Beyond ‘Us and Them’: advocating for a postcolonial identity in Lebanon

We, Lebanese, are confused. It is part of an identity crisis we’ve been going through since the inception of our country. Identity crises are not uncommon in our grand region. Our Middle Eastern neighbors go through their fair share of confusion as well, yet we have certain characterstics that differentiate us from them. No, this is not to “other” people and put ourselves in a nationalistic box, but to highlight both our qualities and imperfections, to better understand our shortcomings. We need to get ourselves out of the mess we’re in and only us Lebanese should have the agency to actually initiate and accomplish the change we seek. 

The Lebanese need to build some form of awareness around creating (yes, creating) a new identity, not from outerspace, some postmodern tech-savvy digital world or countries and societies we deem to be “ideal” or “utopian”, but one based on our past — yet not defined by it. Through setting certain goals, we shall define ourselves, shape our identity and build a decent future. 

Most of us are overwhelmed by our (generally) high level of education yet the lack of employment opportunities or adversely the high (youth) unemployment rate. We are overwhelmed with traffic and bad roads, slow internet speed, nonexistant electricity, undrinkable water and pollution and a lack of proper management and in turn infrastructure. We are failing our environment through our active participation in its destruction (both consciously or not). We are unable to pay exorbitant school tuition and hospital fees. We feel neglected by our loverly government. We are tired, are we not?

It is disapointing to see such hopelessness surrounding the uncertain future the Lebanese are headed to. We deserve better. In this article, I would like to discuss a different approach to decolonization and a new understanding of postcolonial identity in Lebanon. As the title suggests, postcolonialism is a long overdue process that we need to implement to strengthen both our understanding of identity and the bond we have with each other as citizens (or non-citizens) in this current reality. 

Re-examining the past through overdue transitional justice

Colonialism has had a profound impact on the Middle East and in turn, on Lebanon. The country is in fact a product of its colonial past; but even before the creation of a ‘Great Lebanon’, Ottoman colonialism’s sectarian policies of divide and rule and even the Arab conquests before that, embedded shifting identities into the minds of the local inhabitants. Although the term “colonialism” is a modern one, the phenomenon has been present since the times of the ancient peoples of these lands. Shifting or developing identities are a healthy way of coping to contemporary demands and therefore are an integral part of a people’s history. Christians and Muslims were divided among themselves and each other; also the Jews and Druze, added to the mix, helped transform the Eastern Mediterranean into a moasaic of different communities (religious or other). 

Officially, Lebanon was never colonized because the League of Nations and subsequently the French (and British) used a fancy word for colonization: Mandate. From 1923 till 1946, the French Mandate on Lebanon and Syria shaped Lebanon’s institutions to what they are today. Through these institutional changes, people’s mindset developed into the “Us and Them”, which half a century later evolved into a full-blown Civil War (1975-1990). It’s interesting to note that the different participants in the war could not and cannot agree on who or what started the conflict. What is known for sure is that crimes were committed both by and against the Christians, Muslims, Druze, Israelis, Syrians, Palestinians and others. 

As of present, no warlord has been judged in court as a result of their involvement in the war; instead, most have been ‘elected’ as politicians or alternatively have become politically active. Outsiders might see this as abominable, but the Lebanese seem to disagree. Lebanon is a flawed democracy — but a democracy nevertheless. People lured by corruption, bribes and false promises have contributed to the country’s demise by campaigning and electing disgraceful-warmongering individuals. Hannah Arendt once explained that “power corresponds to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together. When we say of somebody that he is ‘in power’ we actually refer to his being empowered by a certain number of people to act in their name. The moment the group, from which the power originated to begin with … disappears, ‘his power’ also vanishes.” Through an amnesty law which they themselves passed, warlords turned politicians have been acquitted of their heinous crimes. 

Corruption, money laundering and terrorism are but a few of Lebanon’s immediate problems. It is almost as if the country cannot function without individuals contributing to criminal acts of corruption. It baffles me to think that incompetent people who have been in power for ages cling to their seats at the expense of their constituents’ wellbeing and the country’s prosperity. Impoverished individuals, through corrupt means and political connections have made millions of dollars, and due to the subsequent crash of the banking system, have laundered their money. The terrorist threat is both from within and outside the country. Most notably, Hizbollah, the notorious Iran-backed terrorist group, hinders any path to prosperity under the guise of protecting Lebanon from Israel, a country I do not deem to be a threat.

I will not claim to know the absolute solution to all of our woes, but it surely must begin with both holding our politicians — past and present — accountable and disarming Hizbollah. These two main points are political in nature; yet, what I emphasize on in this article is the social and even philosophical endeavor of establishing a postcolonial identity through the lengthy process of not only decolonizing the country’s way of doing things, but also decolonizing the mind. 

Peacebuilding, which could be community-inspired is a slow and difficult process. Conflict transformation from the bottom upwards is the most efficient solution. ‘Grassroots democracy’ is the simple belief that through de-centralized policymaking, the decision-makers are in fact the local communities who experience these policies first hand. After the Beirut Port blast of 2020 and the near absence of the government in the rehabilitation process, civil society volunteers and donors took the initiative of cleaning the streets, offering food and shelter to those in need and distributing the funds received amongst themselves in a transparent way. A country surviving on philanthropy alone is doomed to fail. We need a system that supports local needs in a participatory democracy rather than in one where a representative of a constituency proposes ammendements to laws concerning his/her constituents from the top-down. It’s just not an efficient way of governance. 

Understanding neocolonialism by dismantling spheres of influence 

The United States has been blamed and hated for what many call ‘neocolonialism’. Indeed, it is at the top of the list when we think of this phenomenon. Yet it’s not the only one; France, Belgium, Germany, the UK and Russia seek to establish economic and political ‘relations’ with past colonies — unofficially through spheres of influence. Iran, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, India, China and to a lesser extent Egypt and Brazil are guilty of neocolonialism as well. A country does not have to be historically the colonizer to be adhering to neocolonialist policies today. 

Lebanon needs to dismantle these spheres of influence not necessarily on a global stage, but in what concerns the country’s interests. We cannot isolate ourselves from the world because we need good relations with both the East and West; BUT we need to work on what is good for the country, rather than adhere to the interests of the patron country which our numerous sectarian communities supposedly are in debt to. We have to strive for self-sufficiency, all the while having good relations with our two neighbors and the world. 

Trusting one another and believing in the opposite community’s capabilities in building a country is necessary to disrupt past ways of engaging with major countries and create new ones. A shocking number of people voted on an online poll which sought the establishment of a French Mandate in Lebanon. This shocked French President Emmanuel Macron during his visit to Beirut after the August 2020 port blast. I do have a weak spot for France and the European Union in general (it is no secret), but I will not have these feelings hinder the fragile relationship I have with the different sects in my country. It’s all about priority. We need to prioritize ourselves and each other, as Lebanese, first and foremost. As long as you respect your fellow human being, however you identify, know that you have a place in this country. 

Beyond nationalism: cosmopolitan indigenization 

Numerous academics, researchers and journalists have recently come out warning against “nationalism”. People have come to realize that nationalism, white supremacy, racism, xenophobia, chauvinism and toxic patriotism are intertwined and on the rise; they are indeed very harmful to any society. Is nationalism necessary as some claim it to be or is it a vice?

To explain this phenomenon, we must decipher its meaning. The word “nationalism” originates from the word “nation”. Often wrongly believed to have existed since the dawn of time, nationalism is actually a product of the modern period (19th-20th centuries). Some see it as utmost love and dedication to one’s ‘ancient’ nation, but in fact nationalism preceeds the nation and is entrenched in ‘other-ing’. A nation is what it is not; how can one know what the attributes of their nation is if they do not know — or assume they do — the attributes of the other supposed nation? 

It is quite the observation to see how engaged, enraged, dedicated, yet often aggressive and hateful nationalists could be. How can one recognize the thin line between nationalism and state-building in the aftermath of decolonization ?

Phoenicianism and Pan-Arabism have shown us that their main goal is our demise as Lebanese, and thus have no place in policy making. Secularism must prevail through a just system of separation of religion/sect and state, by allowing the country to redefine its postcolonial identity through a common concept of Lebanese peoplehood.

‘Cosmopolitan indigenization’ is the belief that local populations, inhabitants of (in this case) Lebanon, must re-gain the agency to decide for themselves. The self-determination of peoples opposes (neo)colonialism and imperialism. Not to step in the catastrophe which is nationalism, we can internationalize this indigenization process by including everyone who is of an unconventional faith or is not ‘originally’ of this land, for example. Our languages, both contemporary and ancient, have to actively be encouraged to be used and studied. Traditions and customs are to be respected and revered; we need to learn from our past through long forgotten traditions and ways of living sustainably in a community. To have our new Lebanese identity adaptable to the needs of the contemporary world, I propose picking and choosing to find a middle ground between conservatives and liberals. We must always keep in mind that we can indeed have prosperity in a post-capitalistic post-growth and globalized world without compromising our environment and community-based society. It just requires a little more effort to truly believe in sustainable solutions to our economic and societal woes.

Through the decolonization of our minds, we shall overcome the different crises we are experiencing! — enough superiority/inferiority complexes and self-hate. We need not to be proud of being Lebanese — what is ‘pride’ anyways? We do need to love ourselves for being Lebanese though. It’s genuinely not the end of the world. We are frustrated and upset, therefore let’s fight the brain drain and transform this country into the place we have always dreamt of. 

Conclusion

I would like to end this article by saying that Lebanon was never ‘great’ (not even in the 1950s and 60s). No country on this planet can have the honor of claiming to have been great. Yet, we need to seek greatness. We need to fight for it. Greatness is not synonymous with ‘utopian’; it simply seeks to define a path of equality, prosperity, liberty, sorority, environmentalism and welfare. To achieve ‘greatness’ we need to first believe and then strive for a new postcolonial idenity, independent of foreign influence on our country and our minds. 

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