Henley, Alex

Alex Henley

Alex Henley

I am currently working on a book provisionally entitled Politics of Religious Leadership in Modern Lebanon: Sectarianism, State and Civil War, while a research fellow at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

The book is based on my PhD thesis at the University of Manchester, which explored the construction of a cross-confessional religious elite in twentieth-century Lebanon, and compared their roles in contesting sectarian identity production during the 1975-90 civil war. This work has been supported by grants from the UK’s Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World (CASAW) and the Council for British Research on the Levant (CBRL), with research affiliations at the American University of Beirut and Notre Dame University, Lebanon. I holds degrees in Theology and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Durham. I tweet about religious affairs in Lebanon and the Middle East as @admhenley.

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

“Remaking the mosaic: Religious leaders and secular borders in the colonial Levant“, Religion and Society, special issue on “Religion and Borderlands”, forthcoming in 2015.

“Religious nationalism in the official culture of multi-confessional Lebanon”, in Religion and Nationalism in the Islamic World, ed. M. Demechelis & P. Maggiolini (Boston: Brill, forthcoming in 2015).

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

Review of Religion and State in Syria, Thomas Pierret, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, forthcoming in November 2014.

Review of Leaders et partisans au Liban, Franck Mermier and Sabrina Mervin (eds.), Mediterranean Politics 18/1 (2013) pp.142-145.

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

Review of In the Shadow of Sectarianism, Max Weiss, New Middle Eastern Studies vol.1 (2011).

See also…

… Alex’s Academic.edu page.

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