Thursday, December 28, 2006

In praise of Lebanese Sectarianism

A bitter fact of life, a good article from Today's Daily Star.
In praise of Lebanese Sectarianism

By Michael Young

Daily Star Staff

Praising Lebanon's sectarian system may seem odd this end of year, as sectarianism seems closer than ever before to devouring the society. But that's precisely what we should do, because political developments in recent weeks have shown that sectarianism, for all its demonstrable shortcomings, is the only system reflecting the true nature of social relations, imposing humility on all the parties, and offering the Lebanese a pluralism so abysmally lacking elsewhere in the Middle East.

Over the decades, eliminating sectarianism has come to be associated with the brisk air of modernism. There is some justice in the claim. A society cannot truly flourish if every aspect of life is reduced to one's religious affiliation. Promotion by sect usually means a state bureaucracy where merit is lacking. Confined to confessional boundaries, politics or public service means that the most ambitious must either tie their fate to sectarian political leaders to get somewhere, or emigrate. And the rigidities of sectarianism are such that Lebanon seems forever stranded in a never-never land of deal-making, profit-sharing and pie-slicing.

Perhaps. But sectarianism is also the one thing that has made Lebanon more or less democratic in a region stifled by despotism. Because the religious communities are more dominant than the state, power is diffused, so that no single political actor or alliance has ever been able to impose its writ on all of society. In the absence of absolute victory, the system has, of necessity, embraced perpetual compromise - or, when one of the sides, or both, has ignored the rules, collapsed into crisis. The dissatisfied have often looked for salvation in a strong state, leading to a longstanding rivalry between supporters of muscular state institutions and supporters of traditional sectarian leaders. Not surprisingly, the latter have usually won out because they better reflect the country's social disposition, which cannot long abide exclusive central authority.

If independent Lebanon were a morgue, it would be filled with aficionados of robust statehood. President Fouad Chehab was the first to use the army and intelligence services against the traditional leaders, and he got nowhere; nor did his successor, Charles Helou. Bashir Gemayel, president-elect for three weeks, had a similar antipathy for sectarianism, and hoped to use the state to tame and transcend it. He was murdered before he could do much, but his brother Amin applied a likeminded rationale, and within two years he had crashed. Emile Lahoud was elected in 1998 to break the sectarian leaders on behalf of the Syrian regime, but in 2000 he suffered a withering defeat at their hands in parliamentary elections. Now Lebanon must deal with two more dogged "statists," Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Michel Aoun, and both are being reminded daily that they cannot wantonly bend Lebanon to their own advantage.

A few years ago, Nasrallah, in an Ashura speech, decried the Lebanese arrangement, saying it was characterized by "leaders of alleyways, of confessional groups, of districts." Instead of this, Hizbullah's leader declared, Lebanon needed "great men and great leaders." Unfortunately, he got it exactly wrong: The bane of Lebanon is not leaders of alleyways, but great men - or more precisely mediocre men who believe themselves to be great. Michel Aoun has, similarly, juggled contradictory sentiments: a contempt for sectarianism deployed alongside claims to be a paramount sectarian representative, all wrapped up in an audacious fancy that he is a man of destiny who, as the self-anointed embodiment of national salvation, can overcome Lebanon's untidy divisions.

In both Nasrallah's and Aoun's dislike of the system is a sometimes defensible loathing for wheeling and dealing - even though the two men are not lacking in that talent. However, they regard themselves as above the political fray, better than the riffraff maneuvering down below. Both consider an enhanced state, one they control, as the way around sectarian bargaining, even though they are fundamentally sectarian in their outlook and Nasrallah's ideal state looks very different than Aoun's. There is something deeply disturbing in their attitude: an intolerance for diversity, for making concessions to earn concessions, for the disorderliness of a system they would prefer to replace with something regimented.

Aoun and Nasrallah may be on a collision course when it comes to their totalistic visions for Lebanon, but in December it was as one that they hit a brick wall in trying to bring down the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. In the face of a unified and fuming Sunni backlash, both men were suddenly forced to acknowledge the red lines of sectarian conduct. The message they heard was a clear one: Either Hizbullah would have to limit its demands or Lebanon would enter a new civil war. When Nasrallah spoke two weeks ago to assembled opposition protestors, the virulence of his speech partly covered for the fact that he had seen the writing on the wall. He was sending word, probably to his Syrian allies, that fighting Sunnis was out of the question - before retreating under a compensatory hail of indictments directed against the majority.

Today, Hizbullah is in a quandary.

Siniora is here to stay and Nasrallah is absorbing the unforgiving dictates of sectarianism. Though the Hizbullah leader may have been dragged kicking and screaming into the alleyways of confessional politics, he now knows that he cannot ignore this. He is displaying modesty, in contrast to Aoun, who is beginning to sense that his plan to take over the state is slipping away. It is no coincidence that the Aounists have started a parliamentary petition condemning Siniora's alleged abuse of the Constitution. For weeks it has become double or nothing for the general's nervous followers, but by dismissing sectarian sensitivities they will almost certainly end up with nothing.

Every few years the Lebanese must cope with an individual, party or community that ignores, disastrously, sectarian conventions. When the Maronites, the Sunnis and the Druze couldn't get it right during the 1970s, the country descended into a 15-year war. Today, it is Hizbullah, as prime spokesman for the Shiite community, that is making a similar miscalculation. If conflict can be averted, then the party's learning a lesson will have been worthwhile: better a weak Lebanese state where communal alignments can counterbalance the hegemonic tendencies of one side to a strong, purportedly non-sectarian state that will consistently drift toward a disputed, therefore unstable, authoritarianism.

That said, permanent, rigid sectarianism is not ideal. For any truly democratic order to emerge, the Lebanese must ultimately think as citizens, not as members of religious tribes. But wishing that away will not work. The only solution is to modify sectarianism from within, to provisionally accept its institutions while making it more flexible and opening up space for non-sectarian practices. The Taif agreement outlines the means to reach this end, and just as soon as Lebanon can break free of Syrian and Iranian manipulation, just as soon as Hizbullah agrees to a process leading to its disarmament, no matter how lengthy, sectarian negotiations will become possible and the road to reform can be taken.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

Copyright (c) 2006 The Daily Star

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