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The Origins of the Lebanese National Idea, 1840-1920.

The Origins of the Lebanese National Idea, 1840-1920, by Carol Hakim. Berkeley, California, University of California Press, 2013. xi, 364 pp. $49.95 US (cloth).

Carol Hakim has produced a book that eloquently challenges the teleology of both Lebanese nationalism and decolonization more broadly. The Origins of the Lebanese National idea. 1840-1920 attempts to locate the genesis of Lebanism --that is, the idea of Lebanon as a distinct place and political unit--and reassesses its connections to the invention of the geo-political entity that, in 1920, became the Lebanese nation-state. Hakim's brilliant account distinguishes itself from a nationalist historiographical consensus, which frames the creation of Lebanon as a longstanding, continuous ambition of the Maronite led community of Mount Lebanon. Far from being a Western import, the Lebanese national idea was predominantly a local construct formed long before the impromptu demise of the Ottoman empire. Yet, according to Hakim, Lebanese national ideas did not work against empire, but within it. Lebanism, in other words, was not naturally linked to formal decolonization. Its trajectory, from roughly 1840 to 1920, was far from a linear one that led directly to the formation of the nation-state. The primary objective of the Lebanese national idea was not complete independence from the Sublime Porte; rather, Lebanism acted primarily as a discursive tool in imperial negotiations over Mount Lebanon's degree of autonomy within the Ottoman empire.

The idea of Lebanon, in its original form, came from the Maronite Church. As a civil conflict overcame Mount Lebanon in 1840, the Maronite Patriarch Mgr Yusuf Hubaysh laid the foundations of a distinct Lebanese identity. Mount Lebanon, according to this mentalite, was a unique Ottoman district and its political status deserved to reflect this perceived reality. Lebanism's initial objectives, Hakim reveals, were threefold: to unite local Maronites under a new banner, to decentralize imperial rule in Mount Lebanon, and to allocate greater authority and prestige to the Maronite Church. Whereas the Sublime Porte initially turned a deaf ear to Mgr Hubaysh's Lebanism, the Maronite Church used the latter to skillfully forge an alliance with France. Invoking the cultures of sectarianism and imperialism, it projected the Maronite community of Mount Lebanon as an isolated Christian haven on the verge of Ottoman-Muslim annihilation. The Church's ambition for greater local self-rule and power creatively connected itself to France's mission civilisatrice, thus forging "a vague political project aimed at establishing" a semi-independent "Christian entity" (p. 43) in the Ottoman province of Greater Syria. Ultimately, the Maronite-instigated "Franco-Lebanese dream" (p. 37) played an integral part in the establishment of a special administrative district in 1861, known as the mutasarrifiyya, which formally recognized Mount Lebanon's distinct political status in the Ottoman imperium.

A period of so-called long peace ensued. Lebanism, as a result, paradoxically waned. Under the mutasarrifiyya regime, Mount Lebanon and the Lebanese national idea became increasingly interconnected with the other parts of the Ottoman empire and the world at large. "Indeed," as Hakim explains, "the mutasarrifiyya contributed to the formation of a separate Lebanese public sphere while it also favoured the crystallization of a wider regional feelings of identity among the mountaineers" (p. 143). Decentralization, the core ambition behind Lebanism at the time, had been achieved. Mount Lebanon's unique status had been formally acknowledged by the imperial centre. And the Maronite Church ensconced itself as a central, socio-political actor in Ottoman Lebanon. Lebanism thus became a complement to other powerful currents, such as Ottomanism, Arabism, and Syrianism, which correspondingly sought to influence the fate of Ottoman reform.

The advent of an economic crisis in the mountain region at the turn of the twentieth century engendered a new form of Lebanism, however. According to Hakim, the Maronite Church's increasing hegemony over political and socioeconomic affairs led so-called secular liberals of various communal affiliations to openly question the status quo under mutasarrijiyya. A new interpretation of the Lebanese national idea, at this time, challenged that of the Church by calling for the creation of a Greater Lebanon, which would extended to borders of Mount Lebanon to include the booming port towns of Beirut, Tripoli, and Saida, as well as the rich agricultural valley of the Bekaa. Such territorial expansion, neo-Lebanists contended, would simultaneously re-energize the local economy --which had been ill-controlled by a handful of land-owners, most notably the Church itself--and generate a much-needed political shake-up.

Following the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 and the new Ottoman administration's subsequent centralization campaign, both Lebanisms coalesced into "a small revolution" (p. 196) in an attempt to restore the previous order of things in Mount Lebanon. The Young Turks served as a common foe for the Church, secular liberals, and their respective followers. Yet competing Lebanese national ideas held to the belief that Mount Lebanon was both distinct and should remain a part of the Ottoman Empire. The advent of World War I, Hakim argues, would not interrupt this trend. Only the unforeseen collapse of the Ottoman Empire at war's end--which surprised and overwhelmed Lebanists of all shades--and the pending installment of a European-managed mandate system in the Middle East engendered a movement for formal decolonization in Mount Lebanon.

The nation-state of Lebanon, far from being inevitable, was not strictly a French invention; rather, it was primarily defined by Lebanese ideas. The post-1920 struggle between Lebanisms, however, ironically catalyzed a national struggle for self-determination and human dignity. In other words, in the fascinating case of Lebanon, decolonization did not produce the nation-state. Instead, the nation-state precipitated decolonization. This major contribution alone makes Carol Hakim's The Origins of the Lebanese National idea, 1840-1920 an absolute must-read for all interested in the histories of Lebanon, the Ottoman empire, nationalisms in the Arab world, and global decolonization.

Maurice Jr. M. Labelle

University of Saskatchewan
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Author:Labelle, Maurice Jr. M.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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