TCS Daily

Resolving the Clash of Civilizations

By Michael Totten - May 25, 2005 12:00 AM

I recently returned home from Beirut, Lebanon, where I spent a month covering the democratic Cedar Revolution and Syria's withdrawal from the country after a 30 year-long occupation. Few places in the world beat Beirut as a foreign assignment. The city is packed from one end to the other with the classiest hotels, the hippest night clubs, the most stylish bars, the fanciest restaurants, the coziest cafes, and the best shopping districts this side of New York and Paris. But Lebanon's sophisticated and freewheeling culture isn't the only thing that makes a trip to that country both attractive and memorable. Nor is the nascent democracy movement the only encouraging news. One of the best stories out of Lebanon is the one that receives almost no coverage at all -- the end of the long-simmering sectarian hatefest and a genuine yearning for friendship between Christians and Muslims.

Lebanon is approximately 40 percent Christian and 60 percent Muslim. And from 1975 to 1990 a localized clash of civilizations ripped the country to pieces. Beirut was carved into eastern and western halves -- Christians on one side and Muslims on the other. Christians fought Muslims. Christians fought Christians. Muslims fought Christians, Israelis, Americans, and also each other. It was an apocalyptic war of all sects against all, a Yugoslavia of the Levant.

Since the war's end the Lebanese decided to tolerate each other -- except, at times, for Hezbollah who has been known to burn Lebanese flags along with Israeli and American flags at their rallies. Today many Lebanese are moving beyond mere tolerance and forging ties that bind across sectarian lines.

I hopped in a car with Charles, a Maronite Christian who recently returned home from exile in Australia, and Alaa, a member of the Druze community from the Chouf mountains. I tagged along with them while they campaigned in various villages for free elections in May.

"I'm a Christian at heart when I'm in my house," Charles said. "But when I'm outside I am first Lebanese. During the war we Christians and Druze fought each other. But looks at us now." He gestured at Alaa.

Alaa continued for Charles. "Now we're driving around in the same car to build a new Lebanon."

Later I met two Christians downtown -- Jean and Emile -- and they asked me to join them for drinks.

"We used to fight each other," Jean said as he looked askance at Emile. "I was with Samir Geagea."

"And I was with Michel Aoun," Emile said. "But now we are at the same table."

"What, exactly," I said, "were you fighting about?"

Emile shrugged and shook his head, looking slightly embarrassed.

"Look," he said. "If you have a hard time figuring what the civil war was about, don't feel bad. No one in Lebanon really understands either."

The civil war did have its causes and its idiot logic. But it's no wonder most people want to move on. Every sect in Lebanon lost. Syria was the victor. The only good thing that came out of the war is a more mature political culture. There is no ethnic or religious majority. (Muslims make up more or less 60 percent of the population, but they are divided themselves among Shia, Sunni, and Druze.) Everyone is a minority. And everyone knows from experience that they can't take over the country.

I interviewed student leader Nabil Abou-Charraf in a café across the street from Lebanon's parliament. He belonged to the core group of 200 dissidents who had been protesting Syria's occupation for years. Until the massive demonstrations after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, he was routinely arrested, beaten, and tortured. Now he has strength in numbers.

"Our revolution is about much more than ejecting Syria from the country and establishing democracy in Lebanon," he told me. "It is also important that we heal the old wounds. We cannot go back to the past, to the civil war. We want to rebuild our country." He tapped the side of his head. "And that includes rebuilding our minds. Lebanon has been so divided. We stand not only for freedom and independence, but also national unity and a new, modern, common, tolerant Lebanese identity.

"The movement is totally led by young people," he said. "Both Christians and Muslims. We stay up all night strategizing and getting to know each other. It's amazing, but it's also sad. We Christians and Muslims never really knew each other until now. Hariri's assassination broke down that wall. We are talking together -- really talking and getting to know each other -- for the first time.

"This isn't just about Lebanon, either," he said. "You want to know what we're doing? I'll tell you what we're doing. We are resolving the clash of civilizations."

He meant the Terror War, of course, which -- in my view -- is more ideological than religious and civilizational. Islamist fanatics have murdered far more Muslims than they have Christians. But there's no denying a civilizational aspect to a war where the one-God zealots of the Middle East promise to vanquish the "infidels" only a few years after the Orthodox Christians of Serbia put the Muslims of Europe in Bosnia and Kosovo to the sword.

Beirut may be the only place in the world where you can buy a necklace with a Christian cross and a Muslim crescent moon fused together as one. It's an unofficial symbol of Lebanon's nascent national unity. What other country would even think of making something like this? I've never seen one before. But now I own two. After growing up in the 1980s with sectarian Beirut as the poster child for urban disaster zones, it was really something to see.

Michael J. Totten is a TCS columnist. Visit his daily Web log at


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