Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq

Are secular States an Impossible Mission? Lebanon Civic (Laic) Pride movement. Part 3

I have been following the comments and suggestions on “How to establish a secular central State in Lebanon”. You may read the previous post:

Over a century ago, while the current Near-East States were part of the Ottoman Empire, Butrus al-Bustani (1819-83), the Lebanese polymath author, secular and Arab nationalist, wrote: “Religion belongs to God, the country to everyone

The secular leader Antoun Saadeh wrote: “Our fighting for Heaven made us lose the Land”

Alex posted a condensed version of the article on the UK National Secular Society website (with minor editing).

Under the title “Asking the impossible? Lebanon’s march for secularism”, Alex wrote:

“While in most respects the previous 17 months have seen undreamed-of victories for civil liberties in the Middle East, there is one crucial measure that didn’t improve. In fact, the  problem of not separating religion from politics threaten to worsen considerably.
In the Arab Gulf States, petro-monarchs and absolute Emirs have set aside their traditional tribal and other distrusts in the spirit of Islam Sunni unity and purity against the Shiaa heretics of Bahrain and Iran.
Entire cities in Yemen have been taken over by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
In Syria, what started as a nonviolent uprising now looks to be heading toward a civil war with ugly sectarian undertones.
And in North Africa, Islamist parties have won by dizzying margins in every election from Cairo to Casablanca (Morocco).

So it was with no small satisfaction that I surveyed the crowd at the Lebanese Laïque (Civic) Pride Secular March Towards Citizenship in central Beirut on Sunday.

For the third year in a row, the country’s secular community took to the streets to call for an end to the sectarian order and the implementation of a number of draft laws against things like censorship and domestic violence.

To the bemusement and occasional encouragement of bystanders, some 1,500 students, professionals, activists and even the odd celebrity marched for three hours carrying banners like “Civil marriage not civil war” and variously chanting “What’s your sect? None of your business!”; “Revolution!”; and “The people want a secular state”.

Lebanon is a country where being born into the wrong religion means you can’t become President of the State, or Prime Minister, or Chairman of the Parliament… and so on down the cabinet level, every seat of which is constitutionally reserved for a member of one faith or another.

Civil service, military and security positions are rationed along communal lines. Not even university faculty appointments are  suffered to upset the sanctity of the sectarian calculus.

Similarly, citizenship is officially defined by faith, so that marital, inheritance and other such disputes are settled not by civil lawyers but the clergy of the religious sect (theologians). What does that mean in practice?

A Muslim man thinks that he is fully within his rights to beat his wife, thanks to Sura 4:34 of the Qur’an, which, after laying down that “Men are in charge of women”, instructs husbands to “strike” wayward spouses.

This jewel of 7th century Bedouin culture is the Law of the Land in 21st century Lebanon, though most verses are stated “Out of Context”.

In 2011, the Sunni Grand Mufti, Muhammad Qabbani, actually rejected a draft law against domestic violence on the grounds that “it harms the Muslim woman and denies her of the rights granted [to her]”.

But the humiliation doesn’t end there: that same husband may also rape his wife, since the learned sheikhs decline to recognize the concept of marital rape in the first place. “There’s nothing called rape between a husband and wife”, as the al-Jamaa al-Islamiyah [Islamic Group] MP Imad Hout eloquently put it last December. “It’s called forcing someone violently to have intercourse.”

What else?

Those born outside the 18 officially recognized sects – such as the 4,000-odd Jehovah’s Witnesses – are effectively disowned by the State, unable to get married and denied various other basic entitlements. While atheism isn’t illegal – Article 9 of the constitution guaranteeing “absolute freedom of conscience” on the God question – every Lebanese is nevertheless branded from birth, on official identity documents (except the passport), by his father’s sect, so that an atheist born of a Christian is forbidden from marrying an atheist born of a Muslim.

Nearby Cyprus, as a result, does a lucrative trade in civil marriage tourism. In that case, civil marriages performed in Cyprus are recognized, but the couple does not enjoy any civil status outside the religious framework…

To the outsider, this might all seem fairly straightforward to reform with some basic legislation. How  immense are the obstacles to secular reforms?

Many of the barriers are spawned and cultivated by the system itself. For one, the clergy has a financial interest in the status quo.

For example, every Christian who marries is obliged to pay a fee, or ‘donation’, to their local parish. This implicit tax or fees can run into the thousands of dollars, and is required irrespective of where the ceremony actually takes place. And it is, of course, distinct from the substantial extra raked in for the hiring of the premises and priest, or priests. Thus do the Lord’s terrestrial deputies succeed in turning even an occasion of love into yet another sordid extortion racket.

Politicians have created a viciously destructive cycle in the phenomenon of patronage. Without exception, every major party invests its funds in the development of its ‘own’ religious community, whether it’s Hizbollah for the Shia (bankrolled by Iran); the Future Movement for the Sunnis (bankrolled by Saudi Arabia); the PSP for the Druze (bankrolled by foreign western services); or any of the Christian parties (bankrolled by various domestic and foreign donors).

Nor is it limited to philanthropy – a tantalizing array of string-pulling services are offered the loyal coreligionists, from legal assistance to healthcare to circumventing commercial red tape to simply getting a better number plate for the Merc. This of course sees to it that the State is kept weak – for what politician would choose to work for legitimacy so long as it can be bought instead?

And what voter, without a viable state alternative, will opt for anyone who doesn’t put their interests first?

Kept permanently supine by these twin jackboots of religious and political authority, Lebanon’s secularists also face the task of winning over the country’s liberals, many of whom are unconvinced of the merits of scrapping the existing system altogether.

Michael Young, the Lebanese-American columnist and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle, even partially defends the present arrangement, writing in the book that: “What makes Lebanon relatively free in an unfree Middle East is that the country’s sectarian system, its faults notwithstanding, has ensured that the society’s parts are stronger than the State; and where the state is weak, individuals are usually freer to function.

I asked Young last week to elaborate on his position, which he did as follows [Disclosure: He is a regular contributor to my employer, NOW Lebanon]: “I would love to see, between now and tomorrow morning, a completely civil and secular order in Lebanon, but the reality is that we are not in London or New York. This is a society whose social and political development since around the 19th century has been based on confessional power sharing. So it’s unrealistic to say we will simply dump this sociological reality and go for a secular system. Change has to come gradually, from within, and you have to think in terms of wedges. Civil marriage, for example….

Michael Young resumes: ” From these we can eventually move on to secular parliament, as stipulated by Ta’if [the revamped constitution that ended the civil war in 1989], in the context of a national dialogue on de-confessionalisation. But I’m not a big optimist that any of this will happen soon. Unfortunately, sectarianism has really entered the consciousness of many Lebanese, and it’s almost a default part of thinking in the country.”

Whether or not one agrees on the details, Young is surely right that secularism must be accepted socially before it can be sustained politically. The startling electoral successes of Islamists in countries as developed as Turkey, and now Tunisia, attest to that. What’s so disheartening in the case of Lebanon is that it didn’t by any means have to turn out this way.

For at that very moment, Young mentioned in the 19th century, when the Ottomans were beginning to institutionalize sectarianism by partitioning Mount Lebanon into two distinct Maronite and Druze qa’imaqamat, or administrative districts, something very different was taking place simultaneously.

From Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, the lexicographer, novelist, founder of Arab socialism (al-ishtirakiyya) and pioneering modernizer of the Arabic language; to Ibrahim al-Yaziji, the poet, scholar of grammar, music, medicine, art and astronomy, and creator of the first Arabic typewriter font; to Butrus al-Bustani, the polymath known as al-mu’allim (the master)… the Lebanese were playing a central role in an extraordinary intellectual and cultural spring that was flourishing across the entire Levant.

It’s sometimes argued – usually by theocrats – that secularism is merely the latest guise of imperialism; yet another round in the White Man’s perennial quest to subdue the Orient. This is an argument that can only be made from the densest ignorance of Lebanese history, for, as the above men showed, there certainly need be nothing ‘Western’ about the values of the Enlightenment.

My favorite example of the unprecedented spirit of resistance to piety and irrationality in the air at the time is the 1882 ‘Lewis Affair’, in which students at the Syrian Protestant College (as the American University of Beirut was then known) boycotted classes and even dropped out in protest at the firing of a professor for expressing Darwinist leanings.

Orientalism, you say?

Tell it to the dozens of freethinking young Arabs who were prepared to sacrifice their college degrees to defend reason and science from the ossified superstitions of American Christian fundamentalists.

Indeed, in many ways that was the whole point. Bustani and his peers were men of tremendously diverse interests and backgrounds – both Christians and Muslims among them – but they were united by two passions above all: secularism and Arab nationalism. Crucially, they understood the subversive potential of the former, and its indispensability for the latter, so that, so far from being an appeasement of their colonial masters, they saw secularism as their greatest hope of shaking them off. Simply put, for them, secularism and independence were one and the same struggle.

Who can look at today’s Lebanon, beholden to the dictates of regional allegiances cultivated on purely sectarian grounds, and disagree?

To get an idea of how far we’ve declined since then, consider that the name given to the period by Arab historians is al-nahda, or ‘the awakening’. If that sounds familiar, it might be because it’s also the name of the new ruling party in Tunisia – a party that in just a few months has carried out what commentator Hussein Ibish has described as “severe attacks on religious dissidents”, including the jailing of bloggers and television producers for blasphemy.

To crush your country’s irreligious community is one thing, but to do it in the name of secular emancipation takes a very special kind of contempt.

Yet, nobody complains at this despicable insult to a noble chapter of Arab history. If the region’s secularists, therefore, are to indeed eradicate sectarianism from the consciousness of their people, there are surely worse ways to begin than by reclaiming the memory of their own intellectual – and yes, if you like, spiritual – forefathers, who appreciated so keenly so many years ago that secularism and liberation and dignity were not only mutually compatible, but in fact equivalent expressions of the same common goal.” End of quote

Revisiting most political systems, even in the so-called democratic developed States, religion still meddle heavily in the political process and decisions, particularly during election campaigns.




February 2023

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