Thursday, May 24, 2007

Fundamentalisms Preying on Lebanon

A force roams the world searching out opportunities to weaken democracy, to undermine moderates, and to spread its belief in a fundamentalist, messianic, violence-worshiping version of politics justified by a particular interpretation of some religion. Appearing in many forms, these twisted, extremist perspectives on global affairs hunt for victims and power in the dark jungle of global affairs. They function in part as sad, desperate answers to problems seen with some reason as insoluable by any moderate means and in part as carnivores exploiting the imperfections of a world of winners and losers, where winners increasingly seem to gloat and rub it in rather than extending a helping hand to those less fortunate. This force opposes democracy because democracy means debate, choice, and variety--all anathema to the fundamentalist self-image of perfection. This force thrives on chaos and searches for weak points in the global system of governance where chaos can be fomented.

The Islamic version, which although hardly the only or even the most powerful version of political fundamentalism, is certainly the one most Americans tend to worry about; it may be referred to by the shorthand "al Qua’ida (al Queda)," though the extent to which al Qua'ida remains a single, unified organization is open to question. When al Quai’da surveys the world searching for new opportunities to "make friends and influence people," what land could look more fertile for sowing its violent seed than Lebanon?

Lebanon has been shattered by a vicious, multi-sided, two-decade-long civil war; victimized by repeated Israeli invasions that seem, judging from Israeli tactics, to have been designed to destroy the cohesion of Lebanese society and prevent any real Lebanese independence from ever emerging; strangled by Syrian occupation; and exploited by a host of others, from Palestinian refugees driven out of their homeland to rich countries on all sides. On top of everything else, Lebanese rich and poor cannot find a way to share the political space, and outsiders keep egging the two sides on like spectators at a cock fight.

With this as the context, through the smoke of the current fighting in Tripoli, what useful analysis can be undertaken?
  • Demographics: 10% Palestinian refugees ; 30% Shi’a
  • Political Participation: effectively denied to the above 40% of the population
  • Governance: minimal government provision of services for the above 40% of the population (for the Shi'a, local government provided by Hezballah).

Given such circumstances, pressure by foreigners on their Lebanese allies/clients to reject compromise in favor of hardline policies enforced by violence can only be expected to generate endless violence. Such pressure obstructs the inclusion of marginalized Lebanese groups from participating in Lebanese politics and opens the door to advocates of extremism.

Careless remarks about "reining in" extremists, like that made by President Bush this week that ignore the underlying conditions and implicitly endorse violence by the military which can only further antagonize already marginalized groups (in this case, the Palestinian refugees) pour gasoline on the fire. Why? Because they serve as evidence the extremists can use to persuade Lebanese to join them. "You see," they can and will say, "no one cares about your problems. No one is listening, no one will help. The government attacks you, and foreigners support the government. No one cares that you are endangered or out of food. Your only hope is to join us and fight back." Whether or not this message may be true is not the point: the issue is perceptions, and in Lebanon advocates of democracy do not appear to be winning that battle.

Whatever the particular spark that caused this week’s violence to flame up, it is the gasoline-soaked rags in every political corner of Lebanon about which we should be concerned. The surprise is not the violence this week. The surprise is that the Hezbollah-led protest movement against the current government has remained peaceful for the roughly six months it has so far endured. The surprise is that it has taken al Qua’ida so long to figure out a way to exploit Lebanese conditions to its own advantage. The surprise is that the long-suffering Palestinians remain quiet in their camps. The surprise is that Lebanon’s civil war ended despite its failure to resolve the issues that caused it in the first place.

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