Culture and Politics in Lebanon During Wartime (1975-1990)

27 December, 2021

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies has published Culture and Politics in Lebanon During Wartime (292 pp.) by Atef Attieh, in which the author addresses the question of the relationship between culture, religion, and politics in Lebanon through the conferences and symposia that were held alongside the Lebanese Civil War and its repercussions over a 25-year period (1975-1990). The goal of holding these events was to reflect on how to do away with the tensions and confrontations that occurred—and continue to occur—among Lebanese throughout their country’s modern history, resulting from a socio-political system of governance which, by virtue of being a sectarian regime, has propagated crises and whose internal structure carries the seeds of those crises.

The author employs the proceedings of these conferences to demonstrate the dysfunctions of this regime, beginning by examining the question of this relationship with focus on the reasons that have led to that deficiency. Attieh argues that what happened and is happening is the product of the relationship between culture, as the incubator of all its components, and religion, as a catalyst for the socio-political ambitions of its members, on the one hand; and between politics, in dealing with the issues of society and people, and moving on with life, in a way that befits the attitudes of those people (and what underpins them), on the other.

The study’s central concern revolves around the relationship between culture, religion, and politics through the articulation of these three variables in how Lebanese relate to one another, and how these variables affect and are affected by one another: culture’s relationship to religion and to politics, religion’s relationship to culture and to politics, and politics’ relationship to culture and to religion. The book ultimately seeks to identify the strongest influence on bringing forth the crises, wars, and unrest that Lebanon has suffered and that have, indeed, impeded the implementation of the modern state project and led the country to political and economic turmoil and bloody civil wars obstructing progress and development.

The study’s orientation draws on inquiries that demonstrate its concerns and objectives, on which it builds propositions that constitute potential answers to these questions while leaving the details of the answer to the data and research the author has accumulated. This information, derived from parallel moments within a single decade, is a product of the conferences and symposia that resulted from the repercussions of the 25-year-long civil war. These events began to recede and fade away in the wake of the Taif Agreement (1989) which succeeded in halting the war, then the Doha Agreement with its consequences (2008).

In the first chapter, entitled ‘The Union/Discord Dichotomy of Lebanese Society’, the author reveals the impetuousness of those who argue for the social dichotomy based on the duality of religion or plurality of sects. The perspective of ‘Christian society’, as articulated by the Lebanese Forces, was an invention of ‘Phalangist’ President Amine Gemayel in support of a culturally pluralist society under Maronite rule. The author notes two other interrelated dichotomies that express divisions among Lebanese within a nominally united society: the rural-urban dichotomy of different lifestyles, as discussed by Georges Corm, and the tradition-modernity dichotomy, as noted by Ahmad Beydoun as having existed even in ancient societies. The second chapter, on the other hand, discusses ‘Arguments for the Unity of Lebanese Society’.

In the third chapter, entitled ‘Lebanon and Cultural Memory’, the author presents the work of the conferences held by the Antelias Cultural Movement and the Lebanese Foundation for Permanent Civil Peace respectively, each of which took a different approach. The Movement mobilised itself in words and actions toward the territorial, communal, and institutional unity of Lebanon via its cultural activities, in particular three cultural conferences it held in the 1980s. Meanwhile, the Foundation’s concern lay in preserving Lebanon’s independence and unity through the extant regime and its basis in sectarian participation, which could be better maintained given the lessons of the past and the tragedies of war, and by avoiding coercive reform. The Movement’s 1983 conference, entitled ‘Culture, Religion, Politics, and Rebuilding Lebanon’, is the subject of this chapter, while its 1985 and 1988 iterations are discussed in the fourth chapter.

Next, the author examines the viewpoint of social-nationalist doctrine as embodied by the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and of communist doctrine through the Lebanese Communist Party, through two symposia that saw attendance by intellectuals outside the respective party affiliation. The first symposium, according to participants and especially those affiliated with the SSNP, concluded that the root of the problem in Lebanon lies in the sectarian regime that views Lebanese as a set of religious communities, not as individuals or citizens, and that sectarianism in all forms is what has hindered the emergence of a modern, citizenship-based Lebanese society with a civilian character, led by a modern state free of sectarian bonds. To these groups, the solution was to abolish sectarianism and adopt a system that separates religion from politics, in service of a civilian regime which is not at odds with religion. Thus, in the sixth and seventh chapters of the book, entitled ‘Culture, Threatened by Politics and Religion’ and ‘Failed Meetings and Flawed Agreements’ respectively, the book considers the war’s repercussions by way of its outcomes on the political level. The primary concern of those in power, in Lebanon and abroad, was to stop the war by any means possible. Yet, notes Attieh, the wheel of politic—in isolated from culture—began to turn against religion and sectarian communities which overshadowed the negotiation atmosphere during the lengthy dialogues in Taif, the Saudi city which, through Arab efforts, hosted the warring Lebanese factions.

Read Also