Posted by Gilmour Poincaree on December 8, 2008

Monday, December 08, 2008

Talal Nizameddin wrote this article for THE DAILY STAR (Lebanon)


First person by Talal Nizameddin

I am suffering from a total state of agnosia. Is this the same Michel Aoun who angrily vowed that he would break the head of the Syrian regime? Is this the same Syrian regime that pacified the Lebanese Army soldiers fighting under Aoun’s command and waged a ruthless campaign for 15 years to marginalize the idealistic Free Patriotic Movement supporters? At least I am almost sure that I haven’t been afflicted by amnesia. I remember when the Lebanese felt the thrill of defiance when they beeped their car horns driving through the Nahr al-Kalb tunnel leading to Jounieh from Beirut.

Letting bygones be bygones and forgiveness is a treasured feature of human nature and being an optimist, I say whatever breaks the ice and allows people to move on from a painful past should be welcomed with open hearts. But the process of forgiveness is a long and arduous one. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam it must begin with honesty, leading to confession and then as a final step absolution becomes meaningful. On a human level, in a one-to-one conflict, a discussion must take place that expresses the pain of each side so that there is an understanding of the hopes and fears of the other side before saying sorry reaches a level beyond words and touches the human within us.

It is said that since the end of the Cold War we have been living in the age of the clash of civilizations and the dialogue of faiths. In the Western and pro-Israeli media, Islam is the culprit, with the image of bloodthirsty mad Muslims rampaging through Mumbai killing randomly all those around them the latest episode of terror that does nothing to the great religion they claim to be fighting for. Among Arabs and Muslims it is the Jews who have manipulated the Holocaust tragedy to inflict suffering on Palestinians and Arabs. The Christian West is also blamed for a low-burning decadence that over time has led to the collapse of the world financial markets due to greed and the neglect of the poverty and misery of the so-called Third World.

What is strikingly noticeable about Aoun’s visit is the tour of the historic churches of Syria. The message clearly states that Christianity is safe from the harm of Muslim fanatics in secular Syria. But the manipulation of the clash of civilizations idea has been even better fine-tuned because there is now a distinction between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam that has been dispersed in our media outlets like a wave of cluster bombs. Thus we have inter and intra-civilization clashes if we are to believe our political experts and TV commentators. Aoun and his supporters have played further on Lebanese Christian emotions, maliciously highlighting the difference between the Shiites, true Lebanese patriots who are fighting Israeli occupation and the Sunnis, bad people who are paid by the Saudis to turn Lebanon into a Wahhabi extension. Even by local standards Lebanese politics has descended to a truly low level.

In fact, the Saudi monarch courageously endorsed a United Nations gathering to promote dialogue among the world’s great religions despite criticisms from no other than Aoun and his comrades in March 8. Despite the good intentions, the Saudis may however be wasting their time. By entering into such discussions the world risks mirroring the same Lebanese facade that religious belief somehow lies at the source of conflict. It evades the powerful economic explanations and the fact that there is a huge gap in wealth between states and between individuals in the world we live in. It also, and just as importantly, diverts attention from the lack of representation, the lack of personal freedoms and the lack of human rights most people in the world endure on a daily basis. Blatant injustice, economic and political, creates extremism and not religions.

The West should not feel too self-satisfied about its state when there are calls for more social justice and greater freedoms. In Britain, as an example of an advanced European country, the state has been shown to fail time and time again in protecting children with one in four children according to a recent study suffering from sexual abuse. Crime is rampant and ethics are barely visible in the business and political realms. As in the United States, a philosophy of “grabbing hands grab what they can” has reigned for decades. Support for oppressive regimes, particularly here in the Middle East, is justified in the name of good diplomacy but the arming of parties fuelling regional conflicts is also considered good business sense.

If most sensible people agree that finding a solution to the Palestinian problem, which has nothing to do with religion, will make the Middle East and the world a better place, why on earth has it been so difficult for the world’s only superpower to convince Israel to accept a neighboring viable Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza? If the United States is truly a democracy, then I must concur with the people I despise the most, the religious fanatics, that blaming the elected leader of the United States is futile because the American people must shoulder their moral responsibility to force their government into a strategic change in their approach. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a political problem with a human dimension. It is simply about national self-determination and not religious fanaticism or civilizational clashes. Palestinians and Jews belong to the same religious family chart, whether they like to admit or not although undoubtedly their historic experiences have diverged.

Nowhere has the mythology of sectarian and religious warfare been more prevalent than in Lebanon. I am still surprised how many Western observers take for granted the cliches about Muslim-Christian divisions characterizing Lebanese society. In reality, Lebanon is more of a clan-based system, with chiefs of clans or communities often but not necessary being defined by their religious beliefs. It just so happens that the sect is an important form of self-identification that is manipulated for conflicts, whether it is over land or political power. That is why within Lebanese sects there are often more than one chief. Take the Maronites as an example of multiple chiefs or zaims, Suleiman Franjieh, Samir Geagea, Michel Aoun, Amin Gemayel and Dori Chamoun all godfathering their own loyal communities. Even the ideological Hizbullah recognizes the need to respect the independence of the unruly clans of Baalbek in return for acknowledgement.

In Lebanon inter-communal relations and divisions are far more complex than simple religious divides. The downside of this system is that the individual is forced into belonging into a clan, because the collective of clans are far more powerful than the formal state. Only the community can protect the individual. In Lebanon, individuals do not have private lives, as is the case in the West, because they are the property of the family, the village, the community. The pattern is the same among all of Lebanese sects. But then again, free from the regional political conflicts, the interference from outside and the flaws in the internal political system, why should we accept that the community is a lesser entity than the state in its value?

Some Western political theorists have even called for a return to communalism as a result of the social failures of the modern state. The Lebanese model offers the opportunity of creating a political system that safeguards communities and also protects the rights of individuals living within them because the hypocritical and simply false pretense of a unified centralized state has been unworkable and shows no signs of succeeding. The Lebanese want their personal liberty, social justice and their community at one and the same time. It is no easy task but where there is a will there is a way and Lebanon could present the world with an example to be emulated around the world. Lebanon’s greatness and loyalty from its citizens could be reinforced by the historic achievement of harmonious and fraternal communal cohabitation. The first step is liberation from the old slogans and working for the common good without playing on communal fears to achieve personal ambitions. When a zaim such as Aoun tours with an open heart the various neighborhoods of Beirut rather than the churches of Syria we would have began reaching the final step toward that sacred goal.



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