Across the Bay

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Apparition in the Levant

Fouad Ajami shares his thoughts on Lebanon.

I once remarked about how Ajami, who is a staunch secularist, was recognizing the virtue of consociationalism in that it acknowledges realities on the ground. I pointed that out when I wrote about his appearence on Al-Jazeera (with luminary Juan [a.k.a. "John"] Cole, who displayed his "command" of Arabic, by speaking English!).

Another interesting thing Ajami did in his latest piece is that he adopted the Lebanonist narrative. You've heard me talk about that (see my "Wrong Nationalism" and "Irrelevance of Political Arabism" posts below), and how Jumblat and Bahia Hariri have essentially echoed that narrative in talking about the post-Syrian Lebanon. It can be argued that Rafiq Hariri himself was de facto an adherent of that narrative, because it's pragmatic, and Ajami talked about that in his WSJ piece "Death of a Businessman" (see also Asher Kaufman's comments about Hariri and his coopting of elements of Phoenicianism in his promotion of tourism in Lebanon).

Ajami uses key terms that point in that direction:

Lebanon had been, in the past, a land of relative freedom--a freedom born of the multiplicity of its religious communities, of the anarchic nature of its people and their exposure to commerce and the sea.
A noble and solitary opposition held on to a memory of a country that had once been a refuge for minorities and dissidents and a break from the autocracies of the other Arab states. (Emphasis mine.)

All these terms are technical. They are the foundation of the Lebanonist narrative, especially the vision of the underestimated Michel Chiha (you can see Ajami's homage to Chiha in his Dream Palace book). The geographical symbolism (very reminiscent of Fernand Braudel) and the primacy of commerce, the "refuge of minorities," the "break from autocracies," are all established vocabulary.

You can see them being rehashed today when Bahia invokes her brother's legacy of reconstruction and investment (regardless of whether she emphasizes the "Arabness" of Lebanon). When Jumblat and Hamade talk about the end of the police state and autocratic heavy-handedness, and about the difference of the Lebanese experience within the Arab context (see Jonathan's reference to the QS manifesto), and when all of them talk about a free, sovereign, independent and democratic Lebanon, it's all based on an established and separate Lebanese identity.

But perhaps the most significant thing Ajami said was at the end:

It is Damascus and its tyranny on one side and the cedar revolution of the vast majority of Lebanon's people on the other. For once, there is an easy and good choice in an Arab land.

Indeed, the choice ought to be very easy. But not if you are an "expert" like the Coles, Cobbans, AbuKhalils and Seales of the world. All of them showed nothing but contempt, malice, "doubts, qualifications, and sophistries" (as a friend put it) all masked as "expertise" and "insight." Ajami touched on that when he said that Lebanon was viewed with contempt as an "easy, frivolous land." See for instance, the clown Angry Hair's remarks about Lebanon's movement being a "Hummus revolution," and how it was too "Gucci." Or how the opposition was "right wing" (whatever the hell that stupid meaningless label means in the Lebanese context). Perhaps Cobban's characterization "snafu" is better! As my friend remarked, all these "doubts, qualifications, and sophistries speak volumes about their fundamental character," and absolutely nothing about Lebanon. Meanwhile, as Ajami said, the Lebanese continue "treating the other Arabs to a spectacle of peaceful revolt."

Update: Stacey Yadav has a passage that's relevant to Ajami's point about the "multiplicity of religious communities" and how that relates to the "relative freedom" of Lebanon. She writes:

I would say that religion and role of religion in the public sphere will be the determining factor [in democratization], much as it was for Europe (though, of course, local histories mattered, too). Religion - and its local interpretations, its claims to absolute truth - has a palpable effect on structuring discourse and the boundaries of acceptable speech. As such, it has an unquestionable impact on the concept of political pluralism. If you take as an assumption that political pluralism - tolerance of the existence of difference - is necessary for democracy to take root, then I think that the interpretation of religion and shared understandings of its role in society are two of the most important features for successful democratization. An environment in which people are afraid to speak - not necessarily because of laws limiting free expression so much as social codes delimited authorized speech - is not one in which people will be able to exercise votes freely or debate openly.

Religious heterogeneity has had an effect on the existence of ideological pluralism, and in this way I see Lebanon (and even Syria, down the road) having some truly democratic promise. Takfir has little or no place in religiously heterogeneous environments, though it may still function within the boundaries of specific communities, in their own internal discourse.

That's why Islamism never had a chance in Lebanon, and why Hizbullah and Fadlallah had to radically restate their position over the last 20 years.