The Modernity of Sectarianism in Lebanon

Reconstructing the Nation-State

by Ussama Makdisi
published in MER200

On February 15, 1996, 13 squatters were killed in Beirut when the building they were living in was brought down by demolition workers for Solidere, Lebanon’s reconstruction and development company. Solidere, a brainchild of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, claimed it was a mistake; the dead were carted off, destitute migrants with no place in the government’s vision of the revitalized cosmopolitan city center. Brushing off criticism that reconstruction is proceeding too fast, the prime minister insisted that Lebanon today is the site of “a struggle between good and evil.” The alternatives facing the nation, he insisted, are clear: either the “will to progress” or “the will to despair.”

Despite such forward-sounding proclamations, Lebanese politics in the post-war period mark the resurrection of the confessional state in Lebanon, the same kind of political divisions along sectarian lines that led to the civil war. [1] But Hariri’s government claims it is determined to forge a new era of “national unity.” Perhaps its most ambitious project of all is a new national history textbook, redirecting the citizen towards a common national past and displacing sectarian narratives that thrived during the recent war. The ostensible goal is to urge the Lebanese to abandon their “premodern” loyalties of religion that are said to have inhibited the growth of a democratic, civil and secular society.

Central to this effort is the dichotomy between nationalist development and progress on the one hand, and allegedly pre-modern religious loyalties on the other. Ta’ifiyya or sectarianism refers to this allegedly atavistic tendency among Lebanon’s various religious communities that undermines wataniyya or patriotism; thus the intercommunal massacres of 1860 and, of course, those that occurred between 1975 and 1990 are often cited as prominent examples of sectarianism. [2] Thus while the nation is projected as inclusive, stable and democratic, sectarianism is depicted as exclusionary, undemocratic and disordered. Above all else, the post-war state claims to be part of a modernity which ascends from an ancient lineage; the downtown excavations in the rebuilding of Beirut proudly display Phoenician and Roman artifacts. The layers of civilization each form part of a nationalist narrative that inevitably concludes with modem Beirut, “an ancient city for the future,” as the reconstruction slogan has it. In the modern reconstructed nation, sectarianism serves as a metaphor for the unwanted past.

“Sectarianism,” however, is a neologism born in the age of nationalism to signify the antithesis of nation; its meaning is predicated on and constructed against a territorially bounded liberal nation-state. In Lebanon, sectarianism is as modem and authentic as the nation-state. In fact, the two cannot be dissociated. In India, scholars such as Gyan Pandey and Partha Chatterjee have persuasively argued that contemporary communalism is rooted not in ancient history but in the governing politics and discourses of the British colonial regime which were appropriated by the nationalists to legitimate specific paths of elitist development. Sectarianism in Lebanon can be interpreted similarly. [3]

At the same time, however, the case of Lebanon differs from the Indian example in that the modem state was established as liberal and (putatively) democratic, but not secular. From the outset, the nationalist project has been intertwined with what historian Ahmad Beydoun calls the “innommable,” the unutterable contradiction that has haunted Lebanon: the paradox of a national unity in a multi-religious society wherein religion is inscribed as the citizen’s most important public attribute -- stamped prominently on his or her identification and voter registration card. [4] A second difference from the Indian example lies in the nature of decolonization. The Lebanese state was created as a result of a series of compromises between the French mandatory power and the indigenous elites, and not as the result of popular anti-colonial mobilization. An ethos of national unity was never forged in a collective struggle.

Religion and the Colonial Encounter

The drive to create a territorially unified Lebanese nation-state was in part the result of European (primarily but not exclusively French) colonial myth-making. Henri Lammens, whose 1921 La Syrie: precis historique imagined Lebanon as a Phoenician refuge, [5] invoked a pre-Islamic and pre-Arab “integrity” that, with “French aid,” could fulfill “its legitimate desire to evolve in a national framework that its historical traditions have created.” [6] Even before Lammens, European travelers, missionaries and consuls saw Mount Lebanon as a non-Muslim enclave from which the movement to civilize and reform the “fanatical” and “Mohemmedan” Ottoman Empire could be launched. [7]

The technological and military superiority of the European powers, which deployed religion as a metaphor for the boundaries between modem civilization and pre-modern barbarism, legitimated European interference in the affairs of a “backward” Muslim and Asiatic region. More importantly, colonialism transformed the social, political and economic significance of religion into a reified order wherein decontextualized religious identities alone defined individuals. [8]

The European powers singled out the Christian communities of the Ottoman Empire for special protection from the Muslim population. Missionaries were sent to proselytize among and educate the Christians, including females. Christian traders were favored by European merchants, and Christian work forces, in Mount Lebanon at least, were actively recruited by French silk merchants. The irony of this European intervention is that it coincided with Ottoman efforts to reform the Empire. The Tanzimat movement which began in 1839 abolished legal distinctions between the different communities of the Empire in the hopes of fostering an Ottoman nationality (Osmanlilik) and with it a sense of Ottoman compatriotship.

Ta’ifa as Nation

Prior to the nineteenth century, communities in Mount Lebanon were predicated not so much on religious distinctions as on hierarchical politics of notability that cut across religious lines. Villages were often religiously mixed. Notables, known as the a‘yan, dominated the self-representation of their communities. Great families controlled different regions of Mount Lebanon and formed an interdependent trans-sectarian elite. They were separated from the ahali, or common people, by an almost impermeable barrier which was reinforced by customs of clothing, language, title, land holdings and marriage alliances. The notion of a unified, territorially demarcated nationalism of adherents of a particular religion that transcended kin, village or region was absent.

During the course of the nineteenth century, demographic changes in favor of the Christian population, increasing European penetration and economic incorporation into European markets inspired local elites to make appeals to the European powers along religious lines to legitimate their position in rapidly changing circumstances. Both the Maronite and Druze elites sought to cohere an exclusively religious definition of community, where loyalties of kinship, region and village were subsumed by an overarching religious solidarity. The sect or ta’ifa became the quasi-nation defined against other ta’ifas.

The deployment of religion-based politics by the elites inadvertently opened the possibility of popular mobilization along communal lines. Unlike the old regime where one’s social rank was determinate in local society, sectarian discourse lent itself to a variety of often contradictory uses. The elites tried to project a stable and ordered vision of the religious nation, while popular elements sought to appropriate religious discourse for social liberation, as in an 1858 peasant uprising in Mount Lebanon led by Maronite peasants against Maronite landlords. The resulting religious mobilizations and politics on both elite and popular levels illustrated the incompleteness and fragility of the ta’ifa as nation. Precisely because the meaning of religion as an exclusive base of identity was new, its coherence was constantly undermined by continuities of old regime definitions of identity that stressed region or family. As a result, despite the appearance of two sides during the 1840-1860 period, one Maronite and one Druze, there were in fact intra-communal contestations over what a “true” Maronite or Druze was. These generated violent, complex and protracted struggles among peasants, landlords and clergy.

Labeling the period between 1840-1860 as “sectarian,” the current Lebanese state has sought to limit discussion of this era due to the obvious burden it places on the narrative of national history. In the process, ironically, it has ignored the truly distinctive feature of that era: the violent entrance of the ahali into the politics of a socially hierarchical and extremely unrepresentative society, and the desperate desire of the feuding elites to maintain their power in the social order by trying to develop a viable narrative of ta’ifa as nation that at once excluded rival elites of different ta’ifas and sustained communal hierarchies.

State as Nation

The tensions between the popular and elitist understanding of the ta’ifa as nation persisted until World War I. Then a new and broader discourse of liberation and freedom emerged, partly in response to educational and socio-economic changes, the rise of an Arab print media, and Wilsonian principles of national “self-determination,” and partly in reaction to the Turkification policies pursued by the Young Turks. [9] In the context of the more direct massive European intervention, the Ottoman Levant was forced into the era of nation-states. Like the nineteenth-century discourse of ta’ifa as nation, however, the nationalist impetus, while originally foreign and European, took on regional permutations and was transformed by local elites. European insistence on essential differences between Christianity and Islam provided one of the key legitimating factors to their intervention in the Middle East. The French had an obvious interest in separating Lebanon from Syria; Henri Lammens’ vision was a poignant example of French colonial ideology that used invented cultural and historical narratives of the Lebanese “nation” to justify the imposition of the mandate system in the Middle East generally, and the creation of Grand Liban in 1920 specifically. [10]

The creation of Lebanon, however, could not have succeeded without the support of the Lebanese elites, particularly the Maronites who stressed their pro-French character. After 1920, the issue was no longer enshrining the ta’ifa as a nation but forging a Lebanese nation-state composed of many ta’ifas. The Maronites used their historical ties to the French and their alleged numerical superiority to present themselves as the natural leaders of an independent Lebanon -- one that had existed for centuries as a refuge for persecuted minorities. By then the Druze had been eclipsed politically and demographically by the Sunnis, who formed the largest Muslim community in Grand Liban; Sunnis, for the most part, rejected the idea of Lebanon and favored a pan-Arab nation, specifically a Greater Syria.

Despite the contradictions between Lebanese and Arab nationalist discourses, both were self-avowedly modern in their use of the language of liberation, freedom and natural rights. While the “people” formed the basis of nationalist ideology, in reality the popular participation did not fundamentally impinge upon the continuity of elite politics and rivalries. [11]

Sectarianism as the Nation

The creation of the Lebanese republic in 1926, which gave the Maronite elites of Lebanon the lion’s share of the power, was supplemented in 1943 by a “National Pact” which began the era of formal independence. Presented to the people as a fait accompli, the National Pact, itself a result of elite compromises, essentially legitimated a system of patronage and a division of spoils among the elites of the new nation-state, thus betraying the inability to locate a genuinely national base. The Maronite elites were guaranteed the presidency, the Sunnis the prime ministership and the Shi‘a the speakership of Parliament. [12]

The molding of nationalist politics onto an Ottoman social order created a sectarian nationalism and the politics of nationalist elitism. [13] The problem of how to integrate the masses into the new nation without opening the realm of backroom politics became the central concern of the elites. Electoral and personal status laws were regulated by the religious affiliation such that to be Lebanese meant to be defined according to religious affiliation. There could be no Lebanese citizen who was not at the same time a member of a particular religious community.

Given the failure of state officials to extend their reach to predominantly Shi‘a areas in southern Lebanon and northern regions like ‘Akkar, the nationalist project of Lebanon remained inseparably linked to state-affiliated elites, who dispensed jobs, paved roads and brought electricity to their own regions. The “sectarian balance,” based on the 1932 population census, paralyzed the government and reinforced the system of patronage. Corruption served as the effective social security system of the Lebanese. Benefits could not be obtained simply on the basis of citizenship rights because jobs, housing, telephones and education were guaranteed not by the state but through appeals to deputies and ministers and presidents who were themselves appointed or elected according to sectarian laws. [14] In this sense, sectarianism, which undermines the secular national ideal and creates subversive religious loyalties, is umbilically tied to the 1943 National Pact which institutionalized the modern, independent Lebanese state.

As a result of the creation of an elite-dominated sectarian Lebanon, popular mobilization occurred on two fronts, often simultaneously. On the one hand there has been intellectual and working-class dissent. A rash of strikes and political unrest, which cut across religious lines, culminated in the early 1970s in massive worker and student demonstrations seeking to break the domination and vested interests of the national elites. The issues at stake in the Ghandour strike in 1972, for example, were basic enough: Workers demanded wage increases to keep up with inflation, the reduction of shifts from ten to eight hours and the right to unionize. The government’s response was to call in the internal security forces, which promptly crushed the strike. The government licensing of the Protein Company in 1975, which threatened to give it a monopoly of the fishing industry, unleashed more violent protest by poor fishermen.

Another form of popular unrest soon came to the fore, organized along sectarian lines and exacerbated by the presence of the PLO. The militia politics which gripped Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 were, at least in part, another manifestation of popular mobilization against the elite-dominated Lebanese state. This popular sectarianism accentuated the untenable contradictions upon which the nation was anchored. Whereas compromises between the elites were meant to divide power among different communities, they in fact divided power among the elites of various communities at the expense of the divided and disenfranchised majority. Whereas the elites compromised in the hope of containing sectarian conflicts, many of the citizens used sectarianism to express their discontent with the product of elitist compromises. This was the logic of the recent civil war in Lebanon.

The militias took sectarian politics to their logical and destructive conclusion. Wartime sectarianism was popular and sect-transcending; transgressions were simultaneously directed against their own elites as much as against other communities. Both the violence and the positions taken against it loosened social boundaries. The bomb shelters became wartime parliaments, where the great and the small were finally forced to rub shoulders. [15] The state’s total collapse was evidenced by the inability to provide electricity and water, not to mention voting or security. The nation, however, survived. If nothing else, militia rule empowered some non-elites. That the target of most of the militias’ fury resulted in the suffering of other ordinary citizens, and that the wealthy emigrated with most of their wealth intact, should not obscure the fact that militia politics were, in part, popular gratification at the expense of national elitism. Sectarianism was as much a repudiation of the social hierarchy as it was a collapse of the Lebanese state that had been created by the National Pact.

The war, to be sure, forced changes among various leaderships, but this did not ultimately change the style of leadership. The war ended with a new National Pact called the Ta’if agreement -- another mysterious backroom deal without popular participation through referendum and, like the 1943 pact, imposed as another fait accompli. In the post-war period, the new elites epitomize the politics of the past. In many cases they are the same individuals or from the same families. While a discourse of democracy and national unity has reemerged, the dynamics of a democratic society have faltered. The Lebanese state has been resurrected, but as in the pre-war period it is again paralyzed by elite feuds and the neglect of the ordinary citizens, nearly a third of whom are estimated to live in poverty. [16]


Capitalizing on public revulsion of the war, there has been a disingenuous call by certain government leaders to “abolish” sectarianism and to efface all traces of the war. The government has declared a return of “legitimacy” (shar‘iyya) over all of Lebanon. It has also reinscribed the confessionally based hierarchical social order while reconstructing the nation-state.

Instead of educating citizens, the director of the government-mandated history project recently stated that the approved history of Lebanon “must eliminate everything that creates conflict between Lebanese” in order to facilitate the healing process. Only later, he said, “can we raise the truth dosage.” [17] Sectarianism, however, is a problem not of the past but of the present. Although it is constructed as the dark, deviant underside of the nationalist narrative, sectarianism is a nationalist creation that dates back no further than the beginnings of the modern era when European powers and local elites forged a politics of religion amid the emerging nation-state system. Its remedy comes not in setting up the executioner’s scaffold, as the Lebanese president said recently, but in reflecting on the meaning of sectarianism in a country where the citizen is given little choice between the exclusionary politics of the elites or a self-destructive gratification born of rebellion against the resurrected confessional social order.


[1] As witnessed by its use to describe developments in the former Soviet Union and former Yugoslavia, “Lebanonization” has come to refer to any process of national disintegration and failed modernization throughout the world.
[2] See Leila Fawaz, An Occasion for War: Civil Conflict in Lebanon and Damascus in 1860 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1994); Theodor Hanf, Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon: Decline of a State and Rise of a Nation (London: I. B. Tauris, 1993).
[3] Gyanendra Pandey, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992).
[4] Ahmad Beydoun, Le Liban: ltineraire dans une guerre incivile (Paris: Karthala, 1993), p. 22.
[5] See Kamal Salibiin, A House of Many Mansions: History of Lebanon Reconsidered (London: I. B. Tauris, 1988), p. 134.
[6] Henri Lammens, La Syria: precis historique (Beirut: Dar Lahad Khater, 1994 (1921)), p. 365.
[7] This is part of a wider study of sectarianism that is the subject of my unpublished doctoral thesis, “Fantasies of the Possible: Colonialism and the Construction of Communalism in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon.”
[8] Partba Chatteljee dealt with the subject of how the colonial government in India tirelessly sought to “unambignously” classify the Indian population into coherent castes that defied the complex and often “uncolonizable” voices of actually existing Indian people. See Partba Chatteljee, The Nation and lts Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 220.
[9] The ideologies of the Young Turks are very well described by Sukru Hanioglu in The Young Turks in Opposition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). See also Rashid Khalidi, “Ottomanism and Arabism in Syria Before 1914: A Reassessment” in Rashid Khalidi, Lisa Anderson, Muhammad Muslih and Reeva S. Simon, eds., The Origins of Arab Nationalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991).
[10] An independent Lebanon, wrote Lammens, was the only guarantee “to allow full liberty” for the Lebanese, whose Christianity required a separate republic that could be protected from Muslim domination. The declaration of Grand Liban signified France’s sacred duty to help Syria and Lebanon “develop” independently. Lammens, p. 300.
[11] James L. Gelvin has written an important essay on the populist dimension to the rise of Arab nationalism in Damascus that moves away from elite-based analyses to stress what he calls a “populist political sociability” that explains the emergence of Arab nationalism as a mass-based ideology. “Social Origins of Popular Nationalism in Syria: Evidence for a New Framework” International Journal of Middle East Studies 26 (1994).
[12] Farid el-Khazen, The Communal Pact of National Identities: The Making and Polities of the 1943 National Pact, Papers on Lebanon 12 (Oxford: Center for Lebanese Studies, 1991), p. 5. A significant amount of work has been done on the persistence of “feudalism” in post-1943 Lebanon. Set forth in Michael Hudson, The Precarious Republic (New York: Random House, 1968), the topic has continued to generate interest by scholars such as Samir Khalaf, Lebanon’s Predicament (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987) and Tabitha Petran, The Struggle Over Lebanon (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987). The most recent contribution to this is Michael Gilsenan’s study of power in twentieth-century northern Lebanon, Lords of the Lebanese Marches: Violence and Narrative in an Arab Society (London: I. B. Tauris, 1996).
[13] Ahmed Beydoun has written an excellent book on the subject of the creation and manipulation of historical narratives in modem Lebanon, Le Liban, une histoire disputee: identite et temps dans l’historographie lihanese contemporaine (Beirut: Publications de l’Universite Libanaise, 1984).
[14] Gilsenen’s Lords of the Lebanese Marches vividly exhibits the contours of sectarianism and patronage politics by local landlords who subvert state institutions while at the same time run for office and are appointed ministers in the Lebanese government. See also Petran, pp. 35-37.
[15] Hashim Sarkis has discussed the “territorialization” of identities during the war by pointing out that the violence provided new “spatial opportunities” to redefine identities that emerged after and because of the onset of physical destruction. See Rasim Sarkis, “Territorial Claims: Architecture and Post-War Attitudes Toward the Built Environment,” in Samir Khalaf and Philip S. Khoury, eds., Recovering Beirut: Urban Design and Post-War Reconstruction (Leiden: Brill, 1993), pp. 100-127.
[16] “Lebanese National Report for the UN Summit on Social Development,” Copenhagen, March 1995.
[17] Quoted in Time International, January 15, 1996.

Filed under: