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

Debris of Martyrs' Square showing two people standing, another fallen against a building in the backgroundMartyrs' Square in Lebanon / Courtesy - James Case / Wiki Commons / CC By SA 2
news History Sunday, September 26, 2021 - 17:33
Written by  Santosh Paul

Over the last few weeks, Kerala saw the spectacle of sections of the clergy and politicians making allegations of non-Muslim youth being targets of “love jihad” and “narcotic jihad”. The terminology deployed was clearly to drive a sectarian wedge in a state which boasts of centuries of communal harmony. It was commendable that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had the courage and the gumption to dispel these allegations with precise facts and figures showing the numbers of persons arrested from the various religious denominations emphasizing that “narcotics business is not run on the basis of religion”, and that “such campaigns would tantamount to sowing the seeds of hatred.” 

It is this peace among religions, which has enabled Kerala to climb the dizzying heights of human development index and showcased to international acclaim the remarkable manner in which its well-heeled healthcare systems could effectively deal with the pandemic. John Kenneth Galbraith had 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 named Kerala, which bounced back after two devastating floods. All this was possible because so far, Kerala could avoid the fratricidal politics of sectarianism and focus solely on development.

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, Maronite Christians, Greek Orthodox Christians, Greek Catholics, 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.” 

In 1943, Lebanon became independent and the country was governed by a carefully crafted National Pact of 1943. It was governed by a system of proportional representation of its religions, thereby welding them as willing partners to nationhood. 

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 Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) petrol price hike of 1973 had sent most of the world’s economies reeling. By contrast, Lebanon’s economy began to peak, with its GDP doubling in 1973 from that in 1966. Lebanese Banks became the main source for channeling the petro-dollar boom. The Lebanese banks were the repositories of the new found Arab wealth. The Lebanese Pound gained ground against the US Dollar. 

However, despite all these achievements, unaddressed issues of inequalities of income and wealth persisted in Lebanon. To deflect from this contentious issue raised by the Left parties, 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, April 13, 1975, will remain written in blood in the history of Lebanon. Sheik Gemayel Pierre, a Phalangist Militia leader was attending the consecration of a new church. There, an exchange of fire between his militia and unidentified gunmen led to loss of lives. That very same morning, a bus carrying Palestinian refugees returning to their camp was ambushed by gunmen who shot dead 27 unarmed passengers including children. 

These two incidents triggered the simmering sectarian passions 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 and their armed militias soon took the field and this spectacular nation went into a civil war in the year 1975. The fighting between the religious militias ripped through the city of Beirut. An imaginary green line ran through the center of Beirut: the area to the north of the line was under the control of the Christian rightist guerrillas, and the south was controlled by a Druze-Muslim-Palestinian alliance.

This strife in the financial capital of the Middle East naturally had international ramifications, as the major world powers had stakes in Lebanon’s power struggle. It now escalated into an international conflict. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Syria and Israel were all participants in this conflict, while the USA and the USSR were conducting the civil war through their cold war proxies. All attempts at a ceasefire failed. 

In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon. The Israeli army, upon reaching Beirut, joined forces with the Phalangists and commenced the encirclement of West Beirut. They began the indiscriminate bombing of residential areas in Beirut. The Israeli officers received instructions to attack Beirut’s Muslim quarters. Colonel Eli Geva, an Israeli officer whose column was to lead the assault on West Beirut, asked himself to be relieved of his Brigade Command, and refused to participate in the assault against a defenseless civilian population. The tanks pounded, crumbling the buildings and killing the ordinary citizens. ‘Soldiers Against Silence’ — a group consisting of Israeli officers — demanded an end to the war. 

Lebanon had to bear witness to the cruelest pogrom in modern history. On September 15, 1982, Israeli forces surrounded the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila, and allowed the Lebanese Christian Phalangist forces to enter the camps. Gunfire could be heard till dawn. By morning, as the reporters moved in, they saw over 2,300 bullet ridden and mutilated bodies of Palestinian men, women and children. 

As in all conflicts, there was an economic price to be paid. The industry in Lebanon is estimated to have sustained direct damage valued at almost L£7 billion. Indirect damage to industry, trade and business was estimated to be of L£2.23 billion. One-fifth of the industry's fixed capital was lost. It was the commercial elites who funded the sectarian politics and strife had now to bear its burden. 

Industry and commerce were paralyzed. Foreign banks which came into Beirut were now fleeing the beleaguered city. While Lebanese banks, once flushed with funds, were now finding their deposits depleting, the militias collected taxes and the civil service was maintained through deficit financing.

The Lebanese Pound was now taking a hard beating. The Lebanese Pound collapsed in value from L£4 to L£477 as against the US dollar. 

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 22, 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 a cruel irony, because that was exactly how Lebanon was run under the Pact of 1943, until the civil war of 1975 broke out. It had cost as many as 1,50,000 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 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 had come to bloom in the interregnum.

This is a history never taught in India. The tragedy of discarding constitutions founded on secular values, for sectarian ideologies, have scarred nations like Lebanon forever. Edward Said’s words ring out on the reading of the history of Lebanon: 

“Instead of getting a wise leadership that stresses education, mass mobilization, and patient organization in the service of a cause, the poor and the desperate are often conned into the magical thinking and quick, bloody solutions that such appalling models provide, wrapped in lying religious claptrap…We need to step back from the imaginary thresholds that supposedly separate people from each other into supposedly clashing civilizations and re-examine the labels, reconsider the limited resources available, and decide somehow to share our fates with each other, as in fact cultures mostly have done, despite the bellicose cries and creeds.” 

This short history of Lebanon should remind the people of Kerala what they have to lose if they fall prey to the myopic politics of sectarianism.

Santosh Paul is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India. He is the author of ‘Choosing Hammurabi: Debates on Judicial Appointments’ (LexisNexis), ‘Appointing our Judges: Forging Independence and Accountability’ (LexisNexis) and ‘The Maoist Movement in India: Perspectives and Counter Perspectives’. 

Views expressed are the author’s own.