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What Kerala can learn from the history of Lebanon’s sectarian politics


The last few weeks, Kerala saw the spectacle of sections of the clergy and politicians making unfounded allegations of non-Muslim youth being targets of “love jihad” and “narcotic jihad”. The language used was clearly to drive a sectarian wedge in a state which boasts of centuries of communal harmony. It was commendable that the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had the courage and the gumption to dispel these allegations with precise facts and figures. By showing exactly the number of persons arrested from the various religious denominations he could prove that “narcotics business is not run on the basis of religion”.

As attempts to drum up sectarian conflict will continue, it will pay for Kerala to study the lessons from the history of Lebanon.

Lebanon, like Kerala, was the very epicenter of a rich, multi religious and ethnically diverse society in the Middle East. Here, Christians, Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims, the Druze and Jews coexisted and thrived. As Edward Said put it, Lebanon was synonymous with “openness, diversity and the joy of life”.

Lebanon, like Kerala, took to modern education very early.  With peace among its religions and literacy levels at 73.5%, Lebanon made a neat head start.  Lebanese working abroad sent foreign exchange remittances, which formed the bulwark of the Lebanese economy. Lebanon’s dynamic economy enjoyed high growth rates, a large influx of foreign capital, and steadily rising per capita income. It became the epicenter of commerce and trade in the Middle East.

The OPEC petrol price hike of 1973 had sent most of the world’s economies reeling. By contrast, Lebanon’s economy began to peak.

Lebanese Banks became the main source for channeling the petro-dollar boom and became the repositories of the new found Arab wealth. The Lebanese Pound gained ground against the US Dollar. Beirut was the “Paris of the East”.

However, to deflect from contentious issue of inequality of incomes, the elites increasingly began to resort to sectarian politics. With the growth of denominational politics, the truce among the religions began to collapse in bits and parts.

Sunday, the 13 th  of April 1975, will remain written in blood in the history of Lebanon. There was an exchange of fire between the Sheik Gemayel Pierre’s Christian militia and unidentified gunmen. The same day 27 Palestinian were killed in an ambush.

These two violent incidents triggered the simmering sectarian passions which had been carefully cultivated by the elites. Instead of calming the situation, they incited the masses. Beirut soon exploded into an orgy of violence. The religions of Lebanon with their armed militias soon took the field. This spectacular nation went into a civil war. The fighting ripped through the city of Beirut. The area to the north of Beirut was under the control of the Christian rightist guerrillas and to the south was controlled by a Druze-Muslim-Palestinian alliance.

This strife in the financial capital of the Middle East naturally had international ramifications. The major world powers had stakes in Lebanon’s power struggle. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Syria and Israel were all participants in this conflict, while the USA and the USSR conducted the civil war through their cold war proxies. Repeated attempts at cease fire failed.

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. The Israeli army upon reaching Beirut joined forces with the Phalangists and commenced the encirclement of West Beirut and the indiscriminate bombing of residential areas in Beirut. Lebanon also had to bear witness to the cruelest pogrom in modern history, under the guard of the Israeli forces Christian Phalangist forces killed 2300 Palestinian men, women and children in the refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla.

As in all conflicts, there was an economic price to be paid. The industry in Lebanon sustained a direct damage valued at almost L£7 billion (one-fifth of the industry’s fixed capital). Indirect damage to industry, trade and business was estimated to be of L£2.23 billion. Industry and commerce were paralyzed. Foreign banks which came to Beirut were now fleeing the beleaguered city. Lebanese banks, once flushed with funds, were now finding their deposits depleting. The Lebanese Pound which once proudly rose against the dollar, now collapsed in value from L£4 to L£477 to the US dollar. The commercial elites who funded the sectarian politics and strife, were now bearing burden of this conflict.

The civil war in Lebanon went on for 15 long years. The Lebanese were exhausted. The sheer futility of this long war, the entailing savagery and the inconclusiveness of the conflict, drove the various factions to accept peace.

After 15 years of indecisive fighting, on October 1989, in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia an agreement was drawn between the warring religious factions, based on the principle of “mutual coexistence” of the religions and their “proper political representation”. This was cruel irony, because that was exactly how Lebanon was run for almost 30 years, under the Pact of 1943, till the civil war broke out in 1975.

This sectarian strife had cost as many as 150,000 Lebanese lives.  About one-quarter of the country’s population fled abroad, and hundreds of thousands were forced to move from one part of Lebanon to another.

Lebanon woke up at the end of the 15 year civil war to discover that it had lost its erstwhile pre-eminent position in the Arab world. The Arab money no longer needed the educated and multilingual Lebanese. The Middle East’s businessmen had learnt to deal directly with Western banks and corporations. Lebanon was no longer the Arab world’s financial capital. The Middle East had developed their own markets and financial centers. Dubai, Riyadh, Muscat, Doha and many other world-class financial centers which had come to bloom in the interregnum.

Kerala is in the position of the pre-civil war Lebanon. It is the peace among religions, which has enabled the State to climb the dizzying heights of human development index. It is this peace which enabled the state over the decades to develop well-heeled public health care systems which showcased to international acclaim the remarkable manner it dealt with the pandemic. The renowned economist, John Kenneth Galbraith had once written about how societies consisting of populations having the requisite education and skill sets could thrive post war and devastation, like Japan and Germany. If he were alive today, he would certainly have included Kerala, which bounced back after two devastating floods.

All this was possible, because so far, Kerala could avoid the fratricidal and myopic politics of sectarianism which Lebanon and its politicians cultivated to its destruction.



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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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