AFT Blog # 12: Lebanon

Free Thought in Lebanon

David Rand

On April 13th & 14th, 2012, a colloquium was held in Beirut, Lebanon, on the theme of “Religion, Secularism and the Rule of Law.” The event was organized by the Lebanese Association of Philosophy of Law (ALIPHID) and supported by the International Association of Free Thought (IAFT). (See links at end of article.) In this blog entry, David Rand, who gave a talk as spokesperson for the IAFT, summarizes some of his impressions of the colloquium, Lebanon and the prospects for secularism in that country.

If ever there were a country that needed secularism, it is Lebanon. The population of less than 5 million is divided among various religious communities and those divisions are strongly reflected in the country’s political organization, where power is shared based on a sectarian system. The president of the republic must be Maronite, the prime minister Sunni and the speaker of parliament Shi’ite. Seats in parliament and top positions in the civil service are divided up along sectarian lines, so that religious affiliation effectively trumps merit. All Lebanese citizens must belong to one of about twenty officially recognized sects, the most important being Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim, Shi’ite Muslim and Druze. There is no civil marriage, and a Lebanese mother married to a foreigner may not transmit citizenship to their children.

Call it multiculturalism on steroids, or multiculturalism from hell if you will, hell being very much an earthly phenomenon.

Apparently no census has been held for decades, because official recognition of demographic changes would lead to a re-division of power – the proportion of Christians having dropped – upsetting the existing delicate balance. The civil war which ravaged Lebanon from 1975 to 1990 did not end in any clear resolution, and some would say it never really ended. Indeed, the Lebanese state is weak, while various sectarian communities continue to train and maintain their own militias, one openly (Hezbollah, a Shi’ite party), others clandestinely. The current peace is tenuous and fragile; a spark could easily re-ignite armed conflict. Indeed, fighting broke out in 2007 between Salafist militants and the Lebanese Armed Forces.

Attempts to reform this cumbersome system were in the forefront of issues discussed at the ALIPHID colloquium, held at a hotel in a Beirut suburb. The starting date of the colloquium coincided with the 37th anniversary of the start of the civil war. The event was a well-attended success, but not without its problems. On the second day, over 15 speakers were squeezed into a few hours of sessions and several talks had to be cut short. Another full day could have been filled, but of course that would have increased the cost. Very professional simultaneous translation between Arabic and French was provided. Frequent and sometimes heated interventions from the floor, often far from a microphone, increased the difficulty of the translators’ task.

About half of the speakers were Lebanese, including academics and religious leaders. The rector Father Camille Moubarak of the Université La Sagesse, a maronite institution, was the first speaker on the second day. A Sunni leader also participated, displaying a rather equivocal attitude: sometimes he expressed support for secularizing Lebanese society; at others he would point out that Islam is incompatible with secularism because it is a complete system, including the State in its all-encompassing sphere. (Ironically, this echoes the very point made by Ibn Warraq in his book Why I Am Not a Muslim in which he asserts that Islam cannot be secularized. Let us hope that he is mistaken.)

A well known Lebanese journalist, Ziad Njiem, who makes frequent television appearances, denounced in the strongest terms Lebanon’s sectarianism system for having so poisoned the political landscape and severely compromised any hope of true democracy. During the round table session which ended the colloquium, one participant remarked that even the national symphony orchestra is divided along religious sectarian lines, just like everything else in Lebanon. “I am ashamed to be from such a country,” he exclaimed in despair.

There were speeches from several French participants, including Christian Eyschen and Roger Lepeix of the FNLP (French National Freethought Federation), a trade union militant and several university professors. Christian Eyschen addressed the meeting as spokesperson for the IAFT. Among other remarks, he emphasized the distinction between atheism and secularism, the former being a personal stance and the latter a political programme. I was the only speaker from the Americas and also spoke for the IAFT. I made the point that atheism and secularism have in common their independence from any notion of the will of “God” because, upon examination, theistic morality turns out to be arbitrary and thus a poor basis for either personal morality or for legislation.

During my talk, the audience reaction seemed to be one of alarmed silence. But afterwards, I discovered another point of view: I was approached by the two founding members of CLAFA, the Coalition of Lebanese Atheists, Freethinkers & Agnostics. They represent a younger generation of Lebanese, thirsty for frank and open discussion and well informed about free thought, atheism and related topics. My talk was certainly not too much for them.

So despite the extremely difficult political climate in Lebanon, there is nevertheless hope. Secularist ideas are increasingly discussed and popular, and there is a strong desire for progress among some sectors of the population. In addition to the work of ALIPHID, CLAFA and the recently founded Freethought Lebanon, that popular will for an end to Lebanon’s stifling sectarian system has been expressed in the annual Lebanese Laïque Pride marches. The first, a success well beyond the organizers’ hopes, was held in April of 2010. Laïque Pride III is coming up very soon: May 6, 2012. To quote one of their slogans, “I laïque it!”

With all its problems, Lebanon nevertheless enjoys a greater degree of freedom of expression than most neighbouring countries. Perhaps it can serve as a hub for the spread of progressive ideas in the Arab world. But we can expect the road towards a more secular Lebanon to be long and difficult. Canada is far from being a fully secular country; nevertheless we have it comparatively easy here. Our Lebanese colleagues deserve all the support we can muster.

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