What’s wrong with marriage, a mortgage, and monogamy?

A decade ago, I visited the Castro in San Francisco. Long considered one of the heartlands of the gay community in the US, I was intrigued to visit the area. Before going to the US I had acknowledged my sexuality, but had yet to accept it as reality. Something about being somewhere new meant that acceptance came while I was living in Miami. I still remember telling one of my closest friends that I’m gay at a party in one of her friend’s houses. Her reaction: “Oh, we just thought you were European.”

My over-riding feeling as I wandered through the Castro, a feeling that I can vividly recall ten years on, was that I was in a bubble. I even remember turning a corner and sensing, abruptly and definitively, that I had left the bubble.

Part of my reaction against the bubble of the Castro stems from not understanding why anyone would choose to separate themselves from the rest of society. I want to play a role in society at large, not separate myself from it. I want to be considered a person with my own identity, not pigeon-holed into a sub-community simply because of whom I sleep with.

People using the word queer evokes the same reaction. The political reason for reappropriating queer from the bigots is well established. It’s just not one that I buy. It was born from a climate of fear and oppression. Its continued, and growing, use speaks to a lack of confidence.

I don’t see the need to build an identity around my sexuality. Queer theory is about advancing a non-binary worldview. But it speaks more to the argument of non-heterosexual people as ‘alternative’ or ‘not normal’ than in arguing for a non-binary worldview. The world is non-binary, so the best way of reinforcing that is by living our lives in a way that expresses our self-identity.

More particularly, the use of queer and gay are not interchangeable to me because I don’t see my sexuality as deviant or alternative. Being gay is not queer.

Justin Torres, in a piece celebrating Derek Jarman’s life, sneers at the “new gay ideals of ‘marriage, a mortgage, and monogamy.’” He conflates Jarman’s anti-establishment credentials with him being a gay man and asks “if Jarman’s passionate vision, and the example of his life, might offer something refreshingly vivid, alternative, wild, and necessary for our queer future”. His argument boils down to ‘being gay means being alternative and wild.’

Jarman’s alternative outlook is used by Torres as a stick with which to beat the millions of gay people who want what is pejoratively referred to as a ‘heteronormative’ lifestyle. Torres bemoans a dilution of gay identity, ignoring that the gay identity he writes about is but one interpretation of gayness.

Tim Murphy, writing in Out’s January edition, asks the bizarre question of whether men who choose to have monogamous relationships are “depriving themselves of a perk of being gay”. Many gay people reject the perception that all we want in life is the next guy; that works for some, just as it works for some straight people. The historic or cultural perception of gay identity, that it is based on promiscuity, ignores the reality that heteronormative behaviour amongst gay people was not an option for generations.

Some things stay constant, but many things evolve. Torres makes the ‘traditional values’ argument for a gay identity that many gay people reject. Hankering after an identity that is rooted in saunas and cottaging and animalistic tribes is as sad as Rick Santorum hankering after an idealised 1950s America or Nigel Farage dreaming wistfully of a Britain that no longer exists. Identity changes.

Justin Torres is not alone in seeking to protect a separate gay community. But the starting point that such a community is based on being alternative or wild is entirely false. The fact that my gay peers and I love and sleep with members of the same sex is about the only thing that unites many of us. An attempt to define a gay community today is as futile as trying to identify a straight community.

And what’s wrong with wanting a stable, committed relationship with someone on whom you can depend? It may not be for everyone. Torres’s idealised ‘queer’ lifestyle, epitomised by Derek Jarman, is not for everyone. But the attitude expressed by some gay people towards those who want stability and commitment is simply unpleasant.

The desire for committed love may be an ideal, but who is Justin Torres or Tim Murphy to sneer at or criticise people who want that ideal? And who really wants their identity to be summarised in a pithy and sepia-tinted view of gay as queer? Being gay may have lost some of its cutting-edge value by becoming mainstream, but the diversity that exists amongst gay people simply reinforces that it’s not something around which to build a collective identity.


Leave a comment

Filed under Gay, Society

How a one-trick pony shuts down an entire government

In one “West Wing” episode, a group of fictional Belarussian officials gather to write a new constitution for their country. Intent on following the model of the US constitution, Toby Ziegler, the fictional White House Director of Communications, implores them to do otherwise. His country’s governing system is, he says, a “recipe for constitutional breakdown.”

Today, almost 800,000 federal employees in the US will not show up to work. One million more – those considered essential – will show up but not get paid for the work they do. Constitutional breakdown, namely an inability of the Republican House and Democratic Senate to agree a budget, is now a firm part of the American political lexicon.

Every year, Congress must pass a budget to make sure that the federal government continues to operate at financial year end. Yet, for the nineteenth year in a row, Congress has failed to pass the following year’s budget in time. In seventeen of the nineteen years, short-term bills have kept the government’s doors open while longer-term negotiations continue. But not this year.

The sticking point is an effort by the Republican Party to couple defunding of the Affordable Care Act withpassage of the 2013/14 budget. Health care reform was championed by President Obama. It is despised by many Republicans but is also considered the signature achievement of Obama’s Presidency.

But in holding the country to ransom over this issue, Republicans ignore three realities of American politics and face political ignominy.

The last government shut-down, in 1996, also came when a group of fiery conservatives locked horns with a weakened Democratic President. Republicans lost that fight, and Bill Clinton won an easy re-election.

This year’s gamble has even higher stakes. In sixteen days the country will run out of money, not just to pay for government services but to pay its debts. Unless Congress raises the debt ceiling, the US will default on its borrowings for the first time in history.

In continuing to fight the battles of 2010, Republicans are trying to roll back the clock. Critically, they ignore that age old advice to pick your battles. The fight over Obamacare is now about emotion, not public policy. It passed Congress three years ago, was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2012, and the man responsible for its passage was convincingly re-elected less than twelve months ago. Despite all this, Republicans have attempted to repeal the law forty times since its passage.

Many Republicans argue that the US Government is too big and that health care reform will mean more spending. Being mostly regulations, the Affordable Care Act has little to do with the federal budget. That is about paying for those things which Congress has already agreed to fund, not about trying to reverse something that the minority party was unable to prevent from becoming law. Bob Woodward, a journalist with many years of experience in Washington, declared on Sunday that the GOP is trying to blackmail the President.

It is no coincidence that the last nineteen years have been marked by a period of divided government and heightened partisanship. One blog study found that Congress now suffers from the highest levels of partisanship since the late nineteenth century. But the US Constitution is based on compromise. Divided government is built into the system.

The GOP’s second fault is failing to recognise the world they inhabit. They may control the House of Representatives, but Democrats control the Senate and White House. No one gets everything they want in this situation. Both parties have been attempting to blame the other for the lack of compromise, but the GOP has become a one-trick pony. It has a myopic fixation with Obamacare.

Republicans argue that they have sent three continuing resolutions to the Senate which would have prevented a shut-down. Despite Democratic opposition to delaying or defunding the Affordable Care Act, all three resolutions contain provisions to do just that. Without them, government offices likely would have stayed open.

In 1996, a Republican Speaker led the charge; now, a sixth of the Republican caucus leads the Speaker. Successful parties need effective leaders as well as ideas. Obamacare might be unpopular, but it is a reality. Instead of adjusting to that reality, John Boehner, the House Speaker, has allowed 40 GOP Congressmen, the Tea Partiers, to ransom the country and dictate Republican positions on budget negotiations.

Ideological posturing might work in the short-term. Senator Ted Cruz is touted as a future GOP Presidential candidate, his standing boosted by a 21 hour speech on the evils of Obamacare. That he was reprimanded by a fellow GOP Senator, Bob Corker, shows that some Republicans know the party is in dangerous territory. With a sixteen day window to prevent default the entire United States is in dangerous territory.

The Economist’s correspondent predicted, before Tuesday’s shut-down, that because a default is unprecedented, “it is probable that both sides will avoid triggering one.” But few things are probable when ideological purity becomes more important than funding a government.

1 Comment

Filed under Politics, US Politics

Culture Night Belfast: What is culture and what is regeneration?

His quiff curled skyward. The white snakeskin boots, matching his white suit and white collar, reinforced the supposedly oily nature of the Southern preacher man. We had gathered on a street corner to witness democracy’s funeral, listening to a tirade against fracking and vested interests. The preacher’s quiff bounced insistently as he admonished us through a loudspeaker that only half-heartedly worked.

Part of Belfast’s fifth Culture Night, Friends of the Earth staged a wandering New Orleans style jazz funeral in honour of democracy. Behind, a restaurant staged a flash-fiction writing event. A little further down the street, Pro Westling Ulster brought what the programme described as “its hard hitting American Style Wrestling” back to Belfast’s streets.

Culture Night Belfast proudly claims to be a big tent – “a big party where everyone’s invited.” And, despite a theoretical theme of Reconstruction for 2013’s event, the result is a muddle. It is a collection of stuff. It is unwittingly, but fittingly for Northern Ireland, a celebration of consumption and alcohol.

Our Southern preacher, who was supposedly from Brooklyn, declared “Maybe we buy the kind of economy we have, the kind of culture…” His words rattled through my head as I wandered the streets of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter.

A common lament of the arts sector, heard from Belfast to Sydney, from Athens to Vancouver, is about the lack of investment in culture. It was heard earlier in the day, at a discussion that asked if economic regeneration can be driven by the creative and cultural industries.

Dr Kate Oakley, an academic at the University of Leeds, was, in turn, pessimistic and optimistic about the possibilities for culturally driven regeneration. Her analysis was that such economic growth did not deliver good jobs, didn’t deliver enough of them, and delivered them in the wrong places. In a criticism of Richard Florida’s work on the creative class, Oakley noted that even when cultural regeneration works it disproportionately benefits the highly educated and middle class.

Sean Kelly from the Cathedral Quarter Trust, which presents Culture Night, proudly declared it was a “demonstration of how the creative industries can deliver regeneration.” That’s fine if you believe that regeneration is about providing bars, restaurants and nightclubs with patrons for a night.

But nothing about Culture Night provides commercial or financial support for the arts. The event is free. We can assume that most organisations involved survive on public sector funding. Such funding is crucial in a mature society, but perhaps not the best example of economic growth in an area that depends on the public sector.

Supporters of Culture Night point to the wonderful atmosphere on the streets. People got to experience Belfast in a different way. Yet, for many who attend Culture Night, the culture is irrelevant; consumption (of alcohol) is the only reason for their attendance. It is an excuse to wander the streets with a drink in each hand.

There is something unusual in Culture Night claiming partial credit for a regeneration that feeds consumption, rather than asking people to personally invest in the arts. We pay to enjoy an experience. And that many who attend Culture Night think nothing of spending £50 in Belfast’s bars rather than investing in the city’s artistic life says much about our skewed priorities.

It does not help that Culture Night lacks a thread to connect the various dots. Some say that you cannot organise people’s enjoyment of culture. But it can be curated. It can be presented in a way that brings meaning beyond the enjoyment of culture for culture’s sake. Appropriate signposting and thematic clustering would help. Enhancing the experience of the art and culture should take precedence over facilitating those who want background colour and noise to their bar crawl. Describing the night as a big party belittles the cultural experience.

“The event may only last for six hours but what we can build can last for so much longer,” declares this year’s programme. That is not good enough. After five years, Culture Night Belfast needs to up its game. The arts sector needs to be genuine about realising the opportunity of culturally-led regeneration. It needs leadership and ambition, and it needs to be strategic about what it does. Critically, it needs to differentiate its offering from consumption-led regeneration.

It also needs to broaden the appeal of arts and culture. The audience wandering around at Culture Night was a visibly middle-class one. Young people in deprived areas of Belfast say that nothing in the city centre is of benefit to them. An aimless alcohol fuelled party, centred on the fashionable bars of the city rather than the opportunity of cultural regeneration, is unlikely to change that impression.

As our preacher friend reminds us, “Maybe we buy the kind of culture we have.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Belfast, Northern Ireland, Regeneration

Gay rights in Russia and the Olympics: a boycott isn’t the answer

Ugly pictures of a young man, beaten and bloody, have emerged from Russia in recent weeks. Terrified, he is surrounded by shaven-headed men, gloating at their work. In May, it was reported that a 23-year old man was horrifically tortured and killed in the city of Volgograd.

Their offence is to be gay in Russia. Homosexuality was banned in the 1920s. Gays were regularly made scapegoats for the country’s ills. Though legalised in 1993, Russian society is fiercely homophobic. The country also has a reputation for thuggish behaviour. It is home to large numbers of far-right supporters, and Russian democracy is of the autocratic flavour.

Many blame the surge in homophobic attacks in the country on the June passage of a law banning public discussion of homosexuality. Purportedly, it is to protect children. The real impetus is the political insecurity of Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. A shaky re-election in 2012 has led him to shore up support with the deeply conservative Russian Orthodox Church.

Last week, Stephen Fry, the actor and broadcaster, focused international attention on the matter. In an open letter to political and Olympic leaders, he called for “An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics.” He compared the situation facing gays and lesbians in Russia today with that facing Jews in Germany ahead of the 1936 Olympics. Echoing history, Fry declared that Russia was “making scapegoats of gay people.” He demanded that the Olympics be held anywhere but in Sochi.

Putin championed Russia’s Winter Olympics bid as a demonstration of the country’s international muscle. Yet, as China discovered ahead of the Beijing Games in 2008, hosting the Olympics highlights both the strengths and the shortcomings of a host country.

If not a new location for the Games, argued some, then at least a boycott. Some gay rights organisations backed calls for a boycott. Others, including gay athletes, suggested that a boycott would be ineffective; the aim, they argued, should be to improve the situation for gays and lesbians in Russia. All Out, an international gay-rights advocacy group, handed over a petition with 320,000 signatures to the IOC calling for the laws to be repealed.

Calls for the Games to be moved ignore reality while calls for a boycott are misguided. Olympic Games are a small industry, with billions of dollars at stake. Long legal battles would follow should the IOC not honour its contract with 2014 hosts, Sochi, a sleepy city almost as close to Tehran as to Moscow.

And the simple fact is that boycotts rarely work. The last Olympics on Russian soil, the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, were boycotted by sixty-five countries. A response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, it had no impact on Soviet foreign policy. The only tangible outcome: a reverse boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games by Soviet-bloc countries.

Several countries share Russia’s attitudes on homosexuality and would be unlikely to join a boycott over gay rights. And, rather than provoking positive change for gays and lesbians, the more likely response is a hardening of attitudes. Putin would use it to his advantage. Boycotting Sochi over gay rights in specific also raises the question of why no boycott of Beijing over human rights in general?

Several gay Olympians rejected a call for gay athletes to boycott the Games. A self-imposed boycott by gay athletes would do nothing but deny them the opportunity to participate in the Games. It smacks of defeatism. It isstyle over substance.

Public opinion in the West aims to pressure Olympic sponsors and the IOC into challenging discrimination. But, instead of strategic cul-de-sacs, those who seek change in Russia should be calling for action that can make a difference.

Changing attitudes, and laws, takes time. It requires focused and dedicated effort, and it requires working with people. Barriers are dismantledand discrimination is challenged through personal contact. The lack of openly gay role models is a problem in Russia.

The IOC says that gay athletes will be protected from the anti-propaganda laws during the Olympics. It should test that. Every gay athlete willing to travel to Russia between now and February should do so, armed with a rainbow flag. They should embark on a programme of educational visits to Chabarovsk, Tolyatti, Petrozavodsk and to as many other cities outside of Moscow and Sochi as possible. And it should be organised by the IOC and Olympic sponsors.

That gay athletes will be immune from discriminatory laws during the Olympics is not enough. It belittles the everyday situation facing gays and lesbians in Russia. As Fry noted, Rule 6 of the Olympic Charter states that the IOC must “Act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement.” Here is an opportunity to turn the often soaring rhetoric of international sports into making a real difference to people’s lives.

1 Comment

Filed under Gay, International Relations, Society

Names, parties and hashtags: politics in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland got a new political party on June 6th. NI21 was born. It comes amid fevered discussion on social media of the prospects for a new style of politics in the region. A hashtag – #freshpolitics – sums up the hopes and aspirations of many.

I was underwhelmed, not at the idea of fresh politics. But because the name, NI21, is absent any vision or ambition. My first reaction on hearing it was not positive. It has the feel of something that middle-aged men, hoping to tap into the youth vote, might think is hip or modern. Instead, it seems stuck in 1997. Others have compared it to a strain of bird flu.

Names, one Twitter user pointed out, do not define everything. Those critical of the name were told to cast off the old politics. Wait for the policies, was the call.

The new party’s policies (of which there are none yet announced) will be more important than the name. But it does not inspire confidence. It smacks of a three second strategy session where, having announced that they needed something that said Northern Ireland in the 21st Century, they ended the discussion there.

Some 45% of Northern Ireland’s residents describe themselves as neither Unionist nor Nationalist, according to the latest NI Life and Times Survey. Fresh politics supporters point to the possibilities for change if these people can be engaged.

The tiny region’s politics are deplorable. A mandatory coalition holds power, the result of an agreement to settle nearly 30 years of violence. Of 108 members of the local assembly, 103 represent parties in government. Clientelism, parochialism, and tribalism are rife. Assembly members must declare a tribal allegiance upon election. Without opposition, the DUP and Sinn Fein, the two largest parties, increasingly concentrate power in their own hands.

Entire communities feel disenfranchised. Last December, Belfast City Council reduced the number of days on which the Union Flag will fly at City Hall. Working-class Protestant communities held a series of protests. Many were peaceful, but some were violent. Political parties struggled to connect with the protestors, who simply ignored the political process. They blame it for giving too much to Nationalists.

Young people feel especially alienated. The Troubles are history to them. Opportunities are lacking. A stagnant economy, dependent on the public sector, does not help. Belfast’s economy, once based on big industry, now seems based on call-centres. The answer for many is simply to leave.

NI21’s founders, Basil McCrea and John McCallister, are vocal and moderate. They tapped a reservoir of public apathy when they resigned from the Ulster Unionist Party in February. Fearing centrist voices were being undermined within the UUP their resignations came when it and the bigger, more strident Democratic Unionist Party fielded a joint Unionist candidate in a bye-election.

NI21’s roots are in seeking to challenge an unresponsive political system, not in Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. In his first speech as the new party’s leader, McCrea said, “[the current system] denies you that most fundamental of rights in any democracy: choice.” McCallister sought to lead his old party on a platform of taking it into opposition. Many had thought that they might join the centrist Alliance Party. But Alliance, the tiny opposition force in earlier Assemblies, entered government in 2010. It also undermines its liberal values through a lack of party discipline.

Supporters of fresh politics want to see a political system that is accountable, that delivers a competitive and prosperous Northern Ireland, and that treats Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as a peripheral concern. Those hoping for fresh politics may have to wait a while longer. It is intriguing that the new party’s leaders sought to define it using old politics. McCrea and McCallister have been clear that NI21 will be pro-Union in outlook.

And therein lies the difficulty for two such established politicians seeking to be changemakers. New faces were much in evidence at the launch, but the men at the top are well-known entities in Northern Ireland. A vigorous challenge to the status-quo will require more than establishing a liberal alternative and hoping and aspiring. It will require a societal demand for change, led by people who have no political baggage.

The liberal values espoused by NI21 – reformist, socially progressive and economically liberal – are much in need in Northern Ireland. An opposition force is also sorely needed. Achieving them will require intellectual rigour and political discipline.

Choosing NI21 as a name and the insipid “Aspire to Better” as a tag-line is not an inspiring start. Policies will be more critical to its success than a poor choice of name, but the lack of any policies, after four months of development, is inexplicable.

And those who support fresh politics should not confuse criticism of a lacklustre name with criticism of goals. They should realise, more simply, that messaging is king.

1 Comment

Filed under Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Politics

Istanbul’s anger at autocratic Erdogan

tumblr_mnu268GCHw1ste7qoo1_1280Anger at political leaders is not new in İstanbul. In 532, rival groups in the then Constantinople united in anger at the Emperor, Justinian. 30,000 people died and half the city burned to the ground in the Nika riots. Justinian, needing a stern word from his wife, Theodora, only regained control by bribing one of the groups.

Justinian had few worries about democratic rights. Modern-day Turkey’s leaders have plenty. On May 28th, much of the country exploded in a paroxysm of anger. The focus was the increasing authoritarianism and paternalism of the Prime Minister, Racep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In power since 2003, Erdoğan has led Turkey at a time of huge change. After many years of political paralysis and economic turmoil during the 1990s, his time in office has brought stability and economic transformation. Average incomes grew from $2,800 in 2001 to around $10,000 in 2011.

That economic transformation has brought a development boom to İstanbul. More than $80bn of state-supported development include plans for the world’s largest airport, a new super-port and the construction of a third bridge across the Bosphorus.

But, rapid growth has a price. That price, at Gezi Park in the heart of Istanbul, was deemed too high by some. Tucked at the back of fume-filled Taksım Square, the tiny park, just nine acres, is earmarked to be redeveloped. The proposals, firmly supported by Erdoğan, are to build a replica of the former Ottoman-era barracks that once sat where the park is now. Contained within will be a shopping centre.

Research has demonstrated the psychological benefits of access to green spaces. In a city where only 1.5% of the land mass is green space, it is unsurprising that some people want to protect what little there is. 70 or so people gathered to stop the bulldozers from razing trees. They were met by riot police firing tear gas. Thousands quickly poured onto İstanbul’s streets, angry at the government’s handling of the situation. Erdoğan’s reaction to legitimate protest served to underline the reason for the anger.

The national venting of frustration now includes a two-day strike. It is rooted in his autocratic style and a not-so-subtle moralising. Those, for example, who opposed new restrictions on the sale of alcohol were “alcoholics.” Such attitudes caused the protests to spread quickly. By June 2nd, 1,700 people had been arrested in 67 cities.

Protestors charged Erdoğan with being a dictator. Bemused, he dismissed those who oppose him for simply wanting to do what is best for Turkey. He triumphantly declared that the redevelopment of Gezi Park would continue. He dismissed the protests as undemocratic, blaming them on the opposition and extremists. He declared that if the protestors massed 100,000 people on the streets, he would gather one million.

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a dominant force in Turkish politics. It won just under 50% of the popular vote in 2011, increasing its support from both 2002 and 2007. The opposition is ineffective and divided. Demands for the Prime Minister’s resignation began on the streets. The very lack of an effective opposition has increased Erdoğan’s hubris, much the same way as happened with Margaret Thatcher over the Poll Tax during her final years in power.

Public anger also mounted at the Turkish media. Often controlled by business groups with close links to the government, the media largely chose to ignore the first days of protests. Social media became the focus for information. This allowed Erdoğan to decry the medium as a “curse” and a vehicle for lies.

“Turkey’s democracy is maturing and civil society has taken root,” declared The Economist. Protestors may actually have to thank Erdoğan for this. Reforms since 2002 have curtailed the power of the military. In previous generations, the army may well have stepped in by now and simply removed the AKP from power. Citizens are, instead, choosing to defend their rights.

Some early commentary compared Taksım Square with Tahrir Square, and the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt, in 2011. Others said that was overblown. After all, they said, Turkey is a democracy. But, as Stephen Cook, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Michael Koplow of the Israel Institute, as well as protestors on the streets of İstanbul and Ankara, point out, successful democracy is about more than elections.

President Gül, after five days of protests, told the people on the streets that their concerns had been heard. Erdoğan promptly flew to North Africa. Yet, two of his dearest wishes might require some humility on his part. He does not hide his desire to be the next President, a post which he hopes will have increased powers under a new Constitution. A more conciliatory tone might be needed to secure both.

Leave a comment

Filed under International Relations, Middle East

Lebanon at the mercy of regional fires

Live Love Beirut

Live Love Beirut

Live Love Beirut was founded in late 2012. Inspired by bracelets from Brazil, a group of young creatives aim to highlight the positive in Lebanon. Instagram and Facebook feeds show a colourful country filled with smiles and sunshine, sullied only by some ugly development along Beirut’s waterfront.

I imagine Beirut to mix Western and Oriental influences with an edge of uncertainty. From my childhood, I remember news reports of bombings and kidnappings. Those memories have given way to a fascination with Lebanon; to a desire to explore this troubled land. It comes, perhaps, from the same place as my desire to be a foreign correspondent.

Live Love Beirut has its work cut out. Almost a quarter-century has passed since the end of the country’s civil war. But, the sound of gunfire again prompts nothing more than a shrug of shoulders. Fanned by war in neighbouring Syria, Lebanon is at risk of another sectarian implosion.

Two rockets hit a Beirut suburb, populated by Shias, on May 26th. More than 30 people have been killed in sectarian clashes in the northern, mostly Sunni, city of Tripoli in recent weeks. Hezbollah, Lebanon’s dominant political and military force, has finally declared its long-suspected involvement in Syria, in support of President Assad.

Sectarian tensions and the arrival of thousands of Palestinian refugees helped to birth civil war in 1975. Religious attachment has often meant life or death in Lebanon. The arrival of thousands of mainly Sunni refugees fleeing Syria has upended the delicate sectarian headcount.

Power vacuums do not help. The country has been without a government since March. Hezbollah attempted to assert its authority over internal security and election laws. A Shiite group backed by Iran and Syria, it did not want the country’s police chief, a Sunni, reappointed. The Prime Minister, Najib Makiti, also a Sunni, promptly resigned. Elections are due next month. A postponement seems inevitable.

Lebanon is a patchwork of religions. Stitched together by the whims of post-World War I geopolitics, its existence has been questioned since independence in 1943. The centre is weak, and tribal affiliations are more influential than national identity. The constitution is based on confessional compromise. Presidents are Christian; Prime Ministers are Sunni and Speakers of Parliament are Shia.

There was a time when Beirut was known as the Paris of the East; Lebanon was the Switzerland of the Orient. The hedonistic and open-minded outlook of its residents helped the country become a tourist mecca. Beirut was a cosmopolitan city, Brigitte Bardot a regular visitor. That ended in 1975.

Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ Beirut Correspondent between 1982 and 1987, wrote an evocative memoir of his time there. In it, he laments the death of the city. But, in his own words, “Beirut was never just a city. It was an idea.” The idea was that of co-existence, tolerance and the mingling of religions and communities.

The possibility of the Levantine sprit was reborn after 1990. Tourists returned. GDP grew from $14.7bn in 2000 to $49.5bn in 2012. Possibility, nevertheless, is different from reality. A fractured society and a lack of authority were always risks to this nascent rebirth.

Syria’s involvement in Lebanon has been less than benign. Iran used Syria as a conduit for aid to Hezbollah. With no state institutions able to check its growth, the militia group became akin to a shadow government in parts of Lebanon. It is now more powerful than the Lebanese army.

On May 25th, Hassan Nasrallah, the militant leader of Hezbollah, put another nail in the coffin of Lebanon’s spirit. “This battle is ours, and I promise you victory,” he declared. Nasrallah committed Hezbollah to fighting fellow Muslims in Syria. In doing so, it risks Lebanon’s future in defence of its key ally; Israel has threatened air strikes.

The recent discovery of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean may further raise tensions with Israel. Lebanon has warned that part of the gas field lies in its territorial waters. The precise maritime border between the two countries has never been agreed.

On his resignation Najib Mikati declared, “The region is heading toward the unknown and the regional fires are hitting us with their heat.” The longer those regional fires burn, the more Lebanon is at risk of being engulfed. No wonder Mr Mikati seeks salvation.

And yet, I imagine Beirut to know, despite all of its difficulties, what it is; I imagine a city that collects its identities into one, uniquely Beiruti character. The city’s residents are a famously resilient lot.

Writing of earlier times, Philip Mansel concluded, “In Beirut…the city was the prey of Beirutis themselves.” Some dismiss the prospect of sustained conflict in Lebanon now. Yet, perhaps my wish to visit Beirut will be fulfilled, just not as a tourist. Despite the efforts of Lebanon’s young people, perhaps my visit will be as a foreign correspondent.

Leave a comment

Filed under International Relations, Middle East