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Civilisation and the Making of the State in Lebanon and Syria

Author: Angelik Nehme Published: 16/09/2021

Chair: Jinan Al-Habbal, Research Officer at LSE IDEAS and Associate at the Middle East Centre.

First Speaker: Andrew Delatolla, Lecturer in Middle Eastern studies, Visiting Research Fellow at the Middle East Centre at LSE, and Author of the book Civilisation and the Making of the State in Lebanon and Syria.

Second Speaker: Shourideh Cherie Molavi, Writer and Scholar with a background in International Humanitarian Law.

Third Speaker: Mai Taha, Lecturer of Law at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Civilisation: A Look Into Modern Statehood

This event served as a book launch for Andrew Delatolla's Civilisation and the Making of the State in Lebanon and Syria.

Andrew Delatolla perceives in his book that since the 19th century, the notion of the modern state has been somewhat synonymous with the level of civilisational fulfilment. He challenges this notion by presenting and examining how forcing the Ottoman Empire to succumb to the European methods of governing made the situation spiral and worsen. He provides the historical context necessary to analyse how the alleged synonymity between the modern state and civilisational accomplishment affected state-making in Lebanon and Syria. Andrew Delatolla does not reject the notion of the modern state. Nevertheless, he urges us to revise what we consider a modern state to be, and to abandon the assumption that it constitutes the ideal benchmark that is essential for a civilisation to progress.

In his book-launch webinar, he discusses the core arguments and how he utilises them in the book. The first argument is that the notion of a modern state has been portrayed as the standard for civilisation from the 19th century, and this concept has been reproduced up until the modern day. This belief in the modern state asthe basis for civilisation, has lodged race and racism into the process of state-making and deeply rooted them into the structure of its institutions.

As a result, we should re-evaluate the notion of the modern state in the postcolonial world outside of the limited Eurocentric scope of European state formation.

Delatolla examines the two disparate approaches of governing that Europe and the Ottoman Empire adopted. While Europe relied on equality in their governing, which favoured the elite white men of society, The Ottoman Empire employed a system centred around tolerance, known as the Mohlat system. This method of governing allowed the representation of different religious parties in the regulation of laws and affairs on the domestic level. However, Europe deemed the Mohlat system uncivilised and in need of modernisation because it was not as centralised.

Andrew Delatolla sheds light on how various components combine together to constitute a state. These components include but are not limited to politics, political stability, war, culture, economics, social structure, and ethics. He puts particular emphasis on the important role played by social and cultural norms in the process of state-making. According to Delatolla, these are some of the main aspects that help differentiate states from one another.

David Fidler, an International Law Specialist, says that the current standard of civilisation became prevalent when the Western and non-Western cultures started to collide in the 19th century after the empires of Western Europe became the dominant imperial powers.

"As a result, Western societies required the Westernisation of other cultures. The adoption of Western values was the only way for dominant Western countries to deem them worthy as equals." - David Fidler -

The emergence of this standard of civilisation was highly attributed to political and economic revolutions that occured in Europe. With this in mind, it is clear that projecting a European state method on an Arab country like Lebanon or Syria does not necessarily account for the present-day social ideologies and cultural ongoings in them. The system that worked for Europeans proved to be inefficient in other parts of the world. This difference is not merely geographical. It is, in essence, a matter of societal norms in terms of what one group of people can accept as authority.

The Lebanese Civil war (Apr 13, 1975 – Oct 13, 1990) produced a power-sharing dynamic that exacerbated the sectarian division at the level of governance and civil-political relations. The situation worsened after the main actors of the Lebanese Civil War later became politicians and decision-makers in the same country. This spiral of events aggravated political and economic inequities.

Lebanon's failed attempt at creating power-sharing dynamic reforms after its Civil war affected more than just its policies and representation. Delatolla demonstrates how the institutionalisation of conflict and sectarianism affects the work of civil societies. He gives the example of the "You Stink" movement to further his point. The involvement of individuals who are dependent on political parties in the "You Stink" movement was not devoid of consequences. Party leaders would threaten their followers who depended on them for welfare, as a means of forcing them into submission .

The role of NGOs in the Middle East

Towards the end of the webinar, Delatolla sheds light on the importance of the role played by NGOs. He notes how 'Impact Lebanon' and other Lebanese NGOs have made tremendous contributions to provide relief and support after the August 4th blast in Beirut.

"Many NGOs in Lebanon have urged donations to be given to them directly and not to the Lebanese government." - Andrew Delatolla -

Many NGOs in Lebanon have urged donations to be given to them directly and not to the Lebanese government. This scenario shows a lack of trust in the Lebanese government, and highlights the fact that there is more to a state than its government. It also serves as a reminder of how deeply rooted corruption is within Lebanese politics.

Delatolla shows a broad and multidisciplinary knowledge of the modern statehood concept, and he offers original insight into state-making in Lebanon and Syria. He points out that there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach. A means of governing that works well for a particular entity may have catastrophic implications when misplaced. It is vital to place statehood in a historical context to be able to analyse the current situation in the countries at hand. Delatolla finds that it is actually possible to throw aside the fact that the state is the basis of civilisation. By doing so, we can prevent reinforcing the synonymity between the modern state and civilisational attainment.

Angelik Nehme graduated with an MSc in Development Economics & Policy from the University of Manchester. She has a BSc in Economics with a track in Political Science and international Affairs. She whished to put her skills to good use, by reporting about international issues. She is keen on economic development matters, and she favours sustainable growth.


  • Delatolla, Andrew, 2021. Civilisation and the Making of the State in Lebanon and Syria.

  • Delatolla, Andrew. "The Lebanese Civil War and post-conflict power-sharing: continuation of conflict dynamics in post-conflict environments." British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (2019): 1-18.

  • Fidler, David P. 2001. The Return of the Standard of Civilization, Chicago Journal of International Law, 2.1: 137-157.

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