Monday, November 23, 2009

What is "independence?"

When the state of Belgium was formed in 1839, the Europeans who signed the Treaty of London did not realize what a monster it was that they had created. No, Belgium is not a monster (though rising calls for the dissolution of the Belgian state could become one.) The concept of the modern nation state is the monster, and borders are its claws.

Let's go back a bit in history to the Peace of Westphalia (1648) that ended (temporarily) non-stop fighting in Europe between the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs, the Kingdom of Spain, France, I forgetting someone? The treaty sort of drew up Europe and assigned territorial borders and is generally considered to be the birth of the nation-state concept in political science/international relations. Aside from assigned borders, the treaty also agreed that states were to be free from external interference. A state's domestic affairs belonged to the state and to no one else. (Unless it was in Africa where the Europeans were free to do whatever they liked, ahem...)

The Westphalian System did seem to be a good system. Prior to that, borders were forever changing as rival empires fought for more land and more riches and for revenge on family members with whom they did not get along. The Holy Roman Empire continued to pretend that the fall of Rome hadn't occurred, the Hapsburgs' thirst for land was never quenched, and a variety of Kingdoms and Dukedoms and I'm-better-than-youdoms were forever skirmishing over the same parcels of earth.

Belgium was created under the Treaty of London (after the Belgian Revolution) because the UK, France, and Germany couldn't respect Westphalian boundries. Belgium was to be a buffer state between them. The treaty took neither ethnicity nor history into account, gave land to Belgium that belonged to other states, and pretty much set in motion the events that led to World War I (which led to World War II which led to Europe getting sick of war so that they entered into economic union to never fight each other again. It's worked so far...)

At the same time, colonialism was still in full swing. In what we now call the Middle East, perpetual war was fought between the Sassinids and the Byzantines from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Rise of the Islamic Empire at the time of the Prophet. Then came the Abassids, the Fatimids, the Umayyads, and the Moors. Throw in some Mamluks and others, and the Middle East was no different than Europe at the time of The Billion Years War. The Ottomans later took over for the other Muslim empires like the Safavids and the Mughals, and since they were defeated in World War I, the territory was divided up among the victors. It's been that way since the dawn of human history, only this time, lines mattered. Before that, there was never any state called Lebanon, never any country called Palestine, never any government called Syria, and certainly no lines that drew borders. No, today's lines that have caused so many conflicts in the region are largely a product of the European Westphalian idea. I guess it should be called West-fail-ian.

I read something from a Lebanese Twitterer about how there is no independence in Lebanon "while parts of it are occupied." I argue that there is no independence while Lebanon is gripped by fear and suspicion of the people within its internationally recognized borders. I also see a fierce independence among so many young Lebanese and so many civil society activists for whom lines on a map are not as important as feeding your people, running your economy, striving for progress, and ending perpetual conflict.

Lebanon may not be able to change the world outside its artificial borders, but it certainly has the power to change from within. When Prime Minister Hariri said, "Lebanon will not remain a playground for regional conflicts," he was standing up for Lebanon's independence. It's up to the Lebanese people to help him make that a reality. Let it be known, Lebanon, that you have a lot of people cheering for you!

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