William Harris, professor of politics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, is one of the world’s leading experts on Lebanon and Syria. His new book is Lebanon: A History, 600-2011, which, as the title suggests, narrates the history of that land and country over the centuries. But Harris also follows the contemporary regional events very closely. He is interviewed here by PJ Media Middle East Editor Barry Rubin.
BR: You’ve just written a comprehensive history of Lebanon. What makes Lebanon a unique country and what are its most important special features?
WH: Lebanon contains virtually the full religious diversity of the Arab world in a space the size of Connecticut. Christian, Muslim, and Islamic-derived sectarian communities with histories going back to early Medieval times are the principal identity markers in the country. The balance is unique: Sunni and Twelver Shia Muslims are about 30% each; Christians (all Christian sects) are approximately 35%; and Druze (an offshoot of Isma’ili Shia Islam) are 5%.
Nowhere else do Sunni, Shia, and Christians come together in such equivalence, and the demographic standoff is expressed in a unique multi-communal political system of defined shares in government, parliament, and bureaucracy for each sectarian group. The system worked best in the 1960s and has decayed in the subsequent decades of turbulence, but Lebanese remain more accustomed to freedoms than any other Arabs.
Lebanon also has the largest and most longstanding global Diaspora of any Arab country. Lebanon, cobbled together as a territorial state by France in 1920 with the Ottoman province of Mount Lebanon as its core, is also a vital little strategic arena in the early 21st century, sandwiched between Israel and Syria and attracting the close attention of both the West and revolutionary Iran.
BR: A key factor in recent Lebanese history has been the rise of the Shia community, and particularly of Hezbollah, to power. How do you explain this development?
WH: The Shia were the fastest growing Lebanese community between the 1940s and 1990s, and increased their proportion from about 20% to about 30%. In that period they were the poorest and most marginalized group and their elite was subsidiary to the Maronite Catholics, the leading Christian sect, and the Sunni Muslims. In the chaos of Lebanon’s war years after 1975, powerful movements and militias emerged in this discontented community — Amal and Hezbollah — to assert a more central role.