Poland, Lebanon, and the Catholic Church

churchInteresting 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

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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.

Why Lebanon is definitely not Switzerland

I have been cooking up this post for so long now, ever since the Swiss president paid us a visit, and yet before that, I was thinking that it is time to set the record straight. Yesterday, the leader of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea (who we love to talk about on this blog, and here (also here) some background reading) presented his Defense Strategy plan. And again, ever since, because it is always about picking up from the past, ever since Hizbullah’s SG Hassan Nasrallah in a goodwill gesture, mentioned that if one needs to talk about Hizbullah’s weapons, one should first discuss a workable “Defense Strategy plan”, everybody from all ends of the political spectrum seem to have defense plans.

But how the hell would the LF have a Defense plan? Against who? The Syrians? Since when did they perceive the Israelis as their enemy, and since when, oh since when, anything past the ‘Christian cantons’ did matter to them? Well, I mentioned the key word here, Cantons, because Geagea took this as an opportunity to propose to follow the Swiss model of ‘7iyadiyeh’ (neutrality), that is the word used I am still working out how did the ‘Defense Strategy plan’ made him think of Switzerland. First, this is an interesting slip from the original Christian isolationist ideological version, couched in Western-State-building jargon: Federalism. One has to be in tune with fashionable words. “Defense Strategy”, “Consensualism”, that is the stuff one wants to hear on the Lebanese political arena. Basically today, in this tiny shit hole called Lebanon, you don’t talk about Federalism anymore, you just say ‘the Swiss model’, even though no one knows anything about Swiss history and their lack of neutrality that spanned for centuries when their State was being built. But let me address all this by branching out and picking up from the footsteps of that lovely Swiss president who came to visit us some time ago.

Some time in October 2008, when Swiss president Pascal Couchepin listened to his Lebanese counterpart talking about the years of sectarian strife in the Lebanon, Talal Salman reports that Couchepin simply answered “not to worry”, that Switzerland experienced ‘civil war’ for more than a hundred years, only to come down to the conclusion that “people realized that they had to live together whether they want it or not”.

Couchepin was maybe trying to be ‘civil’, or ‘diplomatic’, or maybe he just did not know (just like any other politician) ‘what people think’. The only ‘civil war’ (labeled as such by the official authorized versions of Swiss history) lasted a mere 27 days at some point in 1847, marking a transition between one form of rule and another. This does not mean that people were not divided inside the country for centuries, who knows, probably till now. But the Swiss State actually grew to become strong as it engaged and won battles thanks to a long-time feared army. How come this is so there but not here? How come poor little Lebanon could not have a strong army, or a strong state? When one comes to think about it, not only do we have the ‘divided people’ criteria in common (multi-confessional society) but we also “have banks”, and we tried to remain ‘neutral’ during the “Israeli-Arab conflict” just like Switzerland during the Word Wars. Worse, we actually speak the same language whereas they don’t even do that in Switzerland!

In order to understand this seeming paradox, let’s go back a little. First of all, this ‘We’ I am using refer to political Maronitism who was the first to join the nods that made up this highly imaginative comparison. Political Maronitism basically loved the ‘neutralit’ argument, the ‘confederation’ setting, all supposed to justify their isolationist stances.

In the middle of the twentieth century, theories flourished on what makes up the particularity of Lebanon and one of them, very dear to Christian elites (that was subsequently very much internalized by Muslims as well) was the idea that Lebanon is the Switzerland of the Middle East. Although I would think that the ideological wind will shift hegemonic nationalist discourse towards one based on the idea of “resistance”, we still hear a lot of people from all sorts of social backgrounds saying that Lebanon is like Switzerland more or less. One of the highly useful aspects of this ideological construction is that it could ultimately legitimize the idea of a federal state and of a inoffensive army. As used to say Pierre Gemayel (father of Kataeb cum LF), the strength of Lebanon is in its weakness. In the ideological euphoria of the 50s and 60s we hear people talk about ‘confederation’, a laughable term in Lebanese standards judging by how the actual Swiss confederation came into being, through wars, and the strengthening of an army.

The first irony to mention here is that Switzerland may be the oldest ‘state’ or political arrangement alive today. What is called the Old confederacy was instituted in 1291, so roughly when say the Ottoman empire was starting to enjoy monopoly over what can be labeled as “Islamic” territory. So yes, one cannot say the same thing about our dear Lebanon who in fact is a late colonial creation (compared to India say, or Latin American states). But more importantly, the Swiss confederacy emerged ‘from within’, as an alliance between several commercial hubs (city-states) that facilitated trade between them. This alliance became so strong that it could military rival neighboring powers. These dudes were so keen on having their interests (namely economic) preserved and trade channels unchallenged by the conquering fantasies of neighboring kings that they ended up agreeing on a political formula. We are very far from Lebanese standards: Lebanon is created by a colonial power (France) and strongly lobbied by one paranoid sect of the Middle East (the Maronites) that happened to be quite concentrated in a particular mountainous region, as an alleged mean to protect itself from, yet at the same time dominate the other neighboring sects and groups.

This basic difference is just huge. First and foremost it foreclosed the possibility of initial ‘homegrown’ contract or agreement. And in the first place there was no need for any such agreement because only the Christians were calling for this isolationist stance, while other groups were content with having some kind of a pan-Arab form of rule. So even if the Christians wanted, with the best intentions at heart, to have an agreement with the different non-Christian groups convincing them of the economic and political utility of the creation of the Lebanese entity, that would not have worked in the first place. So it locked the project of building a State and sharing power through outside alliance to protect the divisions in place.

But ideologies flourished. The analogy to the Swiss model was used to legitimize other segmenting drives. It brought substance to the idea that Lebanon’s economy strive through the strength of its banks, another laughable statement judging from how poorly they fair today. The whole ‘service economy’  argument, developed by lauded ideologues such as Michel Chiha, all these pieces were fitting in this big puzzle called ‘the Swiss model’ , that the Lebanese were creating for themselves, imagining a Switzerland of their own, each group to his own benefit.

And yet the biggest difference still remained at the ‘existential’ level:  Switzerland’s various groups came together to protect themselves against outside intervention, whereas in Lebanon it is the various local groups who pick outside actors to protect them against ‘inside intervention’!

There are so many unexplored sites when one opens this highly ridiculous analogy. I prefer to focus on a couple of points as this post is already too long. But just as another area that could be explored, it seems flagrant to me why Federalism as an ideology, a system of thought (but not as a de-facto option, the distinction is huge) is so alien to Hizbullah’s political culture. The idea of Federalism in Lebanon, ferociously lobbied by Christian elites can only emerge from there, from an isolationist trend that in the first place led to the establishment of the State of Lebanon. And that’s isolation from within, against the ‘other’ within the delineated territory, and that is one of the crucial difference with Switzerland. The way Hizbullah dealt with the ‘other’, the way also it conceptualized itself in re-action to the ‘other’ followed diametrically opposed trajectories than the Christian one. I will write more on that later.

And I leave you with this brilliant line from a Chinese newspaper article writing on Couchepin’s October visit to Lebanon:

This was the first visit of a Swiss leader to Lebanon, however, the Swiss model has been seen as convenient to apply to Lebanon due to the similarity of having various factions in the same country.

Don’t you love the “however”? If you thought the Americans don’t know where Lebanon is on a map, well, see how the next superpower looks at the miserable 10,542 km2

Aoun parading in Damascus

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Sometimes Al Akhbar becomes such a trashy Nationalist newspaper. Everybody has been commenting about Michel Aoun’s visit to Syria, some describing it as a visit to the devil (I’ll let you guess which media outlet) and others going as far as saying that it’s the most important post-Taef visit.

So the screams of the Lebanese president Michel Suleiman from Germany that only heads of state should make visits to other heads of State seems to have fell into deaf ear, because if one has to believe the account of Al Akhbar today, Aoun had a very intense love affair with Asad while threatening Israel that if they don’t let the Palestinian refugees return, they will ‘regret it’.

I should probably stop here and remind Aoun that the only dudes who can threaten Israel are Hizbullah, and even if he thinks he’s talking on their behalf or trying to look good in front of them, or worse if he’s trying to profit from this situation of ‘force’ in which Hizbullah got Lebanese into in order to advance Christian interests of seeing Palestinians go home, all this seems pitiful.

But to return to Al Akhbar, the journalist of this article explains to us how Aoun had ‘Arabic’ ice cream and strolled around the Omayyad mosque.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that what Aoun is doing since his alliance with Hizbullah is what every Christian leader should be doing, but let’s just calm down in terms of rhetoric because the contrast with the isolationists has never been that great. Stop nationalistic romanticism. Everybody has his own agenda, and although this can surely contribute to peace and stability if it is played out correctly, it does not mean that it is anything but that: different political calculations, and nothing to mystify.

But medias are the new priests (in the pejorative sense of the term of modernity. They want to educate, rewrite history or relation to history, and make people think that there is something called ‘The Lebanese’ or at least that it is in the making, a making they shape for them. That’s one aspect of Freedom of Speech for you: the creation of social, political and cultural difference based on an imagined sense of belonging.

The continuous downfall of political Maronitism

Or “Yet another morbid tale from the land of the free”

Anyone seen the latest billboard campaign of the Lebanese Forces? Check out how pathetic and empty their slogan is: “You are the Cedar and we are its red line”. What the fuck does it mean? Does it mean that this mostly empty-of-any-historical-signification-symbol the cedar is embodied in some “people” (of course The Christians, the actual real/authentic people of “Lebanon”), and they are going to protect this imagined entity?

I have been amazed by the particular types of nationalisms deployed in this little chunk of land that came to be called Lebanon. Old Christian aristocratic french-mandate nationalism is something, Kataeb nationalism is kind of different (trying to catch up with ‘aristocrat’ status but never fully succeeding), Tayyar today is also different, along with Hizbullah, or Mustaqbal brands. Anyway, one can talk a lot of all those imagined histories but let’s focus on this particular violent one, one that is born during the 75-90 war, a virulently isolationist type that lives on a dead-born idea, the one of the Lebanese forces. And their campaign is here to testify. Billboards show in turn different dead Lebanese famous political actors, some are obviously claimed by the LF, such as Bashir Gemayel (founder of the LF), and Pierre Gemayel (his father and leader of the Kataeb party). Others are less so, boys and girls, such as Charles Malik (a so-called human right activist who is actually a horrible anti-Muslim demagogue), and Camille Chamoun.

Wait… what? Camille Chamoun? For those who don’t know, Chamoun was one Lebanese president who at the time (50s) symbolized the apex of political Maronitism under the auspice of British intelligence, struggling to distance the country from its ‘Arab’ color. But that’s not the point. Chamoun’s son, Dany, during the civil war had a militia of his own (the Tigers…) like all good grown up political feudal heirs, and he did his share of butchering, training with Israelis, and what have you. Now here comes the interesting part, early in the war, the Lebanese Forces, then a rising organization under Bashir Gemayel, proceeded into killing most of ‘the Tigers’, in effect removing potential rivals on the “Christian arena”. Dany Chamoun was spared till much later, assassinated along with his two little sons, wife, and dog, though maid and daughter could hide in closet. His daughter Tamara vehemently accuses Samir Geagea then and now leader of the LF of having perpetrated the act.

Dory Chamoun, the brother of Dany, who still tries to carve himself a space in Lebanese politics held the position that it was the Syrians who killed his brother and not Geagea, thereby making possible a rapprochement between this ill-fated family and the last bastion of violently isolationist Christian political formations. Look at how pathetic this last Chamoun is: allying with the most probable murderer of his brother for simple power equations. But then again, I want to ask a question. Lebanese politicking is so random in terms of the political choices made by actors. Why then did not Chamoun brother allied with Aoun? He was a fierce anti-Syrian, represented one political facet of Christian affirmation, and has most likely not killed his brother.

This is the viciousness of Lebanese politics me friends… And now, Lebanese Forces billboard can re-appropriate one symbol of Lebanese political Maronitism, Camille Chamoun, as another dead person repesenting this so-called red line circling the cedar. What irony that while browsing youtube, I found these videos (see part 1, 2, and 3) of unpublished footage of Dany Chamoun lobbying two Bkerke Priests, the clerical maronite authority in this little chunk of land called Lebanon, to pressure the LF to give their weapon to the Lebanese army (then under the command of Michel Aoun) and stop ruling over the Christian street. We’re in the late 1980s by the way. And that’s the best part: In these videos we hear Dany complain that Geagea LF is using his father’s picture and putting it up on Christian street while engaging in practices such as coming into his house, searching for papers, messing the house upside down and pillaging. The same picture is used for their campaign today, 20 years later.

So yes all this is very sad. So many layers of sadness piling up on each other: Traditional Maronite political elitism being succeeded by remnants of Maronite political dreams extracting their legitimacy, their ‘substance’, from antagonistic ghosts, that only serve the cause of building the imaginary Christian memory once they’ve been dead and can’t speak about these bloody antagonisms. All this put on the back of a tree, the cedar, inflated with notions of height, and cheap feelings of superiority.

The paradoxes of ‘globalization’

This morning, I could overhear from the window of my room a Philipino woman (who works in one of the flats of the building) teaching the young son of the Indian watchman of the building – who lives from where he watches – the Lebanese national anthem.

– Repeat after me: qulunaaaa lil watan lil 3ola lil 3alam!

Unearthing civilizations

How did the “Lebanese” discover that they had a Phoenician tradition? Or for that matter how did the Arabs discover that they had some past glorious tradition that was decimated by the Ottomans? Don’t we read Arabic history as one that stops around the Abbasid era, and that then picks up around the end of the nineteenth century with what is called the “Nahda” (a concept copied from the European “Age of Enlightenment“). This reading of history finds its most perverse account in the writing of people like Samir Kassir who longs for another enlightenment Arab style.

This is the unearthing of civilization, of golden ages. In his study Popular Culture and Nationalism in Lebanon: The Fairouz and Rahbani nation, Christopher Stone ( 2008 ) makes this argument forcibly. He draws on other post-colonial scholars like Chatterjee ( 1993 ) on India who argued that the “national” paradigm has been unescapable by present post colonial polities. Stone has an excellent way of formulating this dynamic at the heart of this “classicization of tradition”:

the same historical construct that paved the way for colonization could, ironically, do the same for independence: “You were once great and need our help to become so again,” becomes tweaked to read, “We were once great without you and can become so again.” (p.14)

I would argue, that Islamic movements are totally in line with this process of recuperating history, contrary to Chatterjee idea that ‘Islamists’ are breaking out of the ‘national’ paradigm. Wherever there is State, there is Nation or a discursive efforts at producing a historically continuous imagined community, or different attempts at justifying the presence of the State.

Of course, it does not mean that “Islamists” are conventional nationalists, quite the contrary, and that is the historically unprecedented aspect about them: How are they struggling to make sense of these discursive contradictions? Read Tariq el Bishri in this case for interesting conscious elaboration (especially this one) of state territory and tradition in Egypt. Hizbullah’s intellectuals is a completely different story, that I may tell later.

Was this a (mini) Civil war?

For those not interested in academic empty quarrels you can skip this post. Our colleague, friend and fellow blogger Abu muqawama, has proposed to call the conflict that is happening in this little slice of land that came to be called Lebanon another civil war. And here, he provides more evidence of that. I think one should wonder why we try to call a war “civil” in the first place. Is it to differentiate it from wars that take place between “armies”? What makes a militia become an army? What’s the sanctifying procedure? Usually classical reasoning would be to say that an army is ‘the regular army’ when it answers to the commandment of the State in place. Here there are so many question that opens up on our way to understand State formation especially in post-colonial divided regions like the Middle East. What’s the difference between Hizbullah’s military structure, other military structures (like those they fought), and the Lebanese army one? What “causes” are each of them defending?

The interesting aspect of what’s going on in this place called Lebanon is the fact that a party is trying to adopt State discourse without really holding State power. A party adopting State-like practices without really claiming to become a State. I’m still astonished as to where Hizbullah think it can go using such method without really controlling the country.

But to go back to our point, calling a war ‘civil’ adds to it another moral (legitimizing) dimension, it hints on the idea that a war is happening between ad-hoc military formations emanating from within the population. This discursive insertion of ‘civil’ takes for granted the idea that there is some sort of an imagined community (here the Lebanese) and that this community is tearing itself apart. Hizbullah actually uses and is constrained by this discourse, the one projecting the existence of a Lebanese community (the one of multi-confessionalism, consociationalism, etc). In the case of the last few days, the party considered itself doing a “cleaning job” that in the end will serve the interest of the State. So it was considered very normal for its media channels (and other opposition medias) to talk about the storming into offices of the Mustaqbal militia, and the collection of weapons as a ‘restoring order’ operation, and relegating the matter to The Law (i.e. the army in this case).

I won’t write more because I promised myself not to make lengthy posts. I will probably re-articulate these (very disarticulated) ideas in other coming posts.

Seeing Aoun and Nasrallah on Otv

I just have a couple of points to make on (before) yesterday’s interview between Hizbullah’s SG and Tayyar’s leader. These are open questions more than anything else. My sentences sometimes are brief and I don’t develop every idea very much. So there is a lot to be said on each.

Of course, the purpose of the interview was to make sure people do not forget that the Hizbullah-Tayyar alliance, understanding, rapprochement, whatever you want to call it is alive and kicking. To this effect their interviewer Jean Aziz (a journalist at Al Akhbar who was clearly overwhelmed by the stature of the interviewees) had many pertinent questions that addressed most of people’s ‘common fears’. TV in the Middle East has long become an outlet for accountability when other social and political institutions fail to deliver. Of course, in this case accountability is mere persuasion: People make whatever they make out of what the political actor argues (believing or not, making sense etc). But the political actor struggles hard in order to explain and justify himself. That’s the most fascinating part. The first impression of the interview is that Aoun and Nasrallah know and respect each other regardless of any agreement or entente. I’m talking at the individual level, and you don’t need a psychoanalyst to dig that out, you can just read faces. How come this is so I don’t know. At the level of Aoun, I think it is a very recent discovery dating from after his return and the Syrian withdrawal; when talks started between both groups. And talking about talks, that’s something that was never covered or investigated further: What happened during these joint parliamentary committees that set the stage for their Paper of Common Understanding? What ideas, notions, arguments, were discussed that led to dividing the paper in its final points? How did the various parliamentary members interact with each other?

The most important idea that comes out of this interview is the turbulent reconciliation of Islamic and Secularist visions into a Nationalist one. And when I say ‘reconciliation’ I don’t think at all that there is really a fixed ‘Islamic’ worldview or another rigid ‘secular’ one, even if the actors being interviewed do think so. There is a discursive effort to promote a clear vision of belonging or being that evolves with changing political opportunities and through other contingencies such as specific insitutional influence (the presence of the modern state and its formidable capacity to mobilize and name for example).

Aoun differentiates between an Islamic worldview and a secular one and he explains it: An Islamic system involves God as the source of authority and a secular one comes as a result of a social contract between citizens. Notwithstanding the many simplifications and contradictions Aoun steps into when talking about these conceptualizations, he says something else that caught my attention which is that “no matter if one is a secular or an Islamist, at the end of the day we agree on the fact that we are all mowatinin”. Now I have thought a bit about this and there is not really a good way of translating what mowatinin means but I would say that it is half way between a citizens and kind of a national (al mowataneh).

This helps us understand how two radically different stances towards the Syrian presence could have been merged together through the ultimate banner of nationalism. In the very beginning Aziz asks Nasrallah what does he think of Aoun given that both of them come from such a different political background. Nasrallah answers quite simply that what he admires in Aoun is the integrity of his nationalistic stance. For Hizbullah, the liberation of the land comes with the help of the Syrians (securing channels for weapons, covering here and there etc.), for Tayyar, Syrian presence symbolized the failure to reconcile the ‘national’ consitutency(ies).

How did we come to this? Why do we have an Islamic revolutionary initially driven by ethical/moral etc. Goals of fighting the oppressors, erecting narrow banners such as nationalism? Simply because it pays to be a nationalist today. Because the Lebanese state is once more a useful tool for reaching political goals. The Palestinian question (camps and weaopns), the water problem (wazani river), and the territorial issue are much more easily addressed through the nationalist banner or frame (all points discussed in the Paper of Common Understanding). Through the instrumentalization (the use) of the Lebanese state, these crucial issues can be better resolved. When Hizbullah approaches the State in this struggle of power, it becomes gradually immersed in all these problems of definitions.

Here we open a little parenthesis with what goes on in Turkey in terms of clash between ‘secularists’ and ‘islamist’ each one of them claiming to work through the ‘democratic’ path. In this case, the point of contention is the very nature of Turkish nationalism, Turkish raison d’être and the mutliple stories that feeds it. I will write more on Turkey especially in the light of the headscarf issue.

The questions left open (one of the subjects of my research), is how does Hizbullah reconcile all these discursive caveats (Islamic, religious, nationalist, revolutionary, geographic, ethnic, pragmatic etc) in the face of this approaching “Lebanese” State and everything it defines (territory, population, etc). The more Hizbullah’s elite feels it can grab the State and its formidable mobilization power (of course Hizbullah has been archiving way before approaching the State) the more it will sucumb to the grip of its history, narrative, etc. One symptom of that is that its alliance with one of the most virulently nationalist movement that is Tayyar propels it into new discursive territories.

Now of course it does not really matter if Hizbullah is a ‘nationalist’ organization. Nobody becomes or stops being a nationalist, but engages or disengages in practices that have ‘nationalist’ dimensions. Just to give one example, for Hizbullah one story says that the party was never involved in the civil war the movement aiming only to liberate the territory under Israeli occupation. Hizbullah has always been adamant to push for this version of the history of the war. During the interview, Nasrallah not only reminded this claim but also used it in order to say that ‘we are ready to forgive and forget about those who participated in the civil war” making an obvious hint at Jumblatt’s and Geagea’s ( ex warlords and m14 prominent political figures) practices. The funny thing here is that during the breaks, Al Manar TV who was retransmitting the interview from Otv, had this ad showing films of Jumblatt and Gemayel (and a little passage with Siniora kissing Rice) making contradictory declarations across time (they had images of speeches made during the civil war up until today, with a voice-off saying how murderous they were, without naming them, and ending the clip with the word “Enough…”).

But to go back to the main line of thought here, nationalisms can take varied forms. The most virulent type I can think of is the French. Of course, French have a multitude of history books trying to invent and articulate logical continuities with past events and experiences etc. But at the end of the day you are French because you’re French, you speak the (authorized) language and you come from a territory where a specific State has control over it. The pervasiveness of French nationalism comes from the very dynamics of its language. In the Middle East (just like in Latin America with Spanish) where Arabic is present across newly created boundaries, we see new forms of nationalisms emerging, one that blends other imaginaries than the western secular one (the Islamic one for example), the exact versions of it that emerges are dependent on the cases (under the jurisdiction of this or that State). This does not mean that secularism is completely rejected. Quite the contrary actually because secularism is so instrumental to the functioning of the State, that new artefact brought to us by the colonizers. The end outcome of these dynamics are still quite vague until we see proper exercise of power.

This type of nationalism is one that is divorced from any other narrative, in the case of the Lebanese, the Phoenician narrative, the Christians-need-a-state narrative, the refuge-of-persecuted-communities narrative; all these being Christian narratives in the first place. Since Hariri’s death, the we-hate-syria has been melting into several other ‘western’ narratives (i.e. We want a state of law, we want order, we’re tired of ‘occupation’ and ‘authoritarian regimes’, we’re a democracy after all etc). The last and probably most important narrative is the Israel-is-the-enemy narrative which cut across most stories of belonging. Most important of all, it is only political actors that feed new or reformulated narratives. One thing to keep in mind is that there is no one narrative no one story, although sometimes political parties or influential actors emphasize one story or one version of a story.

It can be fairly said that Hizbullah has no elaborate “Lebanese narrative”. On the contrary, if you open the history books published by Hizbullah ideologues or sympathizer or even if you read the speeches of the party members themselves, one stumbles around pan-Arabist claims denouncing colonialist partitioning of the region, Christian creation of the Lebanese state and discrimination against other communities and so forth. But you have ‘localized’ history being written, the history of Jabal Amel, the history of the Bekaa, of Baalbeck, etc. At the end of the day, who are Hizbullah larger party members and militants if not ex-communists, leftists, Syrian nationalists, and so forth, that happen to be Shi’a. Tayyar dynamics is a bit different. Its constituency in general endorsed (even if with reservation) maronite historiography. Most have a phalangist past. Where do both meet apart from wanting to reach power? Both share concern around the fate of Palestinian camps and weapons and about the mounting ‘Sunni extremist’ wave.

A very interesting moment in the interview was when Nasrallah gave his classical answer on whether Hizbullah wants an Islamic State in Lebanon. So Nasrallah starts off making his usual argument that he as an “Islamist” cannot but want an Islamic State as a form of governance, but only if this emerges as the result of the overwhelming desire of the population. A lot of people, who take everything Nasrallah says to the letter, say that this means that Hizbullah is patiently waiting until the population is all Shi’a in order to have the Islamic State (because naturally, Shi’a are born with this predisposition to want an Islamic State). But anyway, what I found very interesting was when he said that another reason why an Islamic State was not desirable was because of the attractive nature of Lebanese diversity, that if threatened, “we could become like other Arab States”. Now that was a double edged boutade. But is this Lebanese Christian political speaking or what? And there you see a little hesitation in the voice of Nasrallah, he does not know if he should stress too much on these principles of ‘pluralism’ etc. Or go back to the fact that he is an ‘Islamist’ all this while staying a patriot, etc. Basically he got caught up in a traditionally ‘Christian discourse’. To be fair Nasrallah did not use the word pluralism (ta3adoudiyeh) but agreement, accord (tawafouqiyeh) that he picked up from Aoun. This was by the way the most repeated word during the interview whether by Aoun or Nasrallah. For Aoun tawafouqiyeh is used in order not to be scared of the other, obviously addressing himself to the Christian constituency. To build ‘trust’ (thiqa).

By the way Manar TV and most of the Hizbullah marketing and advertizing crew are really good finders of slogans. Well “Lebanese” are really good at that it seems. Check this one out: a video shots of Aoun and Nasrallah meeting in the Mar Mikhael Church and holding hands with on top of the video frame, loubnan al sayyed al 7or

R.I.P.

Angry Arab wrote:

The Obituary of Kahlil Gibran (we call him Jubran Khalil Jubran in Arabic). I looked up last night the obituary of Kahlil Gibran in the New York Times from April 1931. The headline went like this: “Khalil Gibran dead; Noted Syrian poet.” The subtitle said: “Wrote in Arabic and English–Native of Palestine, He had lived there for 20 years.” The text later said that “He was born in Mount Lebanon, Palestine.”

Jubran (the pride of Marounistan Lebanon, that probably does not understand much of maronite Jubran) wrote of himself as a Syrian from Mount Lebanon which was until the declaration of independence of Lebanon (in 1943) considered to be part of a region called Syria (or Sham).

Before the concept of Independence!

As some of you know, today is ‘independence day’ for what came to be called the “Lebanese”. This time I won’t bother you with my sentences. I’ll just translate Ziad Rahbani’s column that sums well my point of view (bear in mind that the joke is made in the Arabic language and that the gist is completely lost, but the idea I want to arrive at is fortunately not, so yes I prove again that I am desperately boring):

– Ok but before the Israeli planes, dad, who was violating Lebanese airspace?
– Nobody was violating it.
– You mean that our sky was free and clean?
– no, it was not our sky
– How come?
– It was the British planes violating Syrian airspace
– What has Syria got to do with it?
– Son, do you at least know that today is independence day?
– Yes I know
– Fair enough, but apart from that, it does not seem you know much.
– What do you mean?
– Because before this celebration day, we were at rest from all the meanings of independence and from its skies, and from the violation of our sky by Israel, and the skies of the school I send you to, and from your sky! Do you understand my son?!