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What is the Legacy of Colonialism in the Arab World? Sectarianism and the Truncated History

January 30, 2012

“If you want to dispossess people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with secondly”

The opening quote above, by the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti[1], reveals a great deal about the way history is narrated and identity of the Middle East is built.  To start with secondly is to ignore what comes first and to sideline other factors which tell a different story. The book Le Liban Contemporain by former Lebanese finance minister Georges Corm makes exactly this point: for too long the starting point of the history of Lebanon has been the National Pact in 1943. The pact sanctioned the partition of the different powers to the different communities in Lebanon, who were assigned with the responsibility to govern the country. This remains for many commentators  the main  feature of a contemporary Lebanon i.e. its sectarian or confessional system whereby positions of government and legislature are distributed amongst the different confessional groups. Such groups, which are cultural and religious, are given political status thus vying the power of the state. The individuals who wants to express the voice must be part of a community. Corm argues that  the possibility of a modern state where all citizens are equal before the law and any intermediary institutions between the State and the citizens is removed cannot materialize in practice in this context.

Corm’s thesis is that such sectarianism is by no means quintessential of Lebanon but it is the result of a history which starts with secondly. He argues that sectarianism is in fact a product of modernity and in particular of the attempt of the European colonial power to find local allies to undermine the Ottoman Empire. From this perspective the politicization of the confessional communities – i.e. the entry of the institution of the communities in the public sphere – is the result of a specific configuration of power which remains obscure when one starts the story with secondly.

Territorialize the Communities. The first moment was the attempt of colonial powers to fix confessional and cultural communities in separate territories. This was concomitant with the decision of the Ottoman empire to modernize its provinces which started in 1830s and aimed at guaranteeing the equality for all subjects before the law. This reform, known as tanzimat, derailed however in the province of Mount Lebanon where the European Great Powers to gain the loyalty of the local inhabitants –the French who claimed to protect the Christian Maronite community and the British, the Druze. Such phenomenon needs to be read against the backdrop of the attempt of France and England to gain access to commercial routes to India. The two European powers orchestrated the division of the Lebanese province requiring the Ottoman Empire to split up Mount Lebanon into two: one for the Druzes and one for the Maronites. This division however built up tensions between these two groups and resulted into the clashes which unfolded between 1840 and 1860 and had a confessional character.

Communities as Source of Temporal Power. The political configuration which was forced upon Lebanon by the colonial power in the following period was one which exchanged territorialized confessional communities only with communities whose presence as political actors was institutionalized. This institutional setting, known as the Mutassarifia regime, foresaw an administrative council which comprised six representatives of the six different communities. In this fashion confessional communities, and not individual citizens, were established as the foundational unit of the Lebanese institutional architecture. Such compromise was crystallized in the 1926 Constitution of the Lebanon under French mandate, which guaranteed the communities be equally represented in public offices while preserving the independence of communitarian educational institutions.

In sum, Corm argues that the system of sectarianism which was confirmed by the National Pact in 1943 cannot be understood without the preceding history of colonial interventions into the region. To tell a story and start with secondly is according to Corm tantamount to mistake the historic contingency of political confessionalism with its perpetuity. Such misunderstanding is not an accident as it serves the possibility of external powers to enter into the region as protectors of the different communities: the allegiance of such communities continues in fact to lies into their external protectors. To tell the story and starting from firstly is to reveal the culprits behind history.


[1] Quoted by Chimamanda Adichie in her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story”

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