Across the Bay

Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Wrong Nationalism

Tom Friedman is back on the train of Neoconservatism!! I say that jokingly of course, but it's nice to see how assertive and optimistic he's become once more, ever since the Iraqi elections took place and surprised many a skeptic. Friedman had tried to jump ship somewhere in the middle of the war when things didn't look well in the papers. But Friedman got the right idea, so he gets a pass! Anyway, now he's making quintessential "neocon" statements like: "The good news is that what you are witnessing in the Arab world is the fall of its Berlin Wall. The old autocratic order is starting to crumble." This echoes Ammar Abdulhamid's "neoconnish" statement: ""The ripple effect that the White House wanted in the Middle East is actually starting to happen."

But Friedman is right to be cautious:

    But we have to be very sober about what is ahead. There will be no velvet revolutions in this part of the world. The walls of autocracy will not collapse with just one good push. As the head-chopping insurgents in Iraq, the suicide bombers in Saudi Arabia and the murderers of Mr. Hariri have all signaled: The old order in this part of the world will not go quietly into this good night. You put a flower in the barrel of their gun and they'll blow your hand and your head right off.

Absolutely. That's why the international community should take heed and make sure to respond properly because this is a statement aimed at much at it as it is at the Lebanese. How it will respond will set the tempo to how much "Vaclav Havels and Lech Walesas" will dare to speak. But the Lebanese have spoken, regardless.

That's why I take issue, when it comes to Lebanon, with this passage from Friedman's op-ed:

    The fact that the extremists and autocrats have had to resort now to unspeakable violence shows how much they have failed to win the war of ideas on the Arab street. But the emerging progressive forces still have to prove that they can build a different politics around united national communities, not a balance of sects, and solidarity from shared aspiration, not a shared external enemy. There is still, throughout the Arab world, a very weak notion of statehood and citizenship. And there are still very few civil society institutions outside the mosque, and little historical experience with a free press, free markets or real parliamentary democracy to build upon when the walls fall.

The first sentence is very true. However, one still detects the confusion and cripto-contempt hiding in the following line: "progressive forces still have to prove that they can build a different politics around united national communities, not a balance of sects, and solidarity from shared aspiration, not a shared external enemy. ... there is a very weak notion of statehood and citizenship ... and there are still very few civil society institutions outside the mosque, and little historical experience with a free press, free markets or real parliamentary democracy to build upon when the walls fall."

Well, in Lebanon's case this is simply not true, especially the last part. In many ways this is directed at Lebanon and I reject it, as it's clearly not reading events properly. Just listen and watch what the Lebanese -- the political elite of the opposition, the Maronite Church, and the masses -- are saying on the streets. They want a free, independent and sovereign Lebanon. Jumblat has been talking like the most ardent Lebanonist of the '40s. The idea of a consociational Lebanon (which is the only Lebanon that can emerge, so Friedman's contempt for communal politics is simply confused) is what people are effectively saying when they come together for Lebanon, as Lebanese Druze, Maronite, Sunni, Shiite, etc. In other words, the thing that unites them in their diversity is Lebanon. But not any Lebanon, rather, it's a Lebanon where all these communities coexist and share power. You cannot get any more Lebanonist than that. I think that somewhere deep inside, Friedman still thinks that Lebanese consociational democracy isn't real democracy, even as he's advocating it in Iraq. This is what I meant when I talked about long-held contempt for Lebanon, even among enthusiasts.

But how Friedman got it wrong is exemplified in his quote from Samir Kassir's op-ed (Arabic) in An-Nahar (Kassir also got it wrong on some level):

    [With the Hariri funeral] Beirut was the beating heart of a new Arab nationalism. ... This nationalism is based on the free will of citizens, male and female. And this is what the tyrannical [Syrian] regime should fear more than anything else if it tarries about ending its hegemony over Beirut and Lebanon."

This is not an Arab nationalist revolution. This is a "Lebanonist" revolution! This is about the coming together of the Lebanese (Druze, Maronite, Sunni, Shiite, etc.) for Lebanon and the idea of Lebanon as a plural society. This is not an Arab nationalist revolution just as Iraq's election wasn't an Arab nationalist revolution (remember that Arabist journalist who was dismayed at the lack of the word "Arab" in any of the names of the Iraqi parties competing for seats). On one level it's the exact opposite: Arab nationalism denies any other ethnic or communal identity. Lebanonism (and the new Iraq) acknowledges it and works with it. Arab nationalism (new or old) isn't what the Syrian regime fears (it's used it in both its older Baathist form, and its newer "reformist" form). What it fears is that the Lebanese come together as Lebanese for a democratic and free Lebanon. Nothing Arab nationalist about that. Syria has spent 30 years trying to prevent that from happening, assassinating and scattering at will. This time, the assassination backfired disastrously.

This is what Kassir talked about in the op-ed, a part that Friedman missed:

    The red line was until the day before yesterday exemplified in the silence -- voluntary or forced -- of the Muslim general opinion in Lebanon with regard to the Syrian rule for more than a quarter century. This silence was renewed on several occasions of oppression and assassinations that it became a conviction that the price that Muslims pay, should they decide to oppose [the Syrians], is far higher than that payed by the Christians.
    ...
    The breaking of this silence is not just the crossing of the red line, but a symbolic and political coup whose repercussions go beyond Lebanon's borders. Irony has it that the slogan of "one people in two countries" [which was once hailed by Sunnis, who historically didn't want to join the emerging Lebanese state] has blown up in the face of those who coined it [the Syrians]. For when the streets of Beirut are shouting sontaneous slogans of either a sectarian or religious character, the Syrian ruler knows that this reaches Damascus and Aleppo. When we hear [echoes of the Muslim] calls for prayer saying "there is no God but God and Asad is the enemy of God" then you know that trying to prove the innocence of the Baathist regime is futile.

He goes on to chastise the Arab rulers for not showing in person at the funeral when Jacques Chirac did. This is a sarcastic jab at Arab nationalism. But the point is that the Lebanese Muslims got a taste of the Arab order for a quarter of a century, where they paid a high price in assassination and heavy-handedness. Finally, it was enough. Syria tried to hit the Druze (Hamade) and the Sunnis (Hariri) and both have dumped that quintessentially Arab nationalist political order and opted for a free, pluralist (i.e., one that doesn't deny the Sunnis' Arab identity) and sovereign Lebanon with its political system which is based on consensus and compromise, not assassination and oppression. So it was indeed that "shared enemy" so-to-speak that managed to spark the conviction that the best way for Lebanon (and Lebanese Sunni Muslims and the Lebanese Druze) is for it to be separate from Syria and to run its affairs in its own way (in anthropological terms, this is called the "circumstantialist" understanding of the formation and formulation of ethnic identity and the drawing of ethnic boundaries. It's responsive and interactive. It's opposed to the "primordialist" view which sees ethnic identity as a pre-established static constant.) It wasn't the civil war alone that gave rise to a nation (cf. Theodor Hanf). It was life under the Pax Syriana that made all the Lebanese realize that they can do a lot better dealing with themselves by themselves in a Lebanon big enough for all of them and shared by all of them as their homeland. Josh Landis once wrote on his site how the Lebanese Sunnis were stuck: on the one hand, they have sympathies for an Arab identity, and most adopt it. On the other hand, as Lebanese, they also have a sense of uniqueness. However, as Josh pointed out, they don't have an independent Lebanese narrative of their own! The Lebanese narrative is de facto a Christian-written narrative. Ironically, as Asher Kaufman points out in his book, this narrative (even the Phoenicianist element) has become so pervasive that even those who oppose it are influenced by it. But more importantly, maybe these current events, which have drawn Jumblat into an effectively Lebanonist rhetoric, will inspire that Sunni narrative. That needs to be watched closely. The Syrians knew the importance of the Sunnis when they planned the hit. Unfortunately, they didn't plan on this reaction. They certainly didn't plan on the "lebanonization" of the Sunnis.

Kassir exhibited a similar apprehension and contempt as that detected in Friedman's piece: "A new Arabism, even if it's painted with some expressions of sectarian or clan loyalty." Kassir himself espouses a version of the Arabist identity, and that's fine, and Lebanon and Lebanonism are not in anyway hostile to that. But he misread the expressions of the demonstrators, just as he failed to come to grips with the necessity of consociationalism in Lebanon. This contempt is a variation on the antiquated 19th European nationalism. This is not what Lebanon or Iraq are (see Salem's piece in the post below).

This is a vindication of the Lebanonist idea, not an Arab nationalist renaissance. This is Lebanon rising on the back of a cross-sectarian opposition.

Addendum: This post by Martin Kramer quotes a very interesting article by Elie Kedourie on the tendency of "writers of books" to hang on to and reinvent the Arab collective moniker which "smother[s] the charm and variety of this ancient and sophisticated society." As Kedourie remarks, "by Arabs of course we do not mean the lively and interesting denizens of Cairo, Beirut, Damascus or Baghdad," rather the "collective entity [which] is a category of European romantic historiography." That same European romanticism and nationalism is behind the contempt in Kassir's words, and perhaps also in Friedman's, even when he is effectively calling for a consociational Iraq!