The state of secularism in Lebanon


Sept. 29, 2010

We’re in the last week of Ramadan and I’m navigating my way to dinner through the streets of Beirut with a friend who’s recently returned from a long stay in her hometown of Amman, the Jordanian capital.

“I feel I’m back to life,” she sighs with relief.

I wasn’t surprised. She and I had always concurred that Beirut is a city for those who do not fit in anywhere else in the Middle East. A city where being a minority or a niche community does not mean “marginal.” A city where the concept of “others” is so firmly established that laissez-faire is the order of each day.

In this sense, Beirut lives up to the cliché of a melting pot, and its liberalism is rarely seen in other regional capitals. Eating in public during the month of fasting will at worst solicit some envious looks from passersby in the city’s Muslim neighborhoods, but it won’t land you in prison as it would in most other Arab states (including those that claim to be secular). Being explicit about one’s rejection of religion or the idea of a god will almost inevitably just lead to a discussion in Beirut — whereas in other regional states, the same declaration is a shortcut to public hanging.

It is no surprise then that Lebanese nontheists are not angry. The Coalition of Lebanese Atheists, Freethinkers & Agnostics (CLAFA), an activist group run mainly on Facebook, circulates humanist messages and stories on evolution and cosmology in a calm and confident tone. Respondents interacting on the page are equally relaxed. Being annihilated by theological dogma is not an existential threat.

But that’s not the whole story, and before concluding that Lebanon is on the right path to a secular or humanist future, there are a few considerations to bear in mind. Sectarian identification remains a major tribal tag in this country of otherwise homogeneous ethnicity and culture. With 18 sects descending from Islam and Christianity, sectarian tribalism often teams up with politics to create identity checkpoints that are hostile. So hostile, in fact, that the country’s recent history seems like a string of often violent conflicts between sects turned existential competitors.

Because of this, Lebanon ends up with a confusing duality: a “be-and-let-be” mindset when it comes to religious beliefs and (non-)practice, and a “big-fish-eat-small-fish” mindset when it comes to socio-political struggle. Thus, religion in Lebanon is mostly a matter of politics — not one of adherence.

This duality produces a problematic reaction among post-war generations to the country’s deeply intertwined system of religion and politics. After each conflict, the washed-away ashes from fighting give way to questions about the country’s future. And although it might be the case that, deep down, everybody is convinced that sectarianism is just not sustainable in the long term, in the absence of a proper and systematized critique of religion, sectarianism never-the-less remains, and is intensifying as an identity checkpoint.

It is almost ironic that the same feeling of otherness that allows atheists and agnostics to breathe also softens the intensity of any active counter to theism — leaving religious dogma free and protected from serious challenge. Those post-war generation natives who inherited vile sectarian values still carry all the disaster genes of conflict and absurd hatred that led to the civil war in the first place.

Recent clashes between Sunnis and Shiites have further exposed the volatile and malleable nature of sectarian identification — that they are pure strategies of positioning in existential battlefields. Subsequent to the clashes, groups touting sectarian hatred mushroomed on Facebook, mainly populated by undereducated youngsters from unprivileged social backgrounds. Urban graffiti turned into a Sunni vs. Shiite historical figure fetishism. This is clearly not a ground of hope.

However, on the other side of the “second” duality are post-war generation individuals who clearly rejected sectarianism and became disenchanted with the idea of God altogether. For the first time in the country’s history, they made their voice heard “offline” in a 3,000-plus strong march for secularism, which took place last April. That is a significant number for a march that was not led by political influence, but organized and activated by like-minded idealists and niche communities purely via social media. Then again, and because of the very same culture of otherness, the march did not have significant influence, and proved that while “minorities” could very well fit in, their potential political power is contestable.

Lebanon remains in a deadlock when it comes to politics, religion and identification. Any evolution beyond the current situation is hardly perceivable without discrediting the fundamental basis of religion, i.e. its veracity and consequently its legitimacy as an identity tag. Yet the same diversity that allows tolerance is translated into fragmentation of power, with politicized sects jointly controlling mass media and the educational curricula. And since sectarian identification serves the political status quo, politicians have little interest in an educational reform where proper science exceeds creationism (and is not equated with it at best), and where there is a serious humanist discourse in the media. Hope remains in the gradual diffusion of the individual humanist or secular voice amidst a system which, even though has miraculously sustained itself for more than a century, has all the DNA of collapse.


Raafat Hamze blogs on humanist issues at