Lebanon : A Focal Point for Unsolved Tensions

By Paul Sullivan

Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon :

A History of the Internationalization of Communal Conflict

By Samir Khalaf

Columbia University Press, 2002

This book could be of great use to Lebanese intellectuals and to scholars of the history of violence and war. Diplomats and military strategists should find it insightful, as well as anyone interested in trying to figure out why civil and uncivil violence begins, what fuels it, and what may stop it. Samir Khalaf's "Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon" will enlighten those who think that it is possible to easily piece a country back together again after it has experienced extreme violence, severe ethnic tensions, and horrific communal violence.

One can readily call to mind other such sorry countries when reading through this book. But, as the author states so often, Lebanon is different. It is almost sui generis because it is a multi-ethnic state that, for much of its history, has survived with many disparate communities getting along in a somewhat peaceful and civil manner. It is also, as the author astutely points out, somewhat of an ideological threat to Lebanon's neighboring states that are mostly of one religion and are far from democratic. It has also been a country that has been a proxy battlefield for powers great and small for hundreds of years. Moreover, Lebanon has been a focal point for its region's chronically unsolved conflicts and tensions, leading to some pathological psychologies. Lebanon also distinguishes itself with historical and religious weights that few small countries have.

Lebanon still has a chance to be a functioning democracy made up of many religious and ethnic groups, but it also has a chance of heading back into calamity.

During the civil war of 1975-1991, possibly more than 170,000 people were killed, 340,000 injured, and about two-thirds of the population was displaced in some way. Billions of dollars of assets were lost, which Khalaf cites as an example of uncivil violence.

Many might argue that all violence is uncivil. Khalaf tries to present the differences between uncivil and civil violence in a logical, academic, yet practical way. Essentially, he sees a continuum that stretches from strikes, walkouts, and controlled violence rooted in economics and politics (such as income inequalities, wealth inequalities, and some social conflicts) to atavistic, primitive, illogical "ultra" violence which is based, somewhat paradoxically, on factors such as religion and communal loyalties or "mythologies" derived from those.

He gives examples of times when perpetrators would make sure people were not in the buildings to be bombed, or when they would make sure to not disrupt the daily schedules of their villages and towns too much. These may be seen as, ironically, the "good old days" of violence in Lebanon . He also gives examples of the nightmarish civil war during which irrational, misdirected, animalistic violence became normal, even a part of the everyday routines of Lebanese. He also describes some of the short and long term psychological, economic, social, and political effects of such a "normalization" of primitive uncivil violence.

He points out that certain types of violence take on a life of their own; the original reasons for it are often lost, the original targets are sometimes forgotten, and new and easier targets are chosen to vent frustrated violence. It is very difficult to stop such violence once it gets started. Revenge and counter-revenge can lead to unstoppable cycles of violence and loss: "an eye for an eye" made Lebanon blind.

Khalaf has embedded a brilliant, encyclopedic history of Lebanon in this fascinating book. "Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon" can be seen as a behavioral history with some predictions and hopes for the future, but this book is much more. Khalaf sounds out many factors that explain changes in group behaviors of Lebanese over time. He focuses on internal factors, such as the Lebanese economy, commodity prices, labor issues, government structure and power, culture clashes, and main events - like the "Sarajevos" of Lebanon that include assassinations of famous journalists and politicians. He also focuses on external factors, especially the use of Lebanon for proxy wars during the 19th and 20th centuries by the "Great Powers" and others for their own national interests. His interpretations of the Marine incursions of 1958 and in the early 1980s are riveting reading. Khalaf is convincing in his interpretation that the incursion in 1958 made more sense and was done in a better manner than the sad disaster of the 1980s. He also looks deeply into the effects Israel has had on Lebanon from its inception in 1948. Lebanon is a tough teacher, and a very complex country.

Lebanon could be seen as a canonical example of how foreign policies of certain nations should be developed with a very deep understanding of the countries that are affected. Without that deep understanding, the unintended, unexpected, and the unknowns could multiply.

Khalaf does an excellent job of explaining many of the events that have shaped Lebanon without becoming sensational.

Interestingly, Khalaf has very little positive to say about the Palestinians' effects on Lebanon . He blames the Palestinians for much of the violence heading toward and escalating the civil war. He sees "Black September" in Jordan, after which the PLO was tossed out and fled in large numbers to Lebanon, to be a major turning point. He makes a negative assessment of the "Cairo Accords" that gave the Palestinian camps almost complete autonomy. He gives many examples of what he calls Palestinian lawlessness and violence, examples that he believes tipped the already unsteady scales of inter-communal violence toward the uncivil, brutal civil war.

Lebanon's history with the Palestinians fits with Khalaf's theoretical stream of ideas related to the importance of the reactions and interactions of the internal-external dialectics. It may seem stunningly obvious that Lebanon, because of its geographically strategic location, its history, and the connections its people have with the outside world through trade, commerce, intellectual life and more, that it would be used as a proxy for battles of the bigger players.

Importantly, Khalaf does not absolve the Lebanese from their own guilt. Indeed, external powers and interests have interfered violently and disturbingly in Lebanon, but certain Lebanese have also added to this country's troubles. He does not pull his punches when he points out who these people have been.

The last section of the book looks into the future and has a cautiously optimistic view of what might happen in Lebanon. Khalaf summarizes certain lessons learned throughout the book, and gives us some recommendations for how to stop such uncivil violence in the future.

This is a clearly written book. It is structured in a very logical way, both historically and intellectually. The chapters end with a section on "inferences," helping the reader better understand what was written in the chapter. It is also a book full of nuances and subtleties. It is obvious that the author put massive efforts into this study over a long period of time. There are many sentences in this book that carry the sometimes profoundly useful thoughts of the author in his very carefully crafted phrasing.

It is very clear that he cares deeply for his country, and that he has agonized over its bloody past and worries about its future. It is also very clear that Khalaf's understanding of Lebanon is shared by few, whether inside or outside the country.

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 9, no. 45 (Fall 2003).

Copyright (c) 2003 by Al Jadid


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