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Ottomans and Phoenicians: The Construction and Break up of Nations

Ottomans and Phoenicians: The Construction and Break up of Nations

Sunday, 15 September, 2019 - 07:45

In recent days, Lebanese President Michel Aoun garbled on about “Ottoman terrorism”. At the same time, some social media users glorified the Phoenicians, while others retorted by slandering them. Regardless of the time difference between the two eras, myth remained a common factor between the “historians”.

The issue at hand is not about what we don’t know, but what we know. Condemning “Ottoman terrorism” ahead of the celebration of the centennial of the Greater Lebanon is not aimed at the current Turkish regime or its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It is actually aimed at Lebanon’s Sunnis, who are often linked to the Ottomans era. Therefore, Aoun’s statements can be interpreted as a retelling of the formation of Lebanon and also place him in confrontation with the Sunnis - and them against him.

It is hard at this moment to ignore the theory of the “alliance of minorities”, which is also an “alliance” of side cultures that dictated a certain ideological view of history to the Lebanese president.

Those who defended “Ottomanism” exaggerated in glorifying it, as if they were rejecting everything that followed it, meaning “Maronite hegemony.” The image of Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil appears at this point. As a caricature of a sultan, droves of Lebanese loathe him and everything he stands for. Many reluctantly admit that they would rather deal with Abdul Hamid, to whom atrocities are blamed, than the president’s son-in-law.

Phoenicians are an old issue of debate among the Lebanese. To some Muslims, Phoenicians are like Christians. Some Christians accept this comparison and give it a positive spin in contrast with the negative traits drawn up by critics.

We are therefore, now before an old-new form of Christian-Muslim clash that is rivaling the Sunni-Shiite one.

At this point, one must point to “founding myths”, which nations hark back to when they are established. Myths become part of the formation process. Common ancestors, victories and martyrs are fabricated. British historian and political scientist Benedict Anderson noted that death holds a central position in this project. The unknown soldier, tombs of major leaders and heroes are landmarks that denote a united nation.

Under the rule of Fouad Chehab in the 1960s, Lebanon witnessed a degree of stability and unity. The founding myth bore some success. History at this point was given a face lift: Arabs were credited with Ottoman achievements. Arabs also were given precedence over the Phoenicians. The resistance against Ottoman occupation was expanded to include Christians and Muslims. Had the martyrs of 1916 not existed, they would have been made up.

During the age of popular, secular and leftist parties, Ottomans were viewed as “backwards” and Phoenicians were viewed as the source of trade and capitalism to confront “true Arabism” or “socialism.” Parties believed they could deceive the founding myth. When Lebanon began to fall apart in the late 1960s, the “Phoenicians” and “Ottomans” remained on the margins of the political rhetoric of the “left and right, progressives and regressives, nationalists and isolationists.”

According to Anderson, the nation is an “imagined community” made up by its members, who cannot possibly understand each other. The fragmentation of the community also unleashes some imagination. Here, ancestors and the dead are divided and each camp begins to glorify their respective alleged forebears and insult the forebears of the other.

If death was the stepping stone for forming a nation that binds us all, then it is also the beginning of our fragmentation and war.

Of course, the Lebanese cannot claim innocence from their own tragedies. They sparked the civil wars in 1975. At the moment, however, ancestors and the dead are flooding the entire region and with them, figures are rewriting history, deviating from the truth and heading towards fantasy. For example, Erdogan, whom many describe as “sultan” had five years ago claimed that Muslims discovered America before Columbus. Four years ago, he waged a mini-war in Syria to relocate the tomb of Suleiman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, who can deafen his ears to the resounding claims that attribute the Sunni-Shiite conflict to Saqifah Bani Sa'idah or to the death of Hussein ibn Ali in Karbala?

Yes, the Lebanese will soon celebrate the centennial of Greater Lebanon, but we may hear some claim that a hundred years is just “borrowed time”, according to the title of a novel by Lebanese novelist Hassan Daoud.

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