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Political Disagreement Versus Historical Events

In 2009, the new Education Minister Hassan Mneimneh formed a new committee for the drafting of history curricula and books. He convened representatives of the main religious groups and political parties and asked them to ‘extract’ a new curriculum from that of 2000.77 A new history curriculum for grades 2-9 was completed in 2010 and presented to the Council of ministers for approval in early 2011.78 Already a low priority, approval of the history curriculum was sidelined during negotiations over the composition of a new executive in January-June 2011.

In mid-2011, a new education minister presented the history curriculum to the cabinet and ministers started examining it with a view to ‘having their share in history and being presented positively’.79 The political representatives of each confessional community came face to face with the many divergent perspectives on Lebanon’s past and, as Daw put it, ‘every minister wanted to add points to the book to support his sect’.80 Thus, the process of ‘cleaning up the dirty details, and putting the dirty laundry away’81 dragged on and even spilled over into Lebanon’s streets.

In January 2012, it emerged that the new curriculum described the events of 2005, leading to Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, as ‘a wave of protests’, rather than the ‘Cedar revolution’.82 It was argued that the phrase ‘Cedar revolution’ had been coined by an American diplomat and was ‘sensitive to many in the country’.8 3 Supporters of the March 14

coalition (particularly the Christian Kataeb and Lebanese Forces) staged a demonstration, protesting that their parties’ contribution to independence was being expunged from official accounts of Lebanon’s history, while Hizbollah’s resistance to Israel was given a place of honour.84 Echoing the street, Kataeb deputy Samy Gemayel equated the Cedar Revolution to Lebanon’s second independence and asked whether ‘we have the right to remove Hizbollah’s liberation of South Lebanon from the history curriculum’.85 In the midst of the controversy, Walid Jumblatt wondered, ‘does disagreement in politics erase historical events?’86 The answer is probably affirmative: unable to mediate an agreement, Prime Minister Najib Mikati declared a moratorium on history curricula and textbooks, and to this day, a unified history curriculum is one of Taif’s unfulfilled promises.

Beyond highlighting deep disagreements over the state’s identity and foreign orientation among Lebanese elites, the failure to formulate a sanctioned history curriculum and unified textbook means that schools are free to choose not to teach history. Indeed, most students are taught history only in grades 9 and 12, when they sit an official exam including a test based on the 1968-1970 curriculum.87 When history is taught in other grades, controversial topics are often avoided to prevent fights.88 Moreover, publishing houses are free to produce history textbooks on the basis of the 1968-1970 curriculum.89 Books are approved by CERD on the basis of three criteria: they have to follow the 1968-1970 curriculum, comply with the Lebanese constitution and avoid offence or discrimination on religious and communal grounds.90 CERD also checks imported textbooks to ensure that they do not include illegal pictures and do not have Israeli authors.91 However, CERD is often unaware of the contents of textbooks used in private schools, especially when they are imported: in 2012, for example, it was found that a history book in use in an international school in Beirut listed Hizbollah as a terrorist organisation.92

Most textbooks, as well as the questions posed in official exams, consider history only up until 1943, as ‘Lebanese parties have different points of view’ on later events.93 By reaching ‘the end of history in 1943’,94 textbooks overlook contemporary developments, including the 1958 and 1975-1989 civil wars and the roots and formation of the present political parties and consociational political system. Thus, the civil war remains the ‘gaping hole’ in Lebanese history education.95 Different communal narratives of the war are conveyed in an institutional void where they interact and compete, perpetuating each community’s sense of victimhood and myth of resistance.96 At the same time, these narratives fall short of encouraging patriotism, democratic participation and even an understanding of the origins and workings of Lebanon’s political system.

Indeed, a 1994 study of history textbooks in Catholic schools highlighted that most books avoided controversial issues and emphasised multireligious coexistence even at the expense of factual accuracy.97 Messara confirms that history textbooks portray Lebanon as a ‘tolerant society whose members love one another and associate as brothers’.98 However, different textbooks devote varying proportions of time to local, Arab, European and World history and emphasise different events.99 Even when they consider the same event, books employed in different schools often provide different interpretations: for example, the Lebanese nationalists executed by the Ottomans in 1916 are heroes in some books and traitors in others.100 History teachers also admit that their communal background influences their teaching: Christian teachers tend to present the French Mandate positively and to draw the origins of Greater Lebanon to Fakhreddine’s emirate in the early seventeenth century, while teachers in Muslim schools generally present Greater Lebanon as an artificial French creation. Thus, history education circumvents controversial issues and rhetorically emphasises inter-communal coexistence and cooperation, but it also reproduces and legitimises communally specific, and mutually exclusive, narratives of events.101

Abouchedid and Nasser confirm that students’ identities and their perceptions of the past are affected by school history in Lebanon.102 This substantiates the observation that, by promoting divisive rather than overarching narratives of the past, Lebanon may be ‘raising another generation of children who identify themselves only with their communities and not their nation’.103 Moreover, present arrangements for history education do not build skills conducive to reconciliation and peacebuilding: they do not promote empathy and affection, convey multiple perspectives, or encourage acceptance that ‘you will never be able to convert everyone to your beliefs’.104 Instead, Bashshour warns that history education furthers ‘a culture of memory [which] is very likely [a] breeding ground for submission and dependence’.105

 
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