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.

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

Democracy for you

What is mostly fascinating in Lebanon is that it presents an excellent example of the fictions of democracy. It renders visible the inherent tension between power/authority necessary for rules and decisions to be taken and people’s ‘bread and circus’ the democratic processes where unlike the Roman setting, here, we are made to believe that ‘everybody has an opinion that has to be taken into consideration’.

But authority discriminates inherently. State (and Nations) are built on this fundamental principle. Language, histories, territory, etc change based on this inherent violent founding act.

People are quite content to talk about democracy, liberalism, and the right to choose a leader, when the most basic violation has already happened: that people are defined by the very authority they think they are choosing, the very way authority is structured in the first place. In this case, people never choose, they are born and grow up in a conditioning state, established by the local legislative contexts and the relation to a history, a past they inherited from others before them.

Do you choose to be an American, a Lebanese, or anything else that authority sanctions before you are even born?

And in effect, Lebanon is a flagrant example of this because it has several layers of conditioning hierarchies while championing the discourse of democracy and rights et al. First there is the absurd positing of Lebanon as an entity with a State that barely functions. Today, no one questions this fact. Second, the confessional system which in the way it was established here (I will draw your attention to the radical difference with the Swiss case in a later post) precludes the possibility of building a State. Democracy here (the actual act of voting in the legislative and municipal elections) is set to strengthen this status-quo by renewing the acceptance of this newly conceived ‘society’, or ‘civil society’ (another absurd term), of the prevailing divisive and discriminatory system (to the different ‘confessions’ of the territory, and to who is conceived as ‘non-Lebanese’).

Democracy, in the case of Lebanon, has this added element that it fosters, year after year, the schizophrenia of people that must answer to the jurisdiction of that State.

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.

Special dedication to Haqid who loves the practice of the raised arm

Following an intense conversation with EDB the one and only (who vowed to re-start the writing from the Banana republic), I thought that this scene pictured below showed that Hizbullah looked like a bunch of punks compared to these dudes. Discuss amongst yourself!

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And this time haqouda, it goes hand in hand with the uniform! Funny that L’Orient le Jour puts the picture on its front page and does not feel that there is something fishy about it. Here is their caption: “Une foule monstre acclamant et saluant le chef des Kataëb au cours de la 2e commémoration de l’assassinat de Pierre Gemayel”. This is what I call internalization. Say, where are we with the plan of bringing down their offices? Ask Sean.

There is a good article in Al Akhbar on the changes undergone within the party and the merging of Samy Gemayel’s Loubnanouna into Amin Gemayel (his father)’s kataeb. We are marching towards a brighter future.

Why weren’t L’Orient Le Jour’s offices burnt?

If there will be one thing to remember out of all this mess that came to be labeled as the Lebanese situation it is the continuously imaginative babbling of this french-language media outlet. The only problem with imagination is that it can be very destructive. I would love to always have hard laughs when I read l’Orient le jour titles, such as this last one: “baptême du feu de Sleiman dans le concert des nations”, referring to the recent visit of Lebanese president Sleiman to the UN as a “baptism of fire”, that L’OJ still calls in a stupidly and naive war “the concert of nations”. But laughs turn quickly to ulcers when I read stuff like this:

Dimanche dernier, on a vu Samir Geagea formuler de profondes, franches et totales excuses publiques pour tout le mal injustifié dont a pu se rendre coupable, durant la guerre, la milice des Forces libanaises. Ce n’était certes pas la première fois qu’un chef libanais se livrait à une courageuse autocritique. Nul cependant n’était allé aussi loin dans l’énoncé du regret : lequel, par son impressionnante clarté, traduisait aussi un renoncement on ne peut plus solennel aux cruelles pratiques des bêtes de guerre.

Now let’s ponder a minute. This was an extract taken from Issa Gorayeb’s editorial, effectively defending Samir Geagea’s mea culpa this last Sunday during the LF martyr’s mass that I talked about in a previous post. Ok I won’t elaborate much, but just think about an analogy. If Saddam Husein say was alive today (not that I think Geagea has the same stature as Saddam but let’s assume) and Saddam would have stood to say that he’s sorry for the people he gazed in Kurdish villages. And then, a columnist would have praised these “sincere, and profound apologies” depicting the act as profoundly ‘courageous’. What would you have thought of this? Well, that’s precisely what just happened. I follow the writings of Ghorayeb since I’m 15. It is a slow march towards endlessly rotting decay. It seems that there is no end to it really.

But the one who saves this piece of toilet paper that is OJ as would ingeniously call it another blogger, is Fadi Noun, who writes still in the same issue the following:

Aussi spectaculaire que soit la confession du chef des Forces libanaises, elle reste insuffisante. Son caractère public et général la prive de la profondeur voulue ; le ton utilisé pour la prononcer, ainsi que le volet proprement politique du discours qui l’a suivie, en annulent en partie l’effet ; enfin le fait qu’il ait été prononcé à l’occasion d’une messe entretient la confusion sur sa nature.
Il faut savoir gré à Samir Geagea d’avoir utilisé le mot « ignoble » pour décrire certains actes qu’il regrette, que ce soit en son nom propre ou au nom des Forces libanaises, encore qu’il y ait là deux choses distinctes. C’est courageux, purificateur. C’est le mot juste pour parler de ces jeunes abattus sans merci « pour l’exemple », ou de cet homme tiré de son lit d’hôpital malgré les supplications d’une religieuse à genoux, et jeté en mer, les pieds pris dans un bloc de béton.
C’est aussi le mot qui vient aux lèvres de cet ancien milicien qui, sur les lieux d’un couvent désaffecté pour lequel on cherche une nouvelle fonction, et qui fut utilisé comme caserne durant la guerre, affirme « entendre encore les cris des Palestiniens qu’on y a enterrés vivants ».

I personally know more morbid stories on Samir Geagea and to that matter Bashir Gemayel. Very dirty stuff believe me. Basically we need another raid on Beirut by Hizbullah that this time gets other wackos (SSNP style) to burn the offices of this endlessly rotting institution. I can lead the battalion!

Political maronitism strikes back, and other considerations

There are several media campaigns being launched by the Lebanese Forces and some Phalangist elements. It is big showdown before legislative elections. The slogans and images leaves one to ponder. Take this one for example that does not look like it is sponsored by the Lebanese Forces or else they would have made sure to have their logo on it:

“We are the Lebanese Resistance”

What the hell are they talking about? It reminds me of the type of confrontational stance we had when we were kids that goes something like this:

– I was the first to play Lego
– No I was the first!
– My dad is the strongest
– No MY dad is the strongest

The “We” is an implicit ‘answer’ to Hizbullah they think are saying: “NO it is we who are the TRUE Lebanese resistance”. Pitiful to say the least. But in a way it is true, until very recently Hizbullah never claimed to be a “Lebanese resistance”, but an “Islamic resistance in Lebanon”. I won’t digress on the ambiguities of such statements especially that today Hizbullah forcefully argues that its resistance is ‘nationalist’.

Moving on to an explicit LF one:

This billboard is about the announcement of a mass that will be given in the memory of ‘the martyrs of the Lebanese Forces”. The top liner says: “we were brothers in martyrdom, let’s be brothers in life”. So I’m still trying to figure out what they mean by “we” but if it refers to the martyrs of Hizbullah then it is truly interesting to see how this martyrdom language has picked up like fire across all parties, especially such antagonistic ones as the LF and Hizb.

It is quite interesting to see that historically when it was Hizbullah who emerged in re-action to Lebanese Forces practices all around the country (in the 80s), now the reverse: it is LF’s discourse that is overclouded by representations of Hizbullah and it seems to ‘speak’ to them.

On another note, martyrdom has become a category as important as sect to identify with a specific imaginary collective in this tiny little geography called Lebanon. If you want to be politically relevant (or named) then you better show some martyrs. In this case, the legitimating instance is the Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir (good job sanctifying the LF) who’s going to give the mass in question.

So in a way the use of the dead for the purpose of distinguishing, separating, categorizing, and naming, is ironically used to reach out to the ‘other’. That’s the sectarianism system at its best: because we are different we need to reach out to each other. And also: Even in death when we resemble ourselves, what we symbolize by being dead permits us to live separate lives.

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.

Autonomy, independence and other treacherous words

Even Fawwaz Trabulsi, in his new book, The Modern History of Lebanon, thinks that Mount Lebanon (The ‘Imara that is) enjoyed some ‘degree of autonomy’, since the 16th century. I have a problem with the concept of “autonomy”. I am reading the Arabic version of the book, that Trabulsi himself wrote (he originally wrote in English), where he uses the word ‘istiqlal’. First of all, if it is administrative autonomy we are talking about then yes, as long as you were paying your taxes and aligning ‘foreign policy’ (if that meant anything for confessional feuds) with Ottoman’s interest, you can call the rest of the bothersome task of making these people agree on things an autonomous process. But that’s without counting the numerous wheeling and dealings that Ottoman, French, British, etc. diplomats had to go through to make the system work.

Nothing different from Syrian ‘occupation’, or before that French Mandate and its sequels. The only thing that probably helped foster the “Lebanese” political model is the slowly crystallizing sectarianism that still changed in modes of action after the fall of the Ottoman empire.

But I want to go beyond that. No historian is able to go out of reading history without using present concepts. Instead of trying to locate a ‘starting point’ in Lebanon’s history, why not look at how the different imaginative spheres that created the idea of “Lebanon” or “being Lebanese” changed over time (according to changing political social and economic factors). Then we could probably fix this particular way of writing history. For me, evaluating ‘degrees of autonomy’ is falling in this trap because it emanates from a very present concern, a concern of justifying Lebanese statehood ‘now that it exist’.

My grand uncle passed away recently at the age of 101. There is a lot to be said about this man who was a diplomat and who saw the rise of the present political state, unfortunately, I never had a chance to talk to him and lately he was kind of tripped out. Everybody in the family directly affected by his heritage was eagerly waiting for this moment. He was the proprietor of a beautiful old house in Amchit built by my Great great grandfather (The grandfather of my grandfather let’s say). Anyway, now cousins and what have you are snatching their percentage share of the house. I went there two days ago to see an uncle who was packing stuff, and I stumbled on a picture of my ancestor with his Turkish tarboush, his Ottoman long mustache, his Sherwal and nice collarless jacket. He had this virile, piercing look while holding in one hand one of his kid and in the other, his wife, who’s semi-veiled by the way: the black long veil that Maronite women wore in villages.

This Great great grandfather had made a door inside the house with an Ottoman inscription and the Ottoman crescent and star on top of it. Now why would he do such a thing? Next to his picture, my uncle had put up a picture of his son (the son of the GGgfather, grandfather of my uncle), taken probably 20 or so years later, dressed in a European suit, with French style hair of the 1920s, and kind of a feminine allure. Between one epoch and the other there is the fall of an immense administrative edifice, and the rise of a new one, the nation-state.

How did my Great great grandfather think of himself? Probably that he was an “Ottoman subject’, a Maronite Christian, an Arab (?) whatever that signified for him at the time, a silk and salt trader who needed to be on good terms with Ottoman political circles and many many other things that reminds us that the concept of ‘identity’ is so phony. It does not mean that my GGGfather thought highly of the Ottoman empire, or maybe he did, and all that does not really matter. The point is that he was trapped in a completely different worldview, he was playing by very different rules of the game to ‘become’ what he wants to ‘become’.

So What did “Lebanon” mean to my GGGfather? Surely not what it means to Fawwaz Trabulsi or to any “Lebanese” subject today, including me. How can we recapture what it meant to him and how it was different from what it meant to his son twenty years later, during the French mandate?

Iraq’s occupation: the role of the UN

There is a very interesting article in Al Akhbar on the role the UN (along with the US and UK) plays in crystallizing the division between executive and legislative powers in Iraq (empowering the former, and bypassing the constitutional rights of the latter, a constitution they not only imposed on Iraqis but are happy to violate). The examples include the decision to keep international forces (mainly American) in the country, something Parliamentary members whether Kurds, Arabs, Sunnis, Shi’as and what have you have dominantly voted against but was rejected by executive power and sanctified by a UN resolution.

Naharnet and 14th of March psychological associations

Medias in Lebanon are more divided than the actual politicians they defend because they have this possibility to just play with the written and do all sorts of verbal acrobatics just because they can fantasize at will about their projected demons. Check this out (Sorry cannot put the link because Naharnet’s website is really bad. The actual link for this article now leads you to another one):

Hundreds of opposition supporters rallied in downtown Beirut on Saturday to mark the first anniversary of the Hizbullah-led sit-in that has sent 2,700 people unemployed and forced closure of 75 restaurants and coffee shops.

What you just read is a typical psychological association made among the 14th of March supporters. The sentence seems heavy like this (could have been divided in two parts for example) but precisely because it translate the immediate reaction people have when they think of ‘the opposition’, ‘the tents’, etc. It is almost funny (like a kid trying to make a point). Of course, more importantly, you don’t lead about opposition going to the street without saying why they went into the street in the first place. That is not important for the writers. What’s important is to find things that demonize a contentious act that could otherwise be viewed as genuinely popular.

Changes in the Phalangist party

The inevitable has finally happened, Loubnanouna will merge into the Kataeb party. Loubnanouna is a party founded by Sami Gemayel, son of Amin Gemayel, former president and current leader of the Phalange party, that advocates federalism as a the best solution to Lebanon’s confessional divisions. Accordingly, Sami will occupy an important position in the party headed by his father (and with whom he had a previous fall out), while Karim Pakradouni the previous leader of one, say, more moderate branch of the party is resigning. There is a not-that-great-but-better-than-nothing article on the subject in Al-Akhbar. I have come to change my mind a lot about Loubnanouna and its possible rise and institutionalization in Lebanese political life. But the crystallization of ‘federalist’ ideas in more entrenched political parties is worrisome. The Kataeb as a party has come a long way to finally compromise on many issues, starting from being a para-military group wary of the State during the French mandate to reach its apex in the seizure of State’s institutions during the civil war, to finally co-opt with the Syrians (meaning understanding certain political realities). Loubnanouna represent a new breath of energy, of young radicalism that can upset this balance. More on this later.

Some cultural considerations behind the exploitation of the Lebanese

Just a quick recap for those who still can’t add things up or are too overwhelmed by the prevailing symbolic and power struggle between two newly-formed factions of the numerous Lebanese turfs. Today, and for a decade or so, we, as in the “Lebanese people”, have been paying for the extravaganza of business-minded policymakers. Today without a president, and with the country in shambles, the Minister of Finance made sure that debt obligations to the local Lebanese banks were paid on time. It does not matter if the State does not pay for the supply of electricity, social security, etc, the most important thing being comforting the banks that they will get their ‘investments’ placed in the Lebanese state back intact and with interest.

Here I want to point out certain cultural implications of this economic and political status-quo. Lebanese are really One People when they are exploited, when they pay taxes that goes to serve the interest of a few bunch who sit calmly and cash in interest hiding behind the idea that the economy will collapse if we don’t do so. In addition to that, Lebanese banks have really very small investments and loans in the Lebanese real economy. But people do put all their money in deposit and savings account. The Lebanese are doubly exploited: Through the money they put in Banks, and through the money they pay to the State none of which goes to pay for the provision of public goods or fueling the economy.

But how come this is so? How does this double-theft process happen? Because the Lebanese do not have a working self-empowering concept of what the Public is. The State can mistreat this notion at will through its daily practices but nobody will lift a finger because in practice there is not really a State, and no public policy per se. In practice, there are factions confessional-tribal-cartelized groups of interests themselves locked in their projected differences.

But the concept of “Lebanese” is only invoked when it is time to pay. In effect, the confessional system is the primary mover of this schizophrenic attitude, it calls upon you to pay your obligations to your State (taxes etc.), while at the same time escapes from providing you with not even a modicum of social security, stability. In this case, you’re used to go to your lord (some confessional/tribal/feudal instance). And if you don’t have one, then you feel inexplicably miserable. You don’t know why it is the case, how come you are so oppressed and you don’t know where oppression comes. Because we took away from you the concept needed to join the right pieces of the puzzle, or simply, it was never developed, nurtured in practice. This concept revolves around some sort of social justice coupled with non-sectarian mobilization. Even if you understand certain things such as how the politicians are corrupt and are exploiting you etc, it does not mean you can act upon it and change the status quo. Does this make you feel any closer to the ‘other Lebanese’. Of course not something lacks here. Something you never lived. Some thing called Public culture. In the meantime you rejoice yourself with fake revolutions (like the one dubbed the cedar appropriately enough, another empty concept) that are actually hate tracts instigated by your ever-shifting elite.

When it comes to make the State function for the provision of the public good, the “Lebanese” frame unfortunately breaks down, in your social encounters you are a Christian, a Muslim. Or a rich Christian, or a rich Muslim or a poor Christian begging rich Christians etc, this is how you get your social security. In this case, you never ask yourself why am I not “Lebanese”.

The confessional system exacerbates economic exploitation because it breaks down any possibility to conceptualize a genuine collective expression, except in the negative sense. So you are left off with paying, hating (the other, the Syrian for example, or simply the other “Lebanese”) and blaming those who do not respect your projected ideal of “nationhood” when you can’t even apply it to yourself.

For the record


There is something sad in this picture. See the guy behind Lahoud to the right? I know this guy. I don’t know his name, but I remember a couple of years ago, when Lahoud came often to this club (if not daily) to take a swim, I used to see him next to the swimming pool roaming around him, and from time to time divert his trajectory and pass through the various women that were sun bathing. Usually he would sit next to Lahoud and whisper in his ear some (I would guess) casual story of the day, and Lahoud, a hand holding his chin, would gently nod with a little smile. Who is this guy? I think he is the guy who kept a link between the highly misanthropic Lahoud and segments of the Christian influentials. I say segments because there was always one part of the Christian constituency, Lahoud would not be able to win over as he was aligned with the Syrians. But Lahoud’s character made it even worse as even those who weren’t die-hard anti-syrians or fiery right-wingers became so ‘anti-Lahoud’ that there was no possibilities for bridging. In a sense Christian elites have historically known a very sad legacy that ended up drawing them more and more towards the cheap petty mercantile interests of the Gulf.

But I am going too far, and I’ll go back to my initial point. For a lot, Lahoud was not a lovable creature. Nobody used to see him, he would rarely talk, and if he talked, it usually was to make these automated quasi-military speeches, where you would think he is exercising his facial muscles more than anything else. His first arrival to power was really greeted ‘with hope’. “He’s going to lift our head up”, people used to say, at least in Christian neighborhood. Plus he has a nice face, a good stature, people just loved him. And then nothing. Swimming and swimming and occasionally acting very pompous. People like glamor and sensational actions, at the very least, the business type. Energetic, successful, rich etc. the Hariri type. In direct opposition to that, Lahoud stays in his presidential palace, looks somber, does not make any public appearance. But Lahoud works like an ant. And that nobody knows it. Lahoud swims everyday, but Lahoud’s day starts at 5h00 in the morning. More importantly, this guy reinforced the very shattered links between the Lebanese groups that were totally alienated by Christian rule and the latter, such as Hizbullah. Indeed, one of the reasons why Hizbullah got more ‘moderate’ or less ‘paranoid’ was because of dudes like Lahoud. Or take the evolution of the army (not its strength in battle of course but its relation with other security institutions, and Hizbullah for example.

Of course I’m not saying it is thanks to him as a person, but it is thanks to his placement in this institutional position, and how this made a lot of people coalesce to work in this direction. There is a lot to be said about both of his mandate but my point is that Lahoud never blocked or initiated something that ended being detrimental to the stability of this country. Now that is already quite an achievement judging from the political pedigree of other political actors that are unfortunately staying for some time to come, and judging from the quasi-doomed institutional partitioned and confessional system in which this state continues to swim.

We think that ‘peace’, ‘stability’, is the natural order of things, and that hard serious political work starts really when there is a conflict or a war. This thinking derives from the fact that there is some kind of right to it, and so we should get it ‘naturally’, we take it for granted. Also, because nobody writes about the daily life of peaceful times people focus on moments of tensions. Nobody writes about the infinite numbers of social/political interaction constantly taking place that keeps people close to each other, or the policies and procedures carried on to that effect. But people should know better that peace and stability are hard won, they are the fruit of difficult processes of coordination and cooperation, of bridging gaps and sensitivities, of making both ends meet while preserving dignity for everyone. You will never hear of the people who really work in this direction in Lebanon. In general, they don’t appear much and when they do, they don’t ‘flash their badges’. But this work is a full time job in Lebanon. And there are few candidates!

On clerical power in Lebanon

Reading the Lebanese press involve the discovery of many fascinating things and we are all most familiar with this. But one of them is the recurrence of stories stating that this or that politician had a meeting with this or that religious instance. Lately, I have in mind the various patriach-ical initiatives supposed to come up with lists of names for the presidency. These activities spark a number of visits, declarations, letters, etc to the Maronite clerics either to be in their grace or to criticize a specific move.

If we step back for a moment and try to think about this, you may agree that it is kind of weird. How come all these virtuoso politicians that have been through so much history, how come all the diplomatic initiatives involved from west to east cannot solve a problem that a few monks living a somewhat ascetic life in Bkerke can? You’ll tell me, this is the confessional system, the respect of religious authority, the legitimacy they inspire, etc But I would say these are vague answers at best. I am pretty damn sure that most politicians do not have transcendental respect for the views of the clerics, and even if there are some that do, why is it that everyone including Aoun who claim to ‘reject confessionalism’ find it necessary to ‘play by the rules’? Also if “it is the confessional system”, what type of actual power these dudes have? The confessional system distributes power among sectarian elites but that are not clerics. Except for Hizbullah who has an overtly clerical leadership and although their political actors (parliamentary members, ministers, etc.) are non-clerical, there are no religious figure who possess official institutional political power. If I’m not mistaken, this is not a constitutional rule, but still in reality there are no instances of political clerical leadership within the confines of the Lebanese state.

So why do politicians still ‘play by the rules’? For the obvious and apparently silly reason that they have to. Because on the level of formulating political arguments you cannot escape sectarian discourse, and given that sectarian discourse is mostly framed by clerical elites then political actors go through this ritual of respect. This leads me to ask the following questions:

1- What type of power is invested in clerical actors? What are we looking at here? Economic assets, land ownership, capital? Security structures, military assets? The capturing of institutional facilities, legal credentials? Symbolic power to name, to influence the terms of speech, of consciousness (what is said, thought, expressed)?
2- How does all this constrain political actors and the people at large in their social practices?
3- What are the forms of resistance to this authority (if any) that emanate not only from the people but from the leaders themselves?
4- What is then the room for discursively defined non-sectarian politics in Lebanon?

A couple of remarks though: The clerics don’t have just any type of power. Their leverage capacities are limited in many instances. So one should try to point out the sphere of their actual reign. For the most part, I would suggest looking at certain social aspect of their dominance through

  • Legal/Economic power: The various ceremonies rituals etc. that manage people’s life for example are all in the hands of clerics. Birth, marriage, Death, certain types of inheritance procedures.
  • Symbolic power: the hegemonic confessional discourse. If you are Lebanese you cannot but define yourself in terms of the sect you were told by the various ‘references’ (family, school, state institutions)
  • This leads me to another point which is that the various non-religious institutions in Lebanon are dependent on the clerics. the exact type of this dependence is still not clear. But suffice it to say for now that it is as if everybody works for the clerics from the day you are born till the day you die.
  • The power to discipline the body through rituals, the use of objects, sexual practices, etc.

More on this later. First, your thoughts.

Another face of Christian culture in modern Lebanon

Loubnanouna has just celebrated its first year anniversary, and al-akhbar had a story summarizing their views on what the political system in Lebanon should be like (federalism, decentralization, etc.). It is interesting to see that Loubnanouna has come a long way in terms of refining their ideas. I don’t want to jump to hasty conclusion and I need to understand better the movement, but now “pluralism” seems to be the golden word taming the less popular term “federalism”. Or let’s say that federalism is called for because of pluralistic principles. So because we respect ‘the other’ we should draw clear boundaries. It is kind of ironic when one knows that it is because one hates the other, looks down upon the other, that the question of separation arises.

But anyway I don’t want to go into that, I just want to say that Loubnanouna whether people like it or not is here to stay. And I’m talking to the new generations that are going to live side by side the people that are slowly going to group around this entity. The only merit Loubnanouna has is at it says loudly and proudly that it wants a federal system. This in itself is a legitimation political mechanism. It makes it acceptable, because arguable out on the open, in the “public sphere”. And so the more time passes, the more the party is going to refine his ideas, and these ideas (like any ideas you refine) will just make perfect sense. Of course, on a practical level, federalism under the present political and social local and regional circumstances, and given the state institutions and economic structures we have is totally nonviable (this can be discussed separately) and probably destructive. It is suicide. But this will not stop people from wanting it.

So all I can say for those who don’t want to see this reality happening, is pray. Pray the hell out of your gods and icons. Pray that those currently in charge in Lebanon fix things durably. Pray that the political system will be made in a way that the desire to have a federal system will be cut at its root. Pray desperately.

N.B.: A question to those who pick the news on the website of Loubnanouna. Why out of all news did you select the moving of the tomb of Toutankhamoun as worthy of appearing between Lebanese related news? I mean I understand the flurry of articles on “Islamism” and other terrorist related affairs, but why this archaeological story? Very weird.

Faces of Christian culture in modern Lebanon

I hope that one day we will have a detailed historical and social account of the rise of a chauvinistic culture among the Christian constituency of this newly created state of Lebanon. It mustn’t stay in the generalities, like ok they were rich and all (because that is not accurate at all) or privileged, but it will have to really go deep into an analysis of their changing lifestyles, educational patterns, different placement in the economy, material and spiritual expectation, the dynamics of colonial and post-colonial influence etc. But until then, and for fear of repeating myself I will continue pounding in this direction.

So in another post away from this blog, I quoted this Lebanese Parliamentary member’s very luminous political convictions. I thought that was it, but I don’t know why his words got stuck in my mind for a couple of days. As it was part of a nice article written in French and published in L’Orient le jour on the lifestyles of the parliamentary members that were locked in the Phoenicia hotel and because I wanted to comment further on these words, I translated the haunting passage:

From his first [Bassam Chab] words we understand that he is against all type of compromise, “because it could be the prelude of the end of Lebanon”, he thinks. “There should be no concession in our decisions because we are not waging a political war, but a battle against an ideology that refuses to be in phase with its epoch, an ideology that will sink the country in the darkness of the Middle Ages and ring the tocsin of a free and modern Lebanon. We are struggling with a system of the past that is fanatic and mediocre; against a foreign culture that has nothing in common with our cultural heritage.” Chab even refutes the principle of “neither winner nor a loser”. “Either I am a winner and I live like a free man or I am a loser and I leave this country. A country where it is enough for a person to put on a robe to crown God and decide to humiliate me in public [too bad I can’t translate the word he uses here: gémonies] because I drink alcohol or because I am Christian. I want a definitive solution to the Lebanese problem. I don’t want to see my kids to live what I am living now. They (Hizbullah) liberated the south? So what? The Communists have fought the Nazis, but this is not a reason to accept a system that has violated human rights and has been responsible for 10 million death.”

Ok breath in slowly, and breath out even slower…

See, every single word, clusters of words, are a sign of so much prejudice and ideological content. I won’t even mention the style in which this paragraph was written (the particular French syntax), but this betrays the practices of two agents, the journalist and the deputy. Instead of commenting lengthfully on each, I am going to list a number of points that comes out of this paragraph:

1- The ‘Middle Ages’ metaphor (imported from the West) to symbolize ‘backwardness’. The other is the enemy and the enemy is inferior. (Post-Colonial rhetoric of social difference)
2- We have a ‘cultural’ heritage, ‘the other’ does not. Superiority is always established through symbolic struggle, the power to name or to set the terms of speech (Sahebna Bourdieu)
3- Demonization of the enemy through the ideological. Hizbullah is like “Communism” (the idea) because on the ground, Communist was ‘responsible for so and so’, so Hizbullah must surely be the same thing, no need to judge Hizbullah on the ground. The alcohol example goes in line with this type of reasoning. (Shrikna Zizek).
4- The idea that ‘we don’t compromise’, patriotism is either I win everything or I get out. What follows from 1 to 4, is a chauvinism and a complex of superiority that precludes the possibility to negotiate, to engage ‘the other’, the other has been abstracted as an idea. In turn this signals no real capacity for diplomacy and engagement.

picaboo!

Look at this guy… Why does he need to look so ugly? the Islamist type is serving as template to symbolize militias! This is part of a campaign (surely Leo Burnet and the billboards provided by Picasso), to ‘build’ some kind of ‘awareness’ about the fact that the different Lebanese factions are arming themselves and are getting ready to play the civil war game again (le3bet el dama to refer to the famous sketch played by Ziad Rahbani and Jean Chamoun on Saout el Shaab Radio in the mid seventies right after the Syrian entered to help the Christian factions).

There is something completely surreal in the visual effect of this billboard. I’m still trying to work out the social dynamics of it, but one thing is sure advertising companies in Lebanon have for a while became a third (after the State and the Confesssional/sectarian) disciplinary institution, but in this case a very perverse one: As its moral program does not have any ‘practical’ implication (it does not change in any way the lives of people, their habits, dispositions, etc.) its materially empty discursive production can at best create schizophrenic attitudes among people (something to be observed in itself).

Here is the article from which this picture is taken from, a set of rumors and investigations on the different re-armings of the Lebanese population from loyalist and opposition side in the Iklim al Kharoub region. Basically, according to the various people the journalist interviewed in these villages, Hariri partisans are getting training through private security and organizations while Hizbullah is said to create a parallel military apparatus for internal conflict purposes.

By the way, talking of Rahbani and Chamoun’s sketches, please check this most funny passage illustrating a conversation taking place on a plane coming back to Beirut from the US (again mid-70s after the Syrian entry). So many things in this conversation… some things remain unchanged.

Pearls of Wisdom brought to you by Charles Corm

I found this book at a friend’s house (can’t name him, too ashamed of having this book at his place without knowing about it), a book by Charles Corm, someone the editor of the book labels as: “Un grand libanais”. Of course “libanais” here refers to a bunch of people who survived 6000 years of persecution, seriously, this is written in the preface. This gem is dated from 1934. Check this out friends, oh, and it is written on the page before the start of the poem “translated from Lebanese”:

Langue des phéniciens, ma langue libanaise,
Dont la lettre est sans voix sous les caveaux plombés,
Langue de l’âge d’or, toi qui fus la genèse
De tous les alphabets;

ok… moving on:

Lorsque les Libanais, seuls après les Croisades,
Devant un adversaire encor plus acharné,
En ont dans leurs rochers rompu les barricades
Et l’assaut forcené

… i’m sure you guessed who’s the “adversaire encor plus acharné”… Because here is the best part:

Mon frère musulman, comprenez ma franchise:
Je suis le vrai Liban, sincère et pratiquant;
D’autant plus libanais que ma Foi symbolise
Le coeur du pélican

Si ma ferveur s’attache au dogme de l’Eglise,
C’est qu’Elle est à mes yeux l’universalité;
Car je ne peux croire en un dieu qui divise
L’immense humanité

This guy is really a trip. I decided to quote a little verse of his book “La montagne inspirée”, everytime I feel I am losing the grasp of reality.

National consciousness

Here I just want to throw some ideas around. I have been meaning to write something but the fact that I am trying to produce my miserable thesis does not permit me to invest to many neurones around here. So scattered thoughts here they are:

Let me start with the obvious: Today the Lebanese state is witnessing a crucial step in its formative experience through the war practices of the Lebanese army. Rare are the all-encompassing (non-sectarian) “Lebanese” practices, but the army voice such a discourse, and the people try as hard as possible to claim to abide by it. Lebanese army banners are hanging from many homes from various regions of the country. A lot of people are proud of the army. The politicized side of it comes from those who sends implicit references to Hizbullah saying that “the weapons of the army are the red line”.

In order to do this, the creation of the enemy as a precursor for non-sectarian identification is necessary. The enemy has to be completely alien to possible Lebanese forms. Imported. Not even confessional or tribal. In this case, the enemy is “Sunni Salafism”. Dominant actors try to portray it as having nothing of “lebanese” traits. Just like Hizbullah was or a long time expressed by various ideologues (media, academics, etc.) as being a pure import from Iran.

There is even something vaguely “American” about this way of drawing political boundaries. When the Lebanese army was doing its conference following the end of the Nahr el Bared battle, they were talking of this enemy just like an American general would explain the strategy against al Qaeda. No wonder why the Lebanese are linking Fath el Islam to some Al Qaeda institutional command.

All this said (which opens the door to a lot of inquiry on the practices of Middle Eastern States), it is important I believe not to lose sight of the very important confessional aspect of the institution of the Lebanese army in terms of organizational hierarchy, although we need a close examination of the “anatomy” of the army and see that there are surely differently lived experiences between different confessions fighting together within the army from people who never joined the army (This needs investigation).

At the end of the day, the various “Lebanese subjects” have just added another imaginary to their repertoire. It has not strengthened their national consciousness because not much has changed in their daily social practices. The euphoria following the Lebanese army triumph is ill-founded. The political will not succeed in creating and solidifying new cross-confessional forms of consciousness even if they raise the Al-Qaeda argument for very simple reasons, one being that political actors don’t want that to happen, and two being that nothing changed at the institutional level.

The only problem with such double standards is rising social schizophrenia this population will find itself engulfed in. And collective denials of this sort can breed many political diseases.

Excuse the generalities around the end, but you guys can manage illustrating these.

Take Egypt for example

Don’t you often hear people say “Christian in Egypt are persecuted”? This is one of the many nice little bullshit myths one hears on the Middle East or on “Islamic” practices. Copts (Christian sect in Egypt) are actually significantly present in parliament (much more relative to the size of their community), and the few Egyptians I know to seem to agree on the idea that there are no sectarian animosity there. In a recent discussion, my Egyptian musician friend Mohammed (who studied for a long time Coptic musical liturgy) explained to me how often enough the media feeds the public with the news of ‘sectarian clashes’ breaking out and once some honest reporter tries to entangle the real cause of a fight he would find behind the ‘sectarian’ element some tribal, social, or personal issue at stake that has nothing to do with the fact that the people were Coptic or Muslims.

Not only that but Coptic Pope Shenouda III has made it clear that the biggest problem in the Middle East is divisive American foreign policy and the growing ego-centric urges of some Copts (Check the rare gem that is Pope Shenouda, here, here, and here are the enemies of Shenouda). For a nice comparison check History of the Maronites in Lebanon 101.

See, American policy have this really nice special feature in that they create new ‘substance’ to re-actionary identities. Thanks to NGOs of all kind and religious rightist groups Christians in Egypt are starting to feel they are in danger because hell they’re Christians. To make sure these fears are crystallized, they are simply financed.

Come on marNasrallah Boutross Sfeir, that is the best role model you can get in this par of the world.

Why Hizbullah does not want an Islamic state

The answer is easy: Because they don’t need it. Because thanks to the confessional system in place in Lebanon, they found everything they could want without having to establish an Islamic state. The skeptic would retort: “But why did they vehemently proclaim all throughout the eighties that they wanted an Islamic state?” Well because at the time they did not know that they could get all their interests preserved thanks to the confessional system without having to go through the painful process of imposing the idea of an Islamic state (of course here ‘interest’ is a term that is at best elusive and must be understood as historically determined, changing according to available opportunities and conceptualizations, so that we avoid making retroactive arguments).

So here I want to first object to the idea that it is out of a process of vague “Lebanonization” of Hizbullah that they decided to drop the idea of an Islamic state. I want to object of course to the idea that they secretly (in a demonizing way for the scared Lebanese) entertain this dream. Actually to clarify what I meant, I would like to accept the “Lebanonization” thesis only by clarifying what Lebanonization mean in the institutional political and social sense by dropping the essentialist bias inherent in the argument. Yaaneh, Hizbullah was never “not Lebanese” and suddenly became “Lebanese”. Hizbulllah starting from an ad hoc group of zealous and enthusiastic few, with sufficient backing, discpline, and favorable local and regional circumstances developed into a fully fledged organization with institutional over-reach. This ‘developmental’ change is key here and nobody (to my knowledge) worked on the intricacies and implications of this change, except from a broad ‘elitist’ and ‘essentialist’ perspective. Yaaneh, scholars focused on the broad political agenda of Hizbullah as a monolithic formation with a leadership making rational decision in the face of changing opportunities. Example: When Nasrallah became secretary general (but already at the time of Moussawi) he saw an opportunity to play by the rules. What does that mean exactly? It means first a conscious decision of the party to get involved in the Lebanese political life indeed, but most importantly it inscribes itself in a process of long-term change that slowly crystallized the idea that ‘we’re much worth it like this’. This last phenomenon was never carefully understood because to do so one needs to understand how Hizbullah slowly became very much dependent on the confessional system.

This requires in turn an understanding of the evolution of not only the institutions and organizations of Hizbullah but in what way the new political class of Hizbullah became very much part of the political system in Lebanon. Actually both these process are intermingled. I don’t have a detailed answer to that, and actually this should be a research project on its own, but I would like to point out on an intuitive basis why this looks like a strong argument.

To name but a few, electoral processes, municipalities, social welfare (organizations, etc.), schools, hospitals, all work according to confessional categorizations in Lebanon, meaning that it is most of the case a particular religious group that holds decision making in these collective activities. Hizbullah found in this case a haven for his own activities. One can study how this affects identity formation through the daily practices of people in these institutions and fosters even more the marks of confessional ideas meanings and beliefs into the consciousness of individuals. Here I want to stress the “culture” of the confessional system is highly alien to the one of an Islamic state at the very least because of the completely different institutional structures in place.

It is important to point out here that Hizbullah is only imitating what other sectarian groups did before them and first and foremost the Christians. Christian schools hospitals etc. are the oldest, and the political system of confessional piecemeal rule was a Christian innovation. The only difference here is that by controlling key institutions in the State, Christian elites were able to export the idea that they were a ‘secularizing’ force as their management of State affairs was resemblant to what goes on in say European states. But in effect, all the institutions of the State, and the institutions of social life in general were heavily divided along confessional criteria. Slowly but surely, Amal then Hizbullah learned to play by these rules. What’s interesting in the Shi’a example is that because they are new comers you can basically see how the confessional system, first makes it virtually impossible and highly costly to organize collective action outside of it, and second, sucks in new comers to build on the available institutional confessional processes and mechanisms.

Activists who later became Hizbullah starts off from various discursive background (communist, Lebanese public schools, religious, clerical, etc) find a voice in sectarian groups like Amal and then decide that through Amal things are not going to work for them (in terms of conflict with the Israelis, utter marginalization of South and Bekaa etc.). The Iranians say we give you a hand and you can export the revolution. That seemed like enough of a mobilizing element for these few radicals. Then organizational capacity develops, these people starts achieving political and socially on the ground, their affinities with their allies have concrete instrumental implications, but are coupled with their grasp of new ways to preserve their interests or the interests of a broad movement inscribed in newly developed and virulently efficient religious (confessional) institutions (just like any other similar institutions whether Christian or Sunni, just take the Jesuit school Jamhour and university Saint Joseph for a comparison).

Basically Hizbullah learned the correct way to get things done in Lebanon. An Islamic state would probably destroy most of what they built until now. It would transform a situation of mutual interest built on solid institutional ground into a big mess where they will have to start afresh and create such gigantic structures in order to reap the same political economic and social benefit.

Lebanese diaries

Rest assured, today on LBC news broadcast, the Maronite Patriarch MarNasrallah Boutros Sfeir was asked about his solutions for the current political crisis in Lebanon (two politically very divided camps have to decide on a new president). And so he answered (and I quote approximately but surely my friends), that one should pray the baby Jesus to bring love and reconciliation, and then (he insisted on this point and I am serious) pray a couple of Ave Maria (the prayer for Mary the mother of the baby Jesus), and things will hopefully be alright. Very far aren’t we from the much more effective religious-based discourse to mobilize such as those of Hizbullah and others. No wonder why the former achieves and the other stumbles. Al Islam Howa el 7al as would a very dear friend of mine (Koukou) would say.

Also, today, on the same news broadcast, Samir Geagea (head of the extreme right wing Lebanese Forces, and personally involved in the killing of countless innocent civilians) held a press conference to say something totally useless that is not even worth quoting, because he basically says the exact same thing every other day on the same news broadcast through his daily press conference. I want to understand why this guy has press conferences every single day. You can verify this. He’s on LBC news broadcast every day. I think it’s part of his daily work: brush your teeth at 7h, breakfast 8h, etc press conference at 12h to talk about my last thoughts on the political situation in the country. And the worst thing is that there are a lot of people sitting silently at each of these conferences listening to the guy. My theory goes as follows: the guy stayed 10 years or so in prison without talking to anyone except his guard and occasionally his wife (see the documentary done by Gizelle Khoury (phalangist apologist wife of so-called leftist Samir Kassir) on him where he himself plays his own self, along with his wife playing his wife). And suddenly here he is outside and can speak about virtually anything. Plus, he’s got the money to get cameras and people, hell, he’s got stakes in LBC.

Back to Beirut: The Beginning

Since I landed a week ago in Beirut, I have been taken over by a general feeling of weakness (one of the reasons why I did not write since). I’m sure that the humidity has to do with it, and I am ready to bet that Ibn Khaldun and other social theoreticians of the Arab world were right when they conceptualized cultural practices according to regional climates, but something else was weighing on my heart (liver and wit for the Chinese).

These first moments you experience when you arrive to the ‘home’ country after spending a lot of time abroad are the most crucial because if you keep your analytical faculties wide open then you can notice all kinds of anomalous manifestations taking place and made apparent from the quick change in environment. Human beings get used to a specific socially disciplinary mode according to different habitats. Once you settle in a place you internalize these disciplinary practices and tend not to be aware anymore of some of their structures.

The first thing that struck me was the blatant absence of public space in Lebanon. I want to show how this very simple and even cliché observation can explain why confessionalism and any other parochial form of affiliation are the only effective ones. Lack of public space is not only a metaphor for the fragmentation of state institutions in turfs. It is not just an image for the fact that all ‘public’ social interaction happen in either religious schools, religious NGOs, or at home with the family or the kin as well as the socially close friend (so same confession). It is also the case that architecturally speaking (if I may permit myself to venture in a poorly understood area of ‘expertise’) there is no public space except pubs and bars.

This explains why foreigners (especially from countries where public spheres are very prevalent) are always out and everywhere. They unconsciously make up for this lack of genuinely public space. And even with that in mind a lot of non-Lebanese or Lebanese who did not live in the country confessed to me that they were struck by this harsh environment that can be wrongly perceived as too individualizing. It can be individualizing once you did a conscious process of stripping yourself out of the social mold you were brought up in only to find that there is no available space for anything else. So you’re just alone.

To go back to pubs cafes and bars, people can still talk there about their various views on life, meanings and affiliations, but free interaction is minimized in these places because you have to pay to stay. This is very important not just because it stratifies people’s availability but also because it inculcates a specific culture of public interaction. Also, these places are a nest for determined social networks. Ask any of these places managers and you will see how clientèle is finely chosen even when there isn’t a rhinoceros waiting at the door. And this is notwithstanding the culture of voyeurism and other perverse dispositions in which Lebanese finds themselves captured through this social space as subjects.

I’m not saying that in other countries you have perfect social interaction (a concept to compare with the economic one of perfect competition). London where I was staying is a far cry from that actually. It is a city rigged with a stratified social setting, and elitist mentality all throughout with Wasta as we like to call it to make it culturally specific, with paradoxical racial undertones through pragmatic practices.

But still in London you have amazingly vast and developed public spaces where people of all ‘creed’ can just pause and rest. You know parks, public libraries, gardens, benches all over the place, etc. Especially and most importantly public transportation (buses and subways). Now bear in mind that public space in itself is not sufficient to create public interaction, but its absence is symptomatic of specific practices (or lack of certain practices that are conducive to public awareness). It serves to crystallize that the only genuine dialectical process happens at home, or in a church, a mosque, a school. Sidewalks are tight whenever they even exist, people are mostly in their cars, services (shared taxis) and buses are privately managed which means that crosses, virgins, Korans and icons of all sorts are hanging down the frontal rear view mirror, and thus specific routes are favored. For example, to go from Hamra to Tabaris I had to wait until a Christian driver came along. The first one that had a Hollywood Jesus mega picture on his window was indeed the one who took me and then took along with me successively a woman to Ashrafieh and two army guys to Dora.

Take Solidere’s reconstruction and real-estate plan. Winston Smith explained to me over the most divinely prepared Foul Medammas in Sour (Vince, a poster of Nasrallah and Berri, and my sister where there too) how Solidere, although devising gardens and green spaces in downtown have made sure they were heavily guarded by private security contractors so that ‘dodgy’ people would not try to sit there. So how public is that? But wait a minute; did ‘public’ officials think for a minute how a “privately” managed monopolizing real-estate company would actually deliver a “public” social space when they amended the constitution in order to let Hariri and co take a hold on public asset? You see, a private company will care for the ‘well-being’ of its investors and clients. ‘Well-being’ in real-estate means security. Security means militarized geographic space. And in terms of disciplinary practice, this contributes to a fragmentation of societies’ groups of all genres and the crystallization of huge inequalities through separated social classes.

One could cite a lot of examples like services, Solidere, pubs, institutions, etc. to show this pervasive manifestation of parochial social practices enmeshed in a façade of “modern” institutional framework. I want to stress the point that the absence of these public structures inhibits significantly any genuine collective initiative. It illustrates very well how opposition groups in downtown are simple salaried functionaries of elite party cadres. There is even a natour (concierge) with a table and a phone at the north beginning of downtown who stopped me after looking at me suspiciously and asked me where I was going. I said “what?”, and then he hesitantly carried on: “what are you carrying?” alluding to a cylindrical case containing my nays. I told him that these were musical instruments and so after a moment he let me go. These guys would stop bystanders walking in the city but they would not stop Solidere’s on-going projects, or besiege the Serail or something.

Why? Because they are functionaries of higher diplomatic quibbling. Because while their leaders are finding a way out where some type of exploitative structures can be preserved, they sit idle, smoke narguileh and make the lives of people walking, driving and working like hell. This is a direct consequence of a lack of genuine social initiatives at this scale. This is also the result of disciplinary practices. Although causes espoused by the opposition groups are more socially oriented than any of the ideologically rightist and chauvinistic 14th of March mobilizing drives, the practices of elite and constituency in this case is still similar to those of the ruling ‘majority’. And this is but a manifestation of disciplinary practices in the ‘modern’ Lebanon as created by French and local elites.

Social and political discipline in London and in most of Europe means rule of law, the efficient functioning of market institutions and certain key monopolistic economic settings. In Beirut and the rest of fragmented Lebanon disciplinary practices involves the absence of public space, through urban and rural specific institutional and architectural settings. But disciplinary practices are also discursive. So it explains very well why sectarian narratives are the most influential in mobilizing and forming the different Lebanese subjects.

Also there is an unbridgeable discrepancy between State and parochial discourse. What I am trying to say is that although there is a recurring ideas and metaphors fed by the state that Lebanon is as such discursively defined outside the scope of the sects, the daily practices do not mirror this fact. The only time Lebanese act as Lebanese is when they pay their taxes (of course not even during elections as they are confessionally defined), a negative way of defining your identity one could say. This last idea needs further studying through a close look at state, government official but also media rhetoric and symbols. If energy continues to go ascending then I will surely write more.

Defining a state …

Avraham Burg, former Knesset speaker and former head of the Jewish Agency says “to define the State of Israel as a Jewish state is the key to its end. A Jewish state is explosive. It’s dynamite.” In an interview in Haaretz Weekend Magazine, he said that he is in favor of abrogating the Law of Return and calls on everyone who can to obtain a foreign passport.

(Thanks Hassan)

I would also add that defining Lebanon in terms of a confessional state is also (one of) the key(s) to its end. But as to whether the major players care depends on the losses or gains that will come their way.