Lebanon's Damned Inheritance
Michael Houses looks at the grievances and history of the troubled Middle East country.
Terrain dominated history. Nowhere is this truer than in the Lebanon. It is the only Arab state without desert, a beautiful land of dramatic mountain ranges sheltering hidden valleys, green and fertile. The people have all the characteristics of isolated mountain clans: intense pride, fierce love of liberty and powerful tribal solidarity. These secure mountain fastnesses have, over the centuries, attracted unorthodox, heretical and schismatic sects. Maronite Christians and Shi'ite Moslems came to escape persecution. Christian anchorites sought seclusion. Druze ascetics had been branded heretics by orthodox Islam. Nothing is straightforward about the recent history of the Lebanon, but one of the key factors is the nature of its settlers, both because of their zealotry and their characteristics as mountain clans.
Saki said that Cretans make more history than they can consume locally. Lebanon, a land of just 4,000 square miles, has been in the cockpit of history since the dawn of civilisation. Its location makes it one of the crossroads of the world. Its earliest inhabitants were the Caananites, some 5,000 years ago. Since then, the land has come successively under the domination of Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, Rome, Byzantium, the Crusaders, the Arabs, the Ottoman Turks, France and today, Syria. To understand who is fighting whom today and why, it is necessary to understand how the different communities came to be in Lebanon, and something of their history.
The Maronites are a Christian sect under the authority of the Pope. Their independent spirit is exemplified by their slogan 'the Patriarch is our Sultan.'
The Maronites tend to be associated with the Right in Lebanon politics. The latest census in 1952 showed about 30 per cent of the population (around 377,000) were Maronites. The percentage has dropped since, and much of the recent conflict stems from the Moslem belief that the Maronites were exerting an influence in Lebanese politics out of proportion to their numbers.
Marun, founder of the Maronites, was an ascetic monk who lived in the wilderness near Antioch. After his death, his followers built a monastery in his memory. The monastery thrived until 517 AD, when 350 monks were murdered by the Jacobites, a rival Christian sect. Further feuds with the Jacobites led the Maronites to migrate to Northern Lebanon, where they created a community under the cedars of Mount Hermon.
John Maron was the hero and founder of the new nation and its first Patriarch. In 694, the emperor Justinian II attacked the Maronites. John led his forces into battle and routed the enemy. Subsequently the Maronites tended to isolate themselves and to develop idiosyncratic traits. Their religious claims were not modest. Their religious leaders termed themselves 'patriarchs of Antioch and the rest of the Orient'. The sect is now the national church of Lebanon.
The Druzes came later. During the Dark Ages, dissident Moslem sects and ethnic groups settled in South Lebanon. In the middle of the eleventh century these groups coalesced into the Druze community. The name comes from Muhammed ibn-lsma'il al Darazi (the tailor), an eleventh-century Persian missionary. Ultra Shi'ites believed that God could be reincarnated in human form. Al Darazi purported to recognise the Caliph of Cairo al-Hakim (996-1021 AD) as such a reincarnation and was the first to venerate him. The sect made no impact in Egypt but became popular in South Lebanon. They held their religious services on Thursday evenings in remote locations, struggling to survive among orthodox Moslem Sunnites and other hostile sects.
Established first in the southern-most tip of Lebanon, Druze influence spread north through the mountains until they came to control the Shuf district southeast of Beirut. After the Crusades the Maronites began to push south, and between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries penetrated deep into Druze territory. This led to civil wars in the nineteenth century.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, there was a substantial exodus to Syria, so that by 1957 it was estimated that there were more Druze in Syria (around 90,000) than in Lebanon (around 85,000.)
Among the many religious complications in Lebanon is the distinction between Shi'ite and Sunnite Moslems. The latter are orthodox, and regard the Caliph or Imam as secular head of the Moslem community. The Shi'ites say that the descendants of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet, are the only true Imams, others being usurpers. The true Imams carry hereditary, spiritual a»d religious authority.
To confuse the position still further, the 1952 census showed 130,000 followers of the Greek Orthodox Church and 81,000 Greek Catholics.
Despite this potentially explosive religious gallimaufry, and in particular despite progressive Maronite settlement in Druze lands, a remarkable spirit of mutual tolerance lasted for many centuries. The Abbe Mariti, who visited Lebanon in 1760, wrote that the Druzes 'behave with great friendship to the Christians and respect their religion. They pray indifferently in the ... churches and in the ...mosques.' Warfare had occurred, but on geographical rather than religious lines.
Their civil wars during the nineteenth century brought centuries of religious tolerance to an end.
It is impossible to summarise briefly the complex reasons for the altered situation, but the Maronite incursions into Druze areas played a part, as did the mischief-making of Western agents.
The start of the 1841 conflict was trivial: a Christian shot a partridge on a Druze neighbour's land. It ended with three hundred dead. In 1845, the Maronites burnt fourteen Druze villages but were put down by a Turkish regiment. A fight in 1859 between a Maronite and a Druze boy led to killings on both sides. The Druzes spent the winter making military preparations, and from April to July 1860 there was a systematic slaughter of Maronites in the Druze sector, with 12,000 deaths and sixty villages burnt.
Only French military intervention brought the slaughter to an end. By a treaty of 1861 Lebanon became autonomous. It was to have a Christian Governor-General, chosen by the Sultan but subject to the veto of the Western Powers. This arrangement continued until the Great War, when Turkey sent in a military governor. French forces invaded in 1918, and in 1920 France was given a Mandate by the League of Nations to govern Lebanon and Syria. In 1926 Lebanon became a republic, with a constitution calling for an elected president, a prime minister and cabinet, a bicameral (later unicameral) parliament and guaranteed freedom of worship. A tradition grew up whereby the President and the Commander-in- Chief of the Army were Maronites, the Prime Minister a Sunnite, the President of the Parliament a Shi'ite and the Minister of Defence a Druze. In 1936 France granted Lebanon independence except for foreign and military affairs.
At the start of the Second World War the constitution was suspended and soon after, a Vichy collaborator was installed as Commander-in- Chief. British troops occupied Lebanon in June 1941 and in November the country became fully independent. September 1943 brought the election of a Chamber of Deputies on the basis of proportional representation for the religious communities.
To explain the events of 1975 and their aftermath, one must either simplify and summarise, which the writer has done, or swamp the reader in a morass of indigestible detail. Despite the religious overtones of events after 1975, religion was never the issue: no encroachments on religious freedom existed. The reality was a struggle for political power between two communities, between Left and Right. Christians, and especially Maronites, were associated with the Right, and Moslems, especially Druzes, were left-inclined. The ninety-nine parliamentary seats were divided between Christians and Moslems in the ratio 6:5 as a result of the unwritten 'National Covenant' of 1943, itself based on a 1932 census. By the 1970s the Moslems were clearly in a majority nationally and wanted a fair share of power. The Christians were determined to maintain their ascendancy.
But it was not as simple as that. Palestinian guerillas based in Lebanon as well as its neighbours Syria and Israel, played their part. Fighting started in 1975 when the militia of the Falangist party, political arm of the Maronites, tried to drive the Palestinians out of Lebanon. Moslem militias supported the Palestinians and the Lebanese army, 75 per cent Christian, supported the Falangists in the main. The Palestinian issue was the spark that started the conflagration, but it could have been anything. The Moslem Prime Minister proposed scrapping the 1943 power-sharing arrangements and their replacement by non-sectarian government. A negotiated cease-fire broke down, the government resigned and was replaced by the first military regime since 1943.
Syria tried to restore peace, but was hampered by Israeli warnings against intervention. Syria is sympathetic to the Druze forces while Israel supports the Christians, and it is as if Syria and Israel are fighting a war by proxy in Lebanon.
At present the problems seem insoluble. In the last six years, 52,000 are estimated to have been killed. Central authority hardly exists. Every political grouping seems to have its own militia. Syria invaded Lebanon in February 1987 and now controls between one third and one half of the country but to no avail. The relatively straightforward conflict between. Christians and Moslems has been criss-crossed by other civil wars. The most vicious fighting of 1987 was between the Palestinian guerillas and the Shi'ite Amal militia, allied to Syria. The astonishing situation of Syria's allies fighting Israel's enemies could only happen in Lebanon. In the south in 1987, the main conflict was between the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army, a Christian militia, and extreme Shi'ites of the Hezbollah movement.
The latter half of 1988 has been dominated by the ugly spectre of partition. In September, two attempts to elect a successor to President Gemayel of the Christian Falangist Party failed because right-wing Christian Deputies boycotted the election so that there was no quorum in Parliament. Both candidates had been Christians thought to be sympathetic to Syria, whose increasing domination of Lebanon is feared by Christian allies of Israel. Shortly before his six-year term expired, Gemayel appointed General Michael Aouon, Christian commander of the Lebanese army, as Prime Minister, a departure. from the tradition whereby the post is held by a Sunnite Moslem. Selim Hoss, the Sunnite who served under Gemayel as Prime Minister, stayed in office at the head of a caretaker cabinet. An attempt in October to elect a new Speaker to the Parliament was thwarted by another Christian boycott.
So the position at the beginning of November was that Lebanon had no President, no Speaker, two governments divided on sectarian lines vying for power, and an army split down the middle into rival factions supporting the rival governments. The most powerful Christian militia leader, Samir Geagea, favours a federal solution, though most leaders on both sides oppose any division of the country. It is hard to see how boundaries could be drawn.
The only glimmer of hope is the arrival recently of a UN envoy whose brief is to talk to both sides, try to avoid partition, and help to arrange for a Presidential election.
There things stand. Lebanon is an armed camp, comprised not only of native but of Syrian and Israeli troops. After thirteen years of sporadic warfare, a permanent solution seems as far away as ever. It is tragic irony that the power-sharing arrangements that grew up after 1926, apparently so fair, civilised and initially successful, should have yielded such results. Perhaps peace can only come as part of an overall solution in the Middle East. Israeli intransigence and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism make that increasingly unlikely.
Michael House is a barrister-at-law.
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