Between 1975 and 1991, Lebanon suffered a bloody civil war that had massive repercussions regionally and globally. Among other things, the hostage crisis in the 1980’s detonated the Iran-Contra crisis that almost destroyed the Reagan presidency. Today, Lebanon is relatively peaceful, though under a repressive Syrian hegemony, and the whole story may seem of little importance to anyone except a regional specialist. But the Lebanese experience might well provide a foretaste of conditions in the West, and specifically Europe. Above all, the Lebanese meltdown should raise alarms about contemporary Western concepts of nations and nationalism and the seemingly inevitable triumph of global capitalism.
A brief history is in order. Lebanon was an artificial entity created by the French in 1920, out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. To oversimplify, the society was heavily stratified, with an extraordinarily wealthy elite drawn from Maronite Christians, whose main rivals were Sunni Muslims. The lowest classes were Shiite Muslims. In 1943, Lebanese elites agreed on a National Covenant, which held good for 30 years. Political power and offices were shared out on the basis of a recent census, itself an outrageous piece of creative accounting that gravely underestimated the numbers of the poor and disinherited. Under the gerrymandered system, Christian elites agreed to respect the nation’s Arab identity, while rich Muslims promised not to seek union with other Muslim or Arab states. The new Lebanon would operate purely as a business concern oriented to the creation and defense of wealth and privilege, as politics were taken out of the equation. The state existed as a means of doling out the spoils to the elites, and any sense of national identity or loyalty was scorned.
This idyllic arrangement ultimately collapsed, partly because of the glaring imbalance between rich and poor. New factors intervened, however, especially the forces of demography. The elites—the Maronites, in particular—suffered from the common Western and European fashion of strict family limitation, and their numbers declined relatively. The ranks of the poor swelled, though the official prohibition on further censuses meant that these rising numbers would never achieve official recognition. Increasingly, the young and poor confronted the old and rich, with no hope of either joining or replacing them. This situation would be troubling enough, but then new external forces came into play, as the Shiite poor explored older forms of Islam, with their radical vision of social justice and emphases on apocalyptic, charismatic, and mystical traditions. And finally, in the 1960’s, the arrival of exiled Palestinian militants meant that the disaffected in Lebanon came to see their cause as part of a global revolutionary movement. Moreover, the well-armed Palestinians were able and willing to challenge the local ruling classes.
In 1975, the Lebanese dream collapsed, as radicals of various shades confronted the Christian-dominated state. Soon, the war became more explicitly religious, as the anti-regime cause was increasingly led by the radicalized forces of Shiite Islam, by militias such as Amal and Hezbollah. The carnage seemed all the more bizarre since the fighting occurred among the proud monuments of global capitalism: One decisive conflict in the 1975-76 struggle for Beirut was the Battle of the Holiday Inn. Once unleashed, the violence raged until the nation was all but consumed, with 200,000 dead.
Today, the Lebanese war would seem long ago and far away, except that, in crucial respects, its underlying causes find striking echoes in the modern West, and, above all, in contemporary Europe. Here, too, a grand political settlement has tried to extinguish national loyalties, to replace the old politics with the exclusive pursuit of wealth. Like Lebanon, though, the new Europe cannot ignore the facts of demography, especially when the clash of generations is simultaneously a conflict of religions and worldviews. Old-stock white populations of Christian inheritance are aging rapidly, as birthrates fall well below replacement—to 1.1 or 1.2 per woman in many areas. Much of the population growth is found among immigrant populations, who—unlike in the United States—are chiefly Muslim in background. Within 30 years, Muslims could make up a quarter of the populations of France, Germany, and the Netherlands. The link between wealth, religion, and generational conflict is obvious today in the cities—in the housing estates surrounding French cities, for example. Young Muslims are all too likely to encounter the mechanisms of the state in the baneful form of police, prisons, and the criminal-justice system.
The presence of a large Muslim under-class need not of itself portend disaster, were it not that we can see some of the same factors that operated in Lebanon circa 1970 or 1975, especially in the spread of internationalist and apocalyptic forms of Islam. Across Europe, we see fervent evangelism by the Salafists, by Takfir wal Hijra, by the Tablighi Jama’at, by various jihad-oriented groups. And the example of Al Qaeda—and now, perhaps, the Iraqi resistance—encourages dissidents to think in terms of explicitly military challenges to the state, to see the European regimes as oppressive crusaders.
For some years, European elites have presented their new society as a world living after the end of history, with the turbulence of the 20th century concluded, with all passion spent. The Lebanese example, however, showed that moneymaking alone cannot substitute for cultural and national loyalties; that ideology and religious activism can never be wholly suppressed; and that, ultimately, demographic pressures have the capacity to overturn even the most stable-looking society. As in Lebanon, Europe’s elites seem to believe that, if they no longer think in terms of religion, of national loyalty, of cultural identity, then nor will anyone else. I do not know if Western European cities will ever witness an apocalyptic struggle on the lines of Beirut’s 1976 Battle for the Hotels; but the parallels are ominous.