Sovereignty, Biopolitics and De-Sectarianization in Divided Societies

Politics, for Ibn Khaldun, is concerned with “the administration of home or city in accordance with ethical and philosophical requirements, for the purpose of directing the mass toward a behaviour that will result in the preservation and permanence of the (human) species.”[1]

The quest for survival is a fundamental part of the sovereign’s remit, resulting in governance strategies designed to regulate life, ensuring security and stability. Yet in the contemporary Middle East, the prevalence of conflict and politically charged processes of sectarianization have posed serious challenges to governance strategies aimed at the preservation and permanence of particular communities. The struggle to regulate life posed serious challenges to political organisation, particularly so amidst the emergence of the modern state, referred to by Ghassam Salame as the “original sin.”[2]

Within states, regimes and political elites seek to ensure their survival through the regulation of life in accordance with carefully constructed biopolitical machineries of sovereign power. In contemporary debates on states, sovereignty and the regulation of life, biopolitics is a prominent feature, given that the machineries of power are designed to regulate all aspects of life; as Michel Foucault famously argues, biopolitics constitutes a “power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death.”[3]

The regulation of political projects and manifestation of sovereign power does not occur in a vacuum. Biopolitical processes that regulate life draw on local contexts and contingencies, embedded within social, normative and economic structures and capitalizing on the rhythms of everyday life in pursuit of regime survival. For instance, efforts to regulate life across Lebanon are embedded onto what Bassel Salloukh terms the “political economy of sectarianism,” with devastating repercussions for the regulation of life. As a consequence, they also can aggravate grievances that exacerbate conflict, particularly as these factors are complicated by the conflagration of religion, ethnicity, geopolitics and socio-economic forces.[4] This is quickly seen in the contestation of political life after the Arab Uprisings, which led to an increasingly draconian form of authoritarianism, underpinned by exclusionary forms of identity politics that make post-conflict transformation and peace building problematic.[5] As Steven Heydemann suggests, in such precarious instability, the “future of Arab authoritarianism will be darker, more repressive, more sectarian and even more deeply resistant to democratization than in the past.”[6] Working towards democratization and peace building broadly requires the untangling of these identities or, put another way, the de-sectarianization of political life.

In the case of Bahrain, the cultivation of sect-based difference is a key component of sovereign power given that cross sectarian co-operation is typically seen as “the biggest internal threat to regime survival.”[7] Here, biopolitical machinery designed to regulate life and prevent the emergence of cross-sectarian unity – best documented in the Bandar Report[8] – targets Shi’a groups using all aspects of sovereign power and is supported by electoral gerrymandering, leaving 1 Sunni vote the equivalent of 21 Shi’a votes in one district.[9] Similar practices occur in Lebanon and Iraq, as sectarian elites seek to solidify their position within both political projects and communities.

Agamben’s Biopolitics

The Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben offers an especially useful theory here, where biopolitics and sovereign power operate through the regulation of abandonment and the distinction between Zoe and bios, the good life and bare life.[10] Agamben’s work on sovereign power gained traction after the events of 9/11, facilitating greater awareness of the ways in which regimes ensure their survival in what he terms a perpetual time of crisis. A key aspect of Agamben’s work on sovereign power and the state is the camp, taken to be the “hidden matrix of modernity,” a space that opens when the state of exception is provided with a permanent spatial grounding. This claim stems from efforts to regulate life through biopolitical processes, emerging from the constitutional capacity to suspend the law in an attempt to preserve the political project. In the camp, “as its inhabitants were stripped of every political status and wholly reduced to bare life.”[11]

While traditionally applied to Western democratic tradition, in recent years a growing body of work has used Agamben’s ideas in the Middle East. For Sari Hanafi, writing about Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, the camp is a “space of exception, a space out of place” where the sovereign exerts “disciplinary power, control and surveillance.”[12] Yet the camp can also refer more broadly to territory controlled by the sovereign. In such conditions, as Jenny Edkins and Veronika Pin-Fat argue, “We have all become homines sacri or bare life in the face of a biopolitics that technologizes, administers, and depoliticizes and thereby renders the political and power relations irrelevant.”[13]

While Agamben’s work speaks to a number of states across the Middle East, in others it appears more problematic, struggling to explain the ways in which life is regulated amidst the fragmentation of political projects and the emergence of a range of competing biopolitical structures. In spite of these problems, Agamben’s approach helps to raise questions about the ways in which sovereign power operates and the role of sectarian identities in biopolitics; moreover, this approach also prompts us to reflect on how sectarian identities are re-negotiated or resisted.

Biopolitics Across the Middle East

These ideas are particularly relevant in the context of conflict, territorial fragmentation, ideological contestation or geopolitical penetration, leading to an array of parabolic pressures such as that seen in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon or Iraq at various times in their recent histories.

In a number of cases, amidst the fragmentation of political projects competing visions of sovereign power and organisational structures have emerged. In cases such as Lebanon and Yemen, where sovereign power has failed to regulate all aspects of life, Agamben’s ideas appear problematic. Yet here we see the emergence of ‘nestled’ sovereignties, often running concurrently yet with their own visions of ordering, in a form of ‘hybrid sovereignty’. Here, it is possible for competing biopolitical structures to emerge which can run concurrently, with potentially devastating implications for political projects and peace building efforts. Such processes make a range of different claims to legitimacy, whilst regulating the life of particular constituencies, drawing on a range of strategies, including the mobilization of sect-based identities and the political economy of sectarianism to secure and reproduce sectarian identities.

In these contexts, parallel biopolitical projects each seek to regulate life in respective communities, often overlapping across urban spaces, political contexts, often resulting in inter-communal tensions. These governance projects are re-enforced by the socio-economic organisation of life which serves to strengthen intra-communal relations while also more clearly articulating difference between communities. Amidst competing claims to legitimacy, space, access to political life, or resources, it is easy to see the descent into inter-communal violence, such as that witnessed in Lebanon or Iraq, particularly amidst the instrumentalization or mobilization of potentially fractious identities, reinforcing sectarian identities in the process.

In cases where sectarian identities have become (geo)politically charged, peace building also requires the de-sectarianization of political life. The concept of de-sectarianization shares characteristics with other concepts including post-sectarianism and anti-sectarianism yet brings together a range of other factors to look at the ways in which the politically charged sectarian difference can be addressed.[14] De-sectarianization is the re-imagining or contestation of dominant sectarian identities which often play a prominent role in the biopolitical structures of the state.[15] As scholars such as John Nagle, Hiba Bou Akar and others have argued, the contestation of sectarian identities has typically occurred from people outside of these political structures who are addressing a range of grievances that often emerge from within the biopolitical machineries of sovereign power.[16]

Resisting sectarian identities maintained through governance strategies is a serious task, given the refinement of biopolitical processes, yet the manifestation of protest across the final months of 2019 demonstrates the capacity of agency to operate in the face of sovereign power. This perhaps stems from the creativity of agency[17] or the competing claims to sovereign power that has been so evident across Lebanese history. Negotiating or resisting the biopolitical technologies of sovereign power – a process of de-sectarianization – is central to processes of democratization, peace building, and good governance, given the prominence and resonance of sectarian identities across political projects.

Conflict transformation aimed at fostering more positive form of social cohesion requires addressing not only the seemingly intractable differences that drive conflict, but also the political and socio-economic structures that reproduce sectarian, political, social and economic grievances that operate within or alongside each other. Such efforts typically require both ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ efforts to achieve this goal. Yet the complexities of the way in which biopolitical power operates alongside socio-economic structures means that it incredibly difficult to assert agency and facilitate lasting change across divided societies.

Simon Mabon is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and directs the SEPAD project at Lancaster University.


[1] Ibn Khaldoun, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History (Franz Rosenthal trans.) (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967) p39.

[2] Ghassan Salame, Introduction, in: Ghassan Salame (ed) The Foundations of the Arab State (Oxon: Routledge, 1987), p3.

[3] Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality Volume 1 (trans. R Hurley, 1998) (London: Penguin, 1976) p136

[4] Simon Mabon, Houses built on sand: Violence, Sectarianism and Revolution in the Middle East (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2020)

[5] Morten Valbjorn, ‘What’s so Sectarian about Sectarian Politics? Identity Politics and Authoritarianism in a New Middle East’, Studies in Ethnicities and Nationalism 19:1 (2019) p128

[6] Steven Heydemann, ‘Syria and the Future of Authoritarianism’, Journal of Democracy 24:4 (October 2013) p. 72.

[7] Kylie Moore-Gilbert, ‘Sectarian Divide and Rule in Bahrain: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?’, Middle East Journal (19.01.16)

[8] Cited in Justin Genger, “Royal Factionalism, the Khawalid, and the Securitization of ‘the Shi’a Prob- lem’ in Bahrain,” Journal of Arabian Studies 3:1 (2013) 53-79.

[9] Marc O. Jones, ‘Saudi Intervention, Sectarianism, and De- Democratization in Bahrain’s Uprising’, in Thomas Davies, H.E. Ryan, and A. M. Peña (eds) Protest, Social Movements and Global Democracy Since 2011: New Perspectives (Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 2016), 251–279.) See also Gengler, Op. Cit.

[10] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer, Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995) p1

[11] Ibid. p171

[12] Sari Hanafi, and T. Long. “Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon: Laboratories of State-in-the-making, Discipline and Islamist Radicalism,” in Ronit Lentin (ed) Thinking Palestine (London: Zed Books Ltd, 2008) 82-100.

[13] Jenny Edkins and Veronika Pin-Fat, ‘Introduction: Life, power, resistance’, in Jenny Edkins, V. Pin-Fat, M. Shapiro (eds) Sovereign Lives: Power in Global Politics ( New York: Routledge, 2004) p9

[14] Simon Mabon, ‘De-sectarianization’, Faith and International Affairs, Forthcoming.

[15] Simon Mabon, ‘Sectarian Games: Sovereignty, War Machines and Regional Order in the Middle East’, Middle East Law and Governance, 11:3 (2019) forthcoming.

[16] John Nagle, ‘Beyond ethnic entrenchment and amelioration: an analysis of non-sectarian social movements and Lebanon’s consociationalism’ Ethnic and Racial Studies, 41:7 (2018) 1370-1389 and Hiba Bou Akar, For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018)

[17] Patricia Owens, ‘Reclaiming ‘Bare Life’? Against Agamben on Refugees’, International Relations 23:4 (2009)