Ghassan Tueni: Wisdom & Good Sense, But…

Pierre Rousselin is editorialist in Foreign Affairs and assistant chief editor of the French news daily Le Figaro. Months ago, I read a post on his blog, Géopolitique, in which he cursorily reviews Ghassan Tueni’s latest book (co-authored with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac) Enterrer la haine et la violence. Un destin libanais (Burying Hatred and Violence: A Lebanese Destiny), Paris, Albin Michel, 2009, 189 pp.

Tuéni (b. 1926) is a prominent Lebanese personality who won his spurs as a journalist/publicist and politician, being the owner of Lebanon’s No. 1 Arabic-speaking news daily An-Nahar and a former deputy, minister and ambassador between 1951 and 2009–a prodigious career, really. His son Gebran (1957-2005), former An-Nahar CEO and deputy, was tragically assassinated a few months after the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

I have not read the book myself, and the purpose of these lines is not to provide a review of it. But I would like to comment on two of Rousselin’s quotations of Tuéni’s book, which I found extremely meaningful, and on the readers’ replies to Rousselin and Tuéni, which are indicators of the wider implications of Tuéni’s words.

First Quote: On Lebanese Christians

Les chrétiens doivent tenir leur rang. Ils doivent avant tout renoncer à ce complexe de persécution qui est le propre des minorités (…) Le danger pour les chrétiens du Liban est de considérer que la fin de leurs privilèges signifie la fin de leurs droits et de leurs obligations”.

In English: “(…) The Christians must relinquish this complex of persecution which characterizes [religious] minorities (…) For the Christians of Lebanon, the danger consists in considering that the end of their privileges leads to the end of their rights and their obligations”

1- I willfully neglected to translate the first sentence (in italic type), for my question is: In which sense does tenir son rang come here? The expression actually means “keeping up with the Joneses”, that is to say, behaving according to one’s rank, doing things associated with one’s status, and also imitating one’s peers. Failing to keep up with the Joneses usually demonstrates socio-economic or cultural inferiority. Comparing one’s self to the other is the classical way of defining one’s identity. Not “maintaining your rank” could also mean “overdoing it” or behaving fastuously. There’s an expression for it in French: péter plus haut que son cul (in short, being pretentious and self-important).

In general, tenir son rang is used as a call for humility and lowliness, but sometimes also for submissiveness and resignation.

2- I think Mr. Tuéni is contradicting himself when inviting minorities to relinquish their complex of persecution while saying that this complex is precisely what characterizes them. Feeling (or complex) of persecution (or oppression) is what makes an ethno-religious group a minority; without it, the minority does not exist. Does that mean the Christians must stop being minorities, or that they must stop behaving as such? Alright, but…

3- “It is dangerous to think that the end of their privileges is the end of their being citizens.” My question is: Where do you live, Mr Tuéni? Your book was published in October 2009. Just as God created Heaven and Earth, and He saw it was good, the former opponents to the “Christian/Maronite privileges” in the 1960s-1970s-1980s (turned militia leaders) approved the Taef Agreement in October 1989 and they saw it was good. One cannot claim there are privileges left for Christians after 1989. Unless you are talking about establishing the majority rule. Then be my guest–if you envy the Copts so much.

Talking about “Christian privileges” before 1975 might have been understandable. Then, Christian/Maronite “preponderance” within the Lebanese state was justified as a “guarantee” for the Christians’ presence in the Arab-Muslim world. The Opposition used “hegemony” instead of “preponderance” and “privileges” instead of “guarantee”. Fair enough, that was a long time ago. But bringing up this topic today, Mr Tuéni…? Is this a new edition of ancient writings?

Second Quote: On Arabs in the Middle East

“I am naturally worried, as Arab, to see Turkey and Iran taking the lead in this part of the world. The Turks have always considered themselves as superior to the Arabs. I do not believe it is the case with the Shiite Iranians. But the two nostalgias for the empire–Ottoman and Persian–are fueling expansionist goals today in both countries, and there is no doubt that we are targeted.”

1- Bravo for essentializing the “Ottoman Turks” and the “Persian Iranians”. It is not Tuéni’s fault: he thinks in terms of Arab nationalism, and what is despicable in all nationalisms is the propensity to represent mankind in terms of cultural-national blocks (or substances). Throughout history and across civilizations, all nations have had expansionist goals. Especially if they were big and powerful. There is nothing abnormal about this phenomenon: this is what international relations are about. Not so long ago, Arab nationalism has had its expansionist “appetites”, and now it is the Turks’ and the Iranians’ turn.

2- In reality, Mr Tuéni is having a hard time mourning the downfall of Arab nationalism. He is not afraid as Christian, he is afraid as Arab. Sectarianism is the essentialization of religious formal belonging whereas nationalism is the essentialization of an imagined “ethno-cultural” belonging. Of both sins, Tuéni chose the second. Fair enough; everyone is entitled to his own opinions. In sum, old school Arabism was opposed to Turkism; wasn’t it the first Arabist Christians’ tools to fight the Ottoman Sublime Porte?

3- Mr Tuéni’s dream is obviously to restore the Arabs’ presence and role in the Middle East. Curiously enough, he falls in the same logic he recuses, only in different terms: the Arabs are threatened; they are persecuted. He acknowledges indirectly that the sentiment of persecution is ineluctable. There is no way out, Mr Tuéni. Arab nationalism is dead at the hands of the Arabs themselves–and Islamists. Let us not do what we’re best at: al-bukâ’ ‘ala al-atlâl.

Tuéni claims he is not sectarian. But he essentializes the enmity between Arabs and Turks (and the unchanging image of the “arrogant Turk”), just as the first Arabist Christians did. This enmity is more ideological than real. After all, wasn’t this argument the ultimate tactic to win the Muslims over to their side? Classical rhetoric of a Christian, trying-too-hard nationalist-secularist wannabe… Just like sectarianism, nationalism is naturally racist, hateful and martial.

On the Readers’ Reactions

1- Ghassan Tuéni calls to break the unending circle of hatred and violence. Forgiveness, tolerance and love of the other are key components of his discourse. After the loss of a son, isn’t that an exemplary Christian attitude?

The readers were bright enough on the matter. According to them, there ought to be two conditions for forgiveness, tolerance and love: (1) Reciprocity, and (2) Justice. Sandwiched between two Islamisms–the Sunnite and the Shiite–Middle Eastern Christians cannot demonstrate blind forgiveness and constant compromise, because the wave of islamicization is not a complete illusion (this said, no mention was made of Iraqi Christians…). That doesn’t mean that Christians have to embrace the logic of confrontation either. Two rules: Reciprocity and justice.

2- Some readers were bothered that Rousselin mentioned Tuéni’s sectarian affiliation (he’s Greek-Orthodox), protesting that it was utterly inappropriate. In my humble opinion, mentioning Ghassan Tuéni’s Greek-Orthodoxy is extremely relevant; it is the apparently harmless detail that changes everything. As caricatural as this might sound, his opinions are emblematic of the Lebanese Greek-Orthodox community, not for structural reasons but for historical reasons. I hope to elaborate this argument in a subsequent post.

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