BEIRUT – Global debate in recent weeks has centered on US President Barack Obama’s initiative to prevent the advance of the Islamic State. But another force has emerged as an unlikely rampart against the barbaric and delusional leaders of the self-proclaimed caliphate: Lebanese pluralism. Indeed, despite the shortcomings of its political system, Lebanon can provide a template for managing cultural diversity and rejecting radicalism in an unstable and fragmented setting.
Last month, the Lebanese army showed considerable fortitude as it fought Islamic State militants in the village of Arsal, near the border with Syria. Though the army has sustained heavy losses – including two soldiers that were beheaded – it has managed to compel the militants, who were operating inside a Syrian refugee camp, largely to withdraw. And it continues to fight when the need arises. International aid is now flowing toward the army, with Saudi Arabia alone pledging more than $3 billion.
But the international community should move beyond military aid to support Lebanon’s real strengths: its moderate, pluralist, and vibrant society. After all, that is what has enabled the country, against all odds, to avoid all-out conflict, making it a beacon – however faint – of hope in a crisis-ravaged region.
Lebanon’s resilience has confounded expectations, given its lack of a shared national identity – a result of deep social divisions that resemble, to some extent, those besetting Iraq – and notoriously weak state institutions. In fact, Lebanon’s political system has been paralyzed by disagreements over Syria’s civil war, the consequences of which have been pouring over the Lebanese border. The country has not had a president since May; the parliament is not functioning; and the cabinet is practically powerless.