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Lebanon: sectarianism and secular reform


Beirut march for secularism, with the former Holiday Inn--landmark of the Civil War--in the background. (Photo: Belén Fernández)

On Sunday, April 25, over 2,000 people marched in Beirut in support of secularism in Lebanon, in an event dubbed “Laïque Pride” by its organisers. Starting at the seaside and progressing in the direction of the parliament building, marchers displayed posters with slogans in Arabic, English and French, such as “I applied for a job but it turned out to be for a different sect,” “Civil marriage not civil war,” and “Fatima and Tony love each other… That’s not a problem.”

Civil marriage is currently not an option in Lebanon, as matrimonial rights and requirements for each of Lebanon’s 18 recognised religious sects are determined by respective religious authorities. The slogan about Fatima and Tony might just as easily have read “Nancy and Tony hate each other… That’s a problem”, given the prohibition on divorce for Maronite Catholics which in extreme cases has led to Maronite conversions to Islam in order to end a marriage.

The modern origins of the Lebanese sectarian system lie in the National Pact of 1943, an agreement devised at the end of the French administration of Lebanon specifying that the president would always be Christian and the prime minister Sunni, with other high government offices allocated along sectarian lines as well. The pact, which may be viewed either as an attempt to ensure government representation of all sects or as the extension of a colonial divide-and-conquer policy, gave superior parliamentary representation to Lebanese Christians based on a census conducted in 1932.

To this day, census information has not been officially updated to reflect the displacement of the relative Christian majority by the Shia or to account for the Palestinian refugee population of approximately 400,000. Denied basic rights and employment opportunities, the situation of the Palestinians in Lebanon acquired new levels of ambiguity in the Taef Agreement at the conclusion of the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-90, which stipulated the following:

The [Lebanese] people may not be categorised on the basis of any affiliation whatsoever and there shall be no fragmentation, no partition, and no repatriation [of Palestinians in Lebanon].”

As for the stipulated ban on categorising the Lebanese people, this is challenged by the continued inclusion of personal religious affiliation on certain identity documents—a practice made infamous via ID card-based killings at roadblocks during the Civil War. The Taef Agreement’s call for a “Chamber of Deputies [elected] on a national, not sectarian, basis” has also yet to come to fruition, although Christians and Muslims are now equally represented in the parliament. The desirability of a meritocracy free of the systemic inertia bred by sectarian political quotas is one of the arguments employed by proponents of secular reform, but the concept of secularism itself remains nebulous in the Lebanese context.

Said Chaitou, one of the organisers of the Beirut march, told me on Sunday that the event signalled the start of the formation of a Lebanese model of secularism, as distinct from French or Turkish models, and that, 20 to 30 years down the road, a secular Lebanon might serve as an example for the region and the world. In the meantime, the country might serve as an example for Saudi Arabia, where a Lebanese man sentenced to death for sorcery will reportedly be pardoned following an intervention by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and an announcement by the sorcerer’s Lebanese lawyer that his behaviour was “not a crime under Lebanese law”.

A Lebanese poet named Jamila who participated in the march expressed concern that the goal of a Lebanese model of secularism was inhibited by the number of slogans in European languages. Stressing the need to focus inward rather than outward, Jamila nonetheless claimed to be optimistic about the prominence of young people at the event and the fact that it had been organised entirely over the Internet.

A 19-year-old art school student meanwhile declared that the secular movement would lead nowhere and suggested that it was not in the interest of political and religious leaders benefiting from the sectarian model to allow it to collapse. She did, however, categorise as positive the reported increase in frequency of Lebanese demonstrations not defined by specific political or religious entities, such as the protest earlier that morning in support of the “Cuban Five” currently held in US prisons.

According to another march attendee named Mustafa, a resident of the US for nearly 40 years, a secular democratic state could have been established in Lebanon in 1976 — the second year of the Civil War — when the anti-sectarian Lebanese National Movement (LNM) was in a position to defeat the mainly Christian right-wing Lebanese Front (LF) but was thwarted by Syria, whose interests happened to converge at the time with those of the US and Israel. Asserting that what started out as a conflict between the reformist LNM and reactionary LF only later degenerated into more of a sectarian contest, Mustafa criticised the tendency to reduce Lebanese history to one of tribe versus tribe, and alluded to the critical role played by the secular Lebanese Communist Party in the post-1982 resistance against Israel, before its functions were usurped by Hizbullah and the Shia Amal militia.

As for recent accusations that Syria is supplying Hizbullah with Scud missiles, it appears that Israel may be the first to accept Lebanon’s nonsectarian character, and has threatened to hold the Lebanese government accountable for Hizbullah’s actions. It is not clear how such a policy vis-a-vis Lebanon is any different from the policies of previous eras such as 2006, when Israel destroyed power plants, bridges, roads, and other Lebanese infrastructure not belonging to the Party of God — which thanks to the attack accumulated support across sectarian lines.

The US for its part appears intent on encouraging sectarian competition on certain levels, and a recent article in the Lebanese An Nahar reported that Jeffrey Feltman—former US ambassador to Lebanon and current Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs—had criticised the meeting in Damascus last month between Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and the presidents of Syria and Iran:

The US diplomat wondered whether the Christians who signed an agreement with Hizbullah are realising that President Suleiman was ignored during the Damascus talks at a time when ‘a militia leader was being treated as a head of state’.”

The US notion that not all electoral outcomes are compatible with democracy was meanwhile underlined during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Lebanon prior to the June 2009 parliamentary elections, when he hinted that US aid to Lebanon was contingent upon the orientation of the new government. Biden urged “those who think about standing with the spoilers of peace not to miss this opportunity to walk away”—a warning in which “spoilers of peace” did not refer to the nearby country that had killed over one thousand Lebanese civilians in 2006—and the vice presidential visit was touted by the White House as a demonstration of US support for “an independent and sovereign Lebanon”, with Lebanese independence and sovereignty as usual called into question by the fact that an outside power was in charge of defining the relevant terms.

Not voting in the June elections were Lebanese citizens under the age of 21, despite a much-debated proposal in the parliament to lower the voting age to 18. The controversy over the lowering of the age stems from the tendency of certain demographic groups to reproduce more rapidly than others—something the state of Israel has long been aware of—and the numerical superiority of Shia 18-year-olds over non-Shia. Similarly, some opponents of secular reform in Lebanon claim that an abolition of sectarian political quotas would be synonymous with a Muslim takeover of the country, an argument which epitomises the sectarian mentality that the secular movement ostensibly intends to combat.

First published in The Brunei Times, 3 May 2010


1 Comment

  1. ImadK says:

    I would be for those demonstrators. It’s good that it’s distinct from the french and turkish models, as I wouldn’t be for the kind of secularism they’re endorsing – lacite. I’m all for separation of curch and state, but i lacite – the french and turkish form of secularism – is more than that; it’s for the minimization of religion to the private sphere i.e. the home. That causes tensions that the whole world can see.

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