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Theodor Hanf {*}

Time-tested Co-operation

The Coexistence of the Lebanese Religious Communities
Is Put to the Test


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 2006/9, P. 441-445
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The majority of the Lebanese was certainly against it that Lebanon was exposed to the recent war by Hezbollah. But the war led to a strong national solidarity. Regardless of its religious-ethnical diversity the Lebanese society showed a remarkable co-operation.


Nine of ten states in the world have populations that consist of different ethnic-, language- or religious groups. Supporters of an ethnical nationalism are convinced: democratic stability is impossible in such states. Not least in Israel with its idea of an ethnical-religious state, which developed from experiences of discrimination and persecution in Europe lasting for centuries, the opinion is wide-spread that Lebanon with its eighteen religious communities is an artificial state that cannot survive in the long run.

In Syria, the other neighbouring country of Lebanon, one thinks similarly: Lebanon belongs actually to Syria with which it shares language, history, and majority religion. The history of Lebanon shows that the coexistence of the Lebanese religious communities was always threatened rather from the outside than from the inside. Also today this comes true again.


All Lebanese Religious Communities set on the Assistance of Neighbouring States

In the Lebanon Wars between 1975 and 1990 there were civil wars - wars between Lebanese. But they were epiphenomena of the compensatory wars for Palestine, which were settled on Lebanese soil. All large Lebanese religious communities gave way to the temptation to improve their national position with the assistance of neighbouring states: Sunnis saw the Palestinians as their allies, Christians first Syria and then Israel. They must learn by bitter experience that the respective allies did act primarily in their own interest, but not in that of their Lebanese clientele. An exception was the Shiites. They found foreign allies only late, but for that more lasting ones: Syria and - Iran after the revolution.

The coexistence of the Lebanese religious communities has a long and complex history. In the course of more than a millennium groups that at first differed in the religious teachings developed - by marrying predominantly partners with the same religious background - to a large extent to ethnical groups: thus they became religiously defined ethnic groups. Up to the recent past mixed marriages were even rare between Christians from different denominations as well as between Muslim communities, e.g. between Shiites and Sunnis. Interreligious marriages are rare up to this day.

The communities of the Lebanon have been moulded by different political and social experiences, and they entered in different times and under different circumstances into the political life. Those who like the Maronites and Druse settled in the central Lebanon Mountains, the place of refuge for "nonconformists of all times and religions" (Habib Kurani), experienced already for centuries the advantages of a relative independence within the Ottoman Empire.

In the 19th century the "Small Lebanon", which covered all mountains and a part of the coast, obtained the international recognition of its autonomy. Here an independent peasantry developed. A modern infrastructure was created. There was a constitutional state: a political system with a Parliament elected according to the proportional representation of the religions, and an executive that was responsible to it - the first democracy of the Near East. Those who lived in the coastal towns Beirut, Tripoli and Saida - above all Sunnis and Greek Orthodox, were subjected to direct Ottoman rule. The Shiites lived predominantly in the south of today's Lebanon, and in the eastern Bekaa plain. In their large majority they were farm hands, and were dependent on the great landowners. Under Ottoman rule the Shiites were not a recognized religious community.

In 1920 the Small Lebanon was united with the coastal towns, the south and the Bekaa to the "Large Lebanon". Between centre and periphery of the new state under French mandate there were great differences in infrastructure, education standard and the degree of economic development. They were at the same time differences between the religious communities. The Sunnis of the large cities, in particular Tripoli, who made a living by the trade with the Arab hinterland, put up with the new Lebanon only after two to three decades, the Maronites welcomed it from its foundation.

When during the Second World War the chance presented itself to end the French rule Maronites and Sunnis made in the "National Pact" from 1943 a "historical compromise". The power was divided between the religious communities and that according to the census data from 1932.



Maronites and Sunnis got the lion's share - the first the office of the President, the latter that of the Prime Minister; the seats in the Parliament were distributed at the rate of six to five to Christians and Muslims.


A Complex Linkage of Social Classes and Religious Communities

The changes in the social structure of the religious communities were the consequence of the economic development. Industries developed around Beirut and in the north of the country. The traditional agriculture however stagnated or changed into the capital-intensive agro business. Many farmers gave up their small holdings, and more and more farm-workers became unemployed. Already in the fifties numerous Maronites moved into the new developing eastern and northern suburbs of Beirut, starting from the sixties the Shiites followed, and moved into new southern suburbs. The without exception well educated Maronites became skilled workers, the Shiites predominantly assistants in industry and service industries.

A complex linkage of social layers and religious communities developed. The upper class was made up above average by Sunnis and Greek Orthodox - old urban communities -, whose landed property had won many times in value by the building boom. Maronites were dominant in the middle-classes, with small possessions in the more and more urbanized villages of the central mountains, and with an educational level that made them competitive in the modern economy. In the lower classes the Shiites, as the late-comers of modernization, were far over-represented.

The traditional Shiite great landowners lost thereby however their past political clientele, the farm-workers. The urban Shiite proletariat turned to the left-wing parties which demanded fundamental changes in the Lebanese system. But in the years before the war also a new religious-political movement developed among the Shiites, which should soon compete with the Left. Imam Mussa Sadr, a charismatic clergyman, succeeded in giving to his only 1926 recognized community a structure comparable to that of other communities: the Highest Shiite Council. Independently of it he created the "Movement of the Disinherited", which at the same time set its face against social unfairness, great landowners - and against the Left.

Sadr was realist. Contrary to the Left he questioned by no means the Lebanese system of proportional representation, but aimed at a larger portion of power and of its fruits for the Shiites. 1978 he was kidnapped on an intermediate landing in Tripoli and probably murdered. For his followers almost a myth, he disappeared at a time that was particularly dramatic for the Shiites.

Since the end of the sixties the Palestine movement led from Lebanon a guerilla war against Israel. Shiite villages in the border area had to bear the main burden of the Israeli retaliation. When the war between the Palestinians and Christian militias began 1975, the front ran between the eastern and southern suburbs of Beirut, i.e. the quarters of the Maronite and Shiite poor. The fighting at the southern border of Lebanon, in particular the Israeli invasions from 1978 and 1982, forced hundred thousands of Shiites to take refuge within the southern suburbs.

The attitudes of the Shiites to the Palestinians as well as to the Israelis were conflicting. The Palestinians' object to return to their homeland was seen by them positively. The Shiites of the Left saw them as brothers in arms. On the other hand no Lebanese community suffered so much from the consequences of the Palestinian engagements as the Shiites. Their homeland areas were devastated time and again, nobody else had so often to flee. And in the southern suburbs they stood under control of the Palestinian organizations. When Israeli troops 1982 occupied the entire South Lebanese, advanced until Beirut and drove the PLO out, they were welcomed first by not a few Shiites with relief. This changed when the Israeli army prepared for a long-term occupation. It had to experience that no occupying power can remain popular in the long run. The guerrilla war against it began.

Then the Lebanese Shiites won foreign allies for the first time in their history: Khomeini's 1979 victorious Iran, and Syria. The new Iran got the chance to export its ideology of the Islamic revolution, and to lend to its proclaimed fight against the USA and Israel some reality in Lebanon. Syria however saw an opportunity to find a functional alternative for the Palestinian organizations driven away from Lebanon: as substitutes they made military pressure on Israel from Lebanon, and without any danger for Syria.

The Israeli invasion of 1982 accelerated the political mobilization among the Shiites. With the (expulsion of the) Palestinian organizations the Shiite Left had lost its most important support. The Amal militia, arisen from the "Movement of the Disinherited", got Syrian weapons in its fight against the Lebanese government, which negotiated with Israel about a peace treaty. But Amal was regarded as too secular by many Shiites.



Under Iranian influence the Hezbollah developed. Iranian "revolution guards" trained its militia-men. The first programmatic declarations spoke of the holy war against Israel up to the liberation of Jerusalem. The establishment of an Islamic republic in Lebanon was stated as long-term aim. Hezbollah led its first spectacular strikes against the American and French troops that had come 1982 into the country in order to supervise the departure of the PLO from Beirut and to support the Lebanese government. They caused the Reagan government to break 1984 its earlier promises, and to take the American units off head-over-heels - the first great success of Hezbollah. Further ones followed soon.

True, in the fights between the rivalling Shiite militias Amal won through in parts of the Lebanese south, but Hezbollah triumphed in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Only the invasion of Syrian troops saved Amal from a complete defeat. Starting from 1986 both movements rivalled about successes in the guerrilla war against the occupation troops in the remaining Israeli "security zone".


A New Pact Between the Religious Communities After the Civil War

1984 was the year in which the conflicts got clearly the character of civil war. In the fight against the Lebanese Israeli peace treaty Amal took its stand against the by the USA supported government. The Shiite units of the Lebanese army deserted to Amal. Finally the Parliament denounced the peace treaty. In the camps Sabra and Chatila Amal fought for month Palestinian militias which were gaining strength again. Hezbollah however was never a civil war party, did never fight against government troops, Christian militias and also not against Palestinians, but exclusively against the Israeli army and their Lebanese helpers.

The civil war ended 1989. All war parties were exhausted, the economy stood before a collapse. In the Saudi Arabian Ta'if the Lebanese Parliament settled a new pact between the religious communities. "Living together" was declared as the highest law. The distribution of the highest public offices - Maronite president, Sunni Prime Minister and Shiite Parliament president - remained, but the balance of power between them was changed.

The executive power is no longer with the president, but with the proportionally built up cabinet. Also the seats in Parliament are now proportionally distributed to Muslims and Christians. In the Ta'if agreement however also the further stationing of Syrian troops was agreed upon - and thus de-facto the supremacy of Syria in Lebanon.

For one and a half decades the country was de jure governed according to the Ta'if Constitution, but de facto by the Syrian and by the pro-Syrian Lebanese secret service. Christians continued to provide the President and half of the ministers, but were actually without influence. Their most important representatives were in exile or in prison. The Maronite Patriarch became the only speaker of all those who did not want to resign themselves to the Syrian rule. With the support of Saudi Arabia the Sunnis gained economic power.


With the Social Ascent of the Shiites Hezbollah Gained Military Power

During the Syrian years above all the Shiites experienced a remarkable economic and social rise. Amal became a powerful patronage machine under the Parliament President Berri. Within the public service the portion of the Shiites increased dramatically. Berri administered also the national "Cash for the South" for the promotion of the infrastructure. At the beginning of the new millennium there were no longer any significant differences in the social classes of the religious communities. Only ten per cent of the Shiites saw themselves as belonging to the lower classes.

But the other side of the Shiite rise was the increase in military power for Hezbollah. 1990 all militias had been disarmed and dissolved - with exception of Hezbollah. It was not classified as militia but as "national resistance". It got Iranian and Syrian weapons. Iranian subsidies, but also donations of Shiite emigrants in Africa enabled the structure of a comprehensive social service, with hospitals and schools. Hezbollah got soon the justified reputation of a corruption-free organization. 1992 it took part for the first time in parliamentary elections. Syria ensured that Amal and Hezbollah entered into election alliances, which secured them strong blocks in the Parliament.

Hezbollah's ideological position was moderated: true, an Islamic state is the aim for the future, but only if all other Lebanese communities agree to it - with which is hardly to reckon. But Hezbollah's opposition to Israel remained unchanged. In the nineties the losses of the Israeli occupation army rose constantly. In 2000 the government Barak decided finally to withdraw it. This was not only for Hezbollah but for all Lebanese a victory of the resistance - the first military success that Arabs had achieved against Israel.

Hezbollah did not see in it any reason for disarming. For more than two decades the south had experienced the Israeli invasions. Several times hundreds of thousands people had to flee. The fear that this could happen again, was - and is further - an important motive power for the determination to remain armed, particularly since nobody believes that the regular Lebanese army is able to defend the border.



Since 2000 Hezbollah developed what it regards as deterrence capacity: Short and medium-range missiles threatening the north of Israel. They were supplied from Iran and Syria - a means for both states to put pressure on Israel without endangering themselves.


The Elections in 2005 Polarized the Religious Communities

The "Beirut Spring" of 2005 came for Hezbollah as unexpected as for Amal. Syria had forced the Lebanese Parliament to extend the term of office of the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. Three Druse ministers resigned under protest, on one of them an assassination attempt were committed. Now Walid Jumblat, the leader of the Druse, began to speak in a way as only the Patriarch had dared so far. The murder of Rafiq Hariris led to a mass mobilization of the Sunnis, as it had not happened since the death of Gamal Abdel Nasser: Maronites, Druse and Sunnis demonstrated for the retreat of the Syrian troops. Those who went on the road for Syria - although with obviously smaller enthusiasm - were mainly Shiites.

After the Syrian withdrawal the first free elections in summer 2005 led to a result by which the religious communities were strongly polarized. In Beirut, in the south of the mountains and in the north the victory was won by the alliance of the "Beirut Spring", i.e. by the Sunni followers of Hariri, the Druse of Jumblats and the Maronites allied with them. In the south and in the Bekaa the common lists from Amal and Hezbollah got all the seats. In the Christian central area the Free Patriotic Movement of General Aoun, who had returned from exile, was generally accepted.

In spring 2006 the "National Dialogue" began between the most important political groups. Upon two questions there was no consent: The replacement of President Lahoud and the military privileged position of Hezbollah. The first was blocked by Aoun, who would only agree if he would be elected - to that the Hariri alliance was not prepared. The latter met the veto of Hezbollah that referred to the constitutional principle that important questions could only be decided by consent. To this the majority pointed out that Hezbollah took it upon itself to trigger without consent a conflict with Israel.

Exactly this happened in July 2006. Probably Hezbollah calculated wrong when it kidnapped Israeli soldiers, in order to exchange them - as it already repeatedly happened in the past - against own prisoners. It is generally known how Israel reacted with a violence that was completely unexpected by the Lebanese. With the reason that the Lebanese government had missed to disarm Hezbollah, not only the positions of this party were attacked, but also the civilian infrastructure and industry of Lebanon was smashed. But in a war which lasted for more than one month Israel did not succeed in disarming Hezbollah.

Sure, the majority of the Lebanese did not agree to the fact that Lebanon was exposed to this war by Hezbollah. But the way how this war was led on the part of Israel led certainly first to a strong national solidarity. Under the presidency of the Patriarch the religious heads of all communities met, and condemned the Israeli bombardments. Many hundreds of thousands of Shiites who were driven away from the south and from the southern suburbs of Beirut found accommodation in Christian, Sunni and Druse areas.

An even more serious mistake as made by Hezbollah was made by the Israeli government. Not any of the proclaimed objects of this war had been achieved. The former "Security Zone" could not be occupied completely: in the passages between the mine fields, which had been laid out by Israel before 2000, the Hezbollah fighters had entrenched themselves, and caused heavy losses to the Israeli troops. The kidnapped soldiers were not freed. The rocket arsenal of Hezbollah is not exhausted, and the north of Israel is further threatened.

The assumption that the Lebanese could by the bombardment be provoked against Hezbollah proved to be completely wrong. On the contrary: For the time being the majority of the Lebanese is proud of the military successes of this party, and sees it for the second time after 2000 as winner. It may be that after some weeks or months many Lebanese and particularly the primarily damaged Shiites will ask themselves whether this victory was worth the losses. For the time being however Hassan Nasrallah is not only an Arab and Muslim but also a Lebanese hero.

Sunnis, Christians and Druse could not be provoked against the Shiites. And Hezbollah understood soon how difficult a living together between refugees and the local population can be: Already on the day after the armistice the refugees began to move back into their destroyed villages and municipal districts. Financial remuneration was assured to everyone who had been injured, and so far Hezbollah kept always to its promises. Those who had feared that due to the wave of refugees a whole school year would be called off - in view of the Lebanese's hunger for education a threatening scenario - see themselves deceived: In September schools and universities will again instruct.

Regardless of its religious-ethnical diversity the Lebanese society showed remarkable solidarity. Nevertheless the coexistence of the religious communities will be put to the test again. The central problem of the "National Dialogue" remains not only unresolved but arises intensified again: Is one group allowed to take risks for the entire nation? Will Hezbollah in the future let use itself as an instrument of Syrian or Iranian interests?



Is Lebanon to remain further the only battleground of Arab or Muslim wars against Israel, or will Hezbollah give priority to Lebanese interests?

It is quite possible that the just ended war will not remain the last one. It is true, this war has taught that war-technical superiority does not guarantee the victory. Will Israel - and even more important - will the USA draw from it the conclusion that a "New Middle East" cannot be created by force? Until this insight is generally accepted, it is to be feared that further burdens are put upon Lebanon - upon a democratic state that proved again the possibility of peaceful coexistence between different religions and ethnic groups - to the damage of democratic development in the whole region.


    {*} Theodor Hanf teaches political science in Freiburg and at the American University Beirut. He is author of Koexistenz im Krieg. Staatszerfall und Entstehen einer Nation im Libanon, Baden-Baden 1990; together with Nawaf Salam, publisher of Lebanon in Limbo, Baden-Baden 2003.