During the 20th century, countries in the Middle East developed strong, nationalist states that created a homogenous model for their societies. Lebanon, however, did not follow suit. As Middle East expert Nadim Shehadi likes to say, Lebanon skipped the 20th century altogether.
Shehadi is the director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University and Associate Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. As an expert of Lebanese history, culture and society, Shehadi told KGOU’s World Views that countries in the region such as Syria, Iraq and Egypt are suffering from the diminishing 20th century model as dictators and strong states have been overthrown and challenged.
Lebanon, though, stands apart. The small country went through several protracted periods of strife during the last century, but now it’s relatively stable compared to its neighbors.
“It was considered a failed state because it failed to achieve national cohesiveness,” Shahadi said.
The Lebanese constitution has recognized ethnic and religious groups, and they have learned to coexist. At the same time, a weak national state has resulted in few services for its citizens. Lebanon’s military and institutions are weak. Shehadi says that puts Lebanon three steps ahead of its neighbors.
“It’s very costly to get rid of a dictatorship or a strong state, especially institutions,” Shehadi said.
Nevertheless, Lebanon is still affected by crises and its own internal issues. Tremendous problems exist for Lebanon, including the inability to elect a president or conduct a parliamentary election. Shehadi defines it as a “paralysis in government.” Additionally, the influx of refugees from its neighbors has given rise to tensions.
“One in three people in Lebanon is a refugee, someone who is destitute coming from neighboring countries, leaving war. And part of their leaving is blamed on our own militias from Lebanon,” Shehadi said.
The Hezbollah militia, which Shehadi considers a “state within a state” in Lebanon, participates in the Syrian war. The increasing numbers of refugees in Lebanon have a tense relationship with pro-Hezbollah sectors of Lebanese society.
Shehadi says the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been put on the “backburner” for the time being because the Syrian war has taken precedence.
“Even Palestinians themselves are horrified by what’s happening in Syria and it makes their situation seem manageable in a way,” Shehadi said.
Despite the problems, Shehadi remains optimistic about the future of Lebanon and the Middle East. He says the media does not provide the entire story of the region.
“Sometimes hardship brings out the best in people and I can see that happening in the region,” Shehadi said. “You don’t hear enough about that in the United States”
Nadim Shehadi on the inclusive nature of the Lebanese constitution and its consequences
We have a constitution which recognizes diversity rather than promotes homogeneity. So we recognize 18 different religious and ethnic groups and they all have their own personal status law and their portion of power in parliament. And that's considered anathema to a 20th century model. And because of that, we are not very nationalist. We're more where we were seem to be more identifying with our communities rather than the nation and the sovereign state, and the state was always weak. It never provided services. We had a weak army. So we failed in that sense to achieve the 20th century model. And now we we are in a better place than anyone else because everybody in the region is dismantling that model.
Nadim Shehadi on being optimistic and misconceived notions
I'm fairly optimistic because there is a lot more to the region than what you see in the media here. If you listen to the media here, you would think that there's only ISIS in the region. There's a lot more to the region than that. And I'm also optimistic because in times of hardship and in times of huge challenges you do get a lot of good initiatives coming out. Sometimes hardship brings out the best in people and I can see that happening in the region. And you don't hear enough of it in the United States.
Grillot: Welcome to World Views.
Shehadi: Thank you. I'm so glad to be here.
Grillot: Well it's our pleasure to have you here. You're here to talk about Lebanon at the University of Oklahoma. And I really think that's such a fascinating country and part of the world and particularly because we don't hear much about it these days. Our focus seems to really be centered on Syria what's happening in Syria, what's happening with ISIS. Of course, some of the news about about Iraq. But Lebanon which used to capture a great deal of our attention years ago things that have happened in Beirut and elsewhere it's kind of taken you know off the front burner. I guess we should say maybe on the back burner. But so bring us up to date about what's happening in Lebanon and what we should know about it today.
Shehadi: I was in Lebanon about two months ago and and it is. It does feel very different from the rest of the region. I think if I were to explain it in the shortest possible way it is that Lebanon skipped the 20th century and we are probably now ahead of the game because we skipped the 20th century. What's happening in the region is that the order that was installed in the 20th century, the order of strong states, strong sovereign states with strong armies built to fight for causers, very nationalist, homogeneous, secular, socialist. That order - Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Tunis - that order which was greatly inspired by Ataturk's modeled, the Turkish model of secularism and nationalism and homogeneity, that's collapsing. That's really in trouble. Lebanon failed to do that.
Shehadi: So if you look at the literature on Lebanon throughout the 20th century, it was considered a failed state. It was considered a failed state because it failed to achieve national cohesiveness. We have a constitution which recognizes diversity rather than promotes homogeneity. So we recognize 18 different religious and ethnic groups and they all have their own personal status law and their portion of power in parliament and that's considered anathema to a 20th century model. And because of that, we are not very nationalist. We're more where we were seen to be more identifying with our communities rather than the nation and the sovereign state and the state was always weak. It never provided services. We had a weak army. So we failed in that sense to achieve the 20th century model. And now we we are in a better place than anyone else because everybody in the region is dismantling that model. So if you look at what's happening in Syria what happened in Iraq in Libya and other places. We are probably three steps ahead because it's very costly to get rid of a dictatorship or a strong state especially institutions. And when you go through those institutions, you have to find an alternative. You have to get find a way of living without these institutions or finding alternative institutions. And beyond that you have to find a way of living together in diversity after you've been told that you're all equal and homogeneous and there's no ethnic or religious difference.
Shehadi: But at the same time there is hundreds of years of interaction of learning how to co-exist, sometimes better than other times.
Grillot: Well this message seems to be really ironic on the one hand in the sense that they just get kind of skipped the 20th century but yet happened because of that lack of development at least in a certain way. They're there as you're suggesting ahead of the game but yet we do know that there are influential neighbors or are those Iran for example that has played a significant role in Lebanon. We do know that there are terrorist organizations those, that are are considered terrorist organizations, that are operating in Lebanon. And we also know that they have very tense and difficult relations with their neighbor Israel. And so that raises other issues in terms of how those ... if they skip the twentieth century and they're not dealing with a lot of the problems that others in the region are dismantling the state as you're suggesting, so like in Syria and other Iraq, and others in the region .
Shehadi: I would I would even say globally.
Grillot: OK. Fair enough. Globally.
Shehadi: I mean really the 20th century state as we knew it in at least in my in my youth in the 70s which provided everything for for people, doesn't exist anymore and it's being dismantled at the great cost with lots of crises happening in Europe. Borders have less meaning. We have a crisis of borders everywhere. Crisis of sovereignty, of mood, of population. And these movements of population are causing a crisis now because of the 20th century model which was established post-World War 2. So for example UNHCR. UNHCR which deals with the refugees. It's a very bureaucratic organization. It takes a very long time to register, to move, to budget, to negotiate lots of negotiations a lot of bureaucracy. If UNHCR had to deal with the movement of population that happened in the 20s, in the thirties, and in the 40s, we would still be dealing with them. They just they just happened before that time and they. I'm not saying they were. They happen in ideal situations. But there were hundreds of thousands of people - Greeks, Turks, and people of people in the Balkans as you very well know, Germans after World War II - 20 million Germans were displaced and they somehow managed to settle before the bureaucracy came in which would have made the arrival of 10000 refugees in the United States huge crisis and the huge bureaucratic process for vetting. You have literally millions of people who moved before that system was put in place.
Grillot: But I'm assuming you're not suggesting that Lebanon is somehow not suffering from the crisis in the war that it's it doesn't have its own issues like I was suggesting you know vis a vis its neighbors and given you know kind of external influence that it's own pressure that it faces.
Shehadi: No, Lebanon has huge problems. We we in the sense that we haven't been able to elect a president for the last five years. We haven't been able to have parliamentary elections. There's paralysis in government institutions. There is a lot of tension because of the refugees. We have one one in three people in Lebanon is a refugee someone who is destitute coming from neighboring neighboring countries leaving war and part of their leaving the country is blamed on our own militias from Lebanon. So Hezbollah which is a militia which is a kind of a state within a state in Lebanon is is a participant in the Syria and the Syrian war. So some of the Syrian refugees who are fleeing their homes are fleeing because of Hezbollah intervention. And you can imagine the tension of them living in camps next to villages that are pro Hezbollah and how is how is that ever going to be resolved.
Grillot: I mean how can you manage that. I'm always asking this question because when I talk to Joshua Landis and others who are really focused on the Middle East is what what please tell me what the solution is about because that is such a complicated thing in terms of how to reconstruct one society and then you know rebuild your communities.
Shehadi: Well in the case of Lebanon we have less to reconstruct and less to rebuild. And in that sense because because we're we've always been that way. And and we found a way of living together. And we've with we are withholding the tension. The political crisis is has a positive angle in the sense that our power power sharing arrangement and the constitution which also has lots of checks and balances makes us go into total paralysis when there's a problem until we get it gets resolved. Now of course the system broke down twice before. It broke down in 1958, causing violence. It broke down in 1975 with the civil war. But it takes a lot of pressure for it for it for it to break down. There are mechanisms that make it go into paralysis until until a compromise is reached and the country lives on compromises in that sense. So there's no rigidity or ideological framework which is so rigid that it cannot reach a compromise.
Grillot: Which does seem to be very different than every one around. But speaking of this compromise issue, obviously Lebanon has been and Hezbollah in particular has been significantly involved in the past Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And yet there's another issue that's also kind of on the backburner it seems given what we've seen happen in Syria in Iraq and with ISIS and all of the problems we're quite familiar with. Yeah. So is that another touch point that you know again it's just going to be ignored. No I think.
Shehadi: I on the Palestinian question is on the back burner for a very good reason. It's on the backburner because first of all a lot worse is happening in Syria and people are horrified. Even Palestinians themselves are horrified by what's happening in Syria and it makes their situation seem manageable in a way. I'm not belittling the occupation. It's an awful system. It does a lot of harm to Palestinians and Israelis alike. It's poisoning both societies if you like at the root of societies. I mean the youth the next generation is going to be still affected by it. So it's a very serious thing. But if one looks at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict it's a conflict of the 20th century. Young people who are revolting against dictatorships in the region are also revolting against the whole mindset of these dictators and these dictators derive their legitimacy over two or three generations from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. So the the the Assads, the Saddam's, and the Qadhafi's, and the Mubarak's derived legitimacy either by making it by making war or making peace with on in the name of the Palestinians. And there's been states of emergency where the Constitution has been suspended, civil rights have been suspended in the region since the 1960s, because of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or at least taking taking the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as an excuse or a struggle with Israel as an excuse. So youth who are revolting against the system are also revolting against these components. This is a this is a conflict from the past. This is what their parents were exercised about.
Shehadi: If you were in the 1920s in Europe recovering from World War Two news from World War One sorry where half your friends are dead and everything has changed. The Franco-Prussian war seems very far away. It's it's from the last century it's your lot. The last generation you want to change that. It's part of the problem not of the future. So I think it's what's happening with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is very very interesting and there are great opportunities to resolve it.
Grillot: Well so I was going to ask in in our final minute that we have very quickly what are the bright spots? It sounds like you're fairly optimistic about that particular time. What are the bright spots.
Shehadi: Yes I'm fairly optimistic because there is a lot more to the region than what you see in the media here. If you listen to the media here, you would think that there's only ISIS in the region. There's a lot more to the to the region than that. And I'm also optimistic because in times of hardship and and and in times of huge challenges you do get a lot of good initiatives coming out. Sometimes hardship brings out the best in people and I can see that happening in the region and you don't hear enough of it in the United States.
Grillot: Thank you so much Nadim for reminding us of that. It's great to have you here. Appreciate your insight.
Shehadi: Thank you.
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