Posts Tagged With: confessionalisation

No confessionalisation, no “party” (April 2013)


(“No to confessionalism”. Picture taken by Estella Carpi, Downtown, Beirut, 7th January 2013)

I have just got through yesterday’s article “The Cold Front” on NowLebanon: one of the worst aetiological interpretations of the 2006 war (between Israel and Lebanon) I’ve ever come across.

Abdul-Hussain, the article’s author based in Washington, thinks he can brilliantly explain how the July war has broken out: Hezbollah is the only one that has interests in opening fire first. Israel has not. Not even for a preemptive war.

Going beyond these quite arguable assumptions on the 2006 war, the author, in a bid to denounce the artificial construction of the Zionist enemy, ends up creating a new construction by merely replacing the previous one: the chronic confessionalisation of war commitments and inputs. In the case of Hezbollah, therefore, he denies the engagement of the party in the Palestinian issue by portraying the latter as a sunni cause that Shiites would have no interest for. The author does recognise the big hoax that the Axis of Resistance implies about protecting Palestinians. It is in fact enough to spend some time in the Palestinian camps throughout Lebanon and in the shiite areas stricken by the 2006 war, to find out that the idea of Islamic Resistance should be unpacked into several conceptions and experiences, highly diversified among Lebanese Shiites and Palestinians in Lebanon.

I also agree with his need for unearthing the hypocrisy behind the supposed protection of the Palestinians – bombed by the Asad regime and even fought by Hezbollah in Lebanese history (and we could also mention a lacking homogenised rhetoric around the “value” of Resistance in the everyday narratives of people from the two groups).

I categorically refuse, however, to adopt the confessional lens to justify Hezbollah’s actual disengagement in the Palestinian cause, in that “there is nothing shiite about Palestine”, as the author contends.

In a similar vein, Abdul-Hussain seems to justify the absence, the neglect and the shameful corruption of the Siniora’s government throughout the days of the July war, by identifying such a (failed) state behaviour with Hezbollah’s anti-sunni propaganda among “its people”. And it is exactly in the form of a “from anti-Israel to anti-sunni struggle” that Hezbollah’s evolutive behaviour is interpreted by Abdul-Hussain.

All these are clear signs that old epistemological confessionalisation is still hard to die. Why on earth, in order to dismantle regional myths about political balances, should we need to resort to confessional explanations?

(Estella Carpi)

P.S. My sources about the corruption of the Lebanese government and its total military “laissez-faire” – apart from hundreds of local people’s accounts – are the unofficial declarations of the governmental ministers and of the ex PM Fouad Siniora contained in the Wikileaks cables (July-September 2006).


April 15, 2013

The Cold Front

How long will the Israeli-Lebanese border remain peaceful?

A Lebanese soldier (right) and a member of UNIFIL stand guard on the Isreal-Lebanon border. (AFP)

The Lebanese live on the edge. They expect war all the time, whether it spills over from Syria, or is provoked by a strike on Iran, or is predicated by hot tempers reaching a boiling point and Sunnis and Shiites take their fight to the streets. One front, however, looks colder than usual. For the first time in decades, Lebanon’s southern border is quiet, and neither Hezbollah nor Israel are interested in escalation.

UNSC Resolution 1701, which ended the war and now governs the peace, is flimsy on paper, but has proven durable on the ground, giving the region its second-longest stretch of calm with since the creation of Israel. Tel Aviv, therefore, has no interest in launching war against Hezbollah, preemptive or otherwise.

So for war to breakout, Hezbollah will have to open fire first, and many believe that because Hezbollah’s decisions are inspired by its patrons in Tehran, it will only go to war when it is instructed to. But even for a regional proxy like Hezbollah, all politics is local.

In Lebanon, the Shiites support Hezbollah, but not unconditionally. The 2006 war jeopardized Hezbollah’s standing among the Shiites who saw their villages razed. Iran came to Hezbollah’s rescue by shipping bags of cash that were doled out to hard-hit families and individuals.

During the 14 weeks that followed the end of the war, Hezbollah tried to contain Shiite anger by dispersing cash. But Shiite frustration proved insurmountable even with Iran’s petrodollars.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah thus understood that while most of his supporters were blindly following for benefits, the majority of Shiites were not particularly dedicated to liberating Palestine, historically a Sunni issue that Iran’s Ruhollah Khomeini tried to exploit in order to spread his revolution to Sunni Arab countries.

Yet despite Khomeini’s efforts, there is nothing Shiite about Palestine; no Shiite imams or their families ever set foot or are buried there, unlike in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon. Even the third-holiest site in Islam, Jerusalem’s Omar’s Mosque, carries a name the Shiites abhor and never give to their children.

Without links to Palestine and with the 2006 inferno, the Shiites found it counterintuitive to keep fighting Israel, a lesson that was not lost on Hezbollah.

During the 2006 war, an embattled Nasrallah became all-encompassing in his speeches, especially as Shiites took refuge in non-Shiite neighborhoods. His allies praised Sunni Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, calling his government a “resistance cabinet” for its diplomatic role in shaping 1701.

But after the war, the Shiites had a change of heart, and Hezbollah had to follow.

In December, Hezbollah started a sit-in in downtown Beirut demanding Siniora’s resignation, blaming him for the ills that had befallen the Shiites during the war and condemning what they called the corrupt and deliberately slow relief and reconstruction efforts. Hezbollah was looking for a scapegoat, and the Sunnis fit the bill in a way that resonated with the majority of the Shiites.

Until then, Lebanon’s Sunnis had accused Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad of killing their leader Rafiq Hariri in 2005. But with the rise of Shiite anti-Sunnism, Hezbollah displaced the Assad regime as the Sunni’s number one enemy.

Hezbollah’s transformation from ‘anti-Israel’ to ‘anti-Sunni’ was complete, with the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in March 2011.

Even though Nasrallah argued that his support for Assad was because of the latter’s alignment with the ‘resistance axis,’ Nasrallah never explained why the Shiite militia in Syria was called the Abu Al-Fadl Al-Abbas brigade, a reference to Imam Hussain’s half-brother who was killed with him in Karbala in 680. If Hezbollah was fighting in Syria for resistance reasons, then why not call its fighting force after someone who had died fighting Israel, not the Sunnis?

Meanwhile from a logistics perspective, the Syrian conflict has strained Hezbollah resources to the extent that it makes sense for Nasrallah to favor extending the freeze on his southern border.

But Hezbollah’s transformation does not mean it has given up on fighting Israel, only it won’t be fighting Israel the ‘Palestine usurper,’ but Israel the partner in America’s ‘World Oppressors Inc,’ which Iran and Hezbollah have been dedicated to fighting since 1979.

As such, Hezbollah’s conflict with Israel is being transformed from direct confrontation to clandestine operations. The Borgas bombing and Hezbollah’s foiled attempts in Cyprus, among other less-publicized attempts, are only the beginning.

Hezbollah’s international network is not as formidable as its militia. But if history is any guide, the party learns fast. It might soon cultivate assets and form cells, around the world, to be used for attacks in due time.

Should such attacks invite Israeli reprisal across the border, like those against Palestinians in the 1960s and 70s, then engaging Israel in direct war could become justified in the eyes of the party’s Shiite base.

But no such scenario seems in the making. The Lebanese-Israeli border will remain cold, at least for now.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai. He tweets @hahussain.

Categories: Israel, Lebanon, Palestine | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Media’s confessionalisation of events in the Middle East (by Estella Carpi – July 2012)

Confessionalization fundamentalism: commodifying religious identities in the Middle East

As Maya Mikdashi has argued in an interview released to Istituto di Studi Politici Internazionali (ISPI), published on Jadaliyya on June 21, the uprising in Syria itself is becoming more sectarian now, packaged in a way such that ‘sect’ seems to be the political marker that matters the most.

This development could be taken as a starting point to point to a more widespread arbitrary confessionalization of Middle Eastern conflicts, and of the Syrian revolution in particular. “Crisis”, “sunnization of the revolt”, “new balance between Sunnis and Shiites” and “civil war” are key terms used by the media in reporting the current events.

Voices from think-tank and news analysts actually unfamiliar with the Arab world have largely contributed to portraying a patchwork image of the Middle East composed of ethnic and religious groups that do not fight each other only thanks to the power of dictators that discipline and guide these irrational individualities.

Different confessional subjectivities are considered tribal bigots, frustrated by their jealous desire of an impossible modernization, about to plunge into a confessional Hobbesian war that would involve the whole region.

As Mona Abaza wrote last September on Ahram online, European thinkers remain pervasively the “knowing subjects” in this account, whereas non-Europeans continue to be the “objects of observations and analyses of European theorists”. To unmask the touristic and orientalist nature of such research approaches is urgently needed, as they often produce a distorted image of Middle Eastern confessional dynamics.

The religious plurality of many Middle Eastern countries captures the attention of western reporters and photographers setting foot for the first time in ‘post-conflict’ Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq or Syria. They hasten to take pictures of mosques alongside churches to prove, in their capacity as good secular and paternalistic missionaries, that in the Middle East they do have fraternity. On the other side, this multi-religiousness is depicted as the factor that makes such realities constantly on the brink of a crisis, challenging the status quo. We can find the same photographers and reporters, in the latter case, lurking around the corner impatiently awaiting new disorders. This is due to the fact that both Arabness and Islam are interpreted according to a preconceived dogmatic frame. As American anthropologist Daniel Martin Varisco brilliantly puts it, outsiders and biased insiders are still reluctant to recognize that flesh-and-blood Muslims not only can differ individually, but even culturally. Many Christians too do not eschew this reification process.

Jean and John Comaroffs have recently advanced the concept of the commodification of collective being: before feeling it, identity is consumed by others in the first place. This ongoing branding is seen as an “allegiance to one’s own culture”, and it is the primary way of shaping ethnic or religious consciousness. I believe this is the key to an understanding of such confessionalized representations of Middle Eastern upheavals and changes.

Ethnicity and religiousness are increasingly deployed as political identities, insofar as they serve political purposes. This is not meant to diminish the importance and rich complexity of asabyya – the ethnic and clan ties – somehow still present in the Arab world, as well as to minimize any religious solidarity across the national boundaries, such as Shiites predominantly located in Bahrain and Iraq, with a complex plurality in Yemen and Lebanon. What is totally betrayed and undercut in such interpretative perspectives is the concept of identity as voluntary self-production.

In doing so, Middle Eastern individuals, combatants and civilians, revolutionaries and spectators, deprived in the media of any  representation of their own agency and denied the chance of producing their own new life chances, end up commodifying the identities they are exposed to within their social pattern, in the attempt to uphold a high social status or achieve a better one, and to finally have access to resources. Human rights activists, NGOs and a great deal of western spectators, mostly moved by generous piety and moral superiority, too often end up legalizing such identity discourses.

By using Comaroffs’ lens, then, the ethno-economy – or in our case I would rather say the faith-economy – is the new emerging phenomenon. People that for historical reasons share the same ideological imaginary and that perceive themselves as affiliated to a certain faith group are given the label of confessional – and therefore belligerent – enterprises turning into ethnicities. Everything nowadays, in order to get legitimized, must be ethnicized and confessionalized. Nor is this by any means a phenomenon limited to the Middle East.

We have gradually inherited, to our detriment, a tribal interpretation of Middle Eastern realities, even from such great historians as Kamal Salibi, who in some way overstated the parallelism between current Lebanese political parties and ancient tribal groups. In other words, going back to the Comaroffs’ concept, ‘sustainable’ faiths are those that brand best, as they sell their ideological truths more effectively at a particular time. Alawites, in the current Syrian scenario, undoubtedly rock. Sunnis instead are the bugbear.

Pierre Bourdieu used to say that anything that is named, defined and told, although yet not materially existing, ends up existing for real just through this reifying rhetorical process. It is indeed the phenomenon of war, controversially produced by greed and grievances in a domestic/international duality, that has often set up the confessional bedrock on which political opponents fight each other in a bid to identify a truly inherent element to struggle for as well as to find a traditionally hostile ground where they would be able to shed the politically constructed blood of the Other. Religion readily supplies this incentive.

Today’s commodification of confessional identities that peppers the media underpins essentialized visions of social dynamics. This encourages religious community groups to copyright their confessional imprint in order to get their basic rights addressed. A deeper understanding of this need for confessional belonging will allow us to unravel our muddled pluralistic contexts, as well as to liberate ourselves from this form of representational decolonization.

Will we ever be able to recognize rights and realize similarities and differences without resorting to confessional taxonomies? Will we ever be willing to study ‘political Arabs’, rather than ‘sectarian Arabs’? When will we be able to see that religious communities, in the Middle East as anywhere else, are nothing but ideological orientations, not even mono-directional, only reflecting the phenomenologies of power?

Categories: Syria | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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