Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Great Confusion: state and religion in Lebanon

Lebanon must be a perfect country to study for political science experts: an almost incomprehensible mix of religion and state. Add to this a solid dose of tribalism and you reach the conclusion that religion, which is often regionally defined, is very much political in Lebanon. How useful can that be?

Any foreigner in Lebanon who is truly interested in politics will be disappointed sooner or later. This country does not have a left and right wing, it hardly has a political party structure and politicians typically don’t feel the need to publish their programs. This allows for a unique flexibility for politicians seldom seen elsewhere in the world. Coalitions in Lebanon are as flux as water and no one really seems to hold politicians accountable for their ever-changing positions.

As an example of this behavior, one has only to look at Walid Jumblatt. When he appeared on BBC’s program Hard Talk, he stated that he wanted a referendum among the Lebanese to decide if Syria should leave Lebanon. This was early 2004 and went against the taboos at the time. Sure enough, he was questioned about this on arrival in Lebanon…where he denied everything he has said in London. “Why did you change your mind?”, a journalist wanted to know. Jumblatt’s answer is a classic: “It was not me who changed, it was the problem that changed!”

As this anecdote shows, Lebanese politicians are not well known for their steadfastness of their convictions. So how come state and religion are so intensely mixed in Lebanon? After all, why would religious leaders, who represent the eternal truth, want to deal with people as flexible as water?

Frankly, I have no clue and I doubt anyone truly has. Most, if not all, issues the state has to deal with, have no bearing on religious considerations. Collecting garbage, providing electricity, making sure people have drinking water, all these issues should be dealt with in a proper manner without a role for religion. Even the more political topics, such as reducing the public debt, allocation of medical and educational services across Lebanon, privatizing state activities and so on, can easily be dealt with without religion interference.

If you ask each and every clergy and any politician from any sect, they will all fully agree that drinking water, electricity, medical services etc should be distributed equally across all of Lebanon. Assuming that the religious leaders are not hypocrites and assuming they trust the elected politicians, they can stay out of the allocation process itself, which is political in nature and as such the result of compromise.

Suppose, however, that they do not trust the politicians, would that warrant their mingling with politics? If yes, that would mean that they are simply keeping check on things and when the political process gets out of hand (i.e., does not provide the desired results), they would step up and speak on behalf of their community. Would that be the role of institutionalized religion?

My answer to that question would be a solid “No”. Politics is the game of reaching compromises with your opponents, while religion is all about converting the other. Sure, Muslims and Christians can coexist, but would either of them be willing to reach a deal on religious topics? Imagine Christians willing to accept there is no Holy Spirit and in return Muslims will accept Jesus was the son of God. Imagine that indeed!

In other words, religion by its very nature is not about reaching compromises, while politics by its very nature is exactly about that. Introducing religion in politics will only serve to polarize the political process and thus making it next to impossible to carry it out.

There is no Christian foreign policy or a Shiite health care strategy or a Sunni approach to running power plants. The sooner the politicians and the religious leaders realize this, the sooner Lebanon will become a slightly saner country.


Gerard said...

As a Dutchmen everytime I think I have a grasp on Lebanese politics, there is some twist that confuses me again. On the other hand, in Holland not a lifetime ago politics, health care and cultural life were organised along religious boundaries. So I should understand that. There must be another reason for my misunderstanding Lebanese politics.

Jeha said...

I think it is quite simple; it is all tribal, not religious.

To many, religion is nothing more than a mechanism to assert tribal identity. Westerners have "outgrown" this, and the few vestiges that remain are seen on the flags of some countries. However, many others are still "stuck" in the medieval mode; the crusades reinforced that, and many think the current Palestinian issue reinforces it further.

We're too far gone down this road to even realize it.

Michel said...

Let me know if you find someone who understands Lebanese politics, he would be the first!

Is there a difference between tribal and religious in the Lebanese situation? Looks the same to me: people follow blindly their leader who follows blindly their religious leader, so eventually it all comes together.
And yes, we are too far down the road to even understand the basics of democracy. It's such a joke:-(

Anonymous said...

Lebanon is the land of true religious diversity, which in itself is a hard currency, hard work to maintain and find common grounds for meeting , I believe common grounds are plenty (language, history, inter marrying , etc.), and now for the first time in our history we have put the outsiders outside Lebanon where they belong , once the well wishers and do gooders leave Lebanon to itself it would be a healthier place , a land of diversity tolerence culture , those who counted on our little country suffering because of the way we are built are now puzzled how we can arise from the ashes that others have burnt on our land.God bless Lebanon with all its religions tribes culture education and democracy . Lebanon is the true melting pot of the world, it is our destiny .