When I came back from Montreal (Quebec, Canada) to Lebanon in 2006-2007, all my friends called me ‘crazy’: ‘How can you leave a stable and secure environment for a volcano?’ I had my personal and family reasons, and I was convinced of the inevitable change yet to occur in the Middle East. I wanted to be part of it, to contribute in its happening, even with my punctual individual initiatives…
Seven years…What we are witnessing is worse than the past decades of physical war in Lebanon. It is the progressive regression of an entire nation at all levels – political, economic-social, environmental, educational, etc. I must admit that seven years ago, I used to find the logic of alarmist explanations rather elusive, but on reflection, I began to see how it is turning and how it might turn. Still, there are many Lebanese who just cannot see that they are already part of the volcano. Starting with most university students, the core of the young generation, supposed to be questioning their ‘leaders’, the warlords, demanding drastic changes, working to deconstruct simplistic and extremist mentalities, founding new political parties, building peace …
The gap between self-image and the perceptions of others has always been wide, between the fanatics and the moderate, the ghetto-minded and the pluralistic-minded people, the nation freedom fighters and those who fight for regional and international forces, the human rights activists and the ‘no rights’ warriors. Still, it is on the verge of becoming an unbridgeable gulf!
Since 2006-2007, changes did occur, but rarely for the better, in Lebanon and the Middle East in general. The ‘Arab Spring’ is synonymous with ‘Arab agony’… There are individuals who still struggle to free their societies from the enormous burden of the past. Unfortunately, they are not many, and their impact is rather weak facing those who use a twisted version of the past to create a vision of the future, those who desire to recover past glories and redeem past humiliation – a desire that so far has largely ended in failed hopes. The great question is whether Lebanese and Middle Easterners can break loose from their deeply ingrained but unresolved frustrations and anxieties about the past and find some new foundations on which to build their aspirations for the future.
Another great question addresses debates within Islam itself. The ways most Islamic activists are interpreting Islam do little justice to the rich intellectual, social and political heritage of that religion. I find it hard nowadays to teach about Theology of Religions and Muslim-Christian Dialogue in a Lebanese academic environment, for most students describe Islam as a ‘violent’ religion… How can they see otherwise when the only images they are mainly exposed to through traditional media – and even online channels – are those of jihadists, misogynist fatwas, cannibalism, blood thirsty combatants killing civilians in the name of Allah?
As a Sciences of Religions’ professor and researcher, I firmly believe that all religions, including Islam, represent complex and highly flexible traditions capable of generating a great diversity of approaches to contemporary life. There are Muslims that already allow themselves the liberty to explore that tradition in all its dimensions, but their voices remain unheard in chaotic war-torn countries where the stubborn authoritarianism of political life seems to choke off any fresh thinking about the region’s problems.
A friend of mine told me a while ago that in order for the Middle East to live in Peace, it must die first… It must suffer… Sadistic dialectic, true in a way, but I find it difficult to think that this death might be soon overcome. I find it difficult to think that these conflicts and tensions might resolve in favor of an evolution toward a pluralistic peaceful environment. Am I being pessimistic? No… Realistic! One of the most difficult issues in the struggle for ending violence and building peace is a matter neither of institutions nor ideology. It is a frame of mind, and the region’s modern history has certainly done nothing to encourage its change!
My hopes may be frustrated and blocked, but they are not extinguished. I am continuing my fight for peace, dialogue and human rights. The struggle, however defined, seems indeed endless but not pointless. Memory, after all, can frustrate hope as well as propel it.