Moving Lebanon towards a secular state

Disclaimer:  This is a guest post written by one of my readers who wishes to remain anonymous.

Initially, I set out to write a post about WHY Lebanon should move towards a secular state. Yet, as I was writing, I struggled to get a hold of the opposing view.  That is, the view which is opposite to mine, not the view of the opposition in Lebanon.

Laique Pride Lebanon

"Stop sectarianism before it stops us." Anti-sectarian campaign created for Amam NGO

photo credit

Failing to get a sense of the opposing view myself, I decided to ask friends their opinion on the matter. At first, I asked those who I knew were of the same viewpoint as I, hoping that they had discussed the topic with at least one other person who is against a secular Lebanon.

The responses I received were sub-par at best. I asked my most conservative and religious friends, hoping that one of them would give me a debate worthy of mention.  The only response worth discussing is the following:

Y = me
X = my friend

Y: Secular or non-secular?
X: ?
Y: Where do you stand on the issue?  Are you for or against a secular Lebanon?
X: Not against
[…]
X: But I am not secular either
Y: Shou ya3neh you are not secular either? (What do you mean you are not secular either?)
[…]
X: I respect religion and respect the free will of people to chose
Y: Eh (Yes)..and how does that make you not for a secular state?  Killo hayda deikhil bil secular state (this is all included under a secular state)
X: ?
Y: In a secular state, everyone has the right to do whatever they want in terms of religion and faith.  Fa it doesn’t oppose religion (so it doesn’t oppose religion)
[…]
X: Kaffeh (Keep going)
Y: kaffeh? (Keep going?)
X: Where are you going with this?
Y: I’m still trying to understand why you said you are not secular??
[…]
X: Define secular.
Y: A secular state is where there is separation of government and religion.  Ya3neh religion is not involved in the process of government
X: I’m for a secular Lebanon.  Religion shouldn’t be involved in the process of government.
Y: ok

This friend is an intelligent person, when it comes to most things.  English though, is not his strong suit, at least in my opinion.  And what I got out of the conversation, is that the problem was not in ideology or theory, but in the definition of a word, which happens to be an English word.  And if any of you were French educated in Lebanon, you would understand that this is common.  English teachers in Lebanon are laughable.  The best one I had was a person who lived and was educated in Canada.

Many times I was forced to interrupt most if not all of my teachers in the middle of the class and give my friends the correct definition of a word.  Not because I was trying to look cool or disrupt the class (I did that too, on other occasions), but because I cared about my friends and understood the value of communication, and the important role that languages and words play.  Bref, 7aslo, anyway, point being there is confusion over the definition of ‘Secular State’ which is resulting in confusion over whether or not Lebanon should become a secular state.

This reminds me of anecdote from my childhood.  I have an uncle who is very religious and highly conservative.  And out of everyone I know (and I mention those I know because I cannot speak for those I do not), he would probably be rivaled, in terms of religiosity, only by a sheikh or a priest.  Throughout my childhood. I would watch my uncle drive his car with a sticker on the back that read ‘لا للطائفية’ or ‘No to Sectarianism’.  And at that time, the whole thing struck me as odd.   “How could someone so religious drive around with that sticker on the back of his car?”  I thought.  It was only when I got older that I understood that the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

Stop sectarianism in Lebanon

"Stop sectarianism before it stops us." Anti-sectarianism campaign created for Amam NGO

photo credit

Which brings me to the next person who I spoke to regarding his opinion on the matter.

This person is pro-Hariri to the bone and anti-Hizballah deeper than to the bone, if that is possible.  I waited for him to come online, hoping that he would finally give me the opposing viewpoint I needed.  I had written about a 1,000 words at this point and was waiting for the  ‘if we go secular, then Hizballah will take over and we will become like Iran” response.

Low and behold, I got the following: “I am for a secular state for religious reasons.” Say what? I will not go into details about his reasoning, but the gist of it was about freedom.  That’s right..freedom.  A secular state would give people religious freedom.

But that was going to be MY argument! DAMMIT!

To those out there who are still unconvinced, I am going to give you one argument why Lebanon would be served better under a secular system and then move on.  Put in a simple way, a secular state does not take away any rights or freedoms from religious people, but gives rights to those who would otherwise not have any rights under a sectarian system.  Using an analogy that I think all of us can appreciate, if we were all a bunch of people who love brownies, and a sectarian system was a plate of brownies, moving towards a secular state does not remove any brownies from the plate but in fact adds more to it so that more people can enjoy the moist chocolate piece of heaven.

Stop sectarianism in Lebanon

Stop sectarianism in Lebanon

photo credit

Convinced? If not, please open up a Wikipedia page, google the subject, or post a comment.

So why is Lebanon still under a sectarian constitution? The easy answer is because of the corrupt, greedy, and power hungry politicians who are served by this system and who won’t let go of it.  Yeah, ok, sure.  It’s all the Italians’ fault! (btw, I only found out this is a saying in Lebanon in college. 18 years in Lebanon and not once had I heard of it until moving to college in the US!)

Obviously there is a continual political power struggle in Lebanon.  But corruption aside… people on the streets are not chanting for and supporting the politician whose corruption style they believe in most, but for the one with the right foreign allegiance.   Something more along the lines of “Yes to America, No to Iran!” vs “Yes to Iran, no to America”, right?   Along with those who are desperately hanging on to their rights, i.e. “We, the Maronites, are a minority and we do not want to change the system or else we won’t have any representatives in the government”.

This division is independent of sect and religious affiliation, but the current system encourages the rift along those lines when, in fact, the real concerns regarding a sectarian vs a secular state revolve around representation in the gov’t.  I will go over these concerns, albeit in a brief manner and let the arguments take place in the comments.

Stop sectarianism in Lebanon

"Stop sectarianism before it stops us." Anti-sectarianism campaign created for Amam NGO

photo credit

Majority Rule

Under a secular constitution, parliamentary seats and positions of power will no longer be designated to a particular sect.  Instead, power will be given to those who get the popular votes, and proportionally represent those who have elected them.  Ergo, if the majority of the country wants to go left, the country goes left, and if the majority of the country wants to go right, the country goes right.  That is how democracy works.

Representation

If you are Maronite, Druze, Shi’a, Armenian, Black, Gay or whatever, and think you have a strong representation in the government, you are delusional.  The position of president is worthless (debate and arguments against this point are welcomed).  The position of speaker of the parliament is equally so.  As for the Sunnis, we have one side that claims monopoly over the representation of the Sunni population.  If that is true, and then taking into account the current situation of that party not holding the office of prime minister, then the Sunnis are fucked.  If that is not true, then the Sunnis have been getting fucked all along.  So what are people really holding on to?

Laique Pride

"Stop sectarianism before it stops us" - anti-sectarian campaign that was created for Amam NGO

photo credit

So it would seem to me, that the current system does not serve the purpose of guaranteed representation for each sectarian group, in order to maintain peace and harmony.  Under ideal circumstances, a representative in the government is supposed to be representing ALL the Lebanese independently of religion and background.  This may still be too ideal at the moment, but moving towards that direction requires effort and iterative change.

What is the Difference?

One good question that may come up is about the Lebanese mentality itself.  Wouldn’t people still vote along sectarian lines?  How would it be different?  Good question, but honestly I am not concerned.  I am not naive, and I do not think that we can rewire the Lebanese population to become a ‘secular’ mentality.  Hell!  You can’t even get the freakin’ Americans to think in a secular way and they claim to have separation of church and state!  So the people may continue voting according to their own sectarian association, but at least they will get who they vote for and it will be a representation of the people’s will.  “Be careful what you wish for”.  Which leads to another question or concern:

“Why would the minorities ever want to move towards a secular state, if they won’t be represented in the government? If there were democratic elections, there is no chance in hell a Maronite Christian would be elected to any position in the government.  And even though the President is a figure head, perhaps his symbolic role is all they are really interested in?”  I’ll start from the back, if all the Maronites are really interested in is a symbolic position inthe government, which has no real political power within the country, then there are other bigger concerns (namely the shortsightedness of the mentality in Lebanon) which will forever prevent Lebanon from becoming a secular state.

Laique Pride March

during the Laique Pride march last year..

photo credit

Back to the first point.  Parts of it I answered earlier, but another part is worth mentioning.  No one is going to ban Maronites from the election polls, no one is going to ban Maronites from running for office, and no one is going to force a redistribution of the population in order to dilute the Maronite constituency.  At least not I, nor any of the people in support of a secular state.  So the areas with a Christian majority will still be able to vote for their Christian leaders, areas with a Sunni majority will still be able to vote for their Sunni leaders and so on.

Or, they can choose not to.  That’s the beauty of it – you can vote for whomever you choose and not be forced to support a Maronite leader if you prefer the Sunni one and vice versa.  So the Maronites will still get their representatives, not as many as they do now, but it will be a more proportional and fair representation.  The whole point is to put an end to this “sectarian mentality” and move toward becoming a unified people under one nation (“one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all”, yes the Americans did get something right).

Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

Yes, under a secular system people will be forced to actually make decisions.  They will be forced to exercise their democratic duties.  The first thing I ever learned about democracy is that each and every citizen under such a system has both rights and duties, and if a person chooses not to fulfill their duties they will lose their rights.  “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for you country” type of shit.  But it won’t all be work and duties and responsibilities.  Moving towards a secular state comes with its perks as well.

Buy 1 get 1 FREE!

And what do you get with this amazing offer?  The one and only CIVIL MARRIAGE!

Civil Marriage

Say no to sectarianism

At the Laique Pride march

Think of all of the weddings that could happen in Lebanon.  More Lebanese would be able to have weddings in their own country, and people from other countries might just come to Lebanon like we go to Cyprus.  More tourism, more money, more partying!  Isn’t that the Lebanese dream?

photo credit

Civil marriage is the poster child of the secular movement. Obviously there are plenty of other benefits. I have alluded to some..

  • A movement towards identifying ourselves and each other as Lebanese first, and everything else a distant second.
  • The ability to elect someone who will actually represent US, as in ALL OF US and not just a small group of people who, on the surface, are ‘alike’.
  • Women’s rights!

I won’t go into detail about any of these issues. I will let you discover the possibilities on your own.  As they say, the joy is in the chase (chase for knowledge in this case).

This topic is huge, and I could tackle every single point and every single concern of every single person.  Not today. This means follow up posts are possible.  Today, I will leave you with this final note:

The time is NOW! Take back your country for it is your sweat, blood, and tears that soak the earth beneath your feet.

Stop sectarianism in Lebanon

Demand a change to the constitution!!

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15 Comments

Filed under life in Lebanon

15 responses to “Moving Lebanon towards a secular state

  1. Tell your guest writer that this was a PERFECT post!

  2. I will make sure he gets the message. Thanks!

  3. This is a beautiful post. Detailed… love it. However, a point to make is the following:
    There are things that were mentioned as benefits when in fact they are the entry point into a secular state. Namely:
    1- Identifying ourselves as Lebanese first and foremost.
    2- Voting for those who represent us, all of us.
    3- Women’s rights.
    We need to achieve the above first, in order for us to be able to move onto a secular system. When the people take responsibility for the government. Even now, it is the people who are voting… the politicians may be corrupted, but they are in power still because of the voters.

    It is the people who need to fix their corrupted minds… and it starts with us.

    Nice article… 🙂

  4. I believe I was the person you were looking for in the start of this post. Maybe not quite, but if you read to the end I hope I’ll present you with a point you might not have come accross.

    While this post goes a long way into trying to explain the benefits of moving to a secular state, it doesn’t do much in that respect. It’s nice to mention the plate of cookies, but what does that really translate into in real-world terms ?

    You mentionned civil marriage. That is not entirely a property of a secular state. In fact, there are many projects of law in the making that attempt to unify the “anoun el a7wel el chakhsiyyeh” (Personal status law, I guess), which would make room for civil marriage without doing away with the sectarian system.

    You are right on the account of the mentalities. Looking at the lines along which people make their voting decisions in Lebanon, I can’t say that I would trust them with their voting decisions once the system becomes secular, and while some people might be educated, the vast majority of the Lebanese are not. And note that by education I don’t mean university degrees, I’ve met AUB students with far more sectarian thinking that taxi drivers.

    Looking into the region, with all that has happened to the christians in the region, in iraq for instance, you can’t just throw away the fear of the Lebanese christians by just telling them “everything will be fine”. This might be bordering on paranoia, but history has shown these people that real atrocities can happen to them, and that they live in a region that can be quite unfriendly with their religious beliefs, and so their clinging to the sectarian system albeit short sighted, is a sort of guarantee to their survival.
    The same amount of fear exists in the minds of the shiites and sunnis. Why do you think the “tawteen” (naturalization of palestinians) is such an issue, and keeps getting brought up ? same goes for “sectarian balance”. There are major “survival” concerns at play here, and no matter how ridiculous you think they are, they are quite widespread and you need to address those before moving forward into a secular state.

    I am against throwing away the sectarian system. For now. And this is the most important nuance, please keep it in mind.

    Do we need unified laws ? Yes.
    Do we need to unite the Lebanese ? Definitely.

    So what do we do ? Let’s start with the individuals. Our biggest investment now has to be in people. Everyone calling for a secular state now should instead put their energy in making the changes that will bring about a successful secular model, possibly in the next generation.

    Let our thinkers push for changes in education. Let us teach this coming generation, because it is too late for ours, what citizenship truly means, what secularism means.
    Let’s change the personal law, so that people can marry freely no matter what religion they are part of. Civil marriage is a step forward on the path that will lead to a true secular state. Mixed families will bring about better Lebanese citizens, undivided along sectarian lines.

    Let us change people’s mentalities in an organic way, not by forcing a new one upon them, and then, and believe ONLY then will we have a chance at a true success story when it comes to moving into a secular state. Any premature attempt runs a high risk of failure, with possibly very unpleasant consequences.

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  6. Youssef Chaker

    This goes for both Marc and Life with Subtitles’ comments:
    there is a chicken and the egg problem here and the point of views differ. Some say force the people into thinking secularly, others say convince the people and then the system will move in that direction.

    The writers ends with this:

    “This topic is huge, and I could tackle every single point and every single concern of every single person. Not today. This means follow up posts are possible.”

    He/she does not propose how to implement the change, but starts off the discussion and hopefully the spark that will lead to positive change (not the burning down of the country like one of the images mentions).

    In the case of Lebanon, the obviously needs to be an education effort for the people because like was mentioned in the comments, they are the ones voting for the leaders and they are the ones that need to break the cycle.

    Good discussion, i like it 😀

  7. Les

    How sad that the writer chose to damage his/her credibility by resorting to the use of vulgarity in this presentation…

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  9. RMZ

    Secularization could solve some problems “on the surface” but it could do nothing to solve the country’s deeply rooted problems.
    This was written by an Englishman who visited Lebanon in 1870 :

    “Lebanon has about 400,000 inhabitants, gathered into more than six hundred towns, villages and hamlets. The various religions and sects live together, and practice their conflicting superstitions in close proximity, but the people do not coalesce into one homogeneous community, nor do they regard each other with fraternal feelings.The Sunnites excommunicate the Shiites; both hate the Druze, and all three detest the Nusairiyeh. The Maronites have no particular love for anybody and, in turn, are disliked by all. The Greeks cannot endure the Greek Catholics – all despise the Jews. And the same remarks apply to the minor divisions of this land. There is no common bond of union. Society has no continuous strata underlying it, which can be opened and worked for the general benefit of all, but an endless number of dislocated fragments, faults, and dikes, by which the masses are tilted up in hopeless confusion, and lie at every conceivable angle of antagonism to each other. No other country in the world, I presume, has such a multiplicity of antagonistic races; and here in lies the greatest obstacle to any general and permanent amelioration and improvement of their condition, character, and prospects. They can never form one united people, never combine for any important political purpose; and will therefore remain weak, incapable of self-government, and exposed to the invasions and oppressions of foreigners. Thus it has been, is now, and must long continue to be a people divided, meted out, and trodden down.”

    Now there might some enlightened individuals who do not think this way but this is still pretty much the case in Lebanon today; hate – or to put it more mildly “misunderstanding” – of people from other sects is still very much alive and kicking in Lebanon today like it was 140 years ago and unless people start seeing their religions for what they truly are: Man made superstitions, I don’t see any bright future for this tiny country.

    • Youssef Chaker

      Interesting idea. except that it is outdated. a lot has happened since 1870!
      Some of it has led the hate to grow but some has also diminished it.
      Secularization is not the only or complete solution. But it goes beyond just the surface. For starters it will separate the political conflicts from the sectarian based ‘hate’. Once you remove the ability for power hungry, corrupt politicians to use the sectarian divide to bolster their political ambitions, you remove one of the major reasons which still exists today that fuels the hate between the different people.

      And the movements that are happening now prove that the people, at least the younger generation, are capable of uniting towards one cause. A facebook group demanding such a change with over 10,000 members is a big deal in a country where the internet penetration is still low. The numbers during the protests will surely be much higher.

      Don’t forget either, that ‘moving lebanon to a sectarian state’ is not just about changing one or two laws, or the entire constitution for that matter. it’s about educating the people on how to achieve such a change successfully and be able to live under one constitution as one people and one nation.

      You could use the example of the US and slavery. The problem was also rooted much deeper than just the constitution. It was rooted in a mentality developed over hundreds and hundreds of years. And the civil rights movement tried to educate people. But could not and was not going to reach everyone. Thus an amendment in the constitution was necessary to protect the rights of the minorities from those who are too stubborn or ignorant. Some 40+ years later and the root of the problem is still present. The mentality of the people has not been 100% flipped. There are still some haters. There is definitely still some discrimination (over 75% of the prison population is from minorities, around 50% blacks and 25% hispanics). But the civil rights movements has definitely been successful and from which minorities have been given opportunities in all aspects of life.

      So, even though changing the constitution is not the be all and end all of the change we are looking for and aspire for. It is a major step of many to get closer to that goal. And it is an important FIRST step which will open doors for other changes in the future.

  10. Gass

    I agree with RMZ, I don’t believe neither is my country’s future. I’ve decided long time ago to get myself a respectable one. You’ll never believe how retarded Lebanese are when it comes to religion. I’m born in a non- religious family, but like everyone else, they’ve mentioned on my ID that I was a Greek Orthodox. When I was forced to do my military service they sent me to the south with primitive, sectarian, extremely racist soldiers to fight for their cause. Not mine. I was apparently a ‘collaborator’ since I was Christian. Yea, right there, is the best place where they call it the ‘cornerstone’ of the country. I sent emails to the president at that time, prime minister, defence …no one cares of a small officer. I was continuously ignored, not respected, abusively mistreated because I was a christian. No wasta like my other co-officers; my family wasn’t that prominent. We survived war after war, adversity after adversity without getting involved in any militias, no political connections, to end up a second class citizen. I preferred being dead during those wars !
    Secular my axx! This country should have never existed! We were part of a larger history, a bigger culture, and we started to distance ourselves, like a teenager, looking to be different from his parents. This teenager ends up living on his own, in a messy place, no money, no job, just his drums to rock n roll! See, you have to go out of Hamra and Gemayzeh to see the real Lebanon. Everyone has a problem with someone else, everyone shows his sectarian believes, everyone has a fanatical political view, everyone has an attitude towards everyone else, everyone is corrupt from small daily things to bigger and larger involvements, everyone is an ignorant, racist, intolerant, religious follower, everyone is working for his small tiny little person and will screw-up everything is he doesn’t get his share of the pie … The more religious you are, the more miserable hypocrite you become! That’s the mainstream of the people outside of Hamra and Gemayze. And it will never change soon!

  11. RMZ

    Youssef, you make a good point, however, i cannot pin any hopes on this generation, since they are still very heavily influenced by their parents’ views. The hate needs several more generations to dry up. But this needs a long period of stability and no sectarian conflicts and this is not a guarantee in this volatile region.

    Gass what you said was spot on: “We were part of a larger history, a bigger culture, and we started to distance ourselves, like a teenager, looking to be different from his parents.” Religion aside, I do not see any differences between the people of the Levant (at least), that are significant enough to separate them into different nations. I am sorry to say that I do not believe in Lebanon and i do not see why it should exist as a country in the first place. What sets aside the Lebanese from their neighbors??? the Syrians, the Jordanians, the Palestinians?? What sets us aside as a separate people? Do we have a separate language/dialect, culture or history?

    • Youssef Chaker

      “The hate needs several more generations to dry up.” … see the part about the civil movement in the US. i explain there that even though that part takes time, that doesn’t stop us from taking action now and setting up the people and the country to move in that direction.

      “What sets aside the Lebanese from their neighbors??? the Syrians, the Jordanians, the Palestinians?? What sets us aside as a separate people? Do we have a separate language/dialect, culture or history?” … why is that a question here? I don’t necessarily disagree, but this has nothing to do with secular vs sectarian. We do have a country called Lebanon, and we have to deal with that. The separation from the Syrian state happened way before you and I were present. Now we have to deal with what we have. And how can we ask for a unity between Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine if we can’t unite Lebanon first? Lets deal with the present first before we try to change the past!

  12. I love this post! Perfect on all levels!

  13. just me

    well all of you are right and wrong in so many ways.
    Holding and yearning to change why not do it in a more wide perspective how about “nowheristan” where people are equal on all levels and share equity as their own right not. Anyway we shouldn’t even discuss the matter. We are so mentally, socially, spiritually and politicaly retarded as we lebanese in 2011 still talking and discussing a secular state instead of living in one.
    Peace everyone

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