Thursday 28 August 2008

The illogical end of multiculturalism

Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in conflict, by S Mackey (WW Norton)

’..it is in this most unique of all Arab states that Westerners can learn how to think about the Arab world, which may appear both baffling and threatening.’

At first glance, Sandra Mackey’s premise is intriguing, but her attempt to use Lebanon as a case study for unlocking the complexities of the Arab world ultimately misses the mark. Lebanon has for decades attracted Western scholars, partly because it appears radically different from other Arab countries, but also since it has seemd to reciprocate this interest with a curiosity towards all things Western and modern. Western writing about Lebanon increased during the civil war (1975-1990), and interest has been kept alive ever since. Mackey’s book, however, is the first to my knowledge that attempts to draw broader lessons from the history and politics of this small country.

But Lebanon is not a random choice. In the aftermath of 9/11, Western inquisitiveness acquired a sense of urgency: what was once mainly a subject of scholarly curiosity promptly became an object of real concern. The inside cover of Mackey’s book betrays this:

The security of the West is being rocked by escalating turmoil rising out of the Arab world from Iraq to Egypt. Within this collection of uneasy states is Lebanon, a small, tortured country uneasily poised between East and West. Improbably, it is in this most unique of all Arab states that Westerners can learn how to think about the Arab world, which may appear both baffling and threatening.

Improbably indeed. The lack of a conclusive official explanation for the attacks of September 11 and confusion of American and European foreign policies presented many ‘experts’ on the Middle East with an opportunity to present alternative explanations. Many pointed to the West’s lack of understanding as the main reason for the attacks and subsequent disastrous adventures in Iraq and elsewhere. Mackey’s book is among the lazier attempts in this genre. What becomes quickly apparent is that she is recycling material from her earlier book Lebanon: A House Divided and repackaging it to address contemporary concerns.

Regardless of its poor quality as a work of political analysis, Mirror of the Arab World is telling of the mindset of Western intellectuals when it comes to the Middle East. In two different chapters, Mackey presents two almost completely different accounts of the Lebanese civil war, heavily relying on the work of other authors. Such inconsistencies could be forgiven if she justified her choice of focus, or gave a satisfying account of Lebanese politics and society. Sadly she does neither.

A devastated street in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War

However, the book is revealing in ways Mackey didn’t intend. The first chapter, A Collection of Tribes, attempts to explain the nature of Lebanese society and politics through its religious and ethnic diversity. This is not necessarily an inadequate way to go: after all the Lebanese political system is based on a communal power-sharing mechanism that formally recognises different confessional groups as constituents. Yet, instead of observing the dynamics of how this system has evolved and transformed over time in response to both external and internal pressures, Mackey opts for an essentialist explanation of how different affiliations and communal history lock the Lebanese into an escapable cycle of communal conflict and suspicion of the state.

Some of Mackey’s observations are downright ridiculous. Consider: ‘It is the Bedouin who was the original Arab and it is the Bedouin who remains the true Arab’. Similar pronouncements are spread throughout the book. Although the language is less guarded than with other Western writers, it echoes the thoughts of those who employ a quasi-anthropological approach to the study of the Arab world and the rest of the ‘developing’ world. Rather than seeing the problems of those countries as a result of their immediate circumstances and in particular their relationship to modernity, many writers go searching for answers in the depths of history. It has become almost obligatory for every book about Middle Eastern politics to recount tales from the early years of Islam and conclude they have an immediate presence in the mind of modern-day Arabs.

Mackey adheres closely to that script. In the better written parts of the book she comes close to understanding the predicaments of the Arab world, but somehow fails to capitalise on those insights: ‘Even defined in terms of Arab culture, modernisation challenges Arab societies because it requires them to surrender their various forms of tribalism to the common identity required by the nation… In this failure to find a common identity, which can be achieved only through altering the patterns of the past, the Lebanese serve as a mirror of the Arabs’.

What Mackey and many of her Western colleagues do not recognise is that those failures are not dictated by the past but are, on the contrary, encouraged by contemporary identity politics,which are becoming prevalent not only in the developing world but in the West as well. Although Lebanon was one of the first countries in the world to adopt a formally multicultural political system through confessionalism, the trend in the West today is moving towards more formal recognition of the different groups that constitute a society and towards highlighting their inherent differences. This ultimately means weakening politics as a conflict of ideas and encouraging instead conflict amongst identity groups. To call this form of politics ‘tribalism’ when it is practiced in the Arab world and ‘multiculturalism’ when it’s practiced in the West ignores the extent of the collapse of politics in both contexts.

To a certain extent, the history of the Lebanese civil world could be seen in part and particularly in the early stages as the conflict between the politics of change and common aspirations against the enshrined confessional system and the hegemony of sectarian groups over political life. Several political parties involved in the conflict had managed to recruit members from across the religious divides and had an explicit aim in destroying the confessional system. Although this project ultimately failed, it represented for a brief moment the possibilities of progressive politics that transcend religious and ethnic divides.

But these were ideas born out of the sixties and the conviction that anything was possible. By the time the Lebanese war ended in 1990, a different world was emerging: the Soviet Union was about to collapse and splinter into several countries, soon to be followed by Yugoslavia where every ethnic group claimed its own state. When Emir Kusturica lamented the loss of the Yugoslavia in his film Underground, he was viciously attacked by critics, mainly hysterical Germans whose sensitivities where somehow offended, and was accused of siding with the Serbs. What the critics missed is that Kusturica was not siding with the Serbs but regretting the loss of a country that should have transcended ethnic and religious differences.

Conversely, Lebanon had come out of its own conflict in one piece, albeit torn and tattered. Somehow the Lebanese had forged enough of a common experience to still want to belong to the same country. Theodor Hanf subtitled his book Co-existence in Wartime Lebanon, one of the best books to be written about the Lebanese conflict, ’Death of a State and Birth of a Nation’. The Lebanese had sacrificed a state in the course of the civil war, but had gained a willingness and insistence on living together. Hanf succeeded precisely where Mackey fails: the Lebanese were not fatalistically repeating historic patterns of behaviour but were engaged in conflicts dictated by the challenges and circumstances that were developing around them and in their own country.

Since Hanf wrote his books, Lebanon has missed two historic opportunities to translate this willingness to live together into a new political reality. The first was the Israeli withdrawal in May 2000 and the second was the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. It seems that the realisation of their common destiny still does not propel the Lebanese to take control of their own affairs. The behaviour of the competing groups since then can only be characterised as political juvenility, constantly seeking outside intervention and mediation. What is quite apparent is that identity politics has come to the fore, while real politics recedes further back. In that, Lebanon is not so much the ‘mirror of the Arab world’ but multiculturalism taken to its ‘illogical’ end.


Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.

Resources

Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.