13 Aug 2010

The Christians are in despair? Yes, but that's only half the story

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."

Young warns that this decline, if it continues to be accepted fatalistically, will contribute to further 'hopelessness' and 'self-immolation'. Young's assessment will definitely strike a chord with many Christians in Lebanon who feel that they have now become bit players on a political scene strongly dominated by Sunni-Shiite dynamics. In fact, the choices that all major Christian leaders have made in the past few years have largely accepted this role and opted for what they think is the most beneficial alliance within this new reality. So, to a large extent, Young is right but this is only half the story.

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.

But its on the social side where the new model of communal relationships projects itself more clearly. One of starkest manifestations is the spatial segregation that is, unlike the civil war years, voluntary. Confessional ghettos have been reshaped to accommodate each communities choices in living patterns, socialization and even entertainment. The distinct features of each group's iconography is also aggressively displayed, a look at Facebook for example reveals how distinct and prevalent those graphic manifestations of identity have become. But confuse that with more traditional forms of displaying allegiance misses the point about how contemporary this phenomenon is. That this display is multi-cultural in nature is an unavoidable observation: it very closely resembles the construction of minority self-image in the West. And likewise it is a reflection of the deterioration of political and associational affiliations in favour of identity politics.

 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.


  1. قراءة ممتازة و شيقة... مع تحياتي, همام

  2. 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.

    Even more worrying is that you end up behaving like an aggressor. There lies the essence of the paranoid mind and the danger it poses. The German post-world war 1 and the Serbian adventure in the 1990s are but two example.
    The Hutu onslaught in Rwanda another.

  3. شكرا عزيزي همام, على آمل اللقاء القريب

  4. Precisely, Arab democracy, precisely. I think historical comparisons are always complex, but for sure the sense of isolation produces a tendency for aggression.


Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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