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Religion and Society

The state is a pact between communities

Of all the political systems of the Muslim-Arab world, the one in force in the Lebanon has specific characteristics that do not fail to mark it out in a regional universe that is characterised by authoritarianism and by homogeneousness. Indeed, the Lebanese political system is a democratic system that is sustained by the constitutional principle of the separation of powers and respect for human rights. At the same time it is a pluralistic system that strives to express and represent cultural diversity and the diversity of communities. This second point is especially worthy of attention because to give form and voice to the expression of the diversity that characterises civil society is not something that is usual in this region of the world.



Naturally enough, these characteristics are not without their destabilising consequences for a political system that has, after a certain fashion, all the defects that such features can generate. Indeed, it is known that a system of this nature is not immune to forms of dissent that are linked to confessional loyalties which, for that matter, constitute the wealth of its social tissue. 'Lebanisation' is the term that is used when reference is made to a political system which collapses under the impact of struggles that lacerate the communities of which it is composed. And such, indeed, was the case in the Lebanon from 1975 to 1990 when the country, subjected to all the contradictions of its near to hand middle eastern context, witnessed its own communities rise up against each other.


A pluralism of communities and co-existence are political and existential realities. They pre-suppose balanced structures of power but above all else a culture made up of the tolerance, recognition and acceptance of others, a culture, however, which is not always immune to the effects of extreme ideologies or sectarian passions. Because it has experienced such a situation of tensions, the Lebanon can in both senses constitute a model a model of the best pluralism possible but at the same time a model that is susceptible, when vigilance is lacking, to degenerating into the worst pluralism there is.



In order to understand the Lebanon, it is without doubt necessary to focus in on the characteristic feature that has accompanied it throughout its history. A country of mountains, because of Mount Lebanon, it performed for a long time the role of being a 'country of refuge'. The Christian community of Maronites, which was founded by St. Maron, chose it as their home in the fifth and sixth centuries, and the country was not affected by the attacks launched by Byzantine power or those produced by the conquests of Islam. The Druses, a dissident sect that broke away from Shiite Islam, found refuge around the mountain during the eleventh century a location where other Shiite populations were already to be found. The Lebanon continued to perform this function of being a place of refuge for minorities for those other Christian communities such as the Greek Orthodox and later the Greek Catholics and the Armenians who would choose to live in the cities and the plain of the Bekaa valley. The coastal strip, the mountain area and the plain would give rise to a varied settlement which was marked, from the Ottoman conquest of the sixteenth century onwards, by the dominance of the Sunnites, the 'orthodox' community to which the Sultan-Caliph, who was established in Istanbul after the fall of Constantinople on 29 May 1453, also belonged.



In this empire, which would only collapse at the end of the First World War, the law of membership to a community was enforced. Each 'nation' (millet) had its own status and its own religious leader who acted as its representative with the public authorities. The principle on which this system was based was the recognition of the moral personality of the communities, who had their religious organisations and also their social institutions: schools, tribunals with their own special status and later clinics, hospitals and charitable associations. This system was not based upon an equality that sprang from citizenship, a concept that did not exist at the time, but on discrimination on the basis of religion: the status of non-Muslim monotheists was that of being a protected people (dhimmi). Jews and Christians had the possibility of engaging in the trade or profession of their choice, with the exception of a military career although not necessarily a career in the high civil service. Freedom of worship was respected even though within certain clearly defined limits. These limits excluded all forms of public display or proselytising. In exchange for this protection a poll tax was levied (jizya).


At the time of the birth of the modern state, which was proclaimed on 20 September 1920, the Lebanon inherited this system. The system of political organisation that was maintained made the representation of communities its guiding principle.



This rule was implied in the Constitution of the country, governed the traditional working of the Constitution, and impregnated the structures of the nation state. This rule embodies the combination of the equality of citizens and a necessary taking into account of the community to which they belong. Here we encounter the basis of the working of the state.


At the centre of the Lebanese system is the idea of a balance in the representation of communities. The political system has the role of sustaining and regulating pluralism. The principle is thus that of the representation of eighteen religious communities at all the levels of the state. The civil service, the national assembly, the government all these elements have to reflect the mosaic that is the Lebanon. The public posts and positions are distributed in a proportional way in relation to the communities. Thus the national assembly of one hundred and twenty eight deputies has to be composed, according to the Ta'if agreement that introduced the principle of parity, in equal measure of Christians (sixty-four seats) and Muslims (sixty-four seats). The same principle applies to the formation of the government which, however, in line with an entrenched custom, must always be headed by a Muslim who belongs to the Sunnite community.



Instead, the President of the national assembly must be a Shiite and the President of the Republic must be a Maronite Christian. The system of communities was partly modified by the Ta'if agreement which, however, at the same time sanctioned this system. This is a moderate system because this community approach is always perceived as an attempt to ensure the equality of citizens and to achieve national integration. Thus the Constitution of the Lebanon proclaims the provisional character of the system of communities and the Ta'if agreement of 1989 envisaged its progressive elimination. At the level of the lower civil service grades this agreement also abolished every element of proportional allocation.


It remains the case, however, that custom, which is stronger than the Constitution, upholds the distribution of high posts within the state on a confessional basis. In this way the confessional system provides a guarantee to the various confessions that no decision will be taken without their representatives being called to give their assent or without being given an opportunity to use their veto.



The Values and Limits of Community Approach



To achieve a correct assessment of the political system of communities in the Lebanon, an indispensable contextualisation is required. Here the context of reference is the Middle East. This is a region that has been a place of bloody clashes between communities. The Christians of the Lebanon remember the events of 1840 and above all the episodes of 1860 which saw them in conflict with the Druses and led to the loss of many Christian lives. They also remember the severe moments of the war of 1975. Equally, Muslims and Druses remember the acts of oppression committed by the Christian militias during the war of 1975. For their part, the Christians have not forgotten that they were driven away by the Chouf of the Druses in 1982 after the perpetration of terrible massacres. And three other peoples have experienced a tragic history: the Jews, who in Israel continue to remember the Holocaust; the Palestinians, who lament their lost homeland; and the Armenians, who cannot forget that they were the victims of the first genocide of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From certain points of view, the system of communities is perpetuated because of the fear felt by peoples whose contemporary lives are obsessed by the memory of a past made up of dramatic events and horrors. In this context, the fate of the Christians of the Middle East is an essential part of what is at stake. For the Christians of the Lebanon, in particular, the country can only continue on the basis of being an association of minorities. The other communities of the country agree with them on this, albeit with discussions about the forms of political balance that should be established.



If the context is that of regional instability and fear for the future, the Lebanese model has, however, strong constants that make it a valid paradigm for the peoples of the region. Whatever the defects of the system, and there are many, the co-existence of Muslims and Christians remains the emblematic dimension of the Lebanese model. Beyond the political form, there is a basic cultural element which is essential and which consists in the possibility of developing practical ways of living together during these times of the 'clash of civilisations' and fundamentalist intransigence. These ways are the visible and tangible aspect of the idea of co-existence. They are the most important proof there is of the working of this model in the face of the scepticism and warnings of those people who see in the encounter of religions only cruel clashes, a lack of comprehension, and forms of barbarity. Pope John Paul II used to say that the Lebanon is a 'message'. It is this sense of being a message that is often hidden so as to give greater space to conventional analyses. The fruit of an ideal, this message leads to the creation of favourable conditions so that Christians and Muslims can live together and develop common actions within the framework of a homeland that is made up of many communities.



The dangers that threaten this pluralist model nonetheless remain and they are of major dimensions. No person can abandon themselves to a blessed Irenism if they take into account the risks that religion will be exploited in conflicts of interest or political struggles. Religion in situations of crisis always runs the risk of being endowed with implications that are connected with disputes within society. At a more general level, the religious factor is invoked to demarcate territories, generate group solidarities and ensure forms of militant mobilisation. Above all else, faith and belief are used as distinctive marks of sectarian identity and are thus confused with partisan and ideological loyalties. The war in the Lebanon is not the only example there is of this. In Northern Ireland, the Ivory coast, Cyprus and Bosnia conflicts are structured around such demarcation lines. On every occasion, however, the greatness of religion lies in observing that the battle specific to religion is not located on such terrain.


Is it thus inevitable that we should lose hope and see only disadvantages in a formula that is based upon terms of mutual friendship and inter-religious dialogue, as is the case in the Lebanon? The co-existence of communities and the political system are closely bound up in the Lebanese context. From this very close relationship there can certainly spring unfortunate confusions, such as, for example, the reduction of the political system to being a mere expression of the representation of communities. In this case, the political system no longer performs the role of protecting the citizens or promoting the development of the country but becomes interested solely in the correct balances that should be established and maintained between the various confessional components of the country. This is the rebuke addressed by all those people who believe that such a system ends up by neglecting the specific functions of the political sphere. The other consequence of the intertwining of religion and politics is the distortion of the function of religion. In addition to the already mentioned exploitation of religion, there also arises the risk that men of religion will be called to perform an increasingly greater role in the political realm, and that they will do this to the point of at times taking the place of politicians when the state fails and grows weaker. The role of the Patriarch of the Maronites, His Blessedness Cardinal Sfeir, is often referred to here. But this characteristic is not at all a characteristic of the Maronites alone. At one time the Shiite community was almost led by charismatic men such as the Imam Moussa Sadr or by influential men such as Mohammed Mehdi Chamseedine.



However, this role can be beneficial when it involves reminding people of the basic and constant elements of wanting to live together, as indeed the Patriarch of the Maronites and bishops of every rite constantly do.


Whatever the case, remaining aware of the dangers that exist is essential if we want to work against the politicisation of the religious dimension. Yet the model of the co-existence of communities remains in itself an ideal of major importance. Its emblematic character, its value as an example, beyond and notwithstanding the difficulties that are generated, bear witness to the constancy of dialogue. If we want to remain faithful to the message that co-existence transmits we have to look to internal peace, to the desire to deal with relationships through dialogue: brotherhood (fraternité) as much as citizenship (citoyenneté). To work effectively, the Lebanese model requires an ethic of openness. Although this is not always achieved, this dimension nonetheless remains the most noble there is within the approach of pluralism based on communities.