Sectarianism: Lebanon's evil
Sami Ofeish
Sectarianism and the sectarian system (al-nizam al-ta'iffya) were considered by some scholars and Lebanese political contenders as major contributors to Lebanese conflicts.

Sectarianism is a complex phenomenon. It is not necessarily synonymous with religiosity. These concepts should be differentiated from each other with an eye on the situational nature of sectarianism. One difference is that, while sectarianism may imply some intolerance of them (sectarian) "others" and encourage feelings of competition with them, religiosity does not necessarily imply intolerance. Moreover, religiosity may be personal, dormant, and passive in many instances. History has shown many cases of the existence of a significant degree of tolerance among religious groups.

Another difference is that a sectarian person is not necessarily a religious person in practice, behavior, and attitudes. To the contrary, it is common to find people in Lebanon who have strong sectarian feelings and may exhibit sectarian behavior, but who are secular in terms of their daily conduct and general attitudes - including many who are non-practicing Muslims and Christians. It is also common to find a person who may act in a sectarian or religious way but have secular positions on some issues.

Moreover, religious conflicts have in many cases involved an attempt to convert the "others," to subdue them on a religious basis, or even to separate permanently from them. This has rarely been the case in Lebanon since the initiation of the sectarian system. The civil war period in particular witnessed calls for separation by Christian-concentrated right wing militias or for the creation of a religious state introduced by Islamist groups. But these ideas were and are unpopular and are usually considered inapplicable and extremist.

Sectarian arguments do not necessarily reflect religious dogmas, although they may use them heavily at times. Sectarianism is mainly a political tool whose advocates often exaggerate the significance of "ethnic" markers in sectarian communities in order to stress their differences and promote an identity of each community versus others.

The proponents of sectarianism may shift tactics and arguments, sometimes drastically, to achieve power ends. For example, during the 1975-82 period some predominantly Christian sectarian right wing forces called frequently for "autonomy of Christian regions" or partitioning of Lebanon, at times citing the inherent religious differences from Muslims as a cause for separation. But when the Israeli invasion in the summer of 1982 tilted power to the advantage of these groups their presidential candidate, Bashir Jemayel, campaigned on the basis of reuniting the "10,452 square kilometers," that is, all Lebanese territories.

Sectarianism in Lebanon's case cannot be simply explained by the fact that sectarian communities exist. In other words, sectarianism is not a "natural" byproduct of the presence of sects, as some scholars had assumed or argued. If so, then sectarian systems would have been more common in other states, including Middle Eastern states, where more than one sect exist and societal tensions are rampant.

The vast literature on ethnicity is very useful to our understanding of sectarianism. Studies of ethnicity in its broader context, including groups differentiated along racial origins, cultural backgrounds, and religious affiliations, address the causes for the rise of ethnicity and ethnic mobilization. Of the two major approaches that address ethnicity and ethnic mobilization, the instrumentalist approach is more viable than the primordialist approach in explaining Lebanon's sectarianism.

The primordialist approach tends to consider sectarian mobilization as inherent and given based on the existence of sects, whereas the instrumentalist approach allows for explaining fluctuations in mobilization in association with other socioeconomic and political factors. Most studies on sectarianism in Lebanon use the primordialist approach, and the few who use the instrumentalist approach have mainly explored specific affects or dimensions of sectarianism.

Sectarianism is purposeful rather than coincidental. It is not an independent but a dependent variable, largely dependent on the interest of the elite in reaching and maintaining power. If we examine historically the development of the sectarian system since its inception in 1843, it becomes clear that it was carefully promoted at its different stages by an emerging or an established elite interested in power.

Lebanon's elite in general are interested in sectarianism because it is a useful tool for control. As such, it serves two major purposes. First, it creates a solid constituency for the elite. This constituency is composed mainly of lower and middle class co-religionists who are led to believe that their access to resources is dependent on their association with the elite in a client-patron relationship. Second, it allows the elite to diffuse demands for reforms raised by the lower and middle classes. The elite would achieve their goals if they succeeded in dividing these classes along sectarian lines, thus encouraging them to compete with one another for access to resources.

Sectarianism is institutionalized in a sectarian system that highlights sectarian communities as primary societal units and political entities. As a result, the state largely confines political representation to the boundaries of "sectarian representation."

The dominance of the elite over their co-religionists is legitimized by the "fact" that they "represent" their interests. Moreover, the state tries to redirect the anger caused by the growing inequalities between the upper and the popular classes, and within different segments of the population, into intra-class anger within the popular classes molded as sectarian tensions.

Although the elite compete over resources, and would enhance their positions if they secured continuous (sectarian) popular support, they would usually like to keep the mobilization of the popular classes within safe limits. Thus the privileged elite usually emphasize stability and maintenance of the sectarian balance. In other words, they are interested in controlling the emerging tensions of the popular classes and guaranteeing themselves continuous access to resources. So popular attempts to challenge, modify, or abolish the sectarian system are usually blocked by the exploiting elite for the alleged sake of safeguarding the national interest (al-maslaha al-wataniyya) or national unity (al-wihda al-wataniyya).

Sectarianism could be initially identified here as an elite-promoted mode of differentiation among religiously affiliated members of the society in terms of access to power and control over resources. Although this differentiation is primarily a perceived one on the popular level, it may materialize in association with the competing elite interests in building a solid constituency among their co-religionists. The main goals of sectarianism are diffusing the popular classes' demands for reforms aimed at alleviating their deteriorating conditions and redirecting their activism into intra-class competition that weakens their abilities for change and advances elite control over them.