By the standards of a prince of the Catholic Church, the words of Maronite Cardinal Mar Bishara Al-Raii were acutely assertive. On the day commemorating the tenth anniversary of his ascension to become the patriarch of Lebanon’s Maronite Church, and amidst one of the most severe economic and political crises Lebanon has undergone in the exactly hundred years since the country was founded, Al-Raii chose to send an unequivocal message to all the warring factions in the country.
The message was that the church stands firm behind its historical view of what Lebanon means: a bridge between the east and the west, a place of peaceful cohabitation between Christians and Muslims in the turbulent Eastern Mediterranean region, and, crucially for the church, for a neutral state not embroiled in regional geopolitical confrontations.
Al-Raii’s position stems from a long tradition of political Maronism. In their long history, from the fifth to the 21st century, and especially over the last ten centuries since they became a minority in a Muslim-majority Levant, the Maronites have always seen themselves as being more than one of the most historically prominent groups of Eastern Christians and the largest group within the Eastern Catholics.
In their view, Maronism has embodied both the representation in the East of the Christian values of grace and love coupled with a forcefulness acquired from inhabiting Lebanon’s sprawling mountains. They have looked at themselves as being vastly different from the Sunni and Shia Muslims in the valleys below and even from the Druze, their mountain neighbours in Lebanon.
They have seen themselves as a bridge between those Muslims and the Western world, to which the Maronites have always felt a strong affinity anchored in religious and cultural links. That view of their role has fuelled aspirations for prominence and eminence in the region. And they did achieve those aspirations, for in the period from the late 17th to early 20th centuries, the Maronites were at the forefront of waves of cultural advancement in the region extending from Iraq to Egypt.
But alongside such aspirations, there were also fears. The Maronites’ view of themselves as being distinct from all the groups around them, including other Eastern Christians, made them throughout the Levant’s long and turbulent history represent the “other.” In this region, being the “other” has often brought at best unwelcome attention and at worst persecution. Their living in dispersed small mountainous villages helped them to maintain their autonomy and defend themselves against invaders who dominated the valleys below. But fear still seeped into their bones.
History confirmed such Maronite fears. The Ottomans repeatedly tried to subjugate them; the Egyptians under Mohamed Ali and his son Ibrahim Pasha used them as pawns in their long campaign in the 1830s to inherit the Turkish possessions in the region; and the English repeatedly sided with the Druze in their recurring struggles with the Maronites. Apart from occasional support from France – their “compassionate mother” as some Maronites call the country – the Maronites have had to learn to be fiercely independent.
Their fortunes followed those of their region. They prospered when the region, from the Gulf to Iraq to Egypt, and, of course, the Levant, was open to commercial and cultural exchanges. They struggled when the region closed down, looked with apprehension and distrust at the world around it, and of course when others (especially in Europe) came to dominate or plunder. To a large extent, the Maronites alternated between embracing their role as a bridge and shrinking into their fears and detachment.
Fear is the worst enemy. And at moments when the clouds of war dominate the horizon, fear can take over a group’s mind, and we find it manifesting its worst qualities. This is exactly what happened to the Maronites during Lebanon’s Civil War from 1975 to 1990. The Maronite Church put it perfectly when it said that “the church saw its sons being killed, saw them killing and saw them killing each other” (it sounds more poetic in Arabic).
The demons that fear had reared for decades were unleashed. Many Maronites wreaked havoc, on their own communities, as much as on others. And when the fires were doused in the 1990s, primarily by Saudi money, the catharsis that was supposed to come afterwards did not take hold because the Maronites found themselves after the war with far less power than when they entered it.
AFTER THE CIVIL WAR: The Taef Accord, signed in Saudi Arabia, which ended the Lebanese Civil War, diluted the power of the office of Lebanon’s president (always reserved for a Maronite) and enhanced that of the prime minister (always a Sunni Muslim). The fact that a charming Saudi-Lebanese billionaire, Rafik Al-Hariri, became Lebanon’s prime minister throughout most of the 1990s and early 2000s exacerbated that dilution of Maronite power.
The peace was guaranteed by the Syrian army, which remained in Lebanon orchestrating and often dictating the entire political scene. And alongside Al-Hariri and the Syrian army, there was also Hizbullah. This social, political and military Shia group that had grown during the Civil War in the wake of its decisive role in compelling Israel to withdraw from Lebanon after its failed occupation of the south of the country became the sole armed non-state group in Lebanon for years after the Civil War. In the 2000s, it grew into a key pillar of an Iranian-Syrian axis.
The Maronites found themselves diminished relative to a larger-than-life Sunni prime minister backed by Saudi wealth, the Syrian army with its ruthless might, and a growing Shia ideological group with a cultural ethos that was the opposite of the Maronites’ lifestyle and their view of the spirit of their country. The emotional pains that came with that diminished role, and with their collective memory of slaughtering each other, were painful manifestations of the Maronites’ deep fears.
Al-Hariri’s assassination in 2005 created a historic opportunity. The Syrian regime was a prime suspect; international actors were enraged; and Saudi Arabia saw the assassination as a direct attack on it. Quickly, a movement that comprised primarily Maronites, Sunni Muslims and Druze came together with the sole objective of “liberating” Lebanon from Syrian dominance. A few months later, the Al-Assad regime in Syria withdrew its forces from Lebanon after almost 30 years of being the most influential player in the country’s politics.
Mar Nasrallah Sfeir, the previous Maronite patriarch, was in attendance, and he subtly put the weight of the Maronite Church behind that movement. However, despite the success of compelling the Syrian regime to leave Lebanon, the Maronites neither regained their old prime political positioning, nor managed to come together as a coherent body. Instead, some of the most prominent Maronite figures saw the future in aligning themselves with the Al-Assad regime and Hizbullah.
There were no good or bad guys here. In the minds of some leading Maronite politicians, Syria and Hizbullah were the only parties with real power in the country. Plus, in their view, Lebanon’s (and the Maronites’) long-term security lay in an alliance with other minorities against Sunni Political Islamism, especially as some of the groups in the later movement were crossing the line into militancy. The division of views within the Maronites brought acute polarisation. The front that had driven the Al-Assad regime out of Lebanon crumbled.
Today, Maronite divisions extend to their views of the future. The main contenders among Maronite politicians, after 85-year-old Lebanese President Michel Aoun leaves the scene, represent diametrically opposed views on almost all key domestic and international policy issues. There is no one political group around which the Maronites coalesce. There is not even an agenda of priorities on which they agree.
Yet, they face serious challenges. Their neighbourhood is undergoing the most dramatic change in almost the century, which is the age of their own country. Israel is facing off against the Iranian, Syrian and Hizbullah front, with potentially devastating consequences for Lebanon. The US and Iran are alternating between hostility and negotiation over a grand deal. For the former, Lebanon is a theatre of confrontation; for the latter, it is a chip in the game. In addition, militant Sunni Islamism remains alive, waiting to resurrect itself in the Eastern Mediterranean. Even that old intrusive neighbour the Al-Assad regime is re-establishing its authority over a demographically altered Syria and eyeing its traditional influence in Lebanon.
Demographics are another acute challenge facing the Maronites. The Lebanese system of dividing political posts between sects is based not only on the Taef Accord, but also on the supposed sectarian representation in the population. However, there is a good reason why the last census conducted in Lebanon was in the 1930s, as any census today would show that the Maronites have become a minority, far behind the country’s Sunni and Shia Muslims.
This could raise justifiable questions about the basis upon which the Maronites retain their special positioning, including their hold over the country’s presidency. It could also raise questions about the entire political underpinnings of Lebanon itself. What does Lebanon stand for? Are the foundations laid down in the 1920s on the premise of a special place for the Maronites in the country and the region still valid?
THREE ANSWERS: Cardinal Al-Raii is sticking to an old answer to these questions. But perhaps the Maronites will need to come up with new ones. Three are obvious.
The first answer is an affirmation that, yes, Lebanon, despite the immense demographic changes in the last hundred years remains a unique country in the region and an example of the living together of different sects, according to the Maronite vision from a century ago. However, that vision has been facing acute challenges over the last four decades since the Lebanese Civil War erupted. For this idea to be still credible, Lebanon, and especially the Maronites who wove its political fabric, will need to present new evidence to resuscitate this notion of peaceful co-existence under the same rules, especially as the hallmarks of recent history are memories of either spilled blood or utter dysfunction.
The second answer is negative. In this view, Lebanon will grow beyond its uniqueness and will evolve into a normal country where political positions are not allocated based on someone’s faith and where the country’s political system transcends sectarianism. This might sound like the correct answer, but it is an unlikely one nonetheless because all of the country’s major political groups are inextricably enmeshed in the sectarian fabric and are family fiefdoms in which a father hands down power to a son or step-son and because these groups have been reaping huge economic rents from the status quo.
The third answer is more ambitious, but is more likely to succeed than the second one if the Maronite Church can rise up to it. This is to put forward a new vision of what Lebanon means. This is a timely solution. As the state of Lebanon has just turned one hundred, and as the Maronite Church was the mother in the 1910s and 1920s who conceived and carried the idea of Lebanon as a unique country in this part of the world and delivered it into reality, today that church could conceive a new vision.
This new vision should take into account the very different demographic situation of the present relative to that of decades ago, let alone of a century earlier. It must envisage a new, inspiring role for the Maronites in their milieu, in the Levant and in the wider Arab world. And it must find an understanding with Hizbullah, the sole seriously armed non-state actor in the country, that neither hands Hizbullah sovereignty of Lebanon in return for protection from Sunni Islam, whether political or militant, nor comes across as trying to resuscitate the Maronites’ special role through a transitory expedient alliance.
Many compare Mar Al-Raii to Mar Howayek, the head of the Maronite Church who led the creation of Lebanon a century ago. But personalities aside, the church today can learn from the church then, when it rose above the traditional rivalries between different leading Maronite houses and embraced its inescapable political role, when it clearly put forward the idea that the Maronites’ safety and sustenance in the region could come only through a workable partnership with the Arabs and Muslims of the valleys beneath their mountains and in the vastness around Lebanon, and when the Maronites did not seek detachment and protection from that vastness, but rather invented for themselves a role in the betterment of the neighbourhood they found themselves in.
In the 1920s, the church embraced this historic view, and the result was an independent Lebanon that prospered for over half a century. But circumstances have changed. Lebanon has witnessed a 15-year Civil War followed by 30 years of shaky accommodations. What happened, and has continued to happen over the past four decades, has been unsustainable, and its first casualty will be the place of Maronism in the Levant.
Today, like a century ago, the Eastern Mediterranean and the wider region around it are undergoing immense changes. A new vision and a new meaning for Lebanon are needed. Of all Lebanon’s political and religious players, only the Maronite Church has the historical gravitas to put forward such a vision of the future. The situation calls for creativity and courage, not empty rhetoric or nostalgia for what was and will never return.
The writer is the author of Islamisim: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly