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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33.1 (2002) 163-164

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The Culture of Sectarianism:
Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon

The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon. By Ussama Makdisi (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2000) 259 pp. $55.00 cloth $22.00 paper

Makdisi's book is a provocative attempt to deal with the difficult subject of sectarianism. He argues that sectarianism, and the culture that it creates, is neither a reversion to age-old tribal, and hence irrational, ways of identification; nor is it solely a product of policies instituted by colonial powers intent on implementing a "divide and rule" strategy to govern their subjects. Rather, it is a culture born of the transformation in the meaning of religious identification that followed the modernization reforms of the nineteenth century. It is also a "discourse that is scripted as the Other to various competing Ottomans, Europeans, and Lebanese narratives of modernization" (6).

Unlike the majority of historians who have studied sectarianism, Makdisi is interested in how changes in writing and understanding sectarianism as a form of social knowledge were embraced or rejected by various factions. He draws on critical theory as well as subaltern and postcolonial studies, and he discusses the worldview of the participants with great sensitivity and intelligibility. He utilizes many sources—local, Ottoman, and European—and his reading of the material is attuned to telling shifts in language.

Makdisi begins his story at a time of severe crisis in the Ottoman Empire. The imperial regime was relying on European help to expel from the Ottoman province of Syria the forces of Muhammad 'Ali, the Ottoman governor of Egypt whose ambitions for state building brought him into direct conflict with his overlords. Much weakened, the Ottoman sultans initiated a series of modernizing reforms aimed at shoring up their control. Nowhere more than in Mt. Lebanon did the contradictions [End Page 163] of these reforms play themselves out so violently. Rather than recount the series of events that marked the period of violence beginning in 1841 and culminating in the civil war between the Druze and Maronite Christians of Mt. Lebanon in 1860, Makdisi explores the kind of knowledge about religion and political hierarchy that informed European, Ottoman, and Lebanese views before and during the outbreak of violence. He is careful to portray the series of events that led to the violence as contingent on human actions and perceptions in specific circumstances. According to Makdisi, there is nothing inevitable about sectarianism.

The author is careful to admit that religious communities, and communal identities, existed in Mt. Lebanon, but he postulates that for the inhabitants of Mt. Lebanon before 1840, religion was only one among many categories in the repertoire of social knowledge that organized society. Knowledge and ignorance and family and locality were the markers of hierarchy within this society; they cut across the communities and geographical regions where both Christians and Druze lived.

Three developments served profoundly to alter this conception of power relations: The first was the Egyptian occupation of Syria, which wreaked havoc on hierarchies of power among the elite by marginal- izing some at the expense of others; the second was the series of reforms instituted by the Ottoman state with the support, encouragement, and, in Mt. Lebanon, the interference of European powers; and the third—as a consequence of the second—was the rise of the ahali, the commoners, to challenge the authority of the communal elite. Commoners used two seemingly contradictory vocabularies—the ancient (according to the Ottomans and Europeans) communal one and the modern one of equal citizenship introduced by Ottoman reformers—as justification for their rebellion. Hence, by hijacking from the elite the right to represent a community, commoners turned sectarianism into a populist subaltern creation.

Historians of India and the Middle East have often insisted that sectarianism is a creation of modern colonialism, tending to view it as a distortion of secular nationalism. Makdisi's work challenges them on these issues in its...


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