The tentacles of sectarianism

In a talk about his recent book The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon, Bassel Salloukh introduces the country’s peculiar consociationalism, its sectarian political elite and how failed postwar policies serve the clientelist logic of the systems resilience.

Shabka: From 1975 until 1990 the Lebanese went through a civil war which ended with an internationally negotiated peace accord, the Taif Agreement. This agreement now forms the basis of the country’s ever-expanding sectarian political system which occupies substantial areas of everyday Lebanese life. How much did society shape this system?

Bassel Salloukh: Like all postwar consociational accords, the Taif Agreement is an elite pact, with little input from society. This kind of elite accommodation is still corrupting the system today. In that sense consociationalism is a trade off: it’s either conflict or political immobilism.
At the core the Lebanese political system is an “ensemble” of institutions that produce and reproduce sectarianism at many levels. As long as all resources are centralized in the hands of the sectarian political elite, sectarianism has a sound political economic foundation. In hindsight, Lebanon is an example of the failure of the centralized homogenous state in the Arab world. The incentive structure is designed to serve sectarian identities and produce sectarian subjects. Within this structure cross- or non-sectarian groups cannot reach a critical mass.

Shabka: Lebanon is not the only country with a consociational system in place. After the breakup of Former Yugoslavia for example, consociational peace agreements ended the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina or in Macedonia. Which attributes would you regard as central to these political systems?

Bassel Salloukh: The problem with these kind of postwar settlements is that they serve to institutionalize and reproduce sectarian identities and modes of political mobilization. I am a critic of viewing the durability of sectarian or ethnic identities from a primordial cultural prism, or as example of the ancient hatreds thesis. Rather, the durability of sectarian identities and modes of political mobilization is the consequence of a particular political economy that gives rise to a sectarian ideological hegemony, to borrow from Antonio Gramsci. Culture has no explanatory role to play here because it is being produced and reproduced by an ensemble of institutional, clientelist, and discursive practices. In this regards, one should view this ensemble as an octopus that grabs everything in its way, it is trying to control ever more spaces. And after so many years in the making, little wonder that the disciplinary tentacles our recent book describes reach deep into Lebanese society. Which also explains why anti-sectarian popular mobilization is not easy. A recent example is the protests over the garbage crisis in summer 2015. They didn’t have the same impact as sectarian protests would.

Sectarianism is like an octopus that grabs everything in its way, it is trying to control ever more spaces… the disciplinary tentacles of the sectarian system reach deep into Lebanese society.

Shabka: Political dynamics in Lebanon changed after Syria ended its occupation after more than 20 years. Lebanon’s political powers are divided into two alliances. Their leaders still manage to take advantage of the sectarian political system. What is the influence of external powers in this regard?

Bassel Salloukh: I see post-Syria Lebanon as locked into an overlapping domestic and external contest. Domestically, it is a primarily Sunni-Shi‘a contest over what new sectarian balance of power should emerge. Regionally, Lebanon is but a site among many sites of the grand geopolitical contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran unleashed by the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq. this overlapping contest has led to political paralysis. We have had no president for two years now, and parliamentary elections have been postponed twice. Moreover, the Christian political elite has voiced its disenchantment with the postwar pact, demanding its re-evaluation. Add to this anti-sectarian groups mobilizing against the political system and demanding voice. We have reached a cul-de-sac, and something has to change.

Shabka: What do you think would be necessary to undermine the system’s hegemony?

Bassel Salloukh: A possible way to weaken its control would be to decentralize the state. This could have a debilitating effect on the political economy of sectarianism and unleash new intra-sectarian socioeconomic or gender or environmental identities. Similarly, a new electoral law based on some kind of proportional representation would also unleash new positive forces. In fact, some members of the sectarian elite have recognized that the old way of doing politics is no longer viable, and that the political system needs reform. The problem is that they are afraid of the kind of reforms that may jeopardize their political economic interests.

The book unmasks the sectarian system’s practices in the hope of opening up creative possibilities to fight them.
The book unmasks the sectarian system’s practices in the hope of opening up creative possibilities to fight them.

Shabka: In an outline of your book you describe these everyday acts of resistance as small battles that may slowly chip away at the sectarian system’s political economy and ideological hegemony.

Bassel Salloukh: Yes, because, following Foucault, James Tully, Gramsci, and Edward Said, where there is disciplinary power, there is also resistance. In that sense the book is also a survey of struggles waged by opponents of the sectarian system – by women, teachers, public sector employees, students or coalitions across NGOs – and how their efforts are often sabotaged or contained by the sectarian political elite. Seen from this Gramscian perspective, the resistance stories recounted in our book remind us of a larger and inescapably protracted ‘war of position’ and that there is always hope for a brighter, just and more democratic future; that there are always alternatives to resistance, as Beirut Madinati reminded us in the recent municipal elections. Ultimately the book is intended as a liberating personal and public experience. We unmasked the sectarian system’s practices in the hope of opening up creative possibilities to fight them and ultimately transcend sectarianism altogether.

Bassel Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University. He is author, co-author, and co-editor of a number of books including Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (2012).

The interview has been conducted by Lukas Wank and Jürgen Neuhuber on 22 April 2016.

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