Michael Young

Sectarian suicide

Demonstration for secularism in Lebanon.

This week, while driving in Beirut, I asked for the assistance of a parking attendant. Off to the side there was trash lying in the street that had apparently fallen off a truck. The attendant looked at the pile and made a remark associating it with a neighborhood in Beirut identified with a specific sectarian group.


It occurred to me that the young man, who must have been no more than 25 years old, remembered nothing of Lebanon’s civil war. If he had, he might have thought twice about succumbing to a nauseating sectarianism that can only bring misery, ruin, and regret.


A few years ago I wrote a book, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, in which I argued that sectarianism, for all its many faults, created a social reality that has enhanced Lebanese pluralism. Because the religious communities were stronger than the state, and because the state is the prime foe of liberty in the Middle East, Lebanon was freer and more open than surrounding countries. In the spaces created by sectarianism, individuals could generally act and think as they pleased, and I called this a paradoxical liberalism, because it emanated from the sectarian system, which is anything but liberal.


Just how illiberal this system is was brought home to me by the parking attendant. When communal tensions reach a breaking point, the ugly face of sectarianism rears its head, consuming all before it.


Most disturbing is that the reality is different. Take the mounting Sunni accusations against Shiites for pursuing sectarian objectives. But are things really all that clear-cut? Not really. In recent weeks there have been efforts by Shiite opponents of Hezbollah to condemn the party’s entry into the Syrian conflict. In a demonstration before the Iranian embassy organized by Ahmad al-Asaad’s Lebanese Option movement – one man, Hashim Salman, was shot and killed.


This came as other Shiite figures have become more vocal in their condemnation of Hezbollah, or have openly supported the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. One of these individuals is Sayyid Hani Fahs, a Shiite cleric who once backed Iran’s revolution. “Since its early days, I have always supported the uprising in Syria. Shiites must defend a position in line with their Arabism, Lebanese nationalism, and history: they have always been on the side of the oppressed against the oppressors,” he affirmed.  


In other words, sectarianism uses a wide brush to paint a far more nuanced condition, where the exceptions tell us a great deal. As Hezbollah embroils Lebanon in a war next door, Shiites are among the first to pay a price. Family members of Hezbollah combatants killed in Syria have already done so, while Shiites working in the Gulf are increasingly finding themselves targeted by the authorities there and being forced to leave, losing their livelihoods.


Even the parameters of sectarian discussion are vague. Many Lebanese are behaving today as if there were a long tradition of Sunni-Shiite animosity in the country. There isn’t, and the two communities essentially fought on the same side during the war years. In many (if not most) districts of western Beirut, Sunnis and Shiites live side by side. Any sectarian conflict would be traumatizing to both, tearing apart a longstanding urban social fabric.


Nor did Hezbollah really enter Syria for sectarian reasons. Its support for the Assad regime has much more to do with the party’s strategic interests, and its need to keep an open line of communication to the Syrian coast and its ports in the event of a conflict with Israel, than with any ideological-religious affinity with the Alawite community.


Some will recall that in 1973, Lebanese Shiite cleric Musa al-Sadr issued a fatwa saying that the Alawites were a branch of Shiite Islam. This came at a time when the minority Alawite-dominated Assad regime had released a draft constitution that failed to make reference to Islam as the religion of the Syrian state. Protests ensued and the regime, taken aback, sought religious legitimacy. Sadr, who was then building up his relationship with Damascus, obliged.


However, as scholar Fouad Ajami has noted, this was more a pragmatic political arrangement than a position anchored in any doctrine. “The Alawites were the bearers of an esoteric faith which Muslims, both Sunni and Shi[ite], put beyond the pale of Islam,” Ajami wrote in The Vanished Imam, his biography of Musa al-Sadr.


That is not to say that Syria’s Alawites today do not feel part of a broader coalition of forces stretching from Iran and through Iraq to Lebanon. Nor does it mean that members of this coalition do not share a sense of solidarity in the face of the Sunni majority in the region. But in drawing sharp sectarian lines, as some are prone to do these days, there is a tendency to play up the sectarian dimensions of this reality and to downplay the political rationale underlining it.


And once the ideological or religious dimension gains the upper hand, the counter-reaction is similarly ideological or religious, and the ability to control things becomes more difficult thereafter. It’s then that we see the bearded demagogues emerging from the woodwork, calling for jihad and claiming to speak in the name of God and of righteousness, brooking no compromise and refusing to flinch before all excess.


Once we are prisoners of a conflict defined by such people, we are truly lost. Lebanon is particularly prone to the manipulations of populist charlatans. Yet, we lived through a war that should have taught us more. Instead, those who led us then are now still with us today, but as powerful as ever. We didn’t learn at the time and we’re not learning now. Lebanon, it seems, is eternally drawn to the flame.


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon. He tweets @BeirutCalling.


Read this article in Arabic

A Lebanese rally for secularism in downtown Beirut in 2010 (AFP photo).

“In drawing sharp sectarian lines, as some are prone to do these days, there is a tendency to play up the sectarian dimensions of this reality and to downplay down the political rationale underlining it.”

  • MonkFish

    The co-option of the Alawites by Twelver Shiites in Iran and and Lebanon may have had a purely political rationale, but I fail to see how this particular case of inter-minority cooperation over shared interests and goals departs in any significant way from the standard schema of sectarianism. Shrewd realpolitik and dispassionate calculation has always been an integral part of sectarian politics. What makes politics "sectarian" isn't the trumping of economic and political interests by religion, it's construing everything IN TERMS of what is beneficial to the group rather than the nation as a whole. Sectarianism is a mindset to which the very notion of "common good" is fundamentally alien. Hanibaal, excellent post, thanks. I'd just add that the enshrining of collective freedoms and repression of individual freedoms within strictly bounded ethno-religious communities is the legacy of the Ottoman Millet system, which explains its continuing hold on the Lebanese law, politics and social mentalities. I'd also be wary of excessive praise of the Western championing of individual rights at a time when influential voices on the left and right are advocating the implementation in European nations of a very similar ideology of group rights and ethnic "divide and rule": multiculturalism. As for the psychological pathology fostered by dhimmi system, it may resemble the Stockholm syndrome, but the system itself is best described as a form of protection racket. Pay up or we will steal your belongings, break your legs, or, if you continue to resist, kill you. Islamic apologists frequently justify dhimmitude by saying that it "protects" Christians and Jews, but the question that is rarely, if ever asked, is "protect them from whom"?

    June 24, 2013

  • Tankie

    Ein Volk is little different from Mein Volk, Mr Youngling.

    June 23, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    .... and liberties WITHIN his own religious community. There are no justifications - no matter how much varnish one applies to them - to deny the fundamental and universal aspiration for genuine individual freedom, even in dysnfunctional Lebanon

    June 21, 2013

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    I would have expected better from a journalist like Michael Young than to invoke convoluted arguments in favor of sectarianism simply because he feels it cannot be defeated. This is typical fatalism by Arab journalists and others: the mindset of the Dhimmi - which is an institutionalized Stockholm Syndrome invented by Islam to subjugate other religions. The Dhimmi is someone who, while subjugated and oppressed, is given or finds rationales for the benevolence of his oppressor, thus accepting to live the life of a protected and well-fed -yet subjugated- domesticated animal. Mr. Young pushes the argument further,, bragging about the accomplishments one derives from being oppressed. While it is true that the negation of a strong national center by the religious communities creates more "freedoms" in Lebanon, these freedoms are very narrowly defined, and stunt the natural evolution of the country and society. More specifically, the freedoms and liberties as understood by Mr. Young and the Lebanese at large are NOT the universal freedoms and liberties as defined and practiced by truly liberal societies. Lebanese freedoms are NOT couched in the foundation of INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM which is the pillar of western societies in general, but rather are COMMUNAL FREEDOMS that protect the sect, but not the individual members of these sects. This is a pervasive feature of the Lebanese system. Parliament in Lebanon for example does not represent individual Lebanese citizens, but rather represents the sect to which Lebanese belong. As such, the Lebanese Parliament is more like a Senate than a House of Representatives. When a Lebanese Christian, for another example, demands his freedoms, he is thinking about the freedom of ringing the church bell on Sunday undeterred by Islamic edicts banning such a practice. He is not thinking about his own individual freedoms of expression or assembly. In fact, he will condone the repression of individual freedoms and liberties WITHIN his own religio

    June 21, 2013