Sovereignty, Secularism, and the State in Lebanon
Maya Mikdashi



THIS ETHNOGRAPHY OF Lebanon began in Iraq. In 2003 I traveled from Beirut to Baghdad to film a documentary, About Baghdad, with a group of collaborators. We arrived in July and stayed for four weeks—a precipitous time in the US occupation of Iraq. While we were there the Iraqi state was actively being dismantled. I was in Baghdad for two coinciding, interrelated events that have not since left me, events that were formative to my sense of the world. The first was an Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) march commemorating the overthrow of the British-appointed Iraqi monarchy in 1958. The second event was the July 2003 announcement of the Iraqi Governing Council, an occupation-appointed council that was supposed to rule Iraq until elections could be organized. It was the first substantive attempt to bring a “Lebanese model”—a modulated form of political sectarianism—of governance to Iraq. Instead of communists, socialists, republicans, liberals, Arab nationalists, or Iraqi nationalists, the council was composed of Shiʿis, Sunnis, and Kurds. This was the first time that Iraqi politics and governance had been structurally defined this way. I was disturbed by the assumption that people in Iraq had identities as opposed to politics or ideological affiliations. I was also intrigued by the honesty with which political sectarianism was discussed as a divide and rule model, echoing not only French Mandate rule in Lebanon but legacies of indirect rule in British, French, and Ottoman Empires. I was frightened by what I imagined to be archives of violence that were sure to travel with the “Lebanese model” to Iraq. I thought it obvious that the Lebanese model was doomed, or engineered, to fail in Iraq—just as it had and would continue to do so in Lebanon.

At the time, I had never seen a protest as large, joyous, and complex as that of the Iraqi Communist Party in 2003. In graduate school, I had read and debated and written about Iraqi history and politics. But no book could have taught me what I experienced that day. Being in Iraq was a lesson in the political and epistemic limits of academic understanding and writing—the chasm between comprehending and understanding. If anything, comprehension was a sensorial experience that included a knowledge of the limits of understanding. In Iraq, I was liberated by the knowledge that I was, on some level, never going to get it. I revisited the frustration and anger I had felt most of my life toward people outside the borders of shared experience: people who had not felt violence and contingency as a structuring force, as sociality, as intimacy. Suddenly, in Iraq, that anger felt like comradery. Like power.

Not everyone at the Iraqi Communist Party protest was a communist or perhaps even a leftist. The ICP was not just a political party in that moment but rather a manifestation of an unbroken political tradition of resistance. The day provided a space for joy and exuberance for people who had at that point lived through wars, sanctions, brutal authoritarian rule, and occupation. I was riding in the back of a pickup truck filming the marchers when a young boy who stood at the front of a large group caught my attention. He was no more than twelve years old. He was dancing as he walked and yelled for kilometers, his body somehow incoherent, uncontained, in movement. He was happy. I have spent some nights imagining the different paths, or dead ends, this boy might have walked in the intervening years.

It is difficult to comprehend, let alone understand or explain, the cycles of hope and despair, inspiration and devastation, and creation and destruction that people in the Middle East and North Africa1 have lived since that day. Across the region, in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria, tens of millions have been killed or maimed, have experienced mass displacement, and/or have lived as refugees. This is only the history that begins in 2003, with the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. Almost half of the population of Syria, more than twelve million people, are living as displaced people or as refugees. Genocide has been committed against Yazidis, and famine and blockade are regularly used as weapons of war against people in Yemen and Syria. A brutal civil war in Sudan, followed quickly by another in South Sudan. Hundreds of thousands of women, girls, men, and boys have been assaulted and tortured both inside and outside of prisons and detention centers in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. A supposedly cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia2 has scorched Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Generations of Palestinians have lived, resisted, created, and died under Israeli military and settler occupation or as refugees in hostile and impoverished circumstances. More than two million people in Gaza, who are for the most part refugees, live under a fifteen-year, illegal Israeli siege. Kurds and Sahrawis continue to fight for sovereignty, and they continue to live under colonization. Since 2010 there have been two cycles of popular uprisings across the region—both of which led to further securitization and authoritarianism in most countries. A carceral horizon stretches from Turkey to Egypt to Iran to Saudi Arabia, where intellectuals, activists, revolutionaries, journalists, and academics have been detained, arrested, exiled, and brutalized. The overwhelming “eventness” of contemporary Middle East history, moreover, papers over and mutes everyday forms of precarity: yawning wealth and income concentration, an erosion of the free press, ecological devastation, broken public health systems, disappearing social safety nets, austerity budgets and rampant corruption, gender inequality, skyrocketing youth unemployment, and hardening racism and xenophobia toward refugees, displaced people, and migrant laborers. But people in the Middle East are not only destroyed and destroying bodies. They are also effervescent.

In October 2019 popular uprisings took to the streets in Lebanon3 and in Iraq. Both demanded a new, capable government committed to rooting out corruption and promoting the well-being of its people. Protestors were not calling for a new economic, political, or national orders. They were, in many ways, calling for good governance. These were not radical demands. But in both Iraq and in Lebanon, the ruling political-economic regimes could not even stand a demand for accountability, a demand for them to be better. In both countries, though at different scales, the uprisings were brutally suppressed.

In the immediate sense, the protests in Lebanon were over a monthly tax on the widely used communications application WhatsApp,4 financial austerity measures planned by the government, and the spectacle of the government being unable to put out one of the worst wildfires in Lebanese history. However, this moment had been building for at least a decade,5 and October 17 was more akin to the cresting of a wave than an earthquake. Hundreds of thousands, and at some points millions, of people took to the streets, went on strike, blocked roads, and effectively paralyzed the country. The protests were regional, expressly cross and anti-sectarian, multigenerational, and, in certain actions, different socioeconomic classes worked together.

Two and a half years later, in 2022, people in Lebanon are living through an economic crisis that is the worst in the country’s history, brought on by a trifecta of public debt, unmitigated and widespread corruption, and a financial Ponzi scheme that united the banking sector, governments and politicians, and the Central Bank.6 There is no electricity, no money in the banks, no food in fridges, no water in the faucets—no floor or ceiling to the structure of circumstances that shape life daily and hourly. People have died in desperate scrambles for fuel, medicine, for anything that can and will and has been hoarded or smuggled for profit. In 2018, the UN estimated that about 30 percent of Lebanon were living in poverty. Three years later, in 2021, the UN revised their assessment; more than 82 percent of people in Lebanon were living in multidimensional poverty, and almost 40 percent lived in extreme multidimensional poverty As of this writing, the political class not only has weathered the storm but stands poised to gain strength by consolidating and distributing necessary goods and services through their client networks, networks they nourished by being parasites on the state and public sectors. What and whom they cannot buy, they intimidate and threaten. This trend was only accelerated by the emergency measures and further economic punishment of Covid-19.

Crises is perhaps not the best word to explain Lebanon in 2020–2022. Crisis implies a discrete before and after—a fall through cracks that become craters only in extraordinary times. A quick look at contemporary history teaches us that “crises” is a recursive temporality. In between “crises” there are months, maybe years, but somehow never decades, of status quo.7 I was eleven years old when the violence of the Lebanese Civil War ended. I was fifteen when Israel launched its “Grapes of Wrath” campaign, twenty when Israel was forced to withdraw from Lebanon and the South was liberated, twenty-five when a series of political assassinations shook the country, twenty-six when the 2006 Lebanon-Israel war broke out, and twenty-eight when in 2008 a “mini” civil war happened, pitting parties and the sects they claimed to represent against each other in armed clashes for days. I was twenty-nine when the Lebanese Army decimated a Palestinian refugee camp in the name of its own war on terror; thirty-one when a political uprising in Syria was deliberately turned into a grinding, brutal, global civil war; thirty-three when ISIS, Nusra and their affiliates began a series of bombings in Lebanon; thirty-four when the country was intentionally paralyzed for two years to enable the presidency of someone whose name adorns an entire chapter of the Lebanese Civil War. I was thirty-eight when the 2019 uprising erupted, and thirty-nine when one of the largest nonnuclear explosions in the world blew up Beirut’s port. The explosion ripped through the city, killed and disappeared hundreds, displaced thousands, destroyed any residual crumb of a world that made sense. As I write today, I am forty, and my families’ life savings have been swallowed by a government-sanctioned, corruption-greased Ponzi scheme run by Lebanon’s central and commercial banks. Family members and friends were killed by COVID-19 and policies of necrocapital that enabled its spread in Lebanon. These are only the headlines. And still, things can always, and often do, get worse. When I called my parents, desperate to hear their voice seconds after I watched and felt the explosion at the Beirut Port from half a world away, my father, surveying damage to our home, a home already damaged by two wars, laughed.

I’ve heard this laugh many times. From him, from many friends and family members, and welling up from my own body. It is a laugh that can be heard around the world. A laugh of recognition, a laugh of comprehension, of shock, of madness, of humor that hurts, of survival. A laugh that unites the past of memory with the future of anticipation.

This is not a particularly Lebanese story. Any one of my Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, or Iraqi friends could have narrated their lives through a series of macabre punctuations. This is not even a particularly Middle Eastern story. Even if the experience of compounding loss feels desperately lonely, we are never alone in that feeling. When I was younger I used to believe that there was something particularly tragic about being from Lebanon, from the Arabic speaking world, or from the Middle East, something few could understand and, even then, that they wouldn’t “get it.” The older I am, the more I comprehend how wrong I was. To live in expectation of continuity—to experience “crisis” as a bounded event—is something few in the world enjoy. Moreover, that blissful, unthought expectation of continuity is inextricable from the pain of others.

A theory of state power might look different if it were grounded in the histories, experiences, archives, aspirations, transitions, actions, displacements, and violence that people in the Middle East continue to live. Such a theory might be more open to contingency, less soldered to notions of authenticity, and less invested in curating archival truths or origin stories. A theory that does not pretend to produce standards applicable, and thus measurable, replicable and intervenable, across the world. Centered on a lived understanding of contingency, opacity, continuity, and rupture across histories of violence, experience, and resistance. A collective sense, an animating fear, of déjà vu.

By the end of Sextarianism I hope to have persuaded you of the need to rethink much of what we take for granted when we think about how and where8 to think about secular power, biopolitical power, sovereignty, citizenship, and expansive understandings of sex and sexuality. What can a state that has been at war, with itself or with others, for more than half of its lifetime teach us about the endurance of the nation-state form in our era? What can a state where at least 25 percent of its residents are refugees displaced from other wars teach us about forms, attachments, practices, and ideologies of citizenship? What can a state that functions through political sectarianism teach us about the ways that secularism is lived and practiced—at a time when secular evangelizing has become a discursive technology of war and an animating force in the reemergence of cultural/civilizational nationalism across the world? Focusing on the multiplying relationships between sexual, secular, and religious difference at the structural, affective, and ideological levels may deepen our understanding of secularism as the condition of possibility for the nation-state and as the structuring force through which religious and sexual difference is managed. Nation-states that structure and manage religious difference as governmental, identitarian, and bureaucratic categories produce practices of religion, such as conversion, that are as banal and opaque as they are contradictory. “Muslim” and “Christian,” in all their sectarian modulations, are compulsory biopolitical categories. Moreover, each is already multiple, only able to be articulated at and through their sexed inflection points. That is, they are sextarian, not sectarian, categories of experience and practice. What can we learn about the ways that secular power and one of its manifestations, citizenship, is practiced at this knot of religion, sect, and sex?

In this book I stage a conversation about the relationship between epistemology, methodology, and ideology. I stress the relational, polyvalent, and sometimes surprising nature of archival, ethnographic, and feminist research, knowledge production, and theory.9 I frame state power as kinetic—the energy created and amplified through governing, managing, and securitizing the intersections of governmental, disciplinary, and biopolitical categories—bureaucratic, hypervisible, and inescapable forms of difference. Power builds as it is practiced. Sovereignty is that which can disentangle, entangle, arrange, and rearrange the components of political and sexual difference relationally. We have much to learn from moving away from the successes and effects of power—whether it be the study of sexualities as discrete, the sex binary as predisciplinary, or sectarian categories as self-explanatory—as our analytic starting points. The staging of state power, secularism, sexual difference, citizenship, and sovereignty is legal, bureaucratic, embodied, ideological, and contradictory. Moreover, this staging is multiply authored by courts, lawyers, archivists and other public sector employees, people and social movements, and, of course, academics.


1. The term “Middle East and North Africa” has an imperial genealogy that centers Europe as the geographic location from which other locations are measured. Middle, or East, of whom? However, in the context of my usage, MENA is a more apt descriptor than some of the terms often used instead, including SWANA—Southwest Asia and North Africa—and “Arab world”—a term that discursively erases the multiplicity of people, nationalities, and identities in Arab majority states and territories.

2. Saudi Arabia is enabled by its allies in the war against Iran, the United States, the UAE, and Israel. Iran’s allies include Syria, Hizballah, Yemen and, in a different capacity, Russia.

3. In fact, two protest movements were launched in 2019—an uprising against the economic and political, and social disenfranchisement of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and an uprising against the political order as a whole, months later.

4. Applications like WhatsApp are critical because they serve as a buffer against the corrupt, ineffectual, and hyperexpensive telecom industry. In 2019 there was a sense that the Lebanese government had chosen to push the costs of their own corruption onto ordinary people.

5. Mikdashi, “Lebanon”; Arsan, Lebanon.

6. For a historical overview of the relationship between the banking sector, the Central Bank, and the state, see Safieddine, Banking on the State.

7. Ghassan Hage has written about “crisis” and “stuckedness” as everyday temporalities. He writes, “Crisis today is no longer felt as an unusual state of affairs which invites the citizen to question the given order. Rather, it is perceived more as a normalcy, or to use what is becoming perhaps an over-used concept, crisis is a kind of permanent state of exception.” I am taken by Hage’s theorization of the temporality of being stuck, but with a caveat: The phrase “is no longer” assumes an earlier time not defined by the recursively of crises. I am less sure of a “before” as it constructs a temporality of stability that was only possible by producing and ensuring the recursively of crisis for racialized, colonized, and indigenous subjects. For example, from the standpoint of a Palestinian in Lebanon, the only “before” crisis in Lebanon was the crisis of ethnic cleaning and settler colonialism in Palestine—itself a temporality that culminated, but neither began nor ended, with the Nakba of 1948. Hage, Alter-politics, 8.

8. Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects; Alexander and Mohanty, “Cartographies.”

9. I resist collapsing analytic categories with governmental categories. That is, if the aim of power is to make visible, regulate, and surveil categories of difference, that power is amplified when we uncritically reproduce the effects of power, such as sect, sexuality, and sex, as untroubled and untroubling analytic categories.