On clerical power in Lebanon

Reading the Lebanese press involve the discovery of many fascinating things and we are all most familiar with this. But one of them is the recurrence of stories stating that this or that politician had a meeting with this or that religious instance. Lately, I have in mind the various patriach-ical initiatives supposed to come up with lists of names for the presidency. These activities spark a number of visits, declarations, letters, etc to the Maronite clerics either to be in their grace or to criticize a specific move.

If we step back for a moment and try to think about this, you may agree that it is kind of weird. How come all these virtuoso politicians that have been through so much history, how come all the diplomatic initiatives involved from west to east cannot solve a problem that a few monks living a somewhat ascetic life in Bkerke can? You’ll tell me, this is the confessional system, the respect of religious authority, the legitimacy they inspire, etc But I would say these are vague answers at best. I am pretty damn sure that most politicians do not have transcendental respect for the views of the clerics, and even if there are some that do, why is it that everyone including Aoun who claim to ‘reject confessionalism’ find it necessary to ‘play by the rules’? Also if “it is the confessional system”, what type of actual power these dudes have? The confessional system distributes power among sectarian elites but that are not clerics. Except for Hizbullah who has an overtly clerical leadership and although their political actors (parliamentary members, ministers, etc.) are non-clerical, there are no religious figure who possess official institutional political power. If I’m not mistaken, this is not a constitutional rule, but still in reality there are no instances of political clerical leadership within the confines of the Lebanese state.

So why do politicians still ‘play by the rules’? For the obvious and apparently silly reason that they have to. Because on the level of formulating political arguments you cannot escape sectarian discourse, and given that sectarian discourse is mostly framed by clerical elites then political actors go through this ritual of respect. This leads me to ask the following questions:

1- What type of power is invested in clerical actors? What are we looking at here? Economic assets, land ownership, capital? Security structures, military assets? The capturing of institutional facilities, legal credentials? Symbolic power to name, to influence the terms of speech, of consciousness (what is said, thought, expressed)?
2- How does all this constrain political actors and the people at large in their social practices?
3- What are the forms of resistance to this authority (if any) that emanate not only from the people but from the leaders themselves?
4- What is then the room for discursively defined non-sectarian politics in Lebanon?

A couple of remarks though: The clerics don’t have just any type of power. Their leverage capacities are limited in many instances. So one should try to point out the sphere of their actual reign. For the most part, I would suggest looking at certain social aspect of their dominance through

  • Legal/Economic power: The various ceremonies rituals etc. that manage people’s life for example are all in the hands of clerics. Birth, marriage, Death, certain types of inheritance procedures.
  • Symbolic power: the hegemonic confessional discourse. If you are Lebanese you cannot but define yourself in terms of the sect you were told by the various ‘references’ (family, school, state institutions)
  • This leads me to another point which is that the various non-religious institutions in Lebanon are dependent on the clerics. the exact type of this dependence is still not clear. But suffice it to say for now that it is as if everybody works for the clerics from the day you are born till the day you die.
  • The power to discipline the body through rituals, the use of objects, sexual practices, etc.

More on this later. First, your thoughts.

This entry was posted in lebanese_society, Lebanon Groups, Sectarianism. Bookmark the permalink.

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