Across the Bay

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Right and Left in Lebanon

Recently, my friend Mustapha of The Beirut Spring wrote a post about possible socio-economic issues serving to bring together parties like Aoun's FPM and Hizbullah.

I wrote him a note cautioning against a quick and exclusive socio-economic diagnosis. But I also noted that identities (sectarian, socio-economic, political...) in Lebanon often interlace. Error takes place when one is dismissed for the other, or one is mistaken for the other, or too closely identified with the other. That leads to huge mistakes and confusions in interpretation.

I brought up a couple of good quotes from Theo Hanf on the subject:

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.
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.

The following view by Hassan Mneimneh is also relevant:

It has become both usual and convenient to conceive of Lebanon in terms of its religious communities: Maronites, other Christians, Sunnis, Shi'is, Druze. However, the history of modern Lebanon has been one of "horizontal" connections across communities, intercepted or interrupted by "vertical" resistance by communitarian reactions, reflecting hesitation or dissatisfaction with unsettling changes, or promoted by populist rhetoric from communitarian leaderships at risk of losing influence.

The reducing of identities and politics (as well as conflict) to the familiar ideological frameworks of, e.g., Modernization Theory, Marxism or Third-Worldism has been a constant hallmark of journalism and scholarship on Lebanon. That's the origin of the labels "Right-wing" and "Left-wing" used so profusely by people like Cole, AbuKhalil, and Cobban in their writing on Lebanon. As Hanf pointed out, these labels and other socio-economic labels are then assigned to sects. The result is often gross misrepresentation and distortion.

It turns out Bernard Lewis agrees. In a 1977 essay for The New Republic entitled "Right and Left in Lebanon," Lewis wrote:

The seating arrangements of the first French National Assembly after the Revolution do not express a law of nature, and the practice of classifying political ideas, interests and groups as right or left obscures more than it illuminates even in the Western world where it originated. As applied to other societies, shaped by different experiences, guided by different traditions, moved by different aspirations, such imported labels can only disguise and mislead.

The article was recently republished in Lewis' From Babel to Dragomans, and can in fact be read online via Amazon's "Search Inside" feature. It starts on p. 284 and ends on p. 289.