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New Texts Out Now: Ward Vloeberghs, Architecture, Power, and Religion in Lebanon

[Cover of Ward Vloeberghs, [Cover of Ward Vloeberghs, "Architecture, Power, and Religion in Lebanon: Rafiq Hariri and the Politics of Sacred Space in Beirut"]

Ward Vloeberghs, Architecture, Power, and Religion in Lebanon: Rafiq Hariri and the Politics of Sacred Space in Beirut. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Ward Vloeberghs (WV): While studying in Beirut in the early 2000s, I witnessed a construction site on the corner of Martyrs’ Square. Back then, contrasting rumors circulated as to what exactly was emerging on this central location, and who was in charge of the project. I became intrigued by this saga, and decided to trace the origins of the construction process once I received funding for my PhD project. By then, the Muhammad al-Amin Mosque had been almost completed, and it had become clear that Rafiq al-Hariri had commissioned the edifice. As a result, this book reads as a monograph with a clear protagonist—Hariri—and one main case-study—the Muhammad al-Amin Mosque.

Aside from this personal note, I felt that many Lebanese were interested in the history of this particular mosque. Some of the mosque’s initial criticasters dropped their opposition after Hariri’s assassination and his burial just next to the mosque. Moreover, it seemed to me that, at least among peers, there was a genuine interest in the ways religious architecture is made subservient to political statements in contemporary Lebanon. Thus, analyzing how politics, religion, and architecture interact offered me an interesting approach to visualize societal struggles, and to observe urban politics in action.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

WV: The book intends to show how religious architecture serves as an important tool for political actors in Lebanon. To illustrate this, I investigate how Hariri took hold of the pre-existing project of the Muhammad al-Amin Mosque to realize his long-coveted desire to lodge a major mosque in Beirut and then had it built in the way he did. This leads me to examine how politics are accomplished in fluid relationship to a specific context (all politics is local!) and how built fabric or physical space can express forms of belonging and ambition.

To do so, I have structured the book in three main parts. The first part provides a comprehensive introduction to Rafiq Hariri, and his emergence as a political actor in Lebanon. Though such portrayals have appeared before (most notably Emmanuel Bonne’s Vie publique, patronage et clientèle. Rafic Hariri à Saïda), I believe this political personality profiling exercise sheds new light on some key periods of his life (for example, the sparsely-documented period in Saudi Arabia), and serves as a necessary preliminary to understand Hariri’s dedication to the construction of this specific prayer hall at this particular location. Perhaps most importantly, this first part of the book also critically discusses Hariri’s posthumous legacy as a victim, as a martyr, and as a dynast who continues to inspire a political coalition ten years after his assassination.

Secondly, the book provides an in-depth overview of the Muhammad al-Amin Mosque’s construction history—both from an architectural, and from a political perspective. This second part is more than a description, though, as it offers a view into the project’s genealogy. As such, it features insights into the tribulations of the Sunni community in Lebanon over the past 150 years, and shows how the actual origins of the Muhammad al-Amin Mosque date back to the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Mejid. By relying on process tracing, content analysis, and first-hand material (mostly interviews and observation), I go on by situating the mosque and its various designers within the context of Beirut’s heritage of Islamic architecture.

In the third part of the book, I examine how the politician Rafiq Hariri used this prestigious piece of religious architecture to boost his legitimacy. This dynamic started during his lifetime, but was considerably expanded after his death. Thus, I investigate the conversion of sacred space into political territory. I discuss the mosque’s outspoken design to address issues of class, confessional identity, and citizenship. To take the analysis one step further, I then move away from my case study to encompass other instances of religious architecture, both within and beyond Lebanon—mostly by drawing on literature from art history, anthropology, and international politics.

In the final chapter, substantial attention is given to Hariri’s posthumous influence. At this point, I illustrate how commemoration practices devoted to Hariri redefined the mosque, and its surroundings, including his gravesite. That process was accomplished both by visual and by discursive means, through slogans (‘allam, ‘ammar, harrar or dammak ghali, sawtak ‘ali) and by various artefacts, many of them offered at special occasions (such as the annual anniversaries of Hariri’s assassination or the establishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon).

[In 2006, Liban Post issued this series of stamps to commemorate the first anniversary of Hariri’s
assassination. The Muhammad al-Amin Mosque is featured bottom left. Image via the author.]

Throughout, the book seeks to adopt a balanced stance towards Hariri’s policies and activities. This chapter, therefore, also examines how other actors lost out to (for example, archaeologists), contested (for example, occupy activists during an eighteen months sit-in), or retaliated against (for example, a neighboring cathedral) his initiatives. Thus, I argue that, in urban terms as much as in public finance, Hariri’s accomplishments have certainly come at a price. For example, by installing a monumental mosque, Hariri de facto opted to pour a layer of concrete on top of his city’s ancient remnants.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous research?

WV: While studying Arab and Islamic studies, I was attracted to the Middle East’s numerous minorities and decided to explore the situation of the Copts in Egypt (who reject the notion of minority being applied to them). In doing so, I became fascinated by the difficulty of obtaining reliable statistical data about Arab populations.

Thus, during an MA program in political science, I conducted some research on Lebanese demographers because I wondered how, in the absence of a national census, population scientists manage to do their job. Besides, I wanted to know how public policy makers set out about planning for schools, hospitals, or housing facilities given this census sensitivity. In the end, I discovered that Lebanese demographers have devised tools and surveys to analyze population growth indirectly. These instruments are perhaps more efficient than the techniques used in many neighboring states that do conduct a regular headcount, resulting in most Lebanese having a sharp awareness of the country’s demographic balances.

All of this highlights the fact that I possessed no prior knowledge of architecture when I started the work that led to this book. Rather, I wanted to find out the story behind this building, and was motivated by applying a particular approach to this case. The fact that I broadened my knowledge about architecture at the same time was a cherished side effect, a bit like I had previously coincidentally gained familiarity with Arab demography.

In fact, at the onset of this research, I had been asked to elaborate a project about politics and Islam in the Arab world. I had taken this quite literally, and had not been able to think of anything better than to connect a prime minister with a mosque. Eventually, however, I learned a precious lot about urban design, and how architecture, like art, is indexical of politics in any given society.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

WV: In addition to urban scientists, this book is intended for all those interested in Lebanese politics, and anyone (students, scholars, journalists, professionals) concerned with the contemporary Middle East. I am convinced that regardless of disciplinary background, be it in (art) history, anthropology, architectural engineering, or economics, this book can help to understand how built fabric serves as a depository of aesthetic preferences, political ambitions, and commemoration practices.

Therefore, social scientists who pay attention to material expressions of power may want to purchase a copy, as will institutional libraries. I am confident old-fashioned bibliophiles, like I am, will acknowledge the efforts made by the series editors and the publisher (in editing, illustrating, printing, and binding quality) to offer value for money.

In terms of impact, my hope is that this book can foster scholarly interest in material culture from a social science perspective. In particular, I am convinced there are promising opportunities for students in adopting such an approach towards Beirut’s impressive heritage of religious architecture. As a matter of fact, religious buildings have been given more prominence in the cityscape of Beirut than was the case say fifty years ago. This interplay between aesthetics and politics attracts me, and has not, in my view, been adequately addressed in the literature on Beirut’s reconstruction. Last but not least, it seems likely that such a research program can also be transferred to other cities, and to other socio-religious contexts.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

WV: First of all, I remain, of course, committed to researching political dimensions of sacred space in the Arab world. As indicated, there is plenty of opportunity to develop this theme further. Besides, on the long term, I continue to be fascinated by political elites in the Arab world. I am particularly zooming in on cases where public office is handed down within the family, from one generation onto the next. Such “political dynasties” (not limited to the realm of politics, though) offer concrete glimpses into the specific structures of individual families and societies. The renewal of political elites—not only at the top tier levels of government and business but also those at less visible, sub-top echelons—is a crucial aspect that I want to underline, as it helps to understand the interconnectedness of interests and decisions, thus affecting overall political stability.

Apart from these research topics, I am currently setting up a curriculum in political science within an exciting new institution: the Erasmus University College in Rotterdam. Here, emphasis is on a resolutely multidisciplinary approach (students can combine molecular cell biology with courses on conflict resolution) that also comprises an urban studies track. Liberal arts colleges are quite new in Europe, although The Netherlands has played a pioneering role. Since I was involved in the start-up of a similar project in Rabat between 2010 and 2014, I am eager to continue on this track in a city with a remarkable, raw pulse and spectacular diversity.

J: How do you see this book contributing to the field of Urban Studies? Why do you think it is special?

WV: I believe this book offers a prism to witness the longstanding, ongoing struggle for the city of Beirut. This political struggle is being waged by a variety of actors with eminently urban means, like the physical rearrangement of certain neighborhoods, the installation of statues, or the crafting of sacred space. As such, the book can inform anyone interested in urban studies on how processes of urban design, reconstruction, and framing practices concur to project an image of the city that is passionately formulated and reformulated, time and again. My hope is that the book contributes to urban studies by encouraging social and political scientists to explore religious architecture, a theme often confined to the realms of art history, archaeology, or anthropology.

Spatial expressions of politics, as well as material manifestations of power and identity, are key components for understanding social reality, and not only in the Middle East. It is my conviction that focusing on such (often apparently ordinary) acts and artifacts helps us to better understand how people accomplish power, religion, and architecture on a daily basis, often through simple gestures inspired by positive intentions. The overall result of these accumulated activities, however, is not always harmonious and can, occasionally, lead to fierce antagonism. In this sense, the nearly solipsistic attitude of certain political actors in Lebanon finds itself reflected in its capital’s architecture, in spite of the lip service sometimes paid to diversity, tolerance, and coexistence.

I hope the excerpts below can convey the book’s argument, namely that one can analyze politics of a society through a careful reading of that society’s architecture. In the case of Beirut, sacred space has become an important component of the city’s urban development.

Excerpts from Architecture, Power and Religion in Lebanon: Rafiq Hariri and the Politics of Sacred Space in Beirut

From the Introduction

When Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and Mufti Qabbani laid the first stone for the Muhammad al-Amin Mosque on the first of Ramadan 1423 (6 November 2002), Hariri declared that the construction of this mosque “cherished by the Muslims of Lebanon in general and Beirut in particular” had been awaited “during the past five decades”. He praised Allah for having “shaped the suitable circumstances for the start, today, of the setting up of this sublime religious edifice (as-sarh ad-dīnī al-jalīl).” Everyone knew that Hariri himself had contributed a good deal in bringing about the suitable circumstances and none of the attendees failed to notice the subtle choice of vocabulary. Next to thanking Allah for his favors, Hariri went on to say how fortunate it was to be able to erect the Muhammad al-Amin Mosque “on this particular site in the heart of the capital, where religions embrace each other in order to form a national corner welcoming faith as a shared area for national harmony that confirms the message of Lebanon.”

Taken at face value, these words are no more than the humble reflections of the solemn scenes that come with such circumstances, replete with authentic inclusiveness towards all fellow citizens. In this light, one assumes, Hariri's speech was a paragon of religious tolerance and epitomized his spirit of national, trans-confessional cohesiveness. Rafiq Hariri’s statement can, indeed, most profitably be understood as an anticipated self-fulfilling prophecy; i.e. as the message that Hariri wished for “his” favored mosque to transmit. In such a reading, one assumes that Hariri intended the mosque to stand next to several cathedrals in a show of national unity, deliberately inclusive of other religions, especially Christianity. Certain arrangements on the premises of the mosque—such as the trees “of national understanding” planted between the mosque and the gravesite—hint at such an image. Without taking aim at Hariri’s sincerity, I want to suggest here that, in addition to this first layer of meaning, there is another way to read Hariri's statement. Namely to take these utterances as expressions of Hariri's power. Such an alternative view would conceive of Hariri’s speech in itself, just as much as his construction of a monumental mosque, as a skillful manifestation of his authority.

Years ago, Gilsenan has documented a number of practices of power, i.e. dynamics and processes used in Lebanese contexts to express authority and command respect. Among them he counts the display of boasting (fashr), mockery (bahdala) or news (akhbār) but also joking (mazah), nobility (karāma) and social standing (markaz). One could argue that Hariri's speech about the Muhammad al-Amin Mosque illustrated more than one of these techniques, to various degrees. In this view, Hariri's inaugural statement becomes part of what Gilsenan calls the “operations of power.” We can then understand his speech as being part of those practices of public power which require “many processes less immediate to sight.” In other words, Hariri’s speech is marked by such suggestive formulas, that it can be understood as a moderate and genuinely inclusive discourse but at the same time can come across as a forceful expression of communal leadership. This is not only true for his speech, it applies to the building itself as well. Exactly that communal identity and the leadership shown by Hariri through the construction of this major mosque is the object of my investigation in this book. More precisely, I want to examine how such communal leadership can be expressed architecturally.

In monographic format, I analyze how the Lebanese political actor Rafiq Hariri conducted one of his most significant political projects, namely his patronage of the Muhammad al-Amin Mosque in central Beirut. Tellingly, Hariri did so on top of the ruins of the civil war—literally and symbolically. He installed a congregational mosque in the middle of a sector reconstructed at his impetus—and often perceived as an exponent of capitalist power. By the 2010’s, however, several guidebooks on Beirut bore the mosque’s silhouette on their cover as the edifice had become the new image of the Lebanese capital. Nevertheless, the trajectory of this long-awaited prayer hall and its relationship to one of Lebanon’s best-known politicians often remains either ignored or distorted.


From Chapter Five, Section Two: Communal Monuments, Monumental Communities

[T]he recent drive to mark urban space in central Beirut sustainably with identity claims features two main characteristics: to display confessional belonging and class status in an assertive way. This quest for visibility, preferably as close as possible to the core of the city, is shared by many communities as virtually all of Lebanon’s confessional communities have developed monumental policies, at one time or another, over the past few centuries. In several ways, then, we can say that the community edifies a monument while at the same time, the monument also serves to establish the community, be it a social or a confessional one.

Making buildings matter politically and investing them with specific, easily-recognizable identity claims has been a phenomenon that accompanied the campaigns of urban reconstruction that emerged in the 1990’s and characterized Lebanon during the 2000’s. As has been amply documented, these urban reconstruction policies were largely inspired by a neoliberal discourse and a way of life that caters primarily to the needs of the wealthy. BCD has indeed become a shop sign for globalized luxury from which the pre-war urban tissue composed of small-scale traders and craftsmen has been entirely detached. The consequence of this dynamic has been the obliteration of informal structures that characterized the city center previously and the advent of a platform for powerful brands—commercial ones but also socio-political and religious ones—to nestle themselves in the resulting vacuum. Not only have the social and commercial roots been erased, the cultural roots of the city have had to give way too: archaeological remains, cinemas and theatres have disappeared and education facilities have been banned to secondary zones.

By contrast, religious architecture has been brought to the fore, perhaps in a gesture to galvanize the cooperation of religious authorities to the reconstruction project. Indeed it would appear as if the role of religious actors in the urban reality of Beirut has increased during the post-war period. Whereas religious buildings were more or less hidden and integrated into the urban fabric of pre-war Beirut they have been made more apparent and monumental after the reconstruction. It is the choice in favor of this type of urban development that allows the Muhammad al-Amin Mosque to erect and impose itself in the heart of BCD.

Bringing such religious architecture into the prominence of the urban landscape reveals a lot about the underlying modes of governance and the balance of power that has structured urban space in Beirut over the past decades. In particular does this race towards supreme visibility risk over-emphasizing certain facets of an identity while at the same time minimizing other factors of belonging. For example, does not the wish of monumental edification bear with it the risk of occulting other criteria of citizenship? Perhaps we must see in this manifestation of confessional monumentalism not so much an act of might and faith but rather an expression of the powerlessness of forces in society to promote alternative aspects of participation. What is certain is that this deliberate choice has major consequences for what is being shown and what remains hidden in Beirut.

For one thing, it seems that the very notion of a tolerant citizenship for all is being threatened by the ardent will to impose a socio-economic or a confessional format against any other odds. The self-affirmation of one single community, i.e. the Sunni and/one or the affluent one, risks pushing other communities (non-Sunni and/or less well-off) aside into the margins. By putting excessive importance on purchasing power and confessional identity the city center risks to ignore the shared experience of a human condition and joint membership in Lebanese society as a valid basis for structuring daily life. In this sense, the opulence and the towering dominance of the mosque come across as features of an edifice that, in spite of its ostentation, occults the impotence of a nation to promote civil rights and mutual aspirations as a common denominator to which a vast majority can subscribe by trying, instead, to impose its own, flawed ideal onto fellow citizens.


From Chapter Five, Section Three: Religious Architecture as Sites of Political Struggle

Political power in Lebanon can be analyzed through the prism of urban space. When examining the dialectic relationship of power through built fabric it is important to look into how power can be accomplished. Thus, exploring political dimensions of religious architecture requires more than a mere glance at the sum of the commissioner and the building. It entails a discussion about power and influence, about claims of identity and about balance and dominance, in short: about political power and how to express it. Conceiving of the mosque as a locus for power and politics supposes a setting where these practices of exchange and engagement take place. Urban space provides such a, often intensely negotiated field where all actors converge in confrontation within arenas as diverse as the particular parameters of a specific context.

Means of communication are multiple and go far beyond the uttering of words and phrases. They include several forms of non-verbal communication and often rely heavily upon visual recognition in order to convey a message. Architecture can be seen as one such way of expression. It has the potentiality to formulate values and tastes in a most tangible way. Unsurprisingly, all over the world and since time immemorial, religious buildings have been used and produced by rulers to express their devotion, to protect themselves as well as their followers from evil and/or to position themselves in relation to potential rivals.

Visual culture has become an essential part of political dynamics as image management and visual expression have gained unprecedented importance in politics. Therefore, we must familiarize ourselves with the idea of looking at power in novel and perhaps unexpected ways even though this may entail that we have to relocate power, i.e. we may have to reconsider the ways we think of and about power, in particular how and where it can be observed. Haugaard and Malesevic urge us to look at political power as being omnipresent and part of everyday life.

Power is all around us, part of the everyday, and hence invisible to the taken-for-granted natural attitude of social practice....Understanding power is about seeing in ways that are counter-intuitive.          

[Excerpted from Ward Vloeberghs, Architecture, Power, and Religion in Lebanon. Rafiq Hariri and the Politics of Sacred Space in Beirut, by permission of the author and publisher. © 2016 by Koninklijke Brill NV. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.] 

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