For some reason, some native intellectuals insist on adopting the reductionist model of backwardness vs. progress to explain politics in Lebanon today. The latest incarnation is an op-ed by Hazim Saghiyah (not to be confused with the nephew, Khalid) published in Meow Lebanon. Referring to an electoral speech delivered by Jubran Basil, Saghiyah explains:
This distinction between “the materialism of the West” and “the spiritualism of the East” is not new, nor is it monopolized by the Lebanese. What is new is that it is now emanating from a political party [the Free Patriotic Movement] that continuously expresses its attachment to modernity and to “reform and change.” But Hizballah has already, in its last electoral program, announced “fighting vice” as one of its points […]
[…] There are therefore, regardless of the election and its results and away from politics in its daily and common conception, signs of a cultural alliance, one might say, between the two parties of Mar Mkhayel [signatories of the memorandum of understanding]. And the direct enemy of this alliance is: freedom and progress.
For an intellectual, Saghiyah is incredibly ignorant of Middle Eastern intellectual history. The distinction between the materiality of the West and the spirituality and values of the East is not meeting its modernist and reformist counterpart for the first time. It is precisely the product of a modern condition and a modern reorganization of knowledge that attempted to shore up and define a disempowered “East” against a politically, economically, and militarily powerful “West.” A counter-Orientalism, if you will, belonging to the time of al-nahdah (late 19th century Arab “renaissance”).
But what is more interesting is the political expediency to Saghiyhah’s intellectual musings. By branding the Free Patriotic Movement and Hizballah as the darkest relics of the past, their opponents emerge as champions of “freedom and progress.” On what he means by that, he explains: “[…] the most important foundations and characteristics of Lebanon, as in opening up to the Arab and western worlds, as well as in its economy and prosperity.” When defined in this truncated manner, one is tempted to follow up with the conclusion that Gulf states are beacons of freedom and progress!
This watered down definition eschews — perhaps unwittingly — more common and fundamental aspects of “freedom and progress” such as democratic practices and representation, freedom of the press and the media, a redistribution of economic opportunities, a structure of rights and duties, etc… etc… Naturally so, because if Saghiyah were to highlight these instead, one would be hard pressed to find a place for March 14 in their midst. But the only way to grant March 14 the cultural legitimacy and civilizational mission that it claims for itself — without questioning it or questioning the regional power structure behind it — is to cast its opponents as partners in an anti-modern, cultural alliance.
Though these cultural claims to civilization are not new in Lebanon, they have persisted over the past few years in a very bare and highly politicized form. Today, however, there were hints in the Lebanese media of a possible reshuffling of alliances that is to take place in the coming weeks. If this reshuffling were indeed to happen, it would be interesting to watch where leftists-turned-liberals such as Hazim Saghiyah will turn to next.