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Beirut Challenge

By March 16, 2004 No Comments
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“Call Lewis Scudder,” the late-April memo read.  He “says he has a really neat idea” to share with you.  My dear friend lives in Limassol, Cyprus, seven time zones ahead of Holland, Michigan, and by the time I received the memo, Lew was long-since asleep.  My curiosity was whetted, however, so I contacted him.  Come to Beirut, he challenged me, and present a paper at a conference there.  In six weeks.  With that unexpected bidding, I was launched into a race against deadlines and a tussle with personal memories.  In retrospect, it has been a marvelous, enriching and informative experience; “a really neat idea,” indeed.

The formal invitation to participate in the conference came a week later from Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC), and Judge ‘Abbas Halabi, a Circuit Court Justice of Lebanon.  I was asked to speak to a regional meeting of the Arab Working Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue.  This organization, founded in part by the MECC, has been striving since 1995 to promote “dialogue and coexistence” among Christians and Muslims in war-torn Lebanon.  In recent years, they have cast their nets more broadly throughout the Middle East.  Religious and civic leaders have come from Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, the Sudan, Tunisia, Turkey, Bahrein, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates to constitute the Arab Working Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue.  According to their by-laws, the members share “a firm belief in coexistence between Muslims and Christians in a society where freedom, justice, equality, and the rights of citizenship prevail.”

By any measure, this is a tall order.  However, with good faith, the Arab Working Group has helped to defuse the simmering animosities that have so frequently torn countries in the Middle East.  They have been particularly effective during the dozen years since the end of Lebanon’s tragic civil war, bringing together leaders and representatives from across the religious and political spectrum.  To their immense credit, they have been able to struggle through such challenging issues as the importance of nationhood and citizenship, understanding equality in a pluralist environment, and celebrating the commonalities that are shared among the religious traditions that have an Abrahamic heritage.

The topic of the Working Group’s seminar this time was to be “fundamentalism,” both Christian and Muslim.  I was invited to present a paper “centering upon the rise and evolution of American Christian fundamentalism and particularly its present day focus upon the Middle East and Islam.” In particular, the participants were interested in the historical roots of American fundamentalism and the role that contemporary fundamentalism plays in the development of United States foreign policy toward the Middle East.

The immediate impetus for this topic was the torrent of published accounts in the Western press about pending evangelical crusades to be undertaken by American fundamentalists in war-ravaged Iraq.  Franklin Graham (Billy Graham’s son), Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell have been the leading fundamentalist voices denouncing Islam and promoting the notion of taking advantage of Iraq’s disabled situation to “convert” Muslims to Christianity.  To that end, tons of relief supplies, together with untold numbers of evangelizers, have been poised in the desert of eastern Jordan, awaiting the signal to descend on the Iraqi people.

It was not lost on the members of the Arab Working Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue that this plan to proselytize Muslims after they had been militarily defeated is the exact sequence of events predicted by Osama bin Laden.  Western military incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq, he has long warned, are the spearheads of Christendom’s militant agenda to destroy Islam Bekaa Valleyand subjugate Muslims.  These incursions are not the legitimate responses to alleged terrorism, he proclaimed, but rather the opening gambits in an epochal clash of civilizations, a replay of the second millennium Crusades with weapons of mass destruction this time around.  In sum, bin Laden has stated, the Christian world–led by President Bush and Prime Minister Blair–has launched a battle to the death against all of Islam.  For much of the Arab world–Christian and Muslim–the cooperation between the United States government and American fundamentalists is proof of bin Laden’s direst warnings.  First will come the troops with guns; then the troops with Bibles.  They go hand in hand: American guns and American Bibles.

This apparent confluence of American fundamentalism and American foreign policy creates great distress throughout the Middle East, and therefore the Arab Working Group’s Beirut conference was designed to explore the relationship’s implications.  Professor Randall Balmer, a church historian from Barnard University in New York City, was also invited to speak to this issue.

As the son of Reformed Church in America missionaries, I went to high school in Beirut, leaving for the United States after my junior year, in the summer of 1964. Those were formative years for me, ones that I recall with great fondness.  Their very novelty has made them even more prominent in my life narrative. Basketball games in Tyre and Sidon; moonlit promenades on the Mediterranean; archaeological adventures in the Beka’a valley and along the seashore are all vivid recollections with which I have regaled friends and family for years. There is an aura of gossamer around these events, carefully wrapped and cherished.

The opportunity to return to and visit these old haunts created certain misgivings for me.  Much has happened since my sojourn in Beirut.  Most importantly, much has happened to Beirut.  Long touted as the “Switzerland of the Middle East” for its wealth, based largely on banking, and for its alluring climate and terrain, Lebanon was thrust into a lengthy civil war that rent the fabric of Beirut Coastthe country for a score of years.  The Beirut of my youth had succumbed to the bitterness of international politics and recrimination, suffering desperately at the hands of Syrians, Iranians, Israelis, Palestinians, and internal factions.  From the mid-1970s through the early 1990s, Lebanon was locked in deadly strife.

A bit of history may be helpful.  The country of Lebanon was carved, whole cloth, out of the greater Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire.  British and French colonialists agreed following World War I that Syria and the fledgling country of Lebanon would come under French “protection.”  Lebanon’s borders were drawn up largely to reflect the fragments of religious communities that had sought protection in its mountain ranges.  It harbored a dozen brands of Christianity (Maronites, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Antiochan Orthodox, and a variety of Protestants) and an equal range of Muslims (Sunnis, Shi’ites, Druzes, ‘Alawites, and others).  Each group laid claim to chunks of the young country, and their relative sizes were reflected in the constitution that the French helped to devise.  For instance, the President must come from the Maronite Christian group (the religion with the largest constituency), the Prime Minister from among the Sunnis, the Speaker of the House from the Shi’ites, and so forth.  From the beginning, this mosaic country has been vulnerable to shifting alliances among these sectarians as well as to manipulating designs from parties outside the country.  Perhaps it is not surprising, therefore, that when the rest of the Middle East was being torn apart by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the hosti
lities spilled into Lebanon.

Miraculously, since the end of the fighting in the 1990s, Lebanon has experienced massive reconstruction.  Large infusions of capital from the oil-rich Gulf states, combined with governmental investments in the country’s infrastructure, have served the country well.  Cranes and derricks are everywhere evident throughout Beirut and neighboring cities.  Property prices, always high, have continued to inflate.  Hotels destroyed during the fighting have, in most cases, been rebuilt with even more modern amenities.  While Lebanon has not attained the level of economic vibrancy it had in the early 1970s, it is well on its way to recovery.  The humming economy draws together employers and employees from across ethnic and religious divides, and this has been a positive factor in promoting stability.  Transportation and communication links are also working well, further integrating the many segments of the population.  Travel is open and bustling; markets are vibrant.

But the roots of the old hatreds lie very close to the surface.  This is still a faction-ridden nation.  The civil war resulted in large-scale migrations.  The twenty-two year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon (ending in 2000) shoved countless Shi’ite Muslims out of that region, moving them to the outskirts of Beirut.  In turn, this influx pushed many Christians from southern Beirut into the boomtown of Jounieh, just north of the city.  What had been a patchwork quilt of religio-ethnic enclaves scattered throughout the country has become a more consolidated collection of ethnically cleansed districts.

In this mix, Christians and Muslims of good will in the Arab Working Group have asked the tough questions:  How can we find commonality?  How can we work together in good faith? How can we find the impetus, in our respective faith communities, to transcend our differences?  How can we look to the future with hope and not hatred? How can we find a vocabulary of conciliation rather than contention?  These are the daunting and pressing questions that face the Arab Working Group.  Their answers will define the future of Lebanon and much of the Middle East in the years to come.

On flying into Beirut, I was struck by two visual images, ones that were repeatedly reinforced during my stay.  First, my youthful impressions had been of a much larger territory.  In fact, Beirut is more compact than I recalled (as were my former classrooms, desks, apartment building, and even the oft-traversed streets!).  Secondly, there is much less undeveloped land then when I was a youth.  The pine and eucalyptus forests which used to blanket the Lebanon Mountains to the east of Beirut have given way to six-story apartment complexes which revel in the spectacle of the sun setting over the Mediterranean.  Empty lots within the city have been built upon or are in the planning stages for future development.  Beirut has gone through a demographic surge in recent memory.  Home to fewer than 500,000 in 1970, the city now teems with 1.5 million residents.

Walking familiar by-ways of Ras Beirut (“the headland of Beirut”) brought back a flood of recollections; sights, sounds, and odors each evoked vivid memories.  The streets, always a labyrinth of traffic congestion, continued to confound me.  A ballet of pedestrians and vehicles, each eying the others tentatively and seizing its turn at intersections, inexplicably survived the traffic flow.  Few cars showed evidence of the constant narrow escapes. Block Tower Square Few walkers reacted to their close calls.  Street repairs caused massive rerouting of traffic around one-way circuits.  Shops, always among the most modern and attractive in the eastern Mediterranean, were filled with merchandise, mundane and exotic.  The lure of the oriental carpet market and the tourist trinket shop was as palpable as ever.  Old, familiar restaurants were largely gone, although the Eagle’s Nest, a family favorite, was there, hiding behind decades of grime.  I first heard Edith Piaf on their record system, and it will always be associated with her standard, “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien.”

The alluring scents of savory spices and grilling gyros (locally called shwarma) were there, as were more pungent odors that defy description.  They say that the sense of smell is one of the most vivid and enduring; I can attest that it is so.  Long forgotten snippets of biography were yanked into my consciousness with the hint of an aroma drifting on the offshore breeze.  The sounds of traffic often drowned out other voices, although the day was regularly punctuated by the minarets’ call to prayer that rose above the din.  All my senses announced that Beirut was alive and robust.

In stark contrast to these rather quaint personal recollections of the past in today’s present, it was equally apparent to me that Beirut is most decidedly a modern city.  The Lebanese population, heirs to Phoenician seafarers, is among the most cosmopolitan in the world.  Twenty-four hour Internet cafes dot the landscape–and students frequent them around the clock.  Overhead, the most modern aircraft flew into Beirut, with European, African, and Asian logos emblazoned on their sides.  Even the proprietor of the smallest shop is multi-lingual, and we found our Visa cards welcome throughout the country.  ATMs are found everywhere and help to grease the tourist trade.  Lebanese currency, subject to precipitous inflation for three decades, has stabilized and is pegged to the US dollar.  In 1964, each dollar was worth about three Lebanese liras; today, the dollar is used interchangeably with 1,500 liras.  It took some getting used to paying a 4,200 lira bill with two US dollars and 1,200 liras!  Billboards abound, broadcasting the hottest clothing fashions from Europe and Latin America and the most up-to-date technology from East Asia.  The latest in Western movies and music are aired, and several television stations produce their own shows as well as broadcast CNN, ESPN, BBC, and other Western channels.

Education has always had a premium in Lebanon, and there are outstanding institutions of higher education in most large cities.  The American University of Beirut, through which I walked on my way to and from high school, has a proud history of high academic expectations–and a readiness to serve anyone who comes to its doors.  The latter standard was central to the University’s survival, as it was started by American Presbyterians and is located in a section of Ras Beirut that is largely Muslim.  During the most violent days of the Lebanese civil war, injured victims were treated in the University’s hospital with world-class care regardless of their ethnic or religious affiliations.

This remarkable blend of old and new, of East and West, of tradition and potential, was not far from my consciousness throughout the course of the three-day conference of the Arab Working Group of Muslim-Christian Dialogue.  The temptation to see the modern world through the lens of ages past is a powerful one in the Middle East.  For many participants in the Dialogue, remembered injustices were undoubtedly simmering just beneath the surface.  These were the unspoken barriers that the conference participants were striving so valiantly to surmount.  Indeed, the conferees’ very presence was a proclamation that they would no longer let the past destroy their future.  The challenge was preserving that past and not letting it constrain the future.

The overarching language of conciliation spoken at the conference was a language of faith.  Each speaker who brought a theological perspective to his or her presentation made it clear that theirs was a faith
of love and tolerance.   Whether Christian or Muslim, speakers affirmed the basic premise that God is a God of hope and mercy, a God who yearns for peace and justice.  Again and again, those who espoused a militant brand of faith, whether Muslim or Christian, were seen as defilers of their religion.  Whether in the form of suicide bombings or military aggressions, violence was eschewed by Christian and Muslim, alike.  In a wonderful way, that which seemed to most severely divide the participants–their divergent faith traditions–has within it the paradigms for transcending the breach.  Their religious traditions uniformly speak to the best in humankind, and it was this that the participants uniformly celebrated.

In my mind, one of the most striking models to emerge from the deliberations and corridor conversations was the generally held view that Lebanon had been a victim of its own fragmentation.  This model holds that, because of its historic antipathies, Lebanese factions were ripe for being used by external manipulators.  While Iran had capitalized on Palestinian refugee fears and anger, Israel had formed alliances with some of the Christian communities in Southern Lebanon; Syria held sway in much of the Beka’a Valley to the east of the country, and the United States played a role in exerting pressure on other Christian groups to establish more pro-Western policies.  In all of this, the external maneuvering had been too much for the slender threads that bound the country together.  The participants in the Arab Working Group were committed to resolving their own differences in order to keep Lebanon from ever again being the surrogate for larger regional enemies.

Whether or not this model can be exported to other Middle Eastern contexts is a matter of conjecture.  On that wider regional level, the threatening “external groups” become more ominously associated with the United States.  Indeed, there were those at the conference who were eager to attack the record of the United States, especially as it is related to Israel and the Palestinians.  One questioner asked me why Americans believed that Arab Muslims were responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings.  After all, she argued, a) Islam specifically rejects the taking of innocent lives, and b) the only group to benefit from the evil acts was the Zionist movement.  Fortunately for me, this question was ably deflected by the Muslim who chaired my session.  While there are individuals in the Middle East who suspect that the World Trade Center bombing was a Zionist plot (many will read Zionist conspiracy into any untoward action), there is widespread recognition that “extremists” within the Muslim world have taken and will take violent measures to push their agendas.

The conference was most notable for the genuine good will and commitment that were evident in discussions that were vigorous and demanding.  Throughout, the legendary Arab hospitality was on display as well, and cordiality was extended alike to old friends and new acquaintances.  The challenges facing this group are monumental; their resolve to face and overcome them is deep. I came away with feelings of optimism for the future of Lebanon–and the wider Arab world–for the first time in many years.  In their unheralded way, members of the Arab Working Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue are striding boldly into the twenty-first century with hope and a message of peace and justice.

In the days immediately following the conference, I was confronted with both the remarkable successes that have been accomplished in Lebanon during the last dozen years and the stiff road ahead.  Travel is open and free through the length and breadth of the country (as attested to by the traffic jams which snarled Beirut every day).  While few Westerners have returned (our 54-passenger tour buses rarely had more than a dozen paying customers, and fewer than half of those were Europeans; we were the only Americans), the infrastructures for the tourist and business trades are well in place.  The personnel and transportation are superb.  Communications links are excellent.  Lebanon boasts some of the most remarkable archaeological sites and entrancing mountain and seaside vistas in the world.  Byblos, from whence the terms “bibliography” and “Bible” derive, has a continuous history of more than four millennia; Baalbeck, the historic crossroad of the Fertile Crescent, has spectacular Roman ruins.  The cedars that once enveloped Lebanon are making a comeback in sections of the mountains, joining the blanket of fruit and olive trees that cover the terraces.  In all of this, Lebanon stands poised on the verge of a historic recovery.

On the other hand, the civil war resulted in greater segregation of the religious communities.  The on-going friction of displacement is a corrosive force that must be constantly assuaged.  To a large extent the recovering economy, together with greater cooperation among civic and religious leaders, has helped to mollify these tensions.  Yet, a ride through the principal route down the center of the Beka’a Valley has a surreal quality to it.  Periodically, remnants of barricades and banners announce that one is entering new territory.  The Lebanese military (with poster portraits of the President and miniature Lebanese flags) share authority with components of the Syrian military (sporting pictures of the deceased President Hafez Assad Luidens at Conferenceand green banners) and with the irregular militia of the Hezbullah (“party of God”), a quasi-military, quasi-social service association of Muslims supported in large measure by Iran (indicated by the portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and yellow standards).  Each of these factions secures sections of the sprawling valley between the Lebanon and Ante-Lebanon Mountains, sheltering co-religionists and developing a social and cultural enclave.  While passage is currently unobstructed through these territories, the presence of military hardware along the roadside is a constant reminder that not all of the country is at peace.

To further complicate matters, an estimated 200,000 Palestinian refugees are crowded into walled encampments to the south of Beirut.  The vicious massacre of hundreds of their number in the early 1980s, at the hands of Christian militia under the protection of then Israeli General Ariel Sharon, continues to rankle.  One outgrowth of that episode has been the greater isolation of Palestinians within their camps.  Together with an estimated 1.2 million Syrian bedouin who legally reside throughout the country, Palestinians make up a cheap labor force for the far-flung construction projects and other manual-labor undertakings.  This community of outcasts is a constant reminder that Lebanon is not isolated from the tragedy of the larger Middle East.  Its volatility permeates the unsteady peace that prevails.

The bold endeavors of the members of the Arab Working Group on Muslim-Christian Dialogue to bring about a lasting and just peace in Lebanon are to be strongly applauded.  Their honest grappling with divisive issues, and their personal commitment to find constructive ways to transcend their differences, need the wholehearted support of all persons of good will. Most particularly, those of us who claim the name of Christ and are sheltered by our United States citizenship must heed their call to find words and means for conciliation.  U.S. Middle East foreign policy has too long undermined the very groups who would promote justice and peace, seeking short-term self-interest rather than the long-term, best interests of the region.  The Arab Working Group bids us to another course.  I pray that we can hear its bidding.

Don Luidens is professor of sociology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.