Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Nadim Shehade’s interesting take on “Sectarianism”

Posted by worriedlebanese on 27/04/2011

Nadim Shehade, made an extremely interesting contribution last week to a discussion launched by Elias Muhanna on his blog Qifa Nabki. I was at first struck by the way he introduced the subject. It reminded me of the clumsy attempt I had made a couple of years back to respond to Nawaf Salam’s take on Lebanese sectarianism when I told him that it is of no surprise to “observe” sectarianism when one is looking through sectarian tainted glasses. By that I introduce my approach of distinguishing between different dynamics (regionalism, factionalism, ideology, economical interests, clientelism…), and not blurring the differences by putting them under the same heading.  
Please read carefully this text by the former director of Oxford’s Centre for Lebanese Studies and present researcher at Chatham House. He pinpoints all the methodological errors and assumptions most of us make when looking into countries with deep or significant communal divisions. 

Sectarianism, like beauty, is more often than not in the eye of the beholder. One can interpret a situation as ‘sectarian’ and there may be some elements in it that are related to tension between sects; but the underlying causes and drivers may be totally secular.

There are three ways of looking at it:

  1. As a perspective related to the observer who sees sectarianism everywhere.
  2. As a reality on the ground – where tensions are real and incidents have sectarian dimensions
  3. In relation to the political system and how it deals with divisions and whether it increases or decreases sectarian tensions.

There are so many myths that would fall just by distinguishing between these three points.

In Syria for example: Is the regime really Alawi? Is the system ‘secular’?
Similar questions for Lebanon and for Iraq.

Analysts on Iraq emphasised sectarian divisions, whereas intra-sectarian divisions were as important. In the end are these not legitimate political divisions in which sect plays a part?

In Lebanon, the system is ‘confessional’ or sectarian. But the reality on the ground is a division which is deeply political between two very legitimate world views which divide every ‘sect’, every community and even every family. It is the beholder who chooses to give it a label of sectarian, that March 8 are ‘Shiaa’ or Shiaa means Hizballah. The Christians are ‘divided’? who said they have to be united in the first place? because they are Christian they have to be united, so the sectarian glasses do not fit with reality and we conclude that they are divided.
When politicians play with the electoral law to gerrymander the result, is that sectarian?
Is power-sharing sectarian? maybe such a system has allowed for political divisions to become more significant.

Going back to Syria – There is a network that dominates which has an interest in perpetuating the system. It is too simple to say that this is a Alawite dominance, there is hegemony by a network of a family that happens to be Allawite and has coopted many people from all other sects – Sunnis, Christians, Ismailis, Druze, etc.. etc..

The tautology of the argument is the following: A society that is composed to many sects cannot have democracy because of the sectarian divisions – a ‘secular’dictatorship would put the lid on it. But the other side of that coin is that this same society would not contain all these sects in the fist place had they not been able to coexist all that time.

[In Turkey] The Turkish model of secularism is also that Attaturk, in order to have a secular and cohesive society, had to get rid of the Armenians, the Greeks, the Assyrians, the Arabs and the Kurds.

I want to suggest that the present ‘secular’ regime in Syria is likely to exacerbate sectarian tensions whereas a democratic power-sharing arrangement, similar to the ones in Lebanon and the one evolving in Iraq, would decrease such tensions.

2 Responses to “Nadim Shehade’s interesting take on “Sectarianism””

  1. Jhon said

    WL,

    I fully agree with Nadim’s assessment and I have followed his participation on QN and we had an interesting exchange…

  2. lirun said

    interesting..

    i never knew the turks got rid of arabs.. you learn something every day..

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