Friday, April 22, 2005

To be, or not to be (an Arab)... that appears to be the question!

It is interesting to observe how long and passionate discussions about identity can become. Personally, I take pride in my identity, as I am sure most people do. That probably explains part of the intensity of most discussions that revolve around the issue.

But I am curious: when Lebanese talk politics, we always end up talking identity. Why is there this unbreakable link between politics and identity? Don't get me wrong! Politics everywhere involves some form of identification (for example: you identify yourself with a labor union you belong to, or a political party, etc...) But in Lebanon, the identities that matter are tribal and religious (i.e. personal) identities that, at best, have extremely vague policy implications in today's world. Personal identities are also very intimate. Therefore, discussions that revolve around them are prone to be very emotional, and the results are high-intensity debates that are ends in themselves rather than means to a productive outcome!

For example, if you identify yourself with a labor union, everybody knows where your stands are with regards to minimum wage, or health insurance. But, if you identify yourself as a Maronite, or a Dirzi, how the hell am I supposed to figure out what your stance on those issues is? Would you even know? That's a silly example, but try this: expand it to every single issue that comes up in managing the affairs of a modern state, and you'll realize how politically immature we are as Lebanese.

There's no escaping it: the way we organize ourselves as a society in Lebanon is COMPLETELY out of sync with the demands of the modern world and the affairs of the modern state! There is NO doubt about that!

However, since this phenomenon is doing so much damage to our country, i'd like to understand it. The best way to do this is to figure out what concrete policies (if any) go along with identifying yourself the traditional way. I'll start with the easiest identity because we've already brought it up in previous posts: the "Arab" identity. Then I'll try and build on it.

Identity: Arab

1. Continue fighting the Israelis until only God knows when

2. ummm... can someone help me out here? what other concrete policies does labeling yourself an "Arab" lead to? my head's starting to hurt!

Okay... since that was a fruitless exercise, lets go down to the sect-level. We all know that Lebanon is a small country, and that within this small country, Lebanese are divided into smaller groups. Every single one of these groups seems to have this urge to identify with something bigger and (hypothetically) better:

Sunnis are perceived to idolize other Sunni-Arab countries (or in some cases, the way things were 700 years ago)

perceived policy objectives:

1. get all men to grow beards
2. get all women to wear hijabs
3. be the most powerful group in Lebanon
4. continue the war against Israel

Shi'as are perceived to idolize Iran

perceived policy objectives

1. get all men to grow longer beards
2. get all women to wear black hijabs
3. be the most powerful group in Lebanon
4. continue the war against Israel

Christians (and maybe even Druze b/c of proximity) are perceived to idolize Western countries

perceived christian policy objectives

1. get all women to wear skimpy clothes
2. get all men to be clean shaven and to speak french
3. be the most powerful group in Lebanon
4. stop fighting Israel

perceived druze objectives

1. get every one to act like he's from a different religion!
2. be the most powerful group in Lebanon
3. confused about this whole Israel thing

Okay, this is all an extreme caricature, but its not that far from the truth! With traditional groups, there really is no room of complex political classification and discourse. Traditions and religion are all about securing social order, so when the political groups are religious/sectarian, ultimately every group becomes irrationally paranoid about protecting its own way of life.

All of this has to change! personal identity, beliefs, traditions, need to be pushed into the backburner of Lebanese politics. Our politics needs to catch up with the times... its either that, or we'll always be behind... we'll always look outside of Lebanon for inspiration... and worst of all, the prospect of civil war will always be with us!

The next time you talk politics with a Lebanese friend, try not talking about sectarian affairs.... I know its hard, but test yourself; and see how long the discussion lasts!


Brian H said...

#2 is: "Hate America and the West for making us look like primitive retards."

BTW, your spelling of a few words makes my eyes hurt:
Correct versions --

Here's a classroom mnemonic (verse used to aid memory) about ie/ei spelling:

"i before e
Except after c
(And sometimes y and w)
Or when it sounds "ay"
As in 'neighbour' and 'weigh'. "

Usually works!

Doha said...

I believe that the Lebanese in general tend to focus on the negative more than on the positive. We tend to focus on what we don't have and less on what there is already and how to take what we have and make it better.

Perhaps when we want to criticize and point loopholes we need to mention some of the positive steps that have been taken in our country, steps and fingerprints made by many who have thought just like us and have made some sort of a difference.

I agree with you on how each sect has de facto their own policy choices, choices that you almost cannot challenge, and if you did, you would be branded as "different."

I believe that one of the areas that institutionalize sectarianism and regionalism is the budget policy process in our country. State money gets allocated as follows: the political/sectarian leades negotiate the budget and then money gets allocated to each and in their turn they would allocate it accordingly on electricity, streets, schooling, health, jobs to their constituents. The end result: the Lebanese would end up perceiving that Jumblatt or Berri are great men because they provided them with a job or hospitalized a child. So there is a need for the state to start allocating its budget differently, and not by allowing it to be tainted by sectarianism.

One interesting example: in an old political talk show, when Mohammed Beydoun was still part of Amal's Party, he was asked by a viewer the following question: I am part of Amal's party and I don't have a job, why?

But, to apply what I have suggested, I will mention some positive strides that many NGOs, like the Lebanese Transparency Assoc, have taken to expose this particular issue and advocate for a transparent budget policy process. I in fact helped organize a conference with them on this issue two years ago. Politicians, like MP De Freij, spoke and showed great interest in seeing changes made. That's some good news!

Once we know what has been done out there already, we can help build on such successes. We can't be all that is perfect in a day; we'll get there.

C.B. said...

In re Brian H:
1. It is childish to respond for the sole purpose of pointing out minor spelling errors.
2. You post asif America's political system makes sense when it actually does not. The issues are divided up into really stupid ways. For example, if you are a Republican than you must be for the death penalty and against abortion...why? These issues have nothing to do with each other. It doesn't make any sense. It's like saying "you like coffee, therefore you also like bullfighting."

hummbumm said...

Raja that is pretty good, I will think of something more to say, and though I am not a fan of the lebanese political system, we should not be too harsh as other countries have similar issues. WE laughed about our political families, though of course in the states we have the same, the bushes, kennedys etc... I amazed at how identity works here as well, where some friends are republican or democrats because their parents were that, and they were always that so they belong to the party and then settle on the issues that can affirm this even if the contradictions are plain. People find it very hard to switch. Ergo fiscal conservatives still call themselves republican even thoug hthe republican party is clearly no longer the party of fiscal conservatives. Neither is the democratic party either, but it would be an identity crisis to switch parties. So even though lebanon is screwed up in many ways, it suffers in its own way of the ills that many societies face. And to non lebanese, provide constructive comments, none of the west is the best crap. I love the US and I think it is best place in the world to live and prosper but it has its issues, and don't get me started on europe with its identity problems. Remember the title of the blog. The lebanese bloggers, it is about thinking of lebanon, not bashing arabs, islam etc... There are plenty of other blogs for that.

Raja said...

Hummbumm, i don't mean to bash anybody. my point is to try to get (all) Lebanese to look at the mirror and ask tough questions. Even the concept of "Arabism" has become minimalized in Lebanon.

But the over-arching question I pose is why politicize it? If I want to percieve myself as an Arab, then I should be perfectly free to do so... and what should it matter to you, or anyone else? It is my personal choice; not political.

Furthermore, it is very difficult to change people... but its not so difficult to change the rules of politics. That is why I've always proposed removing sectarianism from Lebanon's political chessboard as a first step.

the big political players should find out where they stand in matters of government; get together, and form corresponding political parties! that's the key: "matters of government"! Once they make that concsious decision, we'll take a huge step away from sectarian politics.

some of you might say: how naive! But look at what happened in "independence 05". The leaders said "only Lebanese flags", and everybody complied. This example highlights that once political leaders decide to play ball, the people follow in their lead!

hummbumm said...

Raja, I am in agreement with you and I think the questions you pose and the discussions you lead are very worthwhile, my tone was more in response to some comments that regularly pop up on this blog and others that offer no constructive critique on the issues but rather bash islam, arabs etc... I agree that political discussion should move forward in lebanon and i despair about the sectarianism evident in the engineer association, labor unions etc... In some ways though maybe i see it more bottom up, if the frigging engineers, lawyers and other members of civic society could abolish sectariansm and form a true publci interest gruop it may perculate upwards, i see that as more likely. In the end I have made a conscious choice to live outside of lebanon, thus I am a cynic at heart, though i so desperately wish to be an optimist and think that change will happen. Time will tell, but now there is room for change as the paralytic hand of syria is being lifted. I think the topics you raise are important, and your caricatures were quite funny. The irony of course is that sectarianism is rampant throughout the political system, but class issues are the other bugaboo. Outside politics, it is very normal to see all members of different sects mingling at least in the "upper" class. There it is family that takes precedence over religion.

Charles Malik said...

Come on, Raja. How many Muslim men REALLY want women to stop wearing skimpy outfits. I mean, that's the main reason why Saudi women come here without their husbands: they lak 2 git neked.
Also, there are a lot of Sunni who don't care at all about Israel. They fit into the °the Palestinians are dirty,° °where can we make more money° camp.

Firas said...

I think that politics of indentity evoke sharper emotions (survival? territorialism?) than politics of governance, and that's why we haven't been able to get out of their grip in Lebanon. Politics, like many other things, are victims of sensationalism these days. Which of the following political speeches draws you more?

"The Romulans have always considered Lebanon as their country, only for themselves. They can have it after they kill every single one of us Klingons. We'll die standing up rather than give up our principles and our land to them."

"We should consider taxing capital to establish programs for social justics. First we need to determine how much taxation would make economic sense, and then we need to determine what exactly it means to have social justics. Let's debate this, shall we? Oh and folks don't forget Tuesday evening's town hall debate on the potential impact of a peace treaty with Israel on the complex and fragile social fabric of Lebanon. Tata"

Anton Efendi said...

It's too bad that you side-stepped this important topic. In the end, you never answered your own question: why do identities matter? The only thing you did was brushed them off as "emotional" and not "modern." In essence, you took the modernist (not necessarily in a positive sense) approach that such (primodial) identities (what you call "personal") are ephemeral and essentially pre-modern, and thus stand in the way of the rational bureaucratic state, which is the sought end.

That's too bad. Why are they important? Why are they so protected in the constitution of the most powerful state on earth?

We in Lebanon have this silly approach to the issue of pluralism and identity: no to sectarianism, yes to secularism. But there never is a clear understanding of either concept. When you ask further, you get responses to very specific particulars, like marriage and divorce and other personal status laws. Or, perhaps, some complaint about nepotism. Great, that's valid. But, you never address the broader questions of identity, and what system is more suitable to a segmented society. What are the implications of majoritarianism? What are the repercussions of having a strong centralized government? Do these "personal" identities just vanish in favor of "evolution" towards a more "rational" and "modern" secular state? Is "secular" the opposite of these "personal" identities? Are they really religious? etc.

That's why I always try to shed more light about consociationalism or consensual democracy. An important point in Reem's post was overlooked: "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?"

What are the ways for us to adjust the problems of the system while staying within the consociational framework, which seems to have been the center that everyone evolves around? etc. (Michael Young's op-ed in the DS is a good example of what I mean.)

This is important, so let's give it some more serious thought.


Raja said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Doha said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Raja said...


I agree. Under the political status quo, consociational democracy is the best formula for Lebanon. Had it not been for that system, Lebanon could have become just another dictatorship.

However, let's not paint too much of a rosy picture. I have two problems with the system that I'd like to list:

1. it's not as democratic as it appears

2. the kind of politics it breeds leaves a lot to be desired.


Our system is based on primordial & religious identities. Therefore, freedom of association is almost non-existent (You're basically born into your political party). The result is pluralism and a balance of power at the elite level, but very little choice for the individual Lebanese voter.


political discourse also suffers in our consociational democracy. I've spent enough words on trying to explain why, so I won't go into it here.


I am not a revolutionary! My thoughts and ideas may be very extreme, but my proposed actions are practical and calculated. Therefore, incremental changes like the following could be a great first step:

1. Bicameral Parliament: the lower house would probably turn into a rubber-stamp parliament, but it would at least introduce some fluidity to a very rigid political scene.

2. Continued Discussion: we need to continue to discuss realistic improvements to the Lebanese political system. One of the biggest disappointments in Lebanon is the subdued intelligentsia. Beirut's cosmopolitan population needs to be me more active and vocal.

3. Finally, I already proposed something in a previous comment. The current leadership should create national parties that have agendas pertaining to (technical???) affairs of the state. These parties could also be jokes, but at least they lay the groundwork for moving towards more effective governing institutions for Lebanon.

Doha said...


Interesting suggestions, but I don't think that we need a bicameral parliament, not another layer of deliberation...we will never then agree on anything...

Raja said...


the reason I proposed a bicameral parliament is so that people like us (Lebanon's cosmopolitan population) may get a public and official platform through which to push their agenda.

the traditional leadership wants a "house of lords". Let them have it! It will eventually end up like its counterpart in England today.

I believe you mentioned a "mixed parliamentary electoral system" in one of your posts. I don't see how that would be better than a bicameral system. Could you explain your rationale for that belief?

Doha said...


The last thing you want to do if your ultimate aim is to eliminate sectarianism is to create one more institution that caters for that aim. Once institutions are created, they are usually difficult to dissolve.

On the contrary, my proposal for a mixed-member electoral system (which stipulates that a portion of parliament representatives are elected based on the qada’a and simple majority and the other portion based on the unified electoral district and proportionality) is a first step towards eliminating political sectarianism, without creating a new legislative layer. Of course the aim from a mixed member electoral system is to eventually move towards a unified electoral district and proportionality, wherein national political parties are the key vehicles through which those running for parliament are elected.

Frankly speaking, I believe that in our life time we'll probably get to see the first genuine steps taken towards eliminating sectarianism, but not entirely. To be realistic, I think that a mixed member parliament would please all political factions in our country, whether those who wish to run under their region and sect or those who wish to run under a national political platform.