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    The Dangers of Identity Politics

    Multitudinous and contentious versions of identity still continue to flourish among the Lebanese, and these would-be faces still get in the way of constructing even minimal characteristics of a state or addressing the real problems in this nation’s public space.

    Many Lebanese still gaze back with pride at their Phoenician past, seeing a glorious people who invented the first major alphabet and were master sailors, fishermen and traders. Well, actually, even the Phoenicians of the city-states of Tyre, Byblos and Sidon spent hundreds of years at war with one another. Some marvel at the marked presence today of Phoenician DNA among the Lebanese populace, but we wonder whether anyone could identify the genetic marker for internecine strife in those protein strands?

    Nothing against the Phoenicians, but the violent aspect of their history also embodies the same fear and hatred of the “Other” that has time after time erupted to drive this nation backwards instead of moving it forward.

    We have many examples of identity politics rising up in Lebanon just since the foundation of the modern state in 1943. We have witnessed a wave of resistance to former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism; the 1975-90 Civil War has scarred us with stories of identity costing our fellow Lebanese their lives; even now, civil strife has exploded – and more lives have been lost – because someone belonged to this tribe or that.

    To be sure, there is nothing wrong with knowing one’s history; indeed, not enough Lebanese know the story of the Phoenicians or the other peoples who inhabited these lands throughout the millennia. Sadly, not many people at all know this history. For their part, the Phoenicians left a rich legacy, with many of our words and place names still preserving their Phoenician ancestry.

    However intellectually stimulating these elements of identity might be, the politics of identity stands as a ridiculous and dangerous approach to the issues facing the Lebanese public today. Phoenician or Arab, Christian or Muslim, nobody gets electricity 24 hours per day. What can Phoenician history of vibrant coastal city-states do today for Lebanon’s despoiled beaches? What will identity do to improve the quality of the water off the coast? Will this identity or that make the fish safe to eat? Will it stop the poisoning of much of our soil and our food production? Are there uniquely Phoenician or Arab solutions to provide us with electricity?

    Lebanese people need to put the pointlessness of these identity debates in context – even in a country as close as Cyprus, no one there will see a Lebanese as anything but a Lebanese, no matter whatever illusory designation a Lebanese might wish to employ. And yet the debate goes on…

    The Daily Star
    08.06.2010

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