Practicing Sectarianism
Archival and Ethnographic Interventions on Lebanon
Edited by Lara Deeb, Tsolin Nalbantian, and Nadya Sbaiti





SECTARIANISM IS A CONCEPT that simply won’t die. Scholars, pundits, and journalists turn to it again and again to describe and explain violence and political strife in the Middle East. Some of the most nuanced of these evocations—those that insist that sectarianism is neither essential nor primordial—still rest on the idea that sectarianism is an indelible constant in the region. Lebanon represents an exemplary case that both generates these assumptions and suggests paths to overcoming them. Lebanon’s seemingly inextricable link with sectarianism led us to this book via a series of conversations across disciplines and time frames, underpinned by questions about how people practice sectarianism: how they use it, live it, and maintain it in their daily lives.1

This recurring conversation was different and, frankly, more interesting than one structured by the perennial question “What do we do about sectarianism?” and its corollary, “What’s the alternative?” These questions have plagued scholars, researchers, and activists working in and on Lebanon and the region more broadly. Both questions fail to consider how and why sectarianism moves through the everyday lives of the region’s inhabitants. This volume aims to change the parameters of scholarship on the subject by engaging with the varied ways in which people live sectarianism daily, in meaningful albeit inconsistent ways. Practicing Sectarianism intervenes directly at this juncture by bringing together scholars from history and anthropology—two disciplines that take as a priori the idea that sectarianism is contingent and constructed—in order to explore the imaginative and contradictory ways in which people engage with sectarianism in the social realm. This volume contends that sectarianism can be more fully understood if we take it seriously as a set of practices, and models a way of doing so in scholarship.

Each scholar whose work is featured in this book uses sectarianism as an animating principle through which to investigate how it is conceived of and practiced within a variety of sites across Lebanon and its diasporas, and over a range of historical periods. By considering how productive the destabilization of sectarianism can be, this volume magnifies how actors in various times and spaces have used the concept to exhibit, imagine, or contest power. What forms of affective pull does sectarianism have on people and communities? What epistemological work does sectarianism do as a concept? How does sectarianism function as a marker of social difference? How is sectarianism mobilized as a multivalent signifier or value claim to convey disagreement or discrimination?

A Materially Impactful, Socially Constructed Sectarianism

Scholars and nonspecialists alike use the term “sectarianism” to refer to at least three different ways in which sect has come to permeate life in Lebanon.2 In its most common usage, the term denotes the imbrication of sect and politics as it manifests in Lebanon’s form of parliamentary democracy, in which all elected and appointed government and public positions are allocated by sect. This deployment of the term is best captured in its specific, modified form: “political-sectarianism.” Second, “sectarianism” is used to describe the Lebanese state’s categorization of its citizens and the country’s personal status laws, which require a citizen who wants to marry, divorce, manage child custody, or distribute inheritance to follow the laws of their official state-designated sect.3 While this aspect of sectarianism is linked to the political-sectarian system, Maya Mikdashi reminds us that it demands attention to sex as well.4 Finally, many Lebanese use the term “sectarianism” to signal how people treat one another based on their sect, whether through discrimination or favoritism, negative stereotypes, or generalized positive regard. This usage intersects with notions of wasta (connections) in ideas about the flow of economic or social or political resources within sect-based networks. These three strands of sectarianism are braided tightly together, sometimes so tightly that their distinctions cannot easily be seen. They cocreate and shape one another.

This book focuses on how these intertwined forms of sectarianism are lived in the everyday. By focusing on the microlevel of social interaction, the chapters that follow add texture to how people live sectarianism inconsistently: resisting it, evading it, and deploying it strategically, sometimes all at once. The everyday is most readily evident in the third form of sectarianism, that of interpersonal interactions. Yet it is also a part of sectarianism’s structural and institutional forms, as it reveals how people interact with the political-sectarian and personal status categories that affect their lives. As Suad Joseph notes, sectarianism is a process of differentiation “that operates through the everyday—through socialization, through family systems, and through various other aspects of social organization in both systematic and erratic or contradictory ways.”5 Each contribution to this book explores how different social actors consider, negotiate, and/or use sectarianism in daily interactions with a variety of effects and often unintended consequences. The authors follow how power moves through sectarian communities in practice; and in so doing, they reveal how sectarianism travels across spatial and temporal boundaries. They highlight a variety of institutions that both limit and expand sectarian belonging and practice, and they show how sectarian identity is complicated by class positioning, historical change, diaspora politics, gender and sexual identities, ideas about religiosity, personal status law, and regional location within Lebanon. By exploring everyday practice, we aim to provide a new model for scholarship—one that understands sectarianism as simultaneously constructed and experienced, as imagined yet materially impactful.

Our intervention adds the dimension of daily experience to a body of scholarship that should have understood sectarianism as constructed, especially since the publication of Ussama Makdisi’s Culture of Sectarianism—a foundational, widely read work that argues that the development of sectarianism in Lebanon was a distinctly modern phenomenon.6 Indeed, scholars have gone on to show that sect should not be treated differently from other communal identities, and is likewise a social and historical product.7 Accordingly, they have argued that political-sectarianism is hardly an inevitable outcome of age-old divisions. Even before the publication of Makdisi’s book detailing the process of sectarianization, Suad Joseph’s dissertation argued that because sects are politicized, they are constructed through social and political processes, and scholars publishing in Arabic addressed sectarianism as thus constructed.8 Historians, anthropologists, and political scientists have continued to explore how sectarianism in Lebanon is produced and reproduced at various local and state levels, including civil society, elite networks, citizenship, urban space, personal status law, and infrastructure.9

Nevertheless, in one recent wave of sectarianism studies, many of the lessons of Makdisi’s pioneering intervention have been lost. These publications tend to focus on only the political-sectarian dimension, and specifically on sectarianism’s deployment by governmental figures, institutions, and ideologies. They exhibit a drive to connect violence (and peace, for that matter) to religion irrespective of time, place, and local struggles for power—ignoring Elizabeth Hurd’s important plea to dethrone “religion as a singular and stable interpretive and policy category.”10 Many analyses of the 2003 US-led war on Iraq, the continued instability and violence in its wake, the disintegration of Syria, the ongoing Saudi-led war on Yemen, the counterrevolution and reinforcement of military rule in Egypt, the crushed uprising in Bahrain, and the concern for the dwindling numbers of Christians in the region have diagnosed sectarianism as the problem.11 And due to an assumption about the “indigenous” nature of sectarianism, some of these takes have ironically designated it as the cure for the region.12

The year 2003 marked the “transferability” of political sectarianism from Lebanon to Iraq. Other locations have also “qualified” or met “eligibility” requirements for the deployment of sectarianism as cure. This use of sectarianism certainly replicates the narrative of authoritarian rulers, as Hurd warns; but perhaps more importantly, it flattens an understanding of populations as passive, timeless victims of their ancestry and origin. It negates people’s self-identifications and their understandings of their own societies, as seen in the cases of Bahrain, Egypt, and Israel/Palestine.13 Further, it overlooks the interdependent relationship between sectarian and national identities, as Fanar Haddad noted in his investigation of the prominence of identity politics in post-2003 Iraq.14 Omar AlShehabi also argues that it obscures other political thoughts, discourses, and movements of the period.15 We are left with a patronizing hypothetical of the Middle East as it could or should be. This hypothetical often emerges from ideas about an earlier, often idealized “nonsectarian” era, an imagination that exposes misunderstanding and ignorance of how inhabitants of the region actually lived and coexisted.16 Those who have contributed to this form of sectarianism’s conceptual resurgence assume that the Middle East and its inhabitants are unwittingly entangled in essentialized identities that lead to political-sectarianism as the only possible form of governance,17 or that sectarianism is the primary reason for enduring systems of power in the region.18 This body of work reproduces the very assumptions it attempts to deconstruct.19

Practicing Sectarianism, refuses both ahistorical and recent starting points, as well as the notion that historical processes are so easily rendered into predictable and fixed “outcomes.” The contributors fold significant events and periodic markers into a larger continuum of Lebanese history, during which sectarianism has been practiced in varied ways. Nearly every chapter reveals paths to sectarianization: the mechanisms by which people start to see others through the lens of sect, or come to act in ways deemed sectarian. By unpacking the (re)production of sectarianism in specific times and places, the authors show how practices of sectarianism that emerge from the ground up, including in interpersonal interactions, affect and effect institutions and structures. Thus they contribute to a growing body of work that has similarly examined the agency of those who enact sectarianism in the realms of political economy and ideological hegemony,20 or within clientelism and political-economic networks.21

Existing works provide strong explanations for how sectarianism is reinforced and reproduced at the levels of the state, civil society, and elite networks. The contributors to this volume insist that even where sectarianism is facilitated or nurtured in top-down ways, its development is never unidirectional and can never be fully understood without deep attention to the everyday. In other words, sectarianization is produced neither solely by structures nor by people on the ground, but through dialectical processes that require the entanglement of the two levels of life and analysis. Political elites in power use sectarian discourses to maintain that power, deploying sectarianism—too often successfully—as a weapon to divide people. As sectarianism in all its forms has been constructed and molded over time, it has shaped the ways people think and live, and has fostered new practices of identification and discrimination. Those practices, in turn, continue to fuel sectarianism’s institutionalized forms. Overall, these ground-up dimensions of sectarianism’s persistence have been understudied in the copious scholarship on its various consequences and manifestations. This book thus adds to this rich but incomplete conversation about why sectarianism is such a persistent part of modern identity and how it is maintained, by focusing on its quotidian, mundane, intimate aspects that are practiced every day.22

The construction of sectarianism does not make its practice any less legitimate as a collection of forces, nor does it dilute its impact on people’s lives.23 Many of us scholars of Lebanon have long shared this unpopular idea among ourselves. But we often hesitate to bring it into our work—not because it is untrue, but because we fear that acknowledging the realities of sectarian experience will only serve policymakers’ erroneous ideas about sectarianism as an essential and primordial characteristic of Lebanon and the Middle East more broadly. In this volume, we collectively insist that one can understand sectarianism as socially constructed and materially impactful at the same time. The chapters by Joanne Nucho and Lara Deeb capture the ways in which sect is co-constituted with other social categories, identities, and practices. Along with Roxana Arãş’s chapter, they also explore how sectarian structures are produced affectively and have affective impacts on people’s lives. Disrupting scholarly tendencies to focus on the perspectives of one sect at a time, Nucho, Tsolin Nalbantian, and Linda Sayed each write about the contestation of sectarian belonging within communal groups, while Deeb, Reem Bailony, Maya Mikdashi, and Nadya Sbaiti each address the uses, limitations, and practices of sectarianism across various Lebanese communities and institutions.

Historiography and Ethnography Juxtaposed

Practicing Sectarianism disrupts ideas about Lebanese institutions and society as being forever entrenched in sectarianism. It offers nuanced analyses of the fissures and inconsistencies through which people practice their identities in far more complex ways. Each contributor approaches Lebanese historiography and/or ethnography without assuming the meanings held by sect as a signifier, and in doing so, links the volume’s theoretical interventions to its methodological approach. Each chapter takes the archive or field site as a key focus for investigation and rereading. While the individual contributions are grounded in disciplinary methods, this volume as a whole considers the relationship between the ethnographic and the archival, and shows how a variety of disciplinary conventions can be mobilized in interdisciplinary ways to shed new light on sectarianism’s many lives. The authors collectively demonstrate how scholarship can break sect open as a category, rethinking Lebanese history and contemporary social dynamics.

By juxtaposing the archive and the ethnographic field site, we highlight a key juncture at which history and anthropology present innovative research possibilities. We raise new questions about what constitutes valid historical records and ethnographic terrain, and about how that legitimacy is determined in the first place. Historians Bailony, Nalbantian, Sayed, and Sbaiti reimagine what comprises the archival terrain for Lebanon. By using or rereading archives that have been overlooked, deemed irrelevant, or explored perfunctorily, they elicit subtleties in how sectarianism offers both opportunities and limitations. They demonstrate that archives are not merely repositories of a finitude of knowledge, but sites that can free scholarship from the restrictive binary of either complicity or insufficiency in relation to conventional sectarian narratives. They argue that much of the way sectarianism has been framed has resulted from historians’ selective reading of the archival terrain around issues of education, law, gender, and diaspora.

Similarly, the contributions by anthropologists Arãş, Deeb, Mikdashi, and Nucho rethink the relationship between their discipline’s key methodological driver—the ethnographic field site—and sectarianism. They refuse to accede to the fear that acknowledging sectarian practice in contemporary life will fuel a political rhetoric that perpetually insists upon sectarianism’s inescapable presence in the Middle East. These ethnographers harness spaces and daily activities that are often overlooked as sites of sectarian practice, and analyze how people mobilize them to diverse ends in arenas such as law, marriage, neighborly relations, and the sensorium. As such, they open new possibilities for articulating the everyday with sectarianism while refuting essentialism and attending to historical shifts.

Temporality is often viewed as the domain of history, yet it shapes this book as a whole, regardless of each chapter’s disciplinary inclinations. Attentive readers will note that most chapters focus on either the Mandate era or the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. To a certain extent, this limitation is related to norms within our disciplines, or to the accessibility of archives and field sites. In the late 1990s, historians of Lebanon began reassessing the Mandate era not merely as an explanatory vehicle for some inevitable sectarian future, but on its own terms as a period of society and politics in formation.24 This research has since been buoyed by the unprecedented expansion of Lebanon’s archival terrain particularly since the mid-to late 2000s, with the most accessible archives and materials primarily informing the interwar period.25 The depth and scope of work on the Mandate period has broadened and nuanced the study of Lebanon in critical ways. By excavating the everyday lived experiences of sectarianism, historians in this volume build on that scholarly focus while also pushing research on this period in new directions. In doing so, we also look forward to future research on the 1943–90 period that will take up the methodological questions raised in this volume.

Ethnographic research on Lebanon has increased exponentially since the mid-1990s,26 and anthropologists have begun asking the kinds of questions addressed in this volume more recently. The ethnographic chapters (Arãş, Deeb, Mikdashi, Nucho) are also saturated with temporality in another way: they remind us that despite disciplinary claims to be studying “the present” as opposed to history’s “past,” anthropology is always about the recent past. The rapidity of social change triggered by compounding forms of devastation in Lebanon has underscored the relationship of ethnography to time. There is something especially jarring about reading (or writing) about people’s contemporary practices of sectarianism while knowing that in the moment between research and writing, their lives have been upended in catastrophic ways.

Similarly, spatiality is often imagined as anthropology’s domain, yet it infuses this book as a whole, as the authors raise questions about how sectarian practices shape and are shaped through space. In their chapters, anthropologists Mikdashi, Arãş, and Nucho evoke the resonance of specific places (court archives, ritual sites, workshops) and neighborhoods with ideas about sect, while historians Sayed and Sbaiti render the courtroom and the school, respectively, as spaces for both producing and restricting sectarian ways of being. These details about the relationship of particular physical encounters with ideas about belonging and difference make evident the critical ways in which daily practice matters to understanding sectarianism. Even while Beirut continues to offer the greatest research accessibility for both historians and anthropologists, the city is not one homogenous space. The chapters in this book by Sbaiti, Arãş, Mikdashi, and Nucho reflect complex webs of neighborhoods, networks, and experiences as their work moves through multiple diverse areas of the city. The capital is often imagined as Lebanon’s center, at the expense of attention to its so-called peripheries; yet none of these chapters, though set in Beirut, are solely “about” Beirut. Going further, Sayed’s chapter leaves the capital entirely and moves to Lebanon’s south, while Deeb questions the relationship between Beirut and other regions of the country, especially as it manifests in stereotypes about Ras Beirut as a “mixed” space. The contributions by Nalbantian and Bailony travel still further, dislodging sectarianism from Lebanon and the Middle East (and in Nalbantian’s case, even from the Lebanese) by highlighting its transnational flows and demonstrating how it is used by inhabitants in other geographies, most notably in the United States.

The thematic and methodological interplays between the two disciplines and across time and space shape our organization of these chapters in a roughly chronothematic order. Sbaiti and Sayed provide critical rereadings of different archives in their analyses of community formation in Mandate Lebanon. Sbaiti attends to the ways in which people used schooling, and circuits of education more broadly, to transgress allegedly impermeable communal boundaries that revolved around the intersection of sect and socioeconomic status. Sayed shows how religious courts became a site where Shiʿi litigants enacted, contested, and reproduced notions of citizenship, sectarian identities, and gendered norms. Mikdashi’s anthropological reading of archives follows, bridging mandate law with contemporary state building in ways that connect to Sayed’s analysis of Jaʿfari court records and Bailony’s focus on state building. Mikdashi presents an ethnographic journey into a Lebanese legal archive, excavating sectarian and other forms of power through archivists’ practices, and considering those practices as part of the archive itself. The contributions by Bailony, Arãş, and Nalbantian cohere around interwoven themes of diaspora and transnationalism, and analyses of specific sectarian and confessional communities.27 Bailony discusses sect and sectarianism in diaspora as processes through which people negotiated nationalism vis-à-vis the homeland, one another, and French colonial and American authorities. Arãş demonstrates how members of the Rum Orthodox community use sensory experience and sensibilities, specifically scent, to negotiate and embody sectarian and intersectarian identities, spaces, and encounters. Nalbantian focuses on the productive nature of sectarianism, analyzing an intra-Armenian conflict related to Cold War geopolitics in order to disabuse the notions of a united Armenian diaspora and of Lebanon as the origin and site of sectarian struggles. The final two chapters, by Nucho and Deeb, provide critical ethnographies of postwar social dynamics that disrupt sect as a coherent category by linking it to class and geography, whether that of neighborhood or of region of origin in Lebanon. Nucho shows how class and sect are mutually constituted categories through her ethnography of work and social welfare practices in an Armenian neighborhood of Beirut. Finally, Deeb analyzes region or neighborhood as a key source of anxiety about sectarian difference in mixed marriages, and considers how “exposure” to various people and places in Lebanon may influence the expression or suppression of sectarian bias.

Lebanon and Beyond

To fully grasp the various ways people practice sectarianism in Lebanon today, we must attend to the historical production of Lebanon as a political terrain. The Ottoman state’s decrees, culminating in the Tanzimat reforms during the mid-1800s, applied to the area that is now Lebanon, as part of the Ottoman Empire. But how inhabitants of the empire “practiced” those decrees varied across the empire. Tanzimat reforms in what is now Lebanon upended the prioritization and practice of “rank rather than religion” as the key social structure of power.28 Ottoman, foreign, and religious authorities such as the Maronite Church reacted with punitive force to these new forms of local organization and knowledge that hinged on sectarian difference—thus exposing a visceral yearning for an imagined yesteryear when elite power was absolute. When that proved impossible, they adapted to and co-opted the new order.29 The combustion of this nostalgic view with the modernization reforms of the Tanzimat, religious violence, and new administrative sectarian structures led to the establishment of Mount Lebanon as an Ottoman mutasarrifiyya, a semiautonomous administrative district, in 1861.

In 1920, following World War I, the French Mandate combined the formerly Ottoman Mount Lebanon with surrounding areas to shape the borders of the contemporary Lebanese nation-state. Over the next two decades, Mandate authorities and local elites cultivated sectarian differences of the late 1800s and enmeshed them into Lebanon’s political, economic, cultural, and social institutions—and, by extension, into daily life. “Only” eighteen sects made the cut: Alawite, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian, Chaldean Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Druze, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Ismaʿili, Jewish, Roman Catholic, Maronite, Protestant, Sunni, Shiʿi, Syriac Catholic, and Syriac Orthodox. Many of the multiple ways in which sect shapes Lebanese life have grown out of this institutionalization. For example, Lebanon’s political-sectarian system was partly imagined in the National Pact, a 1943 tacit agreement between Maronite and Sunni confessional leaders meant to maintain sectarian political balance, and then was delineated for the Parliament in the constitution. Since then, the prime minister has always been Sunni, the president Maronite, and the speaker of Parliament Shiʿi. Moreover, nearly every position, from member of Parliament to mayor to public university professor, has been distributed by sect. Lebanon’s sectarian personal status laws build on these divisions: the state assigns each citizen their father’s sect at birth—unless the parents were not married and the father does not claim the child, in which case the child is assigned the sect of the maternal grandfather.30

While these various forms of institutionalized sectarianism (especially the personal status laws) have been on the table for revision at different times since Lebanon’s establishment, the October 2019 uprising in Lebanon brought the political-sectarian system to the foreground. Explicit calls to dismantle the system were both a culmination of the growth of multiple activist movements over the past decades—including the intersection of antisectarian, feminist, environmentalist, and queer rights strands—and an echo of earlier movements on the left. The strength of these calls in the fall of 2019 demonstrated the need to understand how sectarianism is selectively and strategically practiced by Lebanon’s inhabitants in the everyday. Sectarianism—even in its political-sectarian or legal forms—is not simply a removable frame that, once “dismantled,” would allow Lebanon to “be” like other presumably “normal” nation-states that supposedly have perfected the separation of church and state.31 The popular uprising during the fall and winter of 2019, along with its predecessors and the ensuing demonstrations, confrontations, conversations, and frustrations, emphatically demand that researchers and activists engage with sectarianism as a complex constellation of institutions, ideas, and practices.32 Its collision with the global covid-19 pandemic, Lebanon’s economic collapse, and the brute criminality of the Lebanese government that led to the August 4, 2020, port explosion necessitates more imaginative studies to understand and counter the myriad ways people, especially political elites, redeploy sectarianism.

These crises have confirmed the impossibility of framing Lebanon along sectarian lines. While protesters around the country and across sects called for an end to sectarianism and for the downfall of its representative leaders, they did not all do so for the same reasons. Many called for the dismantling of sectarianism as a system, along with its handmaidens: patriarchy, racism, and economic injustice. Others cited its failure to live up to its promises of resource allocation. At the same time, sectarian leaders cynically used the covid-19 pandemic relief efforts to shore up their constituencies. The ensuing disasters of economic collapse and the port explosion thus helped renew the conditions for sectarian support while simultaneously laying bare the instrumental and malleable ways in which citizens and residents in Lebanon continue to understand the uses and limitations of sect as an identity, and of sectarianism as a communal sphere.

While Practicing Sectarianism takes Lebanon as the crucible for its exploration, by bringing together scholarship focused on a variety of sites, including the diaspora, it seeks to help dislocate sect and sectarianism from Lebanon, and to question the physical and ideological contours of the nation-state. Indeed, this volume’s insights into how people’s practices contribute to sectarian dynamics are relevant beyond Lebanon.33 Just as politicians and policy makers invoked Lebanon to model the political-sectarian system in Iraq, Lebanon can be used to unravel assumptions about sectarian workings elsewhere in the Middle East and beyond. At the same time, we aim to draw attention to how narrow understandings of sectarianism that persist in some disciplines other than anthropology and history—such as psychology, political science, and public policy—muddle rather than clarify the topic.34

We hope that the theoretical and methodological interventions presented here inspire scholars and students both familiar and unfamiliar with the region to carry our arguments to other contexts and geographies where scholarship has drawn on the frame of sectarianism to understand conflict—such as the Central African Republic, Ireland, Indonesia, Kashmir, the Balkans, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.35 To the extent that insights about sectarianism translate to contexts where other forms of social difference, such as racism, dominate, these arguments may resonate with scholars working on the United States and parts of Europe as well. Our interventions on sectarianism will fall short if iterations of Lebanese exceptionalism prevent comparisons and interconnections—particularly with areas outside the Middle East—from even being considered. At the same time, the consideration of connections across time and space must proceed with care. Our call to take sectarianism seriously as a practice is not a call to merely replace political-sectarian readings, which would lead to even more homogenization. The chapters in this book show how, by counterintuitively expanding how sect operates, people can exert pressure from below on systems that assume it to be a fixed category. People live sectarianism in imaginative and innovative ways.

Whether thinking about Lebanon or elsewhere, the contributors to this volume write about sectarianism in order to disrupt its epistemological and discursive hegemony. Some chapters show how sectarianism is used in non-binary ways, moving away from the simplistic paradigm of “sectarian” versus “antisectarian,” which has imprisoned us in the face of the inequality, corruption, and criminal behavior of political sectarian leaders in Lebanon. Many of the people and institutions described in this book deploy sect at various points between these poles, and complicate it as an identity and a practice. Other chapters show how deeply ideas about sect, as well as other forms of difference, are internalized. This forces us to confront the inconsistencies in antisectarian calls that still view certain members of society through a sectarian lens. We see the limits of solidarity—whether in the form of sect, class, or race—and we must address them. We can do better.

This book insists that we set aside the naive notion that dismantling a sectarian system will necessarily lead to the disappearance of sectarianism in people’s daily lives. However, unlike Lebanese politicians who use the idea that sectarianism already exists in society to justify the political-sectarian system, we emphasize that sectarianism’s diffusion into the everyday means that we must work against the social categories it creates, and against the impulse to simultaneously fall back on them to succeed. This is a call for change in all of sectarianism’s forms—political-sectarian, personal status, and interpersonal—in structures and institutions as well as the everyday, with our eyes wide open to the multiple challenges it presents, and to possibilities of empowerment we may not want to see. Such change must include working against other forms of discrimination and deployments of power through identity in Lebanon: gender, class, and—less frequently discussed but no less important—race. Killun yaʿni killun—“All of them means all of them”—may also mean “All of them means all of us.” With that in mind, we look to Joanne Nucho’s use in this volume of the notion of “doing collective” as a potential way forward. If we hold to the notion that communities, including sectarian ones, are created through collective labor, we can also hold a vision of collective labor that unravels or challenges sectarian ways of being and creates more capacious and empowered kinds of communities.


1. Several “thematic conversations” held at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association during this time addressed sectarianism, including one in 2017 that highlighted its everyday forms, organized by then-graduate students Jenna Rice Rahaim and Yasemin Ipek.

2. For a discussion of the consequences of this semantic muddle for scholarship, see Fanar Haddad, “Sectarianism and Its Discontents in the Study of the Middle East,” Middle East Journal 71, no. 3 (2017): 363–82.

3. In Lebanon, there are fifteen personal status laws for the eighteen sects.

4. Maya Mikdashi, Sextarianism: Sovereignty, Secularism and the State in Lebanon (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2022).

5. Suad Joseph, “Pensée 2: Sectarianism as Imagined Sociological Concept and as Imagined Social Formation,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 40, no. 4 (November 2008): 553.

6. Ussama Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

7. A nonexhaustive list includes Caesar E. Farah, The Politics of Interventionism in Ottoman Lebanon: 1830–1861 (London: I. B. Tauris, 2000); Caroleen Marji Sayej, Patriotic Ayatollahs: Nationalism in Post-Saddam Iraq (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018); Fawwaz Traboulsi, A History of Modern Lebanon (New York: Pluto Press, 2007); Max Weiss, The Shadow of Sectarianism: Law, Shiʿism, and the Making of Modern Lebanon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); Karen Kern, Imperial Citizen: Marriage and Citizenship in the Ottoman Frontier Provinces of Iraq (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011).

8. Suad Joseph, “The Politicization of Religious Sects in Borj Hammoud, Lebanon,” (PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 1975). Iliya Harik, Politics and Change in a Traditional Society, Lebanon 1711–1845 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968); Ahmad Beydoun, Al-Jumhuriyya al-Mutaqatiʿa: Masaʾir al-Sigha al-Lubnaniyya baʿd Itifaq al-Taʾif (Beirut: Dar al-Nahar, 1999); Masʿoud Daher, Al-Judhur al-Tarikhiyya li-l-Masʾala al-Taʾifiyya al-Lubnaniyya, 1697–1861 (Beirut: Maʿhad al-Inma’ al-ʿArabi, 1981); Fouad Shahine, Al-Taʾifiyya fi Lubnan: Hadirha wa Judhurha al-Tarikhiyya al-Ijtimaʿiyya (Beirut: Dar al-Hadatha, 1986); Mohammad Tarhini, Al-Usus al-Tarikhiyya li-Nizam Lubnan al-Taʾifi, Dirasa Muqarina (Beirut: Dar al-Afaq, 1981).

9. This literature includes Suad Joseph, ed., Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000); Paul Kingston, Reproducing Sectarianism: Advocacy Networks and the Politics of Civil Society in Postwar Lebanon (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2013); Janine Clark and Bassel Salloukh, “Elite Strategies, Civil Society, and Sectarian Identities in Postwar Lebanon,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 45, no. 4 (2013): 731–49; Lara Deeb and Mona Harb, Leisurely Islam: Negotiating Geography and Morality in South Beirut (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013); Melani Cammett, Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014); Bassel Salloukh et al., The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (London: Pluto Press, 2015); Joanne Nucho, Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon: Infrastructures, Public Services, and Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016); Kristin Monroe, The Insecure City: Space, Power, and Mobility in Beirut (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016); Hiba Bou Akar, For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018); Maya Mikdashi, Sextarianism; Max Weiss, “The Historiography of Sectarianism in Lebanon.” History Compass 7, no. 1 (2009): 141–54.

10. Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, “Politics of Sectarianism: Rethinking Religion and Politics in the Middle East,” Middle East Law and Governance 7 (2015): 63.

11. Hamid Alkifaey, The Failure of Democracy in Iraq: Religion, Ideology and Sectarianism (New York: Routledge, 2020); Toby Matthiesen, Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013). Geneive Abdo, The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shiʿa-Sunni Divide (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017).

12. Mona Damluji, “‘Securing Democracy in Iraq:’ Sectarian Politics and Segregation in Baghdad, 2003–2007,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 21, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 71–87; Haider Ali Hamoudi, Negotiating in Civil Conflict: Constitutional Construction and Imperfect Bargaining in Iraq (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014); Elisheva Machlis, Shiʿi Sectarianism in the Middle East: Modernisation and the Quest for Islamic Universalism (London: I. B. Tauris, 2014); Joel Rayburn, Iraq after America: Strongmen, Sectarians, Resistance (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2014); Frederic M. Wehrey, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf: From the Iraq War to the Arab Uprisings (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); International Crisis Group, The Central Sahel: The Perfect Sandstorm (Brussels: International Crisis Group, 2015). There are, of course, some exceptions that take a more nuanced view, including Fanar Haddad, Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014), Sayej, Patriotic Ayatollahs; and Omar AlShehabi, Contested Modernity, Sectarianism, Nationalism, and Colonialism in Bahrain (London: Oneworld, 2019).

13. Hurd, “Politics of Sectarianism.”

14. Fanar Haddad, Sectarianism in Iraq, 2. Caroleen Marji Sayej, in her study on senior Shiʿi clerics in Iraq after 2003, similarly demonstrates how “rather than co-opting the state, as the clergy serving the majority, or encouraging sectarian violence, they were central in keeping the state-building project on track.” Patriotic Ayatollahs, 4.

15. AlShehabi, Contested Modernity, 10.

16. In contrast to these over-idealizations, for an excellent recent study of the complexity of this coexistence, see Ussama Makdisi’s Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World (Oakland: University of California Press, 2019), which highlights the possibilities for pluralism rather than sectarianism in the multireligious Levant.

17. For example, John Eibner’s edited volume The Future of Religious Minorities in the Middle East (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017) approaches sectarianism as a phenomenon that requires a scholar-as-outsider to warn people of its dangers, presumably because people living within that environment cannot understand, or refuse to understand, their apparently dire circumstances.

18. See Laure Guirguis, Copts and the Security State (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2016).

19. Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel’s edited volume Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017) is a good example—it includes nuanced chapters, but the overall framing of the volume has the effect of getting in its own way.

20. Salloukh et al, Politics of Sectarianism.

21. Cammett, Compassionate Communalism; Kingston, Reproducing Sectarianism.

22. Our volume thus joins a growing body of scholarship that has thus far been primarily ethnographic, including Bou Akar, For the War Yet to Come; Deeb and Harb, Leisurely Islam; Sami Hermez, War Is Coming: Between Past and Future Violence in Lebanon (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017); Mikdashi, Sextarianism; and Nucho, Everyday Sectarianism.

23. Black feminist scholars have long made this argument about race and racism. For example, see Faye Harrison, “The Persistent Power of ‘Race’ in the Cultural and Political Economy of Racism,” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 47–74.

24. Elizabeth Thompson, Colonial Citizens: Republican Rights, Paternal Privilege, and Gender in French Syria and Lebanon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

25. See, for example, Cyrus Schayegh and Andrew Arsan, eds. The Routledge Handbook of the History of the Middle East Mandates (New York: Routledge, 2015).

26. Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar, “Anthropologies of Arab-Majority Societies,” Annual Review of Anthropology 41 (2012): 537–58.

27. For clarity: We do not use “confessional” and “sectarian” as synonyms, but hold “confessional” as the term for divisions within transnational religious communities, and “sectarian” as the specific politicized form these divisions have taken in the context of Lebanon and its diasporas. For more, see Arãş, chapter 5 in this volume.

28. See Makdisi, Culture of Sectarianism, for the best elucidation of these processes.

29. See Carol Hakim, The Origins of the Lebanese National Idea, 1840–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 10.

30. One can convert to another sect, and people do so all the time, to change the personal status law that will apply for matters like inheritance or divorce. But the feasibility of such a move depends on one’s resources, and upon the two sects between which one is moving. For example, it is relatively simple for a Christian to become a different kind of Christian in order to be able to divorce, or for a Muslim to become a different kind of Muslim to facilitate an inheritance. Switching between religions is more complicated (becoming Christian in particular often takes time), but is still quite doable for many Lebanese.

31. Tsolin Nalbantian, “Going beyond Overlooked Populations in Lebanese Historiography: The Armenian Case,” History Compass 11, no. 10 (2013): 821–32.

32. See Rima Majed on how transformations in protest politics created new alignments that affect the shape of sectarian differences. “In Defense of Intra-Sectarian Divide: Street Mobilization, Coalition Formation, and Rapid Realignments of Sectarian Boundaries in Lebanon,” Social Forces 1 (2020): 1–26.

33. Ussama Makdisi’s Culture of Sectarianism and Age of Coexistence both discuss sectarianism in relation to modern political systems outside Lebanon., Makdisi lays out this research agenda clearly in “Corrupting the Sublime Sultanate: The Revolt of Tanyus Shahin in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 42, no. 1 (2000): 181–82.

34. Eli J. Finkel et al., “Political Sectarianism in America,” Science 370, no. 6516 (2020): 533–36.

35. There are, of course, scholars who rail against this. See, for example, Radhika Gupta, who argues that the lack of looking at “sectarian relations and their salience in everyday life due to the attention paid to the study of communal relations and critical events marked by violence reinforces the ghetto effect by homogenizing and reifying Muslims into a singular, undifferentiated category.” Radhika Gupta, “There Must Be Some Way Out of Here: Beyond a Spatial Conception of Muslim Ghettoization in Mumbai?” Ethnography 16, no. 3 (September 2015): 367–68. See also Nosheen Ali, “Sectarian Imaginaries: The Micropolitics of Sectarianism and State-Making in Northern Pakistan,” Current Sociology 58, no. 5 (September 2010): 738–54.