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Can national unity cure sectarian division? The potential pitfalls of nationalist protest discourses

Article by Anne Kirstine Rønn

July 19, 2022

Can national unity cure sectarian division? The potential pitfalls of nationalist protest discourses

What can foster peace and unity in societies that are deeply divided along sectarian lines? And what may lead to a reimagining of the political role of sectarian divides? These questions have received increasing attention among academics, policy makers, activists, and donor organisations in recent years, particularly in the wake of a series of large popular protest movements directed against sectarian political elites in countries such as Bahrain, Iraq, and Lebanon. These protests may contribute to foster stability and political transformation in the long run. To do so, however, their main challenge is to promote alternative identity categories such as nationalism and collective issues that can unify the population across sects and other social divides.[1] The purpose of this essay is to explore the pitfalls and risks associated with using discourses of nationalism to unite citizens against sectarian elites.


The recent decade’s anti-sectarian protest movements across divided societies in the Middle East suggest that appeals to a collective national identity can serve as a powerful weapon against sectarian divides and antagonism.[2] In fact, visions of nationhood have formed the basis of some of the most popular slogans and discourses in these movements. In the Bahraini uprising in 2011, protesters famously chanted that they were “not Shi’a, not Sunni, just Bahrainis”. In the so-called Tishreen Movement, which swept across Iraq in October 2019, a main slogan was, “we want a homeland”. In the Lebanese October Uprising, which took place at the same time, an estimated million people gathered in streets and squares to display the unity of the Lebanese people. The national anthem was played from large sound systems, and the Lebanese flag was painted on city walls across the country. In all three cases, the national flag was turned into a symbol of joint resistance against sectarianism and oppression.


This essay informs discussions about the potential of nationalist protest discourses by examining these in a critical light. While nationalist discourses may contribute to counter sectarianism, they do not present a miracle cure for sectarian divides. Rather, I argue, appeals to nationalism are associated with a series of pitfalls, which observers of contentious politics in divided societies must be attentive to.


The essay uses the Lebanese October Uprising as a case to illustrate these pitfalls, drawing on findings from field research and interviews with Lebanese activists as well as insights from research publications and other secondary sources. It begins with a brief overview of theoretical works on nationalism and sectarianism, which presents three potential pitfalls associated with using nationalist discourses as weapon against sectarianism. This is followed by a discussion of these pitfalls in relation to the Lebanese October Uprising. Finally, the essay concludes with a discussion of how these pitfalls may be addressed.


The scholarly debates on nationalism, sectarianism and de-sectarianisation: Three criticisms

Recent years’ studies of sectarianism, de-sectarianisation and identity politics in divided societies have provided important contributions to nuancing the understanding of nationalism in these settings. Altogether, these studies emphasise that nationalist narratives can take multiple forms, many of which are based on exclusive, authoritarian, patriarchal, racist, sexist and antagonist visions of nationhood.[3] Consequently, nationalism is not, per se, democratic and secular. Neither, is it the polar opposite of sectarianism. Rather, envisions of nationalism and national identity often carry sectarian connotations.[4] As Rima Majed emphasises, Arab nationalism has been associated with a Sunni overtone, while Lebanese nationalism has historically been linked with a Christian identity.[5] Moreover, as Raymond Hinnebusch observes, certain forms of nationalism may be exclusionary towards ethnic minorities such as Kurds.[6] Finally, authoritarian regimes often use nationalist narratives against democratic opposition figures, presenting them as a ‘sectional’ interest, which constitutes a threat to the integrity of the nation.[7] This all makes it relevant to critically scrutinise the content of such nationalist discourses and ask “whose nation” they represent[8]


Taking the above insights as point of departure, one can identify three potential pitfalls of nationalist discourses as weapons against sectarianism within the context of popular anti-sectarian protests. The first pitfall is that nationalist discourses may draw a boundary between members and non-members of the state and thus contribute to othering or excluding non-nationals. In contexts where racist and xenophobic attitudes are already socially and politically salient, there is also a significant risk that strong nationalist sentiments may reinforce hostile attitudes against migrants, refugees, or other ethnic minorities. The second pitfall is that protest movements fail to define the content of their nationalist discourse. As there is often no shared sense of nationalism in divided societies, nationalist myths and symbols may become empty and politically passive. The third potential pitfall is linked to the fact that discourses of nationalism can easily be co-opted and distorted by political elites to serve sectarian agendas. A good example is Bahrain, where Shiite protesters and regime challengers were framed as Iranian fifth columnists serving the foreign policy agenda of Tehran.[9] In the following section, I discuss whether and how these pitfalls could be observed in the Lebanese October Uprising.


Pitfalls of nationalist discourses in Lebanon’s October uprising

The Lebanese October Uprising, which broke out on October 17th 2019, is the largest mobilisation against sectarian politics in Lebanon. The uprising was triggered by a proposed tax on WhatsApp amidst a severe economic crisis. However, it also directed an explicit critique against the country’s political system, which is based on sectarian power sharing and has contributed to concentrate power in the hands of a small elite, many of whom are former warlords.[10] As mentioned above, nationalist slogans and symbols were omnipresent in the Uprising. Hence, the uprising provides a suitable case for discussing the potential pitfalls of nationalist protest discourses. Before turning to the downsides of these discourses in the uprising, it is important to note that many protesters and observers celebrated the appeals to national unity. My fieldwork data as well as secondary material suggest that the uprising’s nationalist narrative was largely seen as inclusive by protesters and presented as a contrast to the sectarian discourses, which had been promoted by the political elites for decades. However, as I elaborate below, the three pitfalls of nationalist discourses could also be identified in the uprising.


Limiting space for addressing the rights non-Lebanese

Nationalist discourses arguably made it more difficult to include calls for the rights of non-nationals living in Lebanon and failed to address problems with xenophobia and racism in the country. Lebanon is home to about one million Syrian refugees, 200,000 Palestinians and about 250,000 migrant workers many of whom work in private households. The situation of the many non-Lebanese has become increasingly dire amid the recent years’ economic crisis. Moreover, non-Lebanese, particularly Syrian and Palestinian refugees have been exposed to racist and xenophobic discourses. More specifically, Lebanese sectarian politicians have long presented a form of nationalism, which rejects the rights of non-Lebanese in the country, with refugees particularly targeted. This anti-refugee discourse was exemplified in a number of tweets posted by Gebran Bassil, former Foreign Minister and son-in-law of Lebanon’s President just a few months before the uprising broke out. These tweets, which sparked a storm on social media, were interpreted as an indirect encouragement for Lebanese employers not to hire Palestinian or Syrian refugees.[11]


However, demands for the rights of non-Lebanese and calls against xenophobia played a minor role in the uprising. As one activist observed, “Most protesters, truth be told, are simply not thinking about refugees at all.”[12] This observation was echoed by several organisers I interviewed as part of my doctoral research. Interestingly, organisers stressed that they deliberately chose not to bring up rights of non-Lebanese, particularly refugees. The dominant discourse of nationalist unity, several of them believed, stood in the way for addressing rights of these groups. The point is also evident in a comment by investigative journalist, Lara Bitar: “Unfortunately, very little space has been made for migrant workers and refugees and I hope that will change. I’m also not too fond of the hyper-nationalist sentiment that’s overtaken public spaces and hope for more conversations around it.”[13]


Furthermore, the hyper-nationalism Bitar refers to, may also have made refugees less inclined to join the protests or lose hope that the movement would lead to an improvement of their conditions. In a study of perceptions of the uprising among Lebanese and non-Lebanese residents of Tripoli, Dahrouge et al. found that Syrian respondents did not see the potential for improvement in their conditions, as the demands were mainly targeting the basic living rights of the Lebanese people.[14] Moreover, 53 per cent of Lebanese respondents in their survey shared the opinion that people with other nationalities should not participate in the protests. Finally, there were indications that refugees were anxious about racism and xenophobia in the uprising. In Tripoli, for instance, water and first aid items were left for protesters by Syrian refugees in the city, asking for protesters not to be racist.[15]


The depoliticising effect of nationalist celebrations

The risk of nationalism becoming an empty and politically ‘impotent’ approach was addressed in several critical analyses of the October Uprising. For instance, Halawi and Salloukh argue that the uprising gradually mutated into a national carnival.[16] Imagining a national community, they contend, is one thing. Real political change, however, is an altogether different challenge. This point speaks to a wider critique, which was raised by organisers both during and after the uprising, stressing that the carnivalesque atmosphere and the musical performances with flags and nationalist songs, despite being highly popular, also distracted people from discussing substantial political topics. Protesters I interviewed during my fieldwork in Lebanon also expressed frustration that these performances took up the media’s main attention, distracting focus from the political deliberation that took place in the square. Indeed, looking at domestic and international media coverage, some of the most covered events included a human chain from north to South Lebanon and mass DJ concerts in the main square of Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli. During my fieldwork in Lebanon in 2021, around two years after the uprising, many interlocutors described the uprising as a missed opportunity for creating clear alternatives to sectarian politics. While it would be incorrect to attribute this shortcoming to the use of nationalist discourses alone, the October Uprising nevertheless illustrates that visions of nationhood can be difficult to translate into political opposition projects.


Co-optation of nationalist discourses

Several political figures from opposing camps used nationalist discourses in their counter narratives against the uprising, seeking to present themselves as protectors of Lebanon. When Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah took a stance against the uprising, he claimed to do so in the interest of the Lebanese nation. In a speech on October 25th, he stated that he intended to protect the country from a vacuum, which would lead to chaos, collapse and ultimately civil war.[17] When announcing his resignation in a televised speech on October 29th former Prime Minister Hariri stated that “No one’s bigger than the nation”.[18] Moreover, several politicians and their affiliated media outlets sought to portray the uprising as a dangerous movement backed by foreign powers to drag Lebanon into open conflict.[19] These examples illustrate how discourses of nationalism are fragile to co-option and manipulation by political elites. Overall, one can argue that the October Uprising turned into a battle between civic and sectarian discourses of nationhood.


Ways of addressing the pitfalls of nationalism

This essay has explored the pitfalls and risks associated with using discourses of nationalism to challenge sectarian politics in divided societies. While nationalist narratives have been a powerful tool against sectarian division in popular protest movements from Bahrain to Lebanon, nationalism is not per se the opposite of sectarianism. The essay argues that discourses of national unity can be associated with three potential pitfalls: They may lead to othering of non-nationals, contribute to depoliticise movements, and become subject to co-option by sectarian elites. Protesters in the Lebanese October Uprising used a shared vision of nationhood to rally people against sectarian elites. However, the uprising also illustrates the pitfalls of nationalist discourses. This prompts the question how protest movements can promote forms of nationalism that are more inclusive, anti-racist, politically potent and resistant to co-optation. One way could be to combine nationalist narratives with stronger elements of rights-based discourses, stressing the importance of rule of law, good governance, and individual rights.[20] In fact, groups in the Lebanese October Uprising already sought to do so. However, coming up with a shared rights-based approach to nationalism is not easy, given the lack of consensus on questions such as the right to civil marriage and same-sex-relationships. Another strategy could be to promote a form of nationalism which is informed by a political ideology, e.g. socialism as discussed by John Nagle.[21] Finally, a potential strategy could be to downplay the national identity in favor of a shared identity as citizens living within the same state.


Anne Kirstine Rønn is based at Aarhus University, Denmark and has been a SEPAD fellow since 2019. Her research focuses on contentious politics in divided societies, sectarianism and de-sectarianization. In her PhD dissertation, she explores challenges to solidarity in the 2019 Lebanese October Uprising.


[1] Baumann, Hannes. (2011). Introduction: Nationalism and Ethnicity in the Arab Revolutions. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 11, no.3, (2011): 509-512. Nagle, John. 2016. Social Movements in violently divided societies: Constructing conflict and peacebuilding. London, UK: Routledge. Valbjørn, Morten. Countering Sectarianism: The Many Paths, Promises, and Pitfalls of De-sectarianization. The Review of Faith & International Affairs 18, no. 1, (2020): 12-22.

[2] Dodge, Toby, & Mansour, Renad. Sectarianization and De-sectarianization in the Struggle for Iraq’s Political Field. The Review of Faith & International Affairs 18, no. 1, (2020): 58-69. Ismail, Salwa. The Syrian uprising: Imagining and performing the nation. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 11, no. 3, (2011): 538-549.

[3] Nagle, Social Movements in violently divided societies.

[4] Haddad, Fanar. Sectarian identity and national identity in the Middle East. Nations and Nationalism, 26, no. 1, (2020): 123-137.

[5] Rima Majed, Lebanon and Iraq in 2019 Revolutionary uprisings against ‘sectarian neoliberalism’, TNI Longreads (Transnational Institute), October 2021,

[6] Hinnebusch, Raymond. (2020). Identity and state formation in multi‐sectarian societies: Between nationalism and sectarianism in Syria. Nations and Nationalism 26, no. 1, (2020): 138-154.

[7] Baumann, Hannes. Introduction: Nationalism and Ethnicity in the Arab Revolutions. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 11, no. 3, (2011): 509-512.

[8] Valbjørn, Morten. Countering Sectarianism: The Many Paths, Promises, and Pitfalls of De-sectarianization. The Review of Faith & International Affairs 18, no. 1, (2020): 12-22.

[9] Mabon, Simon. Protest, Sects, and the Potential for Power‐Sharing in Bahrain. Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism 20, no. 2, (2020): 161-168.

[10] Kraidy, Marwan M. The Lebanese Rise Up Against a Failed System. Current history 118, no. 812, (2019): 361-363. Salloukh, Bassel F., Barakat, Rabie, Al-Habbal, Jinan S., Khattab, Lara W., & Mikaelian, Shoghig 2015. Politics of sectarianism in postwar Lebanon. London, UK: Pluto Press.

[11] The New Arab, Lebanese demand foreign minister’s sacking over racist tweets, June 2019,

[12] Imogen Lambert, Refugees in Lebanon watch protests with hope and caution, The New Arab, October 2019,

[13] Miriam Younes and Lara Bitar, “New Ways of Relating to Each Other” Lara Bitar discusses Lebanon’s ongoing protest movement, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, December 2019,

[14] Dahrouge, Elias, Nammour, Jihad, Lotf, Ahmed Samy, Abualroos, Karim., Ait Youssef, Iasmin, Al-Burbar, Eman, Benyahya, Khawla et al. The 17 October 2019 protests in Lebanon: Perceptions of Lebanese and non-Lebanese residents of Tripoli and surroundings. Global Campus of Human Rights 4, no. 1-2, (2020).

[15] Imogen Lambert, Refugees in Lebanon watch protests with hope and caution, The New Arab, October 2019,

[16] Halawi, Ibrahim, & Salloukh, Bassel F. Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will after the 17 October Protests in Lebanon. Middle East Law and Governance 12, no. 3, (2020): 322-334.

[17] Tom Perry and Eric Knecht, Hezbollah warns of chaos, civil war in Lebanon, Reuters, October 2019,

[18] Vivian Yee, Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, Steps Down in Face of Protests, The New York Times, October 2019,

[19] Kareem Chehayeb, Narrative wars: Lebanon’s media take shots at popular protests, Middle East Eye, November 2019,

[20] Mabon, Simon. Desectarianization: Looking Beyond the Sectarianization of Middle Eastern Politics. The Review of Faith & International Affairs 17, no. 4, (2019): 23-35.

[21] Nagle, Social Movements in violently divided societies.

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