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The Origins of the Lebanese National Idea, 1840-1920

Carol Hakim, The Origins of the Lebanese National Idea, 1840–1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.

[This review was orginally published in the Spring 2017 issue of the Arab Studies Journal. For more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here.]

Against teleological accounts that locate the origins of national ideas in a distant past and trace their evolution along a linear path into the present, Carol Hakim’s Origins of the Lebanese National Idea cautiously refrains from foreclosing on the historical narrative by attending to the cleavages and conflicting interests within continuously shifting nationalist alignments. In Hakim’s textured account, Lebanon is not simply a Christian state for a Christian population that developed separatist tendencies, nor is it just an entity fabricated and supported by the great powers for the sake of the colonial project.

The narrative begins in the 1840s, when Maronite clergy first raised the idea of Mount Lebanon as a political unit. Hakim highlights the role of these clergymen’s contacts with the French during this period (chapter one), leading up to the establishment of a new regime in 1842, which came to be known as the Dual Qaimaqamiyya (chapter two). The third chapter continues with the sectarian massacres of 1860, French military intervention, and the establishment of yet another form of local administration for the region—the mutasarrifiyya (chapter four). In the late nineteenth century, a new elite defended a secular Lebanism in the form of an enlarged autonomous entity within a greater Syria. This project, however, was not a direct descendant of the mutasarrifiyya, Hakim argues, but a pushback against the control by the Maronite clergy and the traditional notable families that characterized that regime (chapters five and six). From this perspective, the mutasarrifiyya appears as a reestablishment of Ottoman authority over Mount Lebanon, and Hakim resists “the temptation to establish a linear link” between that administration and the Republic of Lebanon proclaimed in 1920 (99).

Hakim similarly sheds new light on the Lebanese delegation’s demand for expanded territory at the Versailles peace conference of 1919. The expanded boundaries, she demonstrates, were not conceived organically among Lebanese nationalists, but corresponded to the territory suggested by the French general Beaufort back in 1860, upon the establishment of the mutasarrifiyya. Most significantly, Hakim shows that the earlier versions of Lebanism were not independentist projects. Turn-of-the-century Lebanism was not expressed as an alternative to Ottomanism, she argues, but as a part of the broader reforms taking place in the Ottoman Empire. Appeals for an independent Lebanese state would not be raised until the fall of the Ottoman Empire (chapter eight).

Where the avoidance of a teleological narrative may cause the historian to leave a great deal to historical contingency, Hakim repeatedly points to the overarching structures that explain the crystallization of national or sectarian communities into political identities across the global South in the nineteenth century. She considers Lebanism in conjunction with other fledgling currents in the region, such as Ottomanism, Arabism, and Syrianism, and places them all within the broader context of integration into the world economy. She discusses economic transformations such as the intensification of trade with the West, the expanded production of raw silk and other cash crops, the developments in transport, and the emergence of a new social class of merchants, middlemen, and enriched peasants. Hakim’s categories of analysis remain identity-based (“the Maronites,” “the French”), but she also shows the limits of defining historical agents in a manner that does not take into consideration the economic dimension. For instance, while on one page, we read that the Maronite patriarch’s project to restore Bashir II “would have constituted a victory for the Maronites,” on the following page, Hakim complicates the picture: “Several forces in the community had divergent projects and ambitions. . . . Some Maronites, like the clergy, the family of the Shihabi Emir, and some enriched merchants and peasants, had indeed benefited from the rule of Bashir II. . . . However, other Maronite parties, like the muqata‘jis who had lost their estates and the Maronite peasants, overburdened with heavy taxes and afflicted by other forms of extortion, were more preoccupied with their own problems and interests” (31, 32). Similarly, when describing the Ottoman advance against Ibrahim Pasha, Hakim highlights “the contradictory terms of French policy in the Levant, at the time divided between its traditional protectorate over the Catholics, . . . and the French government’s decision to safeguard the Egyptian hold over Syria” (28), with the consul in Beirut Prosper Bourrée promoting the former agenda, and prime minister Adolph Thiers supporting the latter.

These inconsistencies in the French or Maronite positions suggest exciting avenues for future research. It is worth exploring whether the divergent views of Bourrée and Thiers on French policy in the Levant were related to any connections they might have had to conflicting business interests. On the Lebanese side, the connections between the mounting concern with frontiers, the demands for a port in Beirut or Juniya, and Lebanese tobacco merchants’ desire for direct access to the global market also deserve elaboration. Where Hakim concludes that the Lebanist ideal was born out of “a sort of mirror game . . . between some clerical Maronite circles and . . . French groups” (42, italics added), an economic or business history based on private company and corporate archives would flesh out the logic of alignment behind these “groups” and “circles.”

Hakim is not alone among historians of nationalisms in the Middle East in disregarding these movements’ connections to specific economic interests. Perhaps because modernity in the Middle East is characterized by sectarianism and hardly resembles liberal capitalist societies as they emerged in modern Europe, the assumption is that capitalism and integration into the global market are less important factors in the rise of nationalisms in the Middle East than in the European context. In Hakim’s understanding, “The expansion of market relations and the consolidation of the modern state contribute to the breakdown of premodern social structures and the dissolution of ancient ties and values, and their reconstitution along new and more uniform lines favoring the appearance and spread of nationalism” (6). This perspective, which takes the European story to be the blueprint for the unfolding of modernity globally, shapes Hakim’s approach to identifying “articulate and coherent nationalist ideologies or movements”—read: secular-liberal and independentist ideologies or movements (7). To her credit, where others have forced the historical narrative to conform to that modular story of the rise of nationalisms, Hakim shows that such a Lebanese nationalist ideal did not crystallize prior to World War I. Hakim deplores “the conservatism and pragmatism of an intellectual and political elite that seemed reluctant to change altogether the prevailing status quo and that mainly looked for ways to improve their environment while promoting their own interests.” She notes: “The nationalists of the Syrian and Lebanese provinces were mostly reformers, publicists, and politicians, not revolutionaries. . . . Moreover, they displayed a certain distrust of, and reserve toward, the lower classes of their projected nation and were disinclined to mobilize the masses” (152). This assessment leads Hakim to refer to her actors as “the so-called liberal movement” and to put the term “liberal” in quotation marks (197), a qualification that echoes the Subaltern Studies Collective’s description of the Indian bourgeoisie, which led them to conclude that Indian modernity could not be explained in terms of a capitalist transformation. Hakim implicitly holds a similar view, which leads her to decenter specific economic interests in her story of Lebanese nationalism.

It is worth mentioning that recently, some scholars have contested the Subaltern Studies Collective’s characterization of capitalism as secular and liberal. Vivek Chibber’s Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (Verso, 2013), for instance, argues that the European bourgeoisie was no more “liberal” than its Indian counterpart after its revolution, using the state as it did to protect its own economic interests; there is thus no basis for the claim that modernity in India cannot be described in terms of a capitalist transformation. Furthermore, the subfield often referred to as the “new history of capitalism” maintains that the dynamics of capitalism may well perpetuate religious and communal discourses of the ancien régime as long as they serve to strengthen an elite’s hold over resources and trade, which are increasingly valuable as a region is drawn into the global market.

Hakim’s project productively invites further research on Lebanese history on various other fronts. For one, the book’s self-conscious focus on the Maronites functions as an implicit call for similar explorations of the role of Druze actors in this period. Also, where Hakim relies heavily on consular correspondence and reports, occasionally exploring the writings of particular Lebanese nationalists, her account of the Maronite Patriarch’s stance could be fruitfully supplemented by an exploration of the Maronite archive at Bkerke. The calls for future research raised by Origins of the Lebanese National Idea are all the more pressing because this work is not only an important intervention in the study of nationalism in the Middle East, but an equally significant contribution to a broader theoretical debate about the emergence and evolution of nationalism more broadly.

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