From Portland writer Michael J. Totten who spent a month there recently.

At Tech Central Station

Resolving the Clash of Civilizations
I recently returned home from Beirut, Lebanon, where I spent a month covering the democratic Cedar Revolution and Syria's withdrawal from the country after a 30 year-long occupation. Few places in the world beat Beirut as a foreign assignment. The city is packed from one end to the other with the classiest hotels, the hippest night clubs, the most stylish bars, the fanciest restaurants, the coziest cafes, and the best shopping districts this side of New York and Paris. But Lebanon's sophisticated and freewheeling culture isn't the only thing that makes a trip to that country both attractive and memorable. Nor is the nascent democracy movement the only encouraging news. One of the best stories out of Lebanon is the one that receives almost no coverage at all -- the end of the long-simmering sectarian hatefest and a genuine yearning for friendship between Christians and Muslims.

Lebanon is approximately 40 percent Christian and 60 percent Muslim. And from 1975 to 1990 a localized clash of civilizations ripped the country to pieces. Beirut was carved into eastern and western halves -- Christians on one side and Muslims on the other. Christians fought Muslims. Christians fought Christians. Muslims fought Christians, Israelis, Americans, and also each other. It was an apocalyptic war of all sects against all, a Yugoslavia of the Levant.

Since the war's end the Lebanese decided to tolerate each other -- except, at times, for Hezbollah who has been known to burn Lebanese flags along with Israeli and American flags at their rallies. Today many Lebanese are moving beyond mere tolerance and forging ties that bind across sectarian lines.

I hopped in a car with Charles, a Maronite Christian who recently returned home from exile in Australia, and Alaa, a member of the Druze community from the Chouf mountains. I tagged along with them while they campaigned in various villages for free elections in May.

"I'm a Christian at heart when I'm in my house," Charles said. "But when I'm outside I am first Lebanese. During the war we Christians and Druze fought each other. But looks at us now." He gestured at Alaa.

Alaa continued for Charles. "Now we're driving around in the same car to build a new Lebanon."

Later I met two Christians downtown -- Jean and Emile -- and they asked me to join them for drinks.

"We used to fight each other," Jean said as he looked askance at Emile. "I was with Samir Geagea."

"And I was with Michel Aoun," Emile said. "But now we are at the same table."

"What, exactly," I said, "were you fighting about?"

Emile shrugged and shook his head, looking slightly embarrassed.

"Look," he said. "If you have a hard time figuring what the civil war was about, don't feel bad. No one in Lebanon really understands either."

The civil war did have its causes and its idiot logic. But it's no wonder most people want to move on. Every sect in Lebanon lost. Syria was the victor. The only good thing that came out of the war is a more mature political culture. There is no ethnic or religious majority. (Muslims make up more or less 60 percent of the population, but they are divided themselves among Shia, Sunni, and Druze.) Everyone is a minority. And everyone knows from experience that they can't take over the country.

Excellent and sweet story -- democracy is what people want when they have the chance. It is starting to take hold in even the most staunchly theocratic cultures.

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This page contains a single entry by DaveH published on May 26, 2005 10:00 PM.

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