How Lebanon has repelled the Islamic State


Global debate in recent weeks has centred on United States President Barack Obama’s initiative to prevent the advance of the Islamic State. But another force has emerged as an unlikely rampart against the barbaric and delusional leaders of the self-proclaimed caliphate: Lebanese pluralism. Indeed, despite the shortcomings of its political system, Lebanon can provide a template for managing cultural diversity and rejecting radicalism in an unstable and fragmented setting.

In August, the Lebanese army showed considerable fortitude as it fought Islamic State militants in the village of Arsal, near the border with Syria. Though the army has sustained heavy losses — including two soldiers that were beheaded — it has managed to compel the militants, who were operating inside a Syrian refugee camp, largely to withdraw. And it continues to fight when the need arises. International aid is now flowing towards the army, with Saudi Arabia alone pledging more than US$3 billion (S$3.83 billion).

But the international community should move beyond military aid to support Lebanon’s real strengths: Its moderate, pluralist and vibrant society. After all, that is what has enabled the country, against all odds, to avoid all-out conflict, making it a beacon — however faint — of hope in a crisis-ravaged region.


Lebanon’s resilience has confounded expectations, given its lack of a shared national identity — a result of deep social divisions that resemble, to some extent, those besetting Iraq — and notoriously weak state institutions. In fact, Lebanon’s political system has been paralysed by disagreements over Syria’s civil war, the consequences of which have been pouring over the Lebanese border. The country has not had a President since May, the Parliament is not functioning and the Cabinet is practically powerless.

When the Islamic State arrived at the border, however, most of Lebanon’s political parties, media and civil society rallied together. Billboards were erected appealing to Sunnis to preserve moderation. Media outlets informally agreed not to provide a platform to radical militants. And performing-arts festivals featuring international figures went ahead — signalling the Lebanese people’s refusal to give in to radicalism and violence.

Moreover, the army received an outpouring of public support, which is understandable, given the lack of any other unifying institution. Even the Shia militant group Hezbollah, which had caused deep fissures in Lebanon by helping to shore up Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, supported the army’s campaign (though the desire to allow others to die fighting Mr Assad’s opponents was undoubtedly a key motivation).

Ironically, the weakness of the Lebanese state may be contributing to the strength of its civil society. Unlike other Arab countries, no single religious group enjoys a majority in Lebanon. Shias and Sunnis compete to ally themselves with the Christian community, recognising its vital social and political role in the country.

Lebanon’s acceptance of cultural diversity and pluralism has enabled the country to emerge whole from 15 years of civil war, withstand decades of Syrian and Israeli occupation and finally stand up to the Islamic State. It may have taken years of violence, but Christians, Sunnis and Shias seem to have internalised the lesson that they cannot impose their will on one another.

Today, Lebanon is bustling with the cosmopolitan spirit and energy that had once characterised the entire region. And the impact of its people’s creative activities is increasingly visible worldwide, with, for example, the fashion designer Elie Saab dressing Hollywood stars and Lamia Joreige’s art being exhibited in the permanent collection of London’s Tate Modern. Furthermore, pluralism and moderation remain the dominant forces in the country; tellingly, the Islamic State could not find a single Lebanese to volunteer to be its emir of Lebanon.

But this inspiring model is under threat as Lebanon struggles to cope with massive debt and the spread of abject poverty in rural areas, especially among Sunnis. Making matters worse, more than a million Syrian refugees have poured into Lebanon — the equivalent, in proportional terms, of 80 million Mexicans suddenly arriving in the United States. Such a large refugee population can easily transform — and destabilise — a society, especially one as fragmented as Lebanon’s. Indeed, it can even provide a conduit — if inadvertently — for the Islamic State to penetrate the country. Yet, the international community has provided only 40 per cent of the funds that Lebanon needs to cope with the crisis.

If the country manages to weather the current crisis with its pluralistic system, cultural vibrancy and creativity intact, its prospects of achieving political maturity are promising. Given the importance of such progress not only for Lebanon, but also its regional neighbours, the international community would do well to find ways to ensure that the country can hold its ground not only politically and militarily, but also culturally. Lebanon must be able to continue inspiring its neighbours and to provide a template for effective pluralism in the Middle East. This is important today, and it will be even more important when the Arab world emerges from its current turmoil and starts to re-establish a stable sociopolitical order. PROJECT SYNDICATE


Marwan Muasher is vice-president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of The Second Arab Awakening And The Battle For Pluralism. Kim Ghattas is a Washington-based BBC correspondent and author of The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut To The Heart Of American Power.




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