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Collective Memory and Dealing with the Past and Future
Posted on Mar 24, 2021 |
It is perhaps quite difficult to go over Lebanon’s modern history without focusing on Mount Lebanon, which was the bedrock of the Lebanese Republic founded by the French mandatory authorities a century ago.
the Author
Lecturer of History at the American University of Beirut
Collective Memory and Dealing with the Past and Future
©Adra Kandil

It is perhaps quite difficult to go over Lebanon’s modern history without focusing on Mount Lebanon, which was the bedrock of the Lebanese Republic founded by the French mandatory authorities a century ago.

Up until 1920, the history of Lebanon, as the late great historian Kamal Salibi puts it, was a story which included the Druze and the Maronites, with other actors playing minor or supporting roles, something which would change with the annexation of the Lebanese coastal town and the Beqaa to what is not Lebanon. Consequently, the Druze-Maronite experiment in Mount Lebanon with its many ebbs and flows was crucial in bringing about the rise of the modern Lebanese state, yet equally, a number of violent conflicts and ultimately civil wars which branded these two founding communities, perhaps unjustly as arch enemies.

The Druze and the Maronites as communities have faced off on three main occasions in all-out civil wars (1840-1860, 1958, 1983) which have led to dire political and economic consequences that still reflect on the day-to-day dynamic of the social fabric of Mount Lebanon. While the warring political factions, the Druze- Progressive Socialist Party and the Maronite-Lebanese Forces have openly reconciled, this has yet to penetrate all segments of their communities, who despite not harboring real animosity have yet to truly dissect and process the violent memories they inherited.

The lack of closure and proper reconciliation is not necessarily fully the responsibility of Lebanon’s political elite but rather their inability or neglect of the crux of the conflict which is the collective memory of both communities, which was left unattended and thus allowed for the resurgence of the conflict when the factors and the actors permitted.

In my recent book Conflict on Mount Lebanon, the Druze, the Maronites and Collective Memory (Edinburgh University Press, 2021), I explore the collective memory formation of both the Druze and Maronite communities, which have been utilized by their respective centers of power as weapons to mobilize their own in the service of a presumed existential group threat which in essence serves the leader’s personal agenda (s). Consequently, rather than dwelling on the conventional approaches to understanding Lebanon’s recurrent slide into violence and fixating on the Lebanese sectarian system or international intervention, collective memory ought to be dissected, and understanding its intricate mechanism is a gateway to grasping why neighbors, would feel the urge to become bitter enemies.

Throughout researching and interviewing many of the subjects of my book, who actively participated in the conflict in 1975-1900 both on the political and military level, collective memory features heavily and underscores the role that it played in bringing about the conflict. Yet, the collective memory formation as well as the perception of themselves as well as the other has remained virtually unaddressed and instead left to linger until another form of conflict arises.

In 1991, the Lebanese parliament which represented the different warring factions passed an amnesty law which was supposed to open a new chapter in the history of the country, but failed to do so on different levels. Rather than using amnesty to open up to these memories and violent events, much like the South African truth and reconciliation model, the Lebanese political elite simply moved on and prevented any real chance of discussing such matters, the Syrian military occupation equally made sure this would be the case.

The main premise of openly dissecting collective memory does not aim at creating a single national collectiveness but rather to disarm the different communities’ collective memory, at least the aggressive elements, while leaving the rest to organically continue to bestow diversity and pluralism on the Lebanese society.

Dealing with the past is never an easy endeavor especially that people prefer to stay in their comfort zone and refuse to admit their shortcomings. Yet, for Lebanon to reach this reflective communal and national level it needs years or perhaps decades to properly process its history and to acknowledge that collective memory should be preserved as an incubator for diversity rather than a tool to put people against one another. 

Understanding collective memory does not merely allow us to properly understand the conflict on Mount Lebanon but also to understand many of the conflicts throughout Lebanon’s more contemporary history such as the Alawite-Sunni schism in Tripoli or even to project it on the ongoing Sunni-Shiite supposed primordial feud. Above all, conquering collective memory would serve as a first step towards properly engaging in reconciliation, one of which would involve all sides without the mediation of their sectarian custodians and thus act as a gateway towards achieving proper closure with the past, and nationhood for its future.

Mar 2021
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