Discussion of Rima Maged paper “What is So Deep About Deeply Divided Societies? Dealing with Lebanon’s Sectarian System”

Discussion of Rima Maged paper “What is So Deep About Deeply Divided Societies? Dealing with Lebanon’s Sectarian System”

by Samir AITA

Thank you the Lebanese Citizen foundation, the USJ and the Norwegian embassy for this conference and for your invitation.

I would have preferred to talk about the financial crisis. But maybe someone knew that I am also an anthropologist, who has worked specifically on sectarian systems, and by the way on how the Alawi community had been preserved for centuries without a structured religious apparatus, including during the Ottoman period.  

So I have the privilege to discuss Dr. Rima Maged paper. This is while we don’t come from the same background.

Concepts in sociology are like theories in Physics. They can only have sense if they are efficient, see Marc Augé, to explain reality, and maybe to help changing it. But what is the reality are we talking about with the concepts of communities, sectarianism or “deeply divided societies”? Is it the reality of the society or precisely the relation between this society, with all its heritage, the State it created, or someone impose it on it  and power? And please bare me to understand power like me, not political power within the State institutions but an independent body above these institutions which have its own mechanisms.

Dr. Maged devotes a large part of its paper to rightfully criticize the concept of “deeply divided societies”, as “deeply flawed”. She precisely explain how it shifted from trying to explain political dynamics towards describing social dynamics, as if they were two independent things, with the excuse that it is difficult to institute “democracy” when the society is “deeply divided”. But, she could have more strongly put the parallel with the colonial period concept of “identity minorities”, largely criticized by our friend Georges Corm.

The argument that the shift came with the end of WWII is arguable. It was mainly at end of WWI, the end of the multi-identity empires, or the end of the USSR. The Ottoman empire, adopting a very conservative Sunni Islam, had no problem to include the Druze and the Alawis, these “kuffar”, unbelievers, miscreants, in their State and legal framework. The Ottoman arranged many of them to be Mukaddam and “bek”, ruling regions; per example the Khair-bek family among the Alawis.

Dr. Maged makes very well put and strong arguments that sects are not eternal, but ever changing  and that violent civil conflicts are not really caused by social or sectarian groups, but by struggle on power. However, our history shows clearly that the “sectarian conflicts” appeared precisely when the Ottoman State weakened and foreign colonial power intervened to assumably protect minorities. Dr. Maged is right when she explains that long periods of non-violence are not due to “co-existence” but to simple “existence”, but without explaining how this “existence” works. She is also right to question if democracy is only about representation or is it also, and mainly, about redistribution? But again without addressing specifically who should operate this redistribution; i.e. without addressing the State as a body in itself.

The other major concept introduced by Dr. Maged is “sectarian neoliberalism”, characterizing Lebanon since its creation. This concept is much more efficient, in sociology and political economy. It merits to be developed further. However, it needs a more in depth efficient description of whom it serves, from the beginnings: local, regional or foreign power capturing. One major example is the 1956 bank secrecy law, which came, not after troubles in the region, but precisely following the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the British and French assets in Egypt and Syria. Syria was then run by a democratic parliament and had established a nationalistic Central bank.   

But let’s concentrate on Dr. Maged 4 policy implications, and their efficiency for the present situation of Lebanon and the other countries of the region. And I will here use questions, as she does, to argue on some implications.

  • Is the power body controlling and weakening the State institutions in Lebanon really sectarian or does it use the sectarian clientelism to control State and society? In other words, does the 6 power players in Lebanon work only for themselves or for other hidden players, both internal, such as the big oligopolies, and external? And thus, will things really change if one of these players is weakened and the other has more power?
  • Can the issues of Lebanese sectarianism and of de-sectarianization of the political system be posed only through sectarian political parties, not addressing the sectarian religious organization, and their relations with power, State and society? Analyzing how they interfere in politics? How they are exempted from taxes, how they run their wealth and wakf, etc? Why is this still a tabou in Lebanon?
  • Has the issue of representation to be posed per se? As in Dr. Maged condemning the blocking of non-sectarian political minorities in political life, meaning the parliament. The play on representation is a gangrene at all levels of State institutions, able to block the best non-sectarian government.
  • Can someone put a the same level the issue of women representation in State institutions with that of sect and regional representation? This is while gender issues are cross sects and cross regions.
  • Who does have to lead the de-sectarianization? NGOs, Civil society organizations, with all what is commonly known about their capture by power groups, internal and foreign, or a strong political organization?
  • Is the existence of non-State military organization the cause or a result of the weakness of the State, as supposedly the only using legitimately coercive power?
  • What are the conditions that could lead the Lebanese society to stop being convinced that their government should result from a possible bargain between foreign powers? These foreign powers using precisely the sectarian divide to have an influence to bargain about.
  • What kind of State ruling transition is necessary for Lebanon to take it out of its ever continuing financial, economic and social collapse? And are the necessary reforms only financial and economic, or also and mainly political? Reforming precisely the political system that led to this disaster? The political system lying precisely in the relations between the power body, the State and the society?


What is So Deep About Deeply Divided Societies? Dealing with Lebanon’s Sectarian System

Rima Maged

Lebanon is a deeply divided society. Or so is the claim that circulates in many academic books and textbooks, research articles, journalistic accounts, and policy circles. Such claim has also been made about several other countries such as Iraq, Cyprus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kenya, Myanmar, Nepal, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, and more recently Syria, Libya, and Yemen. In most cases, such depiction leads to special conflict resolution approaches and policy prescriptions in order to mitigate the conflict that may arise from these deep social divides. In Lebanon, this has taken the shape of a sectarian power-sharing system, known as ‘corporate consociational democracy,’ that claims to politically represent society based on its sectarian composition. In addition, such a reading of conflict has also led to a predominant civil society approach based on inter-religious dialogue and ‘peace’ initiatives, led by local NGOs or international organizations, mobilizing huge donors’ funds for its methods of conflict resolution. Both approaches are founded on the belief that society is divided into clear cut groups on the basis of their sectarian identities, and that there is a need to either separate these groups (institutional approach) or bring them closer together (civil society approach) in order to mitigate and reduce conflict. But what does it really mean to classify some societies as ‘deeply divided’ and what are the implications of such categorization? Are ‘deep divisions’ in society always vertical and mainly sectarian? Do we know of any ‘shallowly’ divided societies?

While ‘sectarianism’ occupies such a center stage in the analysis of Lebanon, it remains one of the most used and least defined concepts. The following paper will attempt to trace the genealogy of the “deeply divided society” paradigm and criticize its premises based on sociological accounts to show the weakness of the dominant framework adopted in the study of Lebanon. It will then discuss the need to further develop our conceptualization of sectarianism beyond the tendencies to either be blind to it, or be blinded by it. In that sense, moving our focus to a study of sectarianization as a process becomes a more fruitful approach to understand sectarian social dynamics beyond the exceptionalism of most accounts dealing with Lebanon. Finally, the paper will discuss Lebanon’s “sectarian neoliberalism” as a broader phenomenon linking political economy to identity politics and making of Lebanon’s current crisis a potential for being ‘the future past’. In brief, this paper argues that moving beyond sectarianism does not require anti-sectarian peace building initiative, cross-sectarian social dialogue, or sectarian political quotas in a power-sharing system; it rather requires tackling the political economy of welfare distribution to move from a system of welfare discrimination to a system of just economic redistribution, and it also requires addressing the security threat of sectarian political parties’ hegemony as a result of the non-monopolization of arms in the hands of the state.  

Where does the ‘Deeply Divided Societies” Paradigm come from?

In the aftermath of the Second World War, a new world order emerged dominated by the politics of identity, and the rise of conflicts and wars that were often labelled and understood as “ethnic”, “communal”, or “sectarian”. During that time, political scientists in the West were preoccupied with the question of democracy and stability, and the applicability of the Western/liberal type of democracy in post-war societies. It is from within those academic debates that the ‘deeply-divided societies’ paradigm emerged to describe post-war countries with salient vertical (identity-based) cleavages that are perceived to threaten stability and peace.  These debates quickly made their way to the highest policy circles to shape constitutions and policy prescriptions in many countries around the world. It became widespread to argue that ‘deeply-divided societies’ pose a challenge to democracy and thus require special types of arrangements. Therefore, theories of consociationalism, identity-based power-sharing, partition or secession have all flourished to propose possible solutions for democratic governance in so-called  ‘deeply divided societies’.

However, it is interesting to note that while these debates amongst political scientists ended up classifying societies per se as either ‘homogeneous’ or ‘deeply-divided’, it initially started as a discussion around the different types of political systems not societies. The famous Dutch political scientist ArendLijphart (1968) built on the work of Gabriel Almond (1956) to distinguish between what he called “homogeneous” or “fragmented” systems. However, Lijphart (1977) quickly replaced the term “fragmented systems” with “plural societies” in his later writings, and scholars such as Nordlinger (1972) and Lustick (1979) started engaging with this rising debate by using the term ‘deeply-divided societies’. These debates have set the agenda for a policy-oriented discussion on consociationalism and power-sharing that is still burgeoning in the field of comparative politics today. Thus, while the initial research agenda started off by examining different systems of governance, it quickly drifted away to classify societies at large, assuming that political systems are necessarily a reflection of social divisions and compositions: a ‘deeply flawed’ assumption that has marked this literature, as well as many conflict resolution prescriptions, for several decades.  

A ‘Deeply Flawed’ Paradigm

While the ‘deeply-divided societies’ paradigm has gained much currency in the past fifty years, the pillars on which it is built remain highly questionable. The paradigm is based on three main assumptions: 1- ‘deeply-divided societies’ are societies in which vertical divisions are more salient than all other types of social divisions, 2- these vertical divisions are deep and enduring, thus 3- those societies are more prone to violence.  Such a reading of social dynamics leads to the conclusion that so-called ‘deeply-divided societies’ are ‘exceptional’, and thus require special types of governance in order to maintain peace and stability. But are these assumptions solid enough to build a policy-oriented paradigm? The short answer is no.

The argument that vertical, especially ethnic or sectarian, divisions are the main framework to understand certain societies is at the core of this paradigm. The ‘deeply-divided societies’ paradigm views society as a mosaic of sects or ethnic groups that are internally homogenous and cohesive. Moreover, it considers that these divisions are enduring and deep enough to be the catalyst of violence and wars. Thus, it understands conflict in those societies as being one between ‘sects’ or ethnic ‘groups’. This is clear in the application of this paradigm in Lebanon where conflict is read as one between the  “Druze and Maronites”, or the “Christians and Muslims” or the “Sunni and Shia”. In this case, power-sharing agreements have been put in place in order to maintain peace and stability between the various ‘segments’ of society. However, what really came out of these power-sharing agreements are cycles of war and violence every time internal political power dynamics and regional geopolitical winds change. Looking at Lebanon’s modern history, it is no detail that every main shift in the sectarian division of power within the system of governance was accompanied by war and violence. In that sense, violent conflict in Lebanon is better understood as the outcome of its rigid sectarian power-sharing system, rather than its diverse social sectarian composition. Moreover, the picture gets even more complicated when we introduce an analysis of intra-sectarian divisions and conflicts. How do we make sense of the political, regional, and class-based divisions within sects? And how do we understand and accommodate for changes and shifts in the salience of sectarian cleavages and boundaries? For example, while the main salient sectarian division in Lebanon was read as being one between the “Christians” and the “Muslims’, more recently this has shifted to become perceived as one between the “Sunni” and the “Shia”. Such shifts are not in line with the assumption that sectarian vertical divisions in Lebanon are deep enough to be enduring and constantly politically salient. Moreover, the main Christian-based political parties in Lebanon today are divided along political lines between what is known to be the “March 8th” and the “March 14th” camps. So, what does it mean to speak of conflict in Lebanon in terms of sects per se when the actual players are sectarian political parties, and the main determinant of sectarian polarization is related to political coalitions and alignments? Moreover, are such divisions a feature of a ‘deeply-divided society’ or that of ‘deeply-polarized politics’? And is political polarization necessarily exceptional or requiring of any type of special policy arrangement for democracy to prevail?

One of the major flaws of the ‘deeply-divided societies’ paradigm is that it analyzes social and political conflict using the wrong categories. Considering that there are some societies where vertical sectarian or ethnic divides are the main (or only) way to read conflict is shortsighted. Conflict in all societies is complex and can only be understood as an intersection of various divisions and polarizations. Therefore, the very labelling of conflict as ‘sectarian’ or ‘ethnic’ is too reductionist in most cases. Moreover, at a time when mass mobilizations and uprisings around the Arab world – from Beirut and Basra to Algiers and Khartoum – are clearly raising socio-economic and democratic political demands, the heavy focus on identity politics and ethnic/sectarian divisions to understand and classify social dynamics seems absurd. Are class divisions in those societies not deep enough to qualify as a classifying feature? Are divisions between secular or democratic forces opposed to autocratic or sectarian regimes also not worthy of being read as a deep division? The gap between social realities on the ground in the Arab world and the political categories adopted within the ‘deeply-divided societies’ paradigm make for the absurdity of this framework and its policy prescriptions.

Moreover, the colonial ‘divide and rule’ aspects of the application of this paradigm in the Arab region, especially in Iraq after 2003, are hard to miss. The Iraqi constitution of 2005 was written under the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority based on a pure identity-based reading of conflict (albeit adopting a liberal consociational approach). This constitution had some U.S and U.K- based political scientists involved in its crafting as advisers. But if the concern of those scientists is one of grappling with salient social divisions and coming up with policy prescriptions, why have they overlooked horizontal class divisions? Research on ethnic conflict shows that countries with welfare systems have much lower likelihoods of ethnic violence (Hein 1997; Østby 2008; Taydas and Peksen 2012). So why are such research findings downplayed in policy-oriented recommendations? Moreover, it is also established that ethnic or sectarian violence are political decisions led and instigated by elites through their political parties and organizations, rather than a social “slip” into violence (Brubaker 2004; Chandra 2012; Fearon 2006; Wimmer 2013). Finally, if the concern is really to be ‘realistic’ (as many proponent of the paradigm like to say) and address ‘deep’ vertical social divisions, why haven’t we expanded the ‘deeply-divided societies’ paradigm to also include many Western societies such as the U.S. for example? If societies with salient vertical divisions require a special system of rule that manages social conflict and guarantees representation at the political level, shouldn’t the U.S feature in the literature on ‘deeply-divided societies’? Or are racial divisions not deep enough to require a special form of democracy? The selectiveness in the classification and application of the ‘deeply-divided societies’ paradigm sheds light on the dangerous convergence between scholarly work and political interests of hegemonic, imperial and colonial forces whether at the local, regional or international level.

From “Deeply Divided Societies” to “Deeply Divisive Politics”

The major problem with the ‘deeply-divided societies’ paradigm is that it claims to base its ‘pragmatic’ policy prescriptions on a ‘realistic’ reading of social divisions. However, it seems that neither is the diagnosis of social conflict accurate or realistic, nor are the solutions proposed necessarily pragmatic or successful. In fact, sociological research that studies social dynamics and social divisions have rarely influenced the policy prescriptions of scholars within this paradigm. The logic of the analyses that drive this paradigm remains based on a fixed a-sociological idea that some societies have deep divisions between identity-based groups that threaten democracy. It fails to acknowledge that the social salience of a cleavage is separate from its political salience, and that the link between those two levels is not a direct or necessary one. The fact that people are religiously or ethnically diverse does not have to form the ground for them to fight violently. In fact, it is well established that wars and violent conflicts are not the outcomes of random social explosions along identity lines, but are rather the product of political decisions and mobilizations by parties and elites. So why do we keep talking about wars in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and many other places in the region as wars between sects when we all know that these are wars between political parties/forces over power and resources? This is surely not to say that these wars have no social implications in sectarian terms, but dealing with the sectarianized outcomes of these conflicts as the starting point for policy prescription is an absurd reversed logic that blurs causes and consequences, and that ends up reinforcing (and sometimes further institutionalizing) the social and political divides.

Moreover, the ‘deeply-divided societies’ paradigm also fails to acknowledge that the exceptionality with which these societies are approached as being more prone to violence is clearly unsubstantiated. In fact, most studies show that the determinants of the onset of ‘ethnic’ or ‘sectarian’ civil wars are not different or distinct when compared to the determinants of the onset of civil wars in general (Collier and Hoeffler 2004; Fearon and Laitin 2003). In addition, the very fact that societies coded as ‘deeply-divided’ such as Lebanon or Iraq have witnessed long historical periods without civil wars or communal-based violence, speaks not to the success of consociational systems but rather to its failure to acknowledge that political organizations, not social groups, are the basis of violent conflict. Therefore, acknowledging that sectarian violence or war is the product of active political instigation debunks the myth of social divisions being the cause for violence. This logic also puts in question another widespread buzzword that goes hand-in-hand with the ‘deeply-divided societies’ paradigm: co-existence. Examples of non-violence in the history of sectarian or ethnically diverse societies are not the product  of ‘co-existence’ – an active effort at living together – but rather the product of simple ‘existence’ in times when salient political divisions were shaped around other cleavages such as nationalism, left-right political divisions, or class, etc. This tension between understanding violent conflict as the outcome of social divisions rather than the product of the politicization of these divisions and its manipulation for political ends, forms a major pitfall in this paradigm.

Finally, the over-emphasis on one type of divisions in society (namely ethnic or sectarian) and the downplaying of other very important determinant of social conflict and democracy such as class divisions highlight a shortcoming in the social diagnosis on which this paradigm is based. If the existence of diverse identities in society is considered a threat to democracy, isn’t the existence of deep social inequalities and disparities – Lebanon today being a perfect case in point – also a threat to democracy? After all – to borrow from Nancy Fraser (1995) – is democracy only about representation or is it also, and mainly, about redistribution? 

Understanding Sectarianism: Neither Blind to It, Nor Blinded by It

The study of sectarianism remains messy at the conceptual level, despite the rich body of empirical research advanced in the field today. While the concept is one of the most wide­ly used in discussing the Middle East, especially after 2011, it remains unclear what is ex­actly meant by “sectarianism.” The discussions often oscillate between arguments that tend to overlook or downplay the role of sectarianism, and other arguments that focus also solely on sectarianism in understanding social and political dynamics. Beyond this dichotomy of either being blind to sectarian dynamics, or being blinded by it, there is a need to move beyond the exceptionalism of dealing with this phenomenon in order to better grasp it.   In that sense, much can be learned from works in the areas of gender studies and critical race studies where concepts such as “racism” and “patriarchy” have been heavily theorized and conceptualized, and where the links between structure and culture, political economy and identity, capitalism and social differentiations have been well articulated and researched. As stated by anthropologist Suad Joseph,

We must learn to think “sectarianism” while thinking of all that it is not, how to deploy categories of analysis while asserting their instability, how to capture the materiality of the moment while historicizing it, and how to grasp the power of re­ligion while demystifying it. (2008, 554)

In that sense, it becomes important to start thinking of sectarianism as a specific (but not exceptional) form of identity politics that flourished in modern Lebanon as a tool of social and political differentiation intrinsically linked to the building of the nation-state and the development of capitalist modes of production and accumulation.

As with most words ending with “-ism,” “sectarianism” can denote a practice, a doctrine, or a system. Therefore, building on Brubaker (2004, 65), sectarianism can be understood as a practice of “classification and categorization, including both self-classification and classification of (and by) others.” This practice of classification and categorization can either stem from, or create its own, doctrine or ideology (’Amel 2003) that shapes people’s general subjectivities and perceptions. This would also form the basis for a system of discrimination, as explained by Mikdashi’s (2018) concept of “sextarianism” as an intersection between sexism and sectarianism. A system of sectarianism can take various shapes and reveal itself in different domains of social and political life (Salloukh et al. 2015), and while a system is not necessarily a structure, theoretical debates should tackle questions of how sectarianism in the Middle East should be approached. While sectarianism shares many features of a social structure, one of the main features that makes it incomparable to other social structures (such as class, gender, or race structures) is that the order or hierarchy of sectarian categories is not as clear in explaining social conflict. In other words, while there exists a clear and almost universal and enduring hierarchy in class, gender, or race that intersects and underlies social stratification in most societies, it is difficult to say the same of sectarianism. Sectarian hierarchies are very context-specific and much more fluid than other types of social structures, and it is therefore difficult to come up with a general hierarchy of sects—from the most to the least “privileged”—that applies as a structure in most societies. This is specifically the case because social stratification and structural analysis are matters of understanding power relations, domination, and exploitation within a structure, rather than simply looking at demographics or futile sociopolitical variables. For example, negatively discriminating against a person of color qualifies as racism, while positive discrimination does not exactly qualify as racism. Transposed to our understanding of sectarianism, the analysis becomes more complex given that the hierarchies of power are not always clearly delineated. In most cases, both positive and negative discriminations based on sectarian identity are referred to as sectarianism because power dynamics and structural analysis are not accounted for. For example, the political economy of sectarianism relies considerably on clientelism, which is a form of positive discrimination for in-group members who are politically loyal to the sectarian leader. These members might be from the dominant sectarian group or not; in both cases this discrimination is still accounted for as a practice of sectarianism. Therefore, in order to give some clarity to the phenomenon under study here, sectarianism might benefit from being broken down to its various facets that are separate yet interrelated (Haddad 2017; Majed 2020). Thus, instead of studying sectarianism in general, researchers will need to delve into dissecting the dynamics and mechanisms of “institutional sectarianism,” “legal sectarianism,” “social sectarianism,” “religious sectarianism,” “political sectarianism,” and so forth. In doing so, we will be able to better understand the complex phenomenon we are studying and to better assess and nuance our study of sectarianism. It is only after this effort of decomposing the concept of sectarianism is done that it would be valid to call for a “rethinking sectarianism” research agenda. It is here that we would be putting the pieces back together and advancing the overall conceptualization of the mega-concept of sectarianism.

Recent studies have started to move from the study of sectarianism to the study of sectarianization as a process that is constructed, fluid, and ever-changing (Hashemi and Postel 2017). This is an important development in the study of sectarianism as focusing on the phenomenon as a process gets us past the old debates about primordialism, essentialism, and the constructed nature of sectarianism. This conceptual step is very similar to the development of the concept of “racialization” in the literature on racism. By focusing on the dynamics and mechanisms of sectarianization, this research agenda can contribute to sharpening our understanding of the sectarian question and fine-tuning our approaches to policy-oriented research on sectarianism. The conceptual shift to the study of sectarianization as a process has led to the development of a recent and elaborate body of literature that focuses on the question of de-sectarianization in the Middle East (Mabon 2020). While this literature focuses on countering sectarianism by focusing on the various anti-sectarian, cross-sectarian, or non-sectarian movements since 2011 (Valbjørn 2020), it remains unclear how such movements can affect the practices, doctrines, or systems that form sectarianism. Since sectarianism is understood as being a complex ensemble, it seems unlikely that it could be toppled simply by denouncing it or mobilizing against it. Discursive shifts and activists’ mobilizations might be useful in slowly starting to shift the political imaginaries, thus targeting the ideological underpinning of sectarianism; however, movements that can shake the foundations of a sectarian system are often external, and not directly related, to sectarianism. For example, labor organizing and mobilization formed one of the main threats to the sectarian system in Lebanon (Salloukh et al. 2015) because they directly affect the backbone of the sectarian political economy: clientelism. Similarly, the women’s movement for the right of child custody in Lebanon has targeted the religious courts and the religious personal status laws, which serve as another pillar of the sectarian (sextarian) system. Therefore, without necessarily framing their movement as anti-sectarian, these mobilizations have considerable impact on sectarianism and on the sectarian system.

‘Sectarian Neoliberalism’

In analyzing the events that unfolded in Lebanon since October 2019, I propose the concept of ‘sectarian neoliberalism’, akin to ‘racial capitalism’, to describe the particular – but not exceptional – type of regime structures that governs Lebanon. As in other parts of the world, the neoliberal capitalist system in Lebanon depends heavily on social differentiation that takes the shape of gendered, ethnicized, racialized, regionalized, and sectarianized divisions. In that sense, the story of sectarian neoliberalism in Lebanon should be understood as part of a broader global story of neoliberal capitalism that strives on identity politics, social differentiation mechanisms, and right-wing populism. However, what makes Lebanon particularly important to this global story is that it might be – and my claim is that it is – the ‘future past’ of the dysfunction of global neoliberalism that strives on identity politics and deregulation. In other words, Lebanon’s current crisis can be thought of as a example of where the world is heading if variations of ‘sectarian neoliberalism’ are left to grow and flourish.

Unlike the mainstream history of “neoliberalism” that trace it back to the late 1970s and the rise of the “Chicago boys” who theorized for the neoliberal experiment in Chile, and the era of  Thatcher and Reagan who rolled back the welfare state (Brown 2019; Harvey 2007); neoliberalism has actually started in Lebanon some three decades earlier. Contrary to the global trends of the post-WWII era where most Western states adopted Keynesian and welfare state approaches, and in contrast with its geographical environment where more post-colonial regimes in the Arab world adopted variations of socialist dictatorships, Lebanon has been neoliberal from the onset. The important role played by its core theoretical founders such as Michel Chiha shaped Lebanon into an economy that was from the start heavily reliant on the banking sector and financial capital, that developed a merchant republic, and a country were labor is deregulated and capital movement is not restricted. These were the foundations on which Lebanon’s economic system met with its political system of sectarian power-sharing to build its sectarian-neoliberal structure in which clientelism plays a central role in upholding it. It is important to note here that clientelism in Lebanon does not only take the shape of financial or economic benefits (such as access to jobs, education or healthcare, or vote buying during elections), but it can also take the form of security clientelism whereby sectarian political parties can either protect or threaten individual security through neighborhood dynamics of hegemony and control, and through their influence in the broken judiciary system.

Therefore, ‘sectarian neoliberalism’ is a useful framing that can help us grasp the complex intersections of an acute form of neoliberalism and a disastrous social and political structure based on sectarianism in Lebanon. In that sense, ‘sectarian neoliberalism’ explores how sectarian differentiation can be useful for the development and maintenance of a neoliberal capitalist social order. This is not to say, as Bhattacharyya (2018) explains, that sectarianism is a neoliberal capitalist conspiracy, nor that neoliberalism in Lebanon is a sectarian conspiracy. Beyond conspiracies, the system that governs Lebanon today is not a sectarian and neoliberal one, but rather a ‘sectarian neoliberal’ one – highlighting the intersectional rather than the additive nature of these structures. Therefore, (political) sectarianism and neoliberalism feed into each other to create social structures that strive on identity differentiation and class divisions – as is the case with the broader history of capital accumulation. Therefore, sectarianism and neoliberalism as systems that govern social and political relations have always gone hand in hand to shape the Lebanon’s regimes since its independence in 1943. Similar dynamics have been noted in Iraq for examples, since 2003. In that sense, rather than being a system of representation – as the consociational theory claims – identity-based power-sharing under neoliberalism can only be understood as system of discrimination.

Policy Implications

Based on the theoretical discussion provided above, a few policy implications can be highlighted:

  1. Given that sectarianism is not about sects per se, policy-makers should move away from the conflation (often adopted by sectarian politicians themselves) between sectarian political organizations, and sects more broadly. If a leader claims to be the representative of a sect, this cannot be taken at face value to equate a political group with the sect itself. This has implications on the policy discussion around the sectarian quota system. Unlike the logic of quota as being a form of positive discrimination to support historically oppressed minorities, in Lebanon the sectarian quota system is a way of representing and protecting majorities while blocking non-sectarian political minorities from political life.
  2. Based on the important role played by the political economy of sectarianism through clientelism that is based on both state spoils and non-state welfare, dismantling sectarianism at the social level requires the reinforcement and expansion of state-provided social welfare through progressive taxation, the strengthening of public sector educational and healthcare institutions, and the monopolization of security in the hands of the state (ending non-state militarization and local security hegemony). This requires, in essence, a transition from the current mafia-dominated state to a state of social justice and rule of law.
  3. Lebanon’s corporate consociational system is at the core of its recurrent violent crises. The conflict over power-sharing quotas is highly inflammable today with the calls to move from the parity system (equal division of seats between Christians and Muslims) to a system of thirds (division amongst Sunni, Shia and Christian). This quota system is also the reason why Lebanon has not had a population census since 1932. Policy recommendations to de-sectarianize the political system, demilitarize non-state actors, and reinforce state welfare beyond clientelism will lead to a healthier and more stable political life. This can also help in the advancement of research and evidence-based policies if the state conducts a population census and publishes accurate social and economic data.
  4. Beyond the NGO-ized approaches to “peace initiatives”, movements based on social and economic demands, such as the workers’ movement or the feminist movement, are powerful anti-sectarian mobilizations despite not directly claiming to be anti-sectarian per se. This is evident from the violence with which sectarian leaders have attempted to taming these movements through repression or co-optation since they form a serious threat to the core elements of sectarianization.


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