Back to basics: Is who you are, good for you?

All Lebanese share a context. And a common history, even if Lebanese educational administrators fail to formulate this to fit a national curriculum. In the pursuit of a national identity, this is criminally negligent at best. Can an amnesiac learn from his/her mistakes? And, what’s the problem? Here, Laurie King of Electronic Lebanon with ‘Lebanon for Beginners’, posted during Israel’s July ‘Operation Just Reward’ campaign against Lebanon. This basic history lesson does not come across as sympathetic to any one domestic player, nor accusatory. Can a similar approach not be taken in writing up school textbooks? Or is it to be perpetually a case of “church or bus, 13 April 1975?” – “too hard”.

In Lebanon, it seems, everything happens in brutal isolation or in retaliation for isolated acts perpetrated against miscellaneous category of victim. Who does this myopia benefit? Your average man/woman on the Lebanese street? Ha! Reclaimed by historical context, these events will become suitable for school students, as all unpalatable events in history eventually do because we need them to build on, or to diverge from. Evidently, enough Lebanese share a lack of perspective, even if it is an imposed lack of perspective, as to warrant genuine fears of a new civil war (even if it doesn’t happen tomorrow), and certainly a lack of critical awareness of “identity as a function of administrative regimes”:

Identity is neither programmed nor pre-existing; it is constantly being shaped by the interplay of contexts and the dynamics of power inherent in such contexts. If identities were determined by virtually immutable genetic realities alone, then we would expect to see the same categorizations, symbols, and expressions of identity enduring over time in the same place, regardless of economic, cultural, or political developments. This is clearly not the case in the Middle East, a region that has experienced rapid metamorphoses from empire to colonial regimes to modern nation state structures in less than a century, and in which organized ethnic and religious groupings have emerged in different periods to compete for power, resources, and privileges, thus highlighting the contingency and relativity of identity.

In Lebanon, the entire population, being a mosaic of contending minorities, was thinking and feeling like potential victims even before the war broke out on April 13, 1975. It is no wonder, then, that the war was so violent, so bitter, and so protracted. Long before the war began, the Lebanese were enmeshed in a political and psychological “economy of scarcity” which left everyone feeling both vulnerable and opportunistic.

Clearly, many of Lebanon’s eighteen different sects had valid historical, political, and economic reasons to worry about scarcities of power, security and resources. Taa’ifiyya, however, actually obstructs power-sharing at the grass-roots level and gives rise not to a nation of fellow citizens, but rather, to an arena of pronounced conflict and competition between many anxious and agonistic minority groups. Because of Lebanon’s confessionally based system, every individual is encouraged to think of himself or herself as a Maronite, a Shi’i or a Sunni first, and only secondarily as a Lebanese citizen. By emphasizing the group over the individual (and thereby minimizing the individual’s choice, power, and sense of responsibility), and by privileging the sect over the state (thus contributing to the fragmentation of the polity), ta’ifiyya cannot but set the stage for future conflicts.

Not only has Lebanon’s system of confessional power-sharing had detrimental effects on national identity and the consolidation of the institution of citizenship, it has also complicated Lebanese conceptions, attitudes and behaviors associated with power. In Lebanon, power is not vested in the individual; rather, individuals can only attain power through their community, or, more specifically, through the leader (za’eem) of their community, who usually wields absolute power (backed-up by credible threats of force) in the context of his confessional group. The concentration of power in the hands of a few individuals in Lebanon’s political system has increased the sense of powerlessness and dependency which are already so prevalent among the members of each of the country’s contending minority communities.

The institutionalization of ethnic and religious identities for legal and administrative purposes, seen most clearly in states such as Lebanon and Israel, is a double-edged sword. Although official recognition of cultural heritage and religious laws may provide answers to individuals’ psychological needs and communal organizational problems, it can also trap individuals (particularly women) in the vise of inflexible identity categories not of their own choice or making, thus limiting their personal options and opportunities while preventing the development of a more inclusive sense of overarching national loyalty and identity.

At a time when historical perspective is in dangerously short supply, and with a rigid category of identity the only commodity consistently apportioned among the population by the powers that be, the whole article is well worth reading even for seasoned veterans struggling to see beyond the haze of burning rubber.

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3 Replies to “Back to basics: Is who you are, good for you?”

  1. it is indeed criminally negligent. last year i spoke with someone who worked with the TRC in south africa, and she was shocked that nothing of the sort (or of other sorts) had been done in lebanon.

    on that note, if you’re interested, i have a document on the role of social studies for citizen education (between 1920 – 1983). i’ve just started reading it, so i can’t vouch for its quality yet, but email me if you’d like a copy.

    oh, and following up on one of your comments on a previous post of yours: sometimes people don’t comment because they have nothing more to add to what you wrote 🙂

  2. Laz, I’m really interested in the circumstances that facilitated the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as compared to the obstacles to one in Lebanon (intricacies of the Lebanese context; sect before national identity; no two clearly defined and permanent antagonists ((fickle/fluid alliances)); pressures of regional and international strategic interests etc). The short answer is, yes, I’m definitely interested in reading the social studies document & will shortly email you. On the final point, never mind me. That was just a temporary lapse in rationality. 🙂 Thanks all the same.

  3. This post raises a pretty important matter, weird enough I was just thinking about this subject and to write about it, and tada I read your post here.

    And finally, in Lazarus comment, last paragraph, I still didn’t find where that post is (didn’t really search, sowy), anyway I have been thinking the same thing lately, and if this is the reason why you stopped writing, I suggest you get back to writing, because I like seeing things from your perspective (not that I have to agree with you all the time). If for others reasons, then good luck with whatever you’re doing.

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