Lara Deeb, Tsolin Nalbantian, and Nadya Sbaiti (eds.), Practicing Sectarianism: Archival and Ethnographic Interventions on Lebanon (Stanford University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write and edit this book? 

Lara Deeb, Tsolin Nalbantian, and Nadya Sbaiti (LD, TN & NS): This volume grew out of a MESA panel Tsolin and Nadya organized in 2018, with Lara as discussant. Afterwards, the three of us continued talking about the different ways we were each engaging with sectarianism as it is practiced in everyday life—and about how we, like so many scholars of Lebanon, were hesitant to center it. We kept returning to the fact that despite our different disciplines and time periods, we were all focused on how people practice sectarianism. One of us suggested, probably in jest, that we should do an edited volume. That comment germinated into this book.

Despite our frustration with the degree to which sectarianism is an oversignified and oversaturated term in Middle East studies, we decided it was important to pull this volume together because while most scholarship on Lebanon that addresses the concept has been—rightly—dedicated to demonstrating that sectarianism is not an essential quality of the region and is historically constructed, less attention has been paid to how people make sect meaningful in daily life as a result of those historical processes. It was like a scholarly paralysis—a fear that if we acknowledge that sectarianism moves through everyday life, that people draw on it, challenge it, redefine it, navigate around it, and are shaped by it, we would contribute to its entrenchment and reinforce those tired ideas that the region is essentially sectarian. We decided it was time to confront this paralysis directly, and to insist that sectarianism is simultaneously constructed and experienced, imagined and materially impactful. We also decided to focus the volume on anthropology and history because we saw a potentially fruitful conversation to be had between these two disciplines. From there, we invited scholars doing incredible work that engaged with everyday practices of sectarianism from different time periods and sites.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

LD, TN & NS: This book explores the multiple creative ways that people live sectarianism, using Lebanon as a case study. All the contributors—four historians and four anthropologists—use the concept as an animating concept across a variety of sites including Lebanon and its diaspora, as well as over a range of historical periods, from the mandate to the present. They examine how people shape and experience sect and “being sectarian,” sometimes pushing back, sometimes evading the category, and sometimes deploying it strategically, all to a variety of effects and consequences. The authors take sectarianism seriously as a set of practices in order to dismantle it as a hegemonic concept. While each chapter is embedded in particular literatures, as a collection this volume intervenes in scholarship on sectarianism in multiple disciplines, both for Lebanon and globally. It also contributes to the field of Lebanese studies by modeling approaches to sectarian-in-practice and providing in-depth ethnographic and archival work on a variety of topics.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

LD: In one sense, this volume departs from my earlier work, An Enchanted Modern and Leisurely Islam, because those two books are focused on dynamics among Shi‘i Muslims in Lebanon—the gendered relationship between piety and modernity, and negotiations of leisure in relation to piety and geography, respectively. At the same time, sectarianism has always haunted all of my work on Lebanon; it is difficult to imagine how it would not. Practicing Sectarianism is directly related to the book I am currently writing about responses to intersectarian marriage in Lebanon, in which I show how mixed marriage pushes the boundaries of social norms around both gender and sect. My ultimate goal in this project is to take sect apart as a category, to reveal its flimsiness, and show that it is neither the only nor necessarily the most important category of social difference in Lebanon. Our edited volume was a natural extension of that project for me, not only because my individual chapter stems from my research on mixed marriage, but because it allowed me to think through these issues in conversation with Nadya and Tsolin, as well as the other contributors.

TN: This chapter is both a continuation and departure from my work. My book Armenians Beyond Diaspora: Making Lebanon Their Own (Edinburgh UP, 2020) focused on how, post-Genocide, Lebanon became a center of Armenian power, involving inter alia the Cilician See, a Lebanese Armenian sectarian institution based in Antelias/Beirut; and how Armenians helped create Lebanon. My chapter in Practicing Sectarianism demonstrates how some American Armenians used the Lebanon-based Cilician See in a struggle for power that pitted them against other American Armenians loyal to the Echmiadzin See, based in Soviet Armenia. Because this move involved a Lebanese Armenian sectarian institution, I call it intra-sectarian. Moreover, I show how sectarianism, moving through an Armenian network to the United States, in essence developed an American dimension.

NS: My chapter in this volume is an offshoot of my current book manuscript on gender and education in interwar mandate Lebanon in which I have been grappling with the specter of sectarianism that, as Lara says, “haunts” the material, but which, as my rereading of archives of this time period demonstrates, was also never inevitable. This chapter is an attempt to straddle the “and” of this scenario, and to push back on what remains—in both scholarship and a lot of Lebanese communities—to be a largely accepted narrative of Lebanon under French mandate as a sort of ground zero for what is reified as a future sectarian Lebanon. The book itself I would argue is attempting to do the same thing, so the alignment of my work and this volume was perfect.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

LD, TN & NS: Everyone! While “Lebanon” in one way or another threads through the work, we really hope that this volume speaks to all those interested in sectarianism, which is certainly not a “Lebanese” or “regional” issue. Around the world, people are practicing sectarianism and pushing back against it in innovative and interesting ways that we miss when limited by a single geographic focus. We also hope that scholars interested in the role methodology plays in knowledge production will find each chapter’s approach to the archival or ethnographic constructive for imagining new approaches to such research.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LD: I am currently finishing the book I described above, about how social pressure against mixed marriage among Lebanese reveals changes in both ideas about sect as the primary category of social difference in Lebanon and gendered norms around marital choice. My next project will likely be a graphic ethnography.

TN: I am currently co-editing another volume with Talar Chahinian and Sossie Kasbarian entitled The Armenian Diaspora and Stateless Power: Collective Identity in the Transnational 20th Century (IB Tauris/Bloomsbury, November 2023), which explores Khachig Tölölyan’s work and its impact on various conceptualizations of the Armenian diaspora, in all its heterogeneity.

NS: My next project, on which I have already embarked, examines Arab leisure travel within the region as a way to write an interconnected history of the mashriq, from 1918-1958. So I am staying with the framework of “and,” by which I mean that while this period is so often discussed as one of fissure and disconnection, Arabs’ mobility, leisure practices, and the spaces that they engendered, help us see that this is also a critical period of the demand for continued connection and possibility.

J:  Can you provide a brief overview of the other contributions in the volume? 

LD, TN & NS: We feel so fortunate to have been able to work with the incredible scholars who authored the individual chapters in this volume. In addition to Tsolin and Nadya, the historians include Reem Bailony and Linda Sayed. Reem’s chapter examines how notions of sect in the mahjar shaped charitable activities and remittances as key processes through which the Syrian-Lebanese diaspora exercised and negotiated power vis-à-vis the homeland, one another, and the French colonial authorities. Linda’s chapter examines how the Ja`fari shari’a courts were sites where Shi‘i individuals pushed against the limitations of sectarian and national identities embedded in the formation of modern Lebanon, and navigated family, gender, and political belonging. In addition to Lara, the anthropologists include Roxana Aras, Maya Mikdashi, and Joanne Nucho. Roxana investigates how members of the Rum Orthodox community in post-civil war Beirut authenticate their religious identity through the use of incense, and how olfactory codes mediate inter-confessional encounters. Maya draws on both archival and ethnographic material to examine a century-long court case, using it to reveal legal continuities and ruptures across multiple juridical regimes in Lebanon. Joanne’s ethnographic analysis of the Armenian community in the Beirut neighborhood of Burj Hammoud illustrates how viewing sect as a process of differentiation connected to channels of resources, social geographies, and popular representations can disrupt perceptions of class and sect as two distinct categories.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction)

Sectarianism is a concept that simply won’t die. Scholars, pundits, and journalists turn to it again and again to describe and explain violence and political strife in the Middle East. Some of the most nuanced of these evocations——those that insist that sectarianism is neither essential nor primordial—still rest on the idea that sectarianism is an indelible constant in the region. Lebanon represents an exemplary case that both generates these assumptions and suggests paths to overcoming them. Lebanon’s seemingly inextricable link with sectarianism led us to this book via a series of conversations across disciplines and time frames, underpinned by questions about how people practice sectarianism: how they use it, live it, and maintain it in their daily lives. This recurring conversation was different and, frankly, more interesting than one structured by the perennial question “What do we do about sectarianism?” and its corollary, “What’s the alternative?” These questions have plagued scholars, researchers, and activists working in and on Lebanon and the region more broadly. Both questions fail to consider how and why sectarianism moves through the everyday lives of the region’s inhabitants. This volume aims to change the parameters of scholarship on the subject by engaging with the varied ways in which people live sectarianism daily, in meaningful albeit inconsistent ways. Practicing Sectarianism intervenes directly at this juncture by bringing together scholars from history and anthropology—two disciplines that take as a priori the idea that sectarianism is contingent and constructed—in order to explore the imaginative and contradictory ways in which people engage with sectarianism in the social realm. This volume contends that sectarianism can be more fully understood if we take it seriously as a set of practices, and models a way of doing so in scholarship.

Each scholar whose work is featured in this book uses sectarianism as an animating principle through which to investigate how it is conceived of and practiced within a variety of sites across Lebanon and its diasporas, and over a range of historical periods. By considering how productive the destabilization of sectarianism can be, this volume magnifies how actors in various times and spaces have used the concept to exhibit, imagine, or contest power. What forms of affective pull does sectarianism have on people and communities? What epistemological work does sectarianism do as a concept? How does sectarianism function as a marker of social difference? How is sectarianism mobilized as a multivalent signifier or value claim to convey disagreement or discrimination?

This book focuses on how these intertwined forms of sectarianism are lived in the everyday. By focusing on the microlevel of social interaction, the chapters that follow add texture to how people live sectarianism inconsistently: resisting it, evading it, and deploying it strategically, sometimes all at once. The everyday is most readily evident in the third form of sectarianism, that of interpersonal interactions. Yet it is also a part of sectarianism’s structural and institutional forms, as it reveals how people interact with the political-sectarian and personal status categories that affect their lives. As Suad Joseph notes, sectarianism is a process of differentiation “that operates through the everyday—through socialization, through family systems, and through various other aspects of social organization in both systematic and erratic or contradictory ways.”5 Each contribution to this book explores how different social actors consider, negotiate, and/or use sectarianism in daily interactions with a variety of effects and often unintended consequences. The authors follow how power moves through sectarian communities in practice; and in so doing, they reveal how sectarianism travels across spatial and temporal boundaries. They highlight a variety of institutions that both limit and expand sectarian belonging and practice, and they show how sectarian identity is complicated by class positioning, historical change, diaspora politics, gender and sexual identities, ideas about religiosity, personal status law, and regional location within Lebanon. By exploring everyday practice, we aim to provide a new model for scholarship—one that understands sectarianism as simultaneously constructed and experienced, as imagined yet materially impactful.

Practicing Sectarianism, refuses both ahistorical and recent starting points, as well as the notion that historical processes are so easily rendered into predictable and fixed “outcomes.” The contributors fold significant events and periodic markers into a larger continuum of Lebanese history, during which sectarianism has been practiced in varied ways. Nearly every chapter reveals paths to sectarianization: the mechanisms by which people start to see others through the lens of sect, or come to act in ways deemed sectarian. By unpacking the (re)production of sectarianism in specific times and places, the authors show how practices of sectarianism that emerge from the ground up, including in interpersonal interactions, affect and effect institutions and structures. Thus they contribute to a growing body of work that has similarly examined the agency of those who enact sectarianism in the realms of political economy and ideological hegemony, or within clientelism and political-economic networks.

Existing works provide strong explanations for how sectarianism is reinforced and reproduced at the levels of the state, civil society, and elite networks. The contributors to this volume insist that even where sectarianism is facilitated or nurtured in top-down ways, its development is never unidirectional and can never be fully understood without deep attention to the everyday. In other words, sectarianization is produced neither solely by structures nor by people on the ground, but through dialectical processes that require the entanglement of the two levels of life and analysis. Political elites in power use sectarian discourses to maintain that power, deploying sectarianism—too often successfully—as a weapon to divide people. As sectarianism in all its forms has been constructed and molded over time, it has shaped the ways people think and live, and has fostered new practices of identification and discrimination. Those practices, in turn, continue to fuel sectarianism’s institutionalized forms. Overall, these ground- up dimensions of sectarianism’s persistence have been understudied in the copious scholarship on its various consequences and manifestations. This book thus adds to this rich but incomplete conversation about why sectarianism is such a persistent part of modern identity and how it is maintained, by focusing on its quotidian, mundane, intimate aspects that are practiced every day.