Lebanon: A History 600-2011

By Aoudé, Ibrahim G. | International Journal of Turkish Studies, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Lebanon: A History 600-2011


Aoudé, Ibrahim G., International Journal of Turkish Studies


WILLIAM HARRIS, Lebanon: A History 600-2011. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), Pp. 360, £ 22.50, $ 34.95 cloth

This is a very ambitious work that required someone of Harris's caliber to attempt it. It is the result of thorough research and the author's knowledge of the country, especially having written an earlier work on it, Faces of Lebanon: Sects, Wars, and Global Extensions (Princeton, 1997). The book falls into an introduction, six chapters and a conclusion. The first three chapters comprises a first part ("Foundations"), based on meticulous research that reaches back to then late Roman period "to interpret the origins of the communities" (p. 3) that constitute modern Lebanon.

Historiography is critical here, and Harris approaches events in Mount Lebanon and its environment according to what was "important at the time rather than to modern Lebanon" (p. 6). His methodology relies on political history, narrated chronologically, as the central thread, and it runs through his examination of economic and demographic trends to show how events have influenced social relations.

The work illustrates how Mount Lebanon had been integrally connected with its larger environment and the way in which outside influences, from within and without the Ottoman Empire, resulted in a becoming an autonomous entity. And yet, when Harris examines Modern Lebanon, ultimately an imperial project, based on evidence he himself provides, his treatment of outside influences (Palestinians, Syrians, Israelis, et al.) considers them as disruptions to the natural flow of events. This treatment constitutes a glaring theoretical and methodological flaw in the entire work and betrays Harris's metatheoretical commitments, which are based on preconceived notions about Lebanon unrelated to material evidence: Modern Lebanon, formed around Mount Lebanon from geographies carved out of Syria.

The dynamics of this formation since World War I may be easily read as primarily a rivalry between Britain and France, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, as rivalries among multiple local players who jockeyed for position to come out ahead in this 1920 political formation called Modern Lebanon. The outcome of the continuing dynamics after 1920 was the Lebanon that emerged in 1943 as an independent state with its identifiable confessional character. Political and economic developments beyond 1943 exposed the contradictions inherent in confessional politics as Harris illustrates with multiple examples of the precarious balance of confessional politics in chapter 4 "Emerging Lebanon" and chapter 5 "Independent Lebanon."

Just as it is not possible to conceive of Mount Lebanon under Fakhr el-Din or Bashir II Shihab without the influences of trade, politics and war with the big outside players of the time-the Ottomans, Italians, Egyptians, French, and British-it is equally not possible to conceive of 1943 Lebanon without the surrounding environment impacting it in a myriad of ways. Here, the noted theoretical and methodological flaw leads Harris away from his sound analysis in part 1. After a detailed discussion of Shihab and Shihabism, Harris states that "[w]ithout the new Palestinian pressures in Lebanon after 1967, Shihab would probably have returned as President in 1970... he may well have managed to implement something like the 1989 Ta'if recalibration of Lebanese sectarian politics by the mid-1970s, avoiding fifteen years of chaos" (p. 219). Harris further states: "As for the Shia, Musa al-Sadr would not have disappeared in wartime circumstances in 1978 and may have deflected the effects of the 1978-1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran" (ibid). Unfortunately, more conjecture and speculation about Shihab and the Palestinians occurs on page 220: "Without the 1967 war, the Lebanese state could have contained the Palestinians in Lebanon much longer. …

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