We’ve all seen her by now, the beautiful young woman hoisted above a crowd of protesters in Beirut’s Martyrs’ square, a middle-eastern woman, not veiled but looking exuberantly outward, her dark hair falling loose around her face, her hand gripping a Lebanese flag, the green cedar tree set against stark red and white. For the American media she was the picture of the week, an image of youthful defiance, of our best intentions for the world come to fruition. ‘People Power,’ the March 14th cover of Newsweek proclaimed over a backlit image of the woman, and inside, Fareed Zakaria’s article entitled, ‘Where Bush was Right.’ And for the Bush administration, the woman might just have been the defining image of a presidency. For hasn’t this been the administration’s promise these last years? A domino effect of democracy in the middle east, and with it a rollback of Islamic extremism. At first glance, and to the overwhelming majority of Americans unfamiliar with Lebanon’s complex political system, this youthful protester with her movie star smile would seem to be proof of just how right George Bush has been. But sadly, this fierce young woman and the country she represents are better examples of just how little we Americans understand the culture and politics of the middle east.
First and most powerful among the many myths this photograph works upon is that of the woman herself. It ocurred to me, seeing this picture for the first time, just how few Americans would understand the cultural context in which this woman belongs. Because she is middle-eastern by looks we are taken aback by her loose hair and uncovered face, all of it a welcome contrast to the shrouded figures we see daily in the media. That she is powerful cannot be denied, and yet the fact is that there is nothing extraordinary about this woman, nothing defiant in her dress or demeanor. In truth she is not a Muslim, but a Lebanese Christian, born into a society as culturally liberal as ours. Long before American soldiers arrived in Iraq and Afghanistan she and her friends were wearing bikinis and mini-skirts, going to discos and coffee houses, watching Sex in the City, and planning their careers. To use this woman, either intentionally or unintentionally, as a symbol of religious freedom shows emormous ignorance of the varied cultures and mores of the middle east.
The second myth at work here is the idea that the United States and our current policies in the region are somehow responsible for the protests in Martyrs’ Square, that the anti-Syria protests are, as George Bush would say, proof that “freedom is on the march.” Freedom and democracy may, indeed, be on the march in the middle east. But even if they are, it seems presumptous of the Bush administration to claim credit for these latest shifts in middle-eastern politics. A much more likely cause is the death of Yasser Arafat and the accompanying thaw in Israeli-Palestinian relations. And as far as the protests themselves are concerned, we need look no further than the extraordinary events surrounding the Ukrainian election, and the Orange Revolution that followed. Those young Ukrainians who camped in the cold for weeks are our latest best example of people power, and a much more likely inspiration for the Lebanese students than the occupation of a sovereign country by foreign troops and the hastily conceived elections that have followed.
Though U.S. policies in Iraq may have little to do with the situation in Lebanon today, there is one important lesson we may glean from the recent history of Lebanese politics. The civil war that divided Lebanon for nearly twenty years was a direct result of the power sharing government established after decades of colonial rule, a government not at all unlike the one being formed in Iraq today. The 1943 Lebanese National Covenant divided power along sectarian lines, according to census figures, with the president a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the house a Shiite, and parliamentary seats divided accordingly. A hauntingly similar system is being implemented in Iraq today, with a Kurdish president and Shiite prime minister, though with the majority Sunnis ominously maginalized. The Lebanese system lasted some thirty years, many of them shaky, before dissolving into a vicious and bloody civil war which eventually led to the country’s present occupation by Syria. No one hopes the same will be true for Iraq, but before declaring Bush “right” it would be prudent to look back on the history of such power sharing governments in this region of the world.
There’s no doubt that the United States and the world community at large would benefit from a more stable political situation in the middle east. What’s questionable is whether America’s current policies are doing more to stabilise or destabilise the region. What is undeniably true, however, is that without a firm understanding of the region’s complicated history, its different cultures and religions, and their complex relations to one another, we will certainly do more to hurt than to help