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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