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.
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.
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).
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.
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.