Are you a leftist or a Shi’a?

We often hear people deplore the state of ‘Shi’a affairs’. According to this line of reasoning, although “the Shi’a” filled the majority ranks of Leftist parties in the 60s and 70s, they were the most ‘secular’ of all ‘confessions’ in the country, but that a guy like Musa Al Sadr had to screw things up and make them more ‘sectarian’ with the formation of the political and social movement known as Amal. That’s a classical “Lebanese leftist” argument. Where is this ‘secular’, ‘progressivist’ spirit that “the Shi’a” had and somehow lost with religious preaching, we can almost hear them say.

Where is the fallacy here? It is already in the very content of the argument: Shi’a were identified as Shi’a whether in Leftist or other form of organization before the advent of a significant Shi’a political organization. The confessional nature of our political system is so pervasive that leftist critics forget to see how confessional they are when they make such arguments. Confessionalism is the naming of a group of people under one brand, here for example, “The Shi’a”. In reality, when someone identifies as “a Shi’a” it does not mean he is referring to a generic use of the term that everybody refers to. Although political organization and discourse try to do just that – and people believe in this strongly – “being a Shi’a”, a “Maronite”, or a “Druze” can mean so many different things to different people.

But this generic pull (the abstract reference to a specific signifier) is so pervasive that political formation could only succeed durably in the case where you mobilize using that category. Warning, here I am not referring to the other causes of the effectiveness of confessional mobilization that include institutional presence (ritualistic, educative, etc.), financial help (outside or inside mobilization of resource), etc. I am referring to something that stands before all that, that prompts people to identify in the first place to one set of discourse instead of another.

The discourse and labeling that counts is the one that becomes politically authoritative. So that I am not accused of plagiarism (and not because I want to sound pedantic) I can say that Bourdieu said that.

Another thing to note is that Leftist organizations were mostly controlled by Greek Orthodox leaders, Shi’a forming the majority at the lower level echelons of the organizations. When the communist parties had strong institutions in the South they were organizing seminars, activities, social help etc, but they were still coming from somewhere else, interacting with rituals, popular dispositions, ways of life, and what have you that sometimes did not match the “communist” discourse, unlike the different “shi’a” rhetoric that came later on. The other one could be considered more like ‘homegrown’ or something (I like this term, since somebody used it in the comment section, someone called HT, I’d like to know who that stands for).

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The New Remarkz

Do you like the new interface? As you can see I have definitely reached a new stage in the blogging experience… But all this thanks to the one and only Moussa from Urshalim who opened my eyes to the wonderful world of WordPress and had to listen to me trying to make up my mind on the appropriate interface. Please don’t forget to update your bookmarks, favorites, web links, etc. There are so many of few, hhhmm, you that I must remind you of that. I’m still working on updating the blog so those who don’t see their link on the right have patience.

The secular and the religious (Part I): Conceptual confusions

Let’s wrap up the concerns that were voiced over the idea of an Islamic State. This text is a bit disarticulate and is mostly a series of thoughts on the question that I fail to more effectively organize. But I have been trying to produce a decent post about this for the two last weeks and I promised an answer so here it is. This is just the first part. Part II will be on the actual practices, historical and present, of political movements and institutions in the Middle East in relation to the concerns raised in the comment section of the last post.

I will start by the statement I found the most interesting: “I disagree though that an Islamic or for that matter any religiously derived state is better than a secular one. Unless the religious is regulated in a secular way”.

At the heart of this highly coherent and seemingly legitimate comment, lies the working of modern hegemony: The acceptance of a social system that has changed the significance of the term ‘religion’ or for that matter our understanding of the “religious” phenomenon and led to the rise of another elusive concept, the “secular”. The trigger of this discursive shift is the emergence, the rise of the almighty modern nation-state. New structures of power require new conceptualizations of social reality. The definition of two allegedly different phenomenon namely “the religious” and the “secular” is a political move before anything else.

It does not mean that the secular creates similar social spaces than the religious, on the contrary, but it is important to remember that the difference has nothing to do with something intrinsically religious or secular about it. Ok, for now I’m talking abstract and enigmatically so let’s try to illustrate.

When we use these terms we usually mean several connected spheres of social life:
1- personal beliefs about reality physical or spiritual
2- rituals and practices we engage in and the meaning we give to them (i.e. 1)
3- legal rules we abide by that regulate the interaction between social agents
4- Institutions that have the power to enforce the legal rules specific to the region (the State, courts, etc.

When people discuss the relation between the religious and the secular they usually refer to one or more of the four mentioned areas. The problem, I think is that sometimes they mix everything up. In a pre-modern settings these 4 areas of social life are not politically separate or distinguished, but the rise of modernity triggered a discursive separation, meaning that it enabled intellectuals, political actors, institutions etc, to talk of a separation of spheres.

The rise of “the secular” as a space in modern politics is, if you ask me, a big trick. In marxist linguo, it serves to preserve the interests of the overarching state (thus the dominant actors behind it). The rise of the ‘secular’ is accompanied by the rise of the concept of “individual”. The individually maximizing profit type of actor. The individual who thinks independently of his social structures. When we refer to the fact that ‘the individual’ should be free to make his own decision about what he believes in is to play by the rules of modern political structures of power. In this case, we fail to understand that in the first place, individual are social actors, meaning that they form beliefs ‘socially’, that their decisions are socially determined. But this valorization of the individual paves the way to the biggest political alienation of the individual which is the creation of the national actor. So you become an individual who is supposed to make his own decisions about things provided that you’re labeled from birth to death as a ‘citizen’ with benefits, and responsibilities vis-a-vis an overarching State.

So the State compartmentalize the four areas mentioned above. It privatize what becomes “religion”. Whereas in a pre-modern setting there is no such thing as “religion”, but more of a general understanding of social and political life that disursively links beliefs to rituals and political rule. It does not mean at all that people are automatons following the dominant ways of holding beliefs, it just means that talking about beliefs as different from rituals and other social activities, at the political level is non-sense. Privatizing religion (saying that religion is a private affair everyone chooses to practice on his own) involves fooling the individual into thinking that he is free to make his own beliefs about things, and these beliefs will be called “religion”, or non-religious is they don’t derive from a tradition of beliefs.

Arguing that there is something peculiarly religious about Islamic political movements is I think to miss the point of general political, social, and economic processes at stake. We think we have different beliefs about life etc. The content may be different but the form is pretty much the same. We all believe the same way. There is a striking resemblance between women who strive to look undressed and those that veil. Both are elaborating a specific representation of femininity. It is basically the metaphors that change, linguistic metaphors that end shaping the conceptualization of our Self. And this process is virulently social: We are all social agents holding socially determined beliefs. Rimbaud was not that stupid when he said “je est un autre” (I is another or Self is Other).

Also, we should not think that when one talks about being ‘religious’ he means going back to a pre-modern understanding of the four areas mentioned above (even if he/she think he/she is). Islamic movements for example accept, whether consciously or unconsciously the dominant social paradigm of modernity. Why? Not because there is something special about them but because of the imperative of new political and economic structures in place namely the modern-State.

Islamic movements are totally in line with these new conceptual categories the modern State feeds to the people. In this sense claiming to want an Islamic state is a profoundly modern phenomenon. The key here is that the reaction against the dominant discourse of ‘secularism’ is one against the identification to institutions that are not ‘homegrown’ (a point mentioned by one commentator). In this sense if I can vulgarize a bit, asking for an Islamic state is asking for a different ‘nationality’. Of course here the process of national formation is very different from initial European ones at the very least because the former is a post-colonial one. This is why we may in the foreseeable future see the rise of modern-state that are not exactly “nations” in the old European sense (as Islamic movements approach power).

So Secularism cannot exist without nationalism (or maybe other forms of projected collective history) i.e. language and stories from which governance legitimacy is derived. Likewise nationalistic manifestation in the Middle East take place through the discursive Islamic prism. France is ‘secular’ but without French ‘history’ of kings, revolutions, age of enlightenment and other Totemization of the past (to use a Straussian concept) what would become of the secular “French” system.

One should read Islamic resurgence through the same lens: the dialectical relation of social actors to a specific territory, its institutions. The Islamic is the set of signifiers attached to specific representations of the self. It is in this sense, I think, that the secular/Islamic debate is a bit sterile at the normative level. At the legal level, it wants to derive the rule of land, people, and resources from a different regional and historical context.

I have tried to understand Islamic movements as a cultural movement through the use of language in an earlier post for those interested. But I will have to develop these ideas further.

Civil society busts you in your email

Hey friends, did you know that “civil society” invites you to attend a march that will take place on the 13th of April from the Mar Mikhael Church in Chiyah to Martyr’s Square in downtown? The objective is to remember the ‘martyrs’ who died during the CIVIL (i.e. clan VS clan of people calling themselves Lebanese) war.

I just got the press release by email. That’s another thing “civil society” can do in Lebanon, it can reach any ‘citizen’ inside the country without having to ask for his email. But that’s not my main point here. My point rather is actually made up of several sub-points:

1- Who the hell is civil society? Some day, we will need a dedicated person to do a genealogy of this term, especially through its use in post-colonial societies.

2- Why on the Arabic press release it is signed “civil society” whereas on the English one there is no signature. Why on the English press it is “civil society organizations invite you to” whereas on the Arabic one it is “civil society invites you to”? Maybe because in Arabic we are required to believe that such an abstract and absurd concept exist somehow floating, transcending, our miserable lives, whereas in English, we’re pragmatic enough to know these are just a bunch of organization that are trying to mobilize people into identifying to some aspect of what would be called the common “Lebanese experience”.

3- What’s really nice about this event is that once on Martyr’s square, amidst the security guards, military personnel, secret service rascals of all creed, we will have a television (don’t bother mentioning which one) that will broadcast a “host various journalists to discuss the themes of suffering, heroism, and hope”. Great, more journalistic stupid rants in an overall moralizing discourse, that’s what we need. Seriously sometimes I miss the priests, sheikhs, or what we commonly refer to as “religious” figures.

4- But what’s really even nicer, is that the television broadcast “will close with a joint prayer with representatives from Lebanon’s religious communities and will be transmitted simultaneously by all the television networks”. Isn’t that cute? it reminds me of Gebran Tueni (grand racist and right wing frustrated individual)’s slogan (that he must have rehearsed for days in his office before pronouncing it during the successive theatrical and pathetic speeches of March 14) that says something like” We swear to God, Muslims and Christians that we will stand by our nation Lebanon”. The bottom line is: Make sure that Confessionalism is something to rest upon, to pray upon, to praise, to worthy, in order to achieve peace. Good luck.

If someone needs the press release please let me know. I can email it.

Fath al Islam: a quick update

Itani has a little update on the state of affairs regarding the bad guys in the north and their friends in the south, in the Palestinian camp of Ain el Helweh. I just want to point out one or two things that I think we can conclude from everything that happened pre and post the Nahr el Bared debacle.

1- Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the US voluntarily and involuntarily had a hand in making circumstances ripe for Fath al Islam and other darker versions of “Islamists” militants to emerge. Syria, by kicking “al Qaeda” elements out of its country in order to clean its landscape and throwing it back on us. the US through the Mustaqbal movement, and actually the Mustaqbal movement on its own by trying to co-opt these wild creature and try to tame their zealousness with a bit of cash and status promises, and Saudi Arabia by simply sending official delegations to Lebanon for some conference who never went back. It seems also that the international “Rafic Hariri” airport of Beirut has unfolded red carpets for many of these dudes.

2- When something happens, like a crisis or something, the stupidest thing to say is “he’s the guy responsible for it”. Even in the case of an assassination or the start of a war. What’s important is why in the first place such an event is possible and in this case political circumstances are many, are multi-faceted and at the end of the day, what counts is who gets to gain from it, and who gets to lose.

Do you prefer a "Secular" or an "Islamic" State?

Al haqid, during a lunch we just had, defied me to defend the idea that an Islamic State would be better than a Secular one, especially in the case of the protection of minority rights. Of course here by “minorities”, I mean any group that derive its imaginary sense of belonging from a different tradition (discursive that is) than the Islamic one. So in the case of Lebanon, most importantly religious minorities. This leads me to first make several claims that I think are crucial before defending my position:

1- There is no basic difference at the theoretical between a Secular and an Islamic state. It is only in terms of the institutions empowered and the repartition of power that difference could arise. there is nothing intrinsically more ‘democratic’ or ‘just’ in one or the other.
2- The conceptualization of an Islamic state is an imaginary one that include a lot of the secular tradition, especially as elaborated by Islamists. Today, the debate between both ‘systems’ is not a normative one because they are not clear cut and one discourse component has penetrated the other, this leads me to the two last points:
3- The question of an Islamic state is mostly tied to a question of belonging to a specific history and not to a form of governance
4- The secular state should not be the point of reference in terms of efficiency. The secular state hides many unresolved questions such as the one of the justification of nationalism, the resulting discourse of difference and the treatment of ‘national’ subjects especially in the age of growing minorities in the West.

So my argument goes as follows. In the case of the Middle East. Or what has been labeled as the Middle East, an Islamic state is not something to outrightly condemn, something that if probably well implemented may be more adequate than a ‘secular’ system. First of all because there no one ‘type’ of Islamic state, second because the claim for an Islamic state has to do more with a ‘national’ configuration of territory (imaginary sense of belonging), drawing on tradition, social practices, etc. And it is my belief that a political system that mirrors and travels well with age old institutions in place will be more efficient than any other. And in terms of minority treatment in the area we call the Middle East, we know for a fact that the Ottoman Empire area was one of the most peaceful between confessions, ‘ethnicities’ etc. So far as I can recall our biggest problems started with the colonialist quests, the subsequent breakup of the region and the formation of the ‘secular-state’.

Christian desperation to be "different"

A disproportionate number of the Middle Eastern country’s Christian men carry a Y chromosome that is clearly of Western European origin, which scientists believe was carried to the region by Crusaders and pilgrims between the 11th and 13th centuries.
This genetic signature is more often seen among Christians, and more rarely in Lebanon’s Muslim or Druze communities. The Y chromosomes of many Muslim men trace their ancestry to earlier migrations from the Arabian Peninsula, as Islam spread during the 7th and 8th centuries.
The findings, from a study of 926 Lebanese men, suggest that both Christian and Muslim communities in Lebanon owe their origins, at least in part, to different founding events.
Study co-leader Pierre Zalloua, of the Lebanese American University in Beirut, said: ‘This (has) revealed new insights into the complex history of my country.’
The research, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, focused on the male Y chromosome, which can be used to chart patrilineal descent. It found 10 per cent of Lebanese Christian men belong to a Y group known as R1b, which is of Western European origin. Just 6per cent of non-Christians had this kind of chromosome.
This indicates that more Christians than non-Christians have at least one male ancestor from Western Europe, and fits with the region’s history.
More than 250,000 men from Europe travelled to the Middle East during the four Crusades.

Now ok this is a very funny article treating a very pathetic concern but there are things important to note here:

1- The study was conducted by some Christian ‘academic’ from a public university in Lebanon. This tells you a lot about the presence of a knowledge industry that searches and elaborates through scientific legitimating methods the presence of particularities.
2- I really love how this contradicts a lot of Christian claims saying that those who really ‘made out’ with the crusaders were the Shi’a (la’ano keno feltenin) who obviously have a higher intensity of blonds, blue eyed and round cheeks (of course this is another bullshit theory but in this case not being pushed for legitimation).
3- Maronite Christians historically come from the Arab peninsula whether you want it or not. Now in the process was there any fornication that followed that I am sure it sometimes happened with whomever was on the way and depending on a case by case basis. But Maronite Christians are the most Arab types of Christians through their rites, their use of the language, their social practices, etc. (I’m talking historically, because today and especially since the civil war, they changed a lot in all these practices).