Lebanon a cautionary tale of the dangers of modern identity politics

Photo by Maxime Guy
This entry is part [part not set] of 5 in the series The 1867 Project
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How identity politics played a key role in the downfall of Lebanon

Rima AzarIn Gibran Khalil Gibran’s Garden of the Prophet, the author wrote of how we should “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.”

The nation described by Gibran was neither his adopted country – the United States, nor mine, Canada – but the birth country of both of us:  Lebanon, divided by religion. Gibran’s and my birthplace is a 20th-century example of the destructive power of identity politics.

To grasp the danger of modern identity politics, we must realize that this movement sees all of us not as individuals but as an extension only of our colour, gender, ethnicity, etc. In other words, we are defined and trapped by our identity. It thus helps to remember that dividing people in such ways is not new. However, history teaches us it is also dangerous.

Lebanon identity politics
Beirut, Lebanon
Photo by Maxime Guy
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The State of Greater Lebanon was officially declared on Sept. 1, 1920, and later, under the French mandate of 1926, Lebanon’s constitution implemented a republic in which political power was divided among the country’s 18 religious sects according to their share of the country’s population. In essence, Lebanon’s parliament and its power were divided by religious identity.

This French-designed “hodgepodge” of various peoples and religious traditions seems to have worked for a while. After its independence from France in 1943, Lebanon even served as a refuge for those fleeing other regional conflicts. When peace prevailed, Beirut, the Lebanese capital, became a vibrant centre of commerce, banking, and trade. It also became both an intellectual and tourism hub.

However, Lebanon has also been in the middle of both geographic and religious conflicts, which, along with being used as a proxy by other states, exacerbated the identity divisions within Lebanon itself.

The result of all such fault lines led to a 15-year-long civil war (1975 to 1990), with 100,000 to 150,000 people killed, between 800,000 and one million displaced residents, and several billion dollars worth of destruction to infrastructure and private property. The Lebanese civil war intensified the danger of belonging to the “wrong” tribe. Eventually, when kidnapped or stopped at militia checkpoints, Lebanese citizens could be killed just for being the “wrong” identity (i.e., the “wrong” religion).

In short, and tragically, identity- or sectarian-based politics fuelled civil war in Lebanon.

The tragedy of Lebanon and the danger and tragedy of identity politics have been on my mind in recent years because of my own immigration story. I landed in Montreal in 1990 at the age of 17 and soon felt that I was Canadian.

Fifteen years later, when I moved to Toronto, it took me all of two weeks to feel Torontonian, to feel at home. Later, when I left “Hogtown” after four years, I deliberately took the time to say goodbye to all those familiar faces whom I used to see daily, including those in the stores in the subway and on my street.

After I left Toronto to accept a tenure-track position at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, it took me two days to feel “Sackvillian” and a proud New Brunswicker. Ever the bad cook, I nevertheless managed to create a seafood chowder that led to my friends telling me I was officially a Maritimer.

The ease I had identifying and integrating with local communities was made possible because Canada was founded on the notion that individuals should be treated as equal before the law, with neither favouritism nor prejudice shown based on irrelevant characteristics.

Even though this ideal wasn’t fully realized at Canada’s birth, by the 1960s and definitely by 1990, when I arrived, it was against the law to discriminate based on someone’s ethnicity or similar reasons. This belief in individual rights is a fundamental part of what makes Canada, Canada and should not be forgotten.

My family, along with many other immigrants, both old and new, always dreamed of coming to Canada, despite its imperfections and history. They love their adoptive country.

My advice to “newcomers”: Don’t let others who claim to speak on your behalf upend Canada’s focus on the rights of the individual. Some people act like they know what’s best for the rest of us while forcing their narrow sectarian ideology on everyone while obsessing about diversity.

That’s also why I don’t support politicians and other influential people playing with identity politics. It’s a risky game that can hurt all of us.

Is it not simpler, wiser, and safer for us as newcomers to celebrate our love for our adoptive country and love it back? Embracing extreme ideologies may risk weakening, paralyzing, or potentially destroying the country we came to for a better life, making it more like the troubled places we left.

Rima Azar, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Health Psychology at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. This excerpt is from the Aristotle Foundation’s new book, The 1867 Project: Why Canada Should be Cherished—Not Cancelled, edited by Mark Milke.

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By Rima Azar

Mount Allison University Professor Rima Azar is a Senior Fellow with the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy and feels a strong identification to Canada. Born in Lebanon during a civil war, Azar developed a lasting appreciation for the freedoms of Canada, particularly free speech. An accomplished academic in the field of health psychology, she often discusses her views on political and social issues on her personal blog, Bambi’s Afkar, from her unique perspective. However, in a now-settled case, she was the target of cancel culture and was suspended without pay for seven months.

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