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The repercussions of misunderstanding history

It is never a must that all those engaged in politics should hold university degrees in history. Many of the world’s prominent statesmen never majored in history or political science. Among those, some entered politics as legislators after studying at law schools. Others, such as France’s Charles De Gaulle and Britain’s Winston Churchill, came through military academies.

A third group included those who specialized in medicine and engineering, before seeking power either via electoral politics or revolutions. Among those are physicians such as Argentina’s Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad and Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, and engineers such as America’s Herbert Hoover, Turkey’s Necmettin Erbakan and Lebanon’s current Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil.

I do not believe there is a problem in lecturing about history, but there surely is one with misrepresentation and subjective “interpretation.” Recently, foreign ministers of the 68-member global coalition against Daesh met in Washington upon the invitation of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The meeting, attended by Bassil, was held in order to review and accelerate the campaign for the lasting defeat of the terrorist organization.

I have not been fortunate enough to read about Bassil’s contributions in the meeting, but I had the chance to read what he said at the Wilson Institute in Washington during his stay in the US capital.

From what I have gathered, he said something along the lines of Daesh “as an ideology” having been around a long time, and because of this ideology a third of Lebanese emigrated to the US and other parts of the world; later, another third died under the “Allies’ siege” during World War I; and the remaining third has managed to stay put and continue to fight Daesh to this day.

What is very interesting in this historical voyage is that it contradicts several simple historical facts, although in these days of radicalism, religious sectarianism and ethnic extremism, it is a very attractive incitement against Bassil’s political enemies. It does not really help the cohesion of Lebanon’s national unity government, let alone the spirit of national entente in the complicated local, regional and even international spheres.

Claiming that Daesh’s ideology has existed “for a long time,” given the rest of his speech, alludes to the era pre-World War I. This means it existed before Lebanon was even created within its present borders in 1920.

There is a clear indication that he meant the Ottoman Empire, but the Ottomans followed the liberal Sunni Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, which had nothing to do with Daesh’s “takfir” (declaring others as apostates), which is rejected by all Muslim states.

In addition, the Ottoman Empire, which dominated the Middle East and most of North Africa between 1516 and 1918, went through the “Tanzimat,” a far-reaching progressive movement that included modernization and constitutional reform between 1839 and 1876, ushering in impressive religious tolerance and openness.

What was very interesting in Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil’s historical voyage was that it contradicted several simple historical facts.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Even when external pressures and military setbacks in Europe provided an excuse for Sultan Abdul Hamid II to claw back some authoritarianism, he was opposed by reformists since 1908 and later deposed by the three pashas Talaat, Enver and Djemal, who were the furthest from Islamic conservatism, let alone “Daeshism,” if it had ever existed.

Another issue Bassil touched on, and sounded more like a folkloric than serious reading of history, is Lebanese emigration during Ottoman rule. He ignored the real reasons for the accelerated exodus since the end of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990).

This could be explained by his ambiguous position toward Hezbollah. In Washington, he claimed that Lebanon was paying a heavy price for what was going on in Syria, including Hezbollah’s military intervention there. He said he did not speak for the pro-Iran Shiite party, and invited those interested in knowing more about its military intervention in Syria and elsewhere in the region to ask Hezbollah itself.

Interestingly, Hezbollah is regarded as a terrorist organization by the US, where Bassil was speaking, yet Hezbollah is an ally of Bassil’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). More interestingly, Hezbollah was the main player that imposed Gen. Michel Aoun — the FPM’s founder and leader, and Bassil’s father-in-law — as Lebanon’s president after more than two years of presidential vacuum.

Aoun in turn has continued to defend Hezbollah’s military involvement in Syria, and to use the conflict to justify the party retaining its weapons despite all Lebanese militias disarming voluntarily after 1990. Thus when Bassil claims that “Lebanon’s official policy,” as expressed in the manifesto of the national unity government, is committed to keeping the country away from all regional conflicts, this is practically meaningless.

Another noteworthy point was his criticism of the failure of international justice to act against Daesh. His party, the FPM, has always been critical of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), formed in 2005 to investigate and prosecute those involved in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and 21 others.

The STL has already accused at least five Hezbollah militiamen of involvement in the crime, but the party has refused to cooperate with it. Meanwhile, prominent FPM figures have recently bemoaned the costs of the STL to Lebanon’s treasury.

Last but certainly not least, Bassil has called yet again for the return of Syrian refugees and displaced either to areas deemed combat-free, or to Tartous province in the Alawite heartland of northwest Syria. This negative stance toward the plight of Syrian refugees and displaced is not new; it is a re-enactment of the old negative stance toward Palestinian refugees who have been displaced since 1948.

While it is a duty, from nationalist and humanitarian viewpoints, to reject uprooting and displacement in general, some Lebanese spent more time in the past criticizing Palestinian victims than denouncing the power that drove them from their homes. Today, the trend represented by Bassil does not want Syrian victims around, but neither criticizes nor holds accountable those who caused their misery.

• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.