Kamal Salibi

Kamal Suleiman Salibi døde 1 september 2011.

NOWlebanon hadde i sin tid et intervju med han;

Prominent historian, author and Professor Emeritus at the American University of Beirut Kamal Salibi sits down with NOW Lebanon to talk candidly about history, the role of Lebanese Christians and the rifts among them, the Sunni-Shia divide, today’s political crisis – and why it is different from 1975.

NOW: Can history teach us anything about the current political divide? Are there parallels to past moments in Lebanese history?

Kamal Salibi: For there to be a divide, you know, the population must be totally involved in the division. This was, I suppose, the case in 1975. Right now, I don’t think the common person is involved in this charade that is going on. People are anxious for the situation to be resolved – shops and restaurants are closing down, and people cannot work. But the division is really a quarrel among politicians.

Now, the exception is a certain proportion of the Shia community who are committed to obstructing the proper running of the state. I do not know if this proportion is large or small, because no exact field research has been done. But they have military arms, so for this reason you can say nothing about the size, because the size is not what is important. So it’s anybody’s guess how many people are really sympathetic to Hezbollah and Nabih Berri and how many are not.

If you are compelled to take a stand – I’d say 50% to 75% of the Shia are for Hezbollah, but I may be wrong. But let’s say Hezbollah, for some reason, suffered a reverse. The number of people who deserted may be immense.

With the Sunnis, however, we are on firmer ground. In Lebanon, the extremists among the Sunni community are in the minority. The number of Lebanese Sunnis who support al-Qaeda is very small. Certainly, they are for the state now.

The greater difference between the Shia and the Sunnis is that Sunni Islam is the Islam of Islamic history. The Sunnis have no quarrel with their history. They are happy with the parts where they experienced glory, and they are unhappy with the parts of their history where they did not experience glory, but they have no quarrel with it. Whereas the Shia do not recognize the version of Islamic history as it took place. So when the Shia say that they are Muslims, it is a slightly different thing from saying you are a Sunni Muslim. Shia are Muslims with a chip on their shoulder, Sunnis are Muslims without a chip on their shoulder.

NOW: Do you think that Lebanon’s politicians are unresponsive to the electorate? Can this be changed?

Salibi: This applies universally. Politicians everywhere in the world are, to my mind, little better than gangsters. But of course, there is a gloss of good manners that covers up their instincts.

During the civil war, I would go to the seaside and park my car. And when I would come to take my car, there would be someone who would say, “I have been taking care of it while you have been eating lunch.” And I’d understand that I had to pay him. If I refused to pay him, next time he might do something to my car to make it dysfunctional, or he might take it – break into it and steal something from it. So I’m really paying him so that his gangster instincts will be on my side and not against me. And I started thinking, you know, this is the way government started! Some people of one bent of mind imposed protection money on others. This protection money ultimately became civilized into taxes. And the gangsters were tamed, and became elected members of parliament, and ministers and presidents of the republic.

Take the story of the Vikings. They were gangsters, but they founded a state. The Danes. The Anglos and the Saxons. The Franks, you name it. All of them began as gangsters.

NOW: Is the civil war divide still applicable in Lebanon? Does the divide between Lebanism and Arabism have any relevance today?

Salibi: No, Arabism is dead. I am one of the few who remember it. The new generation, with whom I am in touch, when you speak about Arabism they don’t understand what you are talking about. This is no longer in the game. Also, there is more religiosity among some communities.

But the Christians are still uncharitable in their attitudes toward the Muslims. Fortunately, they keep their lack of charity to themselves – they don’t openly pronounce it. But if Christians are meeting together and conversing about other non-Christian communities, you sense a total lack of charity among many. Of course, there are others where it is less so. But civility is at a high premium at the moment. There is a lack of true civility.

The Shia, also, among them there are many people – I don’t know how many – with a lack of charity in their view of others. So there is a lack of charity, but not as noxious as that of the Christians. And the Christians, it seems to me, are bent on their own destruction.

NOW: From Michel Sleiman to Michel Aoun, there seems to be a preference for military men to rise to the presidency. Are Lebanese trying to duplicate the model of Fouad Chehab?

Salibi: Michel Sleiman has not become president yet, so I have no idea what he is like. Chehab was president, and I knew him and supported him when he was president. But many Christians didn’t, so I was in a minority.

NOW: You knew Chehab? What sort of man was he?

Salibi: He was a quiet man. He was a cynic, I think. He was principled, and he was very much concerned with the predicament of the Christian Lebanese. He foresaw the decline of the proportion of Christians to Muslims in the country. Chehab tried his best to do things, but of course it was the same sort of coterie that is now making a mess of things formed the opposition to Fouad Chehab.

What I didn’t like about him was his cynicism; the whole “après moi, le deluge” attitude. But by and large he was a very nice man, very clean. When he died, all he had was his pension. And his wife died practically in poverty, not too long ago. He was a very decent man, and he tried hard. I liked him.

NOW: Is the divide among the Christian community fundamentally ideological, or is it driven by personal rivalries among the Christian leaders?

Salibi: I don’t know. What’s the saying? They are off their rockers. And they are so important for the country, by the admission of everyone – including the Shia. Nobody wants the Christians to disappear. They are so bent on destroying themselves – I don’t know why. I mean, it seems that they enjoy the lack of charity more than they enjoy life for some reason. A large enough proportion to make this phenomenon dangerous, at least. 50% want to live a civilized life with everybody else, and 50% are exulting in obstruction. Not because they gain anything from it, but because it’s annoying.

NOW: Are you pessimistic about where the Christian community will be in forty years?

Salibi: Well, nobody is going to throw them out. But I think they are dwindling. When I wrote A House Of Many Mansions, I had more hope for them than now. Like it was said of the émigrés during the French Revolution, “they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” But I think there will always be enough Christians to keep Lebanon different from Jordan or Egypt.

Salibi: There very presence is an excuse for the Muslims to say to the ummah, “Look, we are special. We can’t apply Sharia, because we are living with people who are not Muslim. Of course we are Muslim, but we have special circumstances. We cannot comply with the rules that prohibit, for example, alcohol.” The way I put it is that the presence of Christians in Lebanon, in the symbolic form, guarantees your right to have an evening drink.

But notice what’s happening. Nobody is saying we want a non-Christian president. Everybody is saying we want a Maronite. Some people, including half the Maronites, are trying to obstruct the process, but nobody is saying that they don’t want a Maronite. So this should put the minds and hearts of the Christians at ease.