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Posts Tagged ‘The social structure of Lebanon

Democracy or servitude in Lebanon’s caste system? (October 17, 2007)

I recently read a 125-pages study by Safia Antoun Saadeh that was researched through a Fulbright grant; she visited Harvard University as a scholar for the academic year 1992-93.  I realized that this study was the most condensed comprehensive study of Lebanon social and political structure; it was most instructive and it clearly defined our social and political system that explains our problems and recurring civil wars and may forecast our difficulties in the coming months.

In a nut shell, our society has been gradually and consistently developing a structure based on a caste system (a closed religious sect) through the Ottoman legacy and has been strengthened since our independence in 1943.  The definition of a Caste is that it is a closed system restricted in five elements; first, communities are ranked from high to low and second, it is formed of endogamous groups where marriages is restricted within the caste and intermarriage among caste is socially sanctioned, and third, membership is determined by birth and is inherited and ascribed, and fourth, the group at the top may be the largest numerically, and fifth, mobility is restricted and an individual can move up within the caste and the caste, as a whole, attempts to move up; thus, the frequent rivalry among castes competing to take precedence in the hierarchical ranking.

All these elements actually coincide mostly with the Lebanese social and political structure and, however we understand the concepts of tribalism, feudalism, sectarianism, clan or classes, we end up realizing that they are incomplete models for our structure and are not satisfactory to explaining and forecasting our predicaments.

The contents of “The social structure of Lebanon” by Safia Sadeh starts with the definitions of tribal, sectarian, feudal, and communities, then on the Ottoman legacy in matters of occupation stratification and religious affiliation, then the period of transition in the 19th century, then the social stratification in Greater Lebanon, then society and social structure, then the fate of the State up to the Taef accord, and finally the conclusion.

As the sociology scholar Tonnies stated: “When many use the same language, they must be agreed about the use of names.  This is necessary in science, for science consists in exactly true statements. Every science must therefore start with definitions”  I will define the terms of tribe, sectarian, clan, feudal, community, or class as an appendix; and although they are fundamental in elucidating our social structure, this article will overrun the requirements for publishing and I need to go to the point directly. I did though go into the details in my review for this study

The majority of the Lebanese are unable to trace their lineage as tribes and the exogamy rule has not been applied and clans have been integrated within the caste system. The term sect, taken literally, no longer applies to the current Lebanese situation since we don’t have a theocratic state.  Translating sectarianism by “al ta2ifiyah” is misleading.  There used to be sects in our ancient history when the Nestorians opposed the Byzantine institutional church or when the Shiis, Ismailis, and Druze opposed the Sunni institutional theocratic state.

The Arab East did not develop a feudal system in any of its historical periods; the lords could not acquire big stretches of land that were passed to the first-born following the law of primogeniture by which the whole real estate of intestate passes solely to the eldest son.  First, the Koranic law stipulates the division of inheritance and second, during the Ottoman hegemony lands (Iqta3) were retrieved from the favorite officers at death.

Syria and Lebanon witnessed the beginnings of private ownership on a large scale after the middle of the 19th century, due to the Ottoman reforms.  The only group which was allowed to inherit land under Islamic rule was the religious order and later named (waqf) when citizens gave their lands to the order to avoid taxes or trouble.

When the Ottoman theocratic Empire undertook a few reforms that permitted the ownership of private properties and allowed that stratification might move along class lines then a class of feudal lords emerged and new secular schools were established and a Constitution was proclaimed in the Ottoman Empire that enabled landlords and notables to be deputies.

Usually, the Maronite Christian Order supported the peasant rebellions against the feudal lords to maintain its caste supremacy in Lebanon.  For a time, the lords of different religions would unite to oppose peasant revolts but eventually the caste system vanquished that trend and the lords rallied to their respective castes. Feudal lords would become the upper class within each caste.  Each caste had now its own religious courts, its own members in the representative Council and within the government offices.

In present Lebanon, I believe that a few families acquired huge pieces of land and sold whole villages to head the list of candidates to the Parliament within a caste system; for example, the Solh, Salam, Jumblat, Skaf, Eddeh and so forth.  A few of these landlords sold whole villages to the Zionist Organization.

It is unavoidable to defining a class because of the socialist and Marxist theories. A Class is an open system where individuals are ranked instead of communities and intermarriage is not restricted, and membership is based mostly on economic status and the hierarchy takes the shape of a pyramid, with only an elite or small group at the top but mobility is feasible to moving up through finance and professionalism.  Thus, a class is not just the opposite of caste as a closed system; for example, middle classes in countries are formed of individuals from all castes and have received education and intermingled, and intermarried and feel reasonably acquainted with their status and prospects.  Whenever a middle class is weakened then theocracy and undemocratic political systems take over the ruling of society.  The lower class of the poor and disinherited has never been a leader in any political change.

How did Lebanon end up with a caste system?  Stratification in the Ottoman Empire from the middle of the 16th century and up till the beginning of the 20th was set along occupation in its minutest details and then assigned ranks to the different religious community.  The hierarchical ranking of occupations started with men of the sword (Emirs), men of the pen (Ulama or Mollas), merchants and food producers, then artisans, then peasants, and others. The Ottoman theocracy prohibited mobility and ascribed occupations; for example, the son of a peasant was forced to become a peasant and artisans could not move from one guild to another even within the same occupation. The cities were divided into quarters (hara) representing specific guild corporations (ta2fah) and each quarter was self-contained having its mosque, bath, market and gate to be closed at sunset.

These independent “tawaef” had no communication with each other and were directly linked to the central government through an appointed spokesman or “shaykh”; the hara had the right to arm itself and consequently, this historical custom to find arms in each house.  Each guild was imposed a limited number of shops and competition was not existent and even changes in design or fashion or shape were prohibited.  Each guild was linked to a Sufi order spreading fatalism or nasib or kismet.

The Ulama restricted religious appointments solely to their children and thus became the wealthiest and most powerful caste because they were allowed to own lands and they didn’t pay taxes. The Ulama interpreted and set up the laws for the Empire.  The Moslem or (jama3a) relegated the Christians and Jews to a lower status (zhemmah) and were to pay the poll-tax (jizyah) and the land-tax (kharaj) and other restrictions.  The other non-Moslem sects were severely and relentlessly persecuted such as the Shiites, Ishmaelite, and Druses.

The weakening of the central authority and the aggressive tensions within the guilds between Moslem and Christians and the increased Indian influence (in religion and caste system structure) led to the merging of the two stratifications of occupation and religious orders (millet) and thus the present caste system in Lebanon along religious orders.  The Moslems from India were very influential and overwhelming because the Ottoman Empire cut off trade relations with Europe for a long period and because the Ottoman rulers were originated from Central Asia and the various Sufi movements were Indians by source and indoctrination.

The Christian millet demanded that each Christian sect acquires a separate and independent status and the Porte in Istanbul granted that request which led to the recognition of 17 millets; currently we recognize 18 millets in our political structure to include the alawit caste.  Thus, the identity of the individual is based on his religious community in Lebanon; furthermore, citizens vote in districts (kada2) of their base community and not where they actual reside or work and expatriates have not acquired the right to vote overseas.

Consequently, when the European colonialists were given mandate in the Near East the antagonism was not directed at their economic and financial hegemony but primarily directed on the religious dimension; thus, the Christians of the East paid the heaviest toll as the result of such a perception.

The National Pact of 1943, after the independence of Lebanon, divided the spoil among the two main castes, the Christian Maronite and the Moslem Sunni, which were dominant in the cities and controlled the economy of the country; thus, practically ignoring the rights of the other 15 or so castes until civil wars erupted every 20 years to remind the central government that the State is built on caste structure.  The fact is, just after our independence, and in order to keep the demography of the castes in balance the Christians granted citizenship to Armenians and Christian Palestinians but denied it to the Moslem Kurds and Palestinians. Even a plea by Hoss PM to President Sarkis for a single seat in the Parliament representing a secular candidate was rejected.

Essentially, our civil wars were the result of castes, as a whole, trying to move upward to become at a par with the dominant castes in numbers; for example, the Sunny caste in 1958 demanding equal power along the Maronites and seeking the help of the Egyptian Abdul-Nasser; then in 1975 the Sunny caste siding with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the hope of dominating the Maronite.  In the second half of the civil war, between 1984 and 1989, the Shiites attempted to move upward as a caste.

The internal mobility within caste led to serious changes; for example the political parties of Hezbolla and Amal unseated the traditional Shiite feudal families such as the As3ad, the Hamadeh, the Khalil, and the Osseiran; the Lebanese Forces unseated the like traditional families of Eddeh, Chamoun, and tried to eliminate the Frangieh in the north; it appears that the Gemayel family is on the way out after President Amine lost recently the election against a practically unknown candidate; the Armenian caste that traditionally allied with the Phalange party parted company.  The Hariri party of Al Mustakbal unseated most of the Sunny traditional leaders in Beirut, and with debatable successes in Tripoli, and Sidon.

The current dilemma is that the Sunny caste is trying to hold to its supremacy against the strongly rising Shii3a caste which is more organized, with self-independent institutions and a military wing that checked the Israeli invasion in June 2006 for 31 days. The Shi3a caste is homogeneous and managed to unseat feudalism and regroup in just two parties that coordinate their activities and projects.  The Sunny caste would like very much to initiate a third civil war but was turned down by the Maronite caste because it would be the major loser at the end.  Michel Aoun averted the inevitable civil war, sought after by the Sunny caste and headed by the Hariri clan, by ratifying an agreement with Hezbollah; thus, the Maronite caste being divided then no civil war is feasible.  The second card that the Sunny caste is ready to play is to settle the Sunny Palestinian refugees and eventually to surreptitiously granting them the Lebanese citizenship.  Consequently, the Sunny caste is hoping to recapture the numerical imbalance with the Shi3a caste if they succeed in this plan with the support of the USA and the European nations.

The most striking development taking place is that the Maronite caste is in the process of getting freer from a caste structure because the Patriarch and his council of Bishops are no longer implicitly the main political power within the caste; this whole hoopla of referring to Bkerki as the source of their union is just within the explicit caste structure game, but the Maronite Order is losing its hold on the caste at this junction. Ironically, the Christian Greek Orthodox caste is taking advantage of this situation and doing its best to move upward. The Greek orthodox caste has been basically urbanites and city dwellers for centuries but never formed a militia, nor did they have powerful feudal lords; their professional elites mostly joined secular political parties.  However, they established a University and the Majlis al-Millah decided to discuss and take concerted action on the current political issues and ordered their three ministers in the government not to abdicate.

I think that the Armenian caste is on the move up after defeating the government’s candidate, President Amine Gemayel, in the Metn election. I believe that the Armenian caste wanted revenge because the Hariri clan sidelines it during the last two elections in Beirut.  The assassinated Rafic Hariri PM game was to divide and weaken the adjoining castes in Beirut in order to have absolute hegemony of the Sunny caste in the Capital which he considered himself the sole leader; and thus he didn’t include the Armenian caste candidates on his electoral lists and preferred to select individual Armenians with no support from their caste.

This system of caste translates integrally into State bureaucracy.  In 1955, competitive examinations for civil service positions was replaced by a pass or fail qualification so that the best applicants would not know that the position was taken by a lesser qualified candidate just to fill the castes quotas.  The most damaging consequences is that the hired civil servant considers that he owns his position to the head of the caste and is not subjected to his superiors in the bureaucratic hierarchy. Thus, every firing of incompetent civil servant is viewed as directed at the caste as a whole! Once a position is filed then the functionary has to fulfill all the requirements and demands of his caste before catering to the other tasks.  In 1992, after the Taef constitution, a bizarre Maronite Minister of Education hired 300 Maronite employees from his home town and in one sweep; the caste system resolved the problem by allowing each ministry to appoint a similar number of his own caste!

It is known that the Defense Minister Michel Al Murr was not bashful when he refused to enlist Shiites who reached the age of 18 in the compulsory training simply because they would tilt the balance of 50/50 between Christians and Moslems!

The most damaging institution that has prevented any modernization and led to the strengthening of the caste system is the judiciary of the personal status laws.  Each millet or in our case caste follows its own laws concerning birth, death, marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance.  Each religious caste has developed its own courts whose verdict the state is obliged to execute.  The castes have become independent legal entities. The Lebanese state cannot implement reforms in these laws to place them in tune with a modernized society, nor do the religious institutions change the law as the later is considered sacred.  Two failed attempts were made, one in 1936 and the other in 1951, to force the different religious organizations to submit their status laws so that the government can examine them.  In 1952, the Lawyers’ syndicate announced an open strike for civil marriage to be initiated and a civil secular code to replace the various personal status laws.  The strike had to be ended after three months.

The various religious agencies holding both economic and legal power became formidable political institutions that oversee the interest of its members.  Remnants of the Ottoman system the Sunni “mufti” gets his salary from the Lebanese government and all judicial decisions by the Sunnis are published in the “Official Newsletter” issued by the government.

Moreover, this caste system reach an agreement whereby no Christian can inherit from a Moslem, and vice-versa, and thus a non-converted mother cannot bequeath her inheritance to her own children!  Our caste system allows our women to marry foreigners of the same religion but forbid marrying a Lebanese of a different religion.  Historically, a Moslem woman was prohibited from marrying into another religious group but the Christian caste could permit it until the unbalance in the demography restricted it and made it very difficult.  Both internal and external social controls are used in deterring the individual from breaking a specific prescribed behavior. One major factor in the establishment of a caste is the rule of non-exchange of women.

Consequently, the religious orders in Lebanon have acquired the status of caste because the jurisprudence in matter of personal status laws has been relinquished to them by the central government.  Conversion is made extremely difficult among orders by mutual agreement, except for political reasons and within the Christians castes to fill the quota in government offices.  Intermarriages among castes are not common and civil marriages had to be done in Cyprus or elsewhere for the government to accept the marriage according to an existing civil status law enacted during the mandate period.  Generally, males have a much easier allowance to inter marry outside the religious caste.

We, the Lebanese, are denied equality under the law of the land because it does not exists; we are like turtles carrying our baggage over our back and have to be subjected to the traditions of our respective religious castes, a system that is far reaching and follows us wherever we reside.  We are denied freedom to change religion, to change electoral district, to change our names, to work anywhere we chose to and to associate with whatever groups that matches our modern values. We are denied a democratic process based on peaceful transitions from allegiance to caste to allegiance to a rational State that abhors theocracy in any form or shape and release the citizen from his bondage to work toward a modern way of life over all the Lebanese territory.

The way I forecast the next political steps stems from my understanding that first, the Sunny caste is the most conservative among the caste and will be the last one to forego its privileges and this system; second, the Shi3a caste is the most homogeneous, most numerical, and self sufficient but wary of the combined efforts of the western nations and Israel to destabilize its supremacy and needs reassurances from the Christian castes not subject it to further harassment and displacement; and third there might be a tendency for the Christian castes to unite within a process of modernizing the system as the only viable alternative for survival in the future; and fourth the realization that, except for the Sunny caste, it would be beneficial for all the concerned parties to unseating Walid Jumblat as the sole feudal lord within the Druze caste.

The Christian Maronite sect in Lebanon has reverted to a closed religion and adopted the caste system since the independence of Lebanon in 1943.  The Maronite sect has agreed on a tacit pact with the non-Christian castes not to allow non-Christian members from the other castes in Lebanon to become Maronites; I can testify that even Lebanese living overseas were not permitted to change religion: the Maronite Order made it clear that the process of changing religion is not feasible.  This Christian sect has sold its soul to preserve its supremacy as a caste in local politics and ended up losing its supremacy in 1989 at the Taef Conference in Saudi Arabia.

Although the office of President of the Republic, conferred to the Maronites, is no longer that powerful after the Taef Constitution; the current maneuvering is intended to come to an agreement as to the next stages of transforming this caste system and giving the Lebanese citizens a new doze of anesthesia until the plans and logistics for a new round of civil war are completed.  Unfortunately, the secular forces are not coordinating their activities commensurate to the dangerous climate that is being fomented.  The dynamic middle class in Lebanon has fled, for no return, and the existing one is too dispersed, weak and almost totally swallowed by the caste system.

The changes might seem insurmountable, but nothing is impossible with the will for survival.  A grass root movement of all the religious groups and led by the current middle class and syndicates, supported by the dual citizens of Lebanese origin, has to educate the disinherited citizens and to rally the secular forces and parties and to promote a program for a change in our archaic system into modernism. This movement needs to destroy the barriers against interrelationship to implement the following program:

First, removing the power from the religious hierarchical orders by the following successive steps: starting by forcing the different religious organizations to submit their status laws so that the government can examine them; then initiating a program to institute civil marriage law and a civil secular code to replace the various personal status laws; and then taxing heavily the religious “waqf” as lucrative financial and economic entities.

Second, a voting system that institutes for two parliaments: the Popular Parliament where a single deputy is selected by the majority of votes for each restricted district (no lists of candidates, please) and the National Parliament by the proportional method and the candidates are selected by the political parties and where women are to acquire a quota of half the numbers in the National Parliament after the second election.  The total of the two parliaments should not exceed 122 deputies.

Third, a decentralization of the government where the re-drawn Mouhafazats, with access to the sea, might enjoy much wider responsibilities with the appropriate budget to cater for the social and economic well being of their citizens.  Encouraging competition among the Mouhafazats is a must and their corresponding budgets to be commensurate to their profitable investments and efficiency in saving money.

I decided to include the definitions of clan, tribe, sect, feudalism, and community so that the reader might judge on the correct description of Lebanon’s social and political structure.

A Clan or settled Tribe must first be based explicitly on a unilinear rule of descent, it then must have a residential unity, and third, it must exhibit actual social integration.  The clan is independent and has a homogeneous system; it is a self-sufficient unit and is not ranked into higher and lower.  The majority of the Lebanese are unable to trace their lineage and the exogamy rule has not been applied and clans have been integrated within the caste system. Thus the tribal theory is inadequate in explaining the complex political, social, and economic picture of Lebanon.

Sects, by definition, welcome a voluntary membership by conversion, as individuals are free to adhere to a specific religious sect once they believe in its tenets. A sect has come to denote a religious conflict society which arises in opposition to an institutional church. The term sect, taken literally, no longer applies to the current Lebanese situation since we don’t have a theocratic state.  Translating sectarianism by “al ta2ifiyah” is misleading.  There used to be sects in our ancient history when the Nestorians opposed the Byzantine institutional church or when the Shiis, Ismailis, and Druze opposed the Sunni institutional state.

Feudalism means that lords have acquired big stretches of land that were passed to the first-born following the law of primogeniture by which the whole real estate of intestate passes solely to the eldest son.  The lords were opposed to the peasants who owned no land.  The Arab East did not develop such a system in any of its historical periods. First, the Koranic law stipulates the division of inheritance and second, during the Ottoman hegemony lands (Iqta3) were retrieved from the favorite officers at death.  Syria and Lebanon witnessed the beginnings of private ownership on a large scale after the middle of the 19th century, due to the Ottoman reforms.  The only group which was allowed to inherit land under Islamic rule was the religious order and later named (waqf) when citizens gave their lands to the order to avoid taxes or trouble. Thus, historically at least, the feudal theory cannot hold in Lebanon structure. Though, in present Lebanon, I believe that a few families acquired huge pieces of land and sold whole villages to head the list of candidates to the Parliament within a caste system; for example, the Solh, Salam, Jumblat, Skaf, Eddeh and so forth.

Community revolve around three elements that are intimately interconnected: the element of descent which focuses on blood and kinship ties and where “family” life is the general basis or life; then the element of soil exemplified by the village community, and finally the element of occupation centered into guilds, corporations and offices.  Strangers may be accepted and protected as serving members but not easily as agents and representatives of the community. Usually, village communities have not been ranked historically on a scale of higher to lower.  Lebanon did not enter fully the era of communities and furthermore in our villages, communities are ranked leading to a quasi-caste situation.

A Class is an open system where individuals are ranked instead of communities and intermarriage is not restricted, and membership is based mostly on economic status and the hierarchy takes the shape of a pyramid, with only an elite or small group at the top but mobility is feasible to moving up through finance and professionalism.


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