The Repercussions of Misunderstanding History

It is never a must that all those engaged in politics should hold university degrees in history. Actually, many of the world’s prominent statesmen never majored neither in history nor political science.

Among those, some entered politics as legislators after studying at law schools. Others came through military academies, such as Charles De Gaulle and Winston Churchill.

A third group even included those who specialized in medicine and engineering, before seeking power either through electoral politics or revolutions. Among those we find physicians like Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and Michelle Bachelet of Chile, and engineers like US president Herbert Hoover, Necmettin Erbakan of Turkey… and currently Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil!

Going back to history, I do not believe that there is a problem in lecturing about history, but there surely is one with misrepresentation and subjective ‘interpretation’.

Last week, Foreign Ministers of the 68-member ‘Global Coalition’ working to defeat ISIS met in Washington DC upon the invitation of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The meeting, attended by Mr Bassil, was held in order to review and accelerate the campaign for the lasting defeat of the extremist terrorist organization.

I have not been fortunate enough to read about the contributions of Mr Bassil in the aforementioned meeting; however, I had the chance to read what he said at the Wilson Institute, in Washington, during his stay in the US capital.

The Lebanese foreign minister said – from what I have gathered – something around the lines of ‘ISIS as an ideology’ has been around for a long time, and because of this ideology one third of the ‘Lebanese’ emigrated to America and other parts of the World; and later another third died under the “Allies’ siege” during WW1. The remaining third, according to Mr Bassil, has managed to stay put and continue to fight against ISIS till today.

What is extremely interesting in this historical voyage is that it contradicts several simple historical facts, although, in these days of radicalism and religious sectarian and ethnic extremism, it is a very ‘attractive’ incitement against Mr Bassil’s ‘political enemies’. Moreover, it does not really help the cohesion of Lebanon’s “national unity government”, let alone the spirit of ‘national entente’ in the pretty complicated local, regional, and even international, spheres.

To begin with, claiming that ISIS’ ideology had existed “for a long time”, given the rest of his speech, alludes to the pre-WW1 era. This means it had existed before Lebanon had even been created as an entity within its presents borders in 1920.

Then there is a clear indication that what meant was the Ottoman Empire; however, the Ottomans followed the liberal Sunni Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, which had nothing at all to do with ISIS’ “takfir” – i.e. declaring others as apostates – which is rejected by all Muslim states. In addition to this, the Ottoman Empire, which dominated the Middle East and most of Northern Africa between 1516 and 1918, had gone through the “Tanzimat”, a far-reaching progressive movement that included modernization and constitutional reform between 1839 and 1876, ushering impressive religious tolerance and openness. In fact, even when external pressures and military setback in Europe provided an excuse for Sultan Abdul Hamid II to claw back some authoritarianism, he was opposed by ‘reformists’ since 1908; and later deposed by the ‘Three Pashas’ Talaat, Enver and Djemal who were the furthest from Islamic conservatism, let alone ‘ISISism’ …if it had ever existed.

Another issue Mr Bassil touched on, and sounded more like folkloric rather than a serious reading of history, is when he was keen to mention Lebanese emigration during Ottoman rule while ignoring the ‘real’ reasons for the accelerated exodus since the end of the Lebanese War (1975-1990).

This could be explained by his ambiguous position towards Hezbollah. In Washington he claimed that Lebanon was paying a heavy price for what was going on in Syria, including Hezbollah’s military intervention there. He added that he did not speak for the (pro-Iran Shi’ite party/militia), and invited those interested in knowing more about its military intervention in Syria and elsewhere in the region to ask Hezbollah itself!

What is quite interesting here is that Hezbollah is regarded as a terrorist organization by the US, where Mr Bassil was speaking; and yet it (i.e. Hezbollah) is an ally of Bassil’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement. More interestingly, Hezbollah has been the main player that imposed Gen Michel Aoun, the FPM’s founder and leader and Mr Bassil’s father-in-law, as president of Lebanon; after more than two years of presidential vacuum. Aoun, in turn, has continued to defend not only Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria, but also using the Syrian situation to justify the Party’s retaining its weapons despite the fact that all Lebanese militias disarmed voluntarily after 1990.

Thus, when Minister Bassil claims that “Lebanon’s official policy”, as expressed in the manifesto of the ‘national unity government’, is committed to keeping Lebanon away from all regional conflicts, is practically, meaningless.

Another noteworthy point was Bassil’s criticism of the failure of international justice to act against ISIS. His party, the FPM, has always been critical of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) formed in 2005 to investigate and prosecute those involved in the assassination of ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others. The STL has already accused at least five Hezbollah militiamen of involvement in the crime, but, the Party has refused until now to cooperate with it. On the other hand, prominent figures in Bassil’s FPM have recently bemoaned the costs of the STL to Lebanon’s treasury.

Last but certainly not least, the Lebanese foreign minister has called yet again for the return of Syrian refugees and displaced to either areas deemed combat-free, or to Tartous Province in the Alawite heartland of northwest Syria. This negative stance towards the plight of Syrian refugees and displaced is not actually new. It is a re-enactment of the old negative stance towards Palestinian refugees who have been displaced since 1948. While it is a duty, from nationalist and humanitarian viewpoints, to reject uprooting and displacement in general, some Lebanese spent more time in the past criticizing the Palestinian victims than denouncing the power which uprooted and driven them away from their homes. Today, the trend represented by Mr Bassil does not want the Syrian victims around but neither criticizes nor holds accountable those who caused their misery!

Here lies the heart of the problem that has prevented the transformation of Lebanon from a ‘deal’ to a true state; and thus, the intentional misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the Middle East’s history will keep Lebanon a weak link in a turbulent region.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra

Eyad Abu Shakra is the managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat. He has been with the newspaper since 1978.

More Posts