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The problem with shiny liberalism

Welcome to the land of freedom

It has been more than three years since I left my home country of Lebanon in the Middle East. Since then, I have lived in the U.K. and more recently in Canada.

Being from an upper-middle income family, and a dual Lebanese-Canadian citizen presented me with the opportunity of leaving home with ease -- a luxury unavailable to many. After being accepted into a top-tier university, I purchased a one-way ticket, and that was it.

But really that wasn't it. Coming from a country that suffers from a near incomprehensible level of brain drain, most of my life revolved around resisting the idea of leaving. My life was shaped by a sense of moral responsibility to remain and attempt to build a better future for myself and my fellow country men and women. A convolution of experiences however made me, in a transition that startled many of my friends, abandon that thought; and I came to the conclusion that I would be wasting my future by denying myself, and my potential children, the expanses of the world and the experiences of living in a liberal culture where governments are able to provide their citizens with basic public services.

Since embarking on this journey, and although I have gotten to experience much of what I sought, I have come to quickly realize the emptiness of the fantasies around "The West," and more importantly I have learned about the similarities in the dangers we face.

The realities of Lebanon

Before delving into these differences and similarities, I wanted to paint a quick picture of Lebanon, and, in turn, the experiences that have shaped much of my beliefs.

Lebanon is a small country on the east of the Mediterranean Sea. For a small country it prides itself in the diversity it offers, both in geography and religious variety -- 13 sects and religions, you will hear the proud Lebanese insist.

Aside from being small, Lebanon, as a state, is also young. It gained its independence from France in 1943, and its history is already marked with strife. I was born at the tail end of a 15-year sectarian-based civil war which raged from 1975 to 1990. My parents, who grew up during that period, spent a great deal of their lives relocating to escape the conflict as it moved around our small country. They finished school, university, and started working with the constant drone of war in the background. 

I was born into a history of occupation and resistance. Not only is Lebanon a post-colonial country, but its south, up to the capital Beirut, was invaded in 1982 only to have the occupying force, our friendly neighbours to the south, retreat and hold a buffer zone in the south of the country until the year 2000. To add more complexity, our friendly neighbours to the east and north, Syria, maintained a military presence in Lebanon from 1976 to 2005, heavily influencing domestic politics where they have been implicated in several political assassinations.

Lebanon is also home to 450,000 permanent Palestinian refugees, who live in refugee camps under horrendous and cramped conditions. They have no access to what little public service Lebanon offers and as refugees are confined to these camps. In 1996, one of these camps, run by the UN, was shelled by Israeli forces. I was eight years old and vividly remember the pictures of corpses, mangled bodies and limbs being pulled from the rubble and organized to give the victims a proper burial -- the death toll was 106 men, women, and children. 

Lebanon doesn't only suffer from external and regional complexities. Internally, our government is nearly defunct. Parliamentary elections haven't been held since 2009, and Lebanon was in the news last year at the brink of an ecological disaster as garbage collection services broke down. Our sectarian system, meant to keep all sects represented equally has presented certain political parties -- feudal entities, really -- with the opportunity to subvert and occupy democratic power by claiming to represent the wishes of the people. This has most dangerously manifested itself in the existence of the pseudo-government armed organization of Hezbollah.

Flooding during the winter is expected, rolling black outs are a daily occurrence -- with some areas receiving no more than eight hours of power a day. Our health-care system is bankrupt, and we face staggering wealth inequality.

Culture shock

These complexities are lost in the presentation of Lebanon to the rest of the world; and journalists, as opposed to doing their job, end up degrading our entire national history to a false dichotomy of either being an object of their own fantasy, a liberal party centre in the midst of a tumultuous Middle East (exotic), or on the brink of yet another bloody conflict, be it a civil war or another confrontation with Israel (dangerous).

This reality hit me almost instantly when I moved to Edinburgh. "Where are you from?" was the ever-present question, to which the follow up would range from, "Oh, that' so exotic" to "So you're Muslim then?"-- enter "13 sects and religion" trivia response.

Further discussion on the matter can be divided into three types. Most frequently was the "What do you think about what's happening in Syria/ISIS/ Palestine/the refugee crises, etc." A generally genuine display of drive to learn and exchange ideas, yet often misplaced as there was a generalized assumptions that one would be willing to engage in the topic irrespective of context. Yes, it might be hard to believe, but a discussion on the legitimacy of rebel forces is not my idea of a good time when I'm at a university social.  

The second type was a simpler reaction, a disappointment when new information failed to validate a pre-conceived notion. Example: growing up in Lebanon must have been dangerous. Reply: not really, violence is usually hyperlocalized so exposure to violence was limited, also when the entire populace is facing similar experiences danger becomes largely relative, result: disappointment.

By far, the most annoying reaction, though, was the sudden need for some to prove their knowledge. I had a recent conversation in Ottawa, where a new person I met asked if I was born above or below the Litani River, a river that runs in the south of Lebanon which acted as the demarcation line for occupying Israeli forces. The question, he cleverly thought, would help him asses my political inclinations when it came to issues of resistance. Not only a false assessment, but one that signified a complete lack of understanding of the complexities of Lebanon, an utter failure of whatever IR course he had taken or article he had read.

What was shocking about these experiences is that they reinforced the idea that my identity, and that of others from Lebanon or the region, is not viewed beyond the narrow perspective of a western narrative of violence. With each of those questions, the asker confirmed, that to them, like the journalist, we are nothing but a juicy story whose identity is to be simplified and exploited for entertainment or self-validation, excitements, a chance of vicarious living through a subject of another culture, superficial and misplaced.

The level of ignorance found in that, irrespective of how well intentioned the asker was, is shocking. Most of all because I would have expected that with the obsession that Western governments have with the Middle East, the populace would know more about what is happening in the region. At the end of the day, we are at the receiving end of your foreign policy, and one would expect, perhaps naively so, that citizens in the great liberal democracies of the West hold their politicians accountable for their actions, or are, at a minimum, aware of the motivations and the intricacies behind the foreign policy decisions politicians take.

Fears re-emerge 

I don't want to sound facetious here, I'm well aware that I can't expect everyone to understand the complexities of politics and foreign intervention in the Middle East. Not only would that be unrealistic, but it would simplify the real issues of apathy and disenfranchisement, ones I am well acquainted with and found at large in Lebanon.

It's the deeper implication of these interactions that leave me concerned, the seeming dismissal of the simple concept that identity is a complex thing. A dismissal that doesn't only extend to new arrivals, foreigners from exotic lands, but is applied equally to fellow citizens.

This practice of oversimplifying identity was particularly a shock as the impression of "the West" I had in Lebanon was always built around an unapologetic acceptance of individualism, unshaken in the liberal democratic institutions. These all seemed to fade away in the past two years. The refugee crisis, Brexit, the election of Trump, Black Lives Matter, and the continuous rise in islamophobia proves how fragile and false of a construct that was.

What's frightening here is how much the choices we're making to deal with these issues resonate with the sectarianism that led my country into 15 years of civil war -- where simply belonging to the wrong identity could lead to your execution at a makeshift militia checkpoint.

I truly know no more fitting word to describe this trend than "sectarianism" -- this reduction of complex individuals into a single uniform preconception. Those who voted for Brexit and Trump are "racists" or "stupid" (or both). You either unequivocally brandish a "refugee welcome" stance or are inhumane. A rise in security threat, and we now want to determine what people can or can't wear. We want to reduce people's opinions and feelings to their gender and race. Weighing the validity of the arguments we hear by who is saying them as oppose to their merit.

In Lebanon, the complexity of the views you may hold are dismissed and replaced by assumptions according to which sect you belong to. Here, your views are assumed based on your race, gender, attire, or even for holding a single political point which counters a perceived ideological hegemony, each dismissal taking us further from the liberal values that many of us in the Middle East would die, and have died for.

To come over here and watch discourse be relegated to the greatest of ad hominem attacks -- the things we have no control over, is truly unnerving.

I cannot explain how much this rhetoric genuinely frightens me, and I fully acknowledge the unique historic factors found on this side of the world, but I implore you to consider that it is not so different than what my country has gone through. I know where this kind of deconstructive rhetoric leads, and although I was lucky enough to not experience the full brunt of it first hand, I know how long it takes countries to recover from it. My country is still recovering from it through slow precarious steps. 

The scariest thing about my entire experience is that I don't know if it's just my fantasy of what the West is that is melting away, or if it is truly the West losing its grasp on the very values it promotes internationally. Have I just been duped by the glittering image of the West before I left? Or is it that the glitter is actually fading as the infighting increases? Maybe it's a bit of both.

Jade Saab is a Lebanese-Canadian writer and political theorist based in Toronto. His writings cover topics of liberalism, governance, and Marxism with occasional forays into current affairs. He is currently writing his first book, Finding Left.

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