Friday, June 21, 2013

Sectarian suicide

This week, while driving in Beirut, I asked for the assistance of a parking attendant. Off to the side there was trash lying in the street that had apparently fallen off a truck. The attendant looked at the pile and made a remark associating it with a neighborhood in Beirut identified with a specific sectarian group.

It occurred to me that the young man, who must have been no more than 25 years old, remembered nothing of Lebanon’s civil war. If he had, he might have thought twice about succumbing to a nauseating sectarianism that can only bring misery, ruin, and regret.

A few years ago I wrote a book, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, in which I argued that sectarianism, for all its many faults, created a social reality that has enhanced Lebanese pluralism. Because the religious communities were stronger than the state, and because the state is the prime foe of liberty in the Middle East, Lebanon was freer and more open than surrounding countries. In the spaces created by sectarianism, individuals could generally act and think as they pleased, and I called this a paradoxical liberalism, because it emanated from the sectarian system, which is anything but liberal.

Just how illiberal this system is was brought home to me by the parking attendant. When communal tensions reach a breaking point, the ugly face of sectarianism rears its head, consuming all before it.

Most disturbing is that the reality is different. Take the mounting Sunni accusations against Shiites for pursuing sectarian objectives. But are things really all that clear-cut? Not really. In recent weeks there have been efforts by Shiite opponents of Hezbollah to condemn the party’s entry into the Syrian conflict. In a demonstration before the Iranian embassy organized by Ahmad al-Asaad’s Lebanese Option movement – one man, Hashim Salman, was shot and killed.

This came as other Shiite figures have become more vocal in their condemnation of Hezbollah, or have openly supported the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. One of these individuals is Sayyid Hani Fahs, a Shiite cleric who once backed Iran’s revolution. “Since its early days, I have always supported the uprising in Syria. Shiites must defend a position in line with their Arabism, Lebanese nationalism, and history: they have always been on the side of the oppressed against the oppressors,” he affirmed. 

In other words, sectarianism uses a wide brush to paint a far more nuanced condition, where the exceptions tell us a great deal. As Hezbollah embroils Lebanon in a war next door, Shiites are among the first to pay a price. Family members of Hezbollah combatants killed in Syria have already done so, while Shiites working in the Gulf are increasingly finding themselves targeted by the authorities there and being forced to leave, losing their livelihoods.

Even the parameters of sectarian discussion are vague. Many Lebanese are behaving today as if there were a long tradition of Sunni-Shiite animosity in the country. There isn’t, and the two communities essentially fought on the same side during the war years. In many (if not most) districts of western Beirut, Sunnis and Shiites live side by side. Any sectarian conflict would be traumatizing to both, tearing apart a longstanding urban social fabric.

Nor did Hezbollah really enter Syria for sectarian reasons. Its support for the Assad regime has much more to do with the party’s strategic interests, and its need to keep an open line of communication to the Syrian coast and its ports in the event of a conflict with Israel, than with any ideological-religious affinity with the Alawite community.

Some will recall that in 1973, Lebanese Shiite cleric Musa al-Sadr issued a fatwa saying that the Alawites were a branch of Shiite Islam. This came at a time when the minority Alawite-dominated Assad regime had released a draft constitution that failed to make reference to Islam as the religion of the Syrian state. Protests ensued and the regime, taken aback, sought religious legitimacy. Sadr, who was then building up his relationship with Damascus, obliged.

However, as scholar Fouad Ajami has noted, this was more a pragmatic political arrangement than a position anchored in any doctrine. “The Alawites were the bearers of an esoteric faith which Muslims, both Sunni and Shi[ite], put beyond the pale of Islam,” Ajami wrote in The Vanished Imam, his biography of Musa al-Sadr.

That is not to say that Syria’s Alawites today do not feel part of a broader coalition of forces stretching from Iran and through Iraq to Lebanon. Nor does it mean that members of this coalition do not share a sense of solidarity in the face of the Sunni majority in the region. But in drawing sharp sectarian lines, as some are prone to do these days, there is a tendency to play up the sectarian dimensions of this reality and to downplay the political rationale underlining it.

And once the ideological or religious dimension gains the upper hand, the counter-reaction is similarly ideological or religious, and the ability to control things becomes more difficult thereafter. It’s then that we see the bearded demagogues emerging from the woodwork, calling for jihad and claiming to speak in the name of God and of righteousness, brooking no compromise and refusing to flinch before all excess.

Once we are prisoners of a conflict defined by such people, we are truly lost. Lebanon is particularly prone to the manipulations of populist charlatans. Yet, we lived through a war that should have taught us more. Instead, those who led us then are now still with us today, but as powerful as ever. We didn’t learn at the time and we’re not learning now. Lebanon, it seems, is eternally drawn to the flame.

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