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Syria, Lebanon and the roots of sectarianisation

The civil war in Syria and unrest in Lebanon may have deeper roots than meets the eye. In fact, they may very well be the tragic result of centuries of colonisation and secularisation, as recently emphasised by Walid Jumblatt.

Michael Degerald
27 August 2012

"…We are seeing the end of what was created 90 years ago. The consequences will be very, very, grave unless they are managed properly." 
- Walid Jumblatt, 15/8/2012      


With these words, Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese leader of the Progressive Socialist Party and one of the most prominent figures of the Druze community, was referring to very recent events – the sectarian kidnappings in Lebanon, that many are calling a spillover from the civil war next door in Syria. To many, Jumblatt’s comment may seem confusing or deliberately misleading. These events are a few days old, and the conflict in Syria is only reaching its staggering eighteenth month soon - but 90 years? Is he just an old man who should have retired long ago? What is he talking about?

If we backtrack in history, we have the Syrian revolutionary events, part of the larger Arab Revolutions that began in early January 2011 in Tunisia.  We should also include the events in Lebanon, as the two are heavily interconnected - the Civil War of 1958 and the Civil War of 1975-1990. We have the Assad regime, instituted by Bashar’s father Hafez, who came to power in the late 1960s in Syria. We have the Syrian state itself, granted full independence from France in 1946. Before that, it was part of the Ottoman Empire - now we’re getting closer to the time period Jumblatt was referencing. The Ottoman Empire was divided up by Britain and France at the end of WWI, along the lines established in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. This was when the borders of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and others were all drawn up. Okay, at this point - full disclosure - I admit that I have omitted part of Jumblatt’s quote. He also said '…this is the unravelling of the Sykes-Picot agreement.' Jumblatt’s direct statement cuts to the heart of the matter.

A map of the original Sykes-Picot Agreement. Flickr/prince_volin. Some rights reserved.

A map of the original Sykes-Picot Agreement. Flickr/prince_volin. Some rights reserved.

Yes, Jumblatt is talking about the division of borders after the Ottoman Empire broke down. He is very correct to point to this as a source of problems. But it is more than this - the processes of sectarianisation were very complex and varied.

All too often, various media oversimplify or misrepresent the nature of sectarianism. A recent NY Times piece is representative of the tendency to disconnect the conflict from the past along with the tendency to disconnect the problems from the legacy of colonialism:

“Lebanon has long been a country where international rivalries play out, and Lebanese security officials said Thursday that Syria’s 17-month-old conflict had pushed Beirut and the border regions closer to civil strife.” (16/8/2012)

However simple and attractive it may be to conclude that sectarianism is as old as the religions themselves, the best and most recent scholarship on the topic argues that different religious groups were sectarianised at different times in history, for different reasons. Ussama Makdisi is the most cogent and vocal scholar leading this claim. There was a complex web of factors that all impacted on the varying processes of sectarianisation, but in all cases colonial powers played a role, some knowingly, some unwittingly - in stimulating these processes. Before the processes of sectarianisation, any number of identities could have been more powerful than those tied to religion - one’s social class, regional identity, profession, and political views all were and remain strong sources of identity. So while Jumblatt is certainly correct to point to Sykes-Picot as the most obvious manifestation of colonial decisions permanently shaping (or misshaping) the Middle East, different regimes, both colonial and post-colonial have stimulated sectarianism for their own goals in terms of power.

The decision in the 1840s by Ibrahim Pasha to mobilise the Maronites to fight the Druze when the Druze were rebelling against Ottoman rule had a strong sectarianising effect as well. The intervention of 6,000 French troops on behalf of Christians in the 1860 War and the subsequent mutasarifiyya had the effect of further stimulating a growing sectarian divide instead of quelling it. Sami Zubaida describes these clashes between Maronites and Druze as “the politicisation of religious difference under the transformations of European power and Ottoman reforms.”

This was not the last time European powers would intervene, with power plays around the end of the Ottoman Empire culminating in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement mentioned by Jumblatt. This likewise failed to reverse the processes of sectarianisation and only throttled them. French policies that finally recognised Shi‘ite religious courts in the late 1920s had a huge impact on stimulating the communal identity of the Shi‘a in Lebanon several decades after the processes described above for the Maronites and the Druze.. Malik Abisaab also argues that French policies disproportionately supported the Maronites, and the French came down especially hard on Jabal ‘Amil, heavily populated with Shi‘a, especially post 1920, like the Bint Jubeil Revolt. These now-reified and all-too-tangible sectarian identities were the centre of the controversial 1932 census that Rania Maktabi has shown was conducted in a manner meant to count as many Christians as possible while not extending that benefit to other communal groups. This was also a huge part of the basis for the political sectarianism that seems so inescapable today.

However, this sectarianisation did not only happen under French or Ottoman colonialism.  Hafez Al-Assad was all too effective in his Machiavellian attempts to manipulate different groups against each other in his desire to hold onto power. He armed different groups on both sides of the Lebanese Civil War for years, prolonging the war and allowing his army to establish its presence in Lebanon. The war also had the effect of sectarianising public space, making the neighbourhoods of Beirut much more homogenous with regards to religious sect than they were before. Hafez Al-Assad also played different religious groups off against each other, stimulating sectarianism when it suited his needs. The Syrian occupation of Lebanon lasted for 30 years.

Thus, we should not be so shortsighted as to think that these clashes in Syria and Lebanon represent some atavistic and timeless propensity for sectarian violence. There has never been a complete break from colonialism, especially considering the continued influence of foreign money and troops inside Lebanon - which came to a head in the Syrian occupation that started in 1976 and the Israeli Invasion of 1982 that soon followed. I do not see it as a stretch to argue that this was a newer form of colonialism - one which played a huge part in spawning the now-powerful group Hezbollah, which has come to reshape the power relations on a local and regional level.

Jumblatt was quite perspicacious and wise to say what he did publicly - someone had to - and we must take his vision of the history of his country seriously. He is not throwing the blame or passing the buck - colonialism left Lebanon weak and divided and sectarian in a way that it hadn’t been before. In this way, Lebanon and Syria are going through a pernicious colonial hangover, one that unfortunately shows no signs of abating. If indeed Jumblatt is right and things get very bad, it would be the equivalent of a building with a flawed foundation finally coming down. This would certainly be a traumatic and destructive result. Unfortunately, the continued balance of power doesn’t offer respite from the problems and seems bound to perpetuate the sectarian processes and violence. We should also remember that just as this sectarianism was stimulated, similar forces in the future could stimulate a different kind of basis for identification. Given the expansion of neo-liberalism and its pernicious effects, a return to class-based identities could certainly be a possibility. Whatever the future brings, one can only hope that soon Lebanon and Syria will be able to move forward of their own volition, freed from the influences of all those outside who try to make Syria and Lebanon part of their empire. That will not solve all the problems, but it will get Syria and Lebanon on the path to sovereignty from a legacy of colonialism that still haunts them.

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