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The trouble in Lebanon: interview with Sandra Mackey

Sandra Mackey is an award-winning author on Middle Eastern politics and culture. Her latest book is entitled Mirror Of the Arab World: Lebanon In Conflict (W.W. Norton, 2008).

Jonathan: What is it about Lebanon that made it a subject of study for you?

Sandra: In a time of unprecedented demand for oil and escalating tensions from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, Westerners desperately need help in learning how to think about a region that is so vital to their interests and security. Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict, is an exercise to give order and bring clarity to the many complexities of the bridge between Europe and Asia that is defined by Arab culture. Lebanon serves as a tool. Despite its many unique characteristics, Lebanon is the most open of Arab societies and its history since the end of World War II includes the challenges every Arab country, in varying degrees, has and is now facing.

Jonathan: In your book, you suggested that clans and religions have long controlled the Lebanon’s political system. The most unique aspect of the system, from the National Pact of 1943, is the appointment of a Maronite Christian as the president, a Sunni Muslim as the prime minister, and a Shia Muslim as the speaker of the parliament. Do you consider this special arrangement a cause for the instability of the country? It is widely believed that the system has repeatedly resulted in political deadlock with the long struggle of electing the new president after Émile Lahoud being the latest example.

Sandra: The National Pact of 1943 created a path to independence acceptable to all the competing groups in Lebanon. It came out of a political culture rooted in family, clan, tribe, religion and sect. While the National Pact was enormously important in that it enabled the Lebanese to bind their rival communities into a functioning government, it failed to create an overarching sense of national identity strong enough to override tge “tribal” attitudes of most Lebanese. Although varying significantly from one to the other, every Arab country faces the same problem – creating a sense of common identity and a recognition of the common good strong enough to turn fragile states into genuine nations.

Jonathan: What do you think about the recent appointment of Michel Suleiman as the new president after the compromise in Doha? Will the appointment only provide short-term stability?

Sandra: The recent appointment of Michel Suleiman is a case in point of the enduring flaws of the National Pact. After six months in which the office remained vacant, the Lebanese finally came together on the choice of a president who must be a Maronite Christian. But they did not resolve the central problem of the Lebanese state – institutionalized sectarianism. Until the Lebanese replace a system that distributes political and economic power on the basis if the census of 1932 with one that represents both current demographics and political realities, Lebanon is not going to be stable.

Jonathan: Returning to your book, you argued that the United States, under the Reagan administration, tried to create its own version of Lebanon. What influence did the the Christian Right in the United States have in shaping the American policy on Lebanon at that time? I remember that Pat Robertson set up METV in South Lebanon to broadcast Christian television programs in 1980s.

Sandra: Lebanon is not only the victim of its own internal tensions it is also the victim of outside powers pursuing their own interests on the soil of Lebanon. The civil war of 1975-1990 would have killed many fewer people and inflicted much less damage if it had not been for the presence of Syria, Israel, the Palestinians, the United States, and Iran that used Lebanon as a field on which to wage proxy wars against each other.

The error of the Reagan administration in intervening in Lebanon the way in which it did illustrates how little the United States understands the Arab world and how much American policy is driven by the needs and desires of Israel. A powerful segment of the Israeli lobby in American politics is right wing Christians who see the state of Israel as God’s Biblical promise to the Jews and the restoration of the Jews to Jerusalem as necessary to the second coming of Christ. This theology, which most American Christians reject, has nonetheless profoundly influenced American policy for the entire Arab world since right wing Christians organized themselves into a political machine in the late 1970’s.

But more than theology, the American view of the region is shrouded in ignorance on the part of the government and the electorate. Again this is why Lebanon provides such a good model for looking at the region. The United States blundered into Lebanon in 1982 with no understanding of the realities of the conflict. In 2003, Washington committed an even more serious error in judgment by invading Iraq with no comprehension of the complications that would follow the fall of Saddam Hussein. American interests have paid a terrible price for both of these mistakes. Ironically, cosmopolitan Lebanon on the Western edge of the Arab world and brutalized Iraq at its eastern edge are currently the two most similar countries in the region in their internal dynamics – communalism, Sunni-Shia tensions, and foreign interference.

Jonathan: It appears that Hizbollah has wide political support beyond the Shi’a and Druze. What, in your opinion, makes this party popular in the country? Is it related to the success of Hassan Nasrallah in delivering his promises of improving the welfare of the poor and needy?

Sandra: Hezbollah’s popularity beyond the confines of its own Shia base is due, in my opinion, to three major factors. The organization has addressed the needs of the non-elites of the society – those ignored by government for too many decades; resistance to Israel; and a charismatic leader with impressive political skills. In these first two factors is again how Lebanon reflects the whole region. The non-elites across the Arab world are stirring. But in a drought of secular ideology, they have no where to go to achieve redress of their legitimate grievances. This explains the persistent power of politicized Islam.

In Lebanon, Islam packaged as politics is labeled Hezbollah. Among the Sunnis, it carries the banners of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. At its farthest edge, militant Islam is stamped with the brand name of al Qaeda by a whole collection of dissent groups demanding political and economic enfranchisement or cultural affirmation. Westerners need to understand these socio-economic aspects of militant Islam. Until they do, the eradication of acts of terrorism will fail.

Jonathan: Finally, in your afterword, you lamented the misunderstandings between the East and West on. Can you talk about your feelings on the issue?

Sandra: Unless you travel both sides of the street as I do, it is difficult to become alarmed about the bitterness, resentment, and fear with which Westerners and Arabs regard each other. It is only when you actually live with the reality of the perceptions, misunderstandings, and genuine grievances one holds for the other that it is possible to grasp just how close both the Arabs and the West are to falling into a chasm of conflict destructive to both.

To make the situation even more perilous, those who are beating the drums of war against the despised Other are the militants of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Consumed by the demands of their own identities, the militants of all three religions thrust forward armed with cultural certitude. Watching the confrontation, one can only recall the observation of the Syrian poet Osama bin al Munqidh who wrote at the time of the Crusades that the Arab Middle East was perceived in terms of three unequal parts: Muslim, Christian, and Jew. To him, the truth was very different.

In his eyes, the Middle East was divided into only two parts: those who believe and those who think. Today it is the believers who are gaining dominance over the thinkers. Unless the thinkers mobilize themselves, the believers could well collide in Lebanon.

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Jonathan Mok

Jonathan Mok lives in Hong Kong. He reviews music and literature. Some of his chief interests include American and Middle Eastern politics.

3 thoughts on “The trouble in Lebanon: interview with Sandra Mackey

  1. Have just finished “Mirror”. Fascinating and scary. Would love to hear Sandra’s thoughts on what is happening today. George Bush and I naively hoped for democracy to solve many of these problems. She pooh-poohs this, probably rightfully so. But look what is happening! I think the young and educated arabs are sick and tired of all the religion and sectarian bullshit and are revolting to make a new life modelled after the west. If you get her back, and I think you should, please contact me…..

    (I think stupid George and I are going to get the last laugh)

  2. Sandra Mackey reflects clear thinking about the conflicts of people with different religions and cultures in the Middle East region. We need to read what she writes and adjust our own thinking and policy toward that volatile region. Clearly she is better informed with less bias than many of our politicians who are involved in the muddle they have created in that region. The USA is not fairly balanced in its support of both Arabs and the Israeli.

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