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The distinctive thing about religious leadership is that it is religious. The clue is in the name. Nor do religious leaders themselves let us forget it, setting themselves apart from non-religious leaders and the general public by means of their outlandish dress, their publicly pious practices, their religious expressions and references, and even their personal grooming habits. The very obviousness of this religious nature leads to assumptions of a difference between religious and non-religious leaders that goes far deeper than appearances. In the case of Lebanon, where religious leaders of various Muslim and Christian stripes wield a great deal of power, such assumptions have become so essential to the expression of secular modernist ideals that I devoted my doctoral research to exploring them. Here I will outline a few of the misconceptions I have encountered, some or all of which may be familiar in other contexts.

‘Religious leadership’ is one of several categories of actor treated regularly in general works on politics in Lebanon. One recent book, for instance, includes this conventional section in a chapter on non-state elites: ‘Whereas state elites act directly within the political arena… these unelected elites’ influence politicians from ‘the shadows’ [El-Husseini 2012: 122]. Lebanon’s religious leaders are introduced as follows:

The clergy has always had an impact on political life in Lebanon owing to the confessional nature of the country’s political allegiances. Indeed, the concept of national citizenship has not taken hold in Lebanon in the same way that it has in Western nations. Loyalty to the family, the clan, and the religious community overrides other allegiances, leaving little room for national patriotism [140]

Here the categories of ‘religion’ and ‘religious leadership’ are taken to be self-explanatory, a natural and permanent feature of the social universe. Further, religious phenomena are contrasted with modern structures and concepts of nation, state and citizenship, as both their precursors and their presumed opponents.

Framing ‘religious leadership’ in this way prompts certain kinds of questions: Why, for instance, has the rise of secular leadership in a modernising state like Lebanon not resulted in the decline of religious leadership, as the secularisation thesis would have us expect? Under what conditions do these religious leaders become politicised? Attempts to answer such questions serve only to obscure the origins of ‘religious’ institutions and merge their various historical dynamics.

Several general theories have been proposed to explain the ‘persistence’ of Lebanon’s powerful religious leadership. One is that Oriental religions – both Islam and Eastern branches of Christianity – are by nature more resistant to secularisation. Another links the failure of secularisation to the weakness of the Lebanese state: if people do not find security in the modern state, they look to their traditional leaders instead. A third refers to a religious resurgence that is part of a reaction against globalisation. Sometimes one or other of these theories appears to fit a particular religious institution or community at a particular time, but they all fail to give the kind of generalizable explanation that they claim to provide. Part of the problem is in the way research projects are formulated. The category of religion, while encouraging analyses of religion as a discrete phenomenon, has in practice led researchers to focus on individual religious communities as independent spheres of action.

The tendency to circumscribe scholarship on each religion has also produced an alternative approach that uses the particularities of different religions or sects to explain the roles of their religious leaders. For example, Sunni Islam is characterised by the overlap of umma and state, so the Lebanese Mufti, who is paid from the state budget, is considered a relic of the privileged place of Sunnis in the Ottoman Empire. The Shi‘ite Council, by contrast, was only set up in the late 1960s by populist Imam Musa al-Sadr, and tends to be linked to a global ‘Shi‘ite awakening’ and a latent revolutionary tendency in Shi‘ism. And the Druze Sheikh al-‘Aql has always had a central role, it is said, because of the insular, tribal character of Druze religion, which has clung to its traditions despite centuries of persecution. Such explanations often lead, in my view, to an uncritical reproduction of clichés, which risks feeding prejudices.

These conventional narratives – whether of religious particularism or of religion in general – project essentialised images of religion(s) onto actual social formations, and in doing so obscure the modern historical context. So going back to the three examples above: it was only in the 1930s and 40s that the Mufti of Beirut was elevated above other clerics and turned into a national figurehead for a newly defined Sunni community. The Shi‘ite Council and its authoritative presidency may have been created later, but they were designed to match the model of the Sunni Islamic Council and its president, the Mufti. Thus the Shi‘ite leaders are paid by the state in much the same way. The title of Sheikh al-‘Aql had long existed among the Druzes, but at the time Lebanon’s borders were drawn there were two Sheikhs in the area, not one. Two were finally reduced to one only in 1970, in order to bring Druze religious leadership into line with the other Lebanese communities.

Once viewed comparatively, it becomes clear that these various institutions have been shaped into their modern forms by the context of the Lebanese state and its new multi-confessional public space, in which ‘religious leadership’ has acquired the meaning we now take for granted. Yet explanations of their contemporary prominence continue to hinge on their supposed natural connection with ‘primordial’ allegiances among the population.

An essential distinction is conventionally drawn between the Lebanese communities’ ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ spokesmen. Ironically, it has not been uncommon for commentators to judge the ‘religious’ leaders more representative than their ‘secular’ counterparts. A classic text of the 1960s popularised the idea that religious leaders comprised a ‘shadow parliament’ able to express sectarian viewpoints that were excluded from Parliament by the moderating effect of the electoral process [Meo 1965: 55]. A more recent article by a popular blogger refers to ‘the various religious bodies’ as a ‘de facto Senate’, whose members ‘traditionally get up in arms’ in defence of their communities [Hamoui 2012].

Confused perceptions of an organic connection between religious leadership and religious community result in these figures being linked to sectarianism as both a product and a cause. On one hand they are assumed to ‘resonate’ [Rabbath 1986: 93] in some mystical way with their coreligionists; on the other, they are accused of retarding Lebanon’s development from sectarianism to nationalism through their undemocratic interference in politics.

My own study finds that the official ‘religious leaders’ of each sect are sustained above all by the state’s recognition and legislation of their roles. Indeed, taking a closer look at the way they actually use this public platform, we see a discourse heavily imbued with national patriotism, aimed not at inciting sectarian hatreds but responsible citizenship and submission to a strong central state. One of the reasons their role is so misunderstood is that commentators dismiss what they have to say because it is delivered in ‘religious’ terms, couched in the preaching of moral values. Whether the clerics’ pacific ‘religious’ discourse is suspected of insincerity – public platitudes covering for private support of militancy – or considered naïvely well-intentioned, the assumption being made is that such discourse is ineffective, detached from real power politics. We need to be reminded, as Lynn Staeheli puts it, that ‘the invocation of responsibility, care and ethics does not deny or obviate politics’ [2008: 17]. Once again the isolation of religion as a category obscures very real power dynamics, especially the negotiation of knowledge across the imaginary religious-secular divide. Religious leaders are no less part of the contemporary systems of meaning that define the salience of leadership, citizenship, and national belonging; their own roles are articulated in these terms, and like others they participate in the interpretation of the language that shapes the Lebanese public sphere.