31 July 2012
It is said that politics and religion should not be discussed in polite company, but if that rule of social etiquette were ever followed in Lebanon, dinner conversations would make for very dull events. Religion and politics in Lebanon happens to be favorite topics of conversation be it at lunch, dinner, or any other time.
This is not surprising in a country that is built along religious and political lines. Although Lebanon prides itself as the only country in the Arab world with a similitude of democracy it has in fact a rather Byzantine-like system of government. Every job in the public sector from the prime minister, to the speaker of the house and on down to the lowest office clerk at the lowest level of government are elected or appointed according to their religious belonging first and then based on their political affiliation.
Why do the different Lebanese ethnic groups, much like other minorities in sensitive parts of the world cling, so adamantly to their religious, ethnic, tribal, or family affiliations? Basically out of fear of the “other;” the other communities, the other groups, sects, clans etc. This fear relegates the individual back to his or her most primitive and/or primal instincts of survival, to the belief that one needs to be part of a larger entity in order to survive. This is true in some countries more so than in others.
Ergo the Alawites in Syria, fighting today for their very survival. Representing barely 16 percent of the population in a country of some 22 million, the Alawites, once they came to power in 1970 felt they needed to retain their grip on that power no matter the cost to the country’s economy and human lives. This, they feel is paramount for the well-being of the community lest it falls back into a position of vulnerability and opens itself up to retaliatory actions by the majority over which they ruled for almost 40 years.
Where does this fear come from and how did it originate? The common denominator in such instance typically begins with ignorance. Ignorance of that other that one so adamantly fears. Ignorance of the other’s culture and beliefs, which in turn brings out that fear. Ignorance of the other’s needs, wants, and fears. Should two sides in a conflict bother to take the time to exchange basic views they will often be surprised to learn that the main cause of concern of their adversaries is that they have same needs, wants, and fears.
At the time of independence from France the Christians of Lebanon formed the majority in the country—a six-to-five ratio—according to a 1932 census, but nevertheless they remained a minority in the Middle East. As such, they feared for their livelihood and insisted—and received—the presidency. Indeed, since 1943, the president of Lebanon has always been a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker a Shiite Muslim.
With time the equation changed and the Christians were no longer in the majority and by 1975, Rachid Karame, a former prime minister, decided to challenge that status quo and run for president. This, in part, played a role in igniting the civil war as it brought renewed fear among the Christians. A Muslim running for president went counter to what is known as the National Pact of 1943, an unwritten gentleman’s agreement reached at the time of independence between the country’s first president and first prime minister.
At the core of the issue was the fear the Christians had of being overwhelmed by the Muslims in Lebanon and in the surrounding countries, and especially fearful of being incorporated into neighboring Syria. The Muslims for their part were equally fearful of the Christians calling on Western assistance, mainly France, who as the Mandated power helped establish the confessional system, believing it would contribute towards safeguarding the Lebanese Christians.
But the fact that they had the presidency did not alleviate the fear the Christians had of being a minority in the region. As the fear persisted the Lebanese Christians began to arm themselves and establish paramilitary militias and training camps in the hills above the Lebanese capital.
Today we see the fear present with the Shiite community—a minority in the Sunni-dominated Muslim world who have the same fears the Christians have of being engulfed in a greater Sunni Muslim world. This is reflected by the fact that the Lebanese Shiite movement, Hezbollah is in fact arming and training much as their Christians counterparts did a few decades earlier.
At a recent dinner in Beirut an acquaintance who is actively trying to change the country’s archaic political system explained his experiences in trying to reach out to Hezbollah. “I started talking to them soon after the 2006 war with Israel,” said the acquaintance. “At the time Hezbollah was scared and wanted to talk,” he added. However when they came out ahead in the elections and secured the backing of one major Christian faction, the fear began to dissipate and they felt strong enough that they did not need to continue dialogue on the sidelines.
Fear, which stems from ignorance and once combined produces hate, have always been prime motivators of conflict. Ignorance leads to fear and fear leads to hate.
Claude Salhani is a political analyst based in the Middle East and Washington, DC. He is a senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs and author of Islam Without a Veil.
This article was originally published in the July/August edition of the Diplomatic Courier.