Lebanon’s Sects: Killer Doctrines, Parties, and Identities

  • Sanaa El-Khoury
  • Religious affairs correspondent

5 hours ago

On the one-month anniversary of the Beirut Port bombing

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Much has been said in Lebanon about the “Shiite Ministry” during the past weeks, in the context of the debate between political parties over the formation of the government of Mustafa Adib.

Political opponents blamed Adeeb for the failure of Adeeb’s mission to form a government between those who blamed the intransigence of the two allied Shiite parties, Amal Movement and Hezbollah, and those who blamed it on the desire of former prime ministers, from the Sunni community, to control the decisions of the appointed president.

This is normal in Lebanon. Often, political paths hinder the moral balance between sects and their leaders, and to preserve the interests of the parties and leaders who have the strongest representation in them.

Lebanon did not turn the page of sectarian confrontations after the end of the civil war, as the country witnessed during peace periods of bloody fighting, in parallel with soft confrontations in Parliament and the government, over the shares of the sects.

The country may be suspended for months due to a dispute over the sharing of quotas in the government, over the representation of sects in the electoral law, or even over the sect of a general manager. A cleric may not hesitate to publicly support a senior official, despite suspicions of corruption about him, because he is part of his sect’s “share”.

In the past few years, the Lebanese have taken their sectarian battles to communication sites that have become brimming with hate speech. Behind Twitter accounts, some people may dare to express ideas that they find embarrassing to express them openly outside the virtual space.

After the bombing of the Beirut port on 4 August, the sectarian narrative accompanying it appeared immediately: identifying the sects of the dead and the sects of the inhabitants of the affected areas, to determine the level and form of sympathy.

At the time, in the context of talking about collective trauma, the BBC asked Alaa Hegazy, a trauma psychologist, about the psychological reason for the emergence of these conflicting narratives. She told us that the Lebanese sects compete in highlighting “oppression,” and this increases with the need for each group to believe in their pain and grief, and when they do not get it, their sense of grievance increases.

All this is taking place against the slogans of coexistence, interfaith dialogue, and bragging about the Lebanese diversity in the media. But in reality, to what extent are the Lebanese really fighting each other over religion or sect? Is the problem in individuals’ intolerance of their religious identities, or elsewhere?

Tariq and Mai characters from the movie

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Tariq and Mai from the movie “West Beirut” in a mural by Yazan Al-Saadi on one of the buildings What was known as the lines of contact

Caste party

A professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut, Rima Majed, studies al-Ta’if, and believes that “a small part of the Lebanese people are sectarian in the sense that they confront the other on a religious basis. Sectarianism does not necessarily mean religious fanaticism, but rather political and ideological loyalty.”

The researcher attributes that loyalty to a political discourse that imposed an identification between the religious group and its political leaders. Thus, the sect and the party became a representation of a single identity, and “that is a tool used in all systems based on discrimination.”

In the opinion of Rima Majed, the “sectarianization” of the reactions to the bombing of the port is not exceptional, because “sectarianism is a long process, which has been going on for decades, in the leaders’ discourse, and has become part of the people’s daily political imagination. Sectarian language is simplistic, and it is a language that has many aspects. He means more than a direct sectarian definition. Thus, we not only notice a confusion between a sect and a party, but a merger between class, sect, region and sect. This is what politicians resort to for mobilization.

An illusion coexistence?

In the fall of last year, tens of thousands of Lebanese took to the streets to protest against living conditions. At the time, the demonstrations were described as cross-sectarian, and rebellion against the heavy legacy of sectarian warfare. Soon, however, sectarian rhetoric crept into the scene. Was this image of cohesion a flash of truth, or an illusion?

According to Rima Majed, “The identities are mobile, shifting and not fixed, and we cannot say that what happened during the October revolution was an illusion, rather there was a general atmosphere that facilitated the emergence of an anti-sectarian discourse. When a part of the crowd of sectarian parties went to the street and raised the flag of Lebanon, we considered that a comprehensive national manifestation, but this is not accurate, because patriotism can sometimes be the other side of sectarianism, especially since Lebanese nationalism took a sectarian dimension in a certain historical period “.

She adds: “It is certain that society is governed by a sectarian structure, which created an identification between the sect and the party, but this identification changes, and it is not necessary for the movement of people in the street to be governed by a sectarian and non-sectarian dichotomy. One could participate in the demonstrations against the leader of his sect, but he refuses to marry A second sect, for example. “

Clerics distribute white flowers to citizens on the anniversary of the 2013 civil war

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Clerics distribute white flowers to citizens on the anniversary of the 2013 civil war

The essence of the constitution is civil

Sectarianization of the political discourse may carry several ambiguities, especially with each side trying to mold the truth in its favor. But apart from verbal polemics, what does the constitution say? Does a sect have the right to acquire a position or a ministry?

According to Professor of Constitutional Law at Saint Joseph University, Wissam al-Lahham, the constitution’s reference to the role of sects in the political system is short and clear: “The constitution refers to parity between Muslims and Christians in the House of Representatives, provided that seats are relatively distributed between the sects of each of the two groups. 95, The sects are represented fairly in forming the government. Later, an article was added to the constitution relating to the equitable distribution of jobs for the first category between Christians and Muslims, without assigning any job to any group.

Outside these articles, there are no texts referring to the allocation of positions to the sects, while the division of the three presidencies among the Maronites, Sunnis and Shiites is a constitutional norm.

The constitution also gives “every sect the right to administer its personal statuses, and the Constitutional Council Law gives the right to leaders of sects to challenge laws related to freedom of belief and personal status,” according to Al-Lahham.

Wissam al-Lahham believes that the problem is not in the constitutional text per se, but rather in “the leaders dropping the sectarian character on their political battles to justify their interests. Note that the constitution prohibits assigning any position to any sect, and this is not applied. The last paragraph in the introduction to the constitution indicates that it does not Legitimacy for any authority that contradicts the pact of coexistence, without clearly defining what this pact is. It is interpreted as “preserving the balance between the sects,” without any practical meaning.

Actress Nada Abu Farhat

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Actress Nada Abu Farhat in Putra on the sidelines of the October 2019 demonstrations

Common Right Sect

Wissam al-Lahham adopts a critical approach to manipulating the political authority with the constitution. He believes that demanding a civil state “is like deception, because the constitution is primarily civil, so the existence of sects does not mean that the state is not civil, for it is the one that issues laws that define the powers of the sects. For example, in the 1990s, it allowed The state adds the Coptic Orthodox community to the existing sects in Lebanon. The law also permits the presence of citizens from a sect, and also permits the establishment of a new sect called the Common Right Community.

In his opinion, there is a misunderstanding of the nature of the constitution, due to “the leadership system that established client norms and practices to protect its interests, invoking non-existent constitutional laws and arguments.”

He says, “According to the constitution, the state in Lebanon is civil, because sovereignty is for the people, and all legislation is statutory, not religious. Even personal status laws obtain the approval of the House of Representatives. The Lebanese system is legal institutions that secure the representation of sects, and this exists in many countries in the world, under names Others, as in Belgium, for example. The problem with us is that the leaders are using sectarian excuses for their political power. “

Well, does this mean that the problem of sectarianism in Lebanon can be solved and disappeared, if the sectarian leaders’ regime falls? The answer may be complicated, if we go back to the date of the birth of Lebanon, a hundred years ago, by a French decision.

Historical myths

In his book “A House with Many Homes”, the late Lebanese historian Kamal al-Salibi narrates the story of the emergence of Lebanon, and deconstructs the historical myths that the Lebanese dispute, according to their sects. Clarifies the historical context that paved the way for the emergence of what was known as the “National Charter” that guaranteed the rights of the Maronites, as the community that fought the battle to establish Lebanon. Meanwhile, other sects found that they were geographically attached to Mount Lebanon, in contradiction to its history and its extensions in the region.

Based on historical facts, Al-Crusader shows the influence of the interests of sectarian groups with a tribal structure, in some of the myths associated with the emergence of Lebanon, refuting their historical accuracy. The Maronites painted Lebanon as the heir to Phenicia, while the Muslims adopted the ostensibly secular Arab nationalism discourse as a way to confront Maronite power.

Art gallery

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From an art gallery by Tom Young at the famous Sofar Hotel that was destroyed in the war

The Lebanese historian and university professor Osama Makdisi is among the most prominent who have written about the emergence of sectarianism in Lebanon and the region, especially in his books “The Culture of Sectarianism: Sect, History and Violence in Lebanon the Nineteenth Century Under Ottoman Rule” and “The Age of Coexistence: The Unified Framework and Shaping the Modern Arab World “.

More than twenty years have passed since Maqdisi published his book “The Culture of Sectarianism,” and the dilemma still exists. Indeed, it took in Lebanon, with the financial collapse, a dystopian dimension. .

Makdisi told the BBC: “The current situation is miserable, but it was expected. From the start, the sectarian system that was formed in the country was riddled with defects, and it gave priority to sectarian groups at the expense of citizens, giving these groups a physical presence.” The regime’s critics are not wrong. Sectarian when they describe it as a cancerous disease, because it is pernicious in the sense that it was never aimed at equality, but rather at the unequal distribution of resources and privileges, which served the interests of the ruling oligarchy that crossed the sects.

Legacy of the Nineteenth Century

According to Usama Makdisi, it is not a matter of being a Christian or a Muslim, as everyone has been deceived and destroyed. “All sectarian narratives are isolationist, chauvinistic, and not based on documented historical facts. The problem was not religious pluralism at all, but rather the sectarianization of that pluralism, along with the corruption of the ruling neoliberal elite.”

The historian and university professor explains that sectarianism is a modern concept, contrary to the popular belief that it is customs and behaviors dating back to ancient times.

It is true that the history of the region witnessed sectarian or religious conflicts during separate periods since ancient times, but it did not take a solid political dimension until the nineteenth century, due to the changes in the Ottoman Sultanate, and the role of what was then called “organizations”, that is, the laws of modernization of the Sultanate, due to European influences. , And its pressure towards modernity.

At that time, Muslim subjects saw the talk of equality as an assault on their privileges, an attack by Western missionaries, and a promotion of the idea that Islam was incompatible with modernity. In parallel, the fate of the Christians in the East became a pretext for European intervention.

Effects of destruction after the bombing of the port of Beirut

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Effects of destruction after the bombing of the port of Beirut

According to Maqdisi, there are always two contradictory narratives to explain sectarianism historically, the first showing Arabs in the Ottoman Sultanate’s rule areas as violent, savage peoples fighting religious wars, and the second is a rosy narrative of full coexistence and complete reconciliation, both of which do not enjoy historical accuracy.

Makdisi believes that sectarianism was like the opposite assumption of the emerging nationalist narratives of that era, when the idea of ​​the nation-state represented modernity. In the same era, the colonial narrative imposed the approach of sectarian differences as a kind of barbarism, and that the peoples in the region are unable to manage their diversity, and need external mediation to harmonize and coexist.

Maqdisi says, “Sectarianism is part of the legacy of colonialism. Just as France sought with all its power to separate Christians and Muslims, so did Britain with its relentless pursuit of separation between Arabs and Jews. These colonial policies still harm us, and we are still captivated by its legacy.”

Despite the presence of a general sectarian feeling and division, sectarian identity is one of the myths of the Lebanese about their identity. Osama Makdisi says: “Reaching a collective feeling is not impossible, but it requires tremendous work, just as the disputed sectarian identities are not magically renewed, but are the result of tremendous efforts in education and mobilization.”

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