Across the Bay

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Theo Hanf on Lebanon

Theodor Hanf, the author of the excellent Co-existence in Wartime Lebanon: Death of a State and Birth of a Nation, is featured in this piece by Jim Quilty in the DS.

One of Hanf's strengths is his view on the various layers of identity and their intersection in Lebanon, something that's not really properly understood by people writing on Lebanon. This was never as evident as during the Spring, when Lebanon was in the limelight and people were writing all kinds of garbage. Let me reproduce that quote from his book here (it's actually quite relevant to what I've noted in my previous post right below):

The lack of census figures stimulated not only political, but also social fantasies. And the products usually correlated with the analyst's political convictions. From the mid-1970s onwards, a number of authors more or less equated social class and community in Lebanon, and interpreted conflicts between these communities as class struggles. Of course, this thesis was an effective mobilizer. It also satisfied the desire of some media for simple explanations of complex situations. The cliché of 'rich Christians' and 'poor Muslims', has had a brilliant journalistic career -- and it may not be over yet.

Some of Hanf's statements to Quilty are worth reproducing here:

Hanf discovered patterns of public opinion while researching his own book. "People live within a complex system of loyalties, but these are less opposed than you'd imagine. Everyone's linked to society in various ways - gender, marital status, political parties, region, clan, religion and so on and so forth.

"We asked people "prioritize your identities." For most "Lebanese" came first. Only 5 -7 percent of respondents defined themselves in religious terms, but even those who identified themselves as primarily Lebanese had very strong feelings toward their community, as you might find in Germany or the United States.

For once, a serious statement on the complexity of Lebanese identity. This statement also fits nicely with that of another fine Lebanon scholar (a rarity!), William Harris, who also has a much better view of the complexity of Lebanese identity/-ies (that AbuKhalil is working on a book dealing with this issue makes me want to laugh, considering how poorly he understands it, and how his ideological bias and personal issues make him the least suitable person to explain it. See here how he dishonestly misrepresented Harris' book.). This is from Harris' book Faces of Lebanon: Sects, Wars, and Global Extensions:

The Lebanese people exhibit a commonality and identity like that of such cohesive "nationalities" as the English or French, and a fragmentation into mutually distrustful groups similar to such multicommunal conglomerates as the former Yugoslavia, Malaysia, or Sri Lanka. Arab countries can be placed at different points on a spectrum between the Egyptians, a people with a distinctive collective consciousness, and historically new creations of Western colonial intervention like Iraq or Syria. Even now, after 75 years of Iraqi and Syrian geographical existence, it is questionable whether one may refer to "Iraqi" and "Syrian" peoples, rather than simply to state apparatuses occupying certain Arab territories. Modern Lebanon, uniquely, can be located at both ends of the spectrum -- it is at once Egypt, Iraq, and neither. It is also at once firmly Arab and assertively separate in ways that transcend even the Egyptian case.

On the issue of Lebanon's identity in the post-Syrian era, Naseer As'ad wrote the following interesting, yet somewhat flawed, piece in al-Mustaqbal yesterday. I'm hoping to return to it soon when I have the time. There is something that Naseer notes but doesn't take to its end, and that is that for the first time, Arabism is talked about as being part of the national Lebanese identity, and not the other way around. Now the starting point is Lebanon, where Arabism is an essential constituent, and not a super-national Arabism into which Lebanon ought to melt, and where no Lebanese identity should ever exist (remember AbuKhalil's remarks on how he thinks Lebanon is "not viable as a nation" and that it should be abolished in favor of a Jordanian-Syrian-Palestinian-Lebanon union!! That's right, he's still living in that era!). Anyway, I'll see when I can come back to this piece. But I think that a crucial turning point in this regard is the attitude of the Sunnis this past Spring.