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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