Maya Mikdashi, Sextarianism: Sovereignty, Secularism, and the State in Lebanon (Stanford University Press, 2022).

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

Maya Mikdashi (MM): A convergence of so many things, starting with a conversation in a grad school class about religious conversion in the Middle East. The consensus in class was that this was considered apostasy, and not only illegal but dangerous in most of the region. I said that I knew people who had converted from Islam to Christianity in Lebanon, and that they were all alive and well, and that it was not illegal. The conversation that ensued inspired my interest in conversion, which was originally what I went to Beirut to research: conversion, citizenship, secularism, and religion.

When I got there, however, three things happened. First, I unexpectedly was granted access to the archives of the Court of Cassation, specifically to its Plenary Assembly. This access allowed me a systemic, state-centric view of the personal status laws and how they are nested within other bodies of law, specifically through conversion cases that resulted in conflict between personal status institutions. Working in the Plenary Assembly archive also allowed me to circumvent some of the gendered and sectarian obstacles I faced trying to access Christian and Muslim personal status courts. These obstacles are interesting in terms of the political economy of knowledge production on personal status laws and institutions, and on sectarianism in Lebanon.

Second, I arrived during the 2008 clashes and just as a broad-based social movement for civil marriage and the right to remove your sect was taking shape. Many of the lawyers I was in conversation with were involved in this movement, and activism for secularism in Lebanon became one of my research foci. I began to follow lawyers, activists, plaintiffs, and social movements dedicated to this cause.

Finally, while conducting both ethnographic and archival research it became obvious that sex and sexuality were inextricable from the subjects I was researching. Almost all the conversion cases I researched in the Plenary Assembly archive revolved around sexual difference: either informed by or informed the different rights granted to men and women in personal status courts (religious and civil). When it came to secular activism, sexual difference shadowed discourse on secularism and on sectarianism. When people would elaborate on what they called “the culture of secularism,” women’s rights and equality were central. On the other hand, the subject of LGBTQ rights and marriage informed activism for civil marriage and a culture of secularism in often contradictory and toxic ways. Discourse on civil marriage and LGBTQ rights was and is expressed through sextarianism. I became very interested in the presence/absence of sexual difference in academic and non-academic conversations about sectarianism. An animating question became: how can something so obvious in law, bureaucracy, discourse, and experience—the mutually constitutive relationship between sex and sect—be almost absent in dominant accounts of sectarianism? I had similar questions about sovereignty and state power: what could Lebanon—where people believed the state was basically absent—teach us about how and when states invest in juridical power and securitization?

Sextarianism differs from my dissertation mainly due to two ongoing events that have shaped Lebanon and the broader region since 2011. First, the Arab uprisings, including in Lebanon in 2019, and their aftermath. Today, one third of Lebanon’s residents are refugees or migrants from regional wars and/or colonial projects. I had to rethink citizenship laws and bureaucracies as a system of racialized sextarian securitization. Second, Lebanon imploded politically, socially, materially, and economically as I was writing this book. The affect of the book shifted along with my state of mind.

Finally, this book had to be written to get tenure and keep my job, which I like and need. I think it is important to discuss the material realities and incentives of academic knowledge production alongside our intellectual interests.

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

MM: Sextarianism is an ethnography of state power, focusing on the experience of the state’s aporias. It is anchored in three sets of academic literature: on law, sovereignty, citizenship, and the state; on secularism and religion; and on sexual and political difference. Individual chapters focus on the regulation and experience of religious conversion; the archives of the Plenary Assembly; the relationship between sovereignty and the making and management of sexual difference; the relationship between violence and sovereignty as seen through the legal framework and experience of hymen and anal exams; and practices of what I call evangelical secular activism—including activism for civil marriage and anti-sectarian organizing more broadly.

Sextarianism draws out how sex and sexuality structure and inflect citizenship, bureaucracy, and the concerns of social movements. I theorize how biopolitical citizenship is constituted through the regulation of sex, sect, and sexuality and foreground heterosexuality as a securitized disciplinary project, with different stakes for men and women. The book also rethinks the history and experience of the nation state in the Middle East by focusing on war, displacement, and resistance as recursive temporalities rather than “crises.” I explore, for example, how refugees and citizens are made and unmade in Lebanon. This perspective allows me to theorize political sectarianism as a technology of securitization that centers sectarian demographics, women’s sexuality, racism, classism, and violence. Sextarianism engages with the literature on secularism in part by arguing that secularism is not monolithic; ideological differences exist between state secularism (the management and transcendence of sectarian difference into sextarian difference) and what many imagine and desire “secularism” to be, namely anti-sectarian but still deeply sextarian. 

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

MM: Sextarianism is my first book, but I have been writing on these subjects for years, both in academic journals and in non-academic publications. I co-founded Jadaliyya, where I have done much of this writing, while conducting dissertation research. So, in some ways, this Newton brings us full circle! 

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

MM: Inasmuch as Sextarianism explores and generates methodological approaches to archival and ethnographic research in area studies, anthropology, and gender and sexuality studies, I hope the book appeals to academics, graduate students, and undergraduate students interested in these fields. Moreover, I hope the book will be read by non-academics who are interested in Lebanon, in the nation state, in feminist and anti-sectarian activism, and in the Middle East more broadly.

Sextarianism is a theorization of the relationships between sexual and political difference. It suggests that producing, erupting, securitizing, and traversing the borders between the supposedly private and public spheres are key to understanding how secularism is operationalized, imagined, and desired in a world of nation states. While it emerges from archival and ethnographic research in Lebanon, my book offers transnational frameworks for understanding the relationships between sovereignty, secularism, violence, sexual difference, religious pluralism, law, and the state. For example, Sextarianism offers a language to think about bodily rights or trans rights in the United States, or the regulation of sexual difference more broadly, comparatively with the regulation of sexual difference in Egypt, Turkey, India, or France. It does so by focusing on technologies and ideologies of power that nation states share regardless of location: bureaucracy, law, archives, and the structuring, binary mythologies of the public and private on the one hand, and the religious and the secular on the other. In fact, as a term, “sextarianism” has also been used in the context of how religious discourse inflects political debate on LGBTQ and abortion rights in Ireland. This demonstrates that the term invites comparative, transnational work.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MM: I am currently working on two book projects. The first shifts to the United States and builds on my publication and teaching record on settler colonialism, archival power, and family history. It is essentially a history of one of my ancestors, Eliza Morrison, who was Ojibwe. Eliza died in 1920, which was also the year the British Mandate over Palestine was established. I am fascinated by the conversational timelines of settler colonization in the United States and in historic Palestine, precisely because we imagine them to be operating on different timelines. We recognize the British mandate over Palestine as part of “modern” history, and yet the imagination of US settler colonization is always anchored backwards, towards the past. How can we think about settler epistemological power through area studies and its writing, and dating, of American empire? I am eager to start conducting research this summer.

My second project writes the contemporary, sextarian history of Lebanon from the vantage point of five court cases, beginning in a WWI era case and ending with a case that is currently being heard.

J: You alluded to the affect of Sextarianism in relation to current events in Lebanon. Can you elaborate?

MM: Writing, publishing, and publicizing the book as Lebanon was being broken all around my family and loved ones were very difficult. The bulk of the book was also written during the first Covid lockdown. In some ways, having a project I had to finish helped with depression, but it also led me to seriously question the value of what I was doing in relation to the crumbling world around us. For example, Sextarianism focuses on the Plenary Assembly at the Court of Cassation, the same Assembly that is currently hearing cases related to the investigation of the Beirut Port explosion. I am learning from watching how those cases are playing out and find myself revisiting the people and cases I know from the court repeatedly. The book being published and publicized at this moment feels bittersweet. I am sure that many of my colleagues also had these ambivalent feelings, especially those whose work is centered in a home currently on fire. The affect of Sextarianism reflects my anger, sadness, and ambivalence about being a Lebanese academic publishing a book about Lebanon in the United States where I live and work. I take comfort knowing that so many authors also live and work with these feelings, but in some ways, the common-ness of this experience also reflects a sad truth about our world.

This affect of ambivalence continues post-publication. For example, in Lebanon the list price of my book, twenty-eight dollars, is, depending on the day, is essentially a full month’s minimum wage. I want my book to be read by in Lebanon, but how? Professors’ salaries at the Lebanese University are currently less than $150 a month in real value. Many government employees at the Judiciary, who in many ways made my work possible, cannot afford to buy a book published, shipped, and priced in US dollars. As of this writing, Sextarianism is priced at 850,000 LBP in Beirut. Three years ago, before the financial and economic meltdown, it would have been priced at 45,000 LBP. Academics and publishers who extract value from research on Lebanon should find ways to make their work accessible and affordable, in book form, to independent libraries and bookstores, people, colleagues, and students who live and work there. These are small ways to help build and sustain ethical and collaborative research and academic publishing practices.


Excerpt from the Introduction

SAMERA DIED IN January 1975. I met her, and the multiple lives she led, through an archived court case related to her estate and her marital status. The case file contained more than a century of evidence and presented a material history of the court system and of Lebanon itself: hundreds of pages, stamps, documents, and references from and to the Ottoman Empire, the French Mandate, and the first and second postcolonial Lebanese Republics. The stamps alone wrote a history of colonialism, war, currency, and inflation. But all of that material history—from Greek Orthodox courts and churches in Lebanon and in Syria, from Lebanese courts and the country’s highest court, from imperial, colonial and postcolonial bureaucracy—sharpened into one question: Did Samera have a son? If so, was she married at the time of his birth, or was she an unmarried, single mother? The evidence presented proved that she had been both married and unmarried, and that she had a son who was “legitimate” in some documents, “illegitimate” in others. In yet another set of documents this son, Jean, did not exist at all. Samera contained multitudes.

Three months after Samera died, the Lebanese Civil War began, and Jean presented himself as Samera’s son and heir. Other would-be heirs, a group of distant cousins, argued that Jean was lying. Samera had never been married. Even if Jean was Samera’s son, he was born out of wedlock and was thus barred from inheriting. To “recover his mother’s honor,” and her estate, Jean turned to the courts. After Jean died, the case was reopened and amended twice by his children, in 2005 and in 2008. The intergenerational fight over Samera’s estate presented a vantage point to think about the apocryphal origin stories of nation-states and the citational logic of sovereignty—a logic that folded the colonial within the postcolonial via the mediums of law and bureaucracy. More than anything, however, the case highlighted the intergenerational, financial, and affective stakes of being an “illegitimate” child. “It was fundamentally about what I term “sextarianism”—how sex, sexuality, and sect structure legal bureaucratic systems, as well as how citizenship and statecraft are performed at the mutually constitutive intersections and suffusions between sex and sect. Sextarian-specific inheritance laws—laws that are central to capital accumulation—determined which courts would hear the case, and sextarian laws and bureaucracies made children “legitimate” or “illegitimate” heirs. Decades before her death and the subsequent court case over her estate, Samera’s actions regarding her marital status were informed by the knowledge of how sextarianism structured gendered, sectarian, and financial procedures for divorce. In trying to evade one aspect of a sextarian system, however, she, her son, and her grandchildren were caught in another: the census bureaucracy and its afterlives.

This book rethinks state power and resilience; elaborates political difference at the site of religious and sexual difference; and traces how secularism is staged nationally and transnationally as both a structural form of power and as a set of values, practices, and aspirations. It introduces sextarianism as a concept and theorizes it across different sites that include law and bureaucracy; the archives of the Plenary Assembly at the Court of Cassation; court decisions related to religious conversion and the experiences of converts themselves; social movements and activists that advocate for a culture of secularism and new laws and bureaucracies; and finally, the regulation of sex and sexuality through the state’s courts and interrogation rooms. The book introduces two companion concepts to sextarianism; evangelical secularism and the epidermal state.

Sextarianism emphasizes how state power articulates, disarticulates, and manages sexual difference bureaucratically, ideologically, and legally. Statecraft is fundamentally practiced as the disciplining of sextarianism into its component parts: sex and sect. Sovereignty is performed at the intersections of sexual and sectarian difference. As a theory and method, sextarianism helps us understand how rule through discrete and abstract regulatory categories distributes the spoils and underbellies of liberal democracy along the same exclusions that liberalism was founded through in the first place, “property, sex, race, and law. Making visible the intersectional experience and distribution of power and its effects within any given system is key to understanding and dismantling the promises of liberal abstraction and universalization. Lebanon is exemplary, not exceptional, in how it ties sect and sex. It represents an intensification of the foundational relationship between political and sexual difference.

Sextarianism builds on Joan Scott’s theorization of the constitutive nature of sexual difference to the history of secularism. It is indebted to Saba Mahmood’s argument that sex is a key technology through which secular state power produces and manages religious difference. I follow Scott’s understanding of sexual difference, emphasizing the relationship between sexuality, sex, and the secular. Sextarianism foregrounds the secular state’s role in both structuring political society through sexual difference, and gendering and personalizing the stakes of sexual difference. Sexual difference is political difference, to repeat Carole Pateman’s foundational claim, and it is also a term for power relations. Sexual difference is a process through which sectarian, gendered, and sexual positions are structurally produced, in addition to being represented, imagined, desired, and managed. In other words, sexual difference is a vector of state power. Thinking from Lebanon allows us to trace colonial and postcolonial modes of producing and regulating religion, secularism, and political/sexual difference. Colonial French Mandate laws, practices, and administrative rules, building on and in some cases doing away with Ottoman precedents, grounded the legal, bureaucratic, and secular political legitimacy of sectarian groups in the regulation of sexual difference. Criminal and civil laws as well as the state’s bureaucratic practices were and are grounded in sexual difference. Ideological, bureaucratic, and legal “crossing,” as M Jacqui Alexander puts it, between imperial, colonial, and postcolonial eras, as well as between “religion” and “the secular,” is key to how sextarianism operates. Thus sextarianism draws attention to the relationship between modern forms of secular state power and colonial forms of indirect rule.

A central point in Samera’s case concerned differences from three historical iterations of Lebanon: Ottoman-era Mount Lebanon, the colonial French Mandate over Lebanon, and postcolonial, independent Lebanon. Jean’s distant cousins showed evidence that Samera first identified herself as “single” in the 1932 French Mandate. She was identified as “single” in state bureaucracy until she died. But Jean had his own set of documents. He presented religious and civil courts with copies of the first French Mandate land census of 1925, his 1940 French Mandate–issued identification card, and a certificate of his 1922 baptism from the Greek Orthodox Church. He also presented evidence that his parents were married in 1917, in the midst of World War I, a devastating famine, and the final year of Ottoman rule over the territory that became Lebanon. All of the documents Jean presented to the court listed him as the legal son of his mother and his father, although no marriage certificate had ever been registered with the colonial or postcolonial state. Jean did not dispute the presence or veracity of his cousins’ set of documents. Instead, he offered a narrative explaining how two contradictory sets of state documents could both be true.

In 1932 Jean’s mother and father were separated and living in different areas of Lebanon. She did not have the money to obtain a divorce from the Greek Orthodox Church. When the census takers came to Samera’s home, she saw an opportunity to get out of a bad marriage. Samera told the census takers that she was single, seeing this as a free and efficient way to leave her husband. A bureaucratic do-over instead of a divorce. It was as if she had never been married at all. Jean, in accordance with the patriarchal bureaucratic system organized under colonial rule and still in place today, was listed only under his father’s census entry. Samera died as a “single/unmarried” woman rather than as a “single/divorced” or “single/widowed” woman—the only possible bureaucratic categories for unmarried women in Lebanon. Samera used the 1932 census to begin a new life as an officially “single” woman. In doing so, she lost legal and bureaucratic ties, and claims, to Jean. She answered the door and the census takers’ questions, but while she danced to the song of the census and of state power, to paraphrase James Scott, she may have been humming a different tune in her head.

The 1932 national census, conducted under French Mandate, is the only census that has ever been published in Lebanon. It performed, and continues to perform, the colonial conditions under which the state was founded and the violence and sovereignty of the postcolonial state. The system of census taking under the French Mandate, based on the legal categories of sex, sect, and kinship, remains largely in place today. The sectarian demography of the area that became the Lebanese nation-state was produced and made legible through it. The 1932 census identified, organized, and enumerated sects and determined the nascent body of citizens, which were recorded, managed, and produced through the national registries also forged at that time. It was a biopolitical technology of securitization, where sexuality—as that which ties the individual to the population —was key. The census staged an origin story: a land where sect, religion, and region were the primary and inherently competing markers of political difference that had to compromise their autonomy by contracting into the newly founded state. The methodology of the census scaffolded both the religious personal status system and political sectarianism, a system of political representation based on religious and sectarian quotas. The claim that the Lebanese state is a zone of compromise for preexisting political communities is central to an ideology and a self-fulfilling prophesy: Political sectarianism was and is a representative system that channels an underlying sectarian reality.