This was a common occurrence in the last few years before the 1975-90 civil war. But what attracted my attention was the concurrent existence and public display in this area of what is considered to be two "rival" religious symbols in the postwar period.

Beirut's southern suburbs had been a frequent target of "sectarian" shelling throughout the war, mainly from the adjacent Christian-concentrated areas that were controlled by the right wing militias. Although Beirut's southern suburbs had been a stronghold for leftist and secular parties in the past, Shiite-based sectarian militias and religious groups became very active in these suburbs in the 1980s. As a result, these areas became identified as a bastion for Shiite sectarian-based calls for reform and Shiite "fundamentalism." In such a milieu, the mutual display of"contesting" religious symbols could be a direct challenge to the logic of sectarianism (al-ta' iffiyya). The phenomenon of sectarianism was rejuvenated in different parts of Lebanon in the 1980s.(1)


Sectarianism and the sectarian system (al-nizam al-ta'iffya) were considered by some scholars and Lebanese political contenders as major contributors to the Lebanese conflict before 1990. They were reinforced through the 1989 Document of National Understanding (also known as the Ta'if Accord) that ushered in the formal end of the war. The main aim of this essay is to examine the reasons for the continuous use of sectarianism in government in the postwar period. I argue that the interest of the Lebanese elite in maintaining control is a principal factor in the continuing implementation of the sectarian system since its embryonic formation in 1843.

Sectarianism is a complex phenomenon. The coeval display of the "opposing" religious symbols in al-Shiyya under the circumstances described above triggers many pertinent questions. These questions have to do with the degree of association between sectarianism and other factors, like the increasing practice of religious rituals(2) and the expansion of modernization and globalization(3) that influenced Lebanon from 1990. Drawing on the al-Shiyya case, a set of questions could be raised here to address the relationship between sectarianism and religiosity.

Is lighting candles in this case a sign of religiosity or sectarianism or both? Are religiosity and sectarianism - universally or in the case of Lebanon - different or the same in nature and goals? And if different, to what extent do they overlap? Are sectarianism and sectarian feelings a logical extension or a necessary outcome of religious identity? Are the Lebanese who displayed multireligious symbols sectarian but tolerant of other religions, or are they are religious but not necessarily sectarian? Is either of these two options possible, and in which way can we explain the phenomenon of displaying these symbols? Can we generalize across geographical areas about the reasons for displaying multi-religious symbols, or will they vary greatly from one area to another in association with other economic, social, and political factors? Finally, is the simultaneous display of these symbols a strong or weak indicator of the commonly held argument that sectarianism is well entrenched in Lebanon after the civil war?

Sectarianism is not necessarily synonymous with religiosity. These concepts should be differentiated from each other with an eye on the situational nature of sectarianism. One difference is that, while sectarianism may imply some intolerance of them (sectarian) "others" and encourage feelings of competition with them, religiosity does not necessarily imply intolerance. Moreover, religiosity may be personal, dormant, and passive in many instances. History has shown many cases of the existence of a significant degree of tolerance among religious groups.

Another difference is that a sectarian person is not necessarily a religious person in practice, behavior, and attitudes. To the contrary, it is common to find people in Lebanon who have strong sectarian feelings and may exhibit sectarian behavior, but who are secular in terms of their daily conduct and general attitudes - including many who are non-practicing Muslims and Christians. It is also common to find a person who may act in a sectarian or religious way but have secular positions on some issues.(4)

Moreover, religious conflicts have in many cases involved an attempt to convert the "others," to subdue them on a religious basis, or even to separate permanently from them. This has rarely been the case in Lebanon since the initiation of the sectarian system. The civil war period in particular witnessed calls for separation by Christian-concentrated right wing militias or for the creation of a religious state introduced by Islamist groups. But these ideas were and are unpopular and are usually considered inapplicable and extremist.

Sectarian arguments do not necessarily reflect religious dogmas, although they may use them heavily at times. Sectarianism is mainly a political tool whose advocates often exaggerate the significance of "ethnic" markers in sectarian communities in order to stress their differences and promote an identity of each community versus others. The proponents of sectarianism may shift tactics and arguments, sometimes drastically, to achieve power ends. For example, during the 1975-82 period some predominantly Christian sectarian right wing forces called frequently for "autonomy of Christian regions" or partitioning of Lebanon, at times citing the inherent religious differences from Muslims as a cause for separation.(5) But when the Israeli invasion in the summer of 1982 tilted power to the advantage of these groups their presidential candidate, Bashir Jemayel, campaigned on the basis of reuniting the "10,452 square kilometers," that is, all Lebanese territories.

Sectarianism in Lebanon's case cannot be simply explained by the fact that sectarian communities exist. In other words, sectarianism is not a "natural" byproduct of the presence of sects, as some scholars had assumed or argued.(6) If so, then sectarian systems would have been more common in other states, including Middle Eastern states, where more than one sect exist and societal tensions are rampant.

The vast literature on ethnicity is very useful to our understanding of sectarianism. Studies of ethnicity in its broader context, including groups differentiated along racial origins, cultural backgrounds, and religious affiliations, address the causes for the rise of ethnicity and ethnic mobilization. Of the two major approaches that address ethnicity and ethnic mobilization, the instrumentalist approach is more viable than the primordialist approach in explaining Lebanon's sectarianism. The primordialist approach tends to consider sectarian mobilization as inherent and given based on the existence of sects, whereas the instrumentalist approach allows for explaining fluctuations in mobilization in association with other socioeconomic and political factors.(7) Most studies on sectarianism in Lebanon use the primordialist approach, and the few who use the instrumentalist approach have mainly explored specific affects or dimensions of sectarianism.

Sectarianism is purposeful rather than coincidental. It is not an independent but a dependent variable, largely dependent on the interest of the elite in reaching and maintaining power. If we examine historically the development of the sectarian system since its inception in 1843, it becomes clear that it was carefully promoted at its different stages by an emerging or an established elite interested in power.

Lebanon's elite in general are interested in sectarianism because it is a useful tool for control. As such, it serves two major purposes. First, it creates a solid constituency for the elite. This constituency is composed mainly of lower and middle class co-religionists who are led to believe that their access to resources is dependent on their association with the elite in a client-patron relationship. Second, it allows the elite to diffuse demands for reforms raised by the lower and middle classes. The elite would achieve their goals if they succeeded in dividing these classes along sectarian lines, thus encouraging them to compete with one another for access to resources.

Sectarianism is institutionalized in a sectarian system that highlights sectarian communities as primary societal units and political entities. As a result, the state largely confines political representation to the boundaries of "sectarian representation." The dominance of the elite over their co-religionists is legitimized by the "fact" that they "represent" their interests. Moreover, the state tries to redirect the anger caused by the growing inequalities between the upper and the popular classes, and within different segments of the population, into intra-class anger within...

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