Friday, September 01, 2006

It is a bad day to be a Shiite: Sectarianism in post-war Lebanon

The reconstruction process is turning into a competition for the hearts (and houses) of the Shiite population. After Hezbollah’s 12,000 US$ grant for each house destroyed, the government announced this week that it will pay 33,000 US$ for these same houses. Yet, the battle for the hearts is also a battle for the minds of this population. Two choices are being fashioned for the Shiites, each trying to impose a unique definition of what is to be a Shiite in the post-Iraq Middle East and post-war Lebanon.
The first presents the Shiite Lebanese identity as being incompatible with its regional dimension. Favouring a logic of space to a logic of community, this perspective builds on the Shiite Lebanese authors to draw a wedge between the Lebanese experience and specificities of the Shiite community and its regional political allegiance. This spatial reconfiguration is usually grafted upon a modern/traditional opposition presenting the Lebanese Shiite identity as a tolerant, open and liberal belonging. The political conclusion of this refashioning is that the Lebanese liberal Shiite identity will not support the regional plan of Iran and its war, and will, instead, focus on purely domestic matters.
Opposed to this view, an alternative identity is being fashioned, one that reduces the Shiite identity to its role as a resistance group. Negating any specificity associated with their Lebanese identity, this view locates the Shiite in an Arab masse perspective, being the Lebanese instantiation of the resistance against Israel. The raison d’être of this community, according to this view, is their resistance to Israel, as represented by their support of the Hezbollah. Threaten by any divergence of this community from the Hezbollah, this approach portrays war and resistance as part of this community identity.
These two competing views of what it is to be Shiite are being hammered on the Shiite population, in a series of opposition: security vs. resistance, prosperity vs. honour, Lebanon vs. Iran, daily concerns vs. half a century of conflicts, Khatami vs. Ahmadinejad, Shamseddine vs. Nasrallah, modernity vs. nationalism, democracy vs. occupation, 33,000 US$ vs. 12,000 US$. By presenting the Shiite identity as being torn between two irreconcilable poles, the current competition for the minds of the Shiite is obliterating all the nuances of sectarian belonging in Lebanon, nuances that serve as the security valves of the Lebanese system.
Any redefinition of a sect’s political identity is a painful process, forcing the sect to redefine itself, redraw its boundary, shed some of its tradition and adopt new positions. With each redefinition, some members find themselves outside of their sects, other become traitors. With each redefinition, a sect’s relation with its environment and other sects is altered, with new geographies being redrawn and new enemies emerging. Propelled into this process after the war, the Shiite population is being subjected to competing demands: on one hand, continuously proving their Lebanese identity without a say in it while on the other, proving their commitment to the resistance without a say in it.


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