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Religion and Society

Lebanon, One of a Kind in the Arab World

Lebanon's situation is quite at odds with the rest of the Arab world. It is the only Arab country out of 22 that is not Muslim but rather "bi-religious". Its uniqueness lies in fact in its two communities, one that is Muslim and the other that is Christian, each one in turn subdivided in sub-communities.

 

Equality defines the relationship between the two groups. For example, in parliament there are 64 Christians and 64 Muslims. Or in the condivison of duties and power resposibilities. Likewise the president is a Christian from the Catholic-Maronite subgroup, the prime minister is a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament is Shia Muslim.

 

By and large the senior ranks of the public service are split more or less evenly between Christians and Muslims even though this is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain since Muslims are growing numerically (about 60-65 per cent of the population) and Christians declining (35-40 per cent).

 

All this is very important because it shows that, despite being a growing majority, Lebanese Muslims still believe that a balance between themselves and Christians is required regardless of percentages that might put the Christian minority at a disadvantage.

 

No one knows how long this situation will last, but the Lebanese experience has been positive so far and will continue to be so long as confessionalism does not prevail.

 

In the East the system is far from perfect, yet it is not possible to import or adopt systems that work in the West in places like France or the United States that are based on the formal equality of anonymous citizens.

 

Such a system would make no sense and has no basis in Lebanon because it is premised on a strong and almost exclusive identification with the state, whereas in Lebanon the primary point of reference is religion, with the state relegated to second place.

 

Instead fundamentalism appears wherever religion becomes the first and last point of reference. Thanks to this type of organisation in Lebanon the issue of religious freedom has been partly solved or "pre-empted."

 

One example from recent history can help us understand this point. Three or four years ago, the copy of an agreement was found by chance in the Interior Ministry. All it needed was the right signature to be implemented. It called for Lebanon to take part in a plan by the Islamic International Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ISESCO), an Islamic version of UNESCO, to promote Islamic programmes in schools. It was blocked right away. All Christian newspapers reacted to its publication by reiterating the principle of freedom that has always defined the field of religion in Lebanon.

 

This case shows that even when there is an actual attempt to modify the status quo, the principle of balance and equality prevails in representation and treatment of the country's various religious communities.

 

In a country like Lebanon church bells may toll and the faithful may be called to the mosque for prayer in a kind of freedom that is unknown in other countries where everything is under control and measured.

 

Another example is the academic world. In Lebanon people can study at Christian universities, something impossible in the other 21 Arab countries. The principle of equality is upheld so that if a Catholic or an Orthodox university opens so must a Muslim one (or vice-versa). Indeed when Antonian monks expressed a desire to build a university they got their permit but had to wait for Muslims to do the same. This way the country got two new universities.

 

This kind of Lebanon can teach Muslim countries that a Christian presence is a "plus" for the Arab-Islamic world.

 

Although this might seem simplistic, the presence of Christians, who are to some extent more open and closer to the West given the latter's Christian roots, can help the country be open so as to understand both East and West.

 

Lebanon's experience can show the Middle East that religious freedom and in broader terms religiosity do not necessarily mean fanaticism. It can show that they do not hold a society back, but can instead be an ongoing stimulus and a resource to share rather than a danger to the separation of church and state. Wherever there are different opinions and points of view the possibility of criticising one another is better grounded and this can help people grow and progress.

 

In Lebanon one can see this with respect to issues that touch upon life's fundamental values, bioethics or more simply moral issues.

 

A certain way of living one's traditions can limit this freedom though. Mixed marriages are one example. Whilst they are not impossible under the law, entrenched traditions make them difficult to manage, especially when it comes to the education of children, their baptism, relations with relatives who are close by, etc. Indeed among Catholics as well as Sunnis and Shiites, ancient traditions and customs somehow cripple religious freedom.

 

Still given all this, Lebanon remains a reality to discover, a source of inspiration for others, especially in the Middle East, one that must be protected from all those who would corrupt it.

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