OICD interns are often interested in identities because they themselves have complex experiences of how identities work in the places they have grown up and/or find themselves. In this article, OICD Intern Dany Tsuruta reflects on his secular upbringing in Lebanon from Japan.
In his book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1991), Benedict Anderson argues that through the emergence of technologies such as the printing press and the newspaper, members of large societies began to think of themselves as sharing time and space with others in new ways. For the first time, these news forms of imagining allowed people to feel that they were part of large and simultaneously experienced national communities. Applying Anderson’s theory to my home country of Lebanon is challenging for me: how could such a massively diverse place ever coalesce into one community of the imagination?
Growing up in a fairly open minded and secular household, it was still difficult to avoid being labelled and influenced by religion in Lebanese society. Despite a popular belief that Lebanon, being located in the Middle East, is a primarily Muslim nation, Lebanon actually hosts multiple religions and represents many branches and sects of Islamic and other faiths.
The diversity of religions, their branches and sects, play a vital role in Lebanese society. As the Lebanese government is required to represent all faiths, the political system is complex. For instance, Lebanon’s president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of the house a Shia. In addition, each sect receives a limited number of seats in the parliament, and Lebanese citizens can only vote for candidates from particular sects that are designated for their districts.
Having lived in Lebanon for quite a number of years, one can easily notice that Lebanon seems to be geographically divided in accordance to its various sects and communities. Even the capital is divided into districts and streets where the residents mostly consist of followers of the related sect. The distinct geographic spaces of Lebanon each associated with their designated communities and each hosting schools which promote specific cultural and religious values, end up creating a diverse landscape of identities.
I believe I was fortunate to grow up in a secular household (my father and mother have Lebanese and foreign backgrounds), I could not help but be exposed to the cultural divisions and diversity of Lebanon throughout my childhood, both from my extended family members and in the course of living everyday life.
With the additional influence of French colonialism, the many French schools in Lebanon cultivate values that are different from those that are encouraged at schools rooted in faith education. These French schools therefore help to bring forward ever more complex identities into the mix of Lebanese public life.
My parents enrolled me in a French system from kindergarten and this has allowed me to communicate and understand the French language and culture in addition to the Lebanese one.
This dynamic cultural diversity also means that there are a number of individuals who do not want to conform to any of the values that they see represented by the majority. These people might be in the minority, but their highly secular and informed cosmopolitanism may represent an important part of the Lebanese community.
Looking at Lebanon from Japan is an interesting experiment. Being a quarter Japanese myself and having lived and studied for some years in Kyoto, in many ways Japan can appear to be a lot more peaceful and unified. While different regions and prefectures associate themselves with specific identities in Japan too, these identities do not seem to me to create conflict or negative energy.
The way that Japan has developed the ability to imagine its national identity—allowing everyone to imagine themselves as Japanese—seems very powerful and effective in unifying the nation under a common identity. Although this may not be the case at all times, comparing the very small size of Lebanon to the extensiveness of Japan, I am amazed at how much more complex and divided Lebanon can appear to be in contrast with Japan.
Despite the comparison, I do not want to portray Lebanon as a scary place where identity defines a person and one must only belong to a particular group of people in order to function.
My view is that Lebanon is a beautiful place that always manages to connect itself to itself even if indirectly, regardless of its differences and diversity. There are many cohesive elements in Lebanese society such as a very vibrant art environment (music, movies, drama, nightlife), food, beautiful scenery and much more. And I can tell, whenever I bring someone to visit with me, that their perception of Lebanon is ultimately a positive, aesthetically and culturally pleasing one that tells a tale of a country which, despite containing so many differences, problems and inconveniences, still knows how to live and flourish.