In a conversation with Philos Project President Robert Nicholson, Habib C. Malik discussed what makes Lebanese Christians unique, the country’s role in the Middle East, US foreign policy oversights, Christian engagement with Islam, and advice he would give to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

RN: Due to its unique history and demography, Lebanon is the closest thing to a Christian country in the Middle East. What makes Lebanese Christians unique? As other Christian populations dwindle around the region, do Lebanese Christians have a special role to play in aiding and protecting them? 

HCM: Lebanon is a small country with a million problems—literally, one followed by six zeros. And yet remarkably—nay miraculously—Lebanon continues to harbor the freest society by far in the Arab Middle East. What accounts for this seeming paradox? The short, and to some blunt, answer is that little troubled Lebanon is home to the last remaining free native Christian community in the entire Middle East. By “free” here is meant in the first instance not dhimmi, namely not relegated to second-class status under Islamic rule as the vast majority of Arab Christians in the rest of the Middle East have been subordinated at some point or other in their turbulent histories. Lebanon’s Christians fought hard and for the most part successfully throughout their own challenging history, and at a great price in terms of blood and resources, to preserve what they could of their freedoms. The greatest service they could render to the rest of the region’s beleaguered Christians would be for them to remain free, and to act as a shining beacon of freedom for the others and for the Muslim majority of the region as well.

RN: Your father Charles Malik spoke often about Lebanon’s unique vocation as a bridge between East and West, a place where Christians and Muslims can dialogue with each other in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Yet Samuel Huntington might have called Lebanon a “torn country,” a state riven by competing cultures and thus destined to remain unstable for the foreseeable future. Thirty years after the Taif Agreement, how do you see Lebanon’s vocation? Has it evolved? Is it sustainable?

HCM: Lebanon’s freedoms have indeed suffered and shrunk across the board since 1975 when the Lebanon War first broke out, even though they remain higher than in surrounding Arab societies. The Lebanese Christian population has also shrunk—from over 50 percent before 1975 to somewhere around 35 percent today, meaning about a third of the overall population (the two remaining thirds being roughly the Shiites and the Sunnis). These twin marked reductions—in freedom and in numbers—have taken an extensive toll on the Christian community in Lebanon, and they have meant that their prior “role” as the reputed bridge between East and West has been severely curtailed. The other related problem has been the politicizing of everything in Lebanon, including attempts at open inter-religious dialogue between Muslims and Christians. Since delicate political balances need to be maintained inside the fragile country, and since the demographics are not helping, any and all attempts at dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon regrettably become reduced to exercises in traded platitudes and least-common-denominator meaningless intersection points (two Abrahamic religions; two monotheisms; shared ethical pieties; and the like).

Sadly, what Huntington might have said of Lebanon would still ring true today, and this does affect any role the country might wish to play as regards dialogue between Christians and Muslims. Rather than carry through the myriad internal contradictions that afflict Lebanese society to their logical conclusion of inevitable violence, the Lebanese political class has invariably opted for paralysis, another word for kicking the can down the path, as the preferred safer option. So matters on nearly every vital level, and this would include serious inter-religious dialogue between Christians and Muslims, have either been frozen in their tracks, or they have degenerated into harmless yet ultimately meaningless clichés and banalities.

In comparison with the prevailing freedom drought across the region, however, Lebanon’s surviving freedoms look impressive, and their continued protection offers the only hope for the country and the wider Arab surroundings. If we are to speak about Lebanon’s vocation, it would be precisely this as Charles Malik envisioned: the preservation and hopefully eventual expansion of the oasis of freedom in the Arab world. How sustainable this will be depends on how much Lebanon itself can continue to preserve what it has retained of its hard-won freedoms, and in parallel how much the rest of the world, especially those countries that are themselves indeed free, care to chip in to help in this regard.

RN: The US has spent almost two decades mired in the Middle East. What have been our greatest mistakes so far? Have we gotten anything right?

HCM: Many mistakes or missteps in recent US policy can be flagged, but perhaps the greatest would have to be the 2003 Iraq War—waged under fabricated pretexts and resulting in a string of catastrophic dominoes: the decimation of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities, the acceleration of a regional freehand for Iran, removal of an important check on Wahhabi-inspired religious militancy, and the spawning of a gung-ho neo-conservative adventurism that almost always makes bad situations worse. A close second would have to be the Obama administration’s 2013 failure to uphold its own redline on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, thereby paving the way for Russia’s unprecedented arrival in full force in that arena. Perhaps a third was supporting the brutal Saudi war in Yemen. So wrong moves, or equally wrong and ill-timed hesitations to move—these mark US involvement in the Middle East the past two decades. Hitting ISIS hard, and allowing others to do the same, marks a shining US success, it has to be acknowledged. But the ideology of ISIS is still out there and can, and likely will, make a vicious comeback.

RN: Western engagement with the Middle East is, at some level, Christian engagement with Islam. What do you think good and bad Christian engagement with Islam looks like?

HCM: Before assessing any Christian engagement with Islam, it needs to be made clear that Christianity and Christians as such should be absolved of the various stains of Western government policies and actions in the Middle East, America’s included. At its best, Christian engagement with Islam has entailed the founding of schools in the nineteenth century in parts of the Middle East by missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic, which eventually flourished into the Arab region’s leading institutions of higher learning; the many positive and enduring legacies of Western colonial or imperial intervention in the region that have been consistently questioned if not utterly distorted by the so-called post-colonial school of blanket historical indictment; the checking of any further erosion of the very few remaining precious oases of indigenous freedom that offer the peoples of the region a promise for a better tomorrow; and any instances of meaningful constructive dialogue between authentic representatives of these two great faiths that might have occurred inside the region, or that have been stimulated into happening outside it. Happily, no religious crusades have been launched in recent times by the West aimed at the Islamic East; that form of “engagement” is a thing of the past, and native Christian communities, no matter how beleaguered they might be in any given circumstance, do not wish for nor expect such toxic intervention from the West.

RN: If US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo solicited your advice in crafting US policy on Lebanon, what recommendations would you offer?

HCM: Hold the line of regional Arab collapse squarely at Lebanon’s borders—freedom nurtured indigenously over long centuries and in the face of endless hardships is the Middle East’s only future hope.

Tackle the Iranian menace first at the source, not in derivative and delicate arenas like Lebanon.

Do everything possible not to throw away the baby (Lebanon’s unique assets of freedom and openness) with the dirty bathwater (toxic Iranian influence through their proxy Hezbollah): pressure the latter while protecting the former.

Support Lebanon’s declared policy of “constructive neutrality” regarding involvement in the problems and tensions of the surrounding region.

Find creative ways of teaming up and coordinating with the Russians on shared goals that would include the preservation of Lebanon as a unique though fragile experiment (despite its many flaws) in native religious and sectarian pluralist coexistence. Specifically, work closely with the Russians to repatriate back to their native Syria the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon, thereby relieving the small host country of this enormous and unsustainable burden on its meager resources as well as its finely balanced demography.

Help Lebanon fight the endemic corruption that pervades its political class. Much more is at stake here for the country and the entire region than merely exposing and penalizing the perpetrators.

Do not allow the ruling criminal class in Lebanon to continue swindling the Lebanese people of their resources and assets and bank accounts.  Penalize the culprits directly and avoid collective punishment brought on the Lebanese as a whole.

Allow Lebanon to have a modest share in Syria’s impending reconstruction because this small yet vital oasis of freedom needs urgent economic relief.

Insist upon the Lebanese government on the swift need for third-party (mainly American) arbitration with Israel, followed by internationally monitored unitization of extraction, regarding the disputed area of Lebanon’s undersea oil and gas reserves along the Israel-Lebanon maritime demarcation line. There is here a potential win-win outcome for all ready to be activated.

Continue to support the Lebanese Armed Forces in every way possible to keep that vital national institution unified and strong and able to maintain the calm and security of the country.

Extend and expand continued tangible support to Lebanon’s many universities and schools that play a crucial role in the education and spread of values not only within the country but regionally and beyond.

Offer creative infusions of support to Lebanon’s vibrant civil society.