Poland, Lebanon, and the Catholic Church

Interesting parallels between Poland and Lebanon (this probably applies to Ireland as well). Two places where a strange marriage between Catholicism and nationalist projects took place. In both cases, a perceived “external threat” led groups to find in the Catholic church a way to not just defend their interests but also to imagine their national specificity (although arguably the threat in the Polish case was much more real judging from the successive invasion of the current territory we call Poland up until the world wars). But what was the kingdom of Poland before these invasions (with its highly diverse population) could only become the “nation” of Poland through a complex (probably unfinished) homogenizing process in which the Catholic church would play a central role. There is no other way to understand this bastion of Catholicism that is Poland in a sea of Protestant regions on one side and Orthodox on the other. Catholicism which was the last remnant of an older pre-nationalist world order became here the main locus for the development of nationalist specificity. the paradox here is that the once “universalist” brand Catholicism could strive in isolated territory because of the development of a peculiar nationalist specificity. For examples, the Lebanese specificity developed by Maronites involved a complex bridge between Europe and the East, Arab but not really, between Latin and Syriac etc). Here the “essence” of being Lebanese is always escaping but is easily substantiated by Catholicism.

Meanwhile the church’s interest involved mainly the purchasing of land (which still happens in Poland and I think in Lebanon) as they made up for the loss of territory encountered in “the wars of religion” in the rest of Europe and all the privileged they enjoyed before the protestant reformation movements. The church struggled to adapt to the rising sovereignty of nation states, by espousing the latter’s strategies of control but without ever being able to institutionally monopolizing this process leaving local nationalist project the task to preserve their interests. In echo to this, one should not find strange that Islamic institutions sponsored by either Saudi Arabia or Iran have followed a similar strategy of land purchase all around the world as they adapt and seize opportunities offered by nation state institutional apparatuses and the modern legal framework of private property.

Ironically, the Polish nationalist project was a main instigator of the persecution, displacement, and emigration of whole Jewish communities to the newly created state of Israel. Initially most members of these communities identified to their original locality (Polish from this or that city) just as much as Arab Christians were entrenched in theirs. Zionism was born out of a reaction to other European forms of nationalism with its invention of one Jewish people. It is ironic because although the Catholic church, through the Poles (or those now labeled as Poles), helped create the territorial problem of the Zionist project, both Poles and Lebanese Christians where relying on the same institutional and ideological help, that is the Catholic church, to create their respective sovereignties.


ISIS and the specter of Zionism


I’m not saying that Zionism and ISIS are identical or anything as simplistic. But in trying to find generalizing labels for ISIS, such as being a fascist organization, or a totalitarian state and so on, and in the effort to draw parallels between different political experiences one can more subtly propose that ISIS and Zionism have some features in common.

ISIS just like Zionism (at least if we take seriously their media production, in itself a matter of debate) does imagine that a land is promised to them, or should belong to “the Muslims” at large, irrespective of creed, culture, local tradition, etc. ISIS does project the notion that the Muslim homeland involves a rejection of what is not Muslim, or at least a seclusion from what is perceived to be a political other. From the first issues of their newspaper Dabiq, ISIS highly encouraged people to emigrate to this land, to perform “hijra”, based on the idea that the prophet Muhammad also moved from Mecca to Medina to found his community of believers.

Some may retort that Zionism was a secular ideology, yet the seriousness with which the Jewish movement treats passages of the Old Testament as part of the history of a political community is quite similar to what ISIS does with stories of the prophet and his companions, especially when it comes to relating these stories to a material experience involving the seizure of territory and management of population. In fact, the differences (how the religious uses secular textual technologies) as well as the similarities (what they actually do with it) can shed light on the peculiarity of state or other organizational formations in the Middle East.

The production of a climate of fear is essential to ISIS’s political strategy which involves pushing some people out of the territory they control (and thus turning them into refugees) and inviting others, who share their ideological views, to come and live with fellow like minded Muslims. Yet this was exactly what early Zionists practiced in different ways in the beginning of the twentieth century, with the most spectacular image being the Haganah and then the more virulently powerful Irgun, but also the less spectacular political tactics of various groups practicing land appropriations that follows similar rationales. These groups were definitely different from what ISIS is today, just as the context in which they operate, but the political logic is mostly the same.

Because these movements are essentially foreign and irremediably unpopular, their objective is to drive out an eternally discontented population, and to invite another that travels for mostly ideological reasons. In the failure to do so, these movements cannot survive on the long term, which is another reason why a politics of violence is inherent to their modus operandi. And ultimately, just like Zionists Jews imagined belonging to one secular rationalized community despite different geographies and histories, Muslims from all over the world travel to Syria and Iraq in order to belong to a similarly imagined community.

France and antisemitism: It’s the politics stupid!

The recent events in France betray the primacy of the political (and not religious) dimension in the way different communities, groups, and states have handled (and have been handled in) this affair.

One facet is Israel’s urge to profit from the situation and attract a few more Jews to the promised homeland to which France has answered through Holland’s “Holocaust day speech” that urges Jews to reconsider and reflect on the fact that they are, after all, French.

Now one wonder in this case how truly wonderful are the various ironies of the politics in the age of Nation-State: Jews who have been in France for centuries have no problem going to Israel and adopt a completely different “nationality” yet deterritorialized Muslims who came there for less than a century because of economic imperatives have no place to go.

And another interesting highlight of the speech is a change of emphasis over what antisemitism really means. Although I profoundly disagree with the way the word is used in 99% of cases in contemporary social and political affairs since the end of WWII, Holland did seem to acknowledge that representations of Jews do change over time and come to reflect the concerns of ones time, namely here the politics of Israel and the general politics unfolding in the Middle East. Unfortunately, he acknowledged it through the worst wording ever: “hatred of Israel” (as if the reverse means anything in the first place) and, “imports the conflicts of the Middle East” (conflicts that in large part is fueled by your politically moribund foreign policies Mr Holland). Nobody is importing, it is you (and your predecessors) who is exporting!

And come to think about it, “antisemitism” does not mean much today (except for a very few “white” nostalgics) as it refers to a particular political discourse that is part of a specific period of time that sees the consolidation of national projects in nineteenth century and beginning twentieth century Europe. Today hatred against Jews is mostly similar “politically” to any other form of group hatred, racism or forms of xenophobia that occurs in any heterogenous society.

In any case, to go back to Holland’s speech, I don’t know what others think, but this is a huge improvement: moving from an atemporal abstract concept of antisemitism to one that may have some political historically situated logic (again not that “antisemitic” to describe these acts is in any way a useful term), in official western state discourse. It took the French to start it, who would have known!

Jews, Jews, where art thou?

Back in September 2009, after listening to a speech by Hizbullah’s SG Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, I wrote this post that was left unfinished. I thought of proposing it today.

On the 18th of September 2009, Hizbullah celebrated what Khomeini had instituted as “Jerusalem Day” (that takes place every year on the last Friday of the month of Ramadan). It was as usual an incredibly interesting speech that Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah gave, an accumulation of fine-tuned reading of political and social history, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict passed through a lens along with the gradual Arab disinterestedness in the question. Notwithstanding, the enlightening ethical advice that a cleric of this stature is bound to give, especially during a month of fasting.

After saying that Jerusalem day should be an occasion to be celebrated by Muslims and Christians as well, Nasrallah poses the question: “Well one could ask, aren’t there any holy sites for Jews?” And he quickly answers quite enigmatically: “What the son’s of Israel have done historically to their prophets, their selves, their tribes, their families and those who oppressed them did not leave anything for them there”. That’s it, territorially at least, Jews have no tradition they could claim as would the Muslims and Christian can. Why? Simply because they have been oppressed and have left. Today, they are a bunch of heterogeneous groups coming from various remote spots of the planet.

Of course, Hizbullah’s officials like to raise the tone with rhetoric of the sort just to anger the Israeli public. But this time it still sounds as if something is missing: There is something profoundly realistic about what Nasrallah is saying, yet also very sad. How did the Jews ‘messed it up’? But more importantly, and that is a question Nasrallah probably does not really ask: Can we Arabs, Muslims or whatever you want to call us, do something about it? My point is that the future of the conflict between Arabs and Israel may well depend on a particular understanding of Jewish traditions.

Indeed, weren’t there vibrant Jewish traditions in what has been called the Middle East? Why is there a total silence around that in the contemporary and politically-engaged intellectual elaborations? In the “Islamist” literature, speeches, media production, we don’t see the mention of Jews. They don’t exist. There are Zionists of course, but not Jews. Islamists call for an Islamic-Christian dialogue, and there is a lot published on the subject. Hizbullah’s media apparatus, books, speeches, all treat of the subject at length. Although this “dialogue of religions” smells liberal in its form, it is still a bit different, no need to go into this aspect of the question.

I find this glorification of Muslim and Christian co-existence so flowery and nice but totally void of content if one is not willing to push the argument further and include the Jews that originated from this region. These ‘co-existence’ dialogues should not be bound by national construction imperatives. Iran includes Jews in their discourse just because it has a significant number of them there. And then when does a significant number becomes eligible for political presence? It seems clear that the reason for mentioning this or that tradition is to create nations.

Now of course, the obvious answer to the omission of Jews from intellectual efforts is that it is the Jews themselves who chose this path, for most of them, by going to Israel. And let’s say that Arabic governments have not done much to stop this process. Indeed, where are the Jews of the East? Mostly in Israel and not really caring much about their “Arabic” background, or what could probably more accurately be called “Islamic” heritage. These Jews refuse to be called “Arabs”, they are “Israelis”. Most have even lost the Arabic language (at least those I had the joys to meet in other countries). There surely must be a sense of disarray amongst these Jews in Israel (see for example Eyal Sivan’s movie “Izkor”).

Isn’t it time to reclaim these Jews as belonging to this area at least at the symbolic level, preparing the ground for a long-lasting different vision of the region? Isn’t that a ‘strategic’ thing to do? Isn’t it time to include in the different efforts at writing history the presence of these Jews everywhere from Iran to Morocco and their once highly rich and complexly different traditions? Belittling Jewish history as taking place only in Europe, even though Zionism works on that, is I think highly immature, and as re-active as any petty European Nationalist discourse was when developing in the nineteenth century. It actually helps Zionism gain ground as a monolithic, nationalistic if not hollywoodean reading of Jewish past.

Now more than ever, when Israel’s existence as a Zionist expansive, chauvinist and violent entity can really be put into question and threatened by successful groups like Hizbullah, now more than ever, it is time to reclaim the Arab Jews and actually give back the European, American and other Jews their rich traditions. Hizbullah (and others) have done a lot in the direction of building a ‘dialogue’ with Christians: They actually re-invented a Christian – more socially conscious – tradition! Can we use this method in order to reclaim the Jews and probably outstrip the last bit of phony legitimacy Israel has? If the Jews of the world can re-embrace their diverse past affiliations, what will be left of Israel?

The main danger in the modern world is not how religion gets mixed up with politics. In any case, religion is profoundly political. Liberal privatized notion of religion (which is a religion/tradition itself) impose this understanding that there is a separation between politics and religion. The real danger, the catastrophic impasse is the use of a poor understanding of religions, traditions, reading of the past, in order to edify these rigid, intolerant, ethically empty, and territorially bound Nations-States.

New moralists, that is what we needed

That is really funny. A Lebanese NGO is filing a lawsuit against Lebanese political leaders for “violating article 317 of the country’s penal code prohibiting incitement of violence”.

The accused include party leaders Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah of Hizbullah, Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces, Nabih Berri of Amal, Saad Hariri of the Future Movement, Michel Aoun of the Free Patriotic Movement, Amin Gemayel of the Phalanges and Walid Jumblatt of the Progressive Socialist Party.

Ambitious innit? Most important for me is that it is just absurd and ill-directed. See the reasoning:

“It’s not just about people going to the street and fighting each other,” said Rabab El-Hakim, another CHAML member. “It’s the inner feelings of people toward each other – the hatred between different sects and political parties increases after these speeches.”

I beg to differ with this NGOist. This jump from on one side, practical measures taken to incite violence to, on the other, creating feelings of hatred, is a sweeping step. Looking for “inner feelings” can be very perverse.

First of all, this assumption of ‘provoking’ hatred through a mere verbal statement undermines the capacity of people to think for themselves: if people pay attention to what leaders say it is through a more comprehensive approach to their discourse. People try to make sense of the overall. How it fits into the grander scheme of things through time, albeit through their representation of things. And evidently enough their representations of the others have also to do with their daily practices, their lifestyles etc. Confessional and other divisions in Lebanon are socio-economic. “Hatred” whatever that means has nothing to do with it. It is this urge to moralize the conflict that helps the segregating ‘differentiating’ process between groups.

The real issue at stake is that Nation-building going hand in hand with a process of moralizing, and thus framing notions that may be way more complex in reality. For the ethical nation to strive it needs culprits. Hatred needs to be defined and pointed at: “This is incitement to hatred”. Lawyers are here to back it up. There is a process of deliberation and interpretation in order to decide if this or that means incitement to hatred. Do you realize how vague the quest here is? We are not trying to know who killed or tortured or commanded such operations, but really if the statements made do incite to this vague sentiment called hatred. This is probably one aspect of fascism (or liberalism for that matter).

Do we need to remind ourselves that modernity is built on this constant strive to spell out, define, and categorize “inner feelings”, so to domesticate him better, make him more servile to the ‘rule of law’ to the dictate of the nation-state by the sole use of his own ‘consciousness’? Embrace the modern man.

The problem is the identity card not the sect!

There is a little clarification at the end of this post.

Some people voiced satisfaction over the idea that the sect was removed from the personal status register (it was already removed from the identity card). I don’t find this that extraordinary. If anything, this consecrates an even more irrational and ill-founded idea of ‘being Lebanese’.

I don’t see why people cannot be happy to be called Maronite, Sunni or whatever but must find it very normal and ‘just’, probably more ‘modern’ to be called “Lebanese”. I seriously wonder which tradition precedes the other and which has richer claims over “authenticity”.

The confessional narrative itself is not what is to blame but how it is used to advance political interests. Confessions like any other form of imagined belonging to a community (such as nationalism) will draw boundaries of differentiation but not especially create conflict. Differentiation can also mean respect for differences, curiosity and knowledge.

The nineteenth century saw the rise of confessionalism as a political framework to resolve conflict. It is the later creation of the “Lebanese State” that kind of dealt the most severe blow. Some Lebanese historians like to think that the confessional system itself is the real evil. I think that it is the creation of the Lebanese State which has solidified one political style of preferential confessionalism that has really messed things up. Were it for the creation of an Arab state or a Syrian one after the fall of the Ottoman empire, we may have seen a different outcome. But then again, colonialism and the ‘westernization’ of institutions in what was called the Middle East had already paved the way for a gloomy future.

So the solution is not to remove the sect from the identity card in order to conform more and more to a replicated version of European nation-statehood, more homogeneous and so more discriminatory to whatever escapes the liberal paradigm.

The solution is to reform the idea of an ‘identity card’, create other types of legal and institutional mechanisms that are more elastic in order to accommodate for the different sources of tradition. The idea of an Islamic state could go in this direction, but for now owes too much of its intellectual elaboration to Western conceptions of polity.

If the Ottoman system or any pre-capitalist Islamic system should be praised it was because of an elastic sense of ‘identity’, or naming not based on a system of rights but that of belonging to a community of tradition that has texts, ‘rituals’ (to use a Western terminology) and ways to create virtuous human beings. It does not mean it always worked in terms of avoiding conflict but it looks like it avoided way more clashes than in the age of nation-state, ‘human rights’, democracies, and being catalogued on an identity card.

Clarification: I did not mean to say that there is something more authentic about being defined by the confessional label. I just meant that one is not better than the other (the national one). In the first place I am questioning the problem of ‘definition’.

Walking through the Arabic book fair in Beirut (first glance)

Christians writing history

Around the start of December 2008, Beirut hosted a multitude of publishers from all around the Arab world and beyond (Iran). I went there practically everyday and noted down a couple of things that struck me for the beloved reader of this blog. Let’s start with an anecdote:

In the beginning of the month of November 1914, Turkey went into war alongside Germany and set forth the task of getting rid of acting minorities in the empire. The Armenians were massacred. In Lebanon, the genocide was much easier to execute. The Ottomans closed down the frontiers of the country after confiscating the provisions and capturing the vigorous men for the hard tasks. (my translation from French)

Now you would think that I am quoting the history essay of an 18 year old student, who may have well been brought up in a Christian area of Lebanon. Think again. This is written by a history professor at NDU (most probably because it is edited by their publishing house) and its title is “Abouna Antoun, the missionary hermit of Lebanon”. Abouna Antoun, some monk living in Tannourine, described by the author as “an immense village perched on the Lebanese mountain”, was most likely a modest person trying to go about his pious ways on his path to unite or at least experience God. So Imagine this, Abouna Antoun working on such a petty goal as being a national symbol, not least, the symbol of a nation that does not yet exist!

It is probably worthless to analyze how many biases, historical fallacies, nationalist propaganda, anachronisms, bad style, superiority complexes this book is plagued with. You can already read all of that in this little paragraph. But alas I cannot resist! For example, the mention of how “Lebanon” was a “country” in 1914, with frontiers closed by ‘Turkey’ that also did not exist. I cannot but mention how a whole century of successive clashes with the Armenian community, boiled down to “The Armenians were massacred” in 1914. And why oh why would the Ottomans capture the ‘vigorous men for the hard tasks’. What are these tasks? And also, it seems that ‘Turkey’ had one thing in mind in 1914, to get rid of the ‘acting’ minorities. Well it does not matter anyway. Open any other history book by most Christian writers, especially those edited by Kaslik university, or NDU, and you will almost invariably find that minorities were persecuted whether, by the Ottomans, or ‘the Muslims’, the Mongols, and what have you.