I am currently reading Thomas Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem”. Some of you may have read it a long time ago, and I would appreciate your views on it. The book is written in a journalistic style, with many anecdotes; however it also presents some broad analytical lines along which to think, which I found can still be applied to the problems we see today in Lebanon and the region (Of course, those problems are an extension of the events Friedman was writing about in the 80s).
In order to understand the 1982 events in Hama, Friedman identified three different political forces which helped explain the dominant political dynamics of the Middle East. The first and oldest of the ‘traditions’ was tribalism, or tribe-like politics. Friedman defines this as “a pre-modern form of political interaction characterized by a harsh, survivalist quality and an adherence to certain intense primordial or kin-group forms of allegiance”. This mutual loyalty within clan, sect or village takes precedence over allegiances to the wider national community or nation-state.
The second ‘tradition’ is authoritarianism, i.e. “the concentration of power in a single ruler or elite not bound by any constitutional framework”. This force is linked to that of tribalism. Because it is difficult for any clan to voluntarily accept being ruled by another. Authoritarianism may come in two forms: gentle authoritarianism (e.g. The Ottoman Empire in its Golden Age, and to a certain extent Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and the Gulf Sheikhdoms), and brutal authoritarianism. Those countries where society is more fragmented (such as Syria, Iraq and Lebanon) are more prone to brutal forms of authoritarianism. As an example of brutal authoritarianism, Friedman cites the foundation of Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad (A.D. 750).
Those of you having taken CSVP 202 at AUB will recall Ibn Khuldun’ s cyclical view of Islamic history: a nomadic tribe with strong blood ties conquers an area by force; once in power though, it gradually is weakened by the corrupting attributes of power, sedentary life, and “civilization”; another tribe then comes along and takes its place. It would be interesting to think about those dynamics in the context of the current Middle East. Is the sectarian nature of Lebanon, in any way a barrier to the emergence of such “authoritarian” takeovers? Can it act as a system of check and balances in a democratic environment?
The third force identified by Friedman is the concept of the modern nation-state imposed by Western powers. And here he quotes from the orientalist Bernard Lewis: “Countries and nations existed; they had names, and evoked sentiments of a kind, but they were not seen as defining political identities or directing political allegiances” [in the modern European sense]. (And we go back once again to the notion of identity already debated in previous posts!!!). Friedman thus concludes that “many of the states in the Middle East today –Egypt being the most notable exception- did not emerge out of a social contract between rulers and ruled.” Of course, with time (and in a powerful example of the adaptive capacities of men), these states no longer represented just an agglomeration of clans, sects or villages; and the first artificial demarcation lines began to harden.
Although most of the ideas presented here come from Friedman, they might be a good launch-pad for further discussion.