As Lebanon prepares yet again to introduce a uniform national history curriculum, attention has turned to an ongoing debate about which version of the country's past should become the official one.
Well aware that those who don't learn from history are condemned to repeat it, the authors of the 1989 Taif Accord called for the introduction of uniform textbooks throughout Lebanese schools. A multi-sectarian committee of historians has been charged with harmonising the existing versions of Lebanon's storied and often stormy past, but the task has not been easy.
New curricula for all subjects were introduced in 1998 with the exception of history and religion, where forging a consensus has been next to impossible. Anew history curriculum had been completed in 2001, but the books were never distributed due to disagreements over several contentious issues.
In particular, the title of one of the chapters, al-fatih al-arabi (The Arab Conquest), was taken by some to portray the Arabs as just another link in a long chain of conquerors, rather than the quintessential core of modern Lebanese identity. Not surprisingly, a sense of Lebanese identity was at the heart of most disputes, with the largest fault lines running between Lebanese nationalists, who see the Lebanese as distinct from their Arab environs, and Arab nationalists, who discard the nationalist labels and see themselves, first and foremost, as Arabs.
Syro-Arab nationalism traces its roots to the late 19th century, when as part of a larger literary revival, Arab nationalism first emerged as a doctrine seeking to allay mounting Christian-Muslim antagonism by highlighting a shared Arab identity. By the turn of the century the movement had gained a head of steam. Originally a linguistic and cultural bond, Syro-Arab nationalism was widening into an influential political consciousness marked by growing opposition to Ottoman rule.
In response, a nascent Lebanese nationalism emerged as part of an effort to confront the growing Arabist trend. By the 1920s both sides were clashing over whether Lebanon's history was to be considered from a pan-Arab or a narrower nationalist perspective. Although Lebanese Christians were the first intellectuals to promote a sense of pan-Arab identity, they grew alienated from the movement after pan-Arabist historians, for whom the very concept of historical Lebanon was increasingly anathema, began holding sway.
Many felt that Lebanon's history could only be understood within the context of greater Syria and eventually an even larger pan-Arab framework. As the 20th century progressed, the dividing lines began to coalesce roughly around sectarian groupings. Most Sunni Lebanese viewed their history within the context of the larger Muslim world.
Lebanon's Maronite community sought to portray events on and around Mount Lebanon within a distinctly national context. For the Shia, the history of Islam following Ali's leadership of the umma (Muslim community) is illegitimate. Adherents of Twelver Shiism, for instance, are awaiting the return of the 12th imam, who will then reset history anew and place it on a correct path. Druze communities, meanwhile, have often taught their own versions of Lebanese history. The rift remains at the heart of today's debate.
The Mandate Period
By the end of World War I, these differences had grown increasingly apparent. With the collapse of the Sublime Porte, "Grand Liban" - which included but also extended beyond just Mount Lebanon - became a distinct administrative entity within the French mandate. Despite rough plurality between the Christian and Muslim populations within the expanded boundaries, Paris viewed Grand Liban as a Christian homeland and provided the Maronite community privileged positions within the administration.
Syria's King Faysal maintained that Grand Liban was part of the Arab Syrian state. But even the General Syrian Congress of 1920 granted Grand Liban a special status warranting "decentralised administration, with due regard to the national aspirations of the Lebanese". Syria's early leaders remained more concerned with securing independence from France, convinced that Lebanon's Maronite community would in due course come to see the wisdom in joining their Arab brethren.
Meanwhile, several Arab nationalists within Lebanon were less convinced. They organized boycotts in protest at the creation of Grand Liban, from which they feared political exclusion. The French were concerned that Arab nationalism, with its strong anticolonial motivations, would come to threaten its position in the Middle East, and Paris set about reinforcing religious divisions within Lebanon, dividing power in the constitution of 1926 along confessional lines. But by the 1930s, most Lebanese nationalists began to recognise the need for the nascent state to co-operate with its Muslim hinterland and began a process of national reconciliation that involved greater inclusion of Muslims into the political process.
In 1936, Emile Edde and Bishara al-Khuri faced off in a bitter contest for the Lebanese presidency. Though the eventual victor, Edde, was more of a strict Lebanese nationalist, the divisive election served to weaken Maronite control. This was coupled with French and British concerns about the rising power of Italy and Germany, leading the two mandate powers to take a more conciliatory approach toward their subjects. Finally, the rise of the left in France was arousing sympathy for nationalist movements in parts of the Levant and elsewhere.
Following the 1941 Acre Armistice that ended Vichy control of Lebanon, France recognised the independence of Lebanon, but continued to exercise ultimate authority. Elections were held in Lebanon in September of 1943, when the question of identity came to the fore. Just what kind of republic would the Lebanese Republic be?
Lebanese nationalist parties portrayed themselves as against any foreign influence, be it French or Arab. While paying lip service to the need for friendly relations with neighbouring states, they continued to stress the Phoenician (i.e., non-Arab) origins of the Lebanese. For their part, Lebanon's Arab nationalists were careful not to push too hard for Arab union on the grounds that it could incite violence and thus provide the French with an excuse to perpetuate their occupation.
Instead, they railed against the French presence while holding on to hope that pan-Arab union could be realised following the eventual withdrawal of French troops. The Free French government, meanwhile, sought to suppress the staunchly anti-colonial Arab nationalist sentiment by censoring references to an Arab federation and stoking the fears of Lebanese nationalists that pan-Arabism was a threat to their standing within Lebanon. But by focusing specifically on the French presence, the Arab nationalist camp was able to garner some support from anti-colonialist elements even within the Lebanese nationalists.
During the 1943 elections, Arab nationalists won the north and the south, while Lebanese nationalist candidates prevailed in Mount Lebanon, the Bekaa and Beirut. Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus welcomed the results as they now had an established force within the Lebanese parliament sympathetic to their pan-Arab aspirations. Two months later, the newly elected Lebanese government unilaterally declared the end of the mandate and began negotiating the balance of power. This would take the form of what would come to be called the National Pact (almithaq al-watani), an agreement between the two most prominent Christian and Muslim leaders, Bishara el-Khuri and Riad el-Solh. First and foremost was the question of Lebanon's independence and its important ties to both the West and the Arab world. Christian leaders accepted that Lebanon was a "country with an Arab face", while Muslim leaders, who had abandoned the idea of union with Syria, agreed to recognize the existing borders of the newly independent state and relative, though diminished, Christian hegemony within them.
The traditional division of labour between Lebanon's various confessional groups would be upheld with the presidency being reserved for a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the house a Shia Muslim. The ratio of deputies in parliament was to be six Christians to five Muslims. These arrangements were meant to be provisional and to be discarded once Lebanon moved away from confessionalism. That has not yet happened.
Matters were made worse by the fact that the agreement was never officially written down and the meeting between the two men was more or less a private affair. What the two sides actually committed to would be the subject of bitter disagreement for years to come. According to el-Khuri, as recounted in his memoirs, the agreement was a push for complete independence. The Maronite community would not appeal to the West for protection while Lebanon's Arabists would not push for a federation with the East.
However, whereas el-Khuri saw independence from France as the end game, el-Solh saw it as a prerequisite step towards pan-Arab union. For el-Solh, the pact meant that the Arabists would agree to the legitimacy of Grand Liban and would pursue their objectives for Arab union through democratic means. Both sides agreed that independence meant self-determination; it was the manner in which that independence would translate into concrete policy that would become problematic.
Some of the challenges posed by the deliberately ambiguous pact would grow evident as negotiations about Arab co-operation picked up pace. As the leaders of Arab states gathered in Alexandria in 1944 to discuss Arab co-operation, vague and non-committal positions being taken by Lebanese representatives highlighted the difficulties the country faced in implementing its compromise formulation. However, as the conference progressed, it became clear that differences among Arab states about the nature of Arab unity extended beyond any "Lebanese exception". Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, insisted on a minimal degree of unity, while Syria pushed for a centralised, pan-Arab government. But the idea of a single Arab "nation" had passed, replaced by a more comfortable notion of a federalist system across individual Arab states.
In a veiled reference to Syrian aspirations of regional dominance, Lebanon's delegation maintained that it could participate in regional Arab initiatives only if it secured independence. For their part, the Syrians acquiesced, in hopes of securing support for its more ambitious pan-Arab ideal. But Syria was largely alone in its ambition.
After central and federal possibilities were perceived as too ambitious, the participants at the conference agreed on a "League of Arab States" as laid out in the Alexandria protocol of September 1944. The protocol would serve as the basis for creating the Arab League, of which Lebanon is a founding member. But as the Lebanese made clear in drafts it submitted for an Arab union pact, the purpose of any such union was the preservation of the independence of the member states.
Following World War II, the fate of pan- Arabism in Lebanon would come to mirror the highs and lows of the greater movement. Having witnessed Israel's victory over Arab armies in 1948, Lebanon's Maronite community began to openly question the value of pan-Arabism, which they continued to see as a threat to Lebanese sovereignty. Matters would come to a head in the summer of 1958 when the pro-West Camille Chamoun sought a second term as president. Under heavy criticism within the Arabist camp for not severing relations with Britain and France during the Suez Crisis, Chamoun was also accused of seeking to join the US-sponsored Baghdad Pact. His efforts to remain president led to widespread rioting and the deployment of US marines to calm matters. Chamoun later withdrew his candidacy.
A Non-Confessional History
As is the case in English, the Arabic word for history (tarikh), is used to designate both past events and the discipline that examines those events. Their common label notwithstanding, the actual past and accounts of that past can vary considerably. Getting the two to concur marks both the challenge of the discipline and the difficulty in securing agreement on an official version of Lebanese history.
Most recent historical writing has focused on the civil war, and the complexities of Lebanese identity that gave rise to the war continue to arouse interest and controversy both within Lebanon and abroad. But any history of the civil war, or of Lebanon in the 20th century for that matter, is best understood if grounded in an understanding of the struggle between Arabism and Lebanese nationalism for the hearts and minds of Lebanese during the interwar period.
Simplistic accounts of the civil war overemphasise the sectarian nature of the conflict. In fact, several alliances throughout the war that crossed religious lines highlight the conflict's socio-economic and political facets. As much a war between Christians and Muslims, it was also a battle between Arabists and Lebanese nationalists over the role of Lebanon in the Arab world and vice versa. For many Maronites, the introduction of an armed Palestinian presence in southern Lebanon was a forfeiture of Lebanese sovereignty. Meanwhile, the Muslim left maintained that as an Arab state, Lebanon had a duty to contribute to the resistance movement in the face of Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people.
The world watched in horror as this decades-old debate spilled out into the streets of Beirut. By the time the war had ended, "Libanisation" had formally entered French. Larousse, which defines the term as "the process of fragmentation of a state, as a result of confrontation between diverse communities," notes that the term is often used in place of "Balkanisation". But unlike Yugoslavia, Lebanon has not splintered into several ethnic republics. The state has endured and its inhabitants remain, first and foremost, Lebanese. This makes writing a single national history both more difficult and more essential. While finding universal agreement about the causes or motivations of the war is highly unlikely, forging a common interpretation of how varying views about Lebanese identity contributed to the war is an indispensable element in reconciliation.
After all, for most Lebanese the civil war was about identity more than anything else. And now, 17 years after its conclusion, schools across Lebanon continue to use different textbooks. Students are taught different versions of the war and are, unfortunately, drawing different conclusions.
Nationalism, Arabism and identity in the formation of the Lebanese state