April 26, 2010

A secular Lebanon? Doubtful

"Together against racism and sectarianism for the sake of a democratic secular nation"

For the first time I can remember - I've been following Lebanese issues since 1975 - a rally was held in Beirut demanding an end to the confessional system that defines the Lebanese politicals. The Republic of Lebanon was created by the French in the aftermath of World War I from the area of its League of Nations mandate - the areas that are now Syria and Lebanon - and the structure was based on religious affiliation. The French were accused of carving out a Christian homeland for the Maronite Christians. It's hard to argue with that....

Parliamentary elections since 1932 have been based on a census taken that year - that was the only census ever taken in Lebanon - giving the Christian community a slight edge over the Muslims. Seats were allocated to each confessional group, those being the six Christian sects and four Muslim sects. If a census was taken today - all attempts for a new census have been blocked by the Christians - it would show the Muslims are by far a majority of the population.

The ratio was adjusted via the Ta'if Accords in 1989 giving Christians and Muslims equal numbers of seats, but the seats still remain allocated by religious sect. In addition to Parliamentary allocations, the presidency is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister is a Sunni and the speaker of the parliament is a Shi'a.

It is this confessional system that the protesters are seeking to abolish. They believe, correctly in my estimation, that too often people in the country identify first with their religious sect and only second with being Lebanese. The religious sects and people's loyalty to them were a partial cause of the devastating Lebanese civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990.

While in my American mind I understand the wish to separate church and state, it is not as easy as merely declaring a secular government. In Lebanon, many legal and social issues are handled by the religious authorities. Marriages, births, deaths, inheritance, etc. are handled by the different sects, so a perosn's rights are dependent on his or her religious sect - hard for many Americans to comprehend.

That said, despite the wishes of the protesters who represent a younger portion of the population, I do not see any changes on the horizon.

Why not? There are multiple constituencies in Lebanon, but for better or worse, they are defined primarily by religious affiliation. Please do not assume that means the Lebanese are religious - trust me, they are not - but they do consider themselves to be something other than Lebanese as their first loyalty. This is particularly common among the Christian sects. Many of the Christians go so far as to speak French rather than Arabic, and some identify themselves as funiqi (Phoenicians) rather than Lebanese, since "Lebanese" that denotes an Arab.

The Lebanese political system is a complicated, intermingled power structure that those who reap its benefits are loathe to change. Since they are the elements that actually have the power, the chance of change is currently non-existent.

What we have today - a confessional power sharing arrangement - will be with us for years to come.