A close friend and I were in one of Beirut’s vibrant cafés, conversing with one another and basking in its ambiance. For everything around us was beautiful. It was as though our sight was restricted to the greenery, the sea and the beautiful faces around us.
There were not many tourists, and the people in the café seemed friendly as they talked with another and smiled when their eyes met. It was as though the political situation around them had no impact on their lives, or as if they did not live in the same Lebanon that makes international headlines. Perhaps they have grown so accustomed to it that it no longer upsets or even piques them.
Reflecting on the beauty that surrounded me, I couldn’t help but ask my friend: “Why are the Lebanese fighting? They have the chief components for a beautiful life: rich natural resources, a relaxed culture and a moderate society? While I may be able to understand the struggle to survive in a desert society, for example, I cannot come to understand the situation in Lebanon.
In truth, I was asking myself this question, not my friend. My friend looked at me with bewilderment in his eyes and with a tone of sarcasm, he said: “I thought you wiser! It is a conflict of many sects over a small piece of cake. Since the formation of Greater Lebanon, its history has been one of sectarian conflict. Surely, you know all this!” I looked at him again and said: “Everyone does! Still, the question remains unanswered ‘Why are they fighting?’ Sectarian differences should not beget war. There are many countries in the world whose populaces are made up of multi-sectarian and multiethnic societies who do not suffer the plight of the Lebanese.”
My friend gazed onto the vivid view of the sea as he said: “The exploitation of their diversity by foreign powers may be the reason. Throughout Lebanon’s history, they have turned Lebanese soil into a battleground. So, it is a combination of both Lebanon’s diversity and foreign interference that has turned Lebanon into an eternal war zone with tensions arising incessantly. I think that is the answer. What about you?”
Still confused, I looked at him and said: “Your analysis partly answers my question; still it is not one that satisfies me. Foreign interference cannot wreck the country alone had the people not received it with open arms. It is more likely that the Lebanese are a people ‘predisposed to be occupied’, as Algerian thinker Malek Bennabi first described it.
My friend was yet again gazing at the sea as the sun set, and with that exclaimed: “I know! I got it! It is a state of fear, a phobia that the Lebanese have of one another and of the powers that aspire to take over. Most Lebanese sects have suffered oppression at the hands of politicians at one point or another in history, so much that harboring such ill feelings as self-victimization and suffering became the only tie that binds Lebanon’s different sects together. I believe that each sect is thereby looking to liberate itself from the rest, as it does not want to permanently rely on other sects or even the state. They may even associate themselves with foreign states for protection. Some ally themselves with other sects. Nevertheless it remains temporary and circumstantial, as soon as the circumstances end, so does their alliance.”
“In that sense, Lebanon has turned into a most fragile and complex entity, prone to explosion in any minute,” he said with a satisfied smile on his face. I looked on as the last bit of sun sunk into the Mediterranean and the question remained lingering in my head. Why are the Lebanese fighting?
A question so simple yet so complex, much like the situation in Lebanon.
The typical answer would be: sectarianism, foreign interference, and the people’s fear of one another. While all this may partly account for the situation to a great extent, it does not in itself suffice to explain the state of incessant tensions.
As I have said before, many countries live in complete harmony despite boasting multiethnic societies. As for foreign interference, when has it ever ceased? It impinges on the affairs of many countries, but no where has it created such tensions as in Lebanon. People’s fear of one another has been an issue in many countries as well, this, however, would quickly be resolved elsewhere.
In my opinion, the problem in Lebanon is one of affiliation and identity first and foremost. By this, I mean that the Lebanese do not call themselves “Lebanese” first, and Shia, Maronite, Sunni, and Druze second, rather just the opposite, with “Lebanese” second as the weak umbrella that only appears to unite them on the outside, but is crumbling from with-in.
Even parties whose causes spread beyond national borders, usually those of religion irrespective of ones sect, are in reality sectarian to the core. They do not even grasp the concept of nationalism although they reach audiences far beyond their own [nation]. One such example is Hezbollah. It maintains that its one and only cause is Islam, and that it heeds not ideological and sectarian differences. While it may slightly be “Islamic,” in the final analysis it is Shia-oriented, using Islam as a guise for its unabashed sectarian proclivities. This is especially accentuated by its cooperation with a foreign country that prides itself as the sole savior and protector of this sect in the region.
Another such example is Arab Nationalism. When it swept the Arab world years ago, the key advocates of it in Lebanon were Sunnis. This is because they found security in Arabism, as it is a notion that will protect them and guarantee their survival in a country like Lebanon. It is thus yet another group whose cause is supposedly binding, while in reality is sectarian to the core. The same holds true for the Maronites and their parties, the Druze, the Greek Orthodox and other minorities and their political aspirations, as well. This is so prevalent, in fact, that a person’s sect can be figured out simply by knowing their political orientation.
An imperative question remains: Why is the concept of a “Lebanese national identity” so fragile and what causes it to erode in the face of sectarianism?
In my opinion, it is the Lebanese political structure that infuses sectarianism. Rather than acting as a melting pot joining the nation’s factions together under one nationality, it only further drives them apart. Since its early inception, the Lebanese republic has immersed itself in sectarianism, on every institutional level possible. Even when there would be a glimmer of hope that it would die down, which is nearly impossible in Lebanon, someone will mention the political structure of the country and it is once again brought back to life.
After it declared independence from the French, Lebanon’s 1943 National Pact only served to cement sectarianism instead of attempting to counter it. When the Taif Agreement came to being after the Lebanese civil war, it was no different, as it merely updated the old pact while the political structure remained unchanged. Therein lays the problem. It is thus not a problem of sectarianism, or foreign interference, or the people’s paranoia either. All are but merely symptoms of the root-cause, and not the cause of the problem. The problem is in Lebanon’s political structure that only further encourages sectarianism thereby eliminating any possibility of achieving national unity. The only solution is restructuring the Lebanese political system and returning Lebanon to the Lebanese and the Lebanese to Lebanon. Any other solution will only prove temporary and futile, and will soon be whisked away by the Middle East’s turbulent and sandy winds.