'In The Shadow Of Sectarianism': When US scholars produce a posteriori justifications for their country’s foreign policy

Sectarianism: a basic definition is ‘Being ideologically in the confines of one’s own sect’

This is a comment on an interview with MaxWeiss published on Jadaliyya around his book ‘In the shadow of sectarianism’.  It is not a comment on his book of the same title. 

Weiss : 
« I suppose the central question at the heart of my book is: How did the Lebanese Shi`a become sectarian? »
The hypothesis, as it is stated, rests on one of these two assumptions :
1)   Lebanese were sectarians and Shi'a were not but became sectarians later.
2)   None of the Lebanese communities became sectarians, only Shi'a did. 
From a methodological perspective, this is a question that already contain an answer which validates the hypothesis that Shi'a sectarianism is to be treated separately from others.

But because it is impossible to treat the question of Shi'a sectarianism separately from others, Weiss is forced to formulate a secondary hypothesis which appears as an ad hoc hypothesis by stating that his study of Shi'a sectarianism is a case study in sectarianism.  This secondary ad hoc hypothesis is acceptable in itself but doesn’t fit well with the main hypothesis as it is stated.
« Therefore, I concluded that there was some value in considering the institutionalization of sectarianism and Shi`ism together, as part of what might be called a sort of case study in the critical historical analysis of Lebanese sectarianism. »
Weiss couldn’t decide if his book is the study of Shi’a sectarianism as a case study of sectarianism in Lebanon or a study of Shi’a sectariansim without reference to other communities. In other words he is methodologically engaged, by definition, in studying sectarianism from a Shi'a sectarian perspective, within the confines of one sect.

The focal point of the book, Weiss says, is:
« that the Shi`i community in Lebanon became sectarian—which for me also meant starting to practice being sectarian—during the period of French Mandate rule (1918-1943) »
This was the period of the institutionnalisation of sectarianism in the Middle East for all sects under the French and the English mandates which took territories from the defeated Ottoman empire as ‘sacred trusts’ and transformed them into countries. One Wonder what’s in the Shi’a sectarianism for Weiss?

Weiss is interested in Shi’a sectarianism as sectarianism with regard to Sunnis, and not to other sects  in Lebanon, something that he doesn’t state openly in his interview but that is illustrated with a picture showing religious dignitaries from both sects. Weiss situates the rise of Shi’a sectarianism around the French mandate but does not attribute it to the French mandate.  Under the French mandate Shi’a assumed a more independant and visible role than during the Ottoman empire when they were persecuted, forced to convert, and displaced.  Normally, this is where one should search for the roots of Shi’a sectarianism.  Maybe Weiss does tackle the question in his book.  But I found it strange that there is not one occurrence for the word Sunni in Weiss’s interview in Jadaliyya.  I bet also that there is very little in his book.  
Ottoman rule was caracterised by religious tolerance but certainely not at the end when European countries started waging a war on the empire at its confines by heightening sectarian tensions.  Was the persecution of Shi’a the result of this process? 

Based on his argument that Shi’a sectarianism developed under the French mandate but was not the result of the French mandate, Weiss argues that there is ‘sectarianisation from below’ initiated by the community, as opposed to ‘sectarianisation from above’ imposed by rulers.  But by situating the start of Shi’a sectarianism with the French mandate, he completely obliterates the fact that  what he calls ‘sectarianism from below’ was provoked by persecutions before the French mandate which might be considered, in fact, as a sectariansim 'from above'.  And while he absolves the French from being at the origins of Shi'a sectarianism we don't know if he does the same for other sects.  It is notorious that the French are behind the structuring of the political system in Lebanon in a sectarian one and have played a role in the sectarianisation of the Shi'a 'from above' by instituting privileges for other sects.

But opening the question of Shi'a sectarianism to the Ottoman period and to sectarianism among other sects under the French rule might weaken Weiss's argument for a 'sectarianism from below'

What interests Weiss is modern history of Shi’a in Lebanon and ‘Alawi in Syria (on whish he is writing a book), in other words, the  Gordian knot of the ‘Shi’a crescent’ 
« By the time that Imam Musa al-Sadr arrived on the Lebanese scene in the late 1950s, therefore, a foundation for the mobilization of a specifically Shi`i politics was well in place. »

This is why he states that sectarianism, particularly in this case, is:
« built upon and shored up by certain institutions and practices, which might include parochial schools, the allocation of political positions according to sectarian metrics, the primacy afforded to communal law courts over and above other jurisdictions, and a deeply divided media environment » 
But when Musa al-Sadr arrives on the 'Lebanese scene' there are no strong institutions for Shi'a or deeply divided media environement between Shi'a and Sunnis.  At the time Shi'a called themselves Al-Mahroumin (The Deprived).  Shi’a were battered by a border war between  Israel and the Palestinians, forced to move again by Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, and left deprived by the state.  Here again, Weiss overlooks the persecution and deprivation factors in the construction of sectarianism,  and to take into account these two factors is to render the distinction between ‘sectarianism from above’ and ‘sectarianism from below’ totally useless because persecutions and deprivations come from above.

And while arguing that sectarianism could be ‘modified or undone’ he admits that once enshrined in institutions,
« It will be difficult, if not impossible, to combat or even defeat sectarianism in all its forms without clear-eyed attention to the array of institutional venues in which sectarianism has been and continues to be produced, nurtured, and sustained. »
And here he warns about Iraq.  
It is ironic that at the end of the interview in which he lays out his argument about Shi’a sectarianism, Weiss warns about Iraq.  Ironic because if there is a case for Shi’a secatarianism continually and exclusively nurtured from above, either through the English mandate, persecutions or, as of 2003, by an imposed ‘democracy’ without civil institutions (or sectarianism from below), it can be found in Iraq.   In fact Iraq might well be a perfect example of how Europe and the West played the sectarian game to finish off the Ottoman empire and how they continue to play it until today to further divide the remnants of this empire.  In the Middle East, it's been sectarianism 'from above' all the way from the fall of the Ottoman empire to the 'Arab Spring'.
By arguing for a sectarianism 'from below’ Weiss is doing nothing more than an a posteriori justification to the current western game of sectarianism in the Middle East and his hypothesis is no more then a fallacy containing its own confirmation leaving out the main factors in the radicalisation of identities around communities and sects; persecutions, deprivations and fear.  The same is true of excessive privileges.  Where Shi'a sectarianism have been provoked by persecutions, other sectarianisms were provoked by excessive privileges given from above. Sectarianism cannot be treated as a phenomenon of one sect only, it plants its roots wherever there is deep inequality elevating barriers between self and other and between communities.

Update:  I found this review of Weiss's book by Alexander Henley There are at least two other reviews of this book and I will try to make them available on this post soon.
P.S.  Upon reading the interview, I was angry that not only Jadaliyya published an interview on a book that is a propaganda for US foreign policy among scholars and university students promoting sectarianism as part of who we are, but that they didn't bother asking the author questions that should have been asked.  Weiss seems also incapable of speaking about the Middle East without the lens and language of sectarianism.

No comments:

Since March 29th 2006