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Lebanon - the search for a nation

By Robin WrightSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 24, 1983


''You are my brother and I love you. I love you worshipping in your church, kneeling in your temple, or praying in your mosque. You and I and all our children are of one religion, for the varied paths of religion are but the fingers of the loving hand of the supreme being, extended to all, offering completeness of spirit to all, anxious to receive it.''

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The words of conciliation and coexistence are those of Khalil Gibran, the famed Lebanese poet-philosopher, author of ''The Prophet,'' whose centennial is being celebrated in Lebanon this year. President Amin Gemayel once quoted the country's leading literary figure at a gathering of diplomats, to emphasize his commitment to finding means for all of Lebanon's religious communities to live in peace together again.

The resilient cedar tree is Lebanon's symbol, adorning its flag. Appropriately, the trees are among the oldest of their type in the world - as is civilization in this Mediterranean state - some of the patriarchs of the forest dating back 1,500 years.

Gibran was born in the gentle northern mountain area. According to one biographer, he ''walked, slept, and meditated in the shadow of the cedars,'' no doubt aware of their symbolic grace and strength. The trees have withstood centuries, longer than any single political system.

So coveted are the cedars that there are only an estimated 300 left. The forests were decimated by traders who profited from the hard and seeming imperishable wood.

So too has Lebanon been coveted. It has been coveted by internal political merchants, who have profited from its rich and strategically placed land. In the process, the angry rhetoric of political competitors has replaced the peaceful poetry of Gibran. The gun has become a more prevalent national symbol than the cedar.

If or when Lebanon's 12 warlords finally sit down around the negotiating table, searching for specific ways of fulfilling Gibran's sentiments, it is not just eight years of war they must sort through.

Artificially created by the French in 1946, Lebanon was carved out of Syria after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Lebanon has had the symbols of nationhood - the poets and the cedars, the proud Mount Lebanon peaks, and the historic ruins of an honorable past - but there is little semblance of a system to back it up. The country's laissez faire attitude made it more of a playground - social and financial originally, military of late - than a nation.

In effect, the warlords must finally give Lebanon an identity, sifting through the myriad of conflicting inclinations that allowed the country to reach its current anarchic state. These tendencies include:

* Lebanon was admired as the link between the exotic East and the pragmatic West, but that mixing of traditions and cultures has now torn the country itself causing cultural and religious divisions.

The differences are symbolized by the two extremists who will sit at that table: Pierre Gemayel, who founded his Christian Phalange Party under the influence of the European fascism of Spain's Franco and Italy's Mussolini; and Walid Jumblatt, whose socialism emerged during the golden age of Arab nationalism, guided by the fiery former Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The Christians, particularly the dominant Maronite sect, generally view Lebanon as being on the edge of the Western world. The Muslims see it as the gateway to the East.

* Once the model for religious coexistence, Lebanon is torn because of its commitment to all 17 recognized sects. The very concept of confessionalism in politics (representation based on religious affiliation), formalized in the unwritten 1943 National Covenant, also served to institutionalize ancient cleavages. It made ethnic groups out of religious communities. Ironically, there has never been a problem of freedom of worship.

The current issues are not too different from those that were at the core of the United States Civil War: the extent of liberty and the debate over the issue of minorities vs. the concept of privilege for the elite.

* Once the envy of the business world for its free-flowing economy and the modern image of clever Phoenician traders, Lebanon has also been torn by profit rivalries and the politicization of financial empires. It is no coincidence that the most savage monuments to the 1975-76 civil war are in Beirut's business district, nor that the biggest bank heist listed in the ''Guinness Book of World Records'' happened in Beirut.