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Staring down the disciplinary violence of Lebanon’s sectarian system

October 13, 2015—

Associate Professor of political science Bassel Salloukh has, together with four of his former students, published a book titled The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon. The book’s chapters walk the reader through different aspects of the sectarianism dominant in Lebanon today.  Salloukh is adamant that the system is not an inevitability but rather the result of a conscious and persistent approach by a political elite that aims to reproduce disciplined and docile sectarian subjects.

How do the divisions in Lebanon differ postwar as compared to before the civil war of 1975-1990?

The Lebanon that was created by the French was to be governed along confessional lines. In the period prior to the civil war, the main fault lines were confessional — Muslim and Christian. The Maronites represented the Christians and the Sunnis represented the Muslims.

The 1960s witnessed the rise of certain sects that were not as well represented in the state. Throughout the war divisions shifted from confessional to sectarian lines, as reflected in the mushrooming of sectarian militias.

Lebanon became a polity marked by sectarianism with political identity and mobilization formed strictly along sectarian lines. The Taif agreement was simply the institutionalization of sectarianism and the recognition of the change in the religious balance of power in the country.  

Do you think the YouStink movement, which predominantly identifies as politically secular, has the power to challenge the sectarian system dominating Lebanese politics and business?

We should not underestimate the institutional, material and coercive capabilities of the sectarian system and those who control it. It is a very powerful system, a monster against which we have to fight. To think that you can just hit it with a lightening strike and destroy it is nonsense. This is going to be a very long and protracted process, one that has to operate at an ideological level where you demystify the operation of the sectarian system. This is one of the objectives of our book.

The YouStink movement is independent from the material and ideological hegemony of the sectarian system and is not connected to NGOs that are controlled by the state or foreign donors, so they are able to mount a challenge against the system. Their own challenge will be in maintaining their independence.

There were groups that came before them and there are groups that will come after them. Resistance to the sectarian system should have come from the labor movement but it has become domesticated and is controlled from within. One of the chapters in the book tells the story of how the sectarian political and business elite was able to penetrate and neutralize the labor movement and the trade unions.

How does the book differ from other writings on the subject?

One of the objectives of the book was to outline the disciplinary violence of the sectarian system. When people write about Lebanon they think of the wars and invasions and physical violence. While that’s important, I think it more important to stare at the disciplinary violence of the sectarian system that operates on you as an individual.

The book examines sectarianism from a very different perspective than the one used by most scholars and journalists. We look at the sectarian system and the way it reproduces itself as a lived experience.

We analyzed the sectarian system as it operates on a daily basis at different levels — individual, state, civil society, media — and how all these experiences aim to reproduce sectarian subjects and to neutralize any resistance to sectarianism.

As such, we are inventing a new language borrowed from political philosophy to examine the old theme of sectarianism in Lebanon. We wanted to create a new way to approach sectarianism and also to show that good scholarship is being produced in this part of the world.  We are not just consumers of theory but can come up with our own new approaches, at LAU, in Lebanon and in the South in general.


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