Unifying Ideology or Plural History

This article was originally published by This Is Beirut on 3 December 2023. The original can be found here.

By Dr. Amine Jules Iskandar President of the Syriac Maronite Union – Tur Levnon

Much has been written about Lebanon, often viewed as a crossroads between the East and the West. Hundreds of books have been penned and revised to reflect upon and redefine the history of this land, fluctuating between a nation, a province, and a mountain. The recent attempts that followed the establishment of Greater Lebanon in 1920 — especially after its so-called independence in 1943 — had a common goal: to create a comprehensive history that could accommodate all the components gathered within this new entity.

The most convenient and suitable approach was to deliberately refrain from defining a specific cultural identity. Therefore, it was essential to conceptualize the Lebanese entity as a mere link between other cultures: it should serve as a bridge, a source, and a doorway from one world to another. Hence, it must be transparent, tasteless, colorless, and odorless. As Georges Naccache would say, it embodies a series of negations that, in their inherent inconsistency, seek to give form to a nation.

The Great Eastern Question

In his book “The Great Eastern Question and the Strange Case of Lebanon,” Iyad Georges Boustany chose to break all taboos and craft a bold history of Lebanon. The narrative takes on a plural form to depict Lebanon through the lens of each organic group identified as a “community.” The author boldly confronts the sensitive issue of identity at a time when prevailing Westernized discourse often denigrates this value, portraying it as the enemy of humanity and progress.

The book offers an unprecedented analysis of Lebanon’s diverse history, revealing the real meaning of the four national narratives developed over centuries. It paves the way for an unbiased understanding of each narrative, regardless of whether these historical interpretations are scientifically correct or not; their legitimacy is bestowed by the human groups that embrace them as their reference points.

Uprisings of Christian organic nations within the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century: Bulgaria, Wallachia, Greece, and Mount Lebanon.

The Ideology of Uniformity

Every human being needs reference points, a notion that is all the more significant for social groups. The ideological rejection of this organic reality originated as a response to the atrocities of the Second World War and is now heightened by the wokeist ideology, which aims to align equality with uniformity. The book criticizes the various dogmatic movements that led Lebanon to its downfall, especially the Arabist ideology. It sheds light on Father Yoakim Moubarac and his project to establish a Maronite Arabism by distorting the history and literature of this population.

As with any Marxist, Nazi, or global wokeist ideology, Arabism is totalitarian and does not acknowledge either diversity or the rights of minorities. It dictates a singular narrative and recognizes only one language. Switzerland was able to embrace 26 history books, carefully considering the sensitivities of each of its 26 cantons. This approach has contributed to the country’s peace, stability, and prosperity. In contrast, Lebanon remains entangled in the genocidal pursuit of uniformity.

Book cover of The Great Eastern Question – and the Strange Case of Lebanon, by Iyad Georges Boustany.

The Arabist Ideology

With the aim of supporting his Arabist thesis, Father Moubarac relied on a carefully selected sample of Maronite authors such as Boutros Boustany, Fares Chidiaq, Najib Azoury, Paul Noujeim, and Choukri Ghanem. However, in order to be true to their Arab identity, Boutros Boustany and Fares Chidiaq intentionally distanced themselves from their Maronite identity. Boustany was followed later by Kamal Salibi, who converted to Protestantism, and Chidiaq to Islam, just like Michel Aflaq. To mention them in order to support the Maronite Arabism thesis is a dichotomous misstep, as their choices vividly illustrated the inherent incompatibility between Arabism and Maronism.

In addition, Iyad Boustany believes that Moubarac made an equally ill-suited choice by mentioning Najib Azoury and Paul Noujeim. In fact, Azoury had openly acknowledged before a French commission that the Arabist league he claimed to represent was, in effect, nonexistent. As an intellectual somewhat detached from reality, he was Francophone, and it was in French that he published his book “Le réveil de la nation arabe” (The Awakening of the Arab Nation) in 1905. Equally disconcerting is Paul Noujeim, who wrote in French under the pseudonym Jouplain and shifted from Arabism in 1908 to Syrianism in 1919. This transition took place after he, much like Kamal Salibi, invented the theory that the Maronites had Arab origins.

Finally, Choukri Ghanem was labeled an Arabist by Father Moubarac solely for having written his play Antar, performed before the cultural circles in Paris at that time. Iyad Georges Boustany argues that this would be like defining Pierre Corneille as being Spanish for having written Le Cid and Jean Racine as Greek for being the author of Andromaque.

The Elitist’s Ideology

Besides English, Gebran Kahlil Gebran and Mikhael Naimy wrote in Arabic, a factor that, according to Yoakim Moubarac, justified their later association with the Arabist movement. However, the world that these authors felt and described was centered on Mount Lebanon, its affinities, and its culture. Their literature was fundamentally Levantine, Mediterranean, Christian, and Montelebanese and had neither transnational nor Arab aspects other than the language as such.

The intellectual elite that followed in the footsteps of Father Moubarac and his Maronite Arabism ideology shared his Francophone background. They indulged in the Parisian circles that were fascinated by Orientalism and disenchanted with the Christian civilization, which was accused of all the misery of the Second World War. Striving to appease the West, which it tried to emulate, and the Arab East, to which it submitted, this elite distorted its heritage and distanced itself from the people and their aspirations. It is precisely when a civilization begins to interpret its history through the lens of its oppressor that it becomes ripe for suicide, as stated in The Great Eastern Question.

Fouad Ephrem Boustany, the author’s grandfather, narrates the excommunication of President Bechara el-Khoury by Patriarch Antonios Arida. The patriarch criticized el-Khoury for aligning Lebanon with the Arab League, an annexation that, as the historian emphasizes, ran counter to major cultural, historical, religious, and socio-political values. This move was a substantial threat to the very existence of Christians.

Cultural Specificities

Having rejected the hegemony of Arabism, which eradicates all forms of diversity, “The Great Eastern Question” narrates the four coexisting national narratives that coexist on the territory of Greater Lebanon. Integrating Carl Schmitt’s distinction between friend and foe, each of these four components, or organic nations, articulates a worldview shaped by its lived and romanticized past, along with its distinct aspirations.

Likewise, the concept of sovereignty is entirely relative. While some see the French presence as a saving grace, others perceive it as an imperialistic occupation. The same logic applies to the Syrian-Palestinian and Iranian forces. While the Crusades are seen as a blessing by some, they are regarded as a tragedy by others. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 was viewed as a victory by some and a catastrophe by others. This pattern extends to Muslim conquests, Andalusia, the Spanish Reconquista, the Ottoman Empire, the Arab League, and so forth.

The Sin of 1926

The three notions of Arabism Lebanism and Phoenicianism should not impose their histories on Lebanon. All these ideologies strive to establish a single national narrative: biased in the case of Arabism and Phoenicianism, and tasteless in the case of Lebanism. The first ideology has chosen the Arab East and enforced it on all, while the second has unilaterally opted for the West. The third ideology (Lebanism) has rejected both, hoping that by being insignificant and by fading away, it might be spared from the cruel games of nations.

Far from being a nation-state, Lebanon is rather a conglomerate of acknowledged organic nations, a status recognized by the Ottoman Empire for four centuries under the term millets. This term was misleadingly translated as sects in 1926, turning the patriot into a sectarian.

Suggesting today that Lebanon’s fragmentation is merely the artificial consequence of the communal system is equivalent to claiming that it is the rooster’s crow that makes the sun rise: “c’est le chant du coq qui fait l’aube.”

“The existence of a nation is an ongoing plebiscite,” said Ernest Renan. Populations cannot be confined within a legal formula against their will, especially when, as Charles de Gaulle once said, the legal country does not align with the real country.