By Ahmed Akkari *
Whenever I speak or hear talk about the unrest among Muslim minorities in the West and the focus is on gangs or Islamic parties, I remember the situation in Lebanese society before the catastrophic civil war erupted in 1975. The special importance of what led up to that war should not to be overlooked when considering migrant groups in Western societies. Understanding the issues at play in a similar refugee crisis with political, religious and national dimensions can help facilitate analysis when it comes to dealing with challenges in the West.
When looking into the period before the civil war, between 1968 and 1975 we find a high-functioning liberal society blossoming beside the Mediterranean. It was based on secular thinking combined with profound respect for religious values – a true culture of co-existence. The economy was growing. Universities flourished. Westerners too liked it: Lebanon was a great destination for tourism.
Underneath it all, though, a disaster was in the making because of the conflict in views between the Lebanese majority and Palestinian revolutionaries.
The Palestinians arrived as refugees from the Israeli-Palestinian war and were put into temporary camps after the 1948 crisis. Over time, their numbers swelled and they lived among themselves, shaping relations between individuals and groups of a similar background.
Then the PLO arrived with its liberation cause, holding open demonstrations in the streets of Beirut and Saida where they showcased their weapons and strength and proclaimed that they would settle the score with the Israelis from Lebanese territory.
Palestinian refugees were essentially silenced in more strict countries in the region such as Syria, Iraq and Jordan. In Lebanon, by contrast, they saw fit to use the more liberal laws and take advantage of Lebanese tolerance and sympathy to become an independent and organized political voice. They also gained economic strength. Soon enough, they were close to being a state within a state, a power of their own.
Tensions grew and in the end they became unbearable for both the Lebanese right wing and liberal government. The right wing was concerned with the identity of Lebanon while Lebanese national liberal left and national liberal right governments alike felt as if they had no control of the enclaves and camps which had become “ghetto-like areas”.
In that phase the role of the militias before and during the civil war became clear and it was a major factor in the course of war. The enormous threat to civil society stemmed from the earlier decisions to leave pockets of gangs and political groups to grow within the framework of secular liberal Lebanese sovereignty.
Put simply, the power of militias and gangs, whether leftist, Islamic or right wing, allowed them to keep pushing their agenda. Notably, most in civil society neither participated actively in the war nor supported the factions. Instead, they stood alongside the national army and backed the president and the prime minister (whenever they were in post at all, that is). But every effort to end the war failed, time and time again.
An important factor here was the covert intervention of bigger countries in the region. Syria first and foremost, but Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Libya were also involved. They played dominos with the pieces they controlled in Lebanon, to devastating effect.
It was simple for them, really. Any attempt to end the conflict could be spoiled overnight by a car bomb or an assassination. The guerilla fighters and gangs had become the long arms of foreign countries, so each time a regional power needed to put pressure on a rival or thwart an agreement it didn’t like, its unlucky marionettes in gangs or groups were activated as provocateurs against opposed groups. Civilians and politicians paid the price. Indeed, the whole nation of Lebanon as a peaceful developing society paid the price.
Ultimately, control completely slipped out of the hands of the Lebanese army and loyalties were sharply divided according to political or religious orientations. The war was on track to becoming a massive disaster, transformed from a regional conflict into an international crisis drawing in the UN, the USA, France, and Kuwait, among others, all intervening in order to bring peace back to the lost paradise of the east that was Lebanon.
In sum, as I see it, the political system broke down and liberal democracy was brought to its knees during the war because there were no preparations for such a wild scenario. The Lebanese government had little time to react after the Lebanese intelligence service indirectly made it easier for gangs and radical groups of all sorts to secure space for their degrading activities.
As I mentioned in the earlier posts, western Europe is not Lebanon. The situation is obviously not so dire. But hostile foreign governments are active in the shadows. The parallels are there, as are the risks, and they should be analyzed and managed carefully.
* Editor’s note: Ahmed Akkari is a Danish teacher of Lebanese origin who became known for his involvement in the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy in 2005-2006. Shortly after the Danish newspaper published its Prophet Muhammed cartoons in 2005, Ahmed embarked on an international tour that was meant to stir up outrage amongst Muslims. Akkari, a prominent leader in Denmark’s Muslim community, joined a group that led protests against the cartoons. In August 2013, Akkari publicly reversed course and categorically asserted that Jyllands-Posten had a right to publish the cartoons. He is now the most vocal Muslim thinker against radicalism in Denmark.