Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Confessionalism/Anti-confessionalism: Two sides of the same coin

Posted by worriedlebanese on 03/08/2009


Anti-confessionalism probably lacks historical perspective because it is utterly uninterested in context. It is obsessed with values and rules: it seeks to impose what it claims to be positive, modern (western), secular values (and rules), while claiming to combat what it defines as archaic, religious, oppressive values (and rules). By doing so, it defines itself (anti-confessionalism) and what it combats (confessionalism).

Before going into this dual definition (and its implication), let’s have a glimpse at these very values and value-laden political programmes anti-confessionalism vows to defend and implement.

A glimpse at the muddle

As Maria sang to the children, “let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start”. The whole debate over confessionalism started in the 1940s. Sure, one could trace articles and writing about its many elements to the 1930, and even to the 1920s. But they were still scattered then, and dealt with points that were quite rightly seen as unrelated: secularisation, modernisation, westernisation, nation-building and state building. From the 1940s onwards, all these views converged under the label of “anticonfessionalism” as their proponents defined a common enemy, confessionalism.

This conversion obscures the fact that we are dealing with distinct processes, political programmes and values. This is why we will look into each of them one at a time.

  • Secularisation: A process in which the various aspects of society (economic, political, legal, and moral) become increasingly specialised and distinct from religion (and religious authority). It is usually accompanied by a societal decline in levels of religiosity. Its proponents usually link the decline of religiosity to the increase of freedoms. In Lebanon, secularisation usually means three things:
    • Abolishing the personal status laws and courts (up to now, each recognised and established community has its own laws and courts), and replacing them by one civil legislation in matters of family law.
    • Supporting “secular” education, i.e. state schools and universities (vs schools and universities within religious networks).
    • Combatting religious authority and interference in public affairs.
  • Modernisation: The concept is grounded in social evolution theories. It describes a process of adaptation to modern technology & values and acquisition of modern techniques & behaviour. Its proponents usually consider it a positive evolution meant to assure more wealth and well-being both individually and collectively. In Lebanon, “confessionalism” is presented as an impediment to modernisation because of supposed conflict in values.
  • Westernisation: The process of adopting or being influenced by the cultural, economic and political systems of Europe and North America. Its critics see it as a loss of identity. Its proponents see it as a necessary step towards modernisation, and a tool of cultural transformation meant to break from a previous cultural domination (i.e. Islam for Turkish Kemalist, Lebanese “phoenecianists” or Egyptian “pharaonists”) and  allow the expression of the nation’s true identity. We could make two remarks on the way westernisation is viewed in Lebanon:
    • The distinction between modernisation and westernisation isn’t of much use because modernists usually see the values and ideals upheld by western states as the only model to modernisation. Likewise,  most anti-western propagandists tend to confuse modernisation with westernisation, considering signs of modernisation as elements of westernisation (in their view, submission to the West).
    • Western values and ideals are approached in an abstract manner, completely decontextualised, through a highly ideological lens reminiscent of 18th century enlightenment philosophers or French revolution thinkers (& executioners). Not only they misrepresent the way these values are translated socially (behaviour) and institutionally (rules) in Europe, but they also misrepresent the way values are translated in Lebanon.
  • Nation-building: The process of constructing/structuring a national identity using the power of the state. Its proponents would like to mold different groups into one nation to “reverse” what they consider to be colonial “divide and rule” tactics (meant to assure colonial domination). In Lebanon, the first expression of this ideology/programme  of nation-building is to be found in article 95 of the 1926 constitution. Here, the rule of multiconfessional participation (misleadingly named the rule of “confessional representation”) was introduced by the Mandate power as a temporary measure, clearly indicating that it was an anomaly, a temporary exception that should be quickly dealt with and overruled. In 1943, as the rule of multiconfessional participation was extended to the executive power, the Prime minister clearly stated that this rule should be abolished from the texts and the minds! Riad Solh was reaffirming that “confessionalism” was an obstacle to nation-building while actually developing it.
  • State-building: It describes the construction of a functioning state. These usually entails the establishment or rehabilitation of public institutions so as to provide citizens with civil services up to modern standards. In Lebanon, confessionalism is presented as an impediment to state-building. Interestingly enough, the undeservedly acclaimed “father” of State reform in Lebanon, President Fuad Chehab, is the one who introduced communal quotas to the public administration. He also extended the parity rule for cross-communal participation.

2 Responses to “Confessionalism/Anti-confessionalism: Two sides of the same coin”

  1. Patrick said

    Ok, we still have a long way to go to find common ground but I don’t see anything wrong with your definitions. They’re globally fair. I am waiting to see where you’ll go from there.

    I think the big problem started not in 1926 but earlier, in 1840 when france and britain started using or instigating communal tensions to settle their scores with the Ottoman Empire. This is the other main problem with sectarianism that you should also address if you want to make a convincing case. Sectarianism allows foreign countries to constantly intervene by acting as tutors or protectors of one community or another.

    You’re right about the Shehab paradox, but it does not invalidate the thesis that sectarianism is an obstacle to state building. His idea was that it was impossible to openly confront the sectarian leaders and that he should coopt some of them in order to advance his reformist agenda. It worked for a while, and people like Pierre gemayel and Rachid karame were in government when major reforms were enacted.

    I hope you will admit that sectarianism is also an obstacle to accountabilty, an obstacle to fighting corruption, because every crook will use his community as a refuge and a shield against charges brought by members of other communities.

    You’re also right about the very high degree of religiosity in Lebanon, and the religious schools and tribunals problem. I have always been struck by this, and it might be a temporary obstacle to secularization. But what’s interesting is that religiosity is also very prevalent in the Christian community, which defies the federalist’s theory that lebanese Christians are “misplaced westerners” who should be protected (by the West) from other Lebanese “cultural” groups.

    Are you a federalist, by the way ? If so, do not be afraid to say it bluntly.

    But you seem different from them because you acknowledge that the Lebanese share a national identity while federalists usually say that Lebanon is made of groups with different cultures and “civilizations” who should live by their own rules in their own regions.

    • Hey Patrick, you have a strange definition of Federalism.
      Like many of our countrymen, you confuse it with segregation and ethnic divisions, which is typical of French republican thought (federalism was a crime in France punishable by death).
      In my definition, federalism is about reconciling diversity and unity. But it’s not the only institutional mechanism to achieve that aim. The Netherlands (up to the 1960s) developed an complex system to do the same thing while opting for an extremely centralised system. Belgium defined a “linguistic frontier” while remaining for many years a centralised state. Spain and Italy have recognised communal differences without resorting to federalism, but by actively encouraging regionalisation within a centralised framework (something the Taef agreement has vowed to do). Lebanon’s confessional-republicanism is extremely centralised too even though it does recognise communal diversity (which encouraged some theoreticians to speak of “personal federalism”, but this term is misleading and confusing).
      I certainly would be miserable if my countrymen decided where I should live, but also quite unhappy if they imposed upon me one personal status law that I believe will restrict me in my liberties (look where it brought Syrians and Egyptians or even Lebanese Christian and Jews in matters of inheritance…). Federalism could be good or bad, it depends what you do with it, repressive or liberating, just like centralism or regionalism. It depends what you do with it. Were the Kataeb or the Lebanese Forces the dominant forces in Lebanon, I wouldn’t trust them with federalism, but I certainly don’t oppose the idea. I actively encourage you to go beyond clichés. As En Vogue once sang,”free your mind, the rest will follow“. 😉

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