Prof Aziz Al-Azmeh: Sectarianism and Antisectarianism
Sectarianism and Antisectarianism
By Aziz Al-Azmeh
Rice University/University of Houston Conference on Anti-Sectarianism
1 December, 2017
I will start by confessing that I am nor really sure what we might be talking about when we speak of sectarianism and, by association, of Antisectarianism – although the two are not correlative necessarily and practically, the former able to thrive without the latter. What I propose in part is to think aloud and try to probe and parry the phenomena that we call sectarian, which bring us together here today. Any consideration of what antisectarianism might or might not be will depend on what we make of the primary phenomenon.
I think it will be clear that I feel, and I feel keenly, that there is a serious problem with the understanding of this sectarianism, and I shall be bringing out some of its elements. This is one primary matter that I wish to address, with special reference to modes of comprehension by some antisectarian Arabs since the turn of the millennium. Of antisectarian traditionsintegral to this conference I shall have little to say: traditions need to be cumulative and self consciously continuous if they are to be traditions at all, and I will submit that we need to distinguish any such glimmerings of tradition from instances, some of them very costly, of explicitly antisectarian action in modern Arab history. One reason for my questioning such traditions is that sectarianism, or what might pass as such, has generally been regarded as an issue for social and political political hygiene, which will somehow disappear in good time as Arabs grow more civilised. Antisectarian positions have often been taken for granted and thus not explicitly articulated, while the presence of sectarianism has been recognised in all manner of pragmatic arrangements, including electoral arrangements.
The issue of whether or not antisectarian traditions exist is pertinent to attempts to make historical claims for antisectarian thought in the Arab World. Antisectarianism would certainly be a tradition ripe for invention, and the material fopr tradition-building is readily available in exemplary texts and actions past. Yet Lebanon apart, there have not been antisectarian traditions in any very determinate and explicit sense. But such can be extracted from the antisectarian positions and practices implicit in wider bodies of discourse and practice outside Lebanon: there are occasional references to sectarianism, occasional positions taken against it in electroral practices and campaigns for instance, but the bulk of antisectarianism is implicit in statist, nationalist, developmentalist and socialist discourses and practices which had dominated the face of Arab history in the past century and a half – this was an ideological and political universe which was non-sectarian rather than explicitly antisectaian. If antisectarianism is to be found, it needs to be sought not in free-standing antisectarian traditions, but rather in terms of what it is counterposed to implicitly or explicitly, and in the folds of other discourses and practices. Some of this implicit antisectarianism steered away from the issue for a variety of good reasons, the primary one among which was that political practices that we might label sectarian – patrimonial favouritism, lines of least resistance in certain types of alliance including electoral practice -- were taken in stride, treated pragmatically and operationally (for instance, in electoral practices and social courtesies), often assumed to be vestigial and destined to wane. These were in fact marginal to the tendential flow of Mashriqi and other Arab polities until recently, in a context where the predominant political habitus was non-sectarian. This renders unsurprising that the primary motifs of Butros al-Bustani’s position formulated over a century and a half ago, were repeated here and there rather formulaically, and referred to ritually. had not until recently been surpassed conceptually
Having approached the object we are supposed to be discussing, I shall then offer some brief suggestions as to how one might proceed to gain a firmer and more discriminating grasp on phenomena that might be classified as sectarian. Let me nevertheless say at the beginning that a major, perhaps the major problem relates to the sorts of distinctions that need to be introduced when distinguishing sectarianism from other types of communalism that involve religion – this is a question of tokens and emblems of difference (Karl Barth on the Pushtoons). Indian scholarship has a very rich legacy in this respect, although one does not normally call religious conflict in India – or Sri Lanka, for that matter – sectarian, but rather communal. The disintegration of Yugoslavia sand the so-called events in Northern Ireland are also instructive.
The problems of comprehension and discrimination, and therefore of conception, are not new, and are reflected in the summary and impressionistic way in which the term is used, often as a political cliché. We do not have a semantic history of this keyword – sectarianism, or the Arabic ta’ifiyya - that would indicate its various shades of meaning and contexts of use – a semantic history after the example set by the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, that great conceptual-historical dictionary of social and political language in Germany. There is precious little ethnographic study that adds up with any significance, and much of what passes for such, including studies based on opinion surveys, devolves to little more than pop-psychology familiar to us all from discourses on identity – although I must say that there is slowly emerging some very valuable ethographic material on Syria and Iraq specifically which is likely to have incremental impact. Studies of Lebanon have been more political and historical than ethnographic. Very much is said in the antisectarian vein. But I find that little of what we have has been thought through to a degree commensurate with the gravity of the situation in the Mashreq today.
Needless to say, therefore, I shall not be offering a critical survey of what might be classified as antisectarian thoughts and actions of Arabs over the past two centuries – many of these are covered by colleagues speaking at this conference. Let me add, parenthetically and for the sake of clarity, that I am not squeamish about using the ethnonym Arab, that I am not given to apostrophising this word graphically or gesturally, or of mincing words and referring to “Arabic speakers” instead of Arabs, as if the Arab Orthodox Christians of the Syrian countryside, the Protestants of Ras Beirut, or the Maronites of Kisirwan, had somehow lost their way and found themselves, accidentally and to their surprise, speaking Arabic in unlikely places. What I am interested in is is reflection on the theme of antisectarianism among the Arabs which will help address issues of comprehension and discrimination. I am interested in reaching some clarity on whether the regnant public discourses on sectarianism might or might not be battling windmills.
Let’s not forget that denominational distinctions, tensions and courtesies in the Arab World were always clearly recognised by Arab actors, and that they were signalled at a variety of levels. They have always been indexed micro-sociologically and maintained recognisably to all social actors on a daily basis, as telling inflections of the overarching cultural and social commonalities of language, cuisine, gait and body language, norms and values, customs, and much more (Zubaida + others). Yet few people recall – and this is really important -- that sectarianism as a system and as a political possibility was until the turn of the millennium considered to be a specifically Lebanese anomaly; people talked occasionally of majorities and minorities, often with great circumspection, but far less so of sectarianism outside Lebanon, with much resistance until the last decade of the twentieth century (S. Ibrahim’s compilation + reactions). Now it has come to be taken for a congenital derangement that bedevils Arabs in general. In this way, Arab discourses, including antisectarian ones, post 2000, joined up with earlier impressionistic ones popular with Israeli authors on Syria and Iraq (I. Rabinovich for instance), and Euro-American of outliers (e.g. van Dam). They used the bluntest conceptual instrument in historical analysis – the notion of sect, taken without qualification and as the sole independent variable and causal element. All this dovetailed snugly with neo-conservative pop history and folk sociology of the Arab World, on the ascendant since the nineties, unstoppably.
I propose centrally that our understanding of the phenomenon is best served by a historisation of word, concept and phenomenon combined, at every turn, and especially for my purposes, at the very specific turn that the issue has taken since the world-historical changes precipitated by the end of the Cold War in 1989. This date symbolises a mood of abandon in which a new regnant global cognitive and ideological regime in the domains of politics and society was precipitated. This crystallised rapidly as a body of hegemonic commonplaces in universities, international organisations, and state authorities, and reconfigured and narrowed the terms of our understanding of sectarianism. To anticipate telegraphically: among the Leitmotifs of this new regime of commonplaces were two I shall highlight now and revisit later: first, a global regime of deregulation, including cultural and cognitive deregulation which, with the abandonment of ideas and programmes of national development, devolve to infrahistorical actors re-made and re-imagined, including sects. The excision of formal and state institutional transformations and effects entailed the attribution of social processes to nature in this perspective: such is communalism in the Arab world in all its forms, in terms of which communal civil wars seen to be ever latent and, when they occur, inevitable. The second leitmotif is collateral to the first: this is derision of notions of human improvement in favour highly conservative and indeed retrogressive and strident values of cultural chastity, implying the contraction of civility and citizenship in favour of identity, which is the politics of deregulated communalism conceived culturally. The archaic becomes the pure, irresistibly authentic, the precolonial of postcolonials, adorably postmodern. It becomes a programme for social engineering: witness current marriage legislation in Iraq, or recent Iraqi diyya arrangements as tribes and their traditions are reinvented, all duly monetised.
But clearly, problems arise and cannot be ignored. One concerns the vexatious issue of usage. Explicit definitions of sectarianism are few. A recent survey by Fanar Haddad has revealed, unsurprisingly, great imprecision and uncertainty in uses of the term, some so narrow as to be entirely contextual, others so elastic as to refer to all and nothing. Sectarianism has come to be applied to anything that has to do with denominations, or roughly analogous groups, including what are termed minorities.
In the final analysis, we commonly encounter a conflation of the sectarian representation of certain conflicts with the full description of the actual terms and causes of the conflict. To this we might add another crucial feature in the misconstrual of what are identified as sectarian, which is medievalisation – to use Ussama Makdidi’s term – of sectarianism’s terms of reference: Montgomery Watt described the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s as a replay of conflicts that had occurred in the seventh century; Shi’ite militias sent to Syria and Iraq by the Iranian Pasdaran speak of war against the grandsons of Yazid. Obligatory reference to Bernard Lewis (perhaps also to Fouad Ajami) is also in order here. Interestingly and in contrast, one might recall that the Iraqi state during the war with Iran referred to Iranians as majūs, Magi, not as Shiites or Rawāfid, using ethnicity and not religion as the primary expletive (like Iraqis Shi’ites expelled – to Iran). After the turn of the millennium, Rawāfiḍ has come to be used by Wahhabi militias in Syria and Iraq today, while the Iranians and their militias are described as Safavids in much wider circles. Yet for all this, sectarianism must remain a second order phenomenon, a specific descriptor for a variety of communalist social and political practices that is identified as sectarian at a particular moment. It often obscures the workings of social identity by inverting orders of causality, making sectarian sentiment primary and taking it to belong to an order that is primarily constitutive of social life, removed from history and attributed to a second nature.
The other issue arising from definition, is the suggestion that sectarianism is rather a performative than a descriptive category. One may opt for narrow operational, situation-specific definitions, as Ussama Makdisi did when discussing Ottoman Lebanon. This has the merit of avoiding the pitfalls of primordialist interpretation which he rightly rejects. But having dealt with the manifestations of sectarianism and the way in which it was constituted and played out in particular contexts, this still does not help us to reach a broader understanding of the category and the phenomenon themselves.
I think it is clear that the definition of sectarianism, like definitions of religion and civilisation and other meta-categories, would really be a fool’s errand. I would personally opt for the aptness of recognition rather than definition: the recognition of a number of recurrent features that serve to identify instances of a more general phenomenon, not all of which need to be present in each individual case. Lawyers call this an ostensive definition; Wittgenstein gave this operationalist perspective the now very common term ‘family resemblance’, and for those of you with a keen theoretical interest in anthropology, Rodney Needham developed such ideas further as the concept of polythetic classification in a famous essay of 1975. My worry is that there is no general phenomenon that might be designated as sectarianism which is generically distinct from communalism. The addition of a religious marker does not result in a generically different phenomenon.
Beyond definitions, I will now move to suggest a central distinction which I believe is crucial: that sectarianism is not a necessary corollary to the existence of sects. Sects, if we insist on using this word, can exist without sectarianism, even if sectarianism cannot exist without sects, but the two are distinct, the one – sect -- historical and social, the other performative and political, referring to agency, structure and conjuncture: to a process whereby a social fact, let us call it sect, the complex of kin and locality and denomination, is mobilised and streamlined so as to appear to behave as an internally cohesive political actor in a competitive or bellicose communalist environment. And let us be careful with the use of terms: a sect is a specific type of phenomenon in the sociology of religion and specifically that of churches – a sociology developed first by Troeltsch consequent upon specific transformations of the word’s semantic history following the Reformation. Its use to describe denominations carries far too much baggage and is massively overdeterminative: Sunnis are not a sect today, nor the Shiites, although they were both arguably sects in the middle ages, the Shi’ites for longer as the Sunnites became a broad church. Sectarianism is not an outflow, a natural emanation from a sectarian essence embedded naturally in a given denomination. It is not denominations that yield the notion of sectarianism. It is the political phenomenon of sectarianism that is productive of sects, that is, of the transfiguration of the social fact of groups of kin, locality and religious affiliation into political actors denominated by a sectarian signature, under the command of patrimonial vested interests traditional as well as novel. The Mashreq today is in the midst of a major reconstitution of its bodies social and politic by political sectarianism effecting a transmutation of denominations into sects.
Having used the word emanation, I should really no longer hold off the issue of metaphysics which I have held secret until this moment, and which will take us to 1989 and bring us to the heart of the matter. There is a sectarian and antisectarian metaphysics both ironically and literally: what, after all, does the ubiquitous critical term ‘essentialism’ refer to, but the assertion of a metaphysical substance underlying historical actors and acting beyond history ? This takes us to the strange world of postmodern and postcolonial critique.
I will transit to 1989 through Emmanuel Levinas, who had been one of Derrida’s teachers, and became belatedly a Patristic figure in postmodernist humanities and social sciences. I have a personal distaste for Levinas’ type of philosophising, but I consider that he has the merit of underlining matters of relevance to what I wish to say now. But he has special relevance to ME scholarship, and admirers of Professor Talal Asad would be delighted to note the affinities, including the apologetics and the insistent special pleading .
One evening in Paris, in July 1947, the Alliance Israelite Universelle held a members-only discussion with Jean-Paul Sartre, who was to discuss with those present his well-known thesis that Jewish identity was definable primarily in terms of the hostile gaze of the anti-Semite – those of you who may have read and might recall his description, in L’Être et le néant, of the gestures of a typical Paris waiter as he, the waiter, in exemplary bad faith, performs his waiter persona will capture the full force and ramification of this position. Levinas’ response might serve as the leitmotif for much of what is said about sectarianism, including what is said by antisectarians.
Levinas held, first, that Sartre’s position mistook Judaism’s historical being for its metaphysical essence which he, Levinas, wished to privilege, and, second, that the left-wing philosopher nevertheless had the merit of helping Jews abandon ideas of safeguarding their rights in terms of the Rights of Man – what are today called universal human rights – and other, to Levinas outdated ideas of the Enlightenment, and to have recourse to the truly existential and eternal in what constitutes the Jew.
Mirroring anti-Semitic claims of the eternal Jew, we have here positions that will be very familiar to all of you as we behold together the Arab Mashreq in the throes of serial social and other forms of involution, including sectarian involution: just as Levinas sought to over-Judaise Jews, so also do apologists for identitarian Islamism seek to conjure up super-Muslims. We have a spectacle of self-orientalising orientals, as the motif of a natural and meta-historical communitarianism has become hegemonic and often overbearing in academia and in public life as well. In terms wider than sectarianism but nevertheless fully applicable to it, we have claims for irreducible and, at the limit, incommensurable group individuality rooted in a metahistory to whom every party to the communal mix, however defined, is individual, peculiar, eccentric in its own charming way; each is entitled to claims for authenticity – that is, claims to historical continuity maintained uniformly within the group, expressed in signs taken for typical, often self-parodically -- whatever that may mean. We have in this package the disparagement of claims for the reality of historical change in modern Arab history: thus, for instance, the now drearily predictable announcements that the modern Arab state, without qualification, was a sham, that Arab nationalism has alternated between abject failure and unspeakable monstrosity, that modernity, reason and secularism are colonial impositions that bespeak no more than elitist tastes, that the Muslim Brothers and similar formations are the natural legitimate leaders of the Arabs, that Daesh is a natural phenomenon in Syria and Iraq.
My point is that this is now established common sense among the broadest swathes of Arab antisectarian intellectuals and other producers of public output.
The assertion of ancestralism as fate accompanies the aesthetisation and gentrification of archaism, the emblem of authenticity. It is precisely these vocabularies, so redolent of the metaphysics of essence, that convey us to 1989 and, under the shadow of 1989, to this, present point in time, when they, these vocabularies, have become commonplaces that debar us from understanding much of what is happening in the Arab World, and that have come to mark Arab antisectarian discourses on sectarianism.
Let us be reminded again that sectarianism is one element among many that are subject to these ideological commonplaces: much the same might be said of nations, religions, villages, civilisations, cultures. I will maintain that antisectarian criticism in recent years has mirrored sectarian declamation with stoical acquiescence to historical involution and, indeed, historical regression, and that it has internalised deeply a sense of historical uselessness and defeat. Historical comparisons, some elaborate, might be made with the European fin-de-siècle moods of cultural pessimism of a century ago, with local archaisms, religious as well as ethnic, all-too-human archaisms as well, creating a fatal attraction to intellectuals, and a negative aesthertic.
One element among many, I said: sectarianism joins religion and tribalism in parallel and analogous anti-modernist discourses about persistence, historical continuity and the congenital incapacities of Arabs and, consequently, the deranged, unregenerate essence of their societies. Just as Levina’s Jew cannot and should not try to transcend his essence, which is beyond history, so also for the postcolonialist or postmodernist commentator and for most antisectarian Arabs today, the Arab is incapable of being meaningfully and consequently anything but a sectarian, a Muslim, a Christian, a tribal. Our societies in this description are mosaics, not only metaphorically but quite literally and inescapably, now in many places scrambled almost beyond recognition – the mosaic model is a nineteenth century motif, half a distant impression, half an imperial wish and policy.
This doctrine of congenital incapacity is in fact derivative of metaphysical assumptions of historical fatalism, of inflexible path dependency captive to origins taken for initial conditions, inalterable and not subject to contingency; discussions of the Sykes-Picot agreement in past months bear out what I am claiming fully. This is a doctrine of historical inevitability modelled upon biology, using biological metaphors of homeopathy and roots and soil and disease, of allergies, impurities, contamination, immunity and organ rejection: an assumption of species specificity in the domain of society and history called vitalism. This was enracinated in Arab lands by history curricula and public cultural output over almost a century now, by romantic varieties of nationalism such as Baathism inspired by Fichte and his readers, later by xenophobic forms of hyper-nationalism such as the social and political doctrines of populist movements like the Muslim Brothers and the Islamic Republican Party in Iran, where the concept of Westtoxification or Occidentosis was emblazoned and played by ever brass band in the land.
On these commonplace metaphors also rests a key corollary: the idea of the return of religion, an instance of the return of the long repressed, including the alleged return of sectarianism as in discourses on Syria and Iraq. Yet history’s is irreversible time, and Return – a seemingly innocent metaphor -- is less a fact than a rhetorical trope of justification for a moving status quo by appeal to nature and predestination. Return is asserted at the confluence of two mirror images: postcolonial and postmodern on the one hand, and, on the other, the religious and self-orientalising squad together with crusty orientalists and pert ne-orientalists (including many Arabs), the two mirror images of each other. In academic research, these two come together and yield pet essentialist ethnological classifications in the name of authenticity and postcoloniality, ideological motifs, blind alleys, unproductive and wasteful of research time. I will add that although such clamorous postures of anti-colonial struggle in unlikely environments might well be an academic sports in developed countries and instruments of academic advancement, yet, given the geopolitics of knowledge, when transposed to provincial settings like the Arab World or India, at second or third hand, to countries needy of improvement, they become not only crudely derivative or imitative, but egregiously irresponsible: the desire for a premodern postmodernity that seeks to eliminate the modern, to promote reaction.
In this setting, sectarianism finds its natural element. I have said that sectarianism became an issue of primary salience outside Lebanon only around the turn of the millennium siege of Iraq, when sectarian and other communalist political identities were being engineered systematically at all levels: engineered, that is involving agency, political, financial, logistical and organisational infrastructure. Examples of the repackaging the past and the instant invention of tradition I witnessed personally around 1990: the Iraqi poet Buland al-Haydari suddenly decided that he remembered that he was a Kurd as he approached 70; the Baathist Hani al-Fukaiki in his turn, towards the end of his life, cultivated fake memory as alternative fact to support his decision that the reason he had been bullied in school was because he was a Shi’i. This is the sort of consideration that I meant by pleading for historisation: a reference to agency, be it human decision with consequences both intended and unintended, collective drifts, conjunctures, structural compulsions, in all possible combinations and proportions.
We still lack full studies of the vigorous invention of traditions and their symbolics among Arabs following 1989. We do not have studies of the century before either: studies that might match or at least imitate scholarship on other histories (most famously: France, later Germany, then broader afield), and indeed work on Zionism and Israel like that of Shlomo Sand. These re-imaginings of the social and historical worlds following the siege of Iraq belong to an order of historical events which is broader, and it is time to consider the historical context in which this communitarian ideological malaise crystallised and compelled anti-sectarians to assert the inevitability of sectarianism.
Antecedents and quite a a tradition were available in the huge anti-secular and anti-modernist polemics of the Cold War. From the early 1950s, the US came to consider Islam as a bulwark against Communism in the region and beyond and, among other cultural instruments, promoted the production of Islamist anti-secular movements and polemics. Starting with the 1953 visit to the White House by a delegation led by Said Ramadan, father of Tariq Ramadan, a seemingly unbreakable bond was forged, still apparently hardwired by institutional habits, stretching from the anti-Communist pogroms in Indonesia in 1965 through to Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation of Pakistan and Numeiri’s of Sudan, on to receiving Rambo in the shape of Taliban in Reagan’s White House. This was congruent with the deployment of Catholicism in Poland and Italy in the course of the Cold war. Later, this connection transmogrified into the belief that Muslim Brother rule would bring stability to Egypt and elsewhere.
This philo-Islamist politics was conjoined with the rise and rapid spread of an international infrastructure of education, information, and disinformation, largely under Saudi auspices, which has prevailed spectacularly, having succeeded in recasting religion in the Arab World and farther afield in the direction of greater uniformity, stringency and deliberate archaism. Saudi Arabia herself had taken a turn towards even greater rigourism and obscurantism following the takeover of the ḥaram at Mecca by the messianic followers of Juhaiman b. Sayf al-‘Utaybi on 26 November 1979, corresponding to the first day of the Hijri year 1400, an inimitable eschatological signature. Competition represented by Khomeini’s Iran fed into this maximalist trend.
The Arab World had become especially receptive to many of these tendencies after it had been softened up by the 1967 war: much is asserted about the consequences of this war, the Second nakba, some very recently on its 50th anniversary, but asserted generally and formulaically, impressionistically and associatively, and understood with little precision: Wolfgang Schivelbusch had some stimulating observations on what he called the Culture of Defeat, comparing the post-bellum American South, France following 1871, and Germany after 1918; what might most usefully be retained is recourse to all manner of diversions and the deployments of collective fantasy, including the cultural politics of nostalgia, which feeds conceptually on ideas of the return of this or that authentic self. Both the nakba of 1948 and the naksa – a common euphemism for the the second nakba -- of 1967 were followed by Arab self-critical scrutiny, more radical in 1967 than in 1948, and reaching deeper into the backwardness of Arab society. In fact, the seemingly endless series of defeats, in 1948, 1967, 1973, 2003, resulted in the elimination of self-critical scrutiny and flight, at full speed, into grandiose imaginings of the past and of the future as the past regained, impelled by collective trauma of a lacerated self, a negative narcissism.
These events – and the anti-secular discourses generated during the Cold War -- belonged to a broader international trend which combined, after 1989 especially, the ejection of vocabularies of development, including social and cultural development, together with the extrusion of the Keynesian consensus that had maintained hegemony in the post war period. The crises thereby precipitated are evident. All this worked in favour of a politics of identity redolent of anti-capitalist, ancestralist and rustic idyllicism of early 19th century romanticism and vitalism. This was parsed as postcolonial desire for a precolonial order, a postmodern disparagement of modernity, the deliberate cultivation of offence and outrage, the promotion of special pleading. In academic settings, this yielded postcolonial and postmodern social sciences, history and cultural studies, given to spurning the conceptual equipment of the social sciences and humanities, and indeed with a post-factualist relativism to which all facts are alternative facts, as things do not seem actually to happen. Instead, the whole panoply of vitalism is deployed polemically and in most cases unreflexively: human collectivities as homeopathic units, change as disease induced by external pollution (colonialism, manipulative elites, self-deluding intellectuals are the usual culptits), revival and return as cleansing, regression as recovery of essence.
All of this was internalised by the largest sections of the Arab intelligentsia, resulting in major historiographic shifts – in fact, in drifts which became shifts cumulatively -- in Arab scholarship and intellectual culture more broadly towards positions approaching those of the Muslim Brothers’ doctrines of society and history, assimilated into all but fringe sections of Arab nationalist and left-wing discourses, and of course buoyed symbolically, and supported institutionally, by the hegemonic global common sense of international organisations seeking and promoting for cultural chastity, locality, historical individuality. This accompanied social and cultural engineering on a massive scale by Arab state agencies, much of this outsourced to religious groups. The result is that the Arab world today and its cityscapes seem to be such very different places to what they were only half a generation ago, changes accelerated massively in the Mashreq since 2003, for which the prime emblem is perhaps the appearance of women. I had observed these drifts keenly and described these shifts in detail as they occurred in the nineties, and very recently as well. I am one of few who did not yield to this complaisant air.
Let me cite some cases in point. Very detailed and erudite historical work by the late Georges Tarabishi medievalise of present malaise extensively, with a lingering on medieval conflict that is so insistent as to be almost an importunate caress. Others, voices of exquisite lucidity and nuance such as Hazim al-Amin in his columns, proceed on similar assumptions, as does Hazim Saghiyeh. Hazem Saghiyeh’s conversion to the doctrine of historical fatalism, incidentally, was of the same vintage as that of Hani al-Fukaiki and of the poet Buland al-Haidari I mentioned earlier, in conjunction with the first war on Iraq, and was consequent to a prior conversion, to Khomeinism, in 1979. We have two broad types: the celebration of a false memory with identities discovered suddenly, or else – as with Tarabishi and Saghiyeh – a despairing fascination of the cultural pessimistic type with a bizarre and unattractive Fate, with the inevitability of reversion to type, described and repeated with such irrepressible avowal as to be almost an act of love, and as to constitute an aesthetic of the ugly.
Much of this is conjugated with a vengeful attitude towards modern Arab history. It meets older anti Arab nationalist polemics, working through a historiography whose terms of reference and primary analytical categories are majority and minorities, polemics in which the distinction between cogent and justified critique, and vicarious, irresponsible and nihilistic debunking, is lost. For Hazem Saghiyeh, for instance, the cultural texture (al-nasij al-thaqafi) of Arabs is beset by a congenital delinquency. Hazem asserts of his – my – grandfathers’ generation, that they were well intentioned and tried to play on mediation in a society by nature cleft and little amenable to betterment, marked by what Butros al-Bustani had called tawa’’ur al-ṭibā’, an uncouth disposition, although Bustani though this open to correction by civilisation, while Saghiyeh bemoans the fact that it ever ever existed. Not so our fathers and ourselves – Saghiyeh’s was an interpretation of Arab nationalist trends in precisely these terms of minority and majority: Zaki al-Arsuzi, one of the ideological oracles of the early Baath party, was to him just an Antiochene Alawite (note: not Arab) militating against merely Sunni Turks (note: not just Turks) (p. 24). The book by Hazim I am quoting (Awwal al-‘Uruba) delights me as a reading experience, but reading it is a perilous journey for the uninitiated or for those whose grasp of detail is uncertain or whose attention to detail is liable to stray, for it is a treacherous book, prone to mislead unpredictably: an extended free association putting together fragments of fact and fiction to create a virtual world and an imaginary history. It is interesting to observe the spectacle of keen intelligence pirouetting around with a sledgehammer.
But of course Saghieh is not alone, for we have long had histories of Arab nationalism, especially of its beginnings, that misconstrue it as a self-protective Christian position – and therefore sectarian by default. This is quite simply false on empirical grounds. There is no doubt that particular types of ideologies are attractive to particular constituencies: Marxism to a certain type of putative Jew in late Tsarist Russia, the French Socialist Party to a certain type of sociological French Protestant, and so forth. But this does not account for the ideologies, or the politics.
The ancestralist discourses I have mentioned build on some of the best studies of sectarianism in Lebanon, minus the nuance – brilliant work by Waddah Sharara with his notion of a ‘cold civil peace’, Yassin al-Hafez with his highly nuanced remarks on Lebanese denominationalism, to which one might add work less exercised by Lebanon, by the Syrian Burhan Ghalioun for instance, if one could, for one moment, filter out the bluster, or the Iraqis Harith al-Qarawee or Faleh Abdel Jabbar. One might also refer to Mahdi ‘Amil (Hasan Hamdan) of the Lebanese Communist party (assassinated in 1987, along with other Communists of Shi’ite extraction), and most certainly Fawwaz Traboulsi (+ Gilbert Achkar + output of OCA): authors who were averse to ancestralist analyses dependent a fatalist metaphysics. In these more sober works one gets a nuanced considerations of the way in which particular political structures and mechanisms tend to allow particular historical actors to substitute themselves for body politic and build patrimonial oligarchies. All this is well reflected in historical writing so well analysed by Ahmad Baydun, to yield historians writing less as professional historians than their denomination’s panegyric poets.
Yet to my mind, none of these analyses or subsequent ones, if we except some work on Lebanon, go far enough, and I shall close with a few observations that I find useful to further consideration. First, and quite apart from the need of ethnographic study and historical anthropology, it is important to underline that social sciences and their concepts have in this domain a problem of perception, categorisation and conceptualisation. Social sciences concepts arose generally from considerations of structure, and have few means of describing and analysing disintegration, let alone systemic collapse which I regard as the prime consideration in any analysis of sectarianism as a process witnessed today (there is very useful historical work on collapse by Tainter and others). This sectarianism is not, let me repeat, a revival or a retrieval of matters obscured and held in abeyance by modern history. It is a socio-political and military reconfiguration and reinvention of networks of locality and kin and patronage, and of denominations as sects, and the engineering of sectarianism by specific actors in conditions of systemic devolution and disaggregation, and of savage competition with the atrophy of centres. This process, I suggested, is parallel to Islamism when considered not as a revival but as the reframing by specific new actors of the religious field, an Islamisation of values, political views, social relations, again by specific actors, all retrojected to the past as traditions are invented before our very eyes. The idea, for instance, of what is commonly called the “traditional Islamic hijab” is an excellent case in point, as there is no such thing, although most, even those who have witnessed the transition, have allowed themselves to be persuaded that there is.
What is not asked is the fundamental question: how do denominations reconstitute themselves to become sectarian formations in a determinate body-politic and body-social ? Field research undertaken in Syria recently by my colleague Harout Akdedian reveals that there is no evidence to suggest that political sectarianisation is the outcome of pre-existing sectarian sentiment, or that sectarianisation represents a prior sectarian condition that intensified beyond a given threshold and led to the intensity we witness today. It is qualitatively different, and belongs to a different order of social action. As collectivities of kin, and often of neighbourhood, but also, it must always be noted, internally differentiated and stratified, denominations in this sense are analogous sociologically to other types of collectivities, such as clans, which are, in Iraq, but also in Syria, in the full flow of self-configuration and the invention of traditions. Communalism is the overarching phenomenon.
I might refer you here to an instance seemingly unrelated, in order to underline elements of agency and structure: this is the shift from everyday solidarities of kin, locality and class, and their associated, all too human ordinary prejudices against outsiders, into foundational templates of right-wing racism constituting the most solid ground for the National Front in France. Didier Eribon described with utmost lucidity the way in which casual racist attitudes among the working class in the city of Reims were transformed into directly ideological elements and a hegemonic mode of perceiving the social and political worlds: they came to acquire a politically totalising public obviousness under the signature of party political mobilisation that provided a coherent discursive framework and social legitimacy to prexisting, casual ill feeling, and to the elevation of identity at the expense of social position The constituencies in question had for generations voted for the Communist Party by unthinking social, communal and solidaristic instinct now redirected to NF.
In the case of the extensive spread of Islamist modes of speech, behaviour, appearance, and their sectarian analogies, I would also appeal to understanding in terms of cognitive anthropology: for instance, work by my colleague Daniel Sperber on social contagion and what he called cultural epidemics (one might also think about veiling here), this last word being used technically rather than polemically; work by Harvey Whitehouse is particularly relevant to mobilisation in situations of acute and violent conflict, on traumatic ritual induction and the transmission of memories (his Libya team). I would also appeal historical work, notably but not exclusively by Natalie Zemon Davis on religious violence in France in the sixteenth century, following a venerable tradition which must include Whig historical writing on the English civil war as well; in this regard I would refer also to Philippe Buc’s discussions of the relationship between religious expression and war, in both his Dangers of Ritual and the more recent Holy War, Martyrdom and Terror: I disagree with much of what he asserts, but he brings out complexities and refinements of analysis exemplarily. Comparative work on religion and violence in many disciplines has grown enormously in recent years.
This brings me to a final point: many of you will be aware of the ‘confessionalisation’ debate concerning early modern European history, in the wake of work by Wolfgang Reinhard and Heinz Schilling, especially on Germany between 1555 (the Peace of Augsburg) and 1648 (the Peace of Westphalia and the end of the Thirty Years’ War). Confessionalisation in this sense is related to parallel developments and reconstitutions of state, church and society, entailing major systemic changes, especially respecting social discipline, social homogenisation, internalisation of norms and especially of new norms, greater pointedness, simplicity and clarity in doctrine, and ritual reaffirmation. The model is making serious inroads into the study of Ottoman history and of the Ottoman-Safavid conflict, but I am not especially persuaded that the interpretative model actually works in this domain, where parallels seem superficial.
However, for very recent developments, and for the histories of Syria, Iraq and Egypt from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, the model is eminently suggestive: I will refer only to the almost complete eradication of Nusairis and Ismailis in Mount Lebanon by Mamluk troops with Ibn Taimiyya in the saddle at the turn of the 13th/14th centuries, mopping up the remnants of Shi’ism in central and northern Syria that had been predominantly Nusairi/Alawite and Ismaili – many Kisriwanis converted to Christianity and became Maronites in order to escape with their lives. I might refer to the explicit shi’ification of the Iranian constitution, and to the Alawites of Syria, from their legal Twelverisation by Musa al-Sadr, to the ritual and political Twelverisation of poorer Alawites since 2011. If comparisons for the European Wars of Religion are tempting, then it ought to be kept in mind again that these are usually described as confessional wars, not sectarian wars.
Finally: It is not being suggested that sects and sectarianism are pure inventions, or that they emerged only since 1989. If Arab nationalists were in denial in this matter, they were in denial only in part. The other part is that the communalist phenomena were in fact marginal and subcultural, but were amplified by the anti-secularist activism that I described. None of this can be reduced to grandstanding. But today, the Arab Mashreq is witnessing a condition of catastrophic collapse in which matters once marginal and subcultural – like sectarianism and Islamism and, indeed, tribalism – are moving to occupy the centre with extraordinary belligerence, in part facilitated by societal processes reduced to their dead weight: margins defined by geography and spatial segmentation, culture and education, religious practice and personnel, socio-economic criteria, political commitment, social habitus, and much else. Seeing the generalised spectacle of malignant fear and murderous loathing, it is easy, but also intellectually lazy, to construe the past along this image. Today’s sectarianism in Syria and Iraq, and its accentuation in Lebanon, are incommensurate with 1860. What we see was both inconceivable and improbable in February 2011. This is not history striking back. It is the stroke of today’s margins, as the centre is vacated catastrophically, its erstwhile constituents, Arab historical developments over one and a half centuries, crowded out. There is no mystery involved in recognising the reasons for preoccupation with sectarianism today. But for the phenomenon to be properly conceived and described as process, prior to any conceptual transfer to historical periods and domains, the Mashreq is a live observational laboratory. Antisectarian traditions will need to start by gathering in its materials in this context.