Friday, October 12, 2007

Dressing the Christians up in brown shirts

Maybe someone might convincingly explain why, whenever Western journalists and publicists talk about Lebanon's Christians, particularly the Maronites, they invariably resort to the word "fascism" in describing some aspect of their behavior. The latest example is an article by one Thanassis Cambanis in The New York Times of October 5.

Cambanis' article is an overwrought effort to show that Christians are arming, recruiting, and preparing to wage war, even among themselves. "[T]he country's once-dominant Christian community feels under siege and has begun re-establishing militias, training in the hills and stockpiling weapons." In fact, the evidence for these allegations is negligible, despite the fact that a squad of Aounist weekend warriors was recently arrested by the security forces. However, Cambanis' point was somewhat different. His tone suggested that a forbidding temper had descended on Christian Lebanon, something menacing, all tattoos, guns, and spray-painted symbols - the stuff of far-right skinheads and Serbian death squads; well why not come out and just say it: the stuff of fascism.

In a passage on the Marada movement and one of its leaders, Cambanis wrote: "Like many Christian movements, his party builds support around a bizarre iconography, reminiscent of early-20th-century European fascism; his party has adopted the symbol for 'pi' to express constancy, and another group has chosen the Greek letter 'omega,' for resistance."

The "omega" symbol is, of course, used by the Aounists. If my grasp of names is on target, and it's a pretty large target, Cambanis' ancestors were Greek. Quite why the intrepid Thanassis should determine, therefore, that the letters of his ancestors should provoke the same reaction as, let's say, a swastika, is never made clear. If you are prepared to use the term "fascism" against a group of people, you had better make sure not to make your case solely on the basis of their taste for "bizarre iconography."

I had the pleasure of dining with Cambanis last year, and he struck me then, much like he does now, as being a dilettante on an expense account. But his inaccurate, lazy, shallow article in the Times, which has raised hackles in Lebanon and abroad, is reflective of a greater problem when it comes to portraying the country's Christians. Perhaps Cambanis picked it up in the hotel lobby, or just from his fixer, but he is really little different from the herds of other Western journalists, even academics, in reaching for the decades-old cliche that whatever the Christians do is somehow colored by extreme, even violent, communal nationalism and bigotry.

So why can't Lebanese Christians ever seem to get a break from this tedious characterization? The common answer is that their main political organization after the 1930s, the Phalange, was influenced by European fascist movements, and that one of its later emanations, the paramilitary Lebanese Forces, reinforced the same tendencies. What are these? Loyalty to a dominant leader, an often parochial sense of nationalism, a centralized command structure, a willingness to employ force, a tendency to absorb the individual into a corporate identity, and so on. No doubt a few of these characteristics were or are present in a number of Christian parties, albeit in very haphazard and very undisciplined ways. However, they also happen to typify most other Lebanese political groups as well.

There is one party, however, that fulfills all of these conditions to a tee: Hizbullah. And yet never will foreign journalists or observers refer to Hizbullah as "fascist" - nor would that be an accurate depiction of a far more multifaceted organization. To the anti-globalization left Hizbullah is a heroic vanguard against the United States and Israel; to many Western liberals it is a social service serving a deprived community. The thing is, the Muslim Hizbullah is regarded in Western consciousness as a "truer" product of Arab society than Christian parties, who have had to fight against a sense (sometimes self-inflicted, but mostly not) that they are interlopers. This has earned the party a reprieve from the "fascism" label.

Indeed, much the same dispensation applies to the Baath in Syria (and previously in Iraq), the Sudanese junta, and the madcap order installed in Libya by Moammar Gadhafi. In remarkable ways these absolutist, suffocating, centralized, exclusionary systems are viewed as bona fide emanations of "Arabness," even though the Baath's founders, for example, openly regarded German Nazism as a main source of inspiration.

Lebanon's Christians have also had to fight the remnants of an older foreign antipathy: that of Western Protestants who came to Lebanon in the 19th century to establish educational institutions in the country. For many Protestants, who became a foremost funnel for early Western awareness of Lebanon, there was something fundamentally odious in the Eastern Christians' approach to their religion. What wasn't oriental superstition in it was retrograde Catholicism, with its proclivity for gold, high ceremony, louche clergymen, and sparse spirituality. There seemed little room for reason among all that byzantine ornamentation; and when the Protestant missionaries proved unable to convert Muslims to the true faith, their favored prey became the eastern Christians, particularly the Maronites - provoking mutual antagonism that survives to this day.

That Protestant antipathy metastasized throughout the 20th century, taking different forms having little or no relation with religion. American publicists and academics of the Middle East in particular, like the missionaries deployed throughout the region, tended to take a positive attitude toward Arab nationalism after the 1950s. This was, after all, progress, a legitimate impulse toward self-emancipation; it was also a rejection of European colonialism and therefore something meriting sympathy. The Palestinians too, defeated by Israel after 1948, had staked out the moral high ground, and Westerners interacting with the Arab world, lacking a great deal else, never lacked in moral righteousness.

Yet most Lebanese Christians seemed to have no place amid this virtuous advocacy. The Christians seemed to be stubbornly resisting the Middle East's future. By proclaiming their communal rights, they were undermining an Arab nationalist ideology that promised to banish ancient communal identities; by arming against the Palestinians during the early 1970s, they were only further harming the Arab world's acknowledged victims; by being so different than those around them, they were bucking the trend, ruining the good vibes that Westerners dedicated to the Arab world's glorious destiny were so keen to impose. Lebanese Christians were a foreign body disrupting regional harmony, a fifth column, a reminder of how the colonial West had wanted Arabs to be. Therefore, it was perfectly reasonable to describe them alone as having fascist tendencies.

It is hard to credit Michel Aoun with anything constructive during the past two years. But do credit him with one thing: He has thrown a giant rock into the puddle of Western received wisdom on Lebanon's Christians. Things were simpler when Christians were just right-wing chauvinists who hated Muslims. Now, however, those who get animated when Hizbullah is mentioned have developed an interest in its bizarre Christian ally. Rewrite the manuals! Burn the guidebooks! Fire the fixers! The Christians are fascists, but by God some are more fascist than others.


Peter H said...

And yet never will foreign journalists or observers refer to Hizbullah as "fascist" - nor would that be an accurate depiction of a far more multifaceted organization.

Has Michael Young ever heard of the term "Islamofascism"? Young should know that if you google the terms "Phalange+Fascism" and you get 35,300 results; a Google search of "Hezbollah + Islamofascism" turns up 313,000 results.

Jeff said...


Because Western ultra-liberals detest Christianity worse than any other religion.

For the same reason that they see nothing but imperialism in any fight by America.