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.


Sectarian Land Law

Lately, Lebanese Labor Minister, Butros Harb, has proposed a law that would forbid a Lebanese to sell land to another Lebanese of a different confessional affiliation. According, to Al Akhbar Journalist Hassan Oleik, the law does not have much chance to pass and is mostly proposed for electoral reasons, but still signals initiatives from the remnants of what was called “political Maronitism” to assert itself and defend its turf by institutionalizing the “gettoization” of Lebanese politics. Citing a certain “legal expert”, this project is said to be the beginning of the building of a “separation wall between communities”.

It is surely the case that the only area where Christian power can still assert itself in Lebanon is through land ownership. Let’s face it, in other areas, Christians do not have much power left. The Maronite church and other churches for that matter may well possess the largest amount of real estate and mountainous regions in the country. Seen in this light, no wonder why Harb, an attorney by formation, is interested in passing that law project.

But seen in the light of general Christian relations with the “Muslim world” or simply, the region, Harb’s type of politics that mirrors most isolationist practices of groups such as the Phalangists or the Lebanese Forces, poses a crucial problem. It is what one could call the “Zionist syndrome”: trying to enforce political presence through barricading cultural entities. Is there any long-term effectiveness to this policy? More to the point, in the age of the nation-state, how to build durable States that embrace difference and look outwardly rather than act like paranoid and security-obsessed political communities?

Economic rationales for community-centrism

Some fun moments to have from these wikileaks. By far, my all time favorite until now is this statement coming from Elias el Murr, former minister of Defense:

According to Murr, “when you want to fight terrorists,you are fighting Sunni and Shia; you need Christians in special forces to do this mission. If you maximize Christians, you will have the best results.”

I mean Murr’s statements have some rationale: creating employment opportunities for Christians (Something most sectarian leaders do in Lebanon). In order to do so, one can make this ‘cultural’ point that Christian forces would hate better. Economics, has its weird laws sometimes…

Examples of reading politics upside down

From beginning to end…

MP Nadim Gemayel noted on Friday that Lebanon was not victorious in the July 2006 war, but Hizbullah considered it a victory because it destroyed Lebanon, while its funding and weapons have been restored by Syria and Iran.
He told MTV that several Lebanese view the war as a defeat seeing as their economy and infrastructure were completely destroyed.
He said that Hizbullah is directing its battle against international justice and its Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s reading of the situation in his speech on Thursday was wrong.
“Hizbullah’s weapons are illegitimate … the false witnesses file is nonexistent as it is aimed at thwarting the international tribunal before it can try Hizbullah,” Gemayel stated.

A Christian, a Lebanese French language newspaper, and a date to remember

Not long ago was the 13th of April. And in the age of nationalism, we celebrate particular dates that symbolize an imagined common, communal experience, inscribed in time, Lebanese remember in this case the beginning of the ‘civil war’, in 1975 of this date.

I have nothing to say on this date. I prefer to scrap dates, lose time markers once and for all. But nothing can make my ulcerous side boil up more than articles that profit from this occasion to remember their narrowly defined interests.

Not long ago, I have started with a friend a new blog, in French, to try to point out the neo-colonialist and socially distinctive practices of the French speaking (mostly Christian, if not Muslim turned gentiles) community in Lebanon. I have a special relation to that as I come from this environment and have fought ambiguous battles with the French cultural heritage in Lebanon (if not in any post-colonial political creation). I speak French and read sometimes passionately some French writers as you could see on this blog. But I deplore the fact that this language became a source of social distinction, and the advancement of chauvinistic views.

But let’s go back to the subject of this post, a Lebanese columnist, Fady Noun, writing in this pathetically elitist newspaper called L’Orient le jour (on the 15th of April 2009), in French about the 13th of April. I wrote a lot on L’Orient le jour media practices, previously. Noun writes about history as if it was Christian history. Lebanon is Christian imagined sense of belonging. Some people called Palestinians emerges at some point in this honorable history and caused disruptions on their haven site. Noun relentless asks for justice to made “rendre justice” as he says, for this noble cause that is a “free Lebanon”. But at no point does he explain how to do justice. Worse than that, after being falsely compassionate with the “Palestinian people” who got stuck in this swamp with the “Lebanese people”, we see emerging a third type of ‘people’ that subjugated the first two. But you should read him yourself:

Et puis, en sommes-nous vraiment sortis ? N’avons-nous pas tous deux été manipulés par un troisième peuple, qui cherchait à nous soumettre à sa volonté, à ses plans, à ses visées ?

Gee, I wonder who is this third category of ‘people’? Can it be that he means the Syrians? So the Syrian ‘people’ have a ‘will’, have ‘plans’, and ‘objectives’ my friends. Yes yes, believe it or not. It is a battle of people. In the age of nationalism, it is politics turned upside down. People carry out their destiny and they differentiate themselves in this fictitious and shallow way. The political process is inverted. People have wills and elites are merely complying with their goals. If we could theorize that ‘fascism’ as a cultural phenomenon exists, that may be an excellent example of this type of process, even though I don’t like using a historical phenomenon quite specific to European political experience in order to explain something in this region, but the parallels are striking.

Fady Noun never clarifies his point instead goes into abstract consideration of, again, justice urged in order to save some type of blood spilled, etc. Needless to say that his Christian centered considerations makes me want to vomit. Come to think about it, the relation between the 14th of March culture of justice-seeking based on blood spilled (falsely  cross-sectarian because each community re-appropriates its martyrs) but devoid of actual social causes is highly reminiscent. A clear contrast is the nationalism of Hizbullah that has some form of social consideration. This becomes highly clear in the electoral campaigns as I will show in a coming post.

Fady Noun keeps on repeating that confessionalism is not the main problem behind the ‘war of people’ in Lebanon. While I tend to agree with the fact that confessionalism in itself as a concept is not something to be dreaded (especially compared to other forms of nationalisms), the Christian experience of confessionalism, in practice, has evolved from being very ugly (with the establishment of the state of Lebanon) to totally pathetic and pitiful today with the rise of other confessions as main players in the Lebanese artifact. The Christian argument is always reactionary whether Aounist, LF, Kataeb, or what have you. They all fall back to this attitude of “what can we do so that we remain special, as Christians”, or worse “what can ‘the other’ do to make us remain this prodigy child”. This perception of a lost prideful past, and this perception of a gloomy present or a bleak future will not take Christians anywhere.

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’.

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