Saturday, March 21, 2009

Engaging the Muslim world

Engaging the ... world

Lebanon does not march in lockstep with Iran, .... It is defined by a kaleidoscope of alliances....

Despite the conviction in Washington, D.C., that Lebanon is becoming an Iranian outpost, the reality is more complex. The Levantine country is a playground for oil-rich governments and investors. Smaller than Connecticut, and with a population of only about 4 million, it is uneasily wedged between Israel and Syria. Its employed workers are mainly in the financial services and tourism sectors (three-fourths of the labor force), while nearly a fifth work in industry and only 5 percent still farm. A fifth of Lebanon's population is unemployed, and over a fourth lives below the poverty line. Its major city, Beirut, consists of boxy white towers crowding the edges of the indigo Mediterranean and extending up rolling hills. In times of political calm, Beirut hosts summer music festivals for European youth and pilgrims from nearby puritanical societies seeking the profane shrines of nightclubs and casinos. Smart hotels and fashionable shopping districts lace through a city reeling from the negative effects of wars and bombings.

Lebanon's sectarian and ethnic divides, between Christian and Muslim, Sunni and Shiite, Armenian and Palestinian, do not produce polarization so much as kaleidoscopic alliances and feuds that shift with head-spinning alacrity; they often pit members of the same group against one another. A little less than a century ago, Lebanon was a majority Christian society carved out of Syria by French colonial masters. Today its population is probably only 30 percent Christian. Among the Muslim majority, the fastest-growing group is the Shiites, who are also the poorest community. Good statistics on Lebanon's population are not easy to come by, but my own estimate is that Lebanon is now 45 percent Shiite and that in twenty years it will likely be a majority Shiite society.

Despite their political support for Hizbullah, Lebanese Shiites should not be assumed to share its puritanical attitudes. Many Shiite young women are every bit as chic and oriented toward Paris fashion as their Maronite Catholic peers, and cosmopolitan Shiite families often have outposts in Brazil or West Africa. One of the more scandalous video music stars in Beirut, known for her baby face and steamy dance moves, is Haifa Wahbi, whose father is a Shiite. In December 2007, I flew to Lebanon to give a talk at the American University of Beirut. On my trip I had a conversation with a Shiite graduate student from the village of Qana in the south, who was studying comparative literature at Lebanese American University and enjoying Arundhati Roy's "God of Small Things" -- an Indian novel about a star-crossed romance that transgresses caste taboos.

In 2006, the Pew Charitable Trust's Global Values Project released the results of a poll showing that nearly half of Lebanese Muslims are secular in outlook. It concluded, "Although Lebanese Muslims consider Islam an important part of their lives, they place less emphasis on their faith than do Muslims elsewhere." Only 54 percent of Lebanese said that "religion is very important." In societies such as Pakistan and Morocco, over 90 percent of respondents assent to this sentiment. Likewise, less than a third of Lebanese Muslims say they think of themselves first as Muslims and only secondarily as Lebanese. An equal number openly asserts that being Lebanese is more important to them than their religious identity. Fully 86 percent of Lebanese Muslims have a favorable view of Christians (which is natural since they have far more Christian neighbors and friends than Muslims in most other countries in the region).

Nevertheless, the U.S. mass media cannot mention the word "Hizbullah" without showing stock footage of its small paramilitary marching in ski masks. Former president George W. Bush denounced the movement as a form of "Islamic fascism." But it is obvious, as noted earlier, that large numbers of Lebanese Shiites who vote for Hizbullah are not very religious and that they back the party for secular reasons. Likewise, they may take money from Iran, but they are mostly uninterested in Khomeinist Puritanism, .

During my 2007 trip, I spoke on a Tuesday afternoon at the university, and Wednesday was a Muslim holy day, so I had it free. My host, the geographer Patrick McGreevy, and his wife, Betsy, kindly took me on a whirlwind afternoon tour of Shiite areas south of the capital. McGreevy, who sports a shock of gray hair, a salt-and-pepper mustache and a chic black wardrobe, heads the university's innovative Center for American Studies and Research, endowed by Saudi billionaire al-Walid bin Talal to promote knowledge of the United States in the Arab world. McGreevy and his wife had bravely stayed in Beirut during the 2006 war to show their devotion to their new home, unlike most foreign residents of the capital and unlike a lot of middle-class Beirutis, who headed ABROAD....

On July 23, 2006, McGreevy circulated to friends a poignant meditation on how the war affected the Shiite slums and rural south far more deeply than it did swanky Ras Beirut, referring to that part of the capital as the uppermost, least uncomfortable ring of hell. He described how some 50,000 refugees had streamed into the port of Sideon. The far south, from which many of the refugees came, was the lowest rung of hell, an inferno of exploding munitions and villagers set on the road by horror. At the end of that war, in its last three days, the Israelis dropped 2 million cluster bombs on south Lebanon, an act that had no legitimate military purpose but rather was designed to discourage Shiite villagers from returning to their homes. The ploy failed, but the cluster bombs did kill civilians, including children. It was a war crime, since the bombs were clearly intended to harm civilians in typical IDF fashion and history since Sabra And Shatila in 1982...

A year and a half later, as we headed through Beirut on our one-hour journey to Tyre, we could see to the west, along the seashore, massive piles of rubble that bulldozers had cleared from the slums of south Beirut (the Dahiya quarter). Those residential neighborhoods had been so heavily bombed by the Israelis during the summer war that the damage was visible even from outer space. Entire city blocks began to look vacant in satellite photographs. The Hizbullah offices were the primary Israeli targets here, but these administrative centers were located in the midst of crowded civilian tenements.

The intensive Israeli bombing campaign inflicted $3.6 billion in infrastructural damage and killed as many as 1,400 persons, most of them civilians. Hundreds of thousands of Shiites huddled in schools and other public buildings, having fled their homes in the south, and they were received with open arms by all Lebanese.

Hizbullah's impressive resistance and emergency fund, to which Iran is said to have contributed, allowed it to give out food and other aid to Shiites displaced by the war. Afterward, some of the rebuilding of south Beirut was carried out by Hizbullah's Holy War for Reconstruction, which receives funding from Iran as well as from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. One engineer working with the organization, Yasser al-Hajj, boasted to an American reporter, "We are going to rebuild Dahiya before you [Americans] rebuild New Orleans from Katrina." On the road through the southern suburbs, I saw wooden posts placed in highway islands that bore images of the Lebanese, Hizbullah and Iranian flags.