After Brexit and Trump, polarisation of Western politics is beginning to resemble sectarianism in his native Lebanon says satirist Karl Sharro aka Karl reMarks.
zenith: Many in the West think of sectarianism or confessionalism – where governments mix politics and religion – as something that they have long overcome. Do you see patterns in Western society and politics that look like we would describe sectarianism?
Karl Sharro: Actually, sectarianism is a really lazy term. When we are dealing with Lebanon, for example, it’s really more appropriate to talk about confessionalism. Yes, it has an archaic feel to it. But in a way, the whole world is moving in that direction as a way to organize society. And that is what has always struck me.
A lot of people, when they talk about Lebanon or the Middle East in general, they don’t see the similarities between confessionalism as an institutionalized socio-political system and what happened to multicultural liberalisms in the West. So they tend to think of Lebanon as backwards and reactionary in that respect. But then they look at how multiculturalism is being formalised and institutionalised in the West as a modern and enlightened thing. I think there is a problem here of not recognising that there are general trends that come about because the universal dimension is missing somehow.
What I was previously associating with Lebanon or the Middle East was suddenly something that people [in the UK] were sensing now: Who are these people? Are they my enemies?During the last year these kind of divisions have been sharpened in the West. So we look at this development more as exotic, like a joke: Look how sectarian the West is becoming! But I think those trends have been there for some time. It is the result of the attempt to institutionalize multiculturalism. And what I mean by that is to actually create legal categories that correspond differently to people of different backgrounds. This is where the problems start. I was opposed to that approach in Lebanon, as I am now, living in the West.
Which non-Arab region reminds you most of Lebanon? Northern Ireland? Remainia and Leavia post Brexit?
I actually came up with the terms Remainia and Levia in a series of tweets after the Brexit. We were always lectured on how we Middle Easterners were sectarian and divided and constantly fighting each other. And it only takes one referendum – although with a close result – to see those sharp divisions in society emerge. I have a friend who voted ‘remain’. After the vote he told me that when he got on the train, he thought to himself: At least half of the people here must have voted ‘leave’. And he started to look at everyone suspiciously–and caught himself doing that.
What I was previously associating with Lebanon or the Middle East was suddenly something that people were sensing now: Who are these people? Are they my enemies? Where are they around me? Are they standing next to me now in the train? This episode may have played out on a superficial level. But it was still worrying to see how things escalated so quickly into very sharp dividing lines in society that didn’t even exist a year ago. And I don’t know what the real reason for that is. You can argue that bonds within society have been frayed over the decades. But in terms of our conversation, this feeling post-Brexit, expressed through this anecdote, was very similar to what I was experiencing in the Middle East.
How do people in the Middle East look on polarisation in Europe and the US?
It’s still a recent development, so people in the Middle East are kind of joking about it: Oh look, they are becoming like us! It is not an established phenomenon yet for people to have a thorough impression of. To me, there are a lot of differences between Brexit and Trump, they are really quite different things. But a lot of people just lump them together. Because both happened in the same year, and Trump tried to appropriate Brexit, and both votes probably exploited a sense of popular anger.
A lot of the Hezbollah cadres had actually been pretty hardcore communist before and almost instantly switched to a sectarian identity.But ultimately, they came from two different places in response to different contexts. And it was very interesting that lumping them together was accepted almost automatically – in both the West and the Middle East. This says more about the divisions between East and West, rather than between the people that are connected via the realm of social media. This latter group shares more similarities, whether they come from India, the Middle East or Europe.
What are the most common misconceptions of Middle Eastern sectarianism by Westerners?
The most frequent one, especially among analysts and journalists, is that sectarianism is seen as a deeply embedded, almost genetic phenomenon, whereas in my view, it is a relatively new thing, namely a response to the failure of the post-independence political projects of reform in Arab countries. Of course, if you look back at history, you see a lot of persecution of minorities, particularly by Sunni majority ruling dynasties, like the Ottomans. But these persecutions are different from modern-day sectarianism.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, there was a whole generation that thought of itself as secular and enlightened. And when the civil war started, a lot of them drifted back into their own communal groups. So that’s the important observation: There is no historic continuity stretching across centuries, but a contemporary movement that accelerated in the late 70’s and early 80’s. A lot of the Hezbollah cadres had actually been pretty hardcore communist before and almost instantly switched to a sectarian identity.
And on the Muslim side?
That’s the more interesting question, actually. Because more and more people accept this Western narrative of sectarianism. They get sucked into that logic that if more people from another sect exist, that’s automatically a threat. So people start looking at themselves the way the West is looking at them. But what is interesting about it, is that it is fuelled by a sense of victimhood. A concrete example from Lebanon: Sunnis are complaining that Hezbollah is allowed to keep its weapons, so some Sunni groups end up acquiring arms.
This sense of victimhood informs the way people look at sectarianism. But in order to sustain it, they must fall back to these stories of eternal enmity, especially between Sunnis and Shiites: You insulted this person! And you killed that person! They reproduce that outlook, not recognizing that there is a whole coexistence experience for centuries that wasn’t actually defined by those differences.
When two Lebanese meet each other for the first time, the very first thing they do is checking out the sectarian identity of the other.
That’s quite a common thing. You grow up on that milieu, even if you don’t think of yourself as sectarian. You absorb that behaviour, so that it almost becomes second nature. But there are layers to it. It is part of the political consensus that Lebanon was set up as, so the system nurtures this need to identify the other. This system reproduces sectarianism on a daily basis through multiplicity of friction. “Why do the Muslims get to leave an hour early every Friday?” or “Why are Christians taking these extra holidays?” are very common complaints you hear from government employees, for example.
That nurtures this sense of resentment that in Lebanon always ends up being looked at through the sectarian lens and forcing you to constantly engage in this dance of recognizing the other. Because that is just the most handy template around. But you have to separate between private and public speech. Public speech is completely polite and non-sectarian. On the other, most extreme end, when you are by yourself or just with your family, you can be quite sectarian–and there are layers in between.
Your ability to define the level of innuendo or explicitness of your political opinion requires you to know the background of the person you are talking to. You most commonly observe this with people entering the taxi: They immediately start talking about politics. They keep it very general, until they are sure. Say, when they feel that everybody in the car is Muslim, they can say things they wouldn’t get away with, if a Christian was there.
Take us through the steps of sectarian identification.
Lebanese comedy show “SL Chi” once showed a funny sketch about that process. A young woman brings home her new boyfriend to meet her father. So he asks him about his name, because if your name is Muhammad you are probably a Muslim and if you are George, you are a Christian. But then are neutral Arabic names that fall in between–both for first and surnames. So this guy has one of those names, so the father is irritated because he can’t tell.
So he asks him about his home, because if you come from Jounieh, north of Beirut, you are probably Christian and when you hail from Dahiya, the southern Beirut suburbs, you are most likely Shiite. And the guy answers: “I am from Beirut!”–which can mean anything. So the father initiates a whole series of questions and his frustration increases. So there is a catalogue of clues that people apply to identify the other, including the physical appearance. But funny situations can ensue nonetheless: Let’s say a Muslim guy is for whatever reason named Leonardo. So he tells his name and gets to hear a lot of anti-Muslim speech. When he reveals himself, it is obviously an embarrassing situation, but also hilarious because the other guy had made such a fool of himself. So if someone is not adhering to the playbook, it can occasionally lead to this situational comedy.
What about non-verbal signs of identification?
The Lebanese NGO Movement for People’s Rights (MPR) has created a digital library of stereotypes: Christian women are promiscuous, Shiites have dirty, curly hair. These preconceptions are obviously not true, but people fall back on them, in order to decipher non-verbal signs.
When and how have you been last asked for your “sectarian” background?
You will never get asked directly about that in Lebanon! And that is so interesting when I compare it with my experience in London. When I tell someone that I come from Lebanon, people so often straight away ask if I was Muslim. And it actually often happens with Pakistani or Bangladeshi taxi drivers who want reassurance if they are talking to a fellow Muslim.
In Lebanon, people never had to guess for too long. There are some clues that they can go by. I was once strolling with a group of friends through West Beirut. We were looking at a church for an architectural assignment. So a guy next to us assumes that we are Muslims because we are moving in that area of the city and launches a rant on how this church should have been destroyed in the war, so the Christians wouldn’t come back to the area. That’s the kind of situation you can wind up in, when someone tries to wrongly position you.
And how do you react?
I have very twisted sense of humour. If I am in this kind of situation and observe that the other person is quite keen on me being a Muslim, I play along–just for fun. To see what happens. It can lead to a very interesting conversation. But that depends on the situation. If someone appears reasonable and curious, I end up giving a lecture about the demographic constitution of the Middle East. I have a Christian background, but I am an atheist, so I have more leeway to play around with these stereotypes. But I actually think that people that choose to define themselves based on their sectarian identity make life harder for themselves.
Are the Lebanese the masters of sectarian identification? And what differences did you notice when encountering people from other Arab countries?
Lebanon has evolved an established system to avoid too much awkwardness–almost a form of etiquette! Iraq and Syria nowadays struggle with much sharper divisions. It’s not just about social awkwardness–you are facing kidnapping or even death. It is much closer to what we experienced during the Lebanese civil war than what is happening moment right now.
Making fun about sectarian stereotypes, is that something that could help to question them?
Yes! That’s why I do it. A lot of people feel sensitive about that, arguing that you will actually reinforce stereotypes by joking about them. I think that is absurd, but it depends on the way you do it. It works, if you try to undermine the logic behind them. There is one thing about biased people: They are not very clever, but quite dumb. So it is very easy to trick them with this kind of humour. I am not so pretentious to view this as my social mission, opening people’s mind–it is not like that, that’s a fairy tale. But from my political position, it’s a way to be subversive towards sectarian behaviour and joke about it.
What reaction do you get on the Internet, when you touch upon sectarian issues in comparison to other topics?
I largely get a positive response. But then, social media is a weird space, because you reach the audience that already agrees with you. People steeped in a sectarian worldview don’t rush to silence me because subversive satire doesn’t even cross their field of vision. Usually that only happens when I explicitly make fun of a sectarian leader.
Do have a favourite subversive sectarian joke?
The two things that I hate most in life are sectarian people and Shias.
Karl Sharro, aka Karl reMarks is an architect, satirist and Middle East commentator. His work and ideas have appeared on Al Jazeera, the BBC, and in The Economist, Foreign Policy and The Atlantic, among many other outlets. He is a co-author of Manifesto: Towards a New Humanism in Architecture. He has been named a top tweep to follow by TIME and The Wall Street Journal for his Twitter account, @KarlreMarks. He blogs at www.KarlreMarks.com.