Friday, March 30, 2012

Egypt: Salafist for President?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with my italics restored]

In one of today’s more underreported stories, the prominent Egyptian Salafist cleric Hazem Salah Abu Ismail received what the state newspaper Al Ahram described as a “hero’s reception” as he announced his official entrance into the country’s historic presidential race.

Much of the man’s popularity is doubtless attributable to his long-established opposition to Mubarak. As a lawyer, he took on the regime directly in several high-profile cases, including one challenging the sale of Nile water to Israel.

However, as a staunch Islamist officially endorsed by the Salafist Scholars Shura Council, Abu Ismail is also the natural choice for Egypt’s tens of millions of conservative Muslims.

With this combination of political and religious bona fides, Abu Ismail’s prospects are not to be laughed at. Sultan al-Qassemi, the celebrated Emirati blogger who takes a special interest in Egyptian politics, tweeted the following from Cairo earlier today:

“Sitting outside the mosque, people pouring in. I honestly don't think other presidential contenders stand a chance against Hazem Abou Ismail”

He continued:

“No other credible candidate has the power of the religious network that Abou Ismail has, nor, from the insane amount of posters, the funding”

So what? I hear you say. Don’t I know that Islamism is the new liberalism? That Salafism today is just halal secularism – or, effectively, Hillary Clinton minus the Zionism? Well, by all means let’s judge each case on its own merits, and it goes without saying that it’s up to Egyptians, and Egyptians only, to appoint their leaders. All I can say is that if I were an Egyptian who had demonstrated in Tahrir Square, I would have thought that the risk to my life had been undertaken for larger, not to say nobler, causes than“banning alcohol, imposing dress codes and segregating the sexes” . But maybe that’s just my elitist, Orientalist, colonialist, fascist imperialism talking.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Unanswered questions on Russia

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

With US Senator John McCain’s call for military intervention in Syria now a distant memory, Western diplomats have for weeks been pursuing a policy of engagement with Russia, the longtime ally of President Bashar al-Assad that has repeatedly blocked efforts to pressure his regime at the Security Council. That policy ostensibly bore fruit on Monday when President Barack Obama met with his Russian counterpart, Dmitri Medvedev, and announced that “we both agree that we should be supportive of [UN and Arab League special envoy] Kofi Annan’s efforts” to resolve the situation, referring to Annan’s six-point proposal. However, Medvedev’s remark on Tuesday that calls for Assad’s departure are “short-sighted” underscored the fundamental disagreement that remains between Russia and the US, which is officially committed to exactly that outcome. Evidently, diplomacy has not yet delivered its intended results.

And it remains far from clear how exactly diplomacy is expected to work in practical terms. Experts interviewed by NOW Lebanon were in agreement that governments opposed to Russia’s stance have little power to change it, neither by inducements nor pressure. On almost all fronts, they argued, Russia has the upper hand on its counterparts, both economically and politically.

For example, NOW asked Nicu Popescu, a Russia specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, whether EU countries such as Germany and the Netherlands, who are major customers of Russia’s vital oil and gas sector, could exert economic pressure on their business partner. On the contrary, Popescu said, “Germany is much more dependent on Russia than the reverse. I don’t think there is any way that any of the European states would pursue strategies of economic coercion with Russia. They have practically no leverage.”

The situation is much the same in Turkey, according to Oytun Orhan of the Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM). “Turkey itself feels vulnerable to Russia on the economic front,” he told NOW. “In terms of natural gas, and in almost every other sector, Turkey depends heavily on Russia.”

For its part, the United States has already made economic concessions to Russia without yielding results, according to the Henry Jackson Society’s Middle East specialist Michael Weiss. “[US Ambassador to Russia] Michael McFaul announced that it is now Obama administration policy to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment [and thus] to allow Russia to join the World Trade Organization, with no preconditions,” he said. “I’m sure that McFaul conceived of this with the Syria situation in mind. And still there is no movement on Russia’s part.”

With such apparently dim prospects on the economic front, others have advocated targeting Russia’s strategic interests in Syria. For example, Tufts University professor of international politics and Foreign Policy columnist Daniel Drezner has argued that the focus ought to be on the sizeable Russian naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus – the only one of its kind outside Russian waters. “What matters to Russia is preserving [the base]. So, one option is to suggest that Tartus [survive] a dramatic regime change. If [the main opposition grouping] the Syrian National Council were to make such a commitment to Moscow, it could leave Assad without his great power patron.”

Popescu agrees, suggesting that “guarantees that Russian interests, such as the naval base, would be taken into account” would “help Russia” to part with its Damascus client.

Weiss, however, told NOW that “when the SNC went to Moscow [in November 2011], they offered them the port of Tartus, and the Russians weren’t interested.” This, he says, was because “Russia’s relationship with Syria, unlike its relationship with Qaddafi’s Libya, is deeply entrenched at the ideological and military-industrial level. The Russians don’t want to see democracy in Syria, they certainly don’t want to see any kind of Islamist-dominated political system, and most importantly they don’t want to see the United States cultivate a relationship with Syria.”

Indeed, for this reason, Weiss rejects the very idea of negotiation with Russia on Syria, which he describes as a “deeply dangerous and deeply naïve, even fantastical” approach. “I take a very dim view of this notion that any kind of diplomatic resolution will pass through Moscow. Even assuming that they would repudiate Assad, which they have no intention of doing, you would still essentially be left with Assadism without Assad. The notion that [President-elect Vladimir] Putin would sell out the institutional fundamentals of the Syrian state – the mukhabarrat [intelligence apparatus], the corruption, the things that make Baathism tick – seems to me based on a fundamental misapprehension of the relationship.” Ultimately, to Weiss, there will be no end to the conflict “unless and until the Assad regime is removed by force. I really see no way around this at this point.”

While Orhan agrees that Russia “will try everything to block a regime change in Syria,” he believes that “the situation inside Syria will be the deciding factor. If the dynamism of the uprising remains, and the death toll increases as well as the number of refugees,” then it will become “much harder for Russia to maintain its illegitimate position. I think the Russians are worrying about this.” Popescu, too, told NOW that “there is a debate in Russia regarding the fact that most of the region is turning against them.”

Be that as it may, with the death toll now exceeding 9,000 according to UN estimates, the Syrian people may well ask exactly how many more must die before that “debate” is resolved.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

HRW: "Serious human rights abuses" by Syrian opposition

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

In a disturbing development that indicates the increasingly gruesome direction in which the Syrian conflict is heading, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has published an ‘Open Letter to the Leaders of the Syrian Opposition, in which it documents cases of what it describes as “serious human rights abuses” perpetrated by individuals opposed to the Assad regime, including:

- Summary executions of civilians, including the elderly, for sectarian reasons
- Kidnapping of civilians for ransom
- Torturing to death of non-combatant government officials and supporters
- ‘Revenge’ killings of captured Syrian military and paramilitary prisoners-of-war

Also worrying are HRW’s findings of apparently independent armed groups, such as the “Salafist” “Al-Nur battalion”, which do not answer to the Free Syria Army and have carried out multiple kidnappings of civilians. If true, the existence of such groups would add a further complication to the already-near-chaotic situation on the ground.

The opposition must immediately distance itself from such groups and such practices if it is to retain its moral high ground. As HRW’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Watson put it, “The Syrian government’s brutal tactics cannot justify abuses by armed opposition groups. Opposition leaders should make it clear to their followers that they must not torture, kidnap, or execute under any circumstances”. Moral considerations aside, a failure to do so will only make it that much more difficult for an already-divided and hesitant international community to unite behind their cause.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Rowan Williams' worthless career showed exactly why religion must stay out of politics

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Anglican Christians around the world – including Lebanon’s own few thousand – can pour themselves a hearty slug of London dry tonight in celebration of the news that Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and ‘spiritual leader’ of England’s official state religion, is resigning.

Being the head of an increasingly irrelevant organization in an increasingly irrelevant country, Williams is often seen as a likeable and harmless enough character – an endearing relic, along with the Queen, the Tower of London and the Eton wall game, of what England used to be. The reality, unfortunately, is not quite so cuddly.

Here is a man, after all, who preferred to forbid the ordination of openly gay clergy than to lose the friendship of brazenly homophobic colleagues. Here is a man who took reactionary positions on such non-trivial matters as abortion and euthanasia, while never being able to give a straight answer on the question of creationism. Worst of all, here is a man who argued for the incorporation of the shari’a in the UK on the grounds that Orthodox Jews, too, had parallel courts of their own (when David Cameron cooed that he “sought to unite different communities”, he got it exactly backwards). In other words, since the system is already part-broken, there’s little harm in savaging it further. He went as far as to describe as “dangerous” the idea that “there’s one law for everybody and that’s all there is to be said”. But then, the principles of liberal democracy would naturally be anathema to a man whose unelected power and privilege are paid for by the taxpayer.

In summary, here is a man whose example tells us exactly why men of religion need to be permanently kept away from politics.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Full text of my interview with Ahmad al-Assir

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

Assir vows to continue demonstrating against the Assad regime until the "injustice, massacres and oppression" cease. (Photo mine)

Ahmad al-Assir first caught the attention of political observers when he was among the first in Lebanon to organize demonstrations in support of the Syrian uprising. Since then, the Saida-based Salafist cleric has been criticized for what some perceive as his heavily sectarian rhetoric, directed particularly against Shia Muslims. Then, earlier this month, he made the front pages when he and around 1,000 followersdemonstrated in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square in solidarity with the Syrian people rising up against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. NOW Lebanon met and talked with Assir in an apartment near his mosque in Saida.

Is your movement an organized political party?

Assir: We are not a political party or movement. Of course, politics is part and parcel of Islam, and we work with Islamic parties where it concerns the interests of our religion and country, but I’m not a typical man of politics. I’m an imam of a mosque.

When did you form? How is the leadership decided?

Assir: I started my mission in 1989, and we built the mosque in 1997. Since we’re not a party, there is no official leader. I organize most of the activities, but there are some brothers around me who help.

Do you have formal ties with other political parties, inside or outside the country?

Assir: I have ties with different parties around Saida, such as the Future Movement and al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, since we’re from the same town. I have limited ties outside of Saida and none outside Lebanon.

How are you financed?

Assir: We are entirely financed by our supporters inside the mosque and inside Lebanon. We refuse to be financed by political or religious groups of any kind.

Walid Jumblatt welcomed you recently at his seat in al-Moukhtara. How are your relations with him?

Assir: The visit was the first of its kind, and its main purpose was to introduce and get to know one another. We also discussed the Syrian situation. It was a positive visit.

What are the major issues facing Lebanon today?

Assir: Many issues affect Lebanese politics, most of all the dependency on the Iranian axis and the existence of weapons in the country. Everything else is secondary to these.

Lebanon is a religiously diverse country. What is your policy toward other religious groups? Not only Shia, Christians and Druze, but even Jews, Alawites and atheists?

Assir: My mission in the past, present and future, will continue to be to persuade all Lebanese to live together regardless of religious or personal beliefs, because there’s no other way for this country.

What is your policy toward human rights, especially women’s rights, freedom of speech, sexual freedoms?

Assir: Human rights are sacred in Islam, for Islam is a message from Allah to assure equality between all humans: "And if you were to rule among people, you rule with justice." [Presumably a reference to the Quran, Sura 4:58]

We encourage women’s rights, for women have to work hard for them, especially in the Arab world. But we are only with what’s permitted for women in Islam – if anything contradicts Islam, then of course we don’t consider it a “right.”

We live in a country whose constitution ensures the freedom of speech, and the freedom of opinion, and we must protect this and make sure that it applies to everyone.
We in Islam we have limitations for sexual freedom. Sex starts with marriage, and we don’t accept any deviations from this.

Is your group armed? Under what circumstances would you use arms?

Assir: No we are not armed at all. Even as individuals, we don’t have weapons, as was proven when we went to Beirut peacefully. We have repeatedly warned about the risks of armament and of weapons being in the hands of only one party, especially one defined by a sect, because that affects all other sects in a negative way. I don’t foresee my movement using weapons of any sort under any circumstances.

The word “jihad” was being chanted by some demonstrators in Beirut – what kind of jihad?

Assir: The word “jihad” in Islam is not well understood, so as soon as people hear it, they think it’s only about weapons and fighting. This is only a small part of it. “Jihad” is also helping the needy with food; it’s also education; it’s also spreading awareness; it’s also creating stability for our country. Whoever was saying it may have meant it in their own way, but our movement will always be peaceful.

Also, at the demonstration, you did not join with other anti-Assad parties. Why?

Assir: For us, whenever we organize anything we invite everyone to participate, but every person holds a personal point of view, so to each their own. From what I understand, others did not participate because they were afraid of a clash with the other [pro-Assad] demonstration taking place.

How many supporters do you have in Lebanon? Where are they concentrated? Are their numbers increasing?

Assir: To be honest the issue of numbers does not concern me at all. That’s something I never discussed and I won’t.

Our mission started in Saida, so that’s where most of the supporters are concentrated, but our movement is spreading in different areas. The numbers are increasing because of the pain of injustice.

What is the significance of Syria to your supporters? Do they provide direct support to the Syrian opposition?

Assir: We and our brothers in Syria are one people in two nations; we can’t be divided. When we talk about our people in Syria, it’s as if we’re talking about our people in Tripoli, or Saida, or Beirut.
We don’t offer any financial or military support to them for we don’t have the ability to. And I always stated that we will only help them by peaceful and lawful means.

Was the rally in Beirut a turning point for the group?

Assir: No, but it was one of many steps toward overcoming the injustice which we and the Syrians are going through. For there is one group dominating this country, and this is affecting all Lebanese and especially [Salafists]. We saw lately how [Hezbollah] dealt with their weapons on May 7 [2008], how they dealt with the cabinet, and we refuse all of these acts, as well as of course the constant demonization of us by media.

Will you organize more demonstrations in Beirut and elsewhere in the country in the future?

Assir: Of course we shall continue as long as there is injustice, and massacres, and oppression. But I haven’t yet decided when and where.

Luna Safwan contributed reporting for this article.

Salafists in the spotlight

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

To the non-Salafist, the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque in Saida can look quite forbidding, what with its large, calligraphy-smothered, jet-black flags—favored by al-Qaeda, inter alia—protruding stiffly from the entrance. But the reception is anything but hostile at the nearby apartment where we meet Ahmad al-Assir, the mosque’s controversial cleric who caught the nation’s attention when he led a heavily-secured 1,000-strong rally in solidarity with the people of Homs in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square earlier this month.

Inside, a man sporting the signature Salafist facial hair—a full beard with the moustache trimmed—guides us to a sitting room, where he brings us tea and biscuits. Ten minutes later, a tall and lean Assir enters and greets us in the customary Islamic way: handshake for men, palm flat against his chest for women. In a prayer cap, grey robe and black slippers, Assir moves very little once seated in his armchair, and speaks in the measured tones of an intellectual throughout the conversation (in marked contrast to his furious bellows on stage in Beirut).

We ask about his movement, which he insists is non-political, though he admits that he has ties with certain parties, chiefly al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah and the Future Movement. “Politics is part and parcel of Islam,” he says. “But I’m not a typical man of politics. I’m an imam.” About his recent meeting with Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt in Moukhtara, he says “[Its] purpose was to introduce and get to know each other,” adding that they also “discussed the Syrian situation. It was a positive visit.”

He insists, moreover, that his agenda is peaceful, and he wishes no harm to other Lebanese sects. “My mission in the past, present and future will continue to be to persuade all Lebanese to live together regardless of religious or political beliefs.” He flatly denies that his movement is armed. “Even as individuals, we don’t have weapons, as was proven when we went to Beirut peacefully.” However, in the run-up to the demonstration, he had urged his followers “not to carry arms,” suggesting that at least some may have intended to do so.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he seems happiest discussing Islam. We ask about the chants for “jihad” at the protest, which he says were misunderstood. “[When] people hear it, they think it’s only about weapons and fighting. This is only a small part of it. Jihad is also helping the needy with food; it’s also education; it’s also creating stability for our country.”

“Human rights,” he goes on, “are sacred in Islam, for Islam is a message from Allah to assure equality between all humans.” If this seems an improbably moderate stance, let’s be clear: The man is no liberal. He “encourages” women’s rights – but only “what’s permitted in Islam. If anything contradicts Islam, then of course we don’t consider it a ‘right’.” Similarly, “In Islam we have limitations for sexual freedom. Sex starts with marriage, and we don’t accept any deviations.”

He is equally uncompromising when it comes to his foes. The two greatest threats to Lebanon, he says, are “the dependency on the Iranian axis and the existence of [non-state] weapons. We saw lately how [Hezbollah] dealt with their weapons on May 7, how they dealt with the cabinet, and we refuse” these actions.

Finally, he also condemns the “injustice which we and the Syrians are going through.” Lebanese and Syrians, he says, “are one people in two nations; we can’t be divided.” He vows to continue his mission until the “massacres and oppression” cease, though he doesn’t yet know “when and where” his next demonstration will be.

As is typical of Lebanon’s labyrinthine sectarian complexity, the Sunni Islamist “street” is divided on Assir. On the one hand, Bassam Hammoud, head of the March-14-aligned al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah in the South, defended him, telling NOW Lebanon that, “The crimes and horrors happening in Syria have been rejected by large numbers of Lebanese. The media is focusing on him because he went to Beirut, but there have been have been many such protests supporting the Syrian revolution elsewhere in the country.” When asked how his relations with Assir were, Hammoud replied, “We have great relations with him as a brother and sheikh from our region, but this is not political.”

On the other hand, Bilal Shaaban, secretary general of the March-8-aligned Harakat al-Tawheed al-Islamiyah, accused Assir of stirring trouble at the behest of foreign powers: “In Lebanon, especially in the explosive regional climate, people should not use pressuring or inciting language. The Americans want to create a conflict that divides the Sunni and Shia Muslims. Why was everybody so scared about this protest, and expecting the worst? Because the aim was not to spread the gospel and the good message, of course.” Shaaban described his relations with Assir as “neither positive nor negative.”

To Hazem al-Amin, the journalist and author of The Lonely Salafi, Assir is ultimately insignificant. “The protest was exaggerated by certain supporters of Assad, who sought to falsely portray Salafists as the face of the Syrian revolution. In reality it was a big failure; there were not more than 1,500 participants. So Assir clearly does not represent Lebanon’s Sunnis.”

Nor does Amin believe the Assirists will grow. However, he cautions that this is contingent on the ability of larger, more moderate Sunni powers such as the Future Movement to re-establish their presence and assert themselves more convincingly on the ground.

Luna Safwan contributed reporting to this article.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A note on International Blasphemy and Apostasy Day

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with my italics restored]

For anyone feeling less than totally enthused about tomorrow’s March 14 commemoration at BIEL, perhaps I might draw your attention to something else that will be occurring at the time: the International Day of Action to Defend Blasphemers and Apostates.

Organised by One Law for All, the British group that makes the insane suggestion that there ought to be just the one set of laws for all citizens, this day honours “the critics of religion in order to highlight medieval laws and exert pressure to save the lives of the women and men facing execution, imprisonment or threats” from the various “religious authorities” around the world. 

While stressing that “there are countless people awaiting [such] punishment”, the group highlights ten causes célèbres, including the Saudi blogger Hamza Kashgari and the Egyptian actor Adel Imam. I would have added my favourite example of Walid Husayin, the West Bank blogger arrested by the Palestinian Authorities for running an atheist blog, who is thus a victim of both Jewish and Islamic fanaticism simultaneously. And I’m sure that all Lebanese could think of one for themselves without a moment’s pause.

Now, before you start telling me how incredibly ‘insensitive’ it is to ‘insult’ these ‘great’ religions, allow me to make something very clear. I’m not asking for the right to torch a Qur’an, or to desecrate a church or, indeed, to blow one up – such offenses against humanity and civilisation are best left to the faithful themselves. I absolutely do assert the right, however, to satirise religion; to have fun at its expense; and to subject its texts to literary criticism; just as I absolutely assert the right to disbelieve its metaphysical claims. 

In other words, I assert the right to take sole ownership of the thoughts in my head, thank you very much – and in a week that has seen the Lebanese cabinet propose a law prohibiting “immoral” web content, this right may well need some more convincing assertion in the very near future. 

So, in that spirit, how about this from Ricky Gervais, blasphemer and apostate par excellence: 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Does Obama actually have any thoughts of his own?

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

It’s remarkable how often US President Obama manages to argue all sides of a given debate simultaneously while never disclosing an inkling of what his own thoughts or convictions may be.

Sunday’s speech to the leading component of the Israel Lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), was exemplary in this respect. While claiming that “we all prefer to resolve [the issue of Iran’s nuclear program] diplomatically” and denouncing the recent “loose talk of war,” he was quick to add that Israel had a “sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs” and that Washington’s policy was “to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon [using] force [if] necessary.”

In other words, we don’t believe that Israel should bomb Iran, but we do believe that they can do as they please, up to and including bombing Iran. Not since he vetoed the Security Council resolution condemning the same settlements he condemned in Cairo has Obama shown such a magnificent facility with doublethink.

Precisely because it made such little sense, reactions to the speech varied wildly. American liberals were delighted: “Obama Sticks It To Bibi at AIPAC!” tweeted MJ Rosenberg, Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at the left-leaning Media Matters Action Network. Zionists were disappointed, with Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post describing it as “preposterous […] dead wrong […] extraordinary and in many ways devastating.” And yet, Palestinians too were unhappy: “We could not believe that an American president is out there proving that he is good for Israel,” said senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi, adding, “Shielding Israel from accountability is certainly not in the service of peace.”

Indeed, Obama curiously made no mention of a “sacrosanct” Palestinian “sovereign right” to security; nor did he assert that Palestine “must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat;” and nor was there any mention of “the unbreakable bonds” between America and Palestine. These rights, and these privileges, appear to be the exclusive property of the Israelis. Such are the methods by which America designates itself the “honest broker” of the “peace process.”

Remind me again why anyone in the Arab world is looking forward to this man’s reelection?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Resisting history

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon. Below I've restored my inverted commas around the word 'resistance' that the editors removed]

Those who do not learn from history, it is commonly said, are condemned to repeat it. By this measure, the prospects would seem bleak for Lebanon, where an ever-compounding political entanglement continues to deny schoolchildren so much as the option of learning about anything that has occurred in their country since the first half of the twentieth century.

Last month, Culture Minister Gaby Layoun was widely reproached for remarking that “There is nothing called the ‘Cedar Revolution.’” Now, the latest dispute concerns the decision to dedicate one hour per week to studying what a new draft syllabus calls “Lebanon’s resistance against Israel and its plans.” According to a copy of the document obtained by NOW Lebanon, students would be taught about “the Israeli strategic [ambitions] toward the elimination of the Lebanese stain, the Israeli ambitions in both land and waters [and] the resistance’s importance in terms of defending Lebanon.”

On Tuesday, Kataeb MP Sami Gemayel became the latest politician to reject the new syllabus, calling it “unacceptable.”

Elsewhere, in recent months the proposed syllabus has attracted criticism from almost all corners of the political landscape, from the Lebanese Forces and the Progressive Socialist Party to the Free Patriotic Movement and the Armenian Revolutionary Federation. 

Opposition to this proposal has taken several forms. First, there are those, such as Gemayel, who decry what they see as a distortion of history in the omission of any reference to 'resistance' against non-Lebanese forces other than Israelis. While declaring that 'resistance' to Israel was “important,” he went on to say, “There are Lebanese who resisted the armed Palestinian presence in the country and the Syrian occupation – why are they left out?”

“Mentioning [only] one resistance,” he added, “disregards the causes of a wide range of Lebanese who took part in their own struggles and shielded Lebanon from potentially dramatic consequences.” Similarly, FPM leader Michael Aoun said Tuesday that, “the current history book that is being assessed by government is not suitable for schools… No one can eliminate a single historical development.” As army commander, General Aoun waged an ill-fated “war of liberation” against the Syrian occupation from 1989 to 1990. 

Then there are those who believe the syllabus will overlook the contributions of other 'resistance' movements against Israel. NOW Lebanon spoke to Democratic Left Movement MP Elias Atallah, who co-founded the secular Lebanese National Resistance Front (LNRF) that, he claims, staged its first attack on Israeli forces in Beirut just two days after the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres. “The Islamic resistance was established at a later phase. Seventy percent of Lebanese territory was liberated before Hezbollah existed at all.”

“Ever since its establishment on September 16, 1982, the LNRF was the base of resistance. We had hundreds of martyrs, and a big part of Lebanon was liberated by the LNRF. At the time, the Syrians and their proxies in Lebanon tried to eliminate us by assassinations, similar to those that accompanied the Independence Intifada [of 2005], and now they’re trying to erase us again by fabricating history. It’s true that Hezbollah was part of the resistance, but their role was relatively minor.”

There are also those who argue that the question of 'resistance' cannot be addressed in isolation, and must instead be incorporated into a comprehensive history of the civil war in its entirety. Lebanese University historian Issam Khalife told NOW Lebanon that “There has to be a scientific approach. One cannot look at only one resistance; one has to look at them all in general. Moreover, one has to examine the wider history of the war – the causes, the human cost, the economic cost and the conclusions.”

Finally, there are those who dismiss the entire 'resistance' debate altogether. Lokman Slim, the publisher and activist whose projects include the UMAM Documentation and Research NGO established in part to archive materials from the civil war, told NOW Lebanon the recent controversy was “ridiculous.”

“From whomever it comes, whether it be Hezbollah or the other kid, Sami Gemayel--who wants to revive the memory of the quote-unquote ‘Christian resistance’--or the people in South Lebanon who collaborated with Israel and are now criticizing Gemayel because he disregarded them, or the Communists who will also claim their ten minutes of ‘resistance,’ I think that it’s all just part of our deadlock that proves we are the hostages of an outdated mentality.

"They are fighting a micro-domestic civil war, for the simple reason that they cannot fight larger wars or be part of larger issues,” said Slim.

The timing, Slim added, was conspicuous: “Putting forward this history issue [now] is a sign of big cowardice. They are not facing the right issues: first of all what’s happening domestically with the government of Hezbollah, second of all what’s happening in Syria. So they are avoiding all this and focusing on an inoffensive diversion tactic.”

Whatever the case, it looks as though today’s Lebanese schoolchildren are no closer to being taught their modern history than their parents were.

Luna Safwan and Aline Sara contributed reporting for this article.