Michael Young caused some controversy today when he claimed, in an opinion column entitled Downward, Christian soldiers, that Lebanon's Christians are being increasingly marginalised and becoming less important in shaping the country's development. Young argued that much of the Christian community's woes are self-inflicted, particularly as reflected in the decline of the Maronites which he sees as stemming from their political choices. This decline, Young argues, manifests itself in "...a disturbing lack of political vigor, economic innovation or intellectual dynamism in the community."
What Young, and most Christians, fail to recognise is that this decline and dissatisfaction are shared by the other Lebanese groups, although it might manifest itself in different forms owing to the specific dynamics of each group. The Sunnis are certainly no longer in the same jubilant mood that followed the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and the recent rapprochement with Syria has left a bitter taste with many. The recent Druze about face performed by Walid Jumblatt also left many feeling demoralised although it was perceived to be necessary under the circumstances. Hezbollah's, and consequently the Shiite, apparent ascendancy masks the deep sense of anxiety and lack of real social and economic progress among one of the most dispossessed groups in Lebanon. Many failed to register that Hezbollah's recent moves were defensive in nature and betrayed a deep sense of insecurity.
Young's characterisation of Christian dissatisfaction could be reiterated to reflect what most of the Lebanese feel. The failure to spot this disaffection among the 'other' is but a feature of how Lebanese communalism has been transformed in the past two decades. It is striking how this major socio-political transformation has went unnoticed, with commentators clinging to tired old formulas in attempting to understand the dynamics of Lebanese society. In its most obvious manifestations, the old confessional system in Lebanon has given way to a version of multi-culturalism that is not as unique to Lebanon as is generally thought.
On the political level, a distinct absence of hegemonic projects among the larger confessional groups signals a major variation in the way through which the Lebanese system developed for the first five decades of its existence. No political project today comes anywhere near the Maronite domination of all aspects of public life in Lebanon in the post-independence era. The last gasp attempt at reviving that role was attempted by Bachir Gemayel in the early 80s only to end disastrously. Since then, the only hegemony to prevail was a foreign one, with the vacuum afterwards being filled by power-sharing arrangements that tilted very slightly to one side. Even at the height of the 'cedar revolution' the anti-Syrian camp left significant space for the other side, which was reciprocated by Hezbollah in the lead to the last parliamentary elections not mounting a serious attempt to gain power and going out of its way to ensure that the other side won the majority.
The downside to all of this is the rise of the language of victimhood and the way it shapes how people perceive themselves and their position within society. Rather than being a response to unique situations, victimhood has become a de facto position for Lebanese groups to see themselves through. The perception that Christians are under a constant existential threat in a largely Muslem context is mirrored by the Shiite anxiety about everyone else conspiring to disarm Hezbollah and consequently marginalise the Shiites once again. The Sunnis and the Druze in turn share similar concerns, and it noticeable how much archaeological effort is being expended to revive ancient theological divisions between Shiites and Sunnis in order to highlight their contemporary differences. The problem is once you start portraying yourself as a victim, you also start behaving like one and all conflicts are automatically elevated to the level of existential threats.
So Michael Young is, in a sense, right but he's only seeing one side of a multi-faceted problem. Like the Christians, all other groups in Lebanon have developed narratives of their own grievances and are using them to strengthen communal bonds. But it is important to recognise that this is not old-style Lebanese confessionalism, it is a much more contemporary and insidious form of identity politics that places group affiliation above individual disposition. The language of victimhood that this creates can only increase the deep divisions within Lebanese society.