On Sunday, the Lebanese government was on trial on Beirut’s seaside Corniche. The presiding judge peddled the language of rights and weighed melons on the scales of justice. The jury was a group of citizens and non-citizens, many of the latter born and raised in Lebanon to Lebanese mothers yet unnaturalized because a Lebanese woman cannot pass on her citizenship to her husband and children. A Lebanese woman married to a non-Lebanese,  as well as a girl and a young man born to Lebanese women presented their cases in this public court, giving accounts of the legal hardships they face. The Lebanese government sat on the raised platform, unmoved and redundant, puffing on his cigar. We, the jury, got to vote in the end and the verdict was a unanimous and resounding “Guilty!”

You can read more about the protest in the Daily Star and here are some photographs.

As expected, there has been a lot of discussion on the topic of secularism following the Laique Pride March on April 25. I hope to find the time to post more on this shortly. For the time being, here is a translation of an op-ed piece I wrote, published in the May 7 print edition of the left-of-center Norwegian weekly, Ny Tid. A scan of the original Norwegian version can be found here:

On Sunday the 25th, more than 3000 people marched for secularism in Beirut. Civil society groups, feminists, student clubs, and LGBTQ- and cultural activist were brought together in protest of the current Lebanese political system. The atmosphere was festive and spirits were high. The question is can slogans ranging from “Queers for secularism” to “Civil marriage, not civil war” succeed in giving birth to a movement for political and social change?

[some paragraphs on the Lebanese political system and the main demands of the march]

The march on April 25th exceeded expectations. Organized solely at the initiative of civil society organizations and young cultural activists, it was a political rarity in Lebanon. The organizers did not have access to the usual media outlets, mostly reigned in by predetermined loyalties when it comes to political mobilization. The organization and recruitment took place primarily on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.
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It remains to be seen whether this colorful blend of activists can develop into a more concrete political program. And if it does, the question remains whether it will find wider support in a country all too often driven to violence in the name of sect and religion.
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Lebanon’s political system has grave shortcomings and can at best be described as a stunted parliamentary democracy. But in contrast to most countries in the Middle East, Lebanon does not have an official state-religion. At the same time, the majority of Lebanese are protective of their religious identities. For the ideas behind the march to find broader support, the greatest challenge is to shape a vision of secularism which embraces both Lebanon’s religious and non-religious identities.
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As participants in the protest march were shouting: “Neither Turkish, nor Western – Lebanese secularism”. Such a secularism would entail something so rich as to transform the country’s pluralism from weakness to strength. In many ways this problematic resembles the difficulties faced by several European countries trying to reconcile themselves with growing religious divides. The difference is that in Lebanon, it is the secularists who constitute a minority.
One of the popular criticisms leveled at the Laique Pride – and secularism in general –  is that whereas sect is an integral part of Lebanese identity, secularism is a foreign import. My problem with this reasoning is that it somehow assumes that sect is the most “authentic” form of political identity, whereas in fact it crystallized as a modern phenomenon in the course of the 19th century. Both Waddah Sharara (Fi usul Lubnan al-ta’ifi) and Usama Makdisi (The Culture of Sectarianism) have made convincing arguments on this point. The collapse of the quasi-feudal system in Mount Lebanon around the mid-19th century left a political gap. The language of religious equality that characterized Ottoman reforms and a European production of knowledge that understood our region in terms of sects, tribes, and clans intersected with local political aspirations to produce sect as a modern political identity.
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The “sect is an integral part of Lebanese identity” argument overlooks the other narratives that emerged in parallel. In the aftermath of the 1860 war, Butrus al-Bustani published Nafir Suriyya where – in an explicit reference to sect as political identity – he called upon people to forgo religious solidarity. At the same time, there were various ideals for society that could be labelled “secular.” The founders of al-Muqtataf scientific journal and graduates of the Syrian Protestant College (today, American University of Beirut), Ya`qub al-Sarruf and Faris al-Nimr are one example. They and the clique around them embraced Darwinism, much to the chagrin of the missionary men who ran the College, and the conflict ended with al-Muqtataf and its founders leaving for Egypt in 1884. While Sarruf and Nimr were more concerned with free scientific inquiry, Shibli Shumayyil tied these views more explicitly to politics, preaching the separation of religion from political life. All these individuals and others like them were as much a product of their environment as any of their adversaries, be they Christian and Muslim.
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To imply somehow that sect is a more “authentic” basis for a political system is a gross simplification of the vibrant currents of thought that constituted and continue to constitute the political and public identities of Lebanese citizens. The idea of a national community with a non-sectarian basis has run parallel to sect as political identity and has had considerable appeal at various junctures. In the 1943 elections, for example, pro-Communist candidates won 12% of the vote based on a class-based political program – unthinkable in today’s Lebanon. That none of these narratives ever became hegemonic or acquired a clear political articulation does not make them any less authentic. And until the writing of Lebanon’s history manages to integrate these narratives,  sect – a political fiction like any other – will continue to perpetuate itself as the only admissible political identity (for a history that does other political identities justice, see the recently published The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914 by Ilham Khuri-Makdisi).
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There are criticisms leveled at the Laique Pride that I agree with, primarily its lack of clarity and the confused and uninformed nature of its early demands. There is also the assumption that “secularism” is a self-explanatory concept. Although Norway, France, and the United States have all been called secular countries, they are based on different political systems and different relations between state and church rooted in their respective histories. I doubt any of them will work for Lebanon.
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Despite these reservations, if I were in Lebanon, I would have participated in tomorrow’s march pretty much for the same reasons Elias Muhanna gives in his excellent piece for the Guardian. The current political system in Lebanon is not working and the lack of an alternative to sect as political identity is one reason, though not the only one. Lebanon is in dire need of a vision, one that incorporates the other identities it engenders. Such a vision cannot simply drop from the sky, full-formed and ready for implementation. Nor will it be handed on a silver platter by a self-preserving political elite. It needs to be formed. And no matter what the criticism leveled at the Laique Pride initiative, one has to grant it at least this: it has managed to renew the debate on these issues.
Why is it that Islamic movements and sometimes the mere whiff of Islam often give rise to conspiracy theories about a political takeover? This is true of completely different categories of actors such as the AKP (Justice and Development) Party in Turkey, Hizballah in Lebanon, and Muslim groups in various countries of Europe. AKP is a political party functioning within a democratic system of governance in a majority Sunni country and with an economically liberal and EU-friendly agenda. While the Shiite Hizballah is also a political party, albeit in a barely functional democracy, its organization is much more opaque than AKP’s and it also commands a paramilitary organization. And, finally, Muslims in Europe are a panoply of barely politically organized individuals and groups who do not even speak the same language. Nevertheless, all three have been accused of secretly wanting to subvert and Islamisize an existing democracy despite public proclamations to the contrary.
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There are doubtless many reasons for this tendency. First, there is the fact that many people have interpreted Islam to offer a theory of state or a mode of governance. Then there is also the past of the aforementioned political parties. Although Hizballah’s open letter of 1984 acknowledges people’s liberty to choose the form of government they desire, it also expresses a belief that Islamic governance alone can guarantee justice and liberty for all. As for AKP, some members have a political history in (now banned) parties that openly advocated a religious political agenda and/or “Islamic values.”
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Still, it is intriguing that very different categories of Islam and very different relationships between Islam as a religion and Islam as politics elicit similar structural reactions. Not to mention that these accusations of take-over have also been directed at disparate Islamic minorities in Europe, many of them socioeconomically marginalized and politically underrepresented.
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An earlier post on this blog deals with some of the issues concerning Islam in Europe — the more interesting part of the post is the discussion, actually. The Dutch anthropologist and scholar of religion Peter van der Veer offers another perspective on the matter. He basically links the phenomenon to a modern form of governance, the state, that renders political activity falling outside its purview as suspect. Here is an excerpt (emphasis mine):

Not only are communication and “openness” crucial to civil society, public sphere, and religion, but also, paradoxically, so is publicity’s opposite: secrecy. [Reinhart] Koselleck has argued in a book that appeared three years earlier than that of [Jürgen] Habermas [The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere] that the emergence of secret societies of freemasonry were crucial in the development of Enlightenment critique of the absolutist state. In the mid 18th century masonic lodges saw an immense increase in membership and can be seen as the most important sites for the new sociability of the Enlightenment, besides the more public ones such as coffeehouses, clubs, salons, and literary societies. The important point here is that these lodges were able to erect a wall of protection for their debates and rituals against both intrusion from the state and intrusion from the “profane” world.

Religion is a privileged site for examining an aspect of secrecy that is simultaneously the opposite of the public sphere and foundational for it. Religious movements and religious sites are often suspected of secret conspiracies by the powers that be. And it is precisely the moving away from state institutions and official politics that gives possibilities for fundamental moral critique. It should also be clear that this critique can take an unpleasant and terrorist form, as it did in the Jacobin ideology fo the French revolution. This uncomfortable dialectic is what German theorists like Koselleck and Habermas were interested in after the Nazi period.

(Source: “Secrecy and Publicity in the South Asian Republic Arena,” in Public Islam and the Common Good, edited by Armando Salvatore and Dale F. Eickelman, 31-32. Leiden: Brill, 2004.)

It follows logically from this that the dialectic between the state and political religious movements is more potent the longer the distance between the two. Once they become one and the same, as for example with an Islamist regime, then Islam’s location as a site for the critique of the model of modern state government is weakened. Admittedly, this poses more questions than it answers. But if you have spent too much time dwelling on these issues, then the Van der Veer excerpt can at least offer some food for thought.

Rayess Bek raps the Lebanese Laique Pride song. The Lebanese Laique Pride parade is on 25 April @11am. More info can be found on twitter, facebook, and the LLP blog. Spread the word!

The aftermath of the Ethiopian Airline crash has demonstrated how the events of the past five years — the targeted assassinations and the wanton bombings — have turned us as a nation into quasi-experts in collecting debris, bucketing body parts, taking samples, testing for DNA, etc… This is not to belittle the efforts being put into this by various state and other institutions, but it is truly sad how throughout the haze of collective mourning, the sweeping up took place rather automatically this time. Even as citizens many of us have become adept at collecting information, checking their sources, verifying them through various social networks, and weeding out rumors from a veritable media mess.

An article by Hassan al-Zayn in today’s issue of al-Akhbar managed to eloquently capture an aspect of this sad state of affairs. This is a quick translation of some parts:

This is the [Lebanese] political crew’s understanding of the state: [...] a spectacle concealing behind it several realities; the reality about administrations, their capacities, and their black holes; the reality of disaster. Have citizens been able to observe how these administrations function and have functioned? It is almost self-evident to admit that the state is incapable of playing a role beyond collecting corpses and plane parts thrown up by the sea! What have these administrations done except wait and play the role of the mother of the bride  [i.e. soaking in the attention when it is not her day]. Circling aircrafts; spreading boats at sea; calming families; playing the role of a caretaker who is true to the slogan of honoring the dead by burying them; standing in front of cameras and playing the roles of technocrats; taking care to exonerate the airport control tower and stressing the unlikeliness of sabotage… And, lest we forget: singing the praises of DNA, this charm repeated by “officials” the way conjurers repeat their gratuitous phrases.

[...]

Despite the wizardry performed by the political crew and its success in kidnapping the disaster of the Ethiopian plane, it has not been able to cover up for the poverty of its understanding of the concept of state.

[...]

The political crew has performed a trick no less fragile and cruel than the racist and sectarian talk flying like sparks in a dry haystack. The national carrier is being discussed as if it were a Superman accused of sectarian preferentialism among the sons of a unified country. Having neglected some Lebanese and deprived them of peace of mind, they find themselves forced to fly with incompetent airlines hailing from inferior countries, according to the Lebanese racist pyramid.

[...]

The Black box that the Lebanese are looking for is “the Lebanese state” whose plane has not taken off, but is rather sinking. And the political crew are but ghosts in the forms of captain, survivors, and angels.

As most of this blog’s readers know, an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed into the Mediterranean just south of Beirut a few minutes after take-off early Monday morning. This tragedy has shed some light on a well-known, but less discussed Lebanese connection to Africa. Many of the Lebanese on this flight, most of them men, were on their way to various countries in Africa where they had jobs or businesses. Most of them are from the south. 16 hail from the town of Nabatiyeh alone. So this tragedy is compounded by the sad facts of emigration and the “estrangement” (الاغتراب/الغربة) from homeland and family imposed by harsh economic conditions and government neglect. Many Lebanese politicians and citizens have commented on this phenomenon since the flight crashed. But few have managed to throw the nets of empathy wide enough to include another group of passengers aboard flight 409 who have also had to endure emigration, estrangement, harsh economic conditions, and much more. Most of the 31 Ethiopians who were aboard this flight were female domestic workers heading back home after a long, long stay abroad. One can only hope that this shared tragedy will also bring forth a shared humanity.

“Why do you Lebanese never treat us good?” screamed one Ethiopian woman as security forces prevented her from entering the governmental hospital in Beirut today to identify a body. “We are human beings like you. God created us. Why don’t I have the right to come in and see my sister?” (from The Guardian)

The list of passengers who boarded flight 409 can be found here (in English). You can also get to know some of the passengers on this Facebook group.

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