The Future Cyprus Settlement: Lessons from Lebanon – Interview with Associate Professor Habib Malik September 24, 2015
The Future Cyprus Settlement: Lessons from Lebanon
Interview with Associate Professor Habib Malik, History and Cultural Studies, Lebanese American University.
September 24, 2015
There are certain commonalities existing between Cyprus and Lebanon. Both countries are at the meeting point between two great civilizations – Islam and Christianity. Both share the same historical experience of the Ottoman rule. Both have powerful neighbours with agendas, views and visions which do not always align with their smaller neighbours’ interests. And they both harbor relatively free Christian communities in comparison to the broader Islamic world. However, despite the decades-long occupation of part of its territory, the Republic of Cyprus enjoys greater prosperity, stability and level of control over its destination. Meanwhile Lebanon, although not a failed state, appears to be in a perpetual state of failure. The Lebanese state structure represents some form of a neo-millet arrangement based on a religious community as the basic socio-political unit. Current constitutional arrangement officially recognizes eighteen distinct religious groups and sects which need to be accommodated in the political process. The country suffers from systemic corruption and chronic political paralysis. The huge influx of the Syrian refugees has threatened the very delicate religious balance. The state’s stability is further undermined by two competing forms of radical Islam – the Shiite and the Sunni – both with substantial foreign support and funding. Why is it so difficult for Lebanon to get over its problems? Could Syria’s civil war spill over to Lebanon? What is the situation of the Lebanese Christians? What lessons the Republic of Cyprus, and the European Union, can draw from the Lebanese experiences?
Dr Christodoulos Pelaghias (C.P.): This afternoon we have with us Dr Habib Malik, Associate Professor of History at the American Lebanese University, Byblos Campus. We also have Dr Klearchos Kyriakides, head of our own Democracy and Rule Programme. Before we start, I must stress that the opinions of the discussants are their own and in no way should reflect upon any institution which they may be affiliated with.
So Dr Malik: we keep witnessing political crises one after the other in Lebanon. It appears from the outside that your country is in a perpetual state of failure. Yet Lebanon is not a failed state. What is causing this chronic political instability?
Dr Habib Malik (H.M.): Yes it’s interesting the way you’ve put it. I even have a mathematical analogy for it. And that is: if on the x/y axis the asymptote is constantly tending towards the x-axis, let’s assume the x-axis is failure, it only meets the x-axis at infinity. So in that sense you have a country which is perpetually failing, but never quite seems to attain the failed state status. That said, the problems of failure, of perpetual failure, are exponentially mounting, and placing a tremendous burden on a country like Lebanon. So much so, that until recently this summer the big news was that the government couldn’t put away the garbage, and we still have that problem. You know, something as basic as garbage collection or as basic as providing 24/7 electric power in the 21st century, for a very small country like Lebanon, suggests that very deep issues and problems of both corruption and the inability to agree internally on anything that would require various groups – which is what Lebanon is, it’s a heterogeneous society – require everybody to be on the same page. That’s very difficult to achieve.
C.P.: Is it part of the constitutional framework, or part of the historical remnants of the Ottoman Empire? What is the determining factor of the political culture in Lebanon? And is this a part of the problem, or a part of the solution?
H.M.: Well, yes, there are remnants, if you will, of the Ottoman era. The Ottomans in the 19th century devised what was known as the millet system, which sort of gave local autonomy to various portions. It was probably most successful in Mount Lebanon for a period of decades in the second half of the 19th century. Lebanon in this sense is the continuation of a kind of neo-millet arrangement. And the basic unit there, is the religious community.
C.P.: I was going to suggest – let’s mention more on the millet system.
H.M.: One thing that the Ottomans recognized is that they were presiding over a very multi-ethnic multi-religious kind of empire, and at times they saw fit to provide some local autonomy to some groups, very often at the heavy price in terms of taxation and other things, precisely in order to accommodate the given, which is this heterogeneity. And this was, I mean the word “millet” comes from an Arabic word which is “millah”, and it means “the community”, such and such community: the millet of the Orthodox, the millet of the Armenians, the millet of the Druze and so on. So the millet system is basically the one that accepts the given and works with it, rather than trying in a sense to homogenize from the top everybody below. It’s very different for instance from what the Russians did in Central Asia, which was a sustained and often brutal campaign of Russification.
C.P.: Doesn’t the millet system in some ways contradict dhimmism in Islam? On one hand millet is an acceptance of the situation as it is, whereas there is another element in Islam, which is to Islamize and dominate – adversarial relationship.
H.M.: The millet system is essentially a kind of procedural or operational arrangement, but it is premised on the assumption that non-Muslim communities are by definition dhimmi communities, meaning they are relegated to the second class status at best. They have to exist under a series of imposed conditions, if taken collectively, become a kind of a recipe for gradual liquidation. And this is not even talking about the adverse psychological residues of prolonged existence in dhimmitude. The Christians of the Arab world are essentially, historically speaking, of two types, when it comes to this particular classification. The vast majority at some point or another fell under Islamic domination and were relegated to dhimmi status. The few who experienced less of this and managed to retain a certain amount of freedom, at great cost in terms of property and blood, were essentially the Maronite community of Lebanon, and I guess in pre-technological times the rugged topography helped and created the kind of sanctuary for these communities there. And then everyone else who threw in their lot throughout the 20th century with the freer Maronites, freer than other Christians in the region, pretty much benefited from this sort of freedom and avoided to a large extent dhimmitude, but at great cost.
Dr Klearchos Kyriakides (K.K): First of all I would like to welcome Professor Malik and I would like to express my gratitude for his contribution to our discussion. I’m struck by your reference to the neo-millet concept, which may help us to understand the history of the Republic of Cyprus, which was established as a so called bi-communal state, with the Greek community defined constitutionally with reference to a Greek origin of the people here and the Greek Orthodox Church, and on the other hand the Turkish community, which was constitutionally defined with reference to people of Turkish origin and Islam. The question I have for you is: why is there no simple distinction drawn in Lebanon between Muslims on the one hand, and Christians on the other?
H.M.: Well again, Lebanon is a heterogeneous society, and initially when Lebanon experienced or attained independence in 1943, the model which was adopted was a kind of peculiarly tailored consociational arrangement for this communal heterogeneity. Now this quickly went beyond the sort of, the purely Christian and Muslim divisions that are more or less clear cut in the Cypriot case, and entered into the minutia of various distinctions among the sects and denominations within each of the larger group. So that right now Lebanon’s constitution officially recognizes eighteen distinct religious communities, one of which is the Jewish community, which is dwindled to very small numbers, but is still recognized as the community, and the other seventeen largely fall under the broad headings of Christian and Muslim. The reason this happened was because it was felt that the only way you can accommodate heterogeneity is to create some sort of balance among these various groups. And initially, the balance was not written in the Constitution, but became a kind of an oral custom, which is that the three top posts in the Lebanese political arrangement would go to: the President would be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister would be a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament would be a Shiite. This would represent, if you will, the three main components. And then there are other breakdowns that would include the Druze, and for instance, the Deputy Speaker of Parliament has to be Greek Orthodox, and so on. That has actually now been enshrined in writing, in the latest version of the Constitution. The problem, of course, is that that latest version came on the heels of fifteen years of warfare inside Lebanon, from 1975 to 1990, during which, to put it bluntly, the Christians lost the war. And when that happened, you look at the Lebanese Constitution today, you see that it says that between Christians and Muslims there is a 50-50 division on everything. But that’s what it says on paper. But it actually ends up denuding the Presidency, which was for the Maronites, of any of its real powers and prerogatives. So that’s sort of the price that has had to be paid in order for the constitution to state very bluntly that things will be equally apportioned among Christians and Muslims, keeping in mind also that the demography doesn’t any longer reflect the kind of equality the Constitution talks about. So it’s a very complicated balancing out, that doesn’t always work.
C.P.: Is that the problem: that the demographics do not reflect the constitutional arrangements? Otherwise, my question would have been: why it is so difficult for Lebanon to get over its political problems? And a follow up: what are the similarities between Cyprus and Lebanon, if any?
H.M.: Well I mentioned consociationalism. What happened in Lebanon is that the consociational model or formula metamorphosed over time to become consensual – in other words everything needs to be agreed upon by everybody. Which is almost impossible in real life, as you know. And so this has bred a political culture of open-ended paralysis, which means that every time an intractable problem is faced, the preferred approach is to kick the can down the road, to sweep the problem under the proverbial carpet and not deal with it. And so Lebanon lives in perpetual paralysis, political paralysis, which is not something that I would wish for other societies who face, you know, similar internal breakdowns in terms of religious and other entities.
C.P.: Just because it happened in Lebanon doesn’t mean it will happen in Cyprus. Or do we have certain things in common that might lead to that?
H.M.: Lebanon and Cyprus are very interesting cases: they are both, in a sense, meeting points civilizationally, of Islam and Christianity, each in its own way. They both, in a sense, harbor relatively freer Christian communities than other Christians in the broader Islamic world, but they also both have strong neighbors right next door, that have had agendas, and views, and visions of how Lebanon and Cyprus should be, that are not always in the interest of these two smaller neighbors: Syria in the case of Lebanon, and Turkey in the case of Cyprus. Now, in Lebanon’s case the strong neighbor that has often prevented Lebanon from fulfilling many of its aspirations is today weakened, and in a state of disintegration and fragmentation, and there is no telling where that is going to go. And this may present Lebanon with some opportunities in the future. I don’t see Cyprus’s strong neighbor in a similar situation at all. In fact, if anything, Turkey is getting stronger.
K.K.: Yes Professor, you put your finger on two things of Lebanese history which cut across into Cyprus’ history: the first is the subdivision of people on a constitutional basis into Christians and Muslims, and secondly the role of neighboring powers with their own agendas. The question is, going back to the concept of political paralysis which you mentioned earlier, is it unavoidable in the 50-50 bi-communal settlement that there will be paralysis, or is there any way of overcoming paralysis?
H.M.: See, if it was just a question of 50-50, one can perhaps tweak it in ways to overcome the paralysis. You have to accommodate eighteen different micro divisions of the 50-50, if you like, and, as I said, this latest version of our Constitution came on the heels of much internal turmoil and fighting, so that on the one hand you see that, on the other hand you see systematic weakening or denuding, as I said, of the powers and prerogatives of the Presidency, for example, in favor of the prime ministership. So paralysis has been found by the Lebanese to be the safest option. And when you reach the point like that, in my opinion you cease to become a meaningful model for anyone.
K.K.: Let’s return to practicalities: does Lebanon have a coherent national security strategy, and if so, is it being implemented effectively?
H.M.: Now, in terms of national security, the dominant discourse in Lebanon is one that focuses on our neighbor to the south, Israel, as the principal enemy, and that talks about the army and the resistance movement, which is essentially a Shiite militia Hezbollah, as being the bulwarks to face that enemy. Beyond this very ideological, very narrow, very propagandistic view of national security, there is very little on which anyone can agree. And actually on this there is hardly any agreement, but very often, you know, the fait accompli on the ground pretty much dictates certain things. For example: you have a huge influx of refugees from Syria, because of turmoil in Syria, into Lebanon, yet Lebanon’s population is about four million. You have right now about 1,500,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, plus about 400,000 Palestinian refugees already there. That’s close to 2,000,000 – that’s like almost half the number of the Lebanese population of outsiders. Add to that, the vast majority of these outsiders happened to be of one particular, sectarian color – they are Sunnis. And if there is a balancing act going on in Lebanon, it’s the question of the demographics among the various sects. And to have such an inordinate number of Sunnis in the country, which would then, you know, trigger desires among some to try and naturalize them, or to try and keep them somehow versus the other – it’s a very polarizing issue. That’s not conducive to stability or to moving forward.
K.K.: Thank you. That’s a third parallel with Cyprus, because what we’ve seen in the occupied north of Cyprus is an influx of colonists from Turkey, who’ve been brought over contrary to the laws of armed conflict and the Geneva Conventions. The circumstances in Cyprus are different, but the effect has been the same. So that’s been very helpful. Chris do you have any follow-up questions?
C.P.: You’ve mentioned Syria. Is Lebanon going towards Syria? Is there a chance that it will end up like Syria?
H.M.: Actually Syria has ended up like Lebanon. In the sense that Lebanon between 1975 and 1990 had its own implosion internal conflict, while everybody else around was pretty much sitting around, watching, sometimes stoking the flames. Now it’s sort of like, I mean, I’m not saying that in a gloating way, because Lebanon has enormous problems, but right now the whole region is in turmoil, and is imploding in various places, including Syria, while Lebanon is relatively quiet. The reason for that, Chris, is that the Lebanese have had a sense of “been there, done that”. In other words, what they see in neighboring Syria is something they have experienced in the recent past. And there is very little desire among many Lebanese to revisit the horrors of the recent past. That’s one reason why we in Lebanon, we always walk right up to the brink, stare at the abyss, but somehow restrain ourselves from taking the leap.
K.K.: I have a follow-up question to that. Since the beginning of the World War I, at the earliest I suppose, we’ve seen the gradual decimation of Christians from the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. We saw, for instance, the expulsion of the Greeks from Asia Minor, we saw the expulsion of the Greeks from Egypt, the expulsion of the Greeks from Northern Cyprus, and the more recent signs, we’ve seen the expulsion of Christians from various parts of Syria and Iraq, with the emergence of the so called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and other similar organizations. To what extent, if at all, are Christians secure in the Eastern Mediterranean region, and to what extent are Christians secure in Lebanon?
H.M.: The short answer to this question is – no, they are not secure. And, look, the Middle East is constantly hemorrhaging Christians, and Lebanon is no exception. There are times when less of that happens, and times when floods of that occur. And it’s not always the result of direct persecution on religious terms, although that is definitely a feature that is recurring throughout the history of Lebanon and the region. But sometimes it’s the result of endemic corruption that deprives the young people of jobs and employment opportunities, so they go abroad and they don’t come back. It’s a function of very often Christian communities, I know that from Lebanon, having fewer children than other communities, and therefore falling behind in terms of the demographic balance and numbers. You know, there is also an element of what I would say is general world neglect of this issue, and you know, you ask yourself why doesn’t the world care that much? And one of the reasons might be that it is a bit irritating to some of the big powers to have to factor into their calculations, you know, free Christian communities battling to preserve their freedom in a predominantly Islamic environment, when, you know, there are all sorts of interests with other, perhaps even more important or influential powers, regional ones, that happen to be Muslim. So it’s a very complex picture, the result of which is that there is a constant attrition taking place at the expense of native Christian communities throughout the region, and very little is being done to either address that, or to halt it, or even to identify it as an issue. The Copts in Egypt are, by and large, have succumbed to the dhimmitude throughout history. But because of their numbers, and they are numbered in the millions, the demographic danger there is far less than in other communities. But in Lebanon there was a time when the Christians were the freest perhaps among Arab Christians, and were over 50%. Now they are down to a third.
C.P.: We keep talking about religion, that is a dominant issue, but isn’t Lebanon a secular state? I mean, comparing it to Cyprus, Cyprus is supposed to be a secular state. And yet, how is Lebanon dealing with political Islam, especially the rise of radicalized Sunni Islam? What’s the interface between it and a secular state, where the majority is Muslim? Is such a state really secular, or can it be?
H.M.: Lebanon, I think, is a kind of a country ever aspiring to reach a secular status. It’s even found in our constitution that the endgame is de-confessionalization, but we never get there, we never seem to get there. You can come up with another mathematical, perhaps, analogy there. Because, for instance, when you divide things up based on the confession or the sect, then definitely on the level of personal circumstances things like marriage, inheritance laws and so on, you have to accommodate each sect and its own requirements. So right there already you can’t move beyond that to full-fledged secularism. Now the suggestion has been made: alright if you have eighteen religious communities, why not having “category nineteen”, which would be the secular one. And anybody reaching the age of eighteen and becomes legally an adult can then decide to opt out of their sociological slot and go to category nineteen. There’s been a tremendous resistance against that by the religious clergy and scholars on both sides of the fence, both Christians and Muslims. Simply because they are afraid that the youth will just abandon various sects in droves.
C.P.: You have raised repeatedly this issue that in Cyprus the two communities were actually religious communities to begin with. This was from the Ottoman period, but then also under the British, and then gradually turned into an ethnic community. Is that not the case?
K.K.: I prefer to use the phrase ethno-religious communities – that describes the two communities here in Cyprus. In the Ottoman era there was a clear demarcation between Muslims and Christians, and in the British era there was perpetuation of that two-fold distinction, and from the 1920s onwards with the growth of Greek nationalism there started to be a reference to the term “Greek Cypriots” and the related term “Turkish Cypriots”.
C.P.: Because the difference between Cyprus and Lebanon is that in Lebanon there is more clearly a religious conflict, and in Cyprus, at least the terms suggest, that it’s an ethnic conflict – ethnicity is at the basis of this conflict, and not religion.
K.K.: We are both lawyers by background, and we are taught to strip away the label and look at the substance. The label says: “Greek Cypriot”, but if you strip it away, there is a reference to Greek ethnicity and the Greek Orthodox Church, so there you have ethnicity mixing with religion. And if you strip away the label that says “Turkish Cypriot”, you see reference to Turkishness and Islam. So the two go hand in hand. Would you like to comment on perhaps why there is this distinction and labels?
H.M.: Well I was going to speak of, because Chris asked the question I did not answer, and that is how Lebanon deals with radical Sunni Islam as an example, and so on. Just two points on that. First, getting back to secularism, you know, given an area where for centuries your fundamental existential identity, either as a person, or as a community has been defined in religious terms, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to parachute secularism onto that region, and expect that to take root over night. That’s not going to work. So lots of people who advocate this are somewhat starry-eyed in their expectations, and romantic. The other point is, Lebanon is very complicated, it so happens that the current threat from Sunni Islamic radicalism, let’s say ISIS, and they have tried in the recent past to penetrate into Lebanon. They have not been successful. What they have in Lebanon are pockets of sympathizers in certain Sunni communities, but these pockets are isolated pockets. Our army intelligence, and one has to also acknowledge Hezbollah’s intelligence, have been very good at preempting many of their attacks. And so there is no cradling environment for this sort of radicalism, even among Lebanon’s Sunnis. The problem is, there is no guarantee this will not happen down the road, this can happen anytime. People have said, you know, Lebanon’s Sunnis are very secularized and much more advanced and modern than perhaps in other places, so they will not buy into this. Well, there is no guarantee that they won’t. And so there is a lurking danger. So far Lebanon has been able to avoid something like mass infiltration of ISIS types or that ideology, and having it take root in the country. But given the fragility, and given the influx of all of these refugees, and given the fact that there is political paralysis and very little can be agreed upon, there is no guarantee that this won’t happen at some point down the road.
C.P.: Also, do you have the phenomenon in Lebanon of Islamic madrasas, religious schools, funded by outside money?
H.M.: There is some of that.
C.P.: Is that a factor, or is that just a part of the background?
H.M.: Well, look, there are sort of two competing types of Islamic radicalization: the Shiite and the Sunni. And given the emergent, the high posture of Hezbollah in the country and the connections they have with Iran and the Iranian Revolution and so on, there is a clear manifestation of Khomeinism in some Shiite quarters in Lebanon. And in the Sunni areas, in, for instance, certain parts of north Lebanon, and in the inner neighborhoods of Tripoli, on the Syrian border where certain skirmishes are taking place now in the northeast, and the large Palestinian camp of Ein-el-Helweh – you have isolated pockets of precisely this kind of fundamentalist radical Islam being propagated in terms of ideology, the madrasas, if you will, the Friday mosque preachers and so on. And there is funding, whether it’s on the Shiite or on the Sunni side, for these things. But they have not, so far, succeeded, certainly the Sunni ones, which to my mind are the more dangerous ones, because historically we know very well that the Shiites are a minority in the larger scheme of things in the Islamic world, and they’ve always been a persecuted minority. Whereas the kind of ideology that ISIS brings in, is very much in line with the most radical of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence – Hanbalism. You look at ISIS – they haven’t invented anything. It’s all there in black and white in the writings of someone like Ibn Taymiyyah and others, you know, the beheadings and all of that. So that is the danger there. And how long will the Sunni community of Lebanon remain largely immune to this kind of radicalization is an open question.
C.P.: I was going to ask: how inspiring is the Caliphate, at least among the Sunnis in Lebanon?
H.M.: Very little. Running jokes about Baghdadi and others as being anything but someone to take seriously. But you always have those little isolated pockets of sympathy that can mushroom into something more lethal down the road. And this is where one has to be very careful. I don’t know what the situation is like in Cyprus, or in the northern part, but I would tend to guess that this is a danger that exists everywhere.
C.P.: At least in Cyprus mostly the level of radicalization is unclear, because there is no official release of data on either demography, demographical changes, settlers from Turkey, or influx of people from other parts of the Middle East. The authorities in the North do not release that sort of information. And they also guard very closely to what extent there is or there isn’t a radicalization potential…
H.M.: … Saudi funding…
C.P.: …Funding from the outside and so on. So, Cypriots are in the dark, as far as some of these potentially important issues that should be on the table.
K.K.: You’ve actually led me neatly to my next question, which has to do with darkness and secrecy. Lebanese Constitution is a formal consociational constitutionalism, that chose much to the theorists of that particular school of constitutionalism. There is an argument that’s being advanced by people such as Arend Lijphardt, who is one of the greatest academic writers in this field, that consociational government requires, what he calls, government by elite cartel.
C.P.: Just to explain consociationalism, that the heart of it is in fact an accommodation of more than one political interest. And it’s institutionalized in a constitutional way of accommodating that.
K.K.: Yes, the philosophy of it is that it’s an attempt to take various groups within society and create a constitutional model that will function in the interest of democracy. There is many case studies, including Cyprus, that demonstrate that the consociational government is a recipe for gridlock, paralysis, and in some circumstances conflict.
H.M.: Lebanon has demonstrated that as well.
C.P.: And Belgium, incidentally, which was also another example of consociationalism.
K.K.: The question I have, though, is to do with that concept of governments by elite cartel: governments in secret, deal-making behind the closed doors, and politicians at the top of the society taking decisions which affect people at the bottom, with little or no impact or input by people from the bottom. To what extent has this secretive, elite governance model operated in Lebanon?
H.M.: You are describing Lebanon. I mean, this is exactly what we have. In fact, it’s not just opaque elites deciding in secret. It’s actually become a kind of self-perpetuating political mafia, whose main reason for existence is to apportion the spoils among eight or nine individuals and their cronies, with no regard for anything that can be labeled the common good, or, you know, the good of society. That’s what we have in Lebanon. And that’s exactly why, to use the term Lijphardt used, governments by elite cartels is a slippery slope, or can be a slippery slope, absent the rule of law, and unfortunately Lebanon is lacking very severely when it comes to the application of the rule of law. Absent the rule of law, rule by elite cartels, can easily devolve into rule by self-perpetuating mafias. When we started, I gave the example of the garbage crisis. It turns out that some vested interests of a few people are to perpetuate the old system of simply just burying garbage that has not been sorted out and prepared for recycling, and they’ve set it up in ways to make personal profits. Once the tenure of the company doing that came to an end, we had a terrible crisis because they didn’t want to change.
K.K.: This leads me to my follow-up question: if you are going to have such a system, it requires proper checks and balances and forms of accountability. Are there forms of accountability in Lebanon, and if so, do they work?
H.M.: We now have a civil society informal group of young people, who call themselves “We want to hold accountable”, because there is no accountability. I think the starkest example from Lebanon’s recent history of how this has come about, how behind-the-scenes deals have implicated Lebanon and its people in all sorts of misery… I’m talking about the 1969 Cairo Agreement, which was an agreement imposed by the other Arab states on Lebanon, and the Lebanese signed off on that agreement, which basically says Lebanon’s borders are open to armed Palestinians fighting against Israel. Practically every problem we’ve had in Lebanon since 1969 has been a direct result of having signed off on that kind of agreement. Again, back to the opaque elites doing things in the dark – this is something, unfortunately, that Lebanon has suffered from and continues to suffer from very much. And so if other societies are looking at Lebanon to see if there is anything – this is one of the things they should definitely guard against, which is implicating future generations, in Cyprus or anywhere, in some sort of unclear, opaque deal, that would have open-ended severe consequences for the future. We in Lebanon are living it right now.
K.K.: We had here in Cyprus the United Nations-sponsored so-called peace plan back in 2004, but it was rejected. It included provisions in there, which weren’t implemented of course, but it included provisions which would have granted a huge dose of immunity to politicians in the executive and legislative, as well as judicial branches of government, which cannot and should not be replicated in any future settlement in Cyprus. Are politicians held to account in the courts for any criminal activity on the one hand, or breaches of civil law on the other?
H.M.: One wishes. Unfortunately the judicial system in Lebanon is preempted by the political deals and the machinations that take place among the corrupt political class of the country. So that our judiciary, I mean that’s what I said when I mentioned that we don’t have really the rule of law. If you don’t have the rule of law, if the mechanisms of justice cannot go all the way to the end, then what you end up having is open-ended mafia-style impunity.
C.P.: What troubles me is that we are talking about a conflict of philosophies here. The rule of law and these sorts of concepts are Western concepts. But in pure religious terms, there is only one law, and that’s God’s law. And perhaps there are enough advocates and adherents to that principle, certainly next door to you. It’s almost inevitable that there will be a questioning of both secularism and concepts like transparency, democracy, and open discussion, honest discussion, accountability, and all of that. If you are coming from a radical Islamist position, where it’s God’s word, and whoever does not agree…
H.M.: … should be beheaded.
C.P.: … should be put in the sidelines, let’s put it that way. Isn’t that the real problem in our part of the world? It’s that there is an unresolved, what Huntington said, and I think he was absolutely right despite his critics, a clash of civilizations. There is a clash of civilizations which has not been resolved, and by white-washing constitutional provisions and patching up things, you can’t get to the heart of this issue.
H.M.: Huntington has been criticized on that, but actually the more controversial, but to my mind a very astute observation is what he said about “Islam’s bloody borders”. Wherever Islam meets non-Islam, there is blood. And the question is – why is that? Is it because the whole world is against the world of Islam? That would be a kind of conspiratorial view. Or is it because there is something incompatible on the demarcation lines between those areas that advocate rule of law, etc., the list you have mentioned, and perhaps a more rigid Islamic view of these things? In our part of the world the way this has been resolved, you know, absent rule of law, is you’ve either had the military dictatorships that imposed a certain order, so that you have law, but hardly any freedoms, or you’ve had certain entities where there has been an attempt to maintain some degree of civil law. Take the country of Jordan, which is a majority Islamic country. It is much better off in terms of applying the rule of law, without being itself a kind of dictatorship, than Lebanon, for instance. So part of the failure has to do also with endemic corruption.
C.P.: Yes, but also the understanding of the concept. In Europe we are concerned about the rights of minorities, and among these minorities are the Muslim minorities. Perhaps it’s a chance to do a little footnote about, we’ve mentioned dhimmism, but we didn’t define it. It seems that in certain parts of the Muslim mental construct there are no minorities, or the minorities have an expiration date. I mean, isn’t that a part of the problem?
H.M.: Very much so, and I think Europe, if Europeans believe that all incoming immigrants from the Islamic world are automatically coming to embrace and buy into what the French call laicism, and assimilate easily, they’re in for a rather rude awakening. Many of these people are coming in, you know, under the pretext of persecution back home and so on, and all of these may be very real issues, but they are coming in with the idea of settling in Europe, but not necessarily embracing any of Europe’s values. And some of them are even coming in to use Europe, and derive benefits from it without giving anything in return. I didn’t invent this; this is an objective feature of what’s over there. Need I mention the city of Marseille, for example, in France, as one glaring example of entire neighborhoods that have not assimilated?
K.K.: I have to interject here. We are here, at the crossroads between two, three great (unclear), crossroads of three continents; we are at the edge, the south-east edge of Europe. The whole international community from the United Nations in New York, to European Commission in Brussels have embraced the concept of two communities here in Cyprus. They’ve embraced the concept of the two communities being subdivided into two zones in accordance with the bi-communal, bi-zonal federation, so that Christians are by large congregated and segregated in the south, and Muslims are by large congregated and segregated in the north. What sort of message are we sending from Cyprus, from Brussels and New York, to the rest of Europe with this sort of constitutional carve-up?
H.M.: I look at Cyprus as a Lebanese and I in a sense envy what the Cypriots have right now. Which, well, let’s see what they have: they have control over a significant amount of their territory. They have, to a large extent, in that area, demographic security. Because of these two things they have…
C.P.: You are talking about the Greek Cypriots in the Republic of Cyprus.
H.M.: Yes, I am talking specifically about Christian Greek Cypriots, and when I say I look at Cyprus as a Lebanese, as a Christian Lebanese, so: territory, demography, and a certain control over future destiny. Add to that, that from a legal perspective, the United Nations acknowledges Greek Cypriot sovereignty over the entire island. Now, if that is the given of what exists today, why change it? In other words, you know, we’ve gone…
C.P.: We’d need something better to change to.
H.M.: Well you need something better to change to. I come from a country that has gone two, or three, or four steps in the wrong direction from that, and so now in Lebanon’s case federalism may actually look good, and may actually be a better solution than what we have right now, and especially if our hitherto strong neighbor to the east and north is no longer as strong and as predatory on us as used to be the case. But in Cyprus’s case you haven’t reached, it seems to me, that level of deterioration that we had, and your neighbor next door who has different views of where you should be going is still quite strong and influential. I mean, I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t… To put it very simply, I think Lebanon offers a cautionary tale of how not to proceed with endless compromises, and down this slippery slope, to the point of no return, and to the point where almost anything would appear to be a kind of saving straw in a storm in an ocean compared to the slide, to the relentless slide.
K.K.: I would first of all like to thank Professor Malik for his contribution to this discussion. I have a final question: if you could single out one particular lesson of Lebanese history which you would like to pass on to the citizens of the Republic of Cyprus and of the European Union, of which Republic forms part, what would that lesson of history be?
H.M.: Many lessons to the European Union. Frankly, this blind faith in secularism, or in ideology in general, as being a convenient substitute for fifteen hundred years of Judeo-Christian heritage, I think is a mirage. The only thing that will replace a religion in the long run is not an ideology, it’s not secularism. At the end of the day the only thing that replaces religion – is another religion. This is what I would tell the European Union. To Cyprus, I mean again, I will repeat what I just said. Looking at the situation in Cyprus from where I stand, Cyprus is much better off than where Lebanon has reached on the number of indicators, and I would really hope that the Cypriots will not sign on the dotted line as it were, and end up in a kind of Lebanon-style scenario: open-ended paralysis.
C.P.: And yet a lot of people say there is so much upside to the cooperation in the region: the hydrocarbons, the prospect of Israel cooperating with Cyprus and Egypt and, potentially, Turkey coming in, and so on. And in many respects, I feel, perhaps the argument could stand, that under some positive circumstances accommodation on the ethnic issue or the religious issue in Cyprus is part of this price of buying into a very rosy future. How do you see the future of the Eastern Mediterranean? Are you an optimist? Are you a pessimist? And why?
H.M.: Let me tell you. I think the two extremes of a sudden emergence of regional integration on the one hand, which is, as you said, rosy and positive, or the cataclysmic implosion of the region into utter chaos, I think both these extremes are unlikely. I think we are more likely to see a situation of just limping along as we have been. And limping along has its own dangers of gradual erosion at the edges, and then eventually beyond the edges. So if limping along is, you know, more likely than the two other extremes, it pays to be very careful the steps one takes in that kind of environment. Anticipating that wonderful days are ahead and therefore let’s accept anything now that accommodates the situation in order to… I’ll give you an example. Lebanon, for a variety of very basic reasons, hasn’t been able to do something very preliminary on the issue of the gas findings in the Eastern Mediterranean with Israel. Which is to basically bring in a third party to conduct arbitration in order to decide where the demarcation line really is for Israel. And they haven’t been able to do that, because they are constrained by a variety of political paralysis parameters. And if that first step hasn’t been taken, how can I buy into a rosy picture that sees, you know, integration around the corner and so on. One has to be very careful about it.
K.K.: It’s not integration that they are pushing here in Cyprus, it’s segregation…
C.P.: But we are talking about the region.
K.K.: Oh, forgive me.
H.M.: We’re talking about the Eastern Mediterranean, you know, Chris asked the question about, if certain steps are taken that will facilitate, and prop Cyprus up to be more able to take advantage of this coming integration… My answer is: I’m not so sure it’s coming that easily. I just gave an example of something very simple, it seems to be very simple, but it’s laden with all sorts of political implications as far as Lebanon is concerned. And, you know, again it’s part of the slot of paralysis issues that is piling up there.
C.P.: Habib thank you very much.
H.M.: Thank you. Let me just say one last point. In 1878 the British essentially, as part of a general settlement resolving a major crisis involving the Ottomans and other European powers of the time, Britain got Cyprus. And famously Britain’s Prime Minister at the time, Disraeli, said: Cyprus is really the key to Asia, or the gateway to Asia. Well, I mean I would hope Cyprus doesn’t now become Asia’s gateway to Europe or the West, in a sense. Thank you.
C.P.: Well, thank you very much for being with us and hopefully you will join us next time.