Thursday, April 5, 2007

Christians are fleeing…oh really?

Oh my, another panic article about Lebanon is making the rounds in Lebanese blogs. This time, it’s the Australian based Sunday Telegraph newspaper that has published a story about rising radical Islam leading to an exodus of Christians out of Lebanon.

There is no denying many people consider leaving Lebanon, but I never heard the argument of radical Islam for this. Even a Christian woman quoted in the article doesn’t use it as a reason for her desire to emigrate. Instead, she is referring to economical and political reasons and indeed, this is the most heard complaint about Lebanon: the political bickering is killing the economy and thus jobs.

But an increase of radical Islam in Lebanon? I truly doubt that’s the case. Most people blame the current instability on Syria, which is far from radical Islam. The last thing Assad wants is a bunch of radicals walking around, either in Syria or in neighboring Lebanon.

Also, Hezbollah can hardly be described as increasingly radical regarding Islamic values. Sure, they have issues with the Lebanese government which they consider to be illegal. However, their opinion is not based on a radicalization of their Islamic beliefs. Instead, it has to do with their perceived under representation. In other words, it’s a struggle for political power.

Besides the clearly misleading header of the article, let’s look at the numbers quoted by the Sunday Telegraph: since the war, more than 60,000 Maronites have left the country. It makes you wonder how the journalist came up with this number. Religion is no longer registered in one’s passport, so how can you know how many Maronites emigrated from Lebanon?

Furthermore, perhaps many of those 60,000 were simply Lebanese visitors who went home to their houses in America, Canada, Europe, Australia and so on. Given the fact that some 12 to 15 million Lebanese live outside Lebanon and only 4 million inside Lebanon, emigration statistics are notoriously difficult to assess correctly.

The second statistic mentioned is that half of the Maronites consider leaving. Sure, if you ask anyone here if he wants to leave, chances are most of the interviewed would affirm this. Yet there is a difference between dreams and actions. The Lebanese excel at thinking big, but putting their wishes into practice is often a step not taken.

Another statistic is that over 100,000 have applied for a visa to leave the country. First, you would like to see if this number is higher than usual. Lebanese love to travel and visit their family. With so many Lebanese living abroad, it’s quite common to hear people visiting their family at least once a year, if not more often. Who is to say that the 100,000 applications are exceptionally high? Without comparison to historical data, this number alone doesn’t mean anything.

And, obviously, the journalist conveniently overlooks the simple fact that a tourist visa is not the same as emigration.

The journalist nailed down one thing correctly, though: the Christians are worried about their decreasing influence. The percentage of Christians is estimated at 22%. Again, this is a number that is quite impossible to assess since the last census was held in 1932. Others estimate it significantly higher at 35%. But, let’s suppose it’s more or less true. Then yeah, sure, Christians should be worried that their privileged position will be scrutinized by other groups. Their 22% gives the Christians the exclusive right to the president, the Army Chief of Staff, half the parliament seats and various other high public functions, such as the president of the Central Bank.

The current struggle of Hezbollah for more influence can easily be understood if you look at the numbers. The Shiites, for all their numbers, hardly have significant political power, so something’s gotta give. And the Maronites have the most giving to do, were the political system to truly represent demographics in Lebanon.