The artificial polarization of “communities of suffering”: when political violence paves the way to a common ground

by Estella Carpi

I still remember when the Secretary-General of Hezbollah, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, in the speech he held on occasion of the Martyr’s Day on 12th November 2012, used the term munafis(rival) to indicate the Lebanese opposition parties, instead of ‘adu (enemy), which is only used by the party to point to their enemy par excellence, the Zionist entity. This detail helps create a picture of the Lebanese political scenario of the last two years, in the constant attempt of local parties to maintain relative stability within the country’s boundaries, in spite of the aging bloodshed in neighbouring Syria.

In the currently increasing insecurity of life in Lebanon, community as an interpretation grid – and specifically the “belonging” to a given community – seems to be, again, a sine qua non of any understanding of local suffering, historical scars, and individual worldviews. Community, meant as a primordial notion, has always been used as a protective identity shelter in time of crisis: Lebanon constitutes the perfect historical case in point. As such, community is imagined by all of us as a comforting source for empathy and solidarity, particularly in the chronicity of a fragmented and flimsy state sovereignty. After the bombing in Dahiye – as the southern suburbs of Beirut are locally called – last 15th August, and in Tripoli, in North Lebanon, last 23rd August, all residents apparently have come to reshape two separate communities of suffering.

In dealing with recrudescent social wounds, their claims for political accountability and social justice expectedly fade away in people’s perception of the latest events. This is due to the ontological determinism of political violence, where impunity is taken for granted or, however, legal punishments are poorly trusted, despite the attempted propaganda for successful security strategies that the Lebanese Army Forces tend to boast. On this purpose, Fadia Kiwan, a scholar at Beirut’s Saint Joseph University, has affirmed that a wave of violence will hit the country again and “there is nothing to prevent it”. In such a scenario, the sides that are commonly viewed and behave as political rivals are actually the surrogate victims of statelessness, incessantly recreating what sociologist Samir Khalaf used to call “domestication of violence”, historically intermittent in Lebanon. It has been portrayed as the rebirth of a geography of fear, where communities, in vain, show distance from and indifference to one another. These multiple violent actors function as echoes of the violence exercised in the Syrian Leviathan state that barely allowed Lebanon, throughout history, to “otherise” itself.

The words of the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Michel Aoun, expressing that the recent car-bombs are nothing but a conspiracy against all Lebanese, however morally helpful, will not help shed light on the rooted internalization of regional political disorders. This vicious cycle is actually able to unravel an unofficial mutual empathy of the two alignments. Nonetheless, lethargy in the case of Tripoli and indifference in Dahiye – the people that are arbitrarily defined as “always ready to face war” – seem to prevail in the media representation. They erroneously are the only factors that are foregrounded in the description of the two post-bomb scenarios.

While a segment of the international media has identified in the recent bombings the renewed risk of a civil war by simply surfacing the old-date sectarian divisions, people, on the one side, may live such episodes in terms of continuity of what has been dividing them, or, on the other hand, as a paradoxical unifying force despite its goal of destabilizing the country. In fact, to “otherize” the sources of social problems in Lebanon has often constituted an efficient scapegoat for internal frictions, like the rhetoric of the “war of others” that took ground in the aftermath of the fifteen-year civil war (1975-1990).

People’s awareness of local historical events, their everyday resilience to the determinism of political violence through apparent voyeurism and blasé reactions to gross violence, and their search for life certainties in family-cloistered universes, seem to be the main cohesive factors of all Lebanese. Every Lebanese side has so far shown to be interested in maintaining domestic stability, the common denominator of their nationhood, despite the several ways they undertake to get to the same ground.

At a first glance, by mourning the latest outbursts of violence, each community reclaims the special ownership of its area, lived as a legitimate territory hosting local suffering. Such a refreshed territorial claim, nonetheless, does not imply a new frictional antagonism, as often arbitrarily stated. In other words, the two sides do not seem to spark new divisions in the dimension of their everyday existence. This means that the narrative aimed to explain the aggressive acts against Shi’a in Dahiye and the retaliation of the latter in Tripoli’s mosques is not as widely accepted as thought. Indeed, this explanatory version of the two bombings has found little ground among common people.

The two – more antagonised than antagonistic – sides rather express their opposition to their respective foes at a supra-structural level, which often gives rise to “violence knots” abstracted from the surrounding reality: militias and district usurping leaders, however, should not be summoned up as representatives of the two communities, reified in anti-Assad Sunna in Tripoli and pro-Assad Shi’a in Dahiye. Despite the difficulty of setting a clear-cut line between common people and such fighting categories in the country, the latter did get to engender, throughout years of very relative stability, a kind of supra-structure transcending the norm of people’s everydayness.

It is not the case that Lebanese confessionalism has finally declined. This is not to argue that divisions between regions, ideologies and mentalities are no longer empirically identifiable across Lebanon. This is rather to state that all the August bombings did highlight the local suffering of both politically marked territories, but, yet, such common suffering merely stands for the continuation of a grievous past of controversies, not adding any domestic escalation to the “sectarian division narrative,” one largely abused by media entrepreneurs these days.The Lebanese seem to have developed a sort of emotional immunity to the civil war. If ever war will break out again, this is certainly neither going to be due to people, nor to their “spot-to-spot” territorial daily life, and not even to their – though sometimes opposing – imaginaries.

The proliferating rhetorical accounts of our times around civil wars will have to tackle people’s moral resilience to a terminology that tends to shape events rather than stemming from them. A resistance to arbitrary representations – which did not manage to emerge in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s – will be expected, as what has already been named “new civil war” will certainly have very little to do with common civilians. If the grassroots can hardly divert the perverted path of macrocosmic politics, they can still resist against their forced involvement in them. The sterility of such eternally combating supra-structures will eventually unfold its popularly groundless nature.