What Lebanon taught me

No, I’ve never actually been there, but I did grow up in the 80s, and if there was one place you couldn’t avoid in the 80s it was Lebanon. Or was it “the Lebanon” (yes, there were still a few older people around who called it that)? Lebanon at that time was what Bosnia was in the 90s, Iraq was in the 2000s, and Syria is today – media shorthand for “war-torn hellhole” and mental, if not physical, destination of choice for Western liberals wanting  to indulge Western liberal guilt. It was the problem that never seemed closer to being solved.

Images of the gutted and shell-holed tower blocks of Beirut turned up regularly on news programmes, usually accompanied by much speculation about the fate of several British or American hostages who had vanished into captivity there, and it seemed that every major player in the Middle East drama was fighting a war in Lebanon, either by proxy or directly. Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Iranians, Americans – they all got involved, one way or another, and the main result was more death and destruction for the Lebanese.

Lebanon is “better” now – well, at any rate, there isn’t open warfare being waged on the streets. But it’s still a far from stable place, and the basic reason for this is the extraordinary religious and ethnic diversity of its inhabitants. How many other countries are there where population statistics are so politically controversial that no national census has been carried out since 1932? Recent estimates put the population at about 54% Muslim, 40.4 % Christian and 5.6 % Druze (the Druze are an off-shoot of Islam, sort of, but that’s only as accurate as saying Mormonism is an off-shoot of Christianity, sort of). Even that over-simplifies the reality, given that the Muslims and Christians are of various ethnic origins and each sub-divided into different sects that often really don’t like each other, and that they all have their representative political parties and the parties all have their armed wings.

And that, in my view, is exactly what you get when a nation is so multi-ethnic that no single group has enough of a clear majority over the others to define the mainstream national culture. Lebanon is a great example of a multi-cultural society, and a great example of why that ideal simply does not work in practice. When there is a clear majority culture, its members can agree to tolerate the minorities because the latter clearly are minorities and so aren’t threatening. The minorities are prepared to accept that as the best deal on offer, since they can’t realistically challenge the power of the majority.

When no-one is in enough of a majority, anyone might get their hands on the levers of power, and generally everyone tries to. For a less violent example than Lebanon, look at Belgium, which has frequently become almost ungovernable because of the differences between its two main ethnic groups. “Diversity” is a nice buzz-word, but in reality it usually means conflict, often conflict that can’t be managed peacefully, and that is why it is a terrible idea to voluntarily allow a well-established national majority to become a minority and a country to become so diverse that it becomes ungovernable. And whatever you think of those who voted “Leave” in the Brexit referendum in the UK or for Donald Trump in the US, that is one concern many of them had which was absolutely valid.

You can dispute whether no change in the existing set-up either here or in the US would actually have led to this, or whether Brexit or Trump is the right solution even if there is a problem, but the dark side of diversity is not something that should be denied. Just ask the Lebanese. It’s all very well to wax lyrical about “rainbow nations” and “melting pots”, but real people usually don’t react quite so benignly when faced with different cultures. They tend to stick to their own and to those who are like them.

People can learn to tolerate what is different, but whether or not it might be more moral of us to do so, we’ll probably never truly love it. Where there never was an accepted mainstream majority culture or even where there are fears, even inaccurate fears, that there soon might not be, we’ll probably stop even being tolerant, and that really explains a lot of what’s happened in politics over the past year or so.

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