Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A Tale of Two Lebanons

No one will deny the fact that there are two Lebanons. There is a Christian Lebanon and there is a Muslim Lebanon. Historically, the entity we call Lebanon today went through several shifts over time that included, for the purposes of this commentary, the Phoenician phase, which was then replaced by the Greek-Hellenic phase and its heir to Mediterranean power, the Roman Empire, followed by a Christian phase (after Constantine declared Christianity the empire's official religion), and finally a Muslim phase after the Arab-Islamic conquest and its subsidiaries (Mameluks, Ottoman Turks), leading to the birth of modern Lebanon a little more than a century ago.

Prior to the Greek-Roman Empire, Phoenician Lebanon was an assortment of powerful city-states (Sidon, Tyre, Byblos, Tripoli, etc.) whose unity and disunity ebbed and flowed according to the occupying power of the moment. Under the Greeks (Alexander the Great circa 330 BC), then the Romans (circa 64 BC), the cities maintained their separate local identities under the aegis of Athens and Rome. When Christianity was born under the Roman Empire, the Lebanese entity transitioned from a Phoenician-Roman province into a Roman-Christian entity. This transitional phase during which Lebanon changed from a purely Phoenician to a Greco-Roman and then to a Christian identity is best exemplified by the Roman city of Baalbek-Heliopolis in which all writings are in three scripts: Aramaic, Greek and Latin.

Roman Lebanon can still be seen everywhere in the country, including Baalbek and other places, but foremost of which is downtown Beirut where the Roman remains of the city now stand buried under the Christian Cathedral of St. George and, right next to it, the monstrous Mosque that the merchant Rafik Hariri built in the mid-1990s as if to deliberately dwarf the Cathedral, humiliate the Christians of Lebanon, and assert a preeminent Muslim identity to Beirut.

The point of this commentary is to raise what I consider a central question regarding the national identity of the Lebanese: The two Lebanons that co-exist today are based on religious identity. A Lebanese national identity does not really exist, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either lying or living an illusion. We must confront ourselves before we can confront the world. This unresolved national identity remains the Achilles heel of the state of Lebanon and is the most fundamental parameter that is preventing the state from becoming a nation.

In the course of the change from a Roman to a Christian entity, the province of Mount Lebanon followed the trend unleashed around the Mediterranean by the adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD. Monks and proselytizers in Lebanon and in Syria (St. Maroun), in Armenia (St. Vartan), in Ireland (St. Patrick), and others developed their own local followings that evolved into local religious denominations or churches. Oftentimes, this new religious identity dominated but did not eradicate the pre-existing national identity. Armenians are in their vast majority Christians, but they remained Armenians and the two identities, the religious and the national worked well together. Armenians have a country called Armenia, a separate language, and are Christians. Similarly, the Irish did not lose their Irish-Celtic identity upon becoming Christians: Today, the Irish are proud of their pre-Christian Celtic heritage, they speak both Gaelic AND English, and are staunch Christians (Catholic for the most part, though some were later converted to Protestantism by the English occupation).

Yet, something happened in Lebanon - and it is hard for me to decipher the exact moment or the factors driving this evolution - that made the Lebanese shed their Phoenician identity upon becoming Christians during the 5th century AD. Was it the Romans whose imposition of Christianity was so oppressive that the Lebanese were forced to abandon their Phoenician heritage, instead of blending it with their new Christian identity? Or did this phenomenon really happen later when the Arab-Muslim occupation took place in the 8th century and beyond? I believe that both these factors played a role, but most importantly, in my opinion, it was the fault of the Maronite Church (which came to dominate the Christian identity of the Lebanese) for leading the Lebanese into abandoning their Phoenician national identity, instead of a smooth and harmonious convergent evolution between a Phoenician national identity and a Christian religious identity.

The reason is that Lebanon is in the East, more so than Armenia, and much more so obviously than Ireland. In the East - as one can see with the history of the Jewish people and the Arab-Muslims today, religious identity trumps national identity. One is Jewish before anything else, and one is Muslim before anything else. For the Lebanese, and the Maronite Church in particular, it was essential to destroy the Phoenician identity and replace it with the Christian identity. The arrival of the Arab-Muslims exacerbated this proclivity to denounce nationalism to the advantage of religious identity, and somewhere by the 7th-8th century, the Phoenician identity, which had survived intact under the Romans, disappeared, and the Lebanese became Christians and lost all the attributes of a national Phoenician identity. I will agree with those who argue that this phenomenon was slower than I am proposing, lasting well into the 16th and 17th centuries, but the fact is that the Maronite Church, to this date, will reject taking second seat to a Phoenician-Lebanese identity.

The matter of the language, for instance, is the best exemplar of that evolution. Even as our national language - Aramaic (today surviving under the name of Syriac) - continues to be used in cryptic liturgies in the churches, it is a language that is not taught in the schools and is basically a dying language in the last throes of its demise, just as Latin died at some point in European history. The Maronite Church does not teach the national language, as for instance the Irish Church encourages the teaching of Gaelic as a national language. When Vatican II "liberated" the churches from the Latin dogma, the Maronite Church began using Arabic instead of Aramaic-Syriac in its liturgy. This was either a deliberate action aimed at cavorting to the Arabs and Muslims, or it was a deliberate action to prevent a national identity from re-asserting itself over a religious one, or it may also have been an ignorant move on the part of a Church that no longer knows what it is doing, worried only to preserve the power it holds over its even more ignorant flock. Vatican II occurred at the height of the resurgence of Phoenician patriotism, beginning after World War I and competing with other national identities (Arabs, Turks, National-Syrian, etc.), and exemplified by such poets and intellectuals as Charles Corm, Charles Malik, Saiid Akl and others...

While my proposal is not an academic one, based on elemental research, it is a thesis that needs to be pursued in order to understand the central question of why can't the Lebanese develop a national identity that is separate from, and not subservient to, the multiple religious identities that have prevented the rise of a strong nation-state called Lebanon. We remain mired in our pathetic religious fights for a seat in parliament or a portfolio in a cabinet, while the country is drifting and retrogressing into a dysfunctional failed state, without any cohesive bond.

I ask:
- Why can the Egyptians be proud of their Pharaonic past without seeing in it a conflict with the Muslim and Coptic identity of today?
- Why can the Israelis build a functional nation-state in which modern agnostics, fundamentalist Jews, and Palestinian Arabs operate under an Israeli national identity?
- Why can the Irish be staunch nationalists, devout Christians, speak and write English better than the English themselves, and yet teach and speak their national Gaelic language and still practice their Druidic national rituals without being accused of being traitors?
- Why can't the Lebanese embrace their glorious Phoenician past, revive their Aramaic-Syriac language as a national spoken language (like the Iraqi Chaldeans do who still speak today their national Chaldean language alongside Arabic), and develop a sense of nationalism that is unique to them (and not live the fallacy of a so-called "Arab world" whose only common attribute is a dead language called Arabic that no one speaks natively but which is artificially maintained alive by force of religious Islamic oppression)?

The Maronite Church stands accused of having killed Lebanese nationalism / Phoenician / Aramaic / identity for two reasons: 1) to cavort to the Arabs and the Muslims, and play the good Dhimmi Christian community; and 2) to prevent a national Phoenician identity from diminishing the religious Christian identity which the Church uses to maintain its hold on power.

We, the Lebanese, don't know who we are today. Our definition of ourselves as Christian Lebanese or Druze Lebanese or Muslim Lebanese is a virus that is preventing the country from evolving into a functional nation-state. We need identity attributes that bind us all together, not separate us with savage pogroms and massacres every one or two generations.


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