A few months after Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination and the Cedar Revolution, I traveled to Lebanon to research its sectarian culture forged by years of Christian, Sunni, and Shiite conflict, and to explore how the evolving events and trends in Lebanon answered the questions: to what extent and in what ways does intra-national religious and/or ethnic diversity affect the success of a state?
I believe no other method of learning engenders more personal growth and significant results than learning by immersion in the primary source. So with the little Arabic I knew, a pocket dictionary, and an occasional translator, I immersed myself in the niches of Beirut, from its gregarious downtown of rolling arches, dance clubs, and gelato boutiques; to its Christian churches, markets, and villages; to its harsh Shiite slums of bullet-ridden buildings, blood signed martyr posters, and menacing Hezbollah militants. Having reviewed the previous year’s New York Times articles about Lebanon, I prepared dozens of questions each tailored to the specific religion, profession, and political leaning of my subject. I interviewed Maronite Christians, Catholics, Sunnis, Shiites, the poor, soldiers, Hezbollah, and people from all political leanings such as French, American, Iranian, Israeli, and Syrian. To every subject I posed the questions: who do you think assassinated Hariri and why; how do you see Israel; what do you think of the Iraq War and America’s Middle East policies; does Syria have hegemonic aims on Lebanon; do you feel fairly represented in the Lebanese government; what one thing needs to take place for Lebanon to be more secure; and ultimately, is diversity a source of strength or weakness for a nation.
I spent the majority of my time in the poorest districts of Beirut because I wanted my sample of interviewees to be as varied as possible, and I wanted to examine how a subject’s economic condition affected his political condition. I wondered if the poor tended to favor extremists while the rich favored moderates, or if it was the other way around. I talked to a couple Anglo-American expatriates working for Lebanon’s department of education about the extent to which past Western imperialism is the source of current Middle Eastern turmoil. Signs of remaining sectarian strife appeared when I was stopped five minutes into an interview with a Christian merchant by his supervisor who said company rules prohibited the discussion of politics inside the shop. I also met with the president of an Islamic literature publishing house who was a religious Shiite of Iranian descent, yet believed that Hezbollah should be disarmed because it was the principal source of instability in the country.
Indeed, one cannot understand Lebanon’s sectarian culture without understanding the taut position of Hezbollah. The day after parliamentary elections were held in Iraq, I attended a Friday prayer service in the Hezbollah Mosque. With militants around me I sat anxiously with a device in my pocket recording the head cleric’s twenty minute political tirade. Back at my apartment I had the recording translated into English, and was astounded at the unequivocal content of the cleric’s harrowing calls: “jihad against Israel, jihad against America – jihad against all of Allah’s enemies.”
In what wound up being the highest and perhaps most dangerous point of my research, I attained an interview with a Hezbollah media relations officer. Although I was slightly apprehensive about my safety, I nonetheless pressed the issue of Israel throughout the interview. The media relations officer affirmed that war against Israel would continue indefinitely until the Jewish state disintegrated. He reasoned that the land of Palestine belongs not to the Jews, but to the Palestinians because the Palestinians have been the majority of the land for over a thousand years and most of the Jews are recent newcomers from Europe. Thus he concluded all the Jews ought to return from whence they came. To that point, I retorted that under the same premise, Lebanon belongs to the Christians because they have been the majority of that land for almost two thousand years, and since most of the Shiites are recent newcomers, they ought to return from whence they came. An awkward period followed during which we stared at each other for a brief, silent moment, and then burst in nervous laughter. Shortly thereafter the meeting abruptly ended.
Many of the offices, shops, and street corners that encompassed the setting of my research are gone now – turned to rubble by Israeli jets in the recent war, with many of the people who made up the context of my research, particularly those of the Islamic Shiite bloc, dead or living in exile. I gleaned from my time immersed in Lebanon’s sectarian factions that Hariri’s assassination and the Cedar Revolution had rekindled old suspicions, and that a fog of anxiety now blankets all of Lebanon. It seemed like the civil war had just ended – or that another one is about to begin.