Sectarian discourse maintaining the Lebanese status quo

Sectarian discourse maintaining the Lebanese status quo
5 min read
21 Apr, 2016
Comment: It is not surprising that public appetite for protests is weak, given the emphasis on sectarian narratives that have reduced communal welfare to insignificance, says Karim Barakat
Intellectual discourse has served the interests of the ruling class for decades [AFP]

Forty-one years after the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war, the country continues to exist under a corrupt political establishment with the threat of war looming and the fear of its return serving to preserve the status quo.

Recent civil rights movements protesting against the government's inability to resolve an eight-month rubbish collection crisis and the various failings of the ruling class, have been rather unfruitful. In fact, the lack of public participation has weakened the impact of such movements and encouraged intellectuals to pin responsibility on the population.

This has shed light on the apathy of the masses, who remain captive to the rhetoric of the same warlords who took part in the civil war between 1975 and 1990, and who continue to rule with only their personal interests at heart.

But while their despondent attitude may be justified, it is important to take a moment to examine the role Lebanon's intellectuals have played in maintaining the existing state of affairs.

A disappointing show of public participation

A wave of criticism blaming the public for the absence of political transformation has recently emerged following the toned down protests demanding an end to the corruption plaguing the Lebanese state.

The idea that the source of the all-permeating corruption is the people's willingness to live under such conditions is a correct assumption, and an insight that was first presented by the French judge Étienne de La Boétie in the 16th century.

The persistence of the present situation and the distribution of power between the various ruling parties in Lebanon is only able to continue thanks to the public's overwhelming consent.

Whereas a true uprising would certainly be capable of dismantling the existing fragile political structures, it seems clear that the ruling class with its different factions, retains the support of the majority of Lebanese citizens.

Placing responsibility solely on public indifference, however, fails to account for the complex set of mechanisms that reproduce sectarian identities and maintain an isolationist, narrow perspective of political affairs. The problem at hand is first and foremost the product of an essentialist understanding of allegiance, which values the interests of the sect above civil wellbeing.

The political vacuum that the absence of state leaves behind is filled with a feudal hierarchy that invites allegiance to separate individuals

As such, the demand for a "people's uprising" has attempted to counter the visceral identification with the sect through invoking a populist discourse that focuses on what the "people" want. The truth of the matter, however, is that there is no single and unified "people" to whom we can appeal. The people can only emerge as a somewhat unified whole with the presence of a strong functional state that actively represents the various interests of the social body.

In its absence, as is the case with Lebanon, we are left with separate factions with conflicting allegiances. The political vacuum that the absence of state leaves behind is filled with a feudal hierarchy that invites allegiance to separate individuals. In accordance with this, whereas the absence of a state leads to the fragmentation of sectarianism, this in turn reinforces indifference to the welfare of the community.

But the solution to this problem cannot lie in simply dismantling feudal and tribal relations. Unfortunately, the alternative to these allegiances in many cases remains a return to religious fundamentalism rather than unity under the demands of the people. The fear of fundamentalism further bolsters the need to maintain the status quo and limits political manoeuvers to narrow confines.

The responsibility of the intellectuals

Expressing disappointment and hopelessness at the people's condition and apathy, however, is not entirely justified. Intellectuals who now call for change have often played a considerable role in fortifying sectarian allegiances. This has appeared in powerful discourses that relegate civil concerns to secondary ones by elevating the sanctity of protecting the sect.

Parliamentary elections, therefore, no longer seem to be necessary as their scope has been limited to reinstating the same representatives. It is noteworthy that the last elections took place in 2009.

By priviliging the sanctity of traditional rhetoric at the expense of civil rights, intellectual discourse has served the interests of the ruling class for decades. In the 19th century, Karl Marx had already noted the role that ideology - defined as the ideas of the ruling class - plays in maintaining the structures of domination.

In the case of Lebanon, this has appeared in the form of the various discourses attached to each political group, whether it is through emphasising the need to protect Hizballah's resistance, preserving the legacy of former president Rafic Hariri, or through respecting the rights of Christians.

But in the meantime, a sliver of hope is emerging with the development of political activity that champions the public concerns of health, electricity, clean water and proper waste disposal systems, in addition to civil rights

Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that shaming the masses into participating in protests will be of no avail following decades of reducing communal welfare to insignificance.

Instead, the role of intellectuals today must be primarily focused on accounting for the conditions that propagate complacency, which has been in part a product of their own discourse. Identifying these conditions will offer the means to battle them and present alternatives to the current state of domination.

But in the meantime, and while such scholarly efforts remain under-developed, a sliver of hope is emerging with the development of political activity that champions the public concerns of health, electricity, clean water and proper waste disposal systems, in addition to civil rights.

This initiative, running under the banner of Beirut Madinati, aims to elect a number of politically independent individuals for the Beirut Municipality Council, while presenting a challenge to a list of nominees that is the product of a consensus among the major political parties. Unfortunately, its chances of its success remain very slim, although the very presence of such an initiative, may offer a foundation to build upon for the future.

Karim Barakat is an instructor of philosophy in the American University of Beirut. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.