Ussama Makdisi is professor of history and the first holder of the Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair of Arab Studies at Rice University. He is the author of the books Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of US-Arab Relations, 1820–2001 (Public Affairs, 2010), Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Cornell University Press, 2008), The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon (University of California Press, 2000) and co-editor of Memory and Violence in the Middle East and North Africa (Indiana University Press, 2006).

Makdisi’s most recent book is Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World, published in 2019 by the University of California Press. Alex Lubin, professor of African American Studies at Penn State University, interviewed him in April 2021.

Alex Lubin: Your latest book, Age of Coexistence, is a corrective to Orientalist framings in the scholarly literature of sectarianism in the Middle East. You call for viewing the region through the “ecumenical frame.” What is the ecumenical frame and how does it revise Orientalist understandings of sectarianism?

Ussama Makdisi: My book seeks to offer a critical and empathetic story of coexistence without defensiveness—that is, to write a history that neither glorifies the Arab past nor denigrates the present and that explores the grim significance of sectarian tensions in the modern Middle East without being seduced by their sensationalism. I wanted to think about how these tensions provided urgent impetus to modern, that is, to nineteenth and twentieth century as well as to contemporary, antisectarian solidarities and commitments by citizens of different faiths and communities. I wanted to understand how they sought to imagine and build a world greater than the sum of their religious or ethnic parts—commitments that remain evident, if one is prepared to recognize them, in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and beyond. I call this modern iteration of coexistence the “ecumenical frame” to underscore the modern active attempt on the part of individuals and communities in the region to both recognize the salience of religious pluralism and yet also to try and transcend sectarian difference into a secular, unifying political community. That is the sense in which it was ecumenical.

By frame I wanted to denote, as I explain in the book, the sense of a project of modern coexistence that not only had to be imagined and designed, but also built. This frame was made up of different Ottoman, Western and Arab inputs and influences and subject to major transformations and even, in some instances, destruction. What I really wanted to do was to trace how an extraordinary idea of Muslim and Christian and Jewish civic and political community rooted in secular equality went from unimaginability to ubiquity in the course of a single century, and nowhere more so than in the Arab East after 1860. I acknowledge, however, that this antisectarian ecumenical frame was contested from the outset; that it was subject to conflicting interpretations that valorized “real” religion and demonized sectarianism, often in contradictory and conservative modes, but also in more liberal and even radical ways. This ecumenical frame encompassed both thinking and action, that is, imagination, writing, behavior, pedagogy and politics.

Ussama Makdisi

Alex: The Orientalist view of sectarianism frequently analogizes sect as “like race” and, furthermore, it assumes that sectarian differences are inherent cultural and political differences similar to race. What do you think is the relationship of sect to race?  How should race figure in the story of coexistence you relate?

Ussama: The Orientalist view does two things. First, it has little to say about the history of race and racism in the West (think Bernard Lewis). Rather it projects the West as “secular,” as if this is an unproblematic, unvarying liberal form of modernity, in order to contrast it and to denigrate the essentially illiberal and religiously fanatical East, especially the modern Arab world. It overrides all forms of hard difference, including religious fanaticism, inside the West. In other words, the Orientalists idealize the West in order to Orientalize the East. Second, as you suggest, this view transforms religious pluralism in the Middle East into a structure of age-old monolithic antagonistic communities so that one can speak of medieval and modern Maronites, Jews, Muslims and so on as if these have been unchanging communities and as if all ideological diversity in the Middle East ultimately is reducible to religion and religious community. So, while the West has pluralism and diversity that is amenable to secular citizenship, the Middle East only has sectarianism—this is what we are led to believe. The religious sect is conflated with the political sect; the secular is understood to be a thin veneer that conceals the allegedly “real” and unchanging religious essence of the Middle East. This view is dangerous, misleading and tendentious.

As for your more general question about the relationship of sect to race, there is no necessary or single relationship. What I will say is that both became central to problems of secular equality and citizenship in the modern political world and that both race and sect urgently need to be historicized and contextualized—race belongs to US (and Western) political vocabulary; sect to Arab political vocabulary. Both the notion of age-old sects and that of immutable races are ideological fictions that have been manipulated to serve power.

Both the notion of age-old sects and that of immutable races are ideological fictions that have been manipulated to serve power.

I have found the scholarship on race in the United States helpful to my thinking on sectarianism in the Middle East. US scholars Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields have suggested we think of “racecraft” rather than “race relations” to underscore the ideological fundament of racist thinking that appears totally natural to its proponents. As I allude to in my book, so too might we think of “sectcraft” rather than sectarian or communal relations, both to underscore the ideological aspect of sectarianism and to emphasize the amount of work that goes into making sectarianism appear to be inherent, inevitable and unchangeable. In the United States, obviously, notions of race have been at the heart of the struggle to abolish chattel slavery and white supremacy and at the heart of the struggle over equal citizenship in a settler-colonial society. In the Middle East, however, the dynamic has been less about race per se than the politicization of religious and ethnic difference and its relationship to state sovereignty, citizenship and secular equality in a colonized world. That is why we have also witnessed parallel and analogous struggles against racism (antiracism) in the modern United States and the struggles against sectarianism (antisectarianism) in the Middle East.

Alex: I think it goes without saying that racial ideologies and racism are global phenomena—yet they appear differently in different economic and geopolitical configurations. To what extent does your work challenge the ways Western configurations of race and racism are deployed to understand political and economic conflicts in the Middle East?

Ussama: I think it is important to remember that race, racial ideologies and racism are not necessarily the only or even primary way that geopolitical configurations occur or are contested. Tribalism, communalism and sectarianism all refer to parallel formations in Africa, South Asia and the Middle East respectively that assume an unchanging essence that separates members of a single sovereignty or putative sovereignty. They are all static ideological interpretations of pluralism, and have all, to a greater or lesser degree, been massively influenced and even in many ways formally classified and invented by Western colonial powers. Each such ideological configuration of a static pluralism burdens, undermines, challenges and destroys specific projects of unifying secular community in different parts of the world. So, while we might think of sectarianism as racism in the sense of discrimination against others, or exclusion from political community, or unequal distribution of resources and so on, I think of sectarianism and racism as analogous problems that haunt parallel but also different geopolitical spaces—the Middle East and the United States.

The problem, as well, is that there is a vast US literature on race and racism and a comparatively much thinner literature on sectarianism in Middle Eastern studies. And you and I, and most of our readers, I presume, belong to the North American academy which is far more fluent in the language of race and the critique of racism than it is with sectarianism, which appears to be a foreign problem afflicting foreign spaces. So, many scholars gravitate toward using categories and experiences that emerge in the US context and apply them, sometimes indiscriminately and often very problematically, to other parts of the world. I think it is important at some level to respect the fact that in the modern Middle East, progressive scholars and laypeople, men and women belonging to different religious communities, have throughout the twentieth century typically described and conceptualized their struggles against injustice and tyranny as struggles against sectarianism and colonialism, but not necessarily as a struggle against racism.

Alex: Benedict Anderson famously posits the formation of the nation as one of the origins of racial ideology. To what extent did the period of nationalization in the Middle East establish race as a category of national difference?

So much of the nationalist struggle in Syria, Palestine and Iraq, as well as Egypt, revolved around challenging and dismantling European colonial pluralism that held that only European power could keep allegedly antagonistic native communities in harmony.
Ussama: I think it is important to clarify which national and which racial formations we are talking about. Unlike the US republic which enshrined anti-Black and anti-Indian racism as a sign of its expanding sovereignty, the national polities of the post-Ottoman period in the Arab East were established by European colonial powers. These European powers massively distorted the ecumenical trajectory evident in the late Ottoman Arab East. First, they broke up the region into dependent and weak states, and second, they divided the region along explicitly sectarian lines. The Europeans who oversaw the partition of the region were clearly informed by racist and sectarian ideas (white Christian British or French supremacy, anti-muslimness, anti-Arabness, philoZionism and so on). So much of the nationalist struggle in Syria, Palestine and Iraq, as well as Egypt, revolved around challenging and dismantling European colonial pluralism that held that only European power could keep allegedly antagonistic native communities in harmony. Much the same can be said about secular Ottomanism of the Tanzimat era—that it was a conscious rebuke to the Orientalist idea that the Ottoman Muslim empire was incapable of secular citizenship. The idea of being Syrian, Iraqi, Egyptian, Palestinian or being Arab or Ottoman are all explicitly antisectarian formulations at a fundamental level, even if in practice there was from the outset taboos, elisions, silences and discrimination built into the political and economic fabric of each of these states. My point is that the colonial dimension is crucial, and it clearly separates the US and the European period of nationalization from that of the colonized Middle East.

Alex: How, then, should we regard race and racism in the Middle East in a manner that doesn’t merely assume that racial ideologies developed globally along the same trajectory found in the United States and Europe? I’m thinking, especially, of how we might think about the racialization of migrant laborers in places like Lebanon or the Gulf.

Ussama: The short answer is to historicize and contextualize properly. There is no simple approach.  But my other response to you is to ask why the investment in and privileging of certain epistemic categories of domination as opposed to others? The question of migrant labor illustrates how race and class and geography and history are intertwined in very specific ways—the Middle Eastern cases (whether the Gulf or in Lebanon) are indeed different from that of the history of migrant labor in the United States, which has always been implicated in settler colonialism.

Migrant laborers in Lebanon, for example, have been generally and dismissively referred to as “Filipinas” or “Sri Lankans”—through which racism is expressed in gendered, class, geographic and national terms. The structures here are not those of settler colonialism, plantation slavery and the ideologies of whiteness and anti-Blackness that it engendered, or the contradiction between a free republic and slave labor. They are determined by other histories and genealogies, including the legacy of colonialism, highly gendered flows of labor sanctioned by postcolonial sovereign states and necessitated by global economic inequalities, and the ongoing nature of US domination of the region. All these factors give latitude for the dependent antidemocratic monarchies in the Gulf and for the sectarian state of Lebanon to elaborate their oppressive regimes of labor. These regimes are clearly tied to global capital, empire, notions of superiority and inferiority, as well as local expressions of racism, self-hatred and xenophobia. They invariably implicate the West as they do the Middle East: the oil-rich absolutist Gulf states have, after all, commissioned famous Western architects to design ostentatious museums and these architects and museum directors have only been too happy, I assume, to be lavishly compensated for their work. The Gulf states, in short, did not build alone, nor do they run by themselves massive airports with vast fleets made up almost entirely of Boeing or Airbus planes. The same can be said about the stadiums being built for the World Cup tournament to be held in Qatar in 2022, a competition that will ultimately enrich FIFA, which is based in Zurich.

Alex: I agree that racial ideologies under settler colonialism are distinct from racial ideologies under other forms of colonialism and empire. Further, previous geopolitical configurations have afterlives in contemporary forms of race and inequality. How might we relate prior histories of discrimination and inequality with contemporary forms of race and racism? In other words, how might Ottoman and Islamic imperial formations have produced race and racism differently than Western colonialism?

Ussama: My answer is again to historicize and allow the experiences and the archives, broadly conceived, of the Islamic world, including the records of non-Muslims in it, to guide our theorization of discrimination and racism within Islamic empires. One key difference, of course, between modern Western colonialism and early modern Islamic empires is that the latter, like their early modern Christian counterparts, did not pretend to uphold liberal representation, political equality or self-determination. So, temporality is one essential difference: ethnic, racist or sectarian discrimination in the Islamic empires was not justified or imagined as a benevolent burden to uplift others into an ostensibly equal level of civilization. There was no pretense of a colonial tutelage to help natives achieve independence in the fullness of time. Modern colonialism was, in reality, indefinite and open ended—it was a perverse and insidious interpretation of principles of ostensible secular equality and citizenship. In the Ottoman Islamic empire, there were indeed professions of Islamic superiority, notions of ethnic, tribal and religious discrimination, forms of bondage and slavery, and myriad chauvinisms and prejudices tied to kinship, geography, language, culture and ethnicity and so on, but not a notion of biological racism or the obsession with racial segregation and miscegenation that has been the hallmark of modern Western colonialism.

The issue in any case is to not predetermine the outcome of research, but to allow scholars to explore freely all these forms of racism and power as they took different forms in different parts of the world.
The issue in any case is to not predetermine the outcome of research, but to allow scholars to explore freely all these forms of racism and power as they took different forms in different parts of the world. One of the major issues that I raise in Age of Coexistence is how the premodern era of Ottoman Islamic superiority, in which Islam and Muslims were unquestionably privileged legally and ideologically over non-Muslim dhimmis, gave way in the nineteenth century to a new era of reformation. This new era paradoxically promoted the possibility of new secular citizenship between Muslim and non-Muslim on equal terms and the reality of Western racist and anti-Islamic colonialism. This provoked, in turn, a new and distinctive defensiveness among leading Muslim Arab intellectuals—that is, their need to defend Islam and Islamic society from missionary and colonial assault whilst also embracing or reconciling themselves to compatriotship with Arab Christians and Jews. This defensiveness persists. It has largely inhibited research and work that takes up in an honest and frank manner the question of religious discrimination and racism and prejudice within Islamic empires. What we have, instead, is denial, or better put, avoidance and sensitivity on the part of many scholars of the region who are loath to ask difficult questions about the variability of coexistence, lest they be accused of sectarianism or of serving foreign agendas.

I still find it astonishing and unacceptable that there is not a single proper history in Arabic of the anti-Christian Damascus massacre of 1860—but again, I think this has a lot to do with political conditions of the contemporary Arab world and not just obdurate denial. In the United States, there has been a lot of work recently on many different racist anti-Black and anti-Asian riots from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century that takes for granted that such investigations are not going to undermine US sovereignty, nor serve to defame the United States, nor expose it to sanctions. On the other hand, we also have the great problem of scholars and governments in the West who have long instrumentalized and Orientalized discrimination against non-Muslims to suggest that there is some peculiar problem with Islam and Muslims. The only way around this conundrum is for people who genuinely care about the modern Arab world, and all its inhabitants of all faiths and sects and ethnicities, to explore such difficult questions with confidence and belief, to set the conceptual agenda beyond denial or mere borrowing of the latest Western theorization so to speak. I think that scholars of gender and women’s history have a lot to teach us in this regard: that is Arab, Turkish, Iranian and other scholars who have explored the long history of gender discrimination—who have defied the fundamentalists—without succumbing to racist Orientalism or self-loathing.

Alex: Thank you for this fascinating conversation. Is there anything you’d like to add as we conclude?

Ussama: To really historicize! It really is an effective antidote in the face of those who peddle in chauvinism, racism, sectarianism, tribalism and communalism.


How to cite this article:

Alex Lubin "Coexistence, Sectarianism and Racism — An Interview with Ussama Makdisi," Middle East Report 299 (Summer 2021).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This