Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Archive for the ‘Identity’ Category

Islamic extremism & Christian immigration from the ME

Posted by worriedlebanese on 27/12/2010

I noticed an article on my facebook page by Abderrehman al-Rashid that summed up the doxa concerning the dwindling numbers of Christians in the Middle East: “Arab Christians and their flight from extremism” (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Saudi Arabia).
Here are the two central arguments:
1. “يعتبرون [المسيحيون العرب] أنهم يواجهون، بشكل خاص، تمييزا وحصارا من قبل الجماعات المتطرفة الإسلامية المؤدلجة والمسلحة”. [Arab Christians] consider that they face, specifically, discrimination and besiegement by ideological and armed groups of extremist islamists.
2.”والحقيقة أن حجم الاستهداف ضد المسيحيين سواء في العراق أو مصر أو السودان محدود، سواء في خطاب الجماعات المتطرفة أو في ممارساتها” “In fact, whether in Iraq, Egypt or Sudan, the targeting of Christians is rather limited in scope, be it in speech or practice”.
3. “مشكلة المواطن المسيحي العربي هي المشكلة نفسها للمواطن الآخر في حقوقه الفردية ومستقبله المجهول.. حالة عامة ليست خاصة بطائفة أو فئة،” Arab Christians face the same problems as their non-Christian compatriots, with regards to their individual rights and their unknown future. It’s a general condition that is not specific to one group or community.

The problem with this argument is that it misses the main point. It doesn’t explain why the number of christians is dwindling in the Middle East, in places to almost near extinction. It discredits one “objective” reason (specific targeting by extremist islamists), and doesn’t look into other “objective reasons” or subjective ones.

I would like to list a few reasons that I find relevant. These reasons could be divided into two categories: individual and collective. These two dimensions actually interplay with each other, and to understand the phenomenon of mass emigration, one has to look into this complex intertwining of individual and collective elements.
– Economical reason: This reason certainly hits everyone, regardless of his/her religion. But on the whole Christians are more likely to emigrate to countries in which they can integrate with a certain ease (Western Europe, the Americas, Australia), while Muslims are more likely to go to countries that don’t allow a complete integration (Africa & the Golf).
– Cultural/religious reason: Christian, on a whole, have less difficulty identifying with the west and integrating its values and cultural system. Even though there are many cultural conflicts between contemporary western values and traditional middle-eastern values that are mostly shared by Muslims and Christians alike, Christians do not perceive them necessarily as conflicting, and when they do, they don’t perceive them as necessarily “foreign”. So Christians would more likely integrate these cultural differences or the changes that they call for as “natural” or “progressive”. Moreover, Muslim Arabs can easily express their cultural difference in a globalised world. Christians Arabs have not been able to do that. Their cultural production is limited in its scope and its expression.
– National/political reason: With the end of the “age of ideologies”, the Arabist project faded off and Arab countries have reaffirmed their muslim character. This leaves Christians in an uncomfortable situation in which they cannot easily project a collective destiny (as christians) within a hybrid secular/muslim state.
– Structural reason: Individual can count on a strong diaspora that could help him/her travel, find a job abroad, and regularise his/her situation.

Posted in Discourse Analysis, Identity, Intercommunal affairs, Middle East | 2 Comments »

Why isn’t Mitchell on our side?

Posted by worriedlebanese on 04/05/2010

Please excuse me for sounding childish, but I’ve been around a lot of children lately and their influence is starting to show on me! And so I ask myself and I ask you. Why isn’t George Mitchell on our side. You’ve certainly noticed the US’ envoy to the Middle East criss cross the region trying to rekindle the flames of peace. And you undoubtedly know that Mitchell is of Lebanese descent. His mother was born in the southern tip of Mount Lebanon, and his adoptive father seems to have  also been Lebanese. The former Senator from Maine was raised a Maronite and served in a Diasporic Lebanese catholic church as an Alter boy; St Joseph Church in Waterville is attended by some 150 Lebanese families. So objectively, his ties with Lebanon are very much there. However, it doesn’t seem to influence much his approach to peace in the Middle East. He doesn’t speak much of Lebanon’s interests and I believe Beirut is the capital he has visited the least in the region. Why is that so? and can anything be done about it? Maybe you can help me answer these two questions. I can’t help but think of another person who held the same post as Mitchell a couple of years back: Dennis Ross. Dennis Ross was raised in a secular atmosphere with a non religious yet religiously diverse family but became religiously Jewish after the 6 day war. He never hid his zionist leanings and now works in a think-tank financed and operated by the Jewish Agency. The contrast between the two men is striking, don’t you think.

Can Mitchell defend Lebanese interests?

Now this is a difficult question. I don’t see why in theory he cannot do it. Didn’t Dennis Ross defend Israeli interests saying that they coincided with American interests. But when we look at the practicality of that defense we notice huge difficulties.

  1. What are Lebanese interests? No higher authority has ever defined Lebanese interests. Actually, one had… President Chamoun in the late 1950s, and President Frangieh in the early 1970s but on both occasions hell broke loose. After the first occasion, the Lebanese neutrality doctrine was established. If you look into it, you will undoubtedly find better adapted qualifications for that foreign policy doctrine (such as passive, incoherent, vacuous, fearful… and not really neutral: the state is directly envolved in the most destructive regional conflict and serves mostly as a willing punching ball or a coy catalyst). It seems impossible to define Lebanese national interests and even more difficult to determine what authority determine it. So how can George Mitchell defend something that isn’t even determined?
  2. Who promotes Lebanese Interests? The answer is rather simple: No one! A quick comparison with the israeli case is quite revealing: IPAC, the Jewish Agency, the Israeli government and the Israeli security apparatus all contribute in defining and promoting “Israel’s interets”. This is made simple by the fact that they invest much time and ressources in conflating Israeli and Jewish interests, and do it quite convincingly. Now if you look at the Lebanese picture, things appear much murkier (and messy).
    • On one side, one finds five strong communal perspectives (Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Druze and Armenian) supported by influential organisations. Each communal perspective has its own definition of both communal and national interests. These five perspectives are distinct but not necessarily contradictory. These different perspective influence both communal and cross-communal figures and spaces, be they local or diasporic.
    • On the other side, one finds state institutions that still haven’t found a way to cope with this diversity and put it to its service, and a political class and consciousness more interested in political bickering and winning in a zero-sum game.
  3. Can anything be done about it? Maybe you can help me out on that.

Posted in Geopolitics, Identity, Lebanon, Levantine Christians, Peace, Religion | 5 Comments »

Father Zahlawi’s take on East vs West

Posted by worriedlebanese on 30/03/2010

I came across the “open letter” of Elias Zahlawi addressed to the pope a couple of days ago, and decided to react to it today on the site I found it on. Here is a reproduction of my comment.

A short critique of F. Elias al-Zahlawi’s open letter.

Thanks to Adib S. Kawar and Mary Rizzo for sharing this article with us, and for taking the time to translate it, making it available to a larger audience, one larger than the originally intended or expected from its author. It is precisely because of this widening of its audience that I believe some elements should be thrown into the discussion.

F. Elias Zahlawi’s letter belongs to a particular literary style, that of the “open letter”. This journalistic genre is typically ambivalent surrounding its addressee. It has an epistolary addressee (one that the open letter is addressed to) and an actual audience (the one that has access to the support it was published on).

It’s often quite legitimate to ask oneself to whom it was actually written. This question is crucial because the meaning of this act of communication can only be fully understood if one looks at all its actors, the active one(s) (i.e. the emitter) and the passive one(s) (i.e. the recipients). With Father Zahlawi’s “open letter”, the answer is quite easy, and one can deduce that from the style of the letter and its arguments: the letter is intended for its (Syrian and Arab) audience.

One expects a letter from a catholic priest to the Pope to bear a particular language and tone. One would also expect the text to limit itself to presenting and explaining the motivating behind this subordinate’s criticism of the Pope’s policy, acts or speeches. These elements are quickly dealt away with because F. Elias Zahlawi is not here to convince the Pope of anything. He is not publishing a letter intended to the Pope, but writing an editorial to present to his Syrian/Arab audience his adherence to a specific political stand and geopolitical vision, one that is incidentally shared by most editorials in this part of the world. This explains why the doctrinal and pastoral arguments are so extremely weak and sparse. They are completely manipulated to serve the geopolitical argument and perspective advanced by the author. This just another opinion piece, identical in many ways to many opinion papers published in the Arab press in its language, arguments and references. Its “epistolary” style is just a literary tactic that actually flatters the author (by parading a kind of bravado) and confirms his ethnic narrative: that of a binary world divided between West and East, the powerful and the powerless, the oppressors and the oppressed, the rich and the poor. In this binary world, the author faces two challenges that contradict his strict division. Two elements do not fit in the mutually exclusive categories he defends:

  1. F. Zahlawi is Christian (and Catholic), a religion identified with the West (the powerful, the oppressor, the wealthy). This is why he insists on presenting himself as an Arab priest, putting forward an ethnic identity (based on language, culture and an alleged common ancestry) and throughout his article he stresses the divide between him and the Pope who he portrays as belonging to the West, the powerful, the wealthy… So his open letter actually reinforces this divide and shows quite clearly his identity politics and the ethnic strategy he is defending (and which are expected from a person belonging to a vulnerable minority).
  2. The region faces a rather powerful and destructive force that is not “western” but Islamist. Here again, the binary divide is upset. But Father Elias Zahlawi finds a way around this. He considers Islamic groups as a creation of the west and of violence carried in the name of Islam as a reaction to the West’s policy. This re-establishes his binary divide between the West (to which he conflates Judaism and Israel) and the East (that is composed of Muslims and Christians united by their alleged Arab identity).

What is missing from this opinion paper

Well, the editorialist in black dress doesn’t really address what motivated his “open letter”, the Pope’s call for a special assembly of the Synod of Bishops on “The Catholic Church in the Middle East: Communion and Witness” that is to take place in October this year (from the 10 to the 24th). He doesn’t say anything about the catholic church and catholics in the Middle East. He doesn’t speak of the challenges they face or address their current plight (drop of 20% to 70% depending on the country, inertia and difficulties in the ecumenical dialogue with orthodox, protestant and non-chalcedonian churches…). He says more about the plight of American natives and Palestinians than about Oriental christians (that he actually hardly mentions). Why?

Probably because such a synod rejects the binary divisions his worldview is based on, and because he probably perceives such a synod as being divisive; It might tackle some issues in their full complexity instead of the simple terms he defends. So he answers its call with a kind of “preemptive strike” one that doesn’t really strike its opponent but comforts its supporters in their certainties.

Posted in Discourse, Discourse Analysis, Identity, Intercommunal affairs, Israel, Journalism, Levantine Christians, Middle East, Palestinians | Leave a Comment »

InsepArab: Hélène Cixous’ take on Jewish & Arab identities

Posted by worriedlebanese on 20/03/2010

Odd word, isn’t it? “InsepArab“. Hélène Cixous is actually quite fond of such neologisms. Most of the words she coins have a very literary quality to them (I quite like another one she had coined earlier in her career: “Oublire” which borrows from “Oublier”, to forget, and “lire”, to read, and has a proactive quality to it). With “insepArab” she brings out from the adjective “inseparable”, the noun “Arab”, and then removes the last two letters hinting at the complexity of her relation to Arab(s)/Arabic, but not “Arabness” or “arabité”, that is specifically left out of the picture.

Arab and Jewish identities as mutually exclusive

Hélène Cixous has spoken on more occasions than one about her identity, and most notably in her autobiographical essay/novel “Reveries of the wild woman”. But I will stick here to an interview that she made on the BBC two weeks ago (and that is available on an “Arts & Ideas” podcast), insofar as it doesn’t contradict her earlier stands.

“I didn’t want to be an Arab, I knew I was Jewish” and she explains that the “history of Jews was heavy enough” and that she didn’t want to escape its burden and responsibility”. This is probably the strangest argument in the interview. Hélène Cixous claims that becoming Arab or identifying as an Arab would prevent her from carrying on the burden and the responsibility of her jewish identity. The notion of “burden” and “responsibility” of an identity is already quite difficult to fathom, but the supposed effects of an Arab identification by a Jew are indecipherable.

And then Cixous procedes with the type of argument that give culturalism a bad name. She speaks of the pragmatism that she got from her German mother and talks about the “culture gap” between her Arab classmates and the others (including herself) and illustrates it by saying that “they had never slept in beds”. She also speaks of their “family culture that was so far from modern culture”. Her argument would have been completely different had she spoken of western culture, but instead of space, she prefers time, presenting Algerian Arab culture as archaic, a sentiment that is reinforced when she speaks of the “prominent positions within arabic tribes” of her Arab classmates’ fathers.

Westernisation would have been a much suited and  fruitful approach because one could see its effects on Algeria’s native population: some sectors of the Muslim population that voluntarily integrated into Algerian-French society, and the Jewish population that was quite vigourously westernised since the 1870s (through the systematic transformation and replacement of their native institutions by Jewish institutions coming from France).

What is also quite strange is that Hélène Cixous has no problem identifying her mother as German (and giving her supposedly “germanic traits”), while she refuses to do the same thing with her father  who is denied both Arabic and French identities). When she speaks of him choosing her two language instructors, one for Arabic and one for Hebrew, she attributes this to his socialist leaning, and not to the fact that Arabic was the language of his ancestors for centuries (and the most important cultural language of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews) and that of the vast majority of the population in Algeria. So while Jewish and Arab identities are mutually exclusive, Jewish and German identities are not.

Weighing oppressions and odd equations

“I wanted that the Jews and the Arabs who were equally oppressed to join”, Cixous says. When asked if it was true that at that time (after 1945) and at that place (Algeria) “Jews and Arabs were equally oppressed” she answered that “it was true” because “there was a double racism, one against the Arabs and one against the Jews” and then spoke about the differences between Arab and Jews under Vichy and Nazism. She concluded this argument by saying that she “knew about history”, about “the conditions of the different oppressions” and “thought that the oppressed should become allies”. It is quite obvious that she is struggling with her argument, she starts by equating “oppression” and “racism”, then shifts in time to a specific period (which was off topic) to shift the balance between the two oppressions, and after that historical argument slips back to an ahistorical approach (devoid of any contextual element).

Posted in Culture, Discourse, Discourse Analysis, Identity, Intercommunal affairs, Judaism, Memory, Values | 6 Comments »

A Syrian approach to Judaism… a clear case of incoherence?

Posted by worriedlebanese on 11/01/2010

I dug up quite an interesting book in Damascus, unexpectedly. I was looking for a specific book on Palestinians and discovered this unusual book on judaism! Two sides of the same coin? Maybe.

The book is relatively new, it was published in 2008. Its author, Shamseddine Al-Ajlani, follows quite an interesting approach. Instead of focusing on one subject or following one hypothesis (like books usually do), he juxtaposes many chapters, each tackling a different topic relating to Syrian Jews. This 450 page book has an encyclopedic scope and brings together a great variety of documents: pictures of Syrian Jews since the 1920s, pictures of synagogues, and even pictures of Syrian Jews living in Holon (Israel). It tackles the participation of Jews in Syrian national politics and even blood libels in the 19th century.

If you read the chapter on the two 19th century cases of blood libel, you would find the author conspirationalist and antisemitic. He seems to believe that the charges were true and that those who were arrested were actually guilty and that they owe their release to the power Jews had over Western Europe. The author’s view isn’t surprising, it is the most dominant view in Syria today. But it is rather bewildering to find in a book that contains a very positive chapter on Jewish participation in Syrian national politics, and another chapter on the ties that remain between Israeli Jews of Syrian origin and what the author considers to be their homeland (Syria).

So when your “anti-semitism” siren blows, don’t jump to conclusions. There’s nothing systematic in what is expressed. You will find other elements that will spark a totally different signal. The Middle East is not Europe. Intercommunal relations are viewed as being complex just as they are experiences. You will find acceptance and rejection coming from the same source. That’s probably why a synthesis becomes impossible. It will reduce all contradictions to one idea, one that would contradict the daily experience of each person, just as it would contradict the national experience.

Posted in Conspiracy, Culture, Discourse, Diversity, Identity, Intercommunal affairs, Israel, Religion, Syria | 5 Comments »

Bourne identities in cyberspace

Posted by worriedlebanese on 10/01/2010

Things sometimes are not what they seem. The net is quite a convenient place for “role playing”, assuming false identities and parading as someone else for multiple reasons, including political ones. When I was an active member of a ning-platform a couple of years ago, I noticed a couple of such obvious cases. There and elsewhere, I sometimes found myself wondering if the person I was chatting with was a fraud. Some thing in our interactions made me suspicious. I found inconsistencies in certain arguments, unusual (and I mean extremely atypical) positions and reasoning, strange use of words or spelling… something just didn’t feel right or sounded somewhat fishy.

Two weeks ago, I found myself on the other side of the magnifying glass. A person I was having an argument with told me outrightly “By the way I know that you are not Lebanese, I found that out from your writing and do not tell me how”… When I objected to her accusation, she answered, “Regarding being Lebanese , your arguments say otherwise, and your style of writing […] Even if you were born Lebanese you do not sound like one any more “. I heard this type of reasoning before, right here, on this blog. A year ago, a former reader accused me of being a fraud before slamming the door. And I realised that I had followed the same reasoning I described above on several occasions. This allowed me to uncover some frauds (judging from their reaction), but on other occasions I might have been totally wrong. Some people are incoherent. Some people are atypical and do not share the same ideas as “their likes”. What does one loose by giving them the benefit of the doubt?

Posted in Identity, Personal | 6 Comments »

Discovering the missing cultural link: the Umayyad Mosque

Posted by worriedlebanese on 28/12/2009

View of the Umayyad Mosque

Damascus caught me off guard. I didn’t expect to be so easily seduced by a city with such a dull geomorphology and bland urban landscape.

The new neighbourhoods were completely uneventful… though I did find a couple of good books there. But it’s the old town that cast a spell on me. Its architecture surprised me. I didn’t expect to find this type of construction less than 130 km from my hometown.

Sure I was impressed  by the Souks, especially Souk al-Hamidiyeh which starts with a roman structure and ends with a 19th century ottoman one. But it’s the small streets behind it, with their wooden structures and fascinating windows that struck me the most.

What completely blew my mind  was the Umayyade Mosque. I  had seen a picture or two of this building before, and had always thought that the building had originally been a church, that of Saint John the Baptist. What I learned before getting to Damascus was that the church had been totally destroyed and the whole structure was actually islamic. So I expected to see a structure similar to that of Anjar, the summer residence of the Umayad situated in Lebanon, within a roman urban structure and a blend of arabic and roman architecture. What I saw was an extremely harmonious structure that blends roman and byzantine elements while reinterpreting them to suit the new prevailing culture and developing islamic components to them. This reminded me of some Churches in Rome where the roman elements are still visible and yet reinterpreted to suit a burgeoning christian civilisation. I think that the byzantine and roman roots of Islam are nowhere more visible than in this impressive building that wouldn’t have shocked the eye were it situated in Rome.

Posted in Culture, Identity, Islam, Personal, Religion, Syria | Leave a Comment »

Quelques réflexions sur la francophonie

Posted by worriedlebanese on 19/12/2009

J’écoutais ce matin les nouvelles sur RFI et un commentaire insipide sur la francophonie a remué en moi des interrogations et des constats qui remontent à la surface périodiquement. Quel est le sens de la francophonie?

  • Une langue en partage?
  • Une culture en partage?
  • Une histoire en partage?
  • Des intérêts en commun?

Chaque question-réponse suit sa propre trajectoire et donne au mot “francophonie” une dimension différente.

Une langue, ou une aire linguistique? Est-ce le Français tel qu’il est parlé (ou écrit) en France, ou est-ce qu’il comprend les expressions différenciées, nées du métissage, du contact avec d’autre langues, de la créativité, de la vitalité de la langue telle qu’elle est parlée ou écrite en Afrique, en Asie, au Canada, dans les Alpes, dans les banlieues des villes française, dans le quartier latin de Paris… Cette question me rappelle deux éléments que l’on trouve sur le site de  l’Orient Le Jour:  la mention “Quotidien Libanais d’expression française” (et non pas francophone), et la rubrique “Libanisme” (expliqué en ces termes amusés et gentiment condescendants : “Les puristes parleront de fautes de français, mais il s’agit d’abord de « libanismes » : ces mots et expressions inventés et utilisés par les Libanais francophones donnent à la langue une couleur orientale qu’on ne retrouve pas dans les livres de grammaire). Ce n’est pas un hasard que ce journal ait été autant célébré à Rambouillet, il y a deux semaines. Il représente parfaitement la manière dont la francophonie est comprise par une certaine élite française: instrument narcissique, miroir qui reflète une certaine image de la France, d’une culture qui rayonne depuis Paris et qui nourris avec son universalisme les esprits aux quatre coins du globe terrestre.

Lorsqu’on parle de culture, on pense automatiquement au patrimoine… au passé. Que comprend ce patrimoine? Est-ce qu’il ne recouvre que le patrimoine linguistique, ou en langue française, ou est-ce le patrimoine culturel de cette aire francophone? Les cultures bretonne, niçoise, corse ou alsacienne ont bien été intégrées au patrimoine culturel français et francophone en dépit de leur francisation linguistique récente… Peut-on faire de même avec la culture arabe qui tisse des liens intimes avec la France depuis le XIXe siècle (que ce soit au Levant, en Egypte ou dans le Maghreb).

Lorsqu’on évoque l’histoire, celle de la francophonie, on ne peut que oublier l’histoire coloniale, mais aussi l’histoire diplomatique, le Français en tant que langue de domination des élites royales en Europe, le Français langue de la République et de son unification centralisatrice des provinces et des populations de France. C’est sans doute à travers cette approche de la francophonie que l’on perçoit de la manière la plus claire le caractère asymétrique de la relation entre un Etat, la France, et le reste de cette aire géo-culturelle.

Au delà de la langue et de la culture, y aurait-il des intérêts en commun? Et quels seraient-ils?

Le reste demain… je dois me mettre au travail!

Posted in Civil Society, Culture, Identity, Version Francophone | Leave a Comment »

Confused, Dazzling and Misleading: anti-confessionalism advertised

Posted by worriedlebanese on 08/12/2009

I stumbled on this advert yesterday while checking out what was new on Laïque Pride, and I think a short comment on it would sums up my position on this issue perfectly. I’m sure most of you are familiar with it. And you’ve probably heard me on this topic too. Two years ago, I reacted quite violently to a campaign by Amam05. A couple of months ago, I discussed the paradoxes of anti-confessionalism, its ambiguities, the consensus and state support it enjoys as an ideology and its side effects. So I’m sorry to repeat myself. But I think it will enable me to sum up my rants and clarify the point I’m trying to make.

The ad you’ve just watched is clearly intended to shame the Lebanese for identifying with a specific community. Everyone in this clip identifies himself/herself according to his/her nationality, except for the Lebanese, who bow their heads in shame after declining their communal identity (with firearms shots to add to the dramatic effect).

This scenario is quite unlikely. When asked about their identity, most Lebanese refuse to tell you what community they belong to. This is a taboo subject, and in all statistics, it’s the most troublesome data to collect. So why shame people for something that is taboo?!

The underlying idea is that our political system because of its recognition of communities, quota system and multiple personal laws, prevents people from identifying as Lebanese. If this is the case, the choice of countries in the sample we just saw is mind-boggling.

  • Oman: Not only the State is clearly divided according to religious lines (Ibadi, Sunni, Shiite), but islam is the official religion and the law is based on the Coran.
  • Serbia: The Serbian identity revolves around Christian Orthodoxy, just as the Croatian identity revolves around Catholicism (withstanding the extensive secularisation of both societies). Moreover, the country had recognises a special status to two ethnic minorities: Albanians (who are now independent) and Hungarians.
  • South Africa: The country still maintains quota systems (in the private sector!!!) and considers itself as a rainbow country, respecting people’s choice to identify as Afrikaans, Zulu, Indians (etc) and seeing no contradiction with being South African.
  • Palestine: Interestingly enough, Palestine isn’t a sate yet, but it shares two elements with us. It has a quota system for christians and also multiple legislations in matters of personal status, and religious tribunals.
  • India: Now this country is probably the most diverse country in the world. And believe it or not, they have a system of personal laws quite similar to our own. An Indian would identify herself as Indian to a foreigner. But in India she is likely to put forward her communal or state identity (Punjabi, Bengali, Kashmiri, Tamul, Sikh, Hindu…). What language is this Indian going to use to identify herself to start with? This in itself is the marker of a distinct identity. The only way out is to use English, and not Hindu (which by the way is the sister language of Urdu, the original difference is purely religious).
  • America: It is quite common for Americans to refer to themselves as African-American, Jewish-American, Italian-American, Cuban-American, Scandinavian-American… Few people find a problem with that. Just pick any American TV serie and see how the characters in it identify themselves or are portrayed.

Lebanon isn’t as “unique” as we would like to admit. We have multiple identities, and the State recognises this diversity. This isn’t very rare around the world, and certainly not in the sample chosen in this advert! Some of us are attached to their communal identity while others are not… This trait is equally shared by many societies. So to make its point clear, this ad not only misrepresents the social reality in Lebanon, but social reality in other countries as well. So how do you explain all the praise it received?

Posted in Anticonfessionalism, Blogosphere, Civil Society, Culture, Discourse, Diversity, Identity, Idiosyncrasy 961, Pluralism, Prejudice, Religion, Secularism | 2 Comments »

The receding masquerade اي أمل واي مستقبل لعيد البربارة؟

Posted by worriedlebanese on 03/12/2009

Tonight, some children in Lebanon will be putting on their costumes or masks, painting their faces and going around their neighbourhood knocking on people’s door, singing and dancing to them and eating something sweet or receiving a bit of money. It’s not Halloween they are celebrating, but an old and local custom, St Barbara Day.

The similarities between the two feasts is quite striking. This explains why many uninformed people in Lebanon call it “halloween”. But there are some differences between the two, even if they are gradually disappearing. Adults used to partake in it (before its banning during the civil war for security reasons). It envolves local songs telling the story of St Barbara (that most children do not know anymore) and the sweets that are offered are local sweets (uwaymat, mshabak, maakron) and one desert specific to the feast (a kind of porridge). Costumes used to be specific too. The most common one was charcoal painted faces because one legends claims that this is how the actual saint disguised herself.

Last october, I was surprised to see how much Halloween has moved in our cultural landscape. Friends were organising halloween parties (one party had a “scottish theme” and all the men were wearing quilts), and my cousins were preparing pumpkin heads for their children and they had bought for them many disguises (mostly superheroes or other cartoon characters). So seeing Ste Barbara’s feast being less celebrated seemed a rather obvious outcome. It looked like a poor repeat with very little significance.

What is the significance of Saint Barabara day?
Ste Barbara is a feast that has been celebrated in Lebanon from time immemorial. It is particularly interesting because it has very little religious significance. Saint Barbara is by no means an important saint in the Catholic or Orthodox Canon. She is a martyr among many. And her name doesn’t seem to have ever been very popular (which is sometimes an indication of the relevance of a Saint to a pious community). Moreover, the commemoration of her martyrdom has a very slim religious side to it; there are no visits to shrines or special masses, no priest accompanying the people in disguise…

So the only meaning it has is communal. It is a communal feast that brings together people in a common cultural celebration, one that has a common meaning to them, one that gives a common meaning to their existence as a group. Such feasts are very important in the life communities. These communities are “cultural groups”, i.e. groups bound by culture (in scientific terminology, they are identified as ethnic group, but this terminology spurs useless debates outside academia, so I’ll stick to a another label while referring to the same thing). Culture is here understood as a web of meaning that enables individuals to make sens of their existence and their ties to others. It implies shared meanings and converging froms of identification (the way people situate their collective identity in space and time). You can see how important a feast such as “St Barbara day” is. It alludes to a shared history, it perpetuates the life and death of a person that is considered relevant to the group. When you look a little closer at that person’s story, the picture becomes even clearer. St Barbara is a martyr. She died because of her faith. She tried to flee persecution by hiding under another identity, but the political power caught up to her and killed her.

So basically, St Barbara’s story reflects the way Christian communities perceive their own history in the Middle East. A religious group dominated by another religious group (i.e. Muslims), assuming another identity to try to preserve itself. Such a story was particularly relevant before the establishment of Lebanon as an independent state. But even after that, it stayed relevant because it alludes to a particular perspective of history, one in which Lebanon incarnates a haven for religious minorities, an alternative story to the fate of Barbara.

How can we interpret the demise of Ste Barbara’s day?
First of all, this local feast is suffering from a very tough competition. The prevalence of american culture and the huge marketing behind halloween (with films, tv series, cartoons, products…) is impossible to overbid. So the first signs of this prevalence is a sort of contamination. The two feasts are increasingly celebrated in the same way and have the same significance to children who call them by the same name when speaking English or French.
On a national level, Ste Barbara is a christian feast while Halloween is perceived as a secular feast (even if its origins are religious). So Halloween become much more politically correct with regards to intercommunal relations.
On a communal level, there is no strong cultural production to support Ste Barbara (in contrast to the intense cultural production behind the Shiites commemoration of Ashoura that is slightly more than a century old yet extremely vibrant).

Posted in Culture, History, Identity, Lebanon, Religion | 3 Comments »

Swiss voters ban building of minarets

Posted by worriedlebanese on 29/11/2009

Islamophobia - Swiss style

More than 57% of voters and 22 out of 26 cantons voted in favour of a referendum proposal banning the building of minarets in Switzerland. The result came as a surprise. All surveys preceding the vote showed a majority of Swiss opposed to the ban. So how can one explain this gross disparity between the predicted and the actually result?

There are three explanations for this disparity:

              • The surveyors did a bad job. They relied on bad sampling… This could very possibly be the case. But how come all surveys gave similar results up to today? Could they all be wrong? And how come they were so wrong. We’re not talking about a 1 to 5 % error range, but more than 10%. That’s huge.
              • People who had declared  that they would vote against the ban didn’t turn up to the polling station at the same rate than those who voted in favour of the ban. If this is true, one still wonders why they were not motivated? Were they too comforted in their belief that the ban wouldn’t be approved? Did the parties that had declared their opposition to the ban (all except one it seems) fail to mobilise their constituencies? etc.
              • People who wanted to vote for the ban declared that they would vote against it. But why would they do such a thing? Could it be because they understood that their vote would be considered as islamophobic, and that such feelings are morally condemned because of their xenophobic character?

What next?

Instead of trying to understand why the Swiss voters decided to support the ban, I would like to quickly look into its significance. Most of the analysis I’ve encountered were geopolitical. Some analysts were worried about the possible international  outcomes of the ban: disinvestments, riots, targeting of Swiss embassies. It is quite obvious that the Danish Cartoon affair is still present in many minds. Some of the analysis I’ve come across were more interested in the social consequences it could have in Switzerland. How would this ban effect the relations between muslim and non-muslim individuals and groups in Helvetia?

Could this cow find the poster offensive?

My thoughts on this question have been drifting another way. The Swiss law doesn’t ban the building of Mosques. It bans the building of Minarets. In other words, it is targeting one essential element in Muslim religious architecture. Let’s not get all freudian about it, but it’s obviously a form of castration. They are banning the most defining feature of this religious building, what makes it recognizable as a Mosque. Interestingly enough, modern technology has removed much of a Minaret’s functional importance. Loudspeakers are more efficient and less costly a solution to call to prayer. And there is no legal provision banning these loudspeakers (except for the general nuisance provision that could be used by mayors). So basically, the Swiss banned a defining architectural element, what makes the building recognizable in the urban setting. So it has more to do with identity and visibility in the public space than anything else.

Did we say Freudian?

Such a ban is new to Europe (I wonder how the Council of Europe and its court will react to it). But similar provisions existed in the Middle East. The Ottomans for centuries had banned bell towers. They were only allowed during the second part the 19th century. In cities, there were even provisions stating that no Synagogue or Church must be prominent; And no distinctif part should be seen from the street (menorah, tables of the law, cross)…  The general idea behind the islamic provision and the swiss provision are the same. National religious minorities should remain invisible.

Posted in Diversity, Identity, Intercommunal affairs, Islam, Judaism, Religion | 18 Comments »

Discussing identity, incidentally

Posted by worriedlebanese on 23/11/2009

Identity sprang up  this weekend in three very different cyber-discussions: one with a psychologist, one with a philosopher and one with a sociologist. The contexts were obviously different, but in each of the conversations I was asked to disclose my identity as did my interlocutor, and discuss both identities. Not only did I catch myself disclosing different identities (truthfully and in good faith), but also using opposing arguments.

In the past, I had on several occasions discussed such a possibility arising, and given several examples to illustrate it: at university (an undergrad course) and in trainings (within an NGO). But experiencing it in such a short scope of time was extremely disturbing. It shakes one’s sense of self, and the value of one’s argumentation.

Context and setting is obviously central in discussing identity. And I was discussing this topic in four different settings: Lebanon, Israel, Belgium and France. Each setting has its own history in understanding this notion, its own definition, its own vocabulary and tradition in expressing it. So when you shift from one setting to another, you wonder if you’re still speaking the same “language” and you feel the need to “translate” it.


In the coming days, I will be discussing an initiative that a friend has pointed out to me: Laïque pride and I promised to say something useful about it. Before looking into the site, let’s glance at the expression “Laïque pride”. The first word, Laïque,  is an “untranslatable french notion”, or so it is presented, that refers to French secularism (the ideology, not the actual system which is quite far from embodying the principle). With the word “pride” that follows the result reminds us of similar contemporary expressions such as Black pride, Gay pride, Welsh pride… in all these expressions, the word is used to trigger awareness, celebrate and empower a previously dominated  group whose identity has been shamed in the past. With this simple expression of “laïque pride”, we are left with many explosive elements: secularism, foreign model, political protest, identity assertion… I’ll try to tackle all this tomorrow.

Posted in Identity, Israel, Lebanon, Personal, Pluralism | 1 Comment »

Sex, Values & Globalisation or Mazen Abdel Jawad’s free fall

Posted by worriedlebanese on 09/08/2009

Last week, LBC & its young anchorman Malek Maktabi were reminded that “red lines” still exist in the Arab world and that crossing them can have an economical and a political cost. This simple fact was brought to their mind when the Saudi authorities closed down their offices in Jeddah following the airing of the weekly programme “A7mar bil khat al 3arid”, “Bold Red Line”.

Here’s the extract that started the whole commotion.

As you might have noticed, the reporting isn’t really interesting. The anchorman’s sensationalism comes across as cheap and uninteresting. We are shown a young man in his “crib” bragging about his sexual exploits, expressing how important sex is to him and how he stimulates his partner’s desire. Some people have described his crowing as lewd, while others have stressed how immature and teen-like his approach to sexuality is. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Civil Society, Culture, Discourse, Identity, Journalism, Prejudice, Values | 3 Comments »

Anti-confessionalism’s side effects

Posted by worriedlebanese on 06/08/2009

listen_without_prejudiceIndoctrination: As we have seen, Anticonfessionalism is a State defused ideology. Not only is it a defining element of our constitution and our institutions, but it’s the most prominent feature of our political discourse. Even those who want to maintain the political system as it is are either uncomfortable with it or are embarrassed to defend it publicly.
All public discussions are dominated by negative views of confessionalism. These views have been diffused through the media for over half a century. They have found their way in history books and civic education books.
The consequence is obvious: an overwhelming majority of Lebanese holds negative views on confessionalism and consider it incompatible with all values they consider positive (the latter values are not necessarily shared). As we will see, these views are not based on facts, on demonstrations, but on a global prejudgment. A critical approach is surely warranted when it involves an analysis of merits and faults. But  it ceases to be interesting when it’s a simple expression of adverse or disapproving comments and judgments. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Anticonfessionalism, Civil Society, Culture, Discourse, Diversity, History, Identity, Idiosyncrasy 961, Intercommunal affairs, Journalism, Lebanon, Pluralism, Prejudice, Religion, Secularism, Values | 13 Comments »

Violence spills over: Shooting at Tel Aviv gay center

Posted by worriedlebanese on 04/08/2009

Candles in memory of dead spell out "love"

Candles in memory of dead spell out "love"

How fast is Israel heading for trouble? How much can one extrapolate from one crime news heading, a simple human interest story? Could it be an indicator or is it just an isolated case?

One thing is certain, Israeli editorialists and politicians are not taking it so lightly (c.f. Yediot Ahronot article). For them, it’s not just about Nir Katz (24) and Liz Trubeshi (17) who were killed on saturday. It’s about a shooting attack on a gay and lesbian youth center in Tel Aviv. It’s about a hate crime. It’s about an automatic weapon (such as an M-16 rifle) that was used by an Israeli to kill other Israelis because of differences in lifestyle and values.

It’s about a bubble exploding, but unlike Eytan Fox’s הבועה, the needle that burst it is not directly tied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict… but might very well be indirectly link to it. For how long can Israeli society nurture  its militaristic culture and breed distrust between some of its sectors, before that starts spreading?

Judging from the reaction of editorialists and politicians, the fear is there, but also the discomfort. How should this attack be called? A terror attack? Can it be called a terror attack although its perpetrator seems to be jewish? This is the kind of hesitation one sees in interviews and opinion papers. It’s not a simple case of semantics, its about classification, operating a distinction between “jewish violence and “palestinian violence”: when violence is so instrumental in separating and defining two groups, what happens when it erupts within one of the groups? what does it say about the opposition between the two groups…

Posted in Conspiracy, Culture, Identity, Israel, Palestinians, Prejudice, Religion, Secularism, Security, Semantics, Values, Violence | Leave a Comment »