Most scholars agree that nationalism is a recent phenomena that could be traced back to the late eighteenth century Europe. However, most of them disagree on its definition and impact. Earlier thinkers, such as Earnest Renan sees a nation as “a soul” constituted of past memories accepted in the present by desires of people to live together. According to Renan, the past is full of ancestral heroism and devotion to glory. It is in the present that the past is brought back to life under new banners of solidarity and “a daily plebiscite.” Ernest Gellner, confirming the notion that nationalism is a modern concept, sees a connection between an industrial changing society rooted in high culture and education and the emergence of nation-sates. In his book “Imagined Communities,” published in 1991, Benedict Anderson argued that the print media played a major role under a capitalist society in the spread of “imagined political communities,” nations. Elie Kedourie regarded nationalism mostly as a European ideology influencing many parts of the world.
It is difficult to state all opinions about the definition of nation and nationalism. Few scholars share similar views and the majority of opinions differ sharply. Nationalism is not a rigid concept but rather a fluid and a dynamic one. It does not apply to all time or it belongs to any specific geographical area. It could be argued that with the advent of capitalism and the disintegration of the monarchy, nationalism has emerged on the world seen. If capitalism is to gradually fade away, nationalism will surely to follow. It is no coincidence that both of them appeared simultaneously one giving birth to the other and it won’t be a false prediction that both one day disappear.
Does nationalism in its evolution share the same traits among different cultures and nations? How do we compare the rise of nationalism in Europe versus other region of the world? The topic is undoubtedly interesting and yet hard to be covered in a short essay. If we were to accept the notion that nationalism was actually invented in Europe and then exported to the rest of world through different modes of transports, then we need to know how these imported ideas transplanted in foreign lands were received and developed. Since the emergence of European nationalism is well studied, it seems logical to shift to a less analyzed region and elaborate on the birth of nation-states in countries like Lebanon.
The Lebanese example might improve our understanding of nationalism world-wide as the country is embedded with ideological contradictions and internal historical social conflicts. Its demographic divide add more complexity and its religious addictions provide different perspectives than the commonly know ones in the west. Foreign penetration into the territories ruled by the Ottomans Empire during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had great impact on Lebanese nationalism.
Under the Ottomans, the region bordering the Eastern Mediterranean was divided into semi autonomous enclaves ruled by Emir or Sheikh who is appointed by the Sultan. This ruler governed mostly through a local military force often assisted by the might and power Istanbul, the high seat of power during the reign of the Ottomans. When Europe, especially England and France, demonstrated economic and military challenge to a decaying empire, Lebanon had become a fertile ground to accelerate the fall of the Ottoman Empire and to benefit greatly from Western modernization. England and France played a pivotal role in undermining the grip of the sultanate and fostering a new sense of self governing. This would be impossible if it was not guided by new vision and a concept of belonging to a land that is rooted in history.
The Maronites, a major Christian sect, was seen to benefit the most. They were regarded as people under the protection of Islamic law, ahl al-Dimmah, and were eager to subscribe to this new ideology of nationalism which perpetrates self determination and independence. The Maronite growing middle class and its intellectual base were the first to carry the flames of nationalism and began a system approach of lobbying foreign powers and rally local peasants and artisans behind its banners. At times these attempts came in direct conflicts with the traditional elite of landowners mostly from the Druze sect that was the dominant power in Mount Lebanon. The Druze saw nation building under Maronite hegemony in a country where they would become a minority as a threat to their long held authority. Although these scenarios seem to indicate religious underpinning, those who ascribed to nationalist ideals transcended their religious divide among the educated and city dwellers.
Lebanese nationalism was not accepted by other inhabitants as it did among the Maronites. For example, the majority of Sunni Muslim were hostile to Lebanese nationalism and rather advocated instead a larger concept of Arab nationalism, al-ummah. Most of the proponents to both forms of nationalism were mostly Christians who abhorred Ottoman rule and saw that nationalism in general and Arab nationalism as a better alternative. Books were written to glorify the virtues of nationalism. Phoenician and Arab history assumed center stage to replace Ottoman concept of Islamic nation.
Lebanese intellectuals resurrected more than two millenniums of Phoenician glory. Lebanon is the sole inheritor of a great civilization: founder of the alphabets, first colonizers of the Mediterranean land from North Africa to Sicily, France and modern Spain, and the birth place of myth and religion. They reduced almost 1,500 years of Arab-Islamic presence to a secondary status. Figures of historic and biblical significance such as the cedars and the Phoenician artifacts dominated Lebanese literatures and minds.
Lebanese nationalism has roots however it was somewhat selective and gave prominence to a specific era and exclusive ideology. How Arabism was to be reconciled with the new nation no one was able to bridge the gap even though there are many common similarities. Even those who subscribed to either type failed to uproot religion or feudalism, Iqta’iyah, from their minds and souls. These old primordial concepts remain powerful if not the dominant elements in defining Lebanese associations with a nation that encompass all people regardless of their religious or clannish affiliations. The current Lebanese conflict is rooted in merging those concepts and elevating national identity above the rest.