Sunday, June 13, 2010

Review Essay: Lessons from Lebanon’s chronic encounters with violence

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Review Essay: Lessons from Lebanon’s chronic encounters with violence

Libanisation (Lebanization/Lebanonization): the process of fragmentation of a state, as a result of confrontation between diverse communities.

By Maurice Obeid
(Submitted review)

Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon: A History of the Internationalization of Communal Conflict. By Samir Khalaf. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2002. 368 pp. ISBN: 0-231-12476-7. US $27.50.

A lot has been studied about Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war—identifying perpetrators, determining the “Sarajevo” that ignited the conflict, or ascribing responsibility to a web of local, regional, and international stakeholders. Little has been said, however, about the peculiarity of this civil war—what sets Lebanon apart from other violent contexts. It turns out that the forces that sustained the conflict were distinct from those that ignited it in the first place, and, in Lebanon’s case, much more important in delineating the country’s tortuous trajectory. These forces defined the paradigm of Lebanese sociopolitical life and destiny. Even more obscure to many observers is that Lebanon’s modern history has been one of intermittent violence whose patterns have remained largely consistent for two centuries. This discovery serves as both the premise and the conclusion of Samir Khalaf’s Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon.

Khalaf’s examination of Lebanon’s conflicts since the 19th century uncovers three recurring themes that investigations of communal strife tend to overlook:

1.      The incongruence between instigators of violence and forces that sustain conflict. The circumstances that propelled oppressed groups to resort to social or political violence are not necessary those which sustained the violence or defined the direction and character of the conflict.

2.      The distinction between civil and uncivil violence. When communal discord replaces socioeconomic or purely political grievances as the face of a conflict, quelling violence becomes a herculean task. In Khalaf’s words, violence is transformed from a dependent variable to an independent variable inflicting its own vicious cycle of violence.

3.      Certain wars are futile. As Kaplan suggests, for wars to be productive, they must produce a victor and a vanquished. In Lebanon, successive conflicts have primarily embodied zero-sum rivalries. Much to the interests and efforts of foreign powers, conflicts always ended in suspension.

Lebanon’s major episodes of unrest reveal painstaking similarities in their pattern of violence. Conflicts that started as ordinary socioeconomic or political protest quickly turned into sectarian confrontation. Once conflicts took on a sectarian edge, and they almost always did, they acquired a life of their own and spiraled out of control as self-definition became threatened. Essentially, as Hanf explains, conflicts that were initially over divisible goods became struggles over indivisible principles. Finally, and most painfully, these conflicts have been largely futile, at best restoring status quo.

Today, coexistence is ever so distant. In short, Lebanon’s history with violence is especially vexing as hostilities never revolved around a set of causes nor have they resolved core issues that ignited unrest. 

Familiar pattern: a donkey is a donkey

Against this conceptual backdrop, Khalaf revisits three distinct conflicts—the recurrent uprisings of the 1800s, the turmoil of 1958, and the 1975-1990 war. He links his analysis of the Lebanese context to a rich exposé of relevant work by revered Western historians and social scientists. His intent here is to demonstrate two salient features. First, the (non-confessional) circumstances that propelled groups to violence were not those which sustained and defined the direction of the conflict. Second, geopolitical forces and regional and global rivalries consistently amplified communal fissures.

The calm of feudal Mount Lebanon—which had historically exhibited harmonious Maronite-Druze coexistence—was disrupted in the early 1800s by peasant protest over increased taxation and conscription by Ottoman and Egyptian rulers. These uprisings rarely remained in their pure socioeconomic and political forms, and were quickly deflected into confessional hostilities, often times by international spoilers—France, England, and the Ottomans—who pitted one confession against the other. The Maronite-Druze relations were irreparably damaged when Ottoman Ibrahim Pasha conscribed Maronites to help quell Druze rebellion. Ensuing massacres—socioeconomic grievances turned into sectarian conflicts—ended with foreign imposition of the Règlement Organique of 1861 that, for the first time, institutionalized confessionalism in Lebanon’s political system. In Khalaf’s words:

“[These events] initiated the transition from the traditional ties of kinship, status, and personal allegiance to a more communal form of social cohesion where sources of political legitimacy were defined in terms of ethnicity and confessional allegiance. In short, [they] substituted one form of primordial loyalty for another.”

A century later in 1958, significant regional developments and Palestinian belligerence in Lebanese territory transformed socioeconomic grievances and feelings of political underrepresentation, primarily by Muslims, into a confessional battle. Pan-Arab nationalism attracted the disenfranchised and those opposed to the government’s staunch pro-Western foreign policy. Early stages of protest reflected no intentions of violence, but Syrian and Egyptian efforts in propping up the opposition against the Chamoun government, along with the creation of the United Arab Republic in 1958 and the Maronites’ perennial fears of being engulfed by Arab nationalism and Palestinian presence, quickly transformed the situation into a vengeful conflict defined along confessional lines. Once again, fear of loss of identity and heritage, one’s very existence, motivated “out-of-control” violence—including banditry, kidnappings, and torture. And again, the violence subsided, much as it had started, with foreign intervention—in this case through The Cairo Accord.

By the early 1970s, however, regional ideologies—Baathist, Socialist, Arabist, and Islamist—had fundamentally changed the nature of the discourse in Lebanon. By then, Maronites felt dangerously threatened by Palestinian militancy. Internal tensions coupled with outside pressures—the Arab nakba in 1967 and intensified Israeli reprisals in the South—led to severe fissures in the government of President Franjieh. Khalaf reflects:

“Increasingly, Lebanon found itself caught between two treacherous operations: Destroy the armed presence of PLO and risk the grim prospects of Christian-Muslim confrontations. Entrust the army with the task of defending the South and suffer the inevitable humiliations of a military showdown with Israel. Typically, Lebanon opted for inaction and played for time.”

Time, however, was not on Lebanon’s side and events deteriorated into the familiar spiral of violence, this time to last 15 years. This conflict saw the most bizarre permutations of intra- and inter-communal alliances and violence. “The bewildering plurality of adversaries and shifting targets of hostility has rendered the Lebanese experience all the more gripping and pathological.” As with previous conflicts, hostilities ended when foreign interests necessitated a quiet Lebanon. This came in the form of the Taif Accord, which hypocritically clinched to the consociative nature of Lebanese society and “the [déjà vu] ethos of no victor and no vanquished.”

An Ominous future?

Khalaf delivers a somber message: Lebanon’s major episodes of violence have been uncivil. As long as conflicts revolved around socioeconomic and political disparities, they remained fairly civil. When they were given a confessional nature, and they almost always were, Lebanon turned into a bloody circus.

To great effectiveness, in analyzing the latest civil war, Khalaf goes beyond depicting the chronology of events to providing a rich glimpse of the country’s social psyche that sustained violence and the resulting psychological scars. He explains how ordinary citizens get entrapped in aggression and how traumatized groups come to cope with chronic fear and hostility. He addresses the impact of war on collective memory, group loyalties, and attitudes towards the “other.” His exposé explains how violence continued for 15 years: “the ecology of violence, reinforced by the demonization of the ‘other,’ provided the sources for heightened vengeance and entrapment into relentless cycles of retributive in-fighting.” Religion and the vilification of the “other” sanctified violence to the extent that “fighters involved in …purifying bloodbaths [were] not only purged of their guilt,” but were “also glorified into patriots and national heroes.” It simply became routine: groups engaged in such cruelties believed they were morally justified, and observers morally distanced themselves to the extent of desensitization. In essence, citizens became frenzied spectators morbidly fascinated by a Spanish bullfight (Marvin 1986: 133-34).

Perhaps most ominously, Khalaf paints a bleak picture for post-war Lebanon. Perhaps the most important impact of the war is what he calls the “retribalization” and “reteritorialization of identities.”  The war has reinforced kinship and confessional loyalties. It has destroyed public spaces that provided venues for intercommunity interaction and has caused people to retreat to homogenous spaces. The density of social interaction and intensified intracommunal loyalties are foreboding for the nation. Boundaries between communities, once physical, have become psychological, cultural, and ideological barriers. In contrast to theories of Modernization and Marxism, which predict the demise of religious and community fealty, such primordial ties have strengthened in Lebanon.

Khalaf raises another disheartening, less salient and empirically counterintuitive consequence of the war, which he labels “postwar barbarism.” He persuasively elaborates how in contrast to the constraint that people generally exhibit in postwar situations, the Lebanese show “no self-control in directing their future options.” Instead they reveal “insatiable desires for acquisitiveness, lawlessness, and unearned privileges,” ranging from the negligence of laws to the destruction of the environment to increased wickedness to the obsession with kitsch and vulgar trends. Khalaf laments the proliferation of kitsch—propagated by the desire to escape the memories of the past—that have vulgarized folk art and architecture in the process of providing cheap distractions to the wounded Lebanese souls.

The reader may take solace in Khalaf’s moderate voice throughout this work. While providing a sobering account of a violent nation, Khalaf reminds us that Lebanon knew periods of calm that rendered the country an avant-garde paradise in the region. On several occasions, however, Khalaf is quick to refute Lebanon’s detractors who say that the state is an artificial creation without offering much evidence to the contrary. This is an important argument for him to make, especially as he seems to be implying just the opposite when he describes the recommendation of the King Crane Commission to create an autonomous Lebanon within a larger Syrian entity based on a plebiscite conducted in 1919.

Most significantly, the reader would have benefited from further exploration of the two periods of relative calm—1860-1958 and 1959-1975. To better understand the factors that propagated violence in Lebanon, it is instrumental to also explore the main factors behind periods of sustained calm.  Perhaps Khalaf presumes it to be obvious that regional and international conditions provide the best explanation, but in assessing whether Lebanon could ever again experience such prosperity, a retrospective analysis is essential.

On this basis, the chapter on Lebanon’s “golden/gilded age” (1959-1975) is at once Khalaf’s strongest and weakest. Strongest because Khalaf, a sociologist, is at his best. He explores in exquisite detail the social and cultural forces that made Lebanon a cultural paradise. Few have provided such a comprehensive exposé of Lebanese society during that time. Weakest because the work does not explain the variables behind the lack of violence during that epoch. He briefly mentions that economic prosperity was not equally distributed and that disparities widened. It may again be too obvious for him that international interests were aligned with stability in Lebanon. But with a civil war was on the horizon, the reader would benefit from a deeper analysis of the economic and political grievances stirring beneath the surface and how society managed to keep them at bay.

Structurally, the first three chapters, which set up an ingenious framework with which to analyze Lebanon’s violent history, get seemingly repetitive and could use some more structure. On some occasions, the obvious is stated, which is out of character for a work so strong. The tone is academic, and Khalaf investigates conceptual principles set by Western intellectuals only to end up with rather obvious conclusion. For the practical user, a more succinct version of the first three chapters would be helpful.

Breathe fresh air, pick fresh roses

Perhaps most interesting in this work is the absence of policy recommendations related to political reform. Khalaf must have given up on the role of politicians in bridging the gap between communities. Perhaps the author knows too well that such alternatives have been proven naïve, imaginary solutions. In fact, inspired by Herbert Spencer’s analogy of the bent iron plate—one should hammer around, and not directly on, the buckled area—Khalaf explicitly encourages focusing on strategies that transcend conflict resolution and political reforms.

Khalaf emphasizes the role of restoring social spaces in reconnecting “denationalized” Lebanese with each other and with their country, in the hopes of forming a collective memory. He focuses on the importance of what Paul Rabinow refers to as the “social technologies of pacification” in bringing back meaningful life to society. He calls on urban designers, architects, and intellectuals to play a much needed role in Lebanon—connecting the citizenry through public space. “By mobilizing aesthetic sensibilities… and cultural expressions…, they can prod the Lebanese to…transcend the parochial identities to connect with others.” Khalaf also calls for increased opportunities for intercommunal socialization through productive social networks, such as environmental campaigns, pro-local agriculture produce campaigns, and activities promoting women rights. The alternative he points out is bleak:

“Consider what happens when a country’s most precious heritage either is maligned or becomes beyond the reach of its citizens…their country’s scenic geography, is pluralistic and open institutions, which were once sources of national pride…have either become inaccessible to them, or worse, are being redefined as worthless.”

Ultimately, Khalaf believes that group loyalties can be resocialized, but it is a very long process.


SUBMITTED REVIEW: from Maurice Obeid

Harvard Business School, M.B.A.
Harvard Kennedy School, M.P.P.

Maurice Obeid is a graduate student at the John F. Kennedy School of Government (Harvard University) and the Harvard Business School. At Harvard, Maurice sits on the Student Advisory Board of the Center Public Leadership and works with the Middle East Initiative at the Kennedy School of Government. He previously worked with Lebanon’s Ambassador at the Permanent Mission of Lebanon to the United Nations in New York, and as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company in New York and Dubai. Originally from Lebanon, Maurice received his undergraduate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he studied Chemical-Biological Engineering and Economics.

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