HOW can we make sense of the violence in Lebanon? A bewildering variety of participants has passed on and off the Lebanese stage over the past decade. Only the violence seems constant. One of the best ways to understand Lebanon and to see how peace might one day be reestablished there is to zero in on the country's increasingly pressing Shiite question. This issue has already had considerable impact on Israel's policy in the region. It is significant, too, in view of the links between Shiite radicals in Lebanon and their colleagues in Iran and elsewhere in the strategic Gulf region.
The importance of the Shiite question emerges very clearly from an examination of the long-term shifts of power inside Lebanon itself. This tiny Mediterranean country has a considerable significance at the level of the broader Middle East. But at the hub of its situation is the long-term interaction between the five major sectarian groups who make up its body politic.
Outsiders may come and go. But in the end, if history is our guide, the internal realities of relations between the Lebanese always prevail.
Amazingly, the identity of the five major groups living within Lebanon's present boundaries has not changed much for more than 900 years! These groups are the Maronite Christians, the ``Greek'' group of churches, the Sunni Muslims, the Shiite Muslims, and the Druze.
The pecking order between these five has not remained constant, however. The first half of the 19th century saw 36 years of turmoil, during which the Maronites replaced the Druze as the strongest single group in the system.
And now it is the Maronites whose ascendancy is under challenge. The challengers are the Shiites.
The Shiites not only form the most numerous single group in Lebanon today, but they have also experienced a broad social and political renaissance over the past decades.
Back in the 1940s, when the country received its independence, the Maronites were still clearly the strongest group. The idea of their numerical superiority was still defensible. Their social development was much higher than that of most Muslims. They dominated the banks and trading-houses, which brought great prosperity to the capital, Beirut.
Back then, it seemed only natural that the Maronites should be awarded the two most powerful positions in the independent Republic -- the presidency and control over the Army command.
But now the Shiites have clearly passed the Maronites in the population stakes (by about 33 to 28 percent, by some estimates). They have developed a broad cadre of university-trained professionals and business people. The first Shiite-owned bank opened its doors in Beirut in 1977, to be followed by several others. The Shiite challenge to Maronite primacy has built up in many social and economic fields. It is not surprising it has also developed a political dimension.
What is the current importance of this unsolved ``Shiite question?'' Does it mean that no government which, like President Amin Gemayel's, is headed by a Maronite can be viable?
Not necessarily, at this stage. The majority of the Shiite constituency, as represented by the ``Amal'' movement, still favors a reformist approach rather than outright revolution. But the Amal leaders have come under increasing pressure from radicals in their own camp over the past two years.
When the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982, one of their chief war aims was to install a strong, pro-Israel government in Beirut -- and one which was firmly dominated by the hard-line Maronite camp.
That combination proved impossible to sustain against the opposition of the Shiites and their allies. Now, the Israelis have to try to negotiate a withdrawal agreement with a weak central government in Beirut, while their troops come under mounting pressure in south Lebanon from the increasingly hostile and self-confident Shiites.
In the Gulf region, meanwhile, Shiite radicalism continues to be a major instrument of Iranian policy -- one which is further fueled by the growth of Shiite radicalism in Lebanon.
The dynamics of Lebanon's internal Shiite question thus have considerable international repercussions. But it is not too late for the Lebanese government and its friends in the West to tackle it at the source, starting with a recognition that the Amal leadership's most pressing demands have to be addressed. These center around the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon and movement toward meaningful political reform.
The alternative, if such reasonable concerns are not addressed, is that the radical strand in Lebanese Shiite society will grow ever stronger. That promises that the Shiite question -- in Lebanon and elsewhere -- will only become more explosive.
Helena Cobban is a free-lance writer who was based in the Middle East from 1976 to 1981.