Anti-Sectarianism as a Counter History of the Middle East: An Interview with Ussama Makdisi

2021-03-24    |   

Anti-Sectarianism as a Counter History of the Middle East: An Interview with Ussama Makdisi
Ussama Makdisi

Ussama Makdisi is Professor of History and the first holder of the Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair of Arab Studies at Rice University. He has published widely on Ottoman and Arab history as well as on U.S.-Arab relations and U.S. missionary work in the Middle East. His first book, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in 19th Century Ottoman Lebanon (UC Press, 2000), is a foundational text in the critical study of sectarianism. More recently, he has written on anti-sectarianism in his book titled, Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World (UC Press, 2019). The following interview explores these themes in relation to Makdisi’s long-running contribution to understanding sectarianism in our region.


Legal Agenda (LA): In your first book, The Culture of Sectarianism, you argue that sectarianism is modern rather than ancient, and political rather than religious. How is that so?

Ussama Makdisi: I mean that the problem of sectarianism (al-ta’ifiyya) conceptually and politically was tied to its being constructed and construed as the opposite and antithesis of an allegedly cohesive national political community — at first Ottomanism, then various post-Ottoman forms of nationalism. “Sectarianism” is a neologism in modern Arab political vocabulary because it was coined to connote the undermining of a national community, quite unlike the older, European definition of sectarianism as the splintering away of sects from the universal church. To put it in different terms, sectarianism is not about religious difference, but the politicization of religious and ethnic difference in the modern era that privileged notions of equality, citizenship, nationalism, and sovereignty.


LA: To what extent is sectarianism in post-civil war Lebanon similar to, or different from, its founding moments, both in 1860 and later 1920?

Makdisi: Obviously, there was no Lebanon before 1920. The autonomous Mutasarrifiyya of 1861 of Mount Lebanon was born of imperial European-Ottoman negotiations in which Lebanese were not active participants and in which Mount Lebanon itself remained under Ottoman sovereignty. But this immediate post-1860 period was also when the problem of sectarianism began to first be identified by individuals such as Butrus al-Bustani who warned about the dangers of narrow sectarian partisan idolatry and fanaticism and called for national unity and communal harmony, and was one of the first to call for a separation of religious belief from statecraft. Despite Bustani’s calls, European powers and Ottoman officials agreed to use a new sectarian political calculus to create the elitist sectarian Administrative Council of Mount Lebanon under Ottoman sovereignty. After 1920, direct French colonial rule of the Mandate replaced Ottoman sovereignty with the notion of an independent Lebanese state under French colonial tutelage. Whereas for the Ottomans, political sectarianism was a concession to European power that reflected a diminishment of Ottoman sovereignty, for the European colonial powers political sectarianism was the essence of their plan to divide and dominate the post-Ottoman Arab East. In the case of Mandate Lebanon, political sectarianism was celebrated by Francophone and philocolonial individuals such as Michel Chiha to justify a pro-French Lebanese vassal state that divided power along elitist communal lines in a manner that clearly favoured Maronite political elites and Christians generally over Muslims. Note however two things that were clear as early as 1926: political sectarianism was so widely identified to be inimical to secular national unity that it had to be constantly justified and apologized for even by its leading proponents such as Chiha. The infamous 1926 clause in the Constitution (Article 95) specifically concedes that political sectarianism was a temporary measure and was to be superseded by the stronger mandate of equality irrespective of religious difference. However self-abnegating, sectarian, and philocolonial this Lebanese project of Chiha was in practice, it nevertheless was also a serious political project insofar as it posited one way to think of post-Ottoman sovereignty in a religiously and ethnically diverse part of the world. That is why, I think, Chiha was and remains alternatively venerated and detested so much. He refused to accept or believe in Arab nationalism which was a rival, and in an important sense, no less constructed and no less imagined a political project that has its own flaws, taboos, and silences, even if it had far more legitimacy among the majority of Arabs in particular moments in the 20th century.


My point, in any case, is that the sectarian elites of Lebanon set about building a country that favoured their interests. However, a crucial point is that Maronite elites and their French overlords also found ways to co-opt and lure Sunni, Druze, and Shia elites into a political sectarian system that had initially been set up by French colonialism but that outlasted this colonialism. In other words, what began as a French colonial project with willing Maronite disciples soon became — especially after 1943 — a conservative cross-communal Lebanese national project that pretended that it was on a path to an anti-sectarian future in the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s. This project failed, and its claims of progress proved illusory — and in the aftermath of the 1975-1990 war, the form of political sectarianism that emerged was even more cynical and unequal: fuelled, on the one hand, by egregious corruption and rampant neo-liberalism, and [on the other] by the parasitical class of sectarian warlords who hollowed out what was left of the Lebanese state. The tragedy and irony is that what began as a French-Maronite project in which sectarianism gradually cannibalized the state has now become a Sunni-Shi‘i-Maronite sectarian cadaver. 


LA: What is the role of the Maronite church in particular and religious institutions in general in founding the sectarian system? Do they still have the same role?

Makdisi: All religious institutions have been and remain complicit in the sectarian system. The Maronite church played a crucial role in legitimating a political system that favoured Maronite Christian political hegemony in Lebanon. The church lobbied for a separate Lebanon and for French colonial rule. More to the point, the sectarian system in place in Lebanon (and frankly across the Arab world) has continuously distinguished between secular citizenship and confessionally-based personal status laws; it has also undercut the principal of secular national education in favour of parochial and missionary separatism. The church was in favour of these provisions but so too were Sunni and Shi‘i Muslim religious establishments (the latter of which were legitimated openly by the French mandate). Yet the point that has to be stressed over and over again is that no matter how much the Maronite elites, including the church patriarchs and clergymen, were ardent advocates of a separate Lebanese state, it was the French colonial authorities who ensured this state came into being in the manner that it did. The 1926 Constitution after all is a colonial constitution that was drafted against the backdrop of the suppression of the massive anticolonial revolt in Syria. Today, the church plays a diminished role insofar as the Maronite elites were essentially defeated in the civil war. But political sectarianism has never been principally about the Maronite church or even religion as much as it has been about elite power sharing, the persistence of forms of patriarchy, and unequal resource distribution among a cross-confessional oligarchy that has upheld (however tenuously and increasingly absurdly) the idea of a common secular Lebanese citizenship and religiously mediated and manifestly unequal laws of personal status. And the last point in this regard, there is always the reality and possibility of liberation theology: so that we have had and can have again deeply pious people who offer an emancipatory anti-sectarian understanding of religion, not one that contributes to a clearly corrupt and bankrupt system as do the Maronite, Sunni, and Shi‘i religious establishments in Lebanon today.


LA: Your most recent book is about the history of co-existence rather than sectarianism in the Arab world. What prompted this shift? And what is the “ecumenical frame” that you introduce to understand anti-sectarian struggle in the region?

Makdisi: I wanted to shift how we think of modern Arab history: to not simply deconstruct a narrative of age-old sectarianism but to propose an alternative, critical, narrative of modern coexistence structured on principles of equal citizenship and secular equality. In simple terms, I wanted to accentuate the positive, not just deconstruct the negative. But not in a nostalgic romantic way, and still less in an insidious politically conservative way and, above all, not in the sense that Lebanese sectarian elites across the political spectrum manipulate the language of coexistence to mean inequality of secular citizens but equity of contending patriarchal communal structures that regulate an oppressive and unequal sectarian system. My point is that our modern history is an anti-sectarian one just as much as it is a sectarian one. It is one that many of us know, have experienced, have lived, but this story has hardly been narrated outside the tropes of Arab nationalism and anticolonialism. The latter two often obscure, deny, or denigrate religious or ethnic differences because they are constantly struggling against sectarian colonialism that sought to divide and rule. To emphasize anti-sectarianism is to underscore an aspirational and lived aspect of our rich history, and it poses a difficult question: How and on what basis does one create a common secular public space and order that upholds equality and emancipation? There were several different answers to this question — Arab nationalists answered in one way; the Lebanese sectarian ideologues in another; communists and islamists provided still other answers and so on. These new commitments to coexistence were quite different from older Ottoman and Islamic imperial forms because they assumed or accepted a new principle of equality, and because, in very different ways, these new commitments both recognized and confirmed religious diversity and at the same time sought to transcend sectarian difference by building a common state — hence my term the ecumenical frame (the Arabic term for ecumenical is maskuniyya; hence al-itar al-maskuni). As I say in the book, I wanted to track how the idea of equal citizenship between Muslim and non-Muslim in the Mashriq went from being unthinkable at the beginning of the 19th century, to imaginable by the end of that century, to unremarkable by the middle of the 20th century.


LA: Lebanese nationalism is often read in opposition to Arab nationalism by its proponents and critics alike. How do you depart from this approach in your book?

Makdisi: There are important differences between them that countless scholars, laypeople and activists have noted. The Lebanese form of nationalism was obviously more overtly philocolonial than the Arab form, and the idea of building a powerful sovereign postcolonial state, and the role of Islam in this state, far more obvious in the Arab form than the Lebanese form. But my point is that these contending nationalisms emerged from a common Ottoman ecumenical backdrop that first suggested the idea and concept of equality between Muslim and non-Muslim, both developed during the Mandate era, both maintained a common express commitment to the idea of secular citizenship and to highly gendered and religiously differentiated laws of personal status; both accepted religious diversity and claimed to supersede this diversity; and both have clear limitations, taboos, and elisions. The Lebanese form of nationalism instrumentalized the language of coexistence (al ‘aysh al-mushtarak) to cement one kind of hierarchy that privileged Maronite Christian elites, and to privilege communities over individuals and even the state; the Arab form(s) instrumentalizes the language of national unity and anti-imperialism to paper over divisions, to mask different hierarchies, and to privilege the state over citizens and certainly over disfavored minorities. The obvious counterpoint to both these nationalisms was and remains colonial Zionism, a project that was not only foreign to this region, but that has insisted on violently and systematically erasing the multireligious nature of Palestine in the name of  building an exclusively Jewish state. We are still living with the consequences of this devastating blow to the ecumenical frame.


LA: You also depart from classical historiographies of sectarianism by juxtaposing it with racism in the West. What are the benefits and limits of such a comparison?

Makdisi: I chose to juxtapose sectarianism and racism and communalism and tribalism because I see them as different manifestations of a common 19th century problem: how to reconcile modern sovereignty with equal citizenship and new, and often highly politicized, understandings of religious or ethnic difference. The modern problem of racism emerged at roughly the same time as the modern problem of sectarianism: both undercut notions of universal equality and emancipation in the modern era. By specifically juxtaposing racism and sectarianism, I wanted to do two other things: force my readers in the West to grapple with the fact that they are not ultimately more morally or ethically “advanced” than the Arabs, that their history of the struggle to achieve secular equality is deeply fraught and frankly frightening as much as it is inspiring in some aspects; and for my Arab readers to shed light on what most of them don’t know because we have been so brainwashed by orientalism and by self-hatred, the history of racism in the West being hugely consequential and ongoing. Most Arabs have no idea how widespread anti-Black race rioting was in the U.S. after emancipation — riots that put the Damascus massacres of 1860 in perspective. They don’t really know about Jim Crow segregation and have absolutely no idea about the virulence and persistence of the backlash to Black emancipation — let alone the whole story of Native Americans. Instead, they think about the “West” as if it were better. I understand, of course, the despair in our part of the world because of the tyranny of geopolitics, despotism, corruption, sectarianism, and colonialism. But my point is that we should realize that just as the fight to build an emancipated anti-sectarian future is constantly undermined but remains ongoing, so too are there parallel struggles to build anti-racist and anti-communalist futures — and as we see with the deplorable Trump and Modi, these struggles are constantly being undermined. But all these struggles must and will persist nevertheless.


LA: You are currently working on a new history of the King-Crane Commission of 1919. The inquiry surveyed the population of Syria, current Lebanese population included, on the question of self-rule. What do the commission’s findings tell us about the wishes of the population at the time? And what do you hope to achieve via this new reading?

Makdisi: The idea of self-determination proposed by U.S. president Woodrow Wilson was fundamentally racist and tied to a continuation of colonial rule, not its abolition. He very clearly thought that Anglo-Saxon powers were racially superior to Arabs and others, and had to lead allegedly inferior peoples to self-determination. But Wilson at least realized that old-style colonialism had led Western powers to war among themselves. Eventually the League of Nations was established along Wilsonian neo-colonial lines and was dominated by Great Britain and France after WWI — the U.S. Senate ironically rejected participation in the League. What is fascinating and beautiful about history is how this initial racist notion of self-determination enshrined in Article 22 of the League of Nations that created the Mandate system in the Middle East was immediately challenged and interpreted by people around the world in far more progressive and emancipatory ways: these included Arabs, of course, as the King-Crane Commission documented in 1919. As we know, our part of the world was colonized in the name of self-determination and Britain and France divided up the Mashriq, which was precisely what King-Crane warned against. And Britain legitimated colonial Zionism, which again was precisely what King-Crane warned against. This was a moment before Arabs were demonized in the West, but it was also a moment that saw our part of the world subjected to the last colonialism of the modern era. This history deserves its proper accounting. We need to know our own history and we need to narrate it ourselves. With complexity, without apology, and with empathy.


An edited version of this interview is available in Arabic.

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