Defensive developmentalism was not the only means by which the structures of governance and economics associated with the modern period were introduced into the Middle East. There was also imperialism. Historians and political scientists have yet to agree on a definition of imperialism. However, a good starting point is the definition provided by a scholar of the subject, Ronald Robinson. According to Robinson, “Imperialism... is a process whereby agents of an expanding society gain inordinate influence or control over the vitals of weaker societies by... diplomacy, ideological suasion, conquest and rule, or by planting colonies of its own peoples abroad.” One of the key concepts in this definition is contained in the phrase “gain inordinate influence or control over the vitals of weaker societies.” This differentiates modern imperialism from the acquisitions-of-land-through-conquest that took place in history prior to the modern period. True, pre-modern conquerors sometimes transformed social and economic relations in the societies they conquered. For example, once free populations might be reduced to slavery. But modern imperialism had a singular and inevitable effect: In the aftermath of the eighteenth-century industrial revolution, imperialism compelled the integration of targeted societies into the modern world economy. In the process, new economic and political structures and new forms of social organization compatible with the modern world economy emerged in those societies, whether as a result of conscious design on the part of imperialist powers or as an unforeseen consequence of their intrusion. In other words, wherever European imperialists set foot, they left behind market economies and the framework for modern states.

Europeans used all the methods identified by Ronald Robinson — diplomacy, ideological suasion, conquest and rule, planting colonies — at one time or another, in one place or another, in the Middle East. For the most part, European imperialism in the Middle East was carried out in two ways: by economic penetration carried out through investments, loans, and the creation of spheres of influence, and by diplomatic coercion, through which Europeans acquired capitulatory rights or forced treaties favorable to their interests on weaker states. The concessions extracted from the Persian government are a good example of the former, the Treaty of Balta Liman an example of the latter.

There were, however, several notable exceptions to this rule that deserve scrutiny. At various times, Europeans colonized, occupied, and imposed special administrative zones in the Middle East. The purpose of this chapter is to look at three such instances.


During the nineteenth century, Algeria was transformed from an Ottoman territory into a French one. Before the French sent their fleet to Algeria in 1830, Algeria had been virtually autonomous within the Ottoman Empire. It was ruled by locally chosen Ottoman governors called deys. For most of the Ottoman period, the main source of local revenue came from piracy. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, Mediterranean piracy had seen better days. Not only had European states become quite adept at projecting their power onto the seas, they had become increasingly intolerant of what was, in effect, an extortion racket practiced by pirates and their North African sponsors.

As revenues from larceny, the ransoming of captives, and the sale of protection to European governments seeking to safeguard their merchants decreased, the authority of the dey and the dey's government weakened. Around the same time, the French adopted their Mediterranean strategy — the same strategy behind Napoleon's expedition to Egypt. As a matter of fact, although dead for almost a decade, Napoleon was in a way responsible for the French invasion and colonization of Algeria as well as the invasion and occupation of Egypt. While in Egypt, French forces had bought Algerian grain, and the French debt to Algeria remained a sore spot between the two governments for decades afterward. During one particularly grueling round of negotiations about the debt, the exasperated dey of Algeria hit the French consul with a flyswatter. The French government used the famous “fly-whisk incident” to launch a naval campaign against Algeria. The campaign began with a naval blockade and culminated in the French occupation of the Algerian capital, Algiers, in 1830. In 1848, the French integrated Algeria into France as three Frenchdépartements (provinces). In the eyes of the French government, Algeria was as much a part of France as Paris. It remained so for over one hundred years.

French imperialism in Algeria took a form that was rare in the Middle East. During the period of French rule, a European population settled in Algeria and established a plantation economy. Settlers came to Algeria for both political and economic reasons. The French government used Algeria as a convenient place to dump political dissidents, particularly those who had fought in the French Revolution of 1848 or who had participated in the Paris Commune of 1871. But it would have been impossible to build a settler economy with political dissidents alone. During the nineteenth century, the population of southern Europe grew faster than its resource base, creating widescale impoverishment. Many from the region emigrated abroad, including numerous southern Italians, who came to the United States. Others — not only French, but Italians and Spanish as well — headed for Algeria.

In addition to impoverished peasants seeking a fresh start beyond the reach of their landlords, workers and artisans from southern Europe were drawn to Algeria by the lure of employment. Prospects for employment were good in Algeria because colonial outposts like Algeria provided lucrative investment opportunities for Europeans during the nineteenth century. Since risk was high and liquidity (the amount of money available locally) low in European colonies, the possibility that European investors would earn a sizable return on their investments was also high. Money flooded into those companies that promoted ventures associated with colonial economies, such as the construction of ports, roads, telegraph lines, and the like. The Algerian rail system dates from 1857—it was constructed at around the same time as the rail system in European France. These projects allowed colonizers to open up new areas of Algeria for cash cropping, speed crops to European markets, and maintain control over far reaches of the countryside. The construction of such projects required skilled and semiskilled workers. By the outbreak of World War I, there were approximately seven hundred thousand European settlers in Algeria — the vast majority of whom had actually been born there. They, rather than the almost five million Muslim inhabitants of the territory, controlled both political and economic institutions.

To accommodate these settlers and attract European capital to Algeria, the French government seized religious endowments, lands owned by the dey, pasture lands used by nomads, and abandoned urban property. Lands previously held by non-European inhabitants of Algeria became the property of European speculators and entrepreneurs who consolidated them into large plantations for the cultivation of crops bound for the export market — grain, cotton (particularly during the American Civil War), tobacco, even flowers. During the 1870s, when the wine industry in France was virtually decimated by a parasite that ate the roots of grapevines, speculators and entrepreneurs with holdings in Algeria began expanding grape cultivation to take advantage of the shortfall. By 1914, one-third of Algerian exports was wine. The expansion of the plantation system squeezed out European settlers with small landholdings. At the same time, plantation owners hired the indigenous inhabitants of Algeria to work for low wages as seasonal laborers on their plantations. Others who had become landless or who owned plots that were too small for subsistence flocked to cities where they became day laborers or joined the ranks of the unemployed. Overall, then, French imperialism in Algeria encouraged the spread of market relations, disrupted rural life, and increased the population of towns and cities.

The integration of Algeria into the French political and economic system had other effects that no French policy maker could have foreseen in 1830. French colonialism resembled other colonialisms inasmuch as the French justified their activities by claiming that they brought civilization to the benighted natives — what the French called their civilizing mission (mission civilisatrice). At the same time, however, European settlers and their descendants had access to rights of citizenship that no Muslim Algerian could hope to attain. As we shall discuss in a later chapter, the integration of Algeria into the “civilized world”—what was, in fact, the integration of Algeria into the modern world economic and state systems— made the emergence of Algerian nationalism possible; the differentiation between European French citizens and Algerians on the basis of race or language or religion made the emergence of Algerian nationalism likely.

That likelihood was increased after the outbreak of World War I in 1914. During the war French industrial workers were conscripted into the French army. To take their place, seventy-six thousand Algerians went to metropolitan France to work in factories there. By 1950, their numbers had swelled to over six hundred thousand. Another 173,000 fought in the French army during World War I (about twenty-five thousand died). A number of these Algerians joined trade unions, communist organizations, and emigrant societies that nurtured political activists and introduced them to the latest techniques for political organization and agitation. Beginning in the late 1920s, groups of emigrant workers in France and former emigrant workers in Algeria began to form associations that demanded Algerian independence. Between 1954 and 1962, Algerians, under the leadership of the FLN (Front de libération nationale, the National Liberation Front) fought an extremely bloody war for Algerian independence from France — a war in which over one million Algerians died. The FLN rules Algeria to this day. Its rule has hardly been unchallenged, however: In 1992, when the FLN annulled the results of elections it had lost to its Islamist opponents, Algeria once again descended into war.

Although Algeria lies outside the geographic area routinely covered by this book, its history is important for a number of reasons. French administrators trained in Algeria provided expertise for the French in other parts of the Middle East, including Lebanon and Syria, which the French came to control after World War I. (India played a similar role for the British, and many a British administrator in Egypt, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East had cut his teeth in the Indian civil service.) Algeria also provided the model for a second, less successful attempt to implant a settler-plantation colony in the Middle East. Seeking to replicate the Algerian example, the French financier and philanthropist Baron Edmund de Rothschild financed settler-plantation colonies in Palestine beginning in 1882. Rothschild's plan called for European Jews to emigrate to Palestine and establish and oversee plantations for the cultivation of citrus, almonds, and, particularly, grapes for wine. (Anyone who has drunk Levantine wine can only be thankful that Rothshild's experiment failed, even though he imported administrators who had gained experience in Algeria.) By 1900 Rothschild had lost patience with his experiment and withdrew his support, and within a few years about two-thirds of the Jewish agricultural workers had left Palestine. Although Jewish immigration to Palestine would expand over the course of the next century, the attempt to establish a plantation system in Palestine that would integrate Jewish and Arab labor was never attempted again.

Besides providing the model for settler-plantation colonies elsewhere, Algeria provided another model as well. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Algerian independence struggle became both a rallying point and a model for other revolutionary struggles throughout the world. Here's what Malcom X had to say about Algeria in a speech to an African American audience in 1963:

The Algerians were revolutionists, they wanted [their] land. France offered to let them be integrated into France. They told France, to hell with France, they wanted some land, not some France. And they engaged in a bloody battle.... Revolution is in Asia, revolution is in Africa, and the white man is screaming because he sees revolution in Latin America. How do you think he'll react to you when you learn what a real revolution is?

We shall discuss the sad history of the revolutionary experience in the Middle East in a later chapter.


If Algeria presents an example of imperialism as colonization, Egypt presents a different example of imperialism: imperialism as occupation. While British administrators, under the protective gaze of British soldiers, ran most Egyptian affairs, Egypt never became the site of large-scale population transfer. Nor did Britain officially make Egypt part of its empire, as it did Canada and India. Egypt remained part of the Ottoman Empire until the outbreak of World War I.

The story of how the British ended up in occupation of Egypt begins, once again, with cotton. As we have seen, after the American Civil War the price of cotton collapsed. A second jolt to the cotton market came a few years later with the onset of the Depression of 1873. The Egyptian government, expecting the price of cotton to remain high, had borrowed heavily to finance internal improvements and, on more than one occasion, extravagances. In 1876, unable to pay back its debts, the Egyptian government declared bankruptcy. In response, the British, French, Italian, Austrian, and later the Russian governments came to the aid of their citizens who had invested in Egypt. The European governments set up an agency called the Caisse de la Dette, which oversaw Egyptian finances with an eye toward debt repayment (they would also set up an Ottoman Public Debt Administration for the same purpose in the wake of the Ottoman bankruptcy). The Caisse's administrators took control of over 50 percent of Egyptian revenues. The 1880 Law of Liquidation regularized the debt repayment. According to the law, the Caisse was to direct all net revenue from railroads, the telegraph, and the port of Alexandria to the repayment of Egypt's foreign creditors. The law also granted the Caisse the right to all income derived from customs and import taxes on tobacco and wrested from the government of Egypt control of all tax revenues from four Egyptian provinces. Finally, the Caisse demanded the reinstatement of taxes on land that had previously been exempted. The Caisse's actions infuriated a cross-section of the Egyptian population, from landowners who found their tax burden suddenly increased, to military officers who suffered as a result of government cutbacks, to religious, commercial, and political elites who found foreign control difficult to stomach.

Many in the military harbored other grievances as well. From the beginning of Ottoman rule through most of the nineteenth century, a Turkish-speaking elite dominated the highest rungs of Egyptian society. This elite, which at the beginning of the nineteenth century numbered no more than ten thousand members, was Ottoman in culture and outlook. Mehmet Ali, it must be remembered, hailed from Ottoman Albania, did not speak Arabic, and acted much like other Ottoman warlords who sought to carve out a privileged role for themselves and their families within the empire, not separate from it. Over the course of the nineteenth century the gap between the ruling elite and the population narrowed. Political and military elites in Egypt increasingly came to speak Arabic and intermarry with the native inhabitants of Egypt. At the same time, those inhabitants came to penetrate the bureaucracy and officer corps of the military, once the exclusive preserve of the Ottoman elites. Nevertheless, the discrimination felt by many in Egyptian society stung, and officers who believed that their rise in the ranks had been blocked because of their background were in a position to do something about it. In 1881, the army under Colonel Ahmad ‘Urabi mutinied. The mutiny touched the exposed nerve that foreign interference and social cleavages had created in Egyptian society. ‘Urabi forced his way into the government and began preparing to defend Egypt from the assault from Europe that was sure to come.

And come it did. Historians disagree about the precise reasons for the British invasion and occupation of Egypt. Some attribute it to British fears for the Suez Canal. After all, the British felt that the canal was so important for preserving their interests in India that in 1875 they had bought a huge block of its shares from an Egyptian government on the verge of bankruptcy. While the French still held most of the shares of the canal, the British, it seems, held most of the anxiety. The British also feared for the repayment of the Egyptian debt, 25 percent of which was owned by British investors. In addition, they feared instability in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly since Europeans living in Egypt began sending back exaggerated reports of massacres of Christians. Probably all of these factors led to the British invasion and occupation. The British sent a flotilla to Egypt and established residence there that would last for three-quarters of a century.

Once in Egypt, the British exercised control through both military and political means. Although the size of the British occupation forces was small in comparison with the size of the population, its presence provided a reminder to the Egyptians of Britain's power in the territory The British did not eliminate the Egyptian army, which had been the pride of Egyptian rulers since the time of Mehmet Ali, but they did reduce its size and place British officers in positions of command. At the same time, the British exercised political power through a local administration. Theoretically, of course, the Ottomans still ruled Egypt and invested its khedives. In reality, the most important political figure was the British consul general. The first consul general, Evelyn Baring, the Earl of Cromer (who was, coincidentally, a member of the family that had established the famous Barings bank) replaced anti-British Egyptian ministers with British appointees. His high-handed attitude toward the Egyptians he ruled is reflected in the following passage from his memoirs:

The European is a close reasoner; his statements of fact are devoid of ambiguity; he is a natural logician, albeit he may not have studied logic; he loves symmetry in all things; he is by nature skeptical and requires proof before he can accept the truth of any proposition; his trained intelligence works like a piece of mechanism. The mind of the Oriental, on the other hand, like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description. Although the ancient Arabs acquired in a somewhat high degree the science of dialectics, the descendants are singularly deficient in the logical faculty. They are often incapable of drawing the most obvious conclusions from any simple premises of which they may admit the truth. Endeavour to elicit a plain statement of facts from an ordinary Egyptian. His explanation will generally be lengthy, and wanting in lucidity.

By 1908, the year Cromer wrote those lines, the British controlled all government ministries but one: the ministry that oversaw religious endowments. Egyptians held only 28 percent of high government posts.

Over the course of their occupation, the British imposed policies in Egypt modeled on their experience at home or in India. At a time when municipal reform was of central concern to reformers in Britain and was just being implemented in India, British administrators in Egypt oversaw the establishment of municipal governments with responsibilities for taxation and public services. Five years after the colonial government in the Punjab region of India passed a law to prevent moneylenders from foreclosing on peasant-owned lands, the occupation government of Egypt did the same. As with many of the defensive developmentalist policies of the khedives, however, this law — the so-called Five Feddan Law — had unforeseen effects. The law forbade moneylenders from demanding land as collateral on loans if a peasant's holdings were five feddans or less (a feddan is about an acre). The law was intended to prevent peasants from losing their property to unscrupulous usurers. Instead, moneylenders simply refused to loan money to peasants covered by the law. Lacking money to buy seed, peasants with small plots of land were often worse off than ever.

British occupation had other long-term economic effects as well. The British encouraged the expansion of cotton cultivation to feed their textile mills and constructed infrastructure that would foster not only the cultivation, but the transport and sale of cotton as well. In the period between the onset of the British occupation and the beginning of World War I, almost one million additional acres of land came under cultivation and over four thousand kilometers of track for railroads were laid. At the same time, the British did everything they could to ensure the Egyptians would not establish a textile industry that might compete with their own. When Egyptian businessmen implored Cromer to impose tariffs on imported cloth so that they might establish textile factories free from competition from abroad, Cromer refused, citing the principle of free trade between Britain and its colonies. By the early twentieth century, the lesson that had been brought home to many political and economic elites in Egypt was that Egypt could never achieve full economic development under British rule.


The British invasion of Egypt in 1882 began with the shelling of the port city of Alexandria. On this page, Alexandria before bombardment. (From: University of Chicago Library.)

Although the British discouraged investment in Egyptian industry to protect the interests of their manufacturers at home, this was not the only reason they did so. Many British policy makers believed that rapid economic development in Egypt would undermine the calm in their new acquisition and threaten their position there. British imperialists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were not alone in thinking that economic development brings social disruption and social disruption brings rebellion. After the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979, many scholars in the United States likewise blamed rapid development under the previous regime for the revolutionary upsurge.

However one-dimensional such reasoning might be, British fears of turmoil and rebellion in Egypt led to what one economist has called the asymmetrical development of Egypt. From the beginning of the occupation through the outbreak of World War I, the Egyptian economy grew, but this growth could not be maintained because investment in education and industry lagged behind. As a matter of fact, per capita income among Egyptians actually declined over the course of the first half of the twentieth century. Investors — mainly Europeans and “foreigners” (Greeks, Jews, Syrians) living in Egypt — channeled their money into those areas of the economy that promised high returns on their investments. These areas were not necessarily ones that would ensure sustained, independent economic development. Egypt got its railways and its urban tramways, for sure, but by the time of World War I it had only sixty-eight publicly financed schools and spending on education took up no more than 1 percent of the governments budget. This was no accident: The British purposely restricted the enrollment in secondary schools and universities to a narrow group that could be absorbed into the economy. By doing so, they hoped to prevent the growth of a class of disaffected intellectuals.


Alexandria after bombardment. (From: Hume Family Collection, The University of Queensland, Australia.)

The British were only partially successful, however. Disaffected intellectuals would go on to organize the first modern nationalist parties in the Arab world. As in the case of Algeria, it was the very presence of imperialists that encouraged the emergence of nationalism in Egypt. Building on the work of their khedival predecessors, the British engaged Egyptians in common activities and in a common marketplace. In the process, they instilled among Egyptians a sense of national community. At the same time, the British presence in Egypt provided the population with a clear target against which to mobilize. Because of this, the Egyptian national movement followed a trajectory that was different from that followed by nationalisms in the rest of the Ottoman domains. Over time, that difference would assure the emergence of a distinct Egyptian territorial identity and the dissemination of a national myth that would trace “Egyptianness” backward to antiquity.


British imperialism in Egypt had long-lasting effects. Fighting imperialism under the pyramids, ca. 1960. (From: Fondation Arabe pour l'image, Beirut.)


European imperialism in the Middle East did not only take the forms of colonization and occupation. European powers also supervised the administrative reorganization of Mount Lebanon and guaranteed its autonomy. European states intervened into the politics of Mount Lebanon to put an end to sectarian — inter-religious — conflict that pit Maronite Christians against their Muslim and Druze neighbors. Maronites are Christians who recognize the Catholic pope's authority but maintain their own traditions. The Druze are a religious sect that branched off from mainstream Islam in the eleventh century. Both groups live in Mount Lebanon. After European intervention, however, whatever differences that might have divided the two communities became etched in stone.

Sectarianism might be defined as a phenomenon whereby religious affiliation becomes the foundation for collective identity in a multireligious environment. Sectarian identities are not primordial or preordained. They emerge as a result of political circumstances, such as when a religious community is treated differently from others by another religious community, a colonial power, or a state as a matter of policy. Sectarianism also differs from nationalism. The object of nationalism is sovereignty. There is no demand for independence with sectarianism — only for autonomy or rights. When sectarians demand independence, they become nationalists.

Sectarian strife of the sort that took place in Mount Lebanon is a modern phenomenon. This is not to say that there were no clashes between religious communities before the modern period. Of course there were. It is to say, however, that sectarian clashes are very different because in the modern period both the nature of religious identity and the issues at stake are different. As discussed earlier, sectarian strife of the sort that took place in Mount Lebanon can be traced to the transformation of Middle Eastern society in the nineteenth century. It was then that the boundaries between Muslim and minority communities began to harden, the social and economic histories of those communities began to diverge, and religious affiliation became the platform from which imperial subjects asserted political claims.

There were both economic and political factors that encouraged the rise of sectarianism in the eastern Mediterranean. During the nineteenth century, as the Ottoman Empire became increasingly integrated into the world economy, the prosperity of the Christian community along the Mediterranean coast increased dramatically. Christian (and Jewish) merchants acted as middlemen in the European trade. They frequently knew European languages, had contacts abroad, and could provide European merchants with information about local conditions. The local consulates of European states often granted these minority merchants special certificates, known as berats. Merchants who obtained berats were covered by the capitulatory agreements between the Ottoman Empire and the state that issued them. In other words, subjects of the sultan who happened to be members of minority groups obtained the same access to the commercial and legal rights the empire had accorded merchants of European states. Because they paid lower customs duties and received tax breaks, they were often more prosperous than their Muslim competitors.

The number of these beratlis, as these merchants and other foreign proteges were called, was not insignificant. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the Austrians had granted consular recognition to two hundred thousand Ottoman subjects. Around the same time, the Russians recognized an additional 120,000. Most of those recognized by the Russians were Greeks who shared religious affiliation with the Russians and who were employed by the Russians as “interpreters.” Thus, one out of every one hundred Ottoman subjects was accorded the rights of Russian and Austrian citizens. And then there were the British, the French, the Prussians, and even the Americans. Each selected their favorite minority — Maronites for the French, Protestants for the British and Americans — and conferred on them the same privileges that were available to their own citizens.

But economic jealousy alone does not explain why Muslim/minority tensions would rise during the nineteenth century, nor does it explain why it would affect such a relatively isolated area as Mount Lebanon. For that, we must look at the promise of equality of citizenship offered by theHatti-i Sharif of Gulhane and the Islahat Fermani, discussed in Chapter 5. Immediately after the announcement of the new Ottoman policy, local notables, clergymen, and even commoners began to assert claims for the political rights promised in the documents. But they asserted those claims in a novel way. Local notables, clergymen, and even commoners knew that they would gain support from European states and concessions from an Ottoman government that was vulnerable to those European states if they presented their claims in the name of one or another downtrodden religious community. By claiming that they were acting to protect the interests of their religious community, they were saying, in effect, that their religious community was a distinct social unit that had interests that differed from the interests of other religious communities. As a result, they made religious communities competitors in the political arena.

The mixture of religious affiliation and political identity had dangerous consequences. It became all too easy for the inhabitants of areas in which several religious communities lived side by side to interpret every indignity or act of exploitation they suffered as an assault on their religious community. And there were all too many leaders or would-be leaders in religious communities ready to exploit the occasion for their own political purposes. Thus, in 1858 a dispute between Maronite peasants and Maronite landlords in Mount Lebanon soon transmuted into a rebellion of Maronite peasants against Druze landlords. The Druze retaliated and the fighting spread. In various places in the eastern Mediterranean, Muslims, angered by the rising economic and political status of Christians, attacked them. In Damascus alone, between five and ten thousand Christians were massacred and European consulates burned. Other massacres took place in Aleppo, Syria and Nablus, Palestine. To protect their Maronite clients, the French landed a force in Beirut.

In the wake of these events, a conference of European representatives met in Istanbul in 1861 to impose a solution on the Ottoman government. Although the roots of the problem were complex, the European delegates saw it exclusively in religious terms. For them, the violence was the latest manifestation of an age-old problem: Muslim fanatics preying on oppressed non-Muslim communities. As a result, the Europeans stepped in to protect the Christians of Mount Lebanon. They insisted that the Ottomans grant Mount Lebanon autonomy and placed the region under the protection of all European powers acting in concert. Mount Lebanon became a special administrative district, a mutasarrifiya, governed by a non-Lebanese Ottoman Christian who was assisted by an elected representative council. That council consisted of four Maronites, three Druze, two members of the Greek Orthodox church, one Greek Catholic, one Sunni Muslim, and one Shi‘i Muslim. This arrangement fixed the connection between politics and religious allegiance, and based political representation in Lebanon on the relative size of each religious community.

The arrangement reached in 1861, then amended in 1864, was the historical ancestor of the system of proportional representation that exists in Lebanon to this day. In 1943, the year Lebanon became independent, leading Christian and Muslim politicians in Lebanon reached an informal understanding called the National Pact. The purpose of the pact was to define the political spoils available to each religious community. The pact stipulated that the president, prime minister, and speaker of the lower house of parliament would be a Maronite, a Sunni, and a Shi‘i, respectively; that the lower house would be divided between Christians and Muslims in a ratio of six to five; and that even cabinet posts would be distributed according to a representational formula that until 1990 was based on the last census taken in Lebanon — the census of 1932. After fifteen years of civil war, the representational formula was amended in 1989. This formula apportioned seats in the lower house of parliament equally between Muslims and Christians — this, at a time when it is estimated that Lebanese Muslims far outnumbered Lebanese Christians.

Sectarianism in the Middle East has not been limited to Lebanon. It has affected much of the region, from Algeria to Iraq. In some cases, outside powers have institutionalized sectarianism, either because they felt that sectarianism was the permanent default position for the inhabitants of the region or for their own political convenience. In other cases, it was the convergence of religious affiliation and local political struggles that gave rise to sectarianism. In 1870, for example, the French government issued the Cremieux Decree, which granted French citizenship to the forty thousand Jews of Algeria. Because no such privilege was granted to Algerian Muslims, French policy had the effect of separating and hardening the boundaries between the two communities. Again, the results were disastrous: In 1934, incited by anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda, elements of the Muslim community in the Algerian city of Constantine engaged in anti-Jewish riots, killing about two dozen Jews. In the wake of these riots, most Algerian Jews fled to European France.

Then there is the case of sectarianism that unfolded before our eyes. In post-occupation Iraq, a combination of “al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia” provocation and American blundering enflamed sectarian passions and brought the country to the brink of cataclysm. Soon after the American invasion in 2003, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a Sunni group, began launching attacks against high-profile Shi‘i targets, including celebrated mosques, Shi‘is on pilgrimage, and Shi‘is participating in rituals. The aim of the group was to spark tit-for-tat retaliations between Shi‘is and Sunnis, leading to all-out civil war. In the mind of the al-Qaedists, this would both make the American position in Iraq untenable and mobilize Sunni Iraqis against their “heretical” rivals. The group's chances of achieving its aim were increased by the incompetence of the American occupation authority, which issued decree after decree that Sunnis believed showed favoritism toward the Shi‘i community and hostility to the Sunni community to which Saddam Hussein had belonged. Along with other factors, the deliberate provocation and the blundering worked their magic. It took to the end of 2007 for relative calm to be restored. As in Lebanon, Algeria, and elsewhere in the region, the sectarian passions that were aroused in Iraq were formidable. But as in Lebanon, Algeria, and elsewhere in the region, it was contingent events in Iraq, not instinctive behaviors, that fostered an environment in which religious (and ethnic) differences mattered.

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