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On Some Origins of Disputes among the Lebanese

On Some Origins of Disputes among the Lebanese

Sunday, 7 November, 2021 - 11:15

There is a dispute among the Lebanese as old as the country itself. It can be summed up as two contrasting approaches to understanding matters and making sense of them.

The first approach gives the homeland precedence over the idea, while the second puts the idea before the homeland.

The first approach was developed by Maronite intellectuals and was subsequently adopted by the politicians and masses of that same sect. That is because the Maronites were the first sect to become aware of the importance of a nation’s existence in itself and of the importance of it having a state. For them, the Ottoman era had become a thing of the past that would not return in a different form or under a different label.

The homeland, simply put, is a series of concrete factors, like its residents, territory and interests. It is indicative that one of the presidents raised the country’s area (10,452 square kilometers), which is mere numbers, as a slogan for a broad political program.

Thus, the major concern of those advocating the homeland’s primacy has always been how to manage it: relations are built based on improving the residents’ financial, health and educational conditions; as for peace and stability, they are two basic prerequisites for doing so. Of course, over the decades, this course has deviated at several junctures, and it was marred by corruption, injustice and disparities, but what had been achieved was more than a little substantial. This is probably what has turned nostalgia for the pre-war era into a sort of national sport of words played by older generations, who yearn for the “politicians of that era” and whose photo albums brim with images demonstrating the “Lebanon that once was.” It is our belle epoque.

Evidence suggests that the Shiite sect has tried, through Moussa al Sadr, between the early sixties and the early seventies, to join that project and vision. The same recurred for the Sunni sect, but on a larger scale, with Rafic Hariri in the nineties. Consequently the theory prioritizing “the homeland over the idea” was thereby no longer limited to Maronites, though each sect continued to paint this theory with its community’s particular colors. Later on, with the collapse of ideologies and the exposure of the fraternal “tutelage,” in addition to the revelations regarding the nature of the resistance, increasing numbers became convinced of this theory.

Still, this does not mean there was no relation between the ideas and the project of “putting the homeland before the idea.” We have seen an abundance of morbid and folkloric ideas about the “country of the message,” “the country of letters,” and “the center where civilizations meet.” Many narratives on Lebanon being an idea have swept through this milieu, while limited time and an abundance of challenges have prevented the development of more serious ideas on democracy, justice and tolerance, as well as sectarianism and racism.

In any case, figures remained stronger than ideas. The former is solid achievements, and the latter is solace and entertainment. Fortunately, the ideas that prevailed seemed too wretched and frivolous to turn into a form of Lebanese nationalism or for us to become Lebanese nationalists.

As for the approach that gives the idea precedence over the homeland, its advocates endorsed it because of their dissatisfaction with the existing country. They leaned towards a vision of some kind of empire, and with every failure to turn that vision into reality, the idea became closer to one of an alternative homeland. They endorsed Syrian unity, then Arab unity, then the liberation of Palestine, and then Islamic struggle, and resistance was always part of those ideas. The country, here, is a trivial detail. With or without it, the cause lives on. Things would be better without it because its territory would then become an arena for war, and the people would become fighters and corpses. Nothing puts this line of thinking into better terms than the strange and negative definition for the term “patriotic:” he who fights colonialism and Zionism!

Indeed, prioritizing ideas strikes at least three foundations of a nation, any nation. It deals a blow to security and stability because we are constantly resisting, and it deals a blow to pluralism because this resistance is sacred and accepts no partners, which would necessarily be profane, and it strikes residents’ interests because it befriends those who supply weapons rather than those who supply commodities or capital.

The theory that gives ideas precedence thus inevitably clashes with the inhabitants’ lives, prosperity and freedom. At the end of the day, it only promises them death, even if that death is painted with a lot of “glory, pride and dignity.” Nostalgia, in this case, takes them to a time when the notion of a country came before the idea, and achievements came before poems. It remains worth contemplating that it is impossible to see residents leading stable lives and enjoying a degree of prosperity, yearn for the days when they were resisting and fighting. They may honor those days as a time when they did what had to be done, but the urge to undergo them again is limited to those who find it difficult to function in ordinary times.

This is not the case for Lebanon alone, but it applies to every place where ideas came first, leaving residents and their lives last, hit by the hardships of living, freedom and affluence.

Therefore, if the homeland is specific, then the idea is flexible, so those in charge of it can strive and make it something purely functional. In today’s Lebanon, we can see how an idea described as carrying tons of blood, martyrdom and sanctity is turning into a tool for the expansion of Iranian influence. Syria presents another eloquent example: The idea of “unity, freedom and socialism” has been turned into a regional role that lives on the oppression and crushing of the country’s population. Those looking for economic, health and education news will find nothing. Syria’s news is about steadfastness, obtaining arms, destroying projects, building strategic alliances, and confronting attacks that are no less strategic…

East Germany was perhaps the most important example in our era of the implementation of an idea protected by a wall. However, less than half a century seemed sufficient to turn that wall into piles of bricks and memorabilia.

The Lebanese, if the idea does not annihilate the country, may one day turn into collectors of bricks and memorabilia.

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