Article Review Michael Gilsenan's `Lord of the Lebanese Marches'

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Lords of the Lebanese Marches concentrates on a single topic: how a ceaseless competition for power, along with an undertone of violence, dominates the life of men in Akkar. Those who have it flaunt it, those who lack it bear the consequences almost every waking hour. Gilsenan's accomplishment lies in showing how "hierarchy, domination, and contest" are "basic premises of life" (xi).

As Michael Gilsenan explains, Lebanon is inhabited by more than seventeen autonomous sects, as well as by a big number of ethnic groups. The Lebanese sects are: Sunnis, Shiites, Druzes, Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Latins, Protestants, Armenian Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Chaldeans, Syriac Catholics, Assyrians, Jews, Alawittes, and others.  None of these sects constitutes a majority. Lebanon is one of the few countries that can claim to be composed totally of ethno-religious minorities or sects. The seventeen officially recognized sects are now broadly divided between Christian and Moslem Communities living on all Lebanese territories. On the other hand, the majority of the Lebanese sects are Arabs. Among the non-Arab ethnic groups in Lebanon, the Armenians are the largest group. There are also Kurds, Chaldeans, white Russians, Assyrians, Syriacs, many European minorities, and others. According to Gilsenan, all groups compete for power in a bloodthirsty manner that eventually divided Lebanon into different ethnic sections, each of which was dominated by a warlord.

Gilsenan traces the roots of the Lebanese warlord domination to the Ottoman conquest and government.  Thus, under the ottoman rule, the Lebanese districts were governed by the leaders of the great families or the notables (A'yan). The local leaders were the real Lebanese leaders on condition that they could not challenge the central ottoman authority with impunity, and had the obligation to pay taxes and tributes to the local ottoman governors or Pashas of Damascus, Tripoli, Sidon and Beirut. Theodor Hanf said that: " whether for lack of interest in direct control or because of the costs of establishing it, loyal leaders were given judicial and fiscal powers and duties. As a rule, the decisive measure for each governor was the tax revenue. The tax farmer undertook to pay the authorities a specific sum; what he collected in excess of this was his own income. He was not only responsible for certain aspects of public order, but also for the administration of larger areas, which he could release to sub - farmers. The Lebanese system of the tax - farmers was a highly pragmatic system of indirect control that ensured the state a steady income at little cost.

From the mid-nineteenth century, the Lebanese society have had many deep changes: social and economic transformations, decline in feudal economy and regime, large commercialization, urbanization, growing disparities between various Lebanese communities, and the emergence of a literate and mobile middle class. Lebanon had had a large transitional period from the feudal system of the notables or familial leaders to the democratic regime. But it was not a deep social transformation because of the persistence of the old feudal system and of the survival of feudal and semi - feudal ties and leaders.

On the other hand, the clergy's activities in the political, intellectual and educational fields had strong social impact on the modern institutions in the contemporary Lebanon. At the same time, the real Lebanese leader was and still is a political leader who possesses firstly the support of his community. He belongs to a family of leaders. His position of leadership is frequently passed on to some of his descendants. He is not a purely political leader, because he combines in his person economic, social and political activities for his own interest.

Despite the common notion that it is westernized, Lebanese society in reality remains a traditional one. The Family and the Community were by for the strongest of the primary units not only in the rural areas but also in the cities. The Family or Community needs the support and loyalty of their members.

It defines roles and status to its various members, and constitutes a very important social unit in the life of all Lebanese people. Family and Community are by far the strongest social and traditional means to which the Lebanese individual belongs. As a result, the Lebanese people were and still motivated by two basic factors: sectarianism and absolute individualism. The confessional mind shapes their thinking and  their lives, in addition to determining the nature of their relationships with others.

The creation of the Lebanese republic in 1926, gave the Maronite elites of Lebanon the greater share of the political power.  However, in 1943, the "National Pact," was introduced, officially giving Lebanon a formally independent status.  This "National Pact," in itself was problematic due to the fact that it had been negotiated at the level of the elites and not the nation.  In addition, it basically institutionalized the patronage system and basically divided the power among the elite ethnic groups. Thus, the Maronite elites were given the presidency, the Sunnis the prime ministership and the Shi'a the speaker of parliament.

The political life in Lebanon was characterized by the continuous conflicts between the Lebanese communities or sects and ethnic groups. This is due to the fact that religious feeling is an important factor in the formation of the political attitude in of Lebanon. However, sectarianism is the most dominating characteristic of the Lebanese society.

Despite the fact that Gilsenan did overplay the issue of conflict between the different sects and did present Lebanon as a country which, for decades, was governed in an almost lawless manner by warlords, he did give credence to the fact that this state ultimately developed into a center for religious freedom in the Middle East.  Thus, both Christian and Moslem communities have their share of influence and play their role in the social, educational, administrative, economic and political life of the country. The basic pattern of value allocation in Lebanon has been set by the formal and informal institutionalization of sectarianism. Consequently, sectarian coalitions and friendships are presented at all social levels in Lebanon. The ultimate result of such coalitions and the institutionalization of sectarianism, in Gilsenan's view, is that Lebanon emerged as an example of a real federation of diverse ethnic communities in the world.

In final analysis, Gilsenan's work can be described as a comprehensive overview of the manner in which ethnic relations and elitism evolved in Lebanon.  It traces the development of these two particular features, recognizing in this the importance that they played in the formation of Lebanon as we now know it, from pre-Ottoman times.  However, despite its obvious strengths, the book also has a severe weakness.  Namely, despite the fact that Gilsenan is an anthropologist and therefore expected to adopt a cultural relativist position and be objective in his analysis and presentation of foreign cultures and systems, he tends to be judgmental. That is, he is constantly judging the Lebanese elitist system from the Western perspective and presents it as a very foreign society.  Even the Arab reader, as myself, finds Lebanon to be foreign and strange, insofar as we receive the impression that it is a country divided into cantons with each being run by a heads of families.  However, it is basically up to the reader whether to accept, reject or be critical in believing this picture.


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Article Review Michael Gilsenan's `Lord of the Lebanese Marches'

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This article was published on 2011/04/11