Alex Henley (PhD student)

Alex Henley

Alex Henley

I am a final-year PhD student in Arab World Studies at the University of Manchester, supported by the UK’s Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World.  While writing up my thesis I am based at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, as a visiting fellow under the sponsorship of Prof Malika Zeghal for 2012-13.  I have spent much of the past five years in Lebanon and other parts of the Levant, improving my Arabic or conducting fieldwork as a research affiliate at Notre Dame University–Louaizeh and the American University of Beirut.  I obtained my BA in Theology and MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Durham, and have been working on questions of religion/politics in Lebanon since writing my MA dissertation on the Maronite Church in 2007.  I write occasionally on Lebanon for current affairs publications, and am a founding editor of New Middle Eastern Studies, a peer-reviewed journal for junior researchers published online under the auspices of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies.

PhD Supervisors

Key research interests

Lebanon; official religion; Islamic institutions; Maronite community; sectarianism; Islamists; Lebanese civil war


My interest in Critical Religion developed out of a frustration with the use of religious categories in discussions of sectarianism in Lebanon.  There have been efforts across every discipline to pin down the content, meaning, significance and origins of sectarianism.  When talk of religion is thrown into this mix – and it inevitably is, even if in the form of claims that sectarianism has nothing to do with religion – it seems only to muddy the waters further.  Introduced as a common-sense category capable of helping us sketch the boundaries of a definition of sectarianism, I have found religion to lend no such simple clarity precisely because its boundaries are not fixed, but rather contested by Lebanese on both sides of the perceived religious-secular divide.

As well as contributing to conceptual confusion, the religious-secular binary (implicit in the definition of religion) overlaps with and reinforces the other great essentialising distinction in Lebanese historiography: ‘sectarian’ vs. ‘national’.  At the root of both binaries is the modernist notion of a fundamental opposition between rational and irrational.  This cluster of associated binaries produces a characterisation of Lebanese ‘religious leadership’ as essentially polarised, irrational and at odds with the unifying modern national project.  Whereas Lebanese studies have seen a revision of the ‘traditional’ vs. ‘modern’ paradigm in many areas of social and political life, the pervasive category of religion has made ‘religious leadership’ particularly resistant to such revision of the ‘traditional’ label.

My doctoral thesis makes the case for a re-categorisation of the institutions called ‘religious’ in Lebanon.  I argue in particular that the Sunni Mufti of the Republic and the Maronite Patriarch are best understood within the framework of a national clerical elite that cuts across confessional cleavages.  Through an analysis of their discourse during the 1975-90 civil war – in which mufti and patriarch stood on opposite sides – I show them as firmly grounded in a common language of the nation-state.  They were involved in a constant struggle, but not with each other, rather with those within their own communities and even their own ‘religious’ hierarchies whose political thought emerged from different conditions of possibility.

Such is the prominence of ‘origin’ narratives of Lebanese religious leaderships – used both for and against them – that I have incorporated into my thesis a genealogy of the present formulation of religious leadership, following the iconoclastic tendencies of Asad and Foucault.  The work by critical religionists on other parts of the colonial world has been helpful to me in identifying similar colonial formations of religion and the secular in Lebanon.  My research suggests that each leadership underwent considerable structural change as a result of the new episteme of the colonial state.  Largely imported notions of ‘religion’, ‘religions’ and the ‘religious’, along with the creation of a ‘secular’ public space, led to the generation of ‘religious leadership’ as a cross-confessional category.

In short, Critical Religion has helped me identify a major category error in Lebanese studies.  ‘Religious leaders’ are the products, not the predecessors, of the modern state.  As I move on to post-doctoral research on official Islamic institutions in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, I will continue to ask how ‘religion’ has been constructed in relation to the ‘secular’ state, how this affects public spaces and modes of political contestation, and how these categories have (mis)guided social-scientific research.

Publications & papers

“Institutionalising Islamic religious leadership in Lebanon: Mufti of Beirut to Mufti of Lebanon”
Chapter in Social Scientific Study of Islam and Muslims, forthcoming in 2013
Originally presented to al-Maktoum Islamic Studies Conference, Dundee, May 2012

“Making a Mufti Grand: Creating religious leadership in colonial Lebanon”
Paper presented to the Middle East Beyond Borders workshop at Harvard, September 2012

Review of Franck Mermier and Sabrina Mervin (eds.), Leaders et partisans au Liban
Book review, Mediterranean Politics, forthcoming in 17/3 (2012) pp.479-482

Review of Fiona McCallum, Christian Religious Leadership in the Middle East
Book review, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 39/2 (2012) pp.294-296 – see here

Review of Max Weiss, In the Shadow of Sectarianism
Book review, New Middle Eastern Studies, vol.1 (2011) – see here

“Maronite Diaspora and the ‘Promised Land’”
Research report, CBRL Bulletin, vol.4 (2009) pp.82-84

“Politics of a Church at War: Maronite Catholicism in the Lebanese Civil War”
Peer-reviewed article, Mediterranean Politics 13/3 (2008) pp.353-369 – see here

“Militating Against Integration: the Maronites, their Church, and Lebanon”
Paper presented to the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), Washington DC, November 2008

Occasional articles on Lebanon for current affairs publications including The Guardian, Middle East Online, Middle East Times, Religious Intelligence, The Tablet.

See also…

… Alex’s page.

To contact me, click here:


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