The failure of a National History Textbook: Preserving diverse Civil War narratives in Lebanon

In 2001 the Lebanese government initiated a plan to create a National History Textbook which was to be employed in all Lebanese Secondary Education. This effort failed because it was impossible to find an agreement on how the story of the civil war (1975-1990) should be told. Too many different politicised and competing narratives were to blame for the lack of homogeny. Although the war ended almost 15 years ago, its legacy and history of sectarian violence are still heavily influential in Lebanese society. Due to state sponsored amnesia, different groups all created their own war narratives, leading to what the cultural historian Sune Haugbolle calls, the ‘decentralisation of memory’.i Today’s Lebanon is fraught with problems such as youth unemployment, deep divisions regarding the Syrian conflict and resulting political stalemates. Underlying these, are deep cleavages in society itself and the problem of a common Lebanese identity. Historical consciousness is essential to a national identity and one could argue that after the civil war, Lebanon failed to experience a reconciliation stage. There existed no truth and reconciliation committee, but merely an amnesty law that permitted former militia leaders to become today’s most influential politicians. The state’s silence on the matter (not in the least because these militia leaders-turned-politicians would be quite uncomfortable with a critical national civil war discourse) allowed for fragmented, highly politicised, antagonistic war narratives to develop in a way that injures national identity, collectiveness and ultimately prompted the failure of a homogenous National History Textbook.

But, as I shall demonstrate in this article, Lebanese war narratives are vast and varied and they should all simultaneously hold a rightful place in history. Why is it that we expect history to be homogenous? Preserving diverse Civil War narratives is important for the formation of accurate, modern Lebanese identities.

The Civil War

The Civil War can be separated into three periods. The first period started in April 1975, when fighting broke out between the Palestinians and the Christians. The Lebanese National Movement sided with the Palestinians and the government fell. Fighting continued until the Syrians invaded on behalf of the Christians and a tentative agreement was reached in October 1977. The second period (1977-1982), was characterised by violence and anarchy, as well as two Israeli invasions in 1978 and 1982. It ended with the election, supported by the US and Israel, and assassination of Bashir Gemayel. His brother Amin replaced him and the final period (1983-1990) was a combination of militia rule in separate territories, systems of patronage and clientelism and an increase in Syrian influence. After violent conflict over the succession of Amin Gemayel in 1988-1999, Lebanese deputies signed the Taif accord, which modified the confessional political system, consolidated Syrian authority in Lebanon and was the first step to end the war.

In what is to follow I will present two differing war narratives, highlighting their importance in the formation of diverse Lebanese identities linked by a loyalty to sectarianism.

The Shi’i political voice

At the onset of the war, the Shi’is were dominated by a small political group known as the Zu’ama’ (notable leaders). These families, who held positions in cabinet and assembly politics on behalf of the Shi’is, operated a clientelism system with their patrons. The Shi’i elite went through the most drastic change of all Lebanese elites. Al-Sadr, chairman of the Supreme Shi’a Council, launched ‘the movement of the deprived’ in 1974 and the accompanying militia Amal in 1975. It stood for social justice, the abolition of the confessional system and a Lebanon with close links to Syria. Al-Sadr was a religious leader, filling a gap between the left and the notables. The later leader of Amal, Berri, was an example of the new leadership. Born in West Africa and part of the new Shi’i middle class, Berri understood the power of the notables as well as the importance of his own position as the new opposition party leader. The leaders of Amal were evidently not part of the old Shi’i political elite. As many Shi’i notables distanced themselves from the war, Amal became the principal representative of the Shi’is, until the rise of Hizbullah.

Hizbullah developed in the Beqaa Valley around students, ex-Amal men, and religious leaders who trained under Iranian revolutionary guards. Supported by Iran and following Khomeini their goal was to establish an Islamic order in Lebanon, as well as to fend off Israel. Under the guidance of spiritual leader Mohammad Hussayn Fadlallah, this new group was highly influenced by the ideas of social welfare and distributive justice for the deprived. In the South, a fierce Shi’i resistance movement developed and continued after the Israeli withdrawal into the ‘security zone’ in 1985. Amal and Hizbullah competed for Shi’i support and frequently clashed in the late 1980s, until an accord was brokered between the two by Syria in November 1990.

During the Civil War the Shi’i community had developed a powerful voice in Lebanese politics.

The impact of violence

The Shi’is experienced significant violence, both as victims and as perpetrators. On the one hand, the Palestinian presence and activities in the South put the southern Shi’is at risk of Israeli retaliation operations. The Israeli invasions, and the succeeding violence, arrests and disappearances, encouraged the Shi’is to pursue support in their communal units, seeking security in the militias. The experience of violence was used by the community to mobilise support. Resistance leader Khalil Jerardi, who was a member of Amal and supporter of Hizbullah, recognised the opportunities that the brutality of the Israeli occupation could afford the Shi’i resistance movement in terms of momentum and unification. This is best represented by Robert Fisk’s quote from his publication Pity the Nation:

‘The brutal practices of the occupation army are in the interests of the resistance.The arrests the Israelis make are of ordinary people. When this happens, the people become more united. The resistance needs this badly.’ii

Consequently and conversely, violence was used by the Shi’i community, to resist the Israeli occupation. By the autumn of 1984 there were ninety operations a month.iii On the 6th June 1985 Israel withdrew to the ‘security zone’. This had two consequences. Firstly, the Shi’is were proud as they perceived themselves as having driven the Israelis out. This made them more self-aware as a community and reinforced their political awareness and confessional identity. Secondly, the fact that the Israelis did not totally withdraw gave Hizbullah more legitimacy and support, as its primary premise was resistance to the Israelis.

Glorification of violence increased and martyrdom was used heavily in political rhetoric, most notably by the Hizbullah party. This contributed to the normalisation of violence and its sanctification.iv Participating in violence was perceived as the only option to protect the community’s existence.

Through politicisation and new found assertiveness Shi’i confessionalisation became more fixed.

One narrative amongst many

The Shi’i war experience demonstrates that although the community was and is not uniform in ideals and attitudes, the events and all encompassing violence of the war shaped and entrenched Shi’i sectarian identity. But communalisation is not a static concept. It’s a dynamic process and this narrative differs from, for example, the Druze narrative.

Leadership of the Druze community before the war lay in the hands of a few powerful notable families. During the fight in 1975-76, the Druze, through the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) founded by Kamal Junblatt in 1949, were affiliated with the Lebanese National Movement (LNM) alongside the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) against the Phalange and its allies. In May 1976 Syria invaded on behalf of the Christians, creating a direct conflict with the LNM and PLO. In March 1977, Kamal Junblatt was assassinated and his son, Walid, became his successor as Druze leader. In June 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon for the second time and when the Israelis withdrew from the Shuf Mountain in September 1983, the War of the Mountain started between the Druze and the Christian Lebanese Forces. After their victory, Walid Junblatt established a de facto autonomous state, the ‘Civilian Administration of the Mountain’ in the Shuf.

In the War of the Mountain, many Druze were mobilised to fight for what they perceived as a war to protect their survival as a community. This cantonization hardened the lines of division even more; the PSP offered protection to the threatened Druze and the threat of violence made the support of the PSP seem indispensable, thus effectively entrenching sectarian loyalties.

So, did the Druze support the PSP because they were socialist or because they were led by sectarian identity? Arguably, both. The PSP attracted supporters because of its international ideology; reform and social justice were the building blocks of the party and anyone who sympathised with this, Druze or not, was free to join. The fact that Kamal Junblatt was the leader of a coalition including Lebanese Muslims, leftists and Palestinians suggests that the bridging connection was more ideological than sectarian. He argued that the social and economic discrepancies in Lebanon were a crucial reason for the outbreak of war rather than any sectarian division.v

However, on the other hand Junblatt devoted an entire chapter in ‘I Speak for Lebanon’ to Druze identity, suggesting that it was of importance to him and the PSP. Indeed, the PSP was socialist but Druze identity also proved to be interwoven into its fabric. As the war and its violence dragged on and survival became more essential than socialism, Druze identity became the defining factor for PSP allegiance.

During the civil war, the Druze community became increasingly politicised, with their political confessionalisation gradually becoming a fixed entity. The support for the Junblattis and the PSP, although socialist in theory, was ultimately concerned with Druze partisan identity.

Different experiences of Confessionalisation

Confessionalisation of the Shi’is and the Druze was not a result of religious fervour or primordial traditional feelings. Rather, group identity became fixed and sectarian identity less fluid due to politicisation of the communities during the war. The political representation which replaced the notables led to more entrenched communal identities. The Shi’is developed a powerful unified political voice during the war with a new found self-confidence partly due to the resistance movement against Israel, although they were fragmented and less unified than the Druze in terms of militias. And Druze identity became more entrenched under Walid Junblatt and the PSP, primarily as the result of cantonization. The path of politicisation and civil war narrative differs between the Druze and Shi’is but both routes ultimately lead to the increased entrenchment of sectarian identities.

What can we learn from a failed National History Textbook?

Lebanese society is still characterised by sectarian cleavages and communalization identities that were consolidated during the war and are continually fortified by historical narratives of the war. Today, both Walid Junblatt and Nabih Berri remain essential political figures. Immediately after the assassination of Wissam al-Hassan (head of the Internal Security Forces’ information branch and well known March 14 supporter) in October 2012, illegal sectarian checkpoints guarded by militia members mushroomed, prompting memories of the civil war and its ‘identity card killings’. Cars on the airport road were checked and their drivers asked for their identification cards. The competing historiographies and absence of reconciliation should not be seen as fully responsible for Lebanese instability, but they do significantly continue to influence attitudes and politics.

Various Lebanese NGOs, intellectuals, artists and activists are increasingly interested in memory and a public discourse regarding the civil war. Walid Raad, a conceptual artist, created a civil war historiography project named the Atlas Group, UMAM is a documentation and research centre concerned with civil war memorialisation and the amount of books and films about the war is increasing almost daily. The Barakat building in Beirut, a beautiful 1920s building severely damaged by the war, is rumoured to become a museum dealing with cultural history. Civil society seems to be attempting to fill the vacuum that the politicians’ forgetting policy created.

Perhaps to achieve reconciliation and to stimulate fruitful debate and public discourse surrounding the sectarian violence of the war, the competing narratives should not be moulded into one homogeneously driven National History Textbook. We should, instead, preserve differing Civil War narratives. And, as Ahmad Beydoun a specialist in Lebanese historiography suggests, the implementation of an integrated curriculum that acknowledges and addresses different viewpoints. Through the acceptance of different interpretations of events, debate will be stimulated and subsequently the acceptance of diversity, and finally reconciliation. He advocates that the state should not try to create an alternative version of Lebanon’s history, but instead should stimulate its critical Lebanon is a pluralistic society and in order to encourage a collective national identity, this plurality should be embraced. As Samir Khalaf eloquently noted, ‘Pluralism is, after all, an antidote to collective amnesia’.vii

Some stories of the war are especially important to be remembered. In May 1975 A.J.D. Stirling of the British embassy in Beirut, still unaware of the 15 violent years that would follow, noted an extraordinary incident:

‘All the same, the gloom is not unbroken. A Beirut shopkeeper who had been bombed out decided that reconciliation was better than revenge. He went to the local headman and, together with young Muslims and Christians of the district headed by their respective divines, they organised what they called flower barricades. Passers-by and motorists who had been halted by kalashnikovs at these checkpoints were now stopped and each handed a flower with the words: “One people – one Lebanon”. A tiny gesture, but it was made’.viii

In Lebanon, as in any other place, reconciliation and acceptance of the differences of the past should be an important part of the future and the present. History is not homogenous but diverse in narrative, memory and appearance


i Sune Haugbolle, War and Memory in Lebanon (New York: Cambridge UP, 2010), 27. return to main text
ii Quoted in Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2001), 578. return to main text
iii David Hirst, Beware of Small States (New York: Nation Books, 2010), 197-200. return to main text
iv Samir Khalaf, Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon (New York: Columbia UP, 2002), 36. return to main text
v Kamal Joumblatt, I Speak for Lebanon (London: Zed press, 1982), 34 and 48. return to main text
vi Ali Atassi, “War, peace and history in Lebanon”, Reconciliation, reform and resilience, positive peace for Lebanon Accord Issue 24 (2012): 19. return to main text
vii Samir Khalaf, Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon, 320. return to main text
viii FCO 93/675 internal political situation in Lebanon 1975, A J D Stirling to N C R Williams esq., May 24 1975. return to main text


War ravaged downtown Beirut, 1976.
Israili tank in Beirut 1982.
After the massacres of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila, 1982.
An aerial view of the stadium used as an ammunition supply site for the PLO after Israeli airstrikes in 1982.

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All writers' views in articles are their own and do not necessarily represent the opinion of the Asfar team.

Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)