Lebanon, the Sectarianization of Politics, & Genderalizing the Arab Uprisings

Eugenio Dacrema (ED): A Few days ago a new session of the National Dialogue council started in Beirut, hosted by the president Souliman. The list of issue which will be discussed is officially very long, but obviously the main issues are related to the recent events occurred especially in Tripoli, but also in Beirut. Why is Syria so important for the political stability of Lebanon? Can you draw for us a picture of what is happening? 

Maya Mikdashi (MM): I think we are seeing several things happening. First we are seeing the reality that everybody has arms and they are not afraid to use them. We are also seeing that the Lebanese army is not confident enough to take a strong stance in the North for several reasons, one of which is that as a national institution has always been rather weak and has always been afraid of interfering with the Lebanese factions. The fear is that the army itself would begin to divide into different factions.

But definitely the longer that Syria continues to be in this violent uprising, Lebanon will become more destabilized, and every single group in Lebanon may get involved in what is happening in Syria.

The question about potential “winners” or “losers” (although these words are clearly insufficient) resulting from regime change in Syria must take into account the fact that the entire Lebanese political class has at one point or the other been allied to the Asad regime, either the son or the father. Beyond Hizbollah and a focus on assumed sectarian affinities to Syrian communities fuelling the conflict in Lebanon today, all political groups and political parties would lose either a past, current or potential political ally in the Asad regime. The Lebanese business class would lose its alliance with the Syrian business class; alliances across these different kinds of actors deserve more attention.

In the press we often read about Lebanese Sunni allied with the Syrian Sunnis against the Asad regime, and Shi‘a Lebanese allied to ‘Alawis in Syria who are allied to Asad regime.

This is an extremely disingenuous and insufficient reading of what is happening. I think it is much more of a political dispute that is increasingly becoming sectarian as the uprising in Syria itself becomes more sectarian and is packaged in a way such that “sect” is the political marker that matters the most. I think that we need to be critical of this packaging. It is almost as if Arabs are not allowed to have ideological, ethical, political, economic, or social stances on current (and even historical) events. We (Arabs) have sects, not politics.

This is a part of a larger phenomenon we see across the Middle East where politics are always represented in sectarian terms. This happens for many reasons, one of which is a proxy war against Iran that is being fought, in concert with American and Israeli interests, by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Also we cannot really underestimate the effects of the American occupation of Iraq and the sectarianization of that state. I think the effects of that (ongoing) occupation have yet to be understood fully in terms of the sectarianization of the discourse about politics in the Middle East. History will show that the United State’s restructuring of the Iraqi state along sectarian lines (modelled in part on Lebanon) was informed by colonial discourses of indirect rule. By contributing to the hardening and the ethnicization of these identities, the United States is directly implicated in the increasing sectarianism across the region.

When people talk about what is happening in Lebanon today, they just say for example the Sunnis and the Shi‘ites are fighting a “mirror battle” of the one in Syria. However, like I said, people in Lebanon have been allied to the Syrian regime for many reasons, economically, politically, and also in terms of sectarian affiliation or sectarian concern (such as Christian leaders in Lebanon expressing concern for Syrian Christians in a post-Asad era).

We also have to understand that Tripoli and the North of Lebanon are intimately connected to Syria, economically, historically, and culturally. Trade, familial, and social ties make this a very intimate relationship. It is almost to be expected that that border, which has always been porous (and not only in terms of arms or illegal smugglings, but also in terms of marriage, familial unifications, food and supply smuggling, that occur across that border), has became the main point of connection between Lebanon and the events in Syria.

ED: The first doubts are coming out when we see different Sunni factions divided about Asad.

MM: Right, that’s the thing. In Beirut, for example, the fights around the Arab university were actually between two Sunni factions, over a political debate, which was whether or not to support Hizbollah and to a lesser extent, the Asad regime in Syria. The other thing is that when we say “the Sunni community,” I do not think it is very obvious what we are talking about, right? One (albeit small) faction is geopolitically allied to Hizbollah, and the other isn’t. And obviously the one which is allied to Hizbollah is pro Syrian regime. In addition, many people from all sects support Hizbollah as a resistance group. The assumption that March 14 or anyone else “speaks for Sunnis” is itself sectarian, and to be honest, infantalizing. It’s a continuation of the idea that Arabs follow their patriarchal “strongmen” blindly, which itself is an Orientalist discourse that weaves together ideas about tribalism, sectarianism, and patriarchy.

But I want to make this very clear: the alliance between Hizbollah and the Syrian regime is not a sectarian alliance. It is a political alliance that centres around Hizbollah’s continued ability to militarily resist Israeli colonization and occupation. And when it comes to the resistance to Israel, this is really a political issue that transcends sectarian lines in both Lebanon and in Syria. A large portion of the Lebanese population, regardless of class, sect, age or gender agree on this cause-even if they do not agree with Hizbollah’s economic or political platforms. How could they not, given that Israel’s viscous and multiple occupations and invasions of Lebanon? How could they not, when over 400,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, a constant reminder of the nakba and its ongoing tragedies? After all, Lebanese and Lebanese-Palestinian resistance to Israel is much older than Hizbollah.

ED: In your post on Jadaliyya “2011, a memory from Lebanon,” you explain a very interesting thing: “Lebanese of different factions are pitted against each other and fear each other more than they fear any one ruler or regime. Each of these factions has a different narrative of the past, and thus they have different desires and possibilities of a future.” Explain to us this affirmation, is the sectarian state the dictator to topple in Lebanon?

MM: What I try to explain in this article, is why we are not going to see the same kind of uprising in Lebanon that we have seen in Egypt and Tunis, and than in Libya, Syria, Bahrain in all their different articulations.

The reason is that there is no centralized authoritarian leader in Lebanon, that is the basic answer, but there are other reasons for this as well. Lebanese history itself is a battleground and the effects these different histories have on public consciousness (or consciousnesses) in Lebanon must be thought about when discussing the political climate.

For example, people “remember” the reasons for the 1975-1990 civil war in different ways. There is no national narrative that is acceptable to everyone, and there is no public debate that hashes out these different perspectives. So, for example, some people use the narrative that the 1975-1990 war was a war of outsiders in Lebanon; they blame Palestinians, Syrians, Israelis, the US and the USSR. Others believe that this war that aimed to cripple Palestinian resistance. And of course there was an ideological debate between factions that supported a more conservative, Maronite dominated, free market oriented sort of government, or those who supported a more radical and reformist government in addition to power restructuring and redistribution. And then there was also the sectarian factor, in addition to the burdens of radically changing economic realities and stagnation. The point is that depending on who you are in Lebanon, what space you occupy, you will focus on a different narrative of that war, and as long as people focus on this different narratives and there is no national resolution, or even a debate on it, it is impossible to imagine one common political future. Mahmood Mamdani argues that a historical community is one that is oriented towards a common past, and a political community is one that is oriented towards a common future. Unfortunately, in Lebanon we cannot imagine a common future as long as these separate and contesting pasts continue to unfold into the present.

Another example is the 2006 war with Israel. It underlined a very different set of socio-political memories that were then lived in the present. In the 2006 war one million people were displaced from their homes by the Israeli war machine, and as they moved into other parts of Lebanon, they were welcomed by many of their co-citizens. The Lebanese state was revealed, again, to be a shell hollowed out by corruption and ineptitude, and civil society actors and independent citizens stepped in to fill the gap. But there is also another memory of similar refugee population during the civil war that completely changed the demographic of the rest of the country. So you started to see two different discourses one which was “we have been displaced, we are bearing the cost of this national struggle,” and these were the people from the South of Lebanon, while people from Beirut, for example, say “well, this is scary, because the last time that this happened during the civil war the demographics of the city changed irrevocably, in terms of sects but also in terms of classes.” People lost homes and property because refugees from South Lebanon needed somewhere to go, and the state was completely negligent and deficient. Thus the state’s inability and to some extent its refusal to deal with massive population displacement due to war has pitted Lebanese citizens against each other, rather than coming together and demanding that the state take care and protect the rights of all its citizens.

Now obviously people focus on this as a sectarian issue: A majority Shi‘ite population coming to areas that were not majority Shi`ite. But what was not discussed was that the massive population displacement in 2006 was one in a series of many displacements. The anxieties, emotions, and memories it brought up need to be understood as having been part of the political discourses proliferating among different Lebanese factions at that time. When thinking about politics, we tend to only focus on rational, conscious thought. But political emotions and memories also play a big role in the political choices and actions of people. Politics is not always a rational process.

ED: You wrote much about the phenomenon of “genderalization” in the Middle East. How is the gender issue treated in the Arab spring and its different contexts? Why, in your opinion, are very similar behaviours and traditions in many other parts of the world not seen in the same critical way when they do not come from a “Islamic environment”? 

MM: Genderalization in the Arab uprising – in the sense of how the discourse about gender has been generalized – I think can be exemplified in three ways, one being the continuation of this sort of common equation of gender with women and sexual minorities, as if men are not gendered. This can be because people understand gender as being about oppression, something that is only about how it affects you, rather than how it produces you and the way you interact with the world in different ways. Gender analysis is like class analysis, it is not something one can be outside of, rather it structures the possibilities of your life. Understanding gender as synonymous with women and LGBTQ peoples is like talking about class but only in relation to the working class or the one percent without taking into account the economic system in both its structural and informal aspects. That is what a gender analysis that only takes into account women and LGBTQ people is like. When we continue excluding men from our gender analysis we are furthering patriarchy by positing heterosexual men (or anyone who does not explicitly identify as non-heterosexual) as the normative and “empty centre” according to which everyone else is gendered.

The second point, when talking about the Arab uprisings, is an emphasis on what is going to happen to women and the LGBTQ people or sexual minorities in general. Of course, the concern is about what will happen to them as women or LGBTQ peoples, that is, as a separate and separable concern. This is usually directly linked to the fear of Islamism as it is coming to power in Tunisia and Egypt and perhaps Syria. Of course this an important concern, and women’s and LGBTQ rights are not a political bargaining chip (which in fact they are being used as today in the US presidential election). But they are also not a fad or a passing concern, and so we should be weary when there is a sudden worry about what may happen to women rights if Islamists come to power. A feminist is someone who struggles for gender justice no matter who is in power, whether it is a secular or an Islamist government. Secular states are just as good at engaging in gender oppression and discrimination as any religious government. Patriarchy is in fact something that unites both secular and religious powers because it is a hegemonic system, it is not something that is owned by one group or the other. Patriarchy is like capitalism: it is a hegemonic system, which is articulated in different ways. You can see this for example in Italy, right? The Vatican and the secular government are both patriarchal in different ways, and in fact patriarchy is something that brings them together, just as in Lebanon where patriarchy and neoliberalism are shared by both the March 8th coalition, and the March 14th coalition, even if they are officially political adversaries. They share a larger context of capitalist economic practices, in addition to patriarchal practices such as sexism and gender discrimination. I think patriarchy is something that has to be understood in this sense. It is not something that somebody has, and somebody does not have, it is a hegemonic discourse that brings different factions together in different ways.

I think that if we start to understand patriarchy like we understand capitalism then the mistake of understanding gender only in terms of women and/or sexual minorities would become exposed

The third point about how gender is spoken of when discussing the uprisings is the tendency of many people to judge the merits of the uprisings as linked to the progress on women and sexual minorities’ rights. Thus the legitimacy of a popular uprising and/or revolutionary struggle can be gauged by how it (always posited as the ungendered male) treats “their women” and “their gays.” This is really a continuation of understanding gender as something that only marks people who are not heterosexual men. And the localization of these concerns to the Middle East and to the Arab / Islamic world I think is an evidence of the fact that this concern has more to do with “Islamophobia” and “Arabophobia” than it has to do with feminism.

And it is very interesting how different parts of the world have been described in similar terms at different historical moments—always linked to the question of women’s rights. The Middle East, Africa, and South Asia (and increasingly, China) have been racialized around this question in similar ways. In the Arab world the causative factor linked to gender oppression is Islam and Arab “culture,” in Africa it is about tribalism, naturalized violence and irrationality, while in India we have discourses about gender oppression that contribute to racialization in different ways. Racialization is a process of explaining actions and practices such as sexism, sexual harassment or abuse as due to “natural” or “immutable” causes. “Culture” in this sense becomes causative for certain peoples and not others. So in Europe and in the United States sexism is explained as always an isolated incident that has nothing to do with “culture” or something immutably sexist in Christianity or in the white Euro-American male’s natural predilection towards violence. I recently saw a chart that aggregated the number of women killed in the United States by their husbands or boyfriends since September 11, 2011. The chart shows that more women have been killed in the United States by their husbands or boyfriends than Americans who were killed on September 11 in Iraq and in Afghanistan combined. And yet violence against women is not considered a public concern and is not understood as systematic. Instead, each of these deaths is explained as an isolated incident. But at some point, all of these isolated incidents come together and paint a picture of systemic violence and systemic normalization of this violence. What I am saying is not cultural relativism. It is a recognition that ifthere is a “war against women” being waged today, it is being waged internationally and in ways that are not always obviously discernible. We, as feminists, must struggle to understand the ways that patriarchy licenses gender injustice internationally and the ways it is wedded to racialized discourses in order to maintain and produce particular geopolitical and economic interests, alliances, and concerns.

When it comes to the Middle East, gender oppression is not understood in terms of isolated incidents. Instead, people attribute it to religion and Arab culture. Even self-proclaimed feminists (male and female) do so! I think in those moments we are seeing feminism being harnessed to Islamophobia. I think that if you look at the ways in which similar incidents are explained in radical different ways depending on the region or the country that they occur in, than you can start to see how the study of gender is being either misunderstood, or cynically used to promote other interests. After all, if the United States is so concerned about the rights of women in the Arab world where is the outrage over the egregious state of gender inequality in Saudi Arabia? Similarly, in Israel in the past several months there has been more media coverage on gender violence and gender discrimination among the ultra-orthodox in that country. And when you read about this in Israel, these episodes are described as practices of very small groups of people, who are on the “fringes” of Israeli society, but if the same things happen in Jordan, or in Syria, this must have something to do with Islam and the threat that Islam poses to women and LGBT minorities. When you read about similar incidents described in radically different ways depending on the place this incident occurs or depending on who the perpetrator is, you understand that this is not about a sustained struggle against patriarchy and the gender discriminations that it licenses, but rather it is operating as a vehicle for Arabophobia, Islamophobia, and the foreign policies of various nation states.

The following interview with Jadaliyya Co-Editor Maya Mikdashi was conducted by Eugenio Dacrema for the Istituto per gli studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI)

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