Lebanon: unity within diversity

Alex Klaushofer
16 July 2006

Once again, the regular citizens of the middle east are paying the price of the rivalries of the powerful. Lebanon, more than any other country in the region, is being torn apart in the name of a wider political agenda, made a pawn in the service of the area's big hitters.

Hizbollah versus Israel, Arabs against Jews – the long–running standoff nourished by Syria's pan–Arabism, Iranian Islamism and the Anglo–American "war on terror": these are the forces that shape the headlines and the history books, the Big Politics that politicians and commentators rightly identify as the key factors driving the current crisis.

But behind the image of a blood–soaked, conflict–riven country defined by a potent blend of tribal loyalties, faith and politics alien to the western mind, lies another reality telling a different set of truths about Lebanon.

This story is one of a diversity of Levantine communities living together side by side in a richly-textured social and religious fabric: Druze, various Christian groups (from Catholic Maronites to evangelical Presbyterians), Sunni and Shi'a Muslims. When, after centuries of peaceable living, this coexistence was fractured by civil war – itself kindled by external political interference – the Lebanese forged a new kind of unity–in–diversity, this time based on the explicit espousal of a common, national identity.

Also in openDemocracy on the politics of Lebanon and its neighbours:

Hazem Saghieh, "Rafiq Hariri's murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria? "
(21 February 2005)

Roger Scruton, "Lebanon before and after Syria"
(9 March 2005)

Zaid Al-Ali, "Lebanon's pre–election hangover"
(27 May 2005)

Hazem Saghieh, "Syria and Lebanon: keeping it in the family"
(14 December 2005)

Anoushka Marashlian, "Syria cracks down on dissent"
(19 June 2006)

Thomas O'Dwyer, "Did Hizbollah miscalculate? The view from Israel"
(14 July 2006)

"We are all Lebanese now": this was the refrain that I heard repeatedly over the past two years from many people in Lebanon who were determined to reject sectarian differences and emphasise shared values and dialogue. The phrase came from Christians in the largely Sunni Muslim town of Tripoli in the north, and from Shi'a students in Nabatiyeh in the south, a Hizbollah stronghold which is currently the focus of Israel's wrath. In the face of evident sectarian tensions, this sincerely-held view was expressed by the vast majority of young people I talked to, the first generation to grow up since the war.

In the wake of the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005, this nascent faith in national harmony took on physical form as crowds from all confessions gathered in Beirut to protest for peace. The message from the ordinary Lebanese was clear: war is good for absolutely nothing.

Lebanese people in London who demonstrated outside parliament on 16 July – calling on the British government to condemn Israel's actions – showed an equal distaste for a proxy war fought on their native soil. "Hizbollah-Israel: they have nothing to do with us", said a young Greek Orthodox woman from Bcharre. Others, including Hizbollah sympathisers, dissolved into tears as they contemplated the end of their hopes for a thriving, reconstructed country.

Their motives owe as much to pragmatic, even quintessentially Lebanese, considerations as to anti–war or pacific principles. Since the country's beginnings as a Phoenician trading post, the Lebanese have always been a mercantile people. Modernity, and influences from the west and the Gulf, have fostered a growing materialism: Beirut teems with big cars and plush hotels, luxury apartments jostle for space on its sea–front inhabited by image–conscious people devoted to life's convivial pleasures.

Many of these comfortable Beirut residents, and tens of thousands of other Lebanese, are now lamenting the custom lost through Israel's bombardments. The destruction of infrastructure, property, and lives in the middle of the tourist season has left people reeling, and in many cases forced them to evacuate the urban areas targeted by the attacks and head for safer ancestral homes in hill–towns and villages.

The sudden eruption of violence leaves the Lebanese painfully aware of how conflict destroys the opportunities for the good life offered by this potentially idyllic little country, with its Mediterranean climate and gorgeously varied landscape. Last autumn, as the sun set over her home high in the Chouf mountains, I complimented a young householder on her glorious surroundings. "Yes, it's paradise here", she agreed. "But they" – she waved her hand to indicate warmongers, sectarian forces or troublemakers in general – "don't want to let it be that".

Alex Klaushofer's book, Divine Encounters: A spiritual adventure in Lebanon (Signal) will be published in spring 2007

Also by Alex Klaushofer in openDemocracy:

"After Syria"
(19 October 2005)

This will–to–peace has gradually been gaining strength over the past fifteen peaceful years. It has acquired as much a reality as the bigger political forces that threaten once again to engulf Lebanon – arguably more, since it is so firmly embedded in daily life and the national consciousness. It informs a conviction that Lebanon – with its multi–confessional constitution and long history of tolerance, and despite the internal tensions and external pressures which beset it – is supremely well placed to become the stable democracy and model of coexistence that everyone (including western politicians) professes to want in the middle east.

As political leaders make up their minds how to respond to the present crisis they would do well to look down from their familiar game of high politics and listen to the message that is coming, loud and clear, from ordinary Lebanese people.

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