Across the Bay

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Hairmanos de Sangre

Last month I briefly discussed some misconceptions about ethnicity displayed by Juan Cole and Joseph Massad. At the time I wondered how widespread such misconceptions are in the field. Well, the other day in one of his typical incoherent angry ramblings, Angry Hair (aka. As'ad AbuKhalil) attacked Lee Smith and his latest NYT piece (see below). The Hair wrote:

Notice that Smith (who--in case you forgot--is writing a book on Arab culture) refers to Shi`ites in Lebanon as a special "ethnic" group perhaps not knowing that all Lebanese, regardless of sectarian affiliation, are all part of the same ethnic group.

The last part was rather amusing. First of all, even if the assumption is (which is what I suspect to be the case) that all the Lebanese are of the same Arab ethnicity, it's still a false statement, as it leaves out Armenians, Kurds, and Syriacs (including Assyrians and Chaldeans).

At any rate, the statement was clearly problematic, and hinted at yet another ill-defined concept. So I did a rather painful thing, and took another look at the introduction to the Hair's Historical Dictionary of Lebanon, which I'd mentioned before. AAK has a single paragraph (or, I should say, Hairagraph) on "Ethnicity" that's even more confused than that one line I quoted from his blog. I'll quote it here even if it's completely worthless:

Ethnically speaking, the Lebanese are indistinguishable from the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean. They are undoubtedly a mixed population, reflecting centuries of population movement and foreign occupation. It is not uncommon to see in Lebanon people with blonde hair and light-colored eyes, reflecting perhaps the legacy of the Crusades. While Arabness is not an ethnicity but a cultural identity, some ardent Arab nationalists, in Lebanon and elsewhere, talk about Arabness in racial and ethnic terms to elevate the descendants of Muhammad. Paradoxically, Lebanese nationalists also speak about the Lebanese people in racial terms, claiming that the Lebanese are "pure" descendants of the Phoenician peoples, whom they view as separate from the ancient residents of the region, including -- ironically -- the Canaanites. For the statistical purposes of the American Census Bureau, Arab people (of Asia and North Africa) are listed as Caucasian.

If you're already scratching your head in desperate bewilderment, believe me, you are not alone. Apparently, the Hair's incoherent ramblings are not limited to his blog. Let's try to break this down without passing out.

"Ethnically speaking, the Lebanese are indistinguishable from the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean."

This line seems to imply a racialist understanding of ethnicity, as objectively discernible biological features. In that sense, it's similar to Cole's technique of juxtaposing two pictures of African men, challenging us to tell them apart (the underlying assumption being: if you can't tell them apart, then the Darfur conflict can no longer be labeled ethnic).

That racialist definition is supported by the following statement:

"It is not uncommon to see in Lebanon people with blonde hair and light-colored eyes, reflecting perhaps the legacy of the Crusades."

Leaving aside the incredibly problematic assumptions of this statement (cf. Columbia's George Saliba's alleged line about "green eyes" and "Semites"), the racialist/biological undertones are clear.

If this is not enough, AAK's statement quoted from his blog that the Lebanese are all of the same ethnic group (assuming the definition of ethnicity laid out in his HD) is undermined by his (equally primordialist) assertion that the Lebanese are "undoubtedly a mixed population, reflecting centuries of population movement and foreign occupation."

Another underlying premise of this statement is that ethnicity is static and an a priori category (structural-functionalism), whereby any "mixture" is due to population movement or foreign occupation (i.e. outside interference by another concrete a priori "ethnicity," understood in biological terms).

But how does AAK define the "ethnicity" of the Lebanese (even if the entire premise is wrong)? At first, attempting to avoid a racialist definition of Arab nationalism, AAK denies that it's "Arab," as he understands the latter as a "cultural identity" and not an ethnicity (as that is racially defined. Note the parallel use of "racial and ethnic.") But that is misleading, and his Arabist influences quickly surface at the end of the paragraph when he says that "Arab people" (clearly encompassing the Lebanese) are listed as Caucasian in the census (again exposing a racialist understanding of ethnicity!). I guess the "Arab people," the Lebanese among them, are defined as a people by their "cultural identity," which AAK doesn't bother to define or explore.

Incidentally, AAK's characterization of the Lebanese nationalists is simplistic, and ultimately inaccurate. Phoenicianism is far more complex than how he presents it. For the most recent comprehensive study on the subject, check out Asher Kaufman's Reviving Phoenicia. Kaufman by the way points out to another contradiction in AAK's introduction under discussion. Kaufman notes AAK's pathological animosity towards Phoenicianism and Lebanese nationalism (which is very obvious on his blog). But at the same time, Kaufman points out, AAK ends up adopting Phoenicianism's basic outline as he starts talking about Lebanon's history from the time of the Canaanites! This is one of the complexities, and variants, of the Phoenicianist narrative as analyzed by Kaufman. The Phoenician ties to the land are undeniable, and thus Phoenicianism can be understood and adopted that way.

But what about the definition of Arabness as a cultural identity? Well, let's look under the slightly longer (4 paragraphs) section on "Culture and Language." That's the section that contains the infamous line (on p. 4) that I've quoted before: "One cannot speak specifically about a Lebanese culture."

Here, the basic elements of Arab nationalism are immediately discernible, and they dominate the entire framework. AAK writes:

Lebanese culture been (sic) influenced by historical interactions with the West and the East. The Arab East has shaped Lebanese culture more, however, especially since the seventh century, when Islam conquered Syria (including present-day Lebanon). Arabic was quickly adopted by the local population, replacing Aramaic even as the language for religious ritual among Maronite sects.

I won't go into the historical errors and reductionism. But on the issue of language, especially in ritual, see paragraph [9] of this review (for more, see the works of Sidney Griffith, who's mentioned in the review).

Also, I won't dwell too long on the essentialism inherent in this passage. For instance, notice how the East is Arab. The funny part is the "especially in the seventh century." Was the East Arab before Islam as well?! This, of course, is the standard Arab nationalist revisionism. But I wanted to bring this up because AAK ever so condescendingly attacks Lee as someone working on "Arab culture" and ridicules him for quoting Patai. AAK uses that to recite the Edward Said credo on essentialism and the works. But now that you've read the above, you'd wonder how someone who has no problem talking about "Arabness" as a "cultural identity" and about the "Arab East" and so on, can have the audacity to accuse anyone of reductionism or essentialism.

Back to the segment on "Culture and Language." Like I said, the standards of Arab nationalism are all there: listing, exclusively, the Lebanese writers who sparked the 19th c. renaissance, and, the infamous quote about the non-existence of a specifically Lebanese culture, "because the culture of Lebanon has been part of the larger Arab and regional culture." But most notable is the linguistically-based approach as is clear in the quoted passage (the juxtaposition of "culture" and "language" by itself is a dead giveaway).

What I found interesting is the typically Arab nationalist jump that AAK made when he mentioned the spread of Arabic via the Islamic conquests. The emphasis was immediately laid on the (culturally) unifying role of the language (even if, as Kaufman notes, it wasn't the vernaculars that were at the heart of the rise of Arab nationalism, as is the case in Benedict Anderson's argument on nationalism). But then a jump of several centuries from the 7th c. to the other "moment": the 19th c. renaissance. This is vintage Arab nationalist historiography!

After "Ethnicity," and "Culture and Language" (all of which are static and indistinguishable from those of the Arab neighbors) comes AAK's segment on "Religion" (two paragraphs). The Hair writes:

Lebanon, it is often remarked, is more shaped by religion than by any other single factor. This observation, however, ignores the distinctive features of the Lebanese sectarian problem. In other words, sectarian membership and identification are not acts of religious worship but characteristics of narrow political identification. The Lebanese are likely to identify with, in addition to their family, their religions.

While AAK doesn't understand religion in Lebanon in a strict spiritual/liturgical sense, he does still reduce it to "narrow political identification." But this is clearly an artificial reduction, and AAK does not explain what those political identifications entail. Does this kind of religious identity intersect with cultural, linguistic, and ethnic (not in AAK's racialist sense) identities? One can bring up Christianity's relation to Armenian, or Greek ethnic identity (or other eastern European ethno-nationalisms), or Judaism and Jewish ethnic identity (this is an issue Massad wants to resemanticize, claiming that Judaism is only a religious identity, and any expansion into ethnic identity, or even ethno-nationalism, is a product of 19th c. European romantic thought and is thus "anti-Semitic"). In fact, what about Islam and Arab nationalism? I know the myth is of a "secular" Arab nationalism, but that's bogus and everyone knows it. Read what Josh Landis has written on Aflaq and the Baath, or what Elie Kedourie has written on the subject. This feature, by the way, is also in conflict with the second of Anderson's points of departure in his analysis of nationalism: the decline of religion (which, as Kaufman notes, is similar to Gellner's premise).

One can even go further, for the sake of argument, taking a line that may perhaps be described as primordialist. If religious identity can affect political affiliation, as AAK seems to be saying, can it not also have an effect on behavior, diet, dress, interaction with others, and other kinds of cultural practices? As such, can we really not speak of specifically Lebanese culture(s)? Or, to paraphrase a recent post by Stacey Yadav, is the Islam that's forced to live with and acknowledge a non-Muslim other as equal the same as the Wahhabist or Jihadist Islam? Is the interaction of Lebanese Muslims and Christians the same as the interaction of Egyptian Muslims and Copts? Is Lebanese social culture then really indistinguishable from that of its neighbors?

But since AAK had already established the Arabist-inspired cultural and linguistic homogeneity (even in ritual, noting how arabization had taken root early on), he had to narrow the discussion to the realm of politics (hence, Lebanese political sectarianism). In fact, for all his Marxist leanings and his infatuation with labels like "right wing," AAK doesn't discuss other social identities.

Basically, for AAK the Lebanese are ethnically (i.e. racially) indistinguishable from their neighbors, save for some blondies left over from the Crusaders. They are culturally indistinguishable, as there is no such thing as a specific Lebanese culture. And, needless to say, they are linguistically indistinguishable (save for some linguistic islands of Armenian and Kurdish). Is it any wonder, therefore, that he thinks that Lebanon is not viable as a nation and should melt into a unified Syria, Jordan and a "liberated Palestine"?

Nevertheless, as Kaufman noted, despite AAK's personal issues with Lebanon and Lebanonism, his intro is peppered with several Lebanonist fixtures, beside the incorporation of Phoenician history. For instance, AAK notes how "Lebanon has attracted members of all the religions of the region, if not the world. Muslims, Christians, Jews and Druzes have coexisted in Lebanon for centuries." This is but a variant of the auberge des minorit├ęs narrative, a much mocked Lebanonist hallmark. Yet, AAK can't get around it because it's historically accurate, and it's also an influential Lebanonist narrative, which is rather distinctive (as much as this frustrates the Angry Hair). That's why, as Josh Landis once noted, Hafez Assad's father wrote a letter to the French authorities requesting that the Allawite regions be joined to the emerging Lebanese state.

To conclude, AAK like his "dear friend" Joseph Massad and MESA president-elect John ("Juan") Cole, seems to have rather problematic conceptions of ethnicity, viewing it in racialist, primordialist terms. Small wonder then, that he had a seizure when Lee used the term "ethnic group" in reference to the Lebanese Shi'a.

This guy, I might add, is said to be writing a book on Lebanese identities. In light of the above, that promises to be quite the read!

Addendum: Please contrast the Hair's section on religion, sectarianism and politics with the following taken from his review of Ajami's The Vanished Imam (MERIP 144 [Jan-Feb 1987]: 46):

Ajami's study is very much in tune with what one can refer to as neo-Orientalism. According to this paradigm, Arabs are first and foremost Muslims. All ideological and political positions derive from sectarian affiliations. Socioeconomic and political differences are irrelevant. Neo-Orientalists focus on Islam as the determining factor of events related to Arabs...

The Hair, neo-Orientalist? Well he wouldn't be the first. See the following review of his "dear friend" Joseph Massad's book.