McGreevy Guest Editorial: Lebanon: The Transnation
Patrick McGreevy writes from Beirut:
‘ Some Western leaders are profoundly disturbed that Hezbollah, a non-state entity, should have such autonomy to act within and even beyond the borders of Lebanon. It seems an affront to Lebanon’s sovereignty and to the presumed foundations of a world in which citizens’ rights and security are embedded in states with their constitutions, legal institutions, and police powers. Ironically, Hezbollah was born in resistance to Israel’s 18-year occupation–a breach of that same sovereignty. The only solution international observers can imagine is for the Lebanese state, the entity theoretically subject to the democratic will of the people, to fully extend its sovereignty throughout the country. Many observers then add a corollary: that real stability requires the Shiites to transfer their primary loyalty to Lebanon and invest their identity in the nation rather than in any other community, sub-national or transnational. National identity and national loyalty should trump all rivals.
Most people take for granted that the world should be divided into discrete countries, each with a national anthem, a flag, an Olympic team, and a monopoly on the use of violence within its borders. What nearly everyone takes for granted begins to seem like a fact of nature. Yet countries are not bodies: they are products of human artifice, and in the Middle East, most are of recent and arbitrary origin. Britain and France, the occupying powers after World War I, created the boundaries of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, an–in conjunction with the UN–the original borders of Israel.
The area that became Lebanon had long been characterized by extreme cultural and religious diversity. The shelter of its mountain valleys had attracted many of the region’s non-Sunni minorities: Druze, Shiite, Orthodox, and Maronite Catholic. Later, refugees from Armenia and Palestine joined this mix. Today there are 18 officially recognized sects. Yet, during centuries of Ottoman rule, Lebanon had been integrated, economically and culturally, into the entire Mashreq region, with particularly close ties to Syria. France decided to separate it from greater Syria, some believe, to form a state that Christians could dominate.
For complex reasons, people began to emigrate from Lebanon during the late Ottoman period, and this process accelerated, especially during the long Civil War (1975-1990). As a result, Lebanese form the majority of Arab Americans and are a significant presence in Canada, Australia, France, West Africa, Latin America, and the oil-rich countries of the Gulf. Every summer, hundreds of thousands of these emigrants return to Lebanon to renew their ties to their ancestral homeland and their extended families. This summer, many found themselves trapped in a war zone. Connections with this global diaspora have enhanced the cosmopolitan and multilingual nature of Lebanon, yet these characteristics are not entirely new: for millennia, East and West have interacted in the coastal cities of Tripoli, Biblos, Beirut, Saidon and Tyre. The Lebanese, at home and abroad, have developed complex identities and loyalties–to their new nations and their old one, to their religious groups, to the Arab World, to their clans and families. Each of these connections pulls in different directions, and many of them transcend national borders. We cannot define and confine this multiplicity into the commonly understood notion of a nation. Lebanon has become a transnation. And it is not the only one.
The rap on Lebanon is that it is hopelessly factional, as if its eternal destiny were to live out some Western fantasy about the essential oriental dilemma. Although Lebanon’s origin is indeed arbitrary, a sense of nationalism is emerging, but it is one that hardly erases other loyalties or connections. The Lebanese have survived to create a dynamic, diverse, free society partly because no one group could completely dominate; instead the Lebanese have slowly learned to negotiate and accommodate, to allow differences. In this sense, it is their very differences that make them distinct. Must they now sacrifice these on the altar of the country? The Lebanese, in fact, demonstrate that it is possible to manage multiple levels of identity and attachment. The problem in Lebanon is not that some people identify more with their sect than with their nation, any more than that people elsewhere identify more with their nation than with those outside it. It is not the level but the nature of the community that is crucial. Such loyalties are only poisonous if they blind people to the humanity of those beyond.
It is a peculiar assumption of our age that the state should command a loyalty as exclusive as its monopoly on violence, and that people should identify primarily with the state, rather than with communities smaller or larger, older or newer. We call it nationalism: Lebanon calls it into question. ‘