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‘Secularism’ in a Multi-Confessional Lebanon
Religious Obstacles and Prospective Solutions
By Berge Traboulsi, Associate Professor - Haigazian University

Beirut, March 1st, 2010- On February 25, 2010, Dr Berge Traboulsi, Associate Professor of History, Religion and Intercultural Studies at Haigazian University, delivered a lecture entitled “Secularism in a Multi-Confessional Lebanon: Religious Obstacles and Prospective Solutions’’, at the Cultural Hour in the University Auditorium.

Dr. Traboulsi was introduced to the audience by Dr. Arda Ekmekji, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
In his introduction, Traboulsi presented the various slogans and clichés about Lebanon, sectarianism and secularism that are often used as de facto lexis by politicians, journalists, members of civil society movements and NGOs activists, and sometimes religious officials; he insisted that statements like ‘Lebanon is a unique formula of coexistence among religions and confessions’ or ‘the Taif Accord should be implemented in letter and spirit before introducing into it any amendments’ are outdated and need further examination, analysis or criticism.

In the first part of his Lecture, entitled “The Current ‘Sectarian’ Situation”
-Traboulsi referred to the ‘confessional’ foundation of ‘the State of Greater Lebanon’ in 1920 by ‘secular’ France. Lebanon has been facing several problems, such as, the ‘national’ identity, the fair representation in public administration of the various religious communities (Tawa’if), and the balanced distribution of power among the confessional groups. The Ta’ifa became the raison d’être of many Christian and Muslim politicians and the comfort zone of many ‘citizens’. Thus, each Ta’ifa kept on having its own ‘Personal Status Law’ and its religious court that deal with birth, death, marriage, divorce, child custody (and adoption for non-Muslim denominations)
-He considered that Religion in Lebanon and the Middle East is more than a personal choice; it is a very strong social institution and a powerful force for preserving a sense of collectivism and solidarity. As a matter of fact, sectarianism will always constitute one of the main factors that strongly affect both social and political realities of Lebanon.
-He raised the following critical questions: ‘How to preserve the National Pact of 1943, a verbal compromise agreement, in a politically and economically ‘weak’ country that always depends on foreign intervention to solve its problems? ‘How long can the political parity formula of the Ta’if Agreement be maintained, and why?’
-He noted that the failure of Political Maronitism between 1943 and 1989 has led to a major change in power distribution, in favor of Political Sunnism. The failure of Political Sunnism (1992-2005, and 2005-2008), however, has paved the ground for the rise of Shiite rival political power which could, since 2008 and the Doha Accord, impose its conditions on the Sunni Prime Minister and his majority Parliamentarian block. Actually, any future attempt to come up with a ‘fair’ power distribution formula based on sectarian principles will not be in favor of the parity between Christians and Muslims.
-He asked, ‘can political sectarianism ever be abolished in Lebanon?’ He answered, “it seems that the request to abolish political sectarianism and that to establish secularism are opposing recommendations which I strongly doubt their achievements in Lebanon.”
In the second part of his lecture, entitled “The Desired ‘Secular’ Situation”:
-Traboulsi raised the following questions: “Can religion be really separated from the state?” “Is the majority of the Lebanese secularism-oriented?” He considered that some religious teachings, many Islamic, refuse secularism and consider it as a Western and Christian formulation and, in fact, is alien to Muslim societies. Within this context, many have proposed to develop and establish a ‘modern state’ based on ‘modern citizenship’.
-He criticized those religious and political leaders who deal with minorities as neo-dhimmis, claiming that they are showing them tolerance; hence the use of the expressions big and small confessional communities (Tawaef Kubra wa Sughra).
-He emphasized that the key term for a good understanding of humanity is culture which includes all the traits of a society’s way of life. Thus, he considered that Lebanon has a ‘glocal citizenship’. ‘Glocal citizenship’ is a complex and multidimensional concept which has several meanings. Glocalism is based on ‘cosmopolitanism’, i.e., on being a citizen of the world [Gr. kosmopolites]’. Thus, is not Lebanon’s culture ‘multidimensional’, and Lebanon’s citizenship ‘cosmopolitan’?  This approach of ‘glocal citizenship’ is at the core of ‘world citizenship’ that is challenged to manage ‘culture diversity’. ‘Glocal citizenship’ is not based on bloodline, sex, race, or religion; it is based on a mixed culture and on laws that reflect fundamental equality among human beings. World citizenship is outstandingly codified in many instruments, e.g., the Charter of the United Nations; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948); the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols (1949), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) and some other universal and regional instruments. These global instruments have ‘secularized’ many religious virtues and principles, especially those which focus on human dignity, a dignity which is substantially related to human nature.
In the third part of his lecture, entitled “the Roadmap of Change”:
-Traboulsi stated that The inter-relationship between religion and politics is an old phenomenon that goes back to ancient civilizations; it will remain a universal phenomenon for the following reasons:
o First, religion remains a major component of many countries worldwide, especially in those societies that still maintain a strong tie of solidarity and collectivism. For him, it seems almost impossible to promote a common social order in Lebanon separate from religion.
o Second, some present ‘secular’ countries, such as the USA, France, and Turkey, are reconsidering their official position vis-à-vis religion –each for different reasons; secularism does not have the same shape in the aforementioned countries. Thus, if those role model ‘secular’ countries have not succeeded completely in maintaining secularism, how could this happen in Lebanon? Shall it be imposed by the military?
o Third, some countries such as Lebanon and Iraq have undergone bloody regime change under the auspicious of the USA in collaboration with many regional non-democratic regimes. Lebanon and Iraq have become more sectarian and confessional than ever. Can the Lebanese succeed in implementing their plans without the support of the regional and international stakeholders?
o Fifth, although both Christians and Muslims claim their respect to human rights, the majority of devoted Muslims and Christians do not have a common reading of the main principles of human rights. So, when politicians and NGOs activists refer to ‘human rights’, which ones are they talking about?
o Sixth, the game of power amongst politicians, clericals, and anti-clericals in many societies is not over. He asked, “Can one entrust the clergy with the task of not becoming paternalistic and not interfering in politics?”
-For him, it is not guaranteed that if political sectarianism were changed, the country would be better off, heading towards secularism, because not every change process leads to expected results. He asked, “how can advocates of secularism technically generate change and successfully move the current sectarian state to the vision of the future, i.e., to the desired secular state?” Change can occur on three levels: individual, social, and institutional. Thus, if the citizens, the communities, and the various social institutions, public and private, resist change, secularism will never be achieved. Since it is not possible to have a national unanimous consensus about abolishing sectarianism and adopting secularism, democratic standards and majority decision making techniques should be followed in this regard. Would the Lebanese agree on numeric democracy?
-He listed many contributing factors to the failure of change efforts, e.g., the lack of a real change culture regardless of the myths about the greatness and smartness and flexibility of the Lebanese people; the lack of the know-how, motivation, planning and managerial skills, financial and human capitals, competence and ability to translate thoughts into action, etc.; the lack of trust between followers and leaders; the fear of the Christian minority from the  the Muslim majority and the feeling that their rights will be sooner or later compromised although they are over-represented in the name of the National Pact formula.
-He commented on the several approaches to deal with resistance to change although none of them is without problems:
o One of the best methods to overcome resistance to change is education and communication, although it is not always true that if one knows what is right and sees what the logic behind change is, he/she will do it.
o It is advisable to make people participate and be involved in the change effort because support should come from all stakeholders, by motivating and offering them some incentives.
o The issuing of appropriate laws and legislations may force citizens to accept change. However, this creates its own problems since secular and sectarian parties do not agree on what things require change and what things do not.
Traboulsi concluded, “Secularism in the Middle East and the Arab world is resisted on the ground that religion-state interdependence is the cornerstone of many cultural identities and political regimes. The implementation of secularism in Lebanon would not reduce religious, social, and political tensions between the different communities and parties! Change process has always been a difficult task which cannot be done without proper preparations. He also stated that “Lebanon will not become a modern state without true dedication to change and reform; there will be no citizenship in Lebanon without dignity; there will be no citizenship in Lebanon without progressive development; there will be no citizenship in Lebanon with violation of human rights principles; there will be no citizenship in Lebanon with corrupt educational institutions, NGOs and corrupt civil rights movements; there will be no citizenship in Lebanon without diversity and solidarity; there will be no citizenship in Lebanon without ‘glocalism’; and there will be no citizenship in Lebanon without human beings at the centre.”

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