Voyage of a Symbol

A Visual Analysis of Religious Symbols in a Sectarian Public Space

Excerpt from BFA Graphic Design Dissertation, The American University of Beirut, January 2010
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The dissertation paper provides an analysis of the use of religious symbols in a sectarian public space, exposing how they are used as signs of collective identity and political affiliation in post-war Lebanon.

Religious symbols are prominent in the public space, and they are worn and used not only by devout believers but also by non-religious people alike, who might practice little or nothing of religion privately. They fall under the commonly accepted aegis of religion, so they are most likely to pass unchallenged as a religious manifestation in the public space. Through this research, I aim to investigate religious symbols at the level of interaction among individuals and communities, not at a private and personal level because religious symbols, I argue, cannot be understood independently of their articulations in the social life.

As much as it is essential to analyze how a believer relates to and uses a symbol, which at one level may seem fixed, the more laborious and more challenging task is to identify the role this symbol plays in the unstable sectarian space formed by the collision of the various religious communities in Lebanon. Then, we could discover other aspects of religious symbols that could be created by the devious and subtle manner in which social actors use symbols.

‘Sectarianism’ is a term constantly rebuked, and it ultimately turns into a slogan, a vacuous one: the act of reprimanding turns into a mindless talk. One example we’ve recently witnessed is the resurgence of the ‘abolishing sectarianism’ project, which has become the vacuous slogan in, what is, supposedly, the era of “national unity.” Everyone proclaims it because it sounds right, of course as long as it stays a slogan, without fulfilling its meaning in reality. Even though Parliament speaker Nabih Berri called to form the higher committee to abolish political sectarianism, he emphasized that by doing so sectarianism will not be cancelled immediately, to relieve the concerned parties. Sectarianism has always been seen as the ‘unwanted past,’ so allegedly abolishing it is the ‘desired’ future. However, this is not the case. Apparently, talk is easy, especially when we know that it is mindless. But when it starts turning into action, the whole scenario changes, as exemplified by Berri’s suggestion.

In one of his articles, Makdisi revisits “sectarianism” to question the metaphorical use of this term, in the modern reconstructed nation, as the “unwanted past.” “In Lebanon,” he argues, “Sectarianism is as modern and authentic as the nation-state. In fact, the two cannot be dissociated.” It is the product of a paradoxical formula aiming to build a national state from a religiously hybrid society wherein religion is the citizen’s indelible public attribute. It is your primary identity beyond which any other identity becomes secondary and insignificant, to the public. Religion in Lebanon is a unique system – unlikely to exist in a different context – with its proper elements, representations, and language. It is the indelibility of religion that maintains sectarianism because we only understand religion as a communal identity and practice. Religion defines who you are, yet you don’t get to choose who you are. This only leads to see religion as a paradox, through which we hold on to sectarianism, whether consciously or not, because without it our identity is not complete or legitimate.

There is an intricate relationship between the two even though the dominant discourse denies it and maintains a separation between the two: religion as a metaphor for co-existence, sectarianism for discord. A more thorough analysis of the social construction of Lebanon would lead us to conclude that religion as a system is circumscribed by a more prominent discourse, sectarianism. Concomitantly, this should also help us establish an appropriate reading of religious symbols when they are deployed within the contentious and allegedly public space.

Religion is a system of belief and practices that unite into one single moral community. However, this system is not fixed, but rather dependent on the social context in which it exists because ‘religion’ is a social and cultural construct with highly variable meaning. Religion is seen as a “transhistorical and transcultural phenomenon,” i.e., having a fixed essence, yet different social extensions. It cannot exist independently of human actors and social institutions because it does not and cannot do anything by itself, and there is a factual relationship between the meaning of religion and the social contexts in which it operates. Hence each society can develop its own conception of religion. How can we then go about analyzing the social aspect of religion in Lebanon? First of all, we need to understand the specificity of the Lebanese culture and society, analyze how it emerged, and finally interpret its influence on people’s conceptions and applications of ‘religion.’ Then we can move to analyzing the use of religious symbols as one of these applications of religious.

Usama Makdisi argues that sectarianism emerged as a product of modernization, and it is a multi-layered process for “it cannot be caused by a single event or person, for it is ultimately an act of interpretation that shapes, and is shaped by, religious mobilizations and violence in the modern world.” Following on this, Makdisi explains how sectarianism emerged as a practice and as a discourse: “(…) It (sectarianism) emerged (as a practice) when the old regime of Mount Lebanon, which was dominated by an elite hierarchy in which secular rank rather than religious affiliation defined politics, was discredited in the mid-nineteenth century. Concomitantly, sectarianism also developed as a discourse- as the set of assumptions and writings that described this changing subjectivity within a narrative of Ottoman, European, and Lebanese modernization.”

Linking this idea to what the anthropologist Talal Asad wrote: “It is that different kinds of practice and discourse are intrinsic to the field in which religious representations (like any representation) acquire their identity and their truthfulness,” how can we define ‘religion’, whose meaning is related to its historical and social contexts, within a ‘culture of sectarianism’? Put in other terms, how does sectarianism, as a practice and a discourse, contribute to shaping our conception of religion?

Social Construction of Religion within Sectarianism

Religious affiliations are often used in societies, which display religious diversity, as a political tool to stress differences among the indigenous communities and promote each one’s identity versus others. ‘Sectarianism’ describes this political manipulation in Lebanon among the various religious groups. “The tradition of distributing parliamentary and government positions based on religious orientation is called confessionalism, a form of consociational democracy.” The government proportionally allocates political power among a country’s religious communities according to their demographical weight, and confessional identities are deployed as a way to regulate electoral and personal status laws. So Lebanon is a consociational state, which functions durably despite major internal divisions along religious lines in which no sub-group commands a majority. This political system guarantees that every Lebanese citizen is a member of a particular religious community. So sectarianism becomes an extension of religious identity -even though sectarian affiliations do not necessarily reflect religious doctrines-, which indirectly compels the citizen to see his country only through his sect. It cannot be defined as a natural byproduct of the presence of the sects because it is not only related to the extent to which a society displays religious diversity but also to the extent to which different confessional groups are recognized as ‘legitimate’ actors in the public sphere. Lebanon is an example of one dimension of public acceptance, which is the willingness of these indigenous groups to accept each other as partners or rather competitors.

The Lebanese nation-state is an entity formed by the collision of the rival confessional communities. They converge at a point where each sect hollows out a part from its communal identity to avoid any direct clash among them, collectively forming a void. This void is where the theoretical founding of the nation-state is instigated. In order not to expose the reality of their political identity, they set it aside at the moment of converging to proclaim the emergence of the nation-state. It is the moment of decency, which inhibits these ‘spiritual families’ from actually invading that space, and which impels them similarly to concede this territory in favour of a ‘unified’ legitimate authority. The state was not forged in a collective struggle, nor did it come as a result of a ‘peaceful’ encounter among the confessional communities. These sects seek to become the mediator between state and citizen. Co-existence becomes an alibi for the rise of the nation-state, arguing that the contribution of all these groups is essential for the coherence of that state, regardless of their alleged reluctance of the confessional system. This moment marks a vital phase towards the creation of a modern state. But until the state reaches maturity, the sects cannot retract from that space. This is what we call ‘al-selm al-ahli,’ which is a euphemism of the sects’ collusion because it refers to the peace al-selm that exists, not among citizens ‘al-madani,’ but among the sects ‘al-ahli.’ However, the citizen is not perceived as an individual but rather through his sectarian identity. In this sense, the sects are no longer mediating the citizen-state relation; they embrace both: sectarianism comes to circumscribe the nation-state where the citizen can only be part of one these communities. This state is a fragile entity that is equally and collusively shared by them and whose centre lies at their interceding point. Evidently, it is a fragile state because at any moment it can collapse and then, only the sects would remain, because when each sect extorts itself from the intersection, the core of the state is gone, yet that of the sect remains because it is firmly tied to atavistic loyalties and memories. The state collapses when the game runs out of control: when the sects leave that space. Usually, these ‘spiritual families’ decide to limit discussion of that moment of collapse, labelling it as ‘sectarian,’ because it is crucial for the sects to maintain the utopian image of Lebanon: a society where the various sectarian communities living in harmony. However, despite the efforts to subdue such incidents, they somehow resuscitate and tend to inflict other incidents. What happened is that the mask of decency has been removed, and the sects have retracted from that space, causing the state to collapse.

This complex and religiously hybrid society could only produce a weak or rather ‘loose state apparatus.’ Similarly, it produces subversive religious loyalties. Hence, the cornerstone upon which the nation-state was founded (religious diversity) ultimately hinders its stability, which is reflected by its inability to carve out a communal space where the main social actors could be the citizens as individuals, not religious groups. Lebanon is a sectarian state, and a sectarian state’s role is to regulate the relation between sects, be it a peaceful or a violent one (war being the continuation of politics in other means, and war in a country governed by a confessional system where your religion is stamped on your identification card is a direct war where you’re fighting against specific identities).

The proclamation of the state happens at the overt level, underneath which each sect is actually fighting to maintain its political identity to ensure its position at the intersection. It is a tribal game that is being played within this space because the players have behaved as tribes often more than sects.

There is no wonder why we would perceive the sectarian dimension of religion in a country where the latter is merely a belonging, not an affiliation. The term ‘affiliation’ comes from the Latin word ‘affilare,’ ‘to adopt.’ Hence to be affiliated with something or someone is to be endowed with the privilege of choice, because you can choose what to adopt, it is not imposed on you. To belong, on the other hand, is to fit ‘naturally’ into a group, and etymologically it means ‘to go along with,’ so to belong is to yield. You cannot change what you have no control of. In the case of Lebanon, as the archbishop George Khodor noted, one’s religious identity is a belonging, not an affiliation, since it is missing the most important component: choice. Religion in Lebanon is a societal belonging because it is part of our constitution and it is imposed on us since the day we are born. This societal structure, he explained, contradicts with that of the church, which is an institution that people have the freedom to enter and exit, yet in Lebanon, nobody ‘enters’: we are born ‘in’ the church, and we can’t even get out of it. The Bible, he concluded, is to be offered not imposed.

Religion in Lebanon has shown its ability to interfere and retract from the political scene whenever it is appropriate. Which only shows how Lebanon, which is a sectarian state, is a middle ground governed by religion. In 1860, religion allowed itself to interfere in worldly matters but only on a temporary basis. However, since then, it hasn’t left this space, even though it seeks to extricate itself only verbally.

What is then the relation between sectarianism and the explicit and exorbitant display of religious symbols? Are religious symbols a means to express people’s acceptance of diversity, or is it a subdued way to say the opposite?

Religious symbols within sectarianism

The citizen, the state, and religion all operate under the most prominent discourse ‘Sectarianism,’ which has been, and still is, controlling them all. It uses religion as a mask to partake in the creation of the state, whose citizens are labelled according to their religious belonging. Religion is what legitimates the existence of this mask, and it is the one that brings them back again: ‘sectarianism’ is subdued by an outward religiosity. To assure the viability of this game, it is crucial to upholding, at the overt level, a high degree of religious tolerance, which is visually translated by the public display of religious symbols.

The mere existence of religious symbols is not the problem, just like the presence of the sects is not the main problem of sectarianism. In the case of sectarianism, it is the political manipulation. While in the case of religious symbols, it is the indirect sectarian manipulation that resulted of this political manipulation. Without absolving the elites from responsibility for political problems, we need to examine how the members of ‘society’ contribute in enhancing sectarian identities by analyzing the various religious symbols, and to question the claim that wearing a religious symbol is a “personal decision.”

People tend to affiliate themselves with religious symbols for different reasons. It can serve as a reminder of one’s faith, or as a source of power, that enhances spiritual beliefs. There is also a wide range of people who would wear them for good luck or for protection. As much as it is important to analyze the relationship between a symbol and the individual, this paper examines symbols as a site of communication at the level of interaction among individuals. Regardless of the person’s intentions, the displayed symbol might engender different readings to the perceiver. These readings vary from one person to another, and also from one place to another, depending on different factors.

“Religious symbols – whether one thinks of them in terms of communication or of cognition, of guiding action or of expressing emotion- cannot be understood independently of their articulations in and of social life, in which work and power are always crucial (…) a religious symbol is a set of relationships between objects or events uniquely brought together as complexes or concepts.” Religious symbols are not absolute; they don’t exist in a vacuum. They operate under a specific discourse, which can evidently distort their original function and meaning depending on the characteristics of this new paradigm that they now belong to and are read within.

If religion is constructed based on the contexts it is used in, then the meaning of religious symbols is also constructed accordingly […] 

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