Ghiwa Sayegh: Hello everyone, my name is Ghiwa Sayegh and it is my pleasure to be in conversation with Maya Mikdashi today. For over a decade, Maya has been working on sextarianism, or the conjunction of sex and sect in Lebanon and globally. This work shows us that systems of power not only overlap but also work tightly together to create the reality of today’s world and politics, which is exemplified by what we have been living in Lebanon in the past 3 years. Maya, could you start by introducing your book to us?
Maya Mikdashi: Sextarianism: Sovereignty, Secularism, and the State in Lebanon is an ethnography of state power in Lebanon, on that explores the experience of the state from a variety of perspectives: cassation court archivists, activists, judges, lawyers, people who have experienced detention, religious converts, and researchers like myself. And the book uses archival, ethnographic, and feminist methods and tries to generate conversations between them. One of the ways I like to think about it is the world of the book, and the book in the world. We are living in an increasingly global understanding – and an increasingly sectarian understand and feeling – of political difference. What I mean by that is that political difference itself has become understood almost as a sort of cultural identity that people hold on to strongly, which is very much a structure of feeling itself. And that is true for these hardening political differences globally, regionally, and within nation-states. The difference between how people view their politics and other people’s politics is sectarian in nature, both within a nation-state and between nation-states in terms of geopolitics. This sectarian understanding of political difference travels through and traffics in gender and sexuality, in sexual difference, so sex and sexuality become the articulation points of this political difference, so I would say then that is sextarian difference. The third way that I think of the world of the book is thinking about how more and more people today are experiencing displacement and mass migration, through climate pressure, climate change, war, violence, economic stratification, and economic migration. This brings with it racial, civilizational, religious, and demographic anxiety. Here I think it’s important to note how sexuality is securitized in a way that expresses a lot of these anxieties and the experiences of people who have to live through these forms of securitization. That securitization of sexuality is very much linked to women’s bodies, reproduction, demographics, and the national culture – the idea of the nation-state being a security state. So those are three places that I find that my book Sextarianism is speaking to in the world. Certainly it informed the writing of the book itself.
Something that I think about a lot is the difference between how you understand the place where you’re from and how other people understand the place where you’re from. There is this kind of academic debate about Lebanon, and the question is: is Lebanon exceptional? Or is Lebanon understood as this small, weird place with all these forms of difference – and it’s so different from anywhere else in the region – so it only can teach you about itself? And I actually think about Lebanon as exemplary other than exceptional. What I mean by that is it really represents the intensification point of a lot of global phenomena. For example, if you think about family law and personal status law, the role that family law plays in nation-states within politics and legal systems, and in terms of debates on sovereignty, Lebanon is an exemplary place to think about this relationship precisely because it has the highest number of personal status laws in the world while being one of the smallest countries. Similarly, Lebanon has the highest concentration of refugees and displaced persons in the world. For every three citizens, there is one refugee or displaced person. And if you add all the other statuses, the reality of political society, the ratio is more 3 to 1. So this global conversation about demographic anxiety, legal and bureaucratic segregation, the securitization of displaced people and refugees, and the securitization of sex and the moral panics that accompany this, Lebanon is an exemplary place to think about these different phenomena which are not going away. They are getting more and more intense as the world itself boils over.
Ghiwa Sayegh: You and I have been in conversation and in community for a very long time now. In fact, we met exactly at the moment when you were doing your ethnographic work for this book. As you say, the experience of state is not exceptional in the Lebanese context or to the Lebanese nation-state borders; it is also a reflection on the world that we see today. And yet, it seems to me from what we are seeing in the world and experiencing that this intensification doesn’t just come from a vacuum. It is something we have seen for decades. Let’s start with some ideas about the difficulties of leading that work in a political context like the one we were living in in 2009-2010 and until 2014.
MM: Given that you’ve kind of lived this book with me, throughout the writing, the research, and the publication, there are a lot of things that we can talk about. I do want to point out that today is the three-year anniversary of the 2019 uprising in Lebanon. That is important to hold on to, especially in its animating potential, regardless of outcome – the animating potential of those protests is something I think we have to jealously guard. The reason I say that is because when I think about the timeline of this book, 2019 uprising plays a large role. If we go back to 2008 – I started doing my research from 2009 to 2011 – what was happening then? For one, a global financial meltdown and crisis, which in some ways set the terms for a recalibration of the economic banking system in Lebanon. That’s part of the conversation that goes back to 2008, and of course the banking unraveling leads to, is compounded, and compounds the situation of Lebanon today. My research was also about a year after the March 2008 conflict in Lebanon, so that was very much present in people’s minds and lives, and of course it was very shortly after the 2006 war on Lebanon by Israel. So to set the scene, nationally you have these three years of conflict, and a global financial crisis in the background. Part of all of this, of course, is the invasion and occupation of Iraq – and Afghanistan, but Iraq definitely had a much bigger impact on Lebanon.
GS: What I also find especially fascinating about your research and the book is your ability to oscillate between different spaces. There is a part that is very activist, it is about you being in community with people who have had a history of activism, of thinking the state differently, even if the calls for a stronger state do persist. My question then is about studying the institutions of the state themselves. I am thinking of you accessing the cassation court archives, being able to do this ethnographic work, and having access that you describe in the book as also very social in nature – how we navigate sociability in such a context and how that can then give us access depending on where we are positioned at a particular time and place. I am interested in hearing more about how you navigated both at the same time, and about the archival practices that you described as feminist. How do we envision feminist practices when we are studying state institutions that aren’t, within the social codes of the institutions themselves?
MM: That is a really great question. The majority of my research was in state institutions like you said, and within activist movements. I wasn’t just working on social movements, I was working on specifically the question of secularism and civil marriage law. A lot of the activists in this realm and the people in social movement groups that have been working on this project for decades now are lawyers. Lawyers play a prominent role in this activist milieu; they know the state inside out. For me that became one of the organizing threads that allowed me to move between these spaces, and to have similar conversations on both sides of this question of the state. When it came to state institutions, the cassation court archives, and different personal status courts which I spent quite a lot of time in, how I got access to those places is important to tell. I was getting my PhD and I was taking a class at the law school at Columbia University, and a high jurist from Lebanon came to the law school to give a talk. I went to the talk, I asked him a question in the Q&A, and we got into a big back and forth. Then I was invited to dinner with him and my law professor, and we spent the whole night arguing. But argument is kind of a Lebanese art form – it is often a way of bringing us closer together. Arguing can get a bad rep sometimes, but it can build intimacy in really interesting ways, because you have to trust somebody and care enough to argue. And he was like “khalas, once you come to Lebanon, just come and see me and it won’t be an issue, your work in the judiciary.” When I was home, I went to see him and we talked about my work – I spent a lot of time with this guy. He sent me down to the archive. When I was at the archive, I was introduced to the archivist of the actual court that I was interested in. That person then turned out to be my aunt’s neighbor. These were two really different sides of what it meant and how I gained access – I was part of this social world. The first was through these transnational circuits of expertise and class mobility, and the second was this more localized, familial, neighborhood-based access that I had with the archivist.
When I say feminist method here, there is a big conversation about the question of the archive when it comes to anthropology, and a question about ethnography when it comes to history. So in trying to think between these spaces of archival ethnography and historical ethnography, feminist methods really helped me by, in some ways, allowing me to decenter myself as an author, and instead look at the entire fabric of knowledge production of which academics are a small part. And it allowed me to be more open to being truthful about how research projects develop, and how they develop very much in conjunction with others. That was definitely true with me when it came to the archivist at the cassation court. People sometimes have an impression of state institutions as these drab, grey spaces, but they’re also very much lived, social spaces. So almost everything that is happening in life is also happening in these spaces at different scales. What I mean by that is there are friendships, there are rivalries, there are birthdays, there are arguments about politics. It is an entire social world that is also highly flexible because you have people coming in and out all the time – because they need to access the actual courts of the state. That to me became a very interesting, intimate scale of thinking about the state as a lived space – all the work it takes to create the functioning of the state, or the image of the state. And it is contradictory, it is highly embodied, and it is highly social. In those ways it is not so different than activist movements.
GS: You do offer critiques and points of reflection, but there is generosity in approaching this landscape which goes back to what you were saying in terms of how you practice feminist methodologies. Going back to that period in 2009, having those conversations back then was very formative and transformative to my politics. It was a way of being politicized in the world. How is it that we navigated all of these tensions?
MM: I think one of the challenges we have is that so much keeps happening that it’s hard to hold on and remember how significant certain happenings are, especially in our context. It’s almost become a joke at this point that Lebanese history books end at 1943 with independence, which means that all of contemporary Lebanese history which is so event-filled is just not part of national history curricula. It becomes in this kind of context hard to hold on to the significance of Nahr al-Bared and how it opened up for many people this stark understanding of what it meant to be a citizen and a non-citizen and the kinds of violence that one could be subjected to being a refugee. These moments of understanding are cyclical: for people who are a little older, they maybe learned this lesson earlier, and people who are still older learned the same lesson earlier, specifically around the experience of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, the stakes of citizenship when it comes to organized violence, and the ways that this violence can itself be a moment of nation-building and of what it means to be Lebanese. I remember and I sure you do remember all those billboards that went up around Nahr al-Bared that were all about the army and this kind of masculine, nationalist discourse that was coming up and that did active work in producing this idea of who Lebanese were, precisely after a very big division that was spurred by the 2006 war. These things are not coincidences. And again then, 2008, for many people who did not live the civil war, is the closest that they had come to experiencing something so terrifying, which is this moment not only of the violence but the feeling that it could unravel at any second, that it could just continue, that it wouldn’t end. It’s very hard to remember two things. First of all, because of everything that happened since 2008, it becomes hard to return to that year and think of its significance, what it animated among many people, one of which is an invigorated anti-sectarian movement. But it’s equally important to remember that these moments that we experienced are cyclical. Certainly another space of that understanding is thinking about Kafala workers, and after Nahr al-Bared in 2007, thinking about the Syrian war – what happens when one and a half million Syrians are displaced into Lebanon. Again, the stakes of citizenship become very clear.
The fact that we continuously have to come into this awareness is evidence of how Palestinian history and the history of non-citizens in Lebanon have been completely removed.
GS: Going back to what you were saying about experiencing the state, it feels to me like a lot of the experiencing of the state from a citizen perspective is either non-experiences, because they’re so assimilated into the background, or they’re protectionist experiences. I’m thinking of some moments in 2019 where some of the people protesting were shocked to experience the violence of the state. It’s a violence that has been felt and experienced by so many communities in the past, and yet it was somehow made to be exceptional in the context of the uprising. And there are many layers to that: the 2019 uprising that started in October 17 came as an aftershock of the Palestinian uprising in the camps in summer 2019, if we look at how sextarianism is built, and how labor laws were being implemented by the state towards non-citizens. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, if we look at the cyclical histories, if we go back to what we want from the state again and again, there is also a cycle of demands. Not only does it fail but it makes those institutions, and particularly the state, much more ferocious and violent in its response to this kind of organizing. So I’m wondering, if we fast forward to 2019, this repetition of asking for a stronger state, what does it mean, really?
MM: I do think there is a cyclicality of both of these ends of the spectrum, and I do think that the experience of the state is very different for citizens and non-citizens, for queer and non-queer people, for people who are wealthy and people who are poor, for people who are under the Kafala system and not, and on and on and on. The experience of the state for citizens or under the rubric of citizenship is a highly bureaucratic state – a state that is protectionist in many ways and that performs a lot of its power through rhetoric of protectionism. It is a very specific kind of protectionism which is ferocious and violent. If you’re not a citizen, or if you are a citizen but you’re part of a vulnerable group, the experience of the state is very violent, it’s highly securitized. They’re starkly different experiences. Whenever I hear the almost compulsive refrain wein el dawle (where is the state?) and the desire for a stronger state to solve our problems, or as one of the solutions to our problems, I always think about what that stronger state would be, what it would be for different people, and what it means to have a stronger state when the experience of the state is through violence and ferocity for so many. The fact that this claim or desire is almost compulsive and cyclical has to do with the vast difference in experience of the state. And that definitely showed up again in 2019 where one of the solutions that was being offered is a strong state, a state that is sovereign over all aspects of people’s lives. It was about political violence narrowly understood as decisions about war and peace, and a state able to transcend political leaders – a state that is able to hold political leaders responsible. There are two parts to that stronger state call, and that includes then structures like the judiciary. But certainly, the first part about political violence is a narrow understanding of what political violence is, where the state does exert political violence, and how it invests in certain kinds of sovereignty and politics of the body. Violence and securitization are two major components of that politics of the body from the state, so that in 2019, and I say that in the book, it is not a coincidence that queer people, migrants, and people from vulnerable communities played a big role in the uprising, because they knew very well what the state was. They were under no illusion that the state was not going to attack them, that these security services were going to protect them against the state – they were going to enforce the mandate of the state. And they knew this because they have a felt knowledge of this experience of the state for decades.
When I was doing my research I was heavily involved in feminist and queer activism and in social movements; I was also observing different social movements around personal status law, and working on the state. You might go to a feminist queer space and have a conversation that is really important to you. Someone says something and you get inspired, you get angry, you hash it out with this person. Those spaces are sort of built for these kinds of interactions, and they’re incredibly formative. It’s not as if you stop thinking about that conversation when you go to the cassation court archive an hour later for an interview. That conversation is still in your mind; it is still animating how you’re putting your body, your embodiment, how you’re thinking about certain questions. And then you may move to a third space for an evening, after-work meeting, and you’re holding the entire day with you. You’ve remarked a couple of times how the book moves through these different spaces. It’s because I was moving through these different spaces. That’s exactly it: they have to move through each other. If you start thinking that way about sociality, you realize that each person is bringing their entire circulations into each moment. In 2019 I felt you could really see that – how all these multiple circulations of spaces of the state, spaces of activism were coming together in a highly dynamic way.
GS: To go back to the calls for a stronger state, that is also a question: a stronger state for whom? In some ways, the state is already strong for some people. If we want to look at state, state-formation, and what it’s supposed to do, that’s one thing. But when it comes to serving the interests of the political elite, then it’s feeding off a system which is very much economic in the way the resources are distributed, the way the state is made clients of the bank through pegging the Lebanese pound to the dollar and through which it has become able to collect debt internationally whereas it wasn’t able to do that before. All of these elements are in some ways representative of a strong state for the few. So how can we think of sextarianism in the context of the economic crisis that we are living today, knowing that this economic crisis was at the foundation of the state formation in Lebanon?
MM: There is this definitely that third level of the state, which is that the state works very well for the few. What this crisis has this done – I am not sure it is worth even calling it a crisis anymore – what this implosion has done is narrow that circle very tightly about who the state works for. I think it was still a small circle but it was wider, and now it’s become very very very small. But all of this shows that the state is quite durable. Even in this very tight circle, it is still circulating, functioning, performing. It is collapsing, for instance the judiciary has been on an open-ended strike, with tragic consequences. People who are in detention can’t get judges to sign their papers to be let out. These are really horrible consequences of what a state looks like when its different branches cease to function. But there is one branch that is functioning thus far, and that is the security branch: the army, internal security, and external security. That also shows you what the core of the state really is, and it’s not things like law or social services or health services or education. Those are not the core of the state. The core of the state is the security state.
Sextarianism can help us in this moment in two ways that come to mind immediately. The first is thinking about how the fallout of this implosion maps on to different forms of political difference, one of them being very clearly gendered and sexual political difference. And secondly, it’s in the rhetoric that is being deployed – sextarian panics, sextarian political discourse – to try to revive this national moment or the idea of a nation during this implosion. So you can think about the panic this summer over gay pride in Beirut, which was a regional panic, actually a global panic. But there is an absurdity of watching whether it’s people rip down a staged billboard in Ashrafieh, or people gathering around Abdel Nasser Mosque to have these anti-gay prides stand-ins and protests. I always think about the one on Abdel Nasser Mosque in particular – it is where I’m from in Beirut and where my family lives – because of the absurdity of the moment. You are standing in Mazraa’, which is dark because there is no electricity, it’s the middle of the summer, people have come together and what it is that’s bringing them together in this specific moment is anti-gay rhetoric that is tied to anti-civil marriage rhetoric, which is a marriage that has persisted for decades now in political discourse. This kind of sextarian panic was stoked very knowingly by political leadership and the ministry of interior as a way to perform some kind of functioning of the state.
That’s one part of it. Another part of it is what is currently happening around Syrian refugees, where again people are saying, “if not for the presence of Syrian refugees, we wouldn’t be in this economic crisis.” Well, if you didn’t steal everything, we wouldn’t be in this economic crisis. And the [state’s] answer to this is to start forcibly repatriating Syrian refugees, which I’m sure you saw was announced a week ago. Again there is this panic that is deeply sextarian and demographic about Syrian people’s birth rate, how many people are born, the question of demography. So there are two sides of the panic, and they’re both are tried and true and have a long history. One is about sexual politics, whether about civil marriage or queerness, queer rights, queer presence; and the other is about xenophobia, demographics, women’s sexuality, birth rates, and a sextarian sectarian panic – a panic that is about demography.
GS: You start the book by saying that it’s not about queerness or LGBT as an identity, but that it engages with queerness as queerness exists everywhere in life: fully, abundantly. Could you tell us more about how it is not just a queer book, but also a queer outlook on life and a political imaginary of what could be in a moment of time that is as bleak as what we are living today?
MM: When I said that this is not a book queer subjectivities or arguing that queers exist/don’t exist, are imperial agents/are not imperial agents – I’m presenting a very impoverished breakdown of this conversation, but it’s a conversation that to me neglects the reality of queer life in Lebanon and everywhere, and queer life in its practice. When I think about political society in Lebanon, when I think about my life in Lebanon, it’s clear to me that regardless of this debate on queerness, queer people are everywhere, in every kind of group you can imagine. This fullness of queer life and the stark reality of it is something politically important to hold on to, which is why you can have, in that chapter on Laique Pride, queer people themselves arguing, getting angry at each other, storming off about what the meaning of a secular march would be, how to organize it, who to organize with, what is space of queer politics. To say that queer people disagreed fundamentally around the organization of this event and how it should play out is actually to say that queer life is established to the extent that people are having these arguments. They’re not arguing about who we are and what our place is; they are actually arguing from a place of strength and a place of diversity within the movement itself. To me it’s an accurate description to say that to write academic work about Lebanon today, it doesn’t have to be about queer people to acknowledge the role that queer people play and queer politics plays.
GS: Maybe it doesn’t apply to everyone, but having a felt experience of state violence automatically puts us in direct confrontation with and in organizing against these structures. So there is an investment there that is not just about how specific identities are especially targeted at a particular moment in time, but how there is something more systemic about what we are living.
MM: Yes, and in complicated ways, these sextarian panics around gay pride also recycle the reality of queer life in the city. I don’t know anyone who is a feminist or who is queer or who is a member of any vulnerable group who hasn’t come into this fear of the state. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have an activating fear of the state. That might be based on personal experience, or the kind of stories that people trade in social spaces. And that’s not a unique awareness of the state, to go back to the idea that if you are a drug user, you also have a fear of the state. If you are a migrant worker, you have a fear of the state. I think there is a certain kind of power in that shared knowledge, on the emphasis of it being shared across a very large, diffused group of people in different positionalities vis-à-vis the state.
GS: All of this makes me think about the place of futurity. In some ways it is something that the past few years have kind of destroyed, in the sense that there might have be this romanticization when thinking of a future, or being invested in an idea of political futurity and this notion or belief, or naïve hope that the fights we are having today are going to define the world that is yet to come.
MM: I think it’s important to remember that this moment is exceptionally bad. It’s very difficult to sit and think or dream a kind of futurity, or to imagine it. But people always are. And just because this moment is exceptionally bad doesn’t mean that people haven’t desired and imagined and daydreamed in exceptionally bad moments throughout history. I often go back to a conversation I had with someone we both know, Ghiwa. In a lot of my social movement work in Lebanon, I was kind of always cynical and I am kind of the cynic. And this person always used to tell me, “okay, Maya, and then what? What the hell, we have to do something. If we don’t do something, what’s the point?” The point is doing it. The point is not the result. The point is that you do something because you have to do something. Even if you know it’s going to fail, it’s still important to try. And I think in some ways that is the question of futurity. It’s not linked to outcome; it’s linked to process itself, it’s linked to practice and action. And if you can act in these moments of overwhelming distress, that is practicing a futurity that, again, is not about the expectation of building an alternative, but the insistence that there are alternatives.
GS: That is such a beautiful note to end on. Thank you so much, Maya. It’s always a pleasure to be in conversation with you and to learn from you. Your book Sextarianism is available with Stanford University Press, and I look forward to many more conversations with you that we can hopefully share with our audience and our accomplices, whether in Lebanon or transnationally.
This episode is produced in collaboration with Heinrich Boell Stiftung, Middle East Office, Beirut.