Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rai handed Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs State David Hale a copy of his initiative “Lebanon’s positive neutrality,” during the US diplomat’s visit to Lebanon. Days later, in a press conference, al-Rai presented his initiative, which seemed heavy on history and light on policy and governance. A week later, al-Rai doubled down on his position by calling on the state to bust “illegal arms depots in residential neighborhoods” so as to avoid a fate like that of the Beirut port explosion. Hezbollah rebutted through one of its newspapers, which accused the Maronite top cleric of peddling “enemy propaganda and Israeli talking points.”
In his efforts, al-Rai has tried to return Lebanon to its founding principles, moving away from the Lebanon that Hezbollah has hijacked and forced its own vision upon.
Al-Rai had explained his initiative by saying that Lebanon once reaped considerable economic rewards from its “regional neutrality,” serving as the destination of Arab tourism, education and healthcare. In his initiative, however, al-Rai barely mentioned economics, and instead focused on the narrative upon which Lebanon was founded. According to the Lebanese cleric, when the French were about to draft the Lebanese constitution, they looked up the constitution of the Swiss Federation, a globally neutral country, for inspiration.
Al-Rai cited the first independence cabinet's platform that, in 1943, stated that “Lebanon adheres to neutrality between the East and the West.” Lebanon’s neutrality was also at play during its participation in drafting the Charter of the Arab League in 1945. Lebanon contributed to making the league’s decisions non-binding, even when taken unanimously, to spare the country from going to war, should league members decide to mobilize collectively.
Al-Rai said that Lebanon’s current policies depart from its traditional foreign policy, and undermines “solidarity among Arab countries, in favor of strategies that serve (non-Arab) regimes instead of common Arab interests.”
The patriarch concluded that the “idea of neutrality was reiterated in various presidential speeches and cabinet platforms, and in every statement issued by the Dialogue Commission.” This led to the June 2012 proclamation of the Baabda Declaration, “which was approved unanimously and highlighted Lebanon’s neutrality.”
The declaration was filed with the UN as an official document of the Security Council and the General Assembly. Since 2005, and most recently with UN Secretary General Antonio Guteress, the UN has been calling on Lebanon to abide by Security Council resolutions, disband all militias, including Hezbollah, and resolve its outstanding border disputes with Israel and Syria.
In a sermon, al-Rai said that Lebanon’s founding literature is fundamental in preserving the country’s harmony between its Christians and Muslims, harmony that is premised on regional neutrality.
Hezbollah, however, has avoided commenting on al-Rai’s initiative. When its chief Hassan Nasrallah did, he said that a “neutral cabinet is a waste of time.” Nasrallah did not mention al-Rai by name, and did not seem aware that al-Rai did not call for a non-partisan cabinet, but for a neutral foreign policy. Instead, Hezbollah has been using its Maronite protégés, President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, as a fig leaf to cover its violation of one of Lebanon’s founding tenets.
In fact, Nasrallah has forced successive cabinets to mention armed “resistance,” a codename for his militia, alongside “the people and the army,” in an attempt to provide legal cover to Lebanon siding with the Iran-led axis. Ministerial platforms, however, cannot trump the constitution and the country’s founding literature. Nasrallah does not care.
In fact, Hezbollah’s own existence is premised on the idea that the Shia of southern Lebanon partook in the battle of Karbala, in south Iraq in 680, which saw the defeat and killing of the third Shia Imam, Hussein bin Ali.
In his book Nationalism, Transnationalism and Political Islam, Mohanad Hage Ali, born into a Shia Lebanese family, argues that the construction of a specifically Shia Lebanese history, in the early 20th century, suffered from the lack of any popular movements or symbols. And while “the origins of the Shia in the Levant remain a subject of controversy,” Hezbollah has endorsed a popular myth that one of Prophet Muhammad’s companions, Abu Dharr, preached the Shia faith in southern Lebanon.
Such myth “remains dubious, in spite of Hezbollah’s continued efforts at reviving it as an established fact,” Hage Ali argued. He added that “Abu Dharr clearly served the Shia clerics’ need to establish their authenticity, especially because his narrative provides them with a direct link to the Prophet.” Also among the main themes of Hezbollah’s “reconstructed history is the myth” that the Lebanon Shia fought in Karbala.
In Lebanon, it is common knowledge that the country – in its current form – was created by the French in line with the vision of the Maronite Church. The country’s name is Biblical, and so is its emblem, the cedar tree, which also serves as the symbol of the church.
But while the Maronite founders envisioned a “neutral Lebanon,” Hezbollah employed dubious legends to connect the history of Lebanese Shia to a greater regional Shia community that reaches Iran. The organizing principle of this Shia group, as imagined by Hezbollah and Iranian mullahs, is war.
By reviving Lebanon’s founding principle of neutrality, al-Rai is not only trying to restore the country’s traditional foreign policy, but also to wrestle the founding narrative from a militia that has little regard for Lebanon, its foundation or its sovereignty, and much more appreciation to combative cross-border legends and policies.
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