Lebanon: “Laique Pride”

Dear Folks,

I hate May first!!! I really really do. It is awful, because this year it falls on a Saturday, so everything and I mean everything is closed here. I wanted to go out, and buy some cakes, but it just seemed pointless. I decided to enjoy BBC World, and watch those crazy Greeks. Awww, I wish that Belgians would do that over their silly postal service.

Anyway, I found a little article today about the interminable issue of Lebanese sectarianism. It was a piece in the Huffington post, and it caught my attention, because in the previous days, they had posted a CNN clip showing that Lebanon is fast becoming one of the world’s premier party capital.

Religious factionalism in Lebanon’s government continues to undermine its potential to develop as she should. If Lebanon could generate a more secular outlook, then her ability to function as a unified nation will be more assured. No matter if one is Christian, Sunni or Shia, as long as one believes in their nation, then anything is possible.  

To try to break free from the religious moulds that the Lebanese were born into, will take years, but if schools can promote a national rather than religious identity, then the day-to-day interactions of citizens will start to simmer down and civil society can flourish in a  whole new way. Given the country’s unique history, it is essential that the education system starts to embrace the ties that bind all Lebanese citizens together.

Here is Adla Massoud’s piece from the Huffington Post: 

In a country where religion dictates patriotism, a few thousand Lebanese citizens marched on Sunday in support of secularism.

The “Laique Pride” march called for the full implementation of article (c) of the Lebanese Constitution’s preamble: “Respect for the freedom of opinion and belief,” “social justice,” and “equality of rights and duties between all citizens without discrimination or preference.”

They also protested against Lebanon’s civil-status laws, which are dealt with in confessional courts, meaning decisions on marriage, divorce and inheritance can only be made in line with religious guidelines.

Lebanon has long been mired in conflict and setback due to sectarian antagonism in the country. And successive governments have been in effect run by tribal chiefs dressed in suits. During its civil war, people were pulled from their cars and executed on the basis of the religion listed on their ID papers. Despite promises of deeply needed reforms in its political structure and governing arrangement, the country remains mired in political inertia.

How can we create ‘national unity’ in a multi-religious society wherein religion is inscribed as the citizen’s most important public attribute — stamped prominently on his or her identification and voter registration card?

Although The Taif Accord of 1989 — amended at the end of the civil war — stipulates that Lebanon must move toward abolishing political sectarianism, furtive attempts by the country’s President Michel Suleiman and Parliament speaker Nabih Berri to do so earlier this year were completely ignored.

In 1997, former President Elias Hrawi tried to break the sectarian system by encouraging its citizens to marry outside their sect and by taking from the mosque and the church the huge incomes they made from marriages and divorce settlements.

But late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri opposed it, as did the religious establishment. A year later, Hrawi dropped the initiative, and a civil marriage law has been off the country’s political agenda since.

Religious institutions are powerful in Lebanon. At birth, each citizen in the country is legally categorized into one of Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized religious sects: from the Greek Catholics to the Sunnis, Jews, Shiites, Maronites, Druze or the Greek Orthodox.

This tiny Levantine country — the size of the state of Connecticut — has about 4 million inhabitants, gathered into more than six hundred towns and villages. The various religions and sects live together and practice in close proximity. And they all swear by their religion first then by their country.

Since independence in 1943, Lebanon’s president has always been a Maronite Christian, its prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and its speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim.

This was the result of a series of consultations between Bechara al-Khoury, a Maronite, and Riad al-Solh, a Sunni, who became the first president and prime minister of Lebanon respectively.

At the time of independence, both Christians and Muslims were insecure about their positions in the new country. After a degree of protection and autonomy under the Ottomans and the French, many Christians were afraid that Lebanon would be swallowed up by its Muslim neighbors.

Many Muslims, on the other hand, resented the separation from Syria, and were concerned that Christian ties to France in particular would lead to the continuation of Western hegemony in the country.

Unfortunately the system has not evolved since 1943’s unwritten National Pact and many wonder how can democracy truly flourish when representation on the national level is still determined by religious quota?

It is easier said than done. Some think there is no public trust that under a secular electoral system people would vote for the best qualified politicians and ignore leaders of their own sect.

There is no agreement on the role of Lebanese Diaspora in nation building. Determining who should vote in future national elections could turn into a sectarian “fight.”

Finally, secularizing implies loss of privilege to the religious establishment. The clergy wield immense political power; they profit from regulating daily life in education, politics, marriage, death and inheritance.

Nonetheless, these secular supporters are a tiny minority in a region that has increasingly become defined by religion. And should secularism ever see the day of light, it would result in a new political balance and reality that many Arab leaders fear.

 

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