In defense of accurate categories: A rejoinder to Loubna El Amine

While the existence of sectarianism is of course not to be denied, ‘sects’ themselves remain unhelpful concepts that cannot form bases of effective policymaking, argues Dr. Rima Majed.

[Editor’s note: The below is a response to Dr. Loubna El Amine’s article, ‘In defense of groups, and (some) consociational solutions,’ which was itself a response to Dr. Majed’s initial article, ‘Consociationalism: A false remedy prescribed on a misdiagnosis.’]

I’d like to start by thanking Loubna El Amine for taking the time to engage with my argument and to write a reply to my initial article that presented a critique of consociational prescriptions in the Middle East. El Amine’s rebuttal argues “that the diagnosis upon which consociational proposals are made is not erroneous, and that, as a result, some form of consociational solution is necessary.” This argument is based on the claim that, “like it or not, sectarian groups in Syria and elsewhere are real, and governmental systems cannot ignore them entirely in the short term.”

While my initial article is beyond the question of “liking” or “disliking” the alleged reality of sectarian groups, I would still want to argue that a closer sociological analysis would reveal that sectarian “groups” per se are not real and cannot form our basic unit of analysis in understanding sectarianism and the process of sectarianization. As I have argued elsewhere, sectarianism is of course real, but sects are not. In studying sectarianism, I argue that there is a need to move from the ‘social’ to the ‘sociological;’ that is, the analytical level that carefully scrutinizes social dynamics and experiences, sheds light on the nuances and complexities, and tirelessly attempts to link the micro experiences of individuals to the macro structures of society.

However, one of the main problems in the understanding of sectarian dynamics in our societies is the “uncontrolled conflation of social and sociological… [or] folk and analytic understandings.”1 While everyday sectarian talk and ‘identity politics’ are real and important phenomena, adopting sectarian categories as the unit of analysis is not helpful to dismantle the processes and mechanisms that shape sectarian salience, since this might entail serious problems of endogeneity2. Hence, my initial argument that a misdiagnosis would lead to unhelpful (or harmful) prescriptions comes from this analytical approach that goes beyond considering groups as “givens,” but rather thinks of how groups can become “takens.” This is not merely a play on words, but a serious conceptual distinction that underlies my main argument.

My claim, then, is that we need to move beyond the groupist ontologies, since groups per se are not homogeneous units or actors in the process of sectarianization. We need to start thinking of policy prescriptions using accurate categories, naming the real actors by their actual names (political parties, specific regimes, specific leaders, etc.) beyond groupist generalizations that create blunders and mask social dynamics. Therefore, instead of using categories such as (for example) “Shia,” “Hezbollah,” and “Iran” interchangeably, and mixing up social and analytical/sociological levels, let us attempt precision in our analysis in order to evaluate policies and systems of governance. In other words, what I am calling for in this approach is to further problematize and nuance our understanding of sectarian dynamics and to acknowledge that complex and multi-faceted conflicts cannot be resolved with reductionist policy prescriptions such as sectarian-based consociationalism.

To support my argument and highlight the analytical pitfalls I am warning against, I will organize my response to El Amine’s article into three main sections: 1) the relationship between the social and the political levels of sectarianism and its effects on understanding shifts in sectarian salience; 2) the relationship between culture and structure in understanding the complexity of sectarianism beyond reductionist analyses; and 3) conflating the discourse of recognition and minority representation with that of sectarian-based discrimination (consociationalism as a policy prescription).

Sectarianism is a complex phenomenon. Despite the tons of research that deal with the topic, it is still difficult to clearly define or measure it. However, one of the major advancements in the study of sectarianism is the turn against primordialism and essentialism and the adoption of more constructivist approaches in understanding sectarian identities. While this sounds like an important development, my claim is that the remnants of primordialist thinking and the dangers of what Rogers Brubaker has called “clichéd constructivism”3 still shape our understanding today. Sectarianism is a political phenomenon that builds its content and boundaries around existing social identities. Therefore, it is crucial that we distinguish between these two levels and separate (analytically) between the social relevance of a religious or sectarian identity and its political relevance and dynamics; i.e., its politicization. While we might think that these two levels always overlap, the question remains to understand when, how, and why these two levels feed on each other or not. Therefore, the relationship between the social salience and the political salience is not a direct one and should not be taken for granted. Whereas El Amine acknowledges the constructed nature of sectarian identities in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and links it to the establishment of modern states, colonial practices, and the role of local elites, our arguments diverge when it comes to understanding the situational nature of these identities. El Amine considers that change in sectarian saliencies is slow and cannot happen within “just months or years.” Here, she makes the analogy with states as political constructs and claims that their existence is neither innate nor eternal but rather enduring. The idea that political constructs are enduring is based on the assumption that social identities are not flexible in the short run. While this is an important question, much historical evidence speaks of the possibility of fast changes in both state formation or boundaries and identity saliencies. Think for example of the collapse of the USSR and the abrupt changes in the nature, shape, and boundaries of many states in Eastern Europe accompanied by a rise of nationalisms and a fast change in identity relations at the social level. Of course, this did not come from a void, and there is a history of events and power relations that shaped the way changes happened, but it is difficult to argue that this change was not fast at both the political level (and the state construct) and the social level. We can also think of similar examples in Lebanon, for instance, where the discourse of sectarian dichotomy has shifted from an alleged “Christian-Muslim” divide to a more salient “Sunni-Shia” divide in the past decade. This shift, of course, is linked to historical, regional, geopolitical, and structural changes, but it is difficult to deny that its manifestation in Lebanese society was relatively fast and crystallized around 2005 following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. The political shifts, back then, were so fast that they also managed to affect social identities and sectarian boundaries. These are only a few examples of how fast a change in the salience of sectarian or national boundaries can be. Of course, we also have examples of the opposite. In some cases, the social group identity can persist for a very long time despite the fall of the political entity, as with Palestinian nationalism, for example. Therefore, the claim that identities can only be situational in the long run is not clearly substantiated. Instead of making the assumption that political and social relevance of constructed identities overlap and endure, it is crucial that we dissect when and why this is the case (or not) in order to think of policy prescriptions that do not just deal with these identities as “givens” or “faits accomplis” but rather as “takens” that are being shaped by multiple forces and factors, and that can change gradually or abruptly depending on the conditions. 

This brings me to the second point that relates to understanding the link between structure and culture. El Amine argues that “it is not possible to replace all institutions of socialization with civil institutions devoid of any group thinking or their accompanying customs and traditions.” She gives the example of the family as an important “center of socialization” that transmits values that link individuals (a.k.a. social level) to the state (a.k.a. political level), “even in the most secular European countries.” El Amine then considers that this role of socialization “is also the role played by clans, sects, and ethnicities in Arab, African, and Asian states for various political, historical, and economic reasons.” She concludes that, “Groups, then, are part and parcel of modern societies, and are thus a necessary ‘given’ for political and sociological inquiry.”

While my argument against a groupist approach and in favour of a more structural approach to understanding sectarianism does not claim we need to replace institutions of socialization with “civil institutions devoid of group thinking” necessarily, or that we need to deny the importance of identities at the social level, the link El Amine makes between the state on one hand and the family (in the West) or the “clans, sects, and ethnicities” (in the East) on the other highlights the tension I previously explained between the social and political relevance of these identities. While families, as well as clans, sects, and ethnicities, exist both in the “West” and the “East,” the question is how to understand their politicization (or not) and their role in political inclusion, exclusion, or representation. If we are to follow the logic presented by El Amine, we would then have to argue that since the family is an important institution of socialization even in secular European states, we need to take family groups or groupings as main units of analysis in thinking about political conflicts and political representations in the West! The absurdity of the argument lies in the assumption that the link between social/cultural and political/structural is only a flat one when we talk about non-Western societies. Acknowledging the reality of social and cultural dynamics does not lead us to groupist approaches in understanding politics in the West, but it often does when we are thinking of the East. It is for this reason, amongst others, that a structural analysis and a critical sociological reading can help us move beyond simple culturalist arguments and grasp the complexity of the relationship between the social and cultural formations and the structural factors that shape political life. Therefore El Amine’s criticism of what she considered a “traditional Marxist fashion” that focuses on class dynamics cannot be faced with an argument for an even bigger reductionism that is culturalist. El Amine writes that “focusing on economic causes in the traditional Marxist fashion ignores central and incontestable facts; namely, that the overwhelming majority of senior figures in the Syrian regime are Alawites, and the overwhelming majority of demonstrators against the regime are Sunnis.” While state sectarianism in Syria is undeniable, it is more complex than a numerical majority of senior figures being Alawites. In fact, the Syrian regime has deployed sectarian, familial, regional, and class ties in different ways in order to consolidate its power. Some of the major figures in the Syrian regime under the Assad family are not Alawites, such as Walid al-Muallem, Farouk al-Sharaa, Abdul Halim Khaddam, Bashar al-Jaafari, and Rustum Ghazaleh.

Therefore, in thinking about policy prescriptions for Syria, choosing to focus only on the sectarian dimension, that is constructed, and that plays in the interest of the regime, overlooks the complexity of the case at hand. Moreover, the fact that the overwhelming majority of the protesters in the Syrian revolution were Sunnis cannot be simply attributed to a sectarian dimension without first taking into account that demographically the Sunnis form a majority in Syria and that the demonstrators did not raise sectarian slogans at the start of the revolution. So if the very fact that the majority of protesters are Sunni should lead us, according to El Amine, to acknowledge the sectarian basis of the revolution, then her statement that the Syrian revolution, like “most of the world’s revolutions today,” is not a class revolution sounds weird given that it is difficult to argue that the majority of the protesters are from the bourgeoisie! While my argument is not that the Syrian revolution is a workers’ revolution, it is surely impossible to understand it, or any other revolution today, without looking at class dynamics and material conditions. This would not mean, as I clearly stated in my initial article, that sectarianism is not real or does not exist; it simply means that the drivers of sectarianism lie outside of it and therefore we have to look at the factors that shape it, and not at the ‘sect’ in itself, in order not to fall in tautological arguments that have little or no explanatory power. Therefore, if some of the political groups/actors that emerged during the Syrian uprising/war have deployed a sectarian tactic, or have claimed to speak in the name of a sect, this should not be analytically considered a ‘given.’ If ISIS speaks in the name of the Sunnis, analytically this should not mean that ISIS represents the “Sunni group.” The unit of analysis here can only be ISIS as a political organization and not the sect as a group! The same logic should apply to all our analysis of sectarianization, even in the cases where the overlap seems total and thus the separation of the two levels of analysis looks more confusing.

Finally, my third and last comment on El Amine’s reply is concerned with comparing consociationalism with the idea of minority ‘recognition’ or ‘representation.’ My claim is that there is an essential difference between the logic of minority rights and the question of sectarian power-sharing or consociationalism. While the former is about inclusion and recognition, the latter is clearly the opposite: it is about discrimination. El Amine argues that “turning a blind eye to groups’ demands for political recognition has negative repercussions too, in that denying the aspirations of groups that have long been wronged, and the danger of persecuting minorities, undermine not just stability but justice too.” But the idea that there is a group demand to be represented, after a history of oppression, through consociationalism is not accurate. The question is not one of correcting for a historical oppression or discrimination or one of minority representation. Consociationalism is about elite cartels, it is about power-sharing away from the constituencies. Consociationalism worries less about minority representation than it does about mitigating conflict among the powerful leaders that speak in the name of groups. This is obvious in Lebanon and Iraq, where minorities are still under-represented and this does not contradict the spirit of consociational thinking. Therefore, consociationalism is more of a system of discrimination than a potential for corrective action or recognition and representation. For example, although the Lebanese consociational system establishes a sectarian quota in representation, the post civil-war period in the 1990s witnessed what was labeled the “Christian ihbat”(marginalization), because the Christian politicians in parliament and in power did not represent the political inclination of the main Christian political parties. This is probably the clearest example that groupist thinking is flawed. Although the MPs and ministers and officers were divided according to a sectarian quota, this did not ensure recognition or representation. The representation that was needed was a political one and not merely a sectarian one. Thus, sects are not the main unit of interest here but rather sectarian political parties; hence my call to be careful in choosing our units of analysis and to move beyond the groupist logic in understanding conflict in our region.

What matters in political conflict and political settlements is not the group per se, but rather those actors that can politicize the group’s social identity and thus speak in the name of the imagined communities. Therefore, let’s not fool ourselves: political conflict does not involve social groups per se, but rather political actors who claim to represent social groups. This difference is crucial in understanding and thinking of the dynamics of conflict and sectarianization. If we want to come up with policy prescriptions, we must make sure not to conflate the two levels of analysis, and not fall in the trap of so called “pragmatism” that ends up serving the interests of the ruling elites.

  • 1. Wacquant, L. (1997). For an Analytic of Racial Domination. Political power and social theory, 11(1), 222.
  • 2. Conflating cause and effect.
  • 3. Brubaker, R. (2004). Ethnicity without groups: Harvard University Press. P.3