“Sectarianism and Post-Sectarianism in Theory and Practice” – In Conversation with Professor Bassel F. Salloukh

Professor Bassel F. Salloukh is a scholar of political science based at the Lebanese American University. The recent ‘revolutionary’ events in Lebanon and Iraq gave his talk on sectarianism in the Middle East an immediacy which, combined with his deep knowledge of the subject, held the audience at Jesus College closely engaged. Given the intricacy and sensitivity of studying such a subject in situ, a degree of external pressure is only to be expected. Sitting down to talk with Manara after the event, he gave an example of such pressure: “I tweeted one time something about how a newspaper was covering the news. And immediately I was attacked … by bots and so on.” However, there are also obvious benefits to researching within Lebanon, as he explained: “I’m not one who would say that living in the region gives you the kind of insight that scholars who are outside the region cannot get. Living in the region or in the country certainly allows you to be in touch with a particular feeling and nuance. But that comes at a price – to always be careful that you can hear all the voices, and that you give expression to all of the different visions or views of Lebanon that are out there. That’s very important. I wouldn’t say that you have to live in the country to understand – that I think is a radical and extreme position. In fact, in my training as a graduate student, I learnt the most about theory and method from professors who were living outside of the region.

… It’s a very fine balance. I know a lot of people who study Lebanon from the outside who know Lebanon much better than people living in Lebanon. And the same goes for Syria or Yemen and other countries.”

The possible obstacles to such a study are even more evident given Professor Salloukh’s obvious commitment to an impartial academic analysis of sectarian divisions. In his lecture, he spoke of the ‘political economy of sectarianism’, arguing that the divisions are as much about the holding and usage of power as about differences between communities. This ‘political economy’ ensures that Lebanon’s sectarianism is ‘self-reinforcing’, despite the frequent lack of desire among ‘subaltern’ groups, such as poor Shi’a Muslims, to divide along sectarian lines. Salloukh emphasised this point further, saying, “One of the greatest lessons we have learnt from Iraq and Lebanon today is that often what are marketed as uber-sectarian communities are not like that.”

Another topic discussed was social media: it can act to bring communities together across sectarian lines, but Salloukh explained that it can also do the very opposite. “[Social media] is a place where there is a lot of sectarian demonisation going on. But it’s also a place which allows people in different parts of the country who think alike to connect. So, for example, me sitting in Beirut could not know what’s going on in the south of the country or in Tripoli without Twitter. Having said that, the amount of sectarian trash you see on Twitter makes you wonder where these people live. So, it’s both; it can be a source of empowerment, for you to realise that there are all these people that are contesting sectarianism. But, with new technologies such as bots, it can be a very disciplinary media in the sense that some people are afraid to tell their opinion because they will be attacked massively by these bots.”

In more general terms, Salloukh spoke of the need for a ‘grand geopolitical bargain’ in the region. However, given the recent US-Iran tension in the region; the related failure of the Iran nuclear deal; and the continued blockade of Qatar, the prospects for multilateral agreements to solve sectarianism in the Middle East are not promising. Thus, in Salloukh’s view such a ‘bargain’ must be combined with a shedding of sectarian identities at the grassroots: “The grand bargain is at the level of the region, the geopolitical. And that’s because if you want to explain the sectarian wave after 2011, you simply cannot do it in the region without taking into consideration the sectarianisation of geopolitical battles. People don’t like to use this term, but it was instrumentalised. So how do you reverse this? You reverse it by reducing geopolitical tensions and the value of sectarianised geopolitical battles. That said, the problem is that at the level of the everyday life, once you politicize sectarianism, it can take on a life of its own. That’s where you need to deal with it at a local level.”

Professor Bassel F. Salloukh moderating an event at the Lebanese American University, Beirut, Lebanon. Credit: www.lau.edu.lb
Professor Bassel F. Salloukh moderating an event at the Lebanese American University, Beirut, Lebanon.
Credit: www.lau.edu.lb

Considering the point further, he explained that “the grand bargain will not happen without the role of international actors. But what has happened in Iraq and Lebanon in the past months shows the desire of people to imagine a very different country and a very different existence. Now the problem is that, particularly in the case of Iraq, the external actors are so powerful and so dominant. I think in the case of Lebanon, it’s the domestic factors take on a life of their own. I don’t buy the argument that in Lebanon what happened is really organically connected to external battles. I think that the real dynamics are internal. And that’s the difference between Lebanon and Iraq. In one country you have a settled political field, to use Bourdieu’s language, and in another, Iraq, you have an unsettled one. So, there are all these overlapping domestic and external contests over Iraq. In Lebanon, the dynamics today are much more domestic than anything else. The political elite wants us to think that this is all part of an external conspiracy, but that’s not the case.”

In fact, he expanded, “in Lebanon, from day one you had two battles going on. One between the community that is imagining itself outside the sectarian system and the sectarian system, and the other inside the sectarian system between different sectarian actors. And it’s the [participants in the] second battle which want us to believe that this is all part of an external conspiracy and so on.”

This overlapping of internal dynamics with wider geopolitical factors complicates further an already unpredictable region. There are certainly many actors with stakes in the sectarian picture of the Middle East, but perhaps Israel has a larger stake than any other. On this final point, Salloukh had an optimistic view of the future, taking into account the difficult reality of the present: “[This problem is similar] to the question that was asked twenty years ago: Would democracy in the Arab world lead to peace with Israel or be a threat to its security? I think Israel must be part of this grand geopolitical bargain…but when we talk about post-sectarianism, we are really talking about peoples who want to prioritise their socio-economic needs. And there are so many socio-economic problems in the Arab world. The real issues in the Arab world today are unemployment, youth unemployment, economic stagnation and problems. I don’t think anyone entertains wars. We’ve lost so many resources in the past one hundred years that I don’t think post-sectarianism will be a threat to Israel.”

“On the contrary, communities want to go back and rebuild themselves [focusing] on the need for prosperity, for justice.”

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