Adonis Diaries

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“The social structure of Lebanon: democracy or servitude?” by Safia Saadeh

Written in October 15, 2007

This 125-pages study was published by Dar Al Nahar in 1993, and researched through a Fulbright grant under the auspices of the Council for International Exchange Scholars.  The author, Safia Saadeh, stayed at Harvard University as a visiting scholar for the academic year 1992-93.

The content starts with the definitions of tribal, sectarian, feudal, and communities, the Ottoman Empire legacy in matters of occupation stratification and religious affiliation, the period of transition in the 19th century, the social stratification in Greater Lebanon, then society and social structure, then the fate of the State up to the Taif Accord, and finally the conclusion.

This is the most instructive and clearly defined study on our social and political structure that explains our problems and recurring civil wars and may forecast our short-term future.  In a nut shell, our society has been structured on a caste system through our history and has been strengthened since our independence in 1943.

Tonnies said: “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

A Caste is a closed system where

1.  communities are ranked,

2. the caste is formed of endogamous groups where marriages is restricted within the caste and intermarriage among caste is socially sanctioned,

3. membership is determined by birth and is inherited and ascribed,

4.  the group at the top may be the largest numerically, and

5.   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.

Clan or settled Tribe must first be based explicitly on a unilinear rule of descent, second, it 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 taifiyah” is misleading.  There used to be sects in our ancient history when the Nestorians opposed the Byzantine institutional church or when the Shias, Ismailis, and Druze opposed the Sunni institutional state.

Feudalism means that lords have acquired big stretches of land that were passed on 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 “Arabs” in the Eastern Empire (Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine) 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, later named (waqf), when citizens gave their lands to the religious 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.

A Community revolves around 3 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 work 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.

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.

Personal note: The religious orders in Lebanon have acquired the status of caste because the jurisprudence in matter of personal status laws has been relinquished to the clerics by the central government.  Conversion is made extremely difficult among orders by mutual agreement except for political reasons and within the Christians.

Intermarriages are not common and had to be done in Cyprus or elsewhere for the government to accept the marriage within the civil status law enacted during the mandate period.  Male have a much easier allowance to inter marry outside the religious caste.

Stratification in the Ottoman Empire, from the middle of the 16th century and up till the beginning of the 20th, was set along work 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 (7erfah) 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 the 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 stratification of occupation and religious orders (millet) and thus the present caste system in Lebanon along religious orders.

The Moslem Indian influence was 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 acquire a separate and independent status and the Porte granted that request which led to the recognition of 17 millets and we have presently 18 millets in our political structure.  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 acquired the right to vote overseas.

When the European colonialists were given mandate in the Near East the antagonism was primarily directed on the religious dimension and the Christians of the East paid the heaviest toll as the consequence of such a perception.

I am going to skip the chapter on the transition period in the 19th century because it might require a review on its own for its importance, but mainly because it will not add much on the foundations already drawn previously to understand our predicament.  What needs to be emphasized is that the Ottoman theocratic Empire underwent a few reforms that permitted the ownership of private properties and that stratification might move along class lines; consequently a class of feudal lords was emerging and new secular schools were established and a Constitution was proclaimed that enabled landlords and notables to be deputies.

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 revolt but eventually the caste system vanquished that trend to our present time.

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.

The unwritten 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 18 or so castes until civil wars erupted every 20 years to remind the central government that the State is built on caste structure.

Essentially, 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 Selim el Hoss PM to President Elias Sarkis for a single seat in the Parliament representing a secular candidate was rejected.

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 modern society, nor do the religious institutions change the law as the latter 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.

Our civil wars were the result of castes, as a whole, trying to move upward at a par with the dominant caste in numbers; for example, the Sunny caste in 1958 demanding equal power along the Maronites and seeking the help of the Egyptian Gamal Abdul-Nasser, then in 1975 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.  The Hariri party of Al Mustakbal unseated most of the Sunny traditional leaders in Beirut, and with debatable successes in Tripoli, and Sidon.

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 consequence 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 “reformed” Taif 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!

I generated two articles from this manuscript: “Democracy or servitude in Lebanon?” and “Shall we loosen up the cap of the Ginny’s bottle?”




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