Skip to main content

Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Book Review: Sextarianism: Sovereignty, Secularism, and the State in Lebanon

In Sextarianism: Sovereignty, Secularism, and the State in Lebanon, Maya Mikdashi interrogates and redefines the core of the intersecting categories through which “lies … became bureaucracy” (15). The text opens with such a lie, told by a woman named Samera who was married in the Ottoman Empire, but, while living separately from her husband, claimed to be unmarried on the 1932 census conducted under the French mandate to escape her marriage. While this lie allowed her to escape her husband, it also led to a multitude of competing sets of documents, which implicated her son’s ability to receive his inheritance – even his existence was a legally contested question. This phenomenon represents what Mikdashi terms “sextarianism,” “how sex, sexuality, and sect structure legal bureaucratic systems” and shape the performance of citizenship and statecraft (2). Mikdashi’s conceptualization and theorization of the relationship between sex, sect, and the conditioning of state power is in dialogue with Joan Scott, Saba Mahmood, Carole Pateman, Audra Simpson, Hussein Ali Agrama, Lamia Rustum Shehadeh, Suad Joseph and Talal Asad’s contributions on secularity, sexual difference and the structures of state power. In Sextarianism, Mikdashi skillfully brings to light the relationship between state secularism and “evangelical secularism” in the stories of the Sameras appear throughout the chapters of Sextarianism, and particularly how they come into play in the construction of the private sphere through personal status law, and the ways personal status laws reproduce capital and wealth. As Mikdashi argues, all personal status laws, in states where political power is organized through sectarian governmental categories, are essentially “laws of sexual difference” (25), which produce and manage heterosexuality, and intertwine it with sectarian forms of control. In effect, the sextarian approach reveals how the concept of “sect” is structurally reproduced in the constitution of state power.

The first chapter lays out the basic relationship between sectarian and sexual difference in the construction of Lebanese citizenship and the Lebanese state as evident in the Lebanese legal system, the history behind this system, how women are constructed as citizens, the limitations on their rights, and their inability to pass down citizenship. As Mikdashi argues, sect and citizenship are both paternally inherited, biopolitical categories that maintain a particular demographic balance. Sextarianism is a securitization thus, which shapes not only the extent to which women are citizens, but also the rights of refugee and stateless men in Lebanon – particularly refugees from Palestine – and how civil, criminal, and nationality laws differentiate across these lines.

In the second chapter, Mikdashi discusses her research process, and her experiences and interactions while conducting ethnographic and archival research. She focuses on two files held in the Cassation Court archive – one on a family’s inheritance claims during the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, damaged when the Cassation Court archives were burned during the civil war, and another on an infamous war criminal turned politician, Samir Geagea. Through these cases, Mikdashi highlights how the geopolitical context – especially where histories of war and occupation mean archives are under attack – shape silences in the archive, the stories they cannot tell and how sectarianism operates as a technology of curation, a force in both the telling of the past and the future. Mired in this context, the unique mix of perspectives and sources from which her methodology derives is both a product of and a response to the ways narratives are intentionally fractured to conceal histories of state violence, and how lived experiences of violence hold insight lost in the archive.

The ethnographic and archival narratives analyzed by Mikdashi in the third chapter center around religious conversion, and how the bureaucratization of sectarianism makes religious difference a tool of governance. Sextarian at its core, state regulation of sectarian affiliation controls marriage, divorce, inheritance, and custody, as well as the place of religion in state and society. Particularly powerful is Mikdashi’s analysis of what bureaucracy does in this process, and how it depersonalizes, creates a fiction of unbiased meritocracy that mediates between minorities and majorities, turns religious identity into a government category, and thus rearranges populations to create new procedures and new categories. By teasing out the bureaucratic difficulties endured by the individuals discussed here, one attempting to secure a divorce, another to remove personal status altogether from governmental records to be seen as a secular citizen, show how these categories intersect with sexual difference and function in the logic of state power.

Evangelical secularism – as partially a response to the spiraling bureaucracy produced by sextarianism – is explored more fully in the fourth chapter and contextualized as an effort to create a legal and moral culture of secularism. Mikdashi focuses on efforts undertaken between 2009-2010 to pass an optional civil marriage law and/or secular personal status law, to remove religious and sectarian identification from individual census documents, and the Laique Pride march. In her discussion of these campaigns, Mikdashi shows the legal complications that activists suffered and the larger personal status debates that emerged in this context, which reveal how deeply religion as a governmental category had become mired in bureaucracy: those who had removed their personal status were now “outside the law” and essentially given up most of their basic rights. The narratives in this section are particularly interesting because they illustrate the notion that a culture of secularity needed to be created, and that people needed to be made “ready” for it. This speaks not only to existing narratives linked to nationalism, but also, as Mikdashi shows, to a particular temporal attitude towards secularity, and the fact that even though political sectarianism has consistently been articulated as temporary, and secularity a verbalized goal of an undefined future, bureaucracy is constructed and maintained so such a future never comes to pass. The fifth chapter delves into the Lebanese state’s criminalization of homosexuality, queer identity, and attitudes towards marriage and virginity, and thus exposing the non-heteronormative side of the state’s regulation of sectarian difference through sexual difference. Mikdashi discusses in detail the logic of hymen and anal exams, how they are sextarian in nature, and a critical performance of state power, revealing an epidermal security state, premised on torture as a mechanism of characterizing deviance and shaping public morality and public order. The accounts that Mikdashi draws upon in this section show how queer and straight sexualities – and their securitization – are constructed in relation to each other, by intervening violently, legally, and bureaucratically. Defining violence in these interventionist terms, to produce and police the body, thus, is linked to the sovereignty of the nation-state. The deployment of these epidermal logics to quell the 2019 uprisings is discussed further in the epilogue, and Mikdashi speaks to how the uprisings represent another attempt to save the state from itself and its violent logic of bureaucratic sextarianism.

Mikdashi’s Sextarianism thus neatly and brilliantly elucidates the complex interlinkages between logics of sectarian and sexual difference, underlying how state power and state violence is conceptualized and deployed. Creative, resourceful, and refreshing methodologically, Mikdashi skillfully synthesizes a range of anecdotal, archival, ethnographic, and historical, and legal accounts – the ongoing life worlds of multiple Sameras – to deliver a text that analyzes both manifestations of and reactions to state power. Rigorous and insightful, Mikdashi’s analysis reveals how the current bureaucracy is a biopolitical tool of governance that compounds and expands to continue the underlying materializing, making, and remaking of citizens inherited from colonial pasts through sextarian logics.