Worried Lebanese

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Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Bechara Raï, les promesses (pascales) d’un changement

Posted by worriedlebanese on 23/04/2011

Cela fait un mois que l’Évêque maronite de Byblos a été élu Patriarche d’Antioche et de tout l’Orient… pour les maronites. Dès la démission du Patriarche Sfeir, le Vatican nous avait promis un changement à travers l’élection d’un nouveau patriarche. Personnellement, j’aurai préféré l’élection de l’Évêque de Sarba, Mgr Guy Noujaim, personnalité cultivée et relativement progressiste de l’église maronite.
A vrai dire, j’ai été déçu par l’élection le 15 mars dernier de Mgr Bechara Raï. Ses positions conservatrices, ses affinités avec Opus Dei, son style de communication qui tient d’un certain télévangélisme, m’ont toujours gênés. Avec lui, on passait du traditionnalisme au conservatisme, d’un patriarche partisan à un patriarche authentiquement consensualiste, d’un prédicateur austère dont le ton tenait de la plainte à un prédicateur communicatif dont le ton tient de la recommandation musclée. Le changement était certes notable et bienvenue, mais pas suffisant à mon goût.

Cela dit, dès son retour de Rome, le nouveau patriarche nous a montré ce qui le rapprochait de son prédécesseur, et par quoi il s’en démarquait. Il a présidé il y a quelques jours (19 avril)  une réunion quadripartite réunissant les quatre chefs maronites des principaux bloc parlementaires chrétiens: Michel Aoun, Samir Geagea, Amine Gemayel et Suleiman Frangieh. Il a donc réussi en un mois à faire ce que son prédécesseur à échouer à faire en 5 ans. Certes, cctte initiative poursuit celle entamée par le Patriarche Sfeir. Rappelons-nous du comité quadripartite que le Cardinal Sfeir avait réuni à plusieurs reprises en 2007 (composé de représentants des quatre grands groupes politiques chrétiens) pour tenter de dénouer la crise politique “à l’abri des regards”. Le Patriarche avait d’ailleurs à plusieurs reprises essayé de réunir les quatre zu’ama chrétiens, sans y parvenir. Cela s’explique un peu par les circonstances politiques particulières des deux moments, mais surtout par les nuances dans l’approche. Au lieu de chercher un réglement préalable au conflit politique entre les quatre zu’ama chrétiens, ou à réglementer le discours politique (les deux approches suivies par le Patriarche Sfeir), le Patriarche Raï a tenté de changer la dynamique entre les quatre hommes en les engageant dans une rare rencontre en face à face, une réunion relativement dépolitisée et fortement spiritualisée. On retrouve chez les deux Patriarches les mêmes objectifs consensualistes aux tendances unanimistes, à la seule différence que le nouveau patriarche propose aux zu’ama un espace de délibération, et non une solution. Et ceci est une différence notable. Le conservatisme (de Raï) peut s’accommoder de la démocratie (et même y trouver son intérêt), ce que le traditionalisme (de Sfeir) avait plus de mal à faire.

Certaines personnes ont critiqué cette initiative du nouveau patriarche parce qu’elle n’incluait pas le PNL et le Bloc National. En fait, le poids parlementaire de ces deux formations politiques est aujourd’hui assez négligeable. Et il justifie l’exclusion d’une réunion de quatre politiciens qui à eux seuls réunissent plus de la moitié des députés chrétiens:  17 députés chrétiens pour le bloc du Changement et de la Réforme dirigé par le Général Aoun, 7 pour le bloc des Forces Libanaises dirigé par Samir Geagea, 5 pour le bloc des Kataeb dirigés par Amine Gemayel et 4 pour le bloc des Marada dirigé par Suleiman Frangieh, (33 sur les 64 député chrétiens). En fait, pour un sommet politique interchrétien, on aurait peut-être dû inviter deux Zu’ama non-chrétiens qui réunissent pas moins du quart des députés chrétiens: Saad Hariri pour ses 11 députés chrétiens et Walid Jumblatt pour ses 5 députés chrétiens. Ceci montre bien la complexité du paysage politique chrétien libanais: un paysage politique qui en fait répond le plus aux résultats “systémiques” attendus du régime électoral libanais (qui encourage le pluralisme au sein des communautés et les alliances intercommunautaires)… Mais l’accueil général de cette réunion quadripartite met le doigt sur une revendication qui semble majoritaire en milieu chrétien: la création d’un espace de délibération interchrétien, un espace que le règles dites confessionnelles rejettent.

Notons aussi que le nouveau patriarche maronite a annoncé qu’il est prêt à rencontrer le secrétaire général du Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, afin d’entamer un véritable  dialogue avec lui et il avait préalablement rendu publique sa disposition à une visite pastorale en Syrie… Et s’il osait déclarer sa disposition de visiter Béthlehem, et petu-être plus tard Jerusalem et Nazareth pour une visite pastorale! A 71 ans révolus, Mgr Raï a déjà fait preuve de dynamise, et son énergie ne manquera pas de nous surprendre. Pourvu qu’elle suffira pour faire entrer son Eglise dans le 21 siècle.

Posted in Lebanon, Levantine Christians, Politics, Religion, Version Francophone | 9 Comments »

Season’s greetings: رمضان كريم

Posted by worriedlebanese on 11/08/2010

Posted in Islam, Personal, Religion | Leave a Comment »

Credo in form of a decalogue (changes I believe in)

Posted by worriedlebanese on 15/07/2010

Some people have very rightly said that my approach to “Laïque Pride” (among other things) is too negative and that instead of simply criticising, I should be presenting some alternatives. So I took two hours to think about it and came up with this decalogue.
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1. I believe that we should pressure the parliament into establishing the “communauté de droit commun” that was recognised in the 1930s!!!! And allow it to have its own institutions and its own laws in matters of mariage and inheritance, and also its own courts. In other words Create a democratic and liberal “op out” mechanism to communal membership.

2. I personally think the Lebanese state should stop financing the muslim clergy and the muslim courts, because it is discriminatory towards non-muslims and it contradicts the principle of separation between religion and state. In other words Enforce the principle of  separation between State and Religion.

3. I also believe that the civil inheritance law that applies to Christians should be abolished because it is patriarchal and discriminatory. I believe Christians should be allowed to have their own inheritance laws (the catholic inheritance law for instance is more liberal than the secular Lebanese inheritance law), just like Muslims do… In other words: Enforce the principle of equality between communities.

4. I believe that the “clergy” has the right to express its political opinion, like all other citizens do. And that we have the right (and the duty) to criticize it when we don’t agree with it. However, the Muslim “clergy” BY LAW doesn’t have the right to express political views because it holds the status of “state agent”. If it wants to benefit from this right, it should set itself free from the state. In other words Enforce the principles of rule of law.

5. I also believe that people who belong to a community should pay a specific tax for this community (like in Germany) in order to to finance each community’s institutions (courts and non-clerical representative institutions) and give it the means to have a properly trained personnel (most importantly judges)! And where there are taxes, there’s accountability! In other words Guarantee a greater autonomy to communities.

6. I also believe that pressure should be made on state courts to reinterpret Law 534 of our criminal law that doesn’t mention homosexuality but speaks of sexual relations that are “contradicting the laws of nature”… I believe this sentence’s interpretation should be restricted to bestiality… and not include adultery, homosexuality and what have you: In other words “upgrade” Personal Freedom to international standards.

7. I also believe that there should be NO censorship. And that the censorship board should be replaced by a rating board (like in the US). I believe freedom of opinion and information should be guaranteed. For this we need a new legislation and excerpt  a lot of pressure on our political class (that controls the media and restricts the creation of new media). In other words “upgrade” Freedom of Expression to international standards.

8. I believe that military courts should not be allowed to try civilians. And that even soliders should be given the right to oppose a military court’s ruling by bringing the case to a higher civil court (Constitutional court, Court of cassation, Council of State or preferably a common supreme court that replaces them). In other words Extend the principle of Due Process.

9. I believe that the history of communities should be taught in schools because people are extremely ignorant about these things and they replace their lack of knowledge with prejudice. Our students should learn about communal persecutions, conversions, liberal and conservative religious movements… They should learn about the dhimmi laws, and that they were not always applied. They should learn about religious extremism (how Syriac and Protestant converts were persecuted by the Maronite church, how Chrisitans, and non orthodox Muslims were persecuted by the Mamlouk, how the Eastern Catholic churches were latinised by Rome and missionaries, how the Oriental Orthodox clergy were discriminated against by the Greeks (and how the Arab speaking orthodox clergy revolted in the 19th century, how the Iranian clergy and schools changed the Lebanese Shiites religious practice, what sunni religious reformers proposed in the 19th century… In other words, Replace prejudice and ignorance with knowledge.

10. I believe that the confessional system can be reformed… But this reform should keep in mind the basic principles on which this system is based: inclusiveness and diversity. That’s why all recognised communities should have a representative in Parliament! Today, the rule applies only to 11 communities out of the 17 established communities (the “communauté de droit commun” just like the Ismaeli community is recognised but not established, once it is established it will become the 18th community). Moreover, we should have a law that sets a procedure for the recognition of other religious communities (the Czech law is quite a good one). I also believe that there are competent people in all communities and that “confessionalism” shouldn’t be an excuse to choose the most corrupt or the least competent of them, or an excuse to strengthen the power of patrons over people who belong to their community (within the state and outside it). In other words, Enforce the principles of Inclusiveness and Diversity inherent in Confessionalism.

When are we going to start doing something about these issues instead of parroting an almost centennial discourse that is produced and manipulated by politicians and that leads to nowhere?

Posted in Diversity, History, Intercommunal affairs, Islam, Judaism, Levantine Christians, Memory, Patronage Networks, Personal, Prejudice, Reform, Religion, Secularism, Values | 6 Comments »

Why isn’t Mitchell on our side?

Posted by worriedlebanese on 04/05/2010

Please excuse me for sounding childish, but I’ve been around a lot of children lately and their influence is starting to show on me! And so I ask myself and I ask you. Why isn’t George Mitchell on our side. You’ve certainly noticed the US’ envoy to the Middle East criss cross the region trying to rekindle the flames of peace. And you undoubtedly know that Mitchell is of Lebanese descent. His mother was born in the southern tip of Mount Lebanon, and his adoptive father seems to have  also been Lebanese. The former Senator from Maine was raised a Maronite and served in a Diasporic Lebanese catholic church as an Alter boy; St Joseph Church in Waterville is attended by some 150 Lebanese families. So objectively, his ties with Lebanon are very much there. However, it doesn’t seem to influence much his approach to peace in the Middle East. He doesn’t speak much of Lebanon’s interests and I believe Beirut is the capital he has visited the least in the region. Why is that so? and can anything be done about it? Maybe you can help me answer these two questions. I can’t help but think of another person who held the same post as Mitchell a couple of years back: Dennis Ross. Dennis Ross was raised in a secular atmosphere with a non religious yet religiously diverse family but became religiously Jewish after the 6 day war. He never hid his zionist leanings and now works in a think-tank financed and operated by the Jewish Agency. The contrast between the two men is striking, don’t you think.

Can Mitchell defend Lebanese interests?

Now this is a difficult question. I don’t see why in theory he cannot do it. Didn’t Dennis Ross defend Israeli interests saying that they coincided with American interests. But when we look at the practicality of that defense we notice huge difficulties.

  1. What are Lebanese interests? No higher authority has ever defined Lebanese interests. Actually, one had… President Chamoun in the late 1950s, and President Frangieh in the early 1970s but on both occasions hell broke loose. After the first occasion, the Lebanese neutrality doctrine was established. If you look into it, you will undoubtedly find better adapted qualifications for that foreign policy doctrine (such as passive, incoherent, vacuous, fearful… and not really neutral: the state is directly envolved in the most destructive regional conflict and serves mostly as a willing punching ball or a coy catalyst). It seems impossible to define Lebanese national interests and even more difficult to determine what authority determine it. So how can George Mitchell defend something that isn’t even determined?
  2. Who promotes Lebanese Interests? The answer is rather simple: No one! A quick comparison with the israeli case is quite revealing: IPAC, the Jewish Agency, the Israeli government and the Israeli security apparatus all contribute in defining and promoting “Israel’s interets”. This is made simple by the fact that they invest much time and ressources in conflating Israeli and Jewish interests, and do it quite convincingly. Now if you look at the Lebanese picture, things appear much murkier (and messy).
    • On one side, one finds five strong communal perspectives (Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Druze and Armenian) supported by influential organisations. Each communal perspective has its own definition of both communal and national interests. These five perspectives are distinct but not necessarily contradictory. These different perspective influence both communal and cross-communal figures and spaces, be they local or diasporic.
    • On the other side, one finds state institutions that still haven’t found a way to cope with this diversity and put it to its service, and a political class and consciousness more interested in political bickering and winning in a zero-sum game.
  3. Can anything be done about it? Maybe you can help me out on that.

Posted in Geopolitics, Identity, Lebanon, Levantine Christians, Peace, Religion | 5 Comments »

Muslim-Christian feast… symbolised by a song

Posted by worriedlebanese on 04/04/2010

This year, Lebanon finally celebrated its first muslim-christian feast: the Annunciation (البشارة) on March 25th. I said “finally” because the decision had been taken last year by the Council of Ministers, but the Prime Minister Fuad Siniora had refused to sign the decree, yielding to pressure from the Sunni Grand Mufti who had disapproved of the decision (and sacked one of its most crucial promoters, his secretary).

This day commemorates the announcement to Mary (by the archangel Gabriel) that she would miraculously conceive a child despite being a virgin. As long as you don’t go into details and stick to this general description of the commemoration, you’ll find it compatible with the New Testament and the Coran. But if you delve into the details, disagreements between the two texts start to appear. For Christians, the angel announced the birth of the Son of God, Jesus (يسوع or in the old language of Lebanon يشوع), for Muslims, the angel announced the birth of a Prophet, Issa (عيسى). Now these are very important dogmatic and theological differences. So to safeguard this feast consensual and inter-religions character, one has to respect the delicate line between what assembles and what separates; keep to the communalities and discard differences.

At first, I was quite skeptical about this inter-religious feast. When I was asked to write a short article about it last year, I had to fight against myself to “stay positive”, rein in my skepticism and cynism. But oddly enough, when the current Prime Minister Saad Hariri signed the decree in February, and announced it to the pope in Rome, I started to feel that there was something good about that celebration, and felt all the potential it had. Hopefully, it will be more meaningful (and pleasing to the eye and ear) than this rendering of the Ave Maria.

Posted in Civil Society, Culture, Idiosyncrasy 961, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Levantine Christians, Religion, Values | 8 Comments »

Amalgames: variations sur le discours anti-confessionnel

Posted by worriedlebanese on 12/02/2010

Voici quelques arguments que j’ai exposé sur un autre blog: chroniques Beyrouthines qui traitait de la question de la Laïcité au Liban:

Premier commentaire: un appel pour plus de nuance!

Comment voir clair dans un débat d’idée lorsqu’on met sous un simple mot (laïcité) une bonne dizaine de questions: la représentation des communautés, la pluralité du statut personnel, la séparation entre l’Etat et les institutions religieuses, la neutralité religieuse de l’espace public, la sécularisation de la culture, l’égalité devant la loi, les libertés religieuses et la liberté de conscience, le traitement égal des institutions religieuses…

Que des Libanais ne connaissent pas très bien l’histoire de France ou les paradoxes de la laïcité française, passe encore, mais un petit effort du côté français tout de même.

En France l’écrasante majorité des fêtes officielles sont religieuses (catholique évidemment), le jour de repos officiel correspond au jour de repos catholique, le ministre de l’intérieur est également ministre des cultes (et approuve la nomination des évêques… catholiques). Toutes ces belles cathédrales sont propriété de l’Etat, leur restauration et leur maintient sont donc financés par le budget public… et pourtant elles sont affectées pour l’écrasante majorité au culte catholique! La France a une longe tradition de soutien de missionnaires à l’étranger… soutien qui perdure: Regardez du côté de l’ambassade de france, et vous verrez un soutien de la mission laïque… mais aussi du collège protestant, de l’Université Saint Joseph (et jusqu’à sa fermeture de l’Ecole de l’Alliance Universelle Israélite)… Et ceci est également vrai pour la France d’Outre mer et une partie de la France métropolitaine. La France laïque subventionne des facultés de théologie!!!
Et qui est en France le premiere bénéficiaire en matière éducative de subventions publiques: les écoles catholiques…
Faut-il aussi rappeler que la France connaissait sur son territoire national jusqu’à l’indépendance algérienne et le pluralisme personnel et le système de représentation communautaire…

Du côté libanais, nous avons une stricte séparation sur le plan éducatif. L’Etat est le premier éducateur (au niveau scolaire et universitaire) et ne subventionne aucune institution éducative religieuse (sauf si elle est gratuite… et dans ce cas il le fait au même titre que pour les écoles gratuites non religieuses). L’Etat libanais n’intervient pas dans l’éducation religieuse. La tentative de Rafic Hariri de le faire à jusqu’ici échoué (alors qu’en Syrie, par exemple, l’Etat subventionne les facultés de droit religieux… et le droit islamique et une des sources de la législation…).
Le Liban est le seul Etat au Proche-Orient (hormis la Turquie, mais la laïcité de cette dernière n’exclut pas la reconnaissance de l’Islam sunnite comme religion nationale) dont le droit ne se réfère à aucune tradition religieuse (même Israël s’y réfère).
Au Liban, la question de la foi est indépendante de la question de l’appartenance communautaire (elles font l’objet de deux articles distincts de la constitution, n’en déplaise à Ziyad Baroud). Aucune autorité n’a le droit d’examiner la foi d’un citoyen libanais, c’est pour cela qu’une autorité religieuse ne peut radier l’appartenance communautaire de ses ouailles mécréantes (alors que ceci est possible en Egypte), et que les tribunaux étatiques peuvent examiner toute fraude à la loi excepté la fraude à la loi religieuse puisque ceci reviendrait à examiner la foi du citoyen (donc bonjour la fraude… le citoyen n’est pas prisonnier de la loi religieuse mais peut la manipuler à volonté…). Et enfin, le pon pon: l’Etat Libanais reconnaît depuis les années 1930 l’existence d’une communauté de droit commun que les autorités française ont rapidement vidée de sa substance et qui attend toujours d’être organisée. Il suffit qu’une simple loi soit votée… à l’instar de ce qui a été fait durant les années 1990s avec les Aléouites (et les Coptes)… pas très dur la procédure… mais bon, il faut quand même que quelqu’un réclame son établissement.

Deuxième commentaire: Aller au-delà des slogans et des amalgames

L’Etat libanais existe bien, il est même énorme! c’est le premier employeur, le premier banquier (le système bancaire privé a été intégré au public à travers le système de la dette), le premier éducateur (premier réseau d’écoles, plus grande université…), le régulateur de toutes les activités économiques rentables. Donc oublions les slogans de nos politiciens. L’Etat libanais existe, et n’a pas besoin d’être bâti, en fait, il aurait besoin d’un peu de dégraissage… Notre problème n’est pas dans son existence mais dans son fonctionnement et les problèmes de fonctionnement ne sont pas dus aux déficiences de la loi mais à sa violation continue (par ces même politiciens qui clament haut et fort qu’il n’y a pas d’Etat).

– Les quotas communautaires n’expliquent pas l’incompétence des fonctionnaires et politiques
La question de la compétence et d’appartenance communautaire ne sont plus contradictoires. Je suis sûr qu’on peut trouver des gens compétents pour toutes les fonctions de l’Etat dans toutes les communautés. En revanche, il y a un souvent un conflit entre la compétence et la fidélité à un politicien… Du temps de l’occupation syrienne, Berri, Joumblatt et Hariri choisissaient aussi des ministres chrétiens… ces ministres n’étaient pas toujours très compétents… D’ailleurs Hariri continue à le faire, mais bon.

– La majorité des partis ont une base ethno-communautaire est un fait vérifiable. Mais ce n’est pas en soi un problème. C’est à la rigueur leur problème et dénote d’un certain souci au sein de la société auquel if faudrait peut-être écouter et répondre au lieu de condamner. Personnellement, je m’en fous s’il y a un parti des blondes, un parti des femmes, un parti des mecs qui souffrent d’une calvitie ou de problèmes érectiles… Le fait que ces partis libanais aient une base clientéliste est le véritable problème.

La lutte contre les préjugés, rien avoir avec la laïcité
L’exemple du couple mixte (qui a du mal à se faire accepter) et de la fille pas-si-bien-élevée (qui n’aime pas trop les gens d’une autre confession) n’ont rien avoir avec la laïcité. C’est un problème de préjugés, et ni les institutions étatiques ni le système scolaire publics sont responsables de ce préjugé. Au contraire, les deux luttes activement contre ces préjugés. Crois-moi, on trouve autant de préjugés sur certaines religions dans les pays laïques (comme la France ou la Turquie) qu’au Liban. Et ces préjugés sont très importants au Liban et il faudrait lutter contre. Et les plus graves aujourd’hui sont entre Chiites et Sunnites. C’est vraiment effrayant. Et ce n’est pas en prônant la laïcité qu’on le fera. Ces deux questions sont étrangères l’une à l’autre.

– Distinction ne signifie pas discrimination
Quant au fait de distinguer entre les différents groupes de la société, personnellement, je n’y vois pas de problème tant que l’appartenance au groupe est volontaire (c’est pour ça que je milite pour la reconnaissance de la communauté de droit commun qui existe dans les textes depuis 1930!!!!) et tant qu’il n’y a pas de discrimination… et le tout en luttant activement contre les préjugés. Mais je n’ai pas non plus de problème (de principe) pour abolir les quotas… mais à condition qu’ils résolvent des problèmes au lieu qu’il n’en créent. Sans quotas, la municipalité de Beyrouth serait aujourd’hui exclusivement sunnite et d’obédience haririenne. c’est pour cela qu’il y a des quotas informels (sans base juridique) pour Beyrouth. Encore une fois, je n’aurai pas de problème avec cela, mais cela aura des conséquences désastreuses sur le plan social et politique. Les non-sunnites se sentiront exclus, il aura des discriminations entre quartiers (ce qui existe déjà au demeurant)… et ce sont surtout les quartiers chiites et arméniens qui en souffriront… la ville sera complètement détachée de sa pluralité et de plus de la moitié de ses habitants… Est-ce que c’est cela qu’on veut? Personnellement, je suis pour la réintroduction d’un siège reservé aux étrangers et à la parité homme-femme au sein du conseil municipal… donc à plus de quotas.

Posted in Anticonfessionalism, Civil Society, Culture, Discourse, Lebanon, Prejudice, Religion, Secularism, Version Francophone | 3 Comments »

And Hermes gazed at Walid J.

Posted by worriedlebanese on 13/01/2010

You’ve probably heard of the last reconciliation spree Walid Jumblatt has embarked on. After meeting with second rank Hezbollah and Amal representatives in Choueifat, he headed to Rabieh to mend fence with Michel Aoun. Editorialists and other pundits have been commenting on what was said behind closed door (in truth what was probably said, but they’d never confess to have unreliable and second hand information), and trying to decipher the intent behind each word the two Zu’ama used in their public declarations following their meeting. I wouldn’t go into that because as Martin Gore philosophically wrote “words are meaningless and forgettable”. Even if they declared that the sky was pink, it wouldn’t make it any less blue now would it?

Reinforcing informal arrangements, communal representations & segregated space

What is important is to see how the politicians are expressing themselves and how they interpret their own acts. Following the meeting in Chueifat (that gathered ), Jumblatt declared that “the Choueifat reconciliation healed a wound which almost destroyed historic, humane and political communication between the Mountain, Dahieh and Beirut if the conflict had expanded” (بإتمام مصالحة الشويفات يختتم جرح كاد يدمر التواصل التاريخي والإنساني والسياسي بين الجبل والضاحية وبيروت لو توسع). His use of these three locations is quite interesting. Each term refers implicitly to a communal group and an area under the control of one communal leader. This reinforces the image of a spatial segregation between the three communities and the link between one leader that effectively controles the territory and the community that he supposedly represents.

  • The Mountain refers to the Druze, even though it is an extremely mixed area that is effectively controled by Walid Jumblatt.
  • Dahieh (which means the Suburb) refers to the Shiites, even though it is still somewhat mixed (with a strong presence of Palestinians and a residual presence of Christians, Sunnis and Druze), and it is effectively controlled by Hezbollah.
  • Beirut refers to the Sunni, even though they make approximately 35% of its inhabitants, and it is [in]effectively controlled by the Hariri clan.

With this simple coded reference, the leader reinforces an (inaccurate) image of communal homogeneity and confirms a (very real) informal spatial division of three easily recognisable leaderships. Let’s not forget that Dahieh and the Mountain do not constitute an administrative unity but each is formally divided into multiple municipalities that are regrouped together in larger administrative units (Baabda, Aley, Chouf). So the reference brushes away the administrative divisions and puts forward the limits of each leaderships territory.

Asserting supernatural powers

All these reconciliatory meetings are very nice social events in which the atmosphere is cool, everyone is optimistic and positive, and the coffee is excellent. The agreement that comes out of them never seems to translate into actions and nothing is done about the past grievances. The words are meant to wash everything away and what is declared is meant to take effect immediately. So in this case, when the communal leaders declare an intercommunal reconciliation is declared, then the intercommunal reconciliation is realised. Now how do they do it?

The answer is simple, through this declaration, they assert that they are first rank politicians and that they are communal leaders (a feature that the Lebanese institutional system doesn’t allow and doesn’t recognise… but that’s another story). Not only they are communal leaders, but they are the true representatives of their communities, so their actions (or pronunciations) are those of their respective communities. In other words, when they pronounce intercommunal reconciliation they assert that they are the true voices of their communities. More than that, they assert that they are the true representatives of their communities. What is fascinating about this is that this pretense is not backed institutionally, our institutions do not recognise such a quality (it actually uses many political and legal tools to avert it). But our politicians act as if they are accorded this legal fiction of representation that allows them to act for the public good even when their acts are opposed by those who they are supposed to represent. Walid Jumblatt showed this belief of his when he said “It is true that I’m loosing in popularity, but I want to achieve a true reconciliation” (وصحيح أني أخسر شعبياً، ولكن أريد أن نصل إلى مصالحات حقيقيّة). This statement is truly fascinating. He’s actually saying that he can achieve true reconciliation even if the group that he represents are hostile to his action.

What to bring as a present when invited to lunch?

Well, José Saramago’s Gospel According to Jesus Christ, Obviously! This is the book that Walid Jumblatt offered Michel Aoun when he came along with half of his parliamentary group to have lunch with him in his home in Rabieh. When asked why he chose that book, he answered slyly that he didn’t know. No one commented that such a book would have never passed by our state’s censorship (if they were doing their work effectively) because it is considered to be totally sacrilegious. And truth to tell, it is not much different from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic verses in its approach to religion (God is completely narcissistic and cynical, Jesus listens to the devil, the devil is shocked by God’s cruelty, Angels are replaced by drunken soldiers or a dream, Jesus harms unintentionally and has a prolonged affair with Maria Magdalena, he has a favourite sheep… one that the devil almost convinces him to have sex with for release…). Would Walid Jumbatt have offered Rushdie’s book to Saad Hariri or Nabih Berri? I wonder.

What do you think he meant to do (or prove) with this gift?

Posted in Communication, Discourse, Diversity, Idiosyncrasy 961, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Pluralism, Political behaviour, Religion | Leave a Comment »

A Syrian approach to Judaism… a clear case of incoherence?

Posted by worriedlebanese on 11/01/2010

I dug up quite an interesting book in Damascus, unexpectedly. I was looking for a specific book on Palestinians and discovered this unusual book on judaism! Two sides of the same coin? Maybe.

The book is relatively new, it was published in 2008. Its author, Shamseddine Al-Ajlani, follows quite an interesting approach. Instead of focusing on one subject or following one hypothesis (like books usually do), he juxtaposes many chapters, each tackling a different topic relating to Syrian Jews. This 450 page book has an encyclopedic scope and brings together a great variety of documents: pictures of Syrian Jews since the 1920s, pictures of synagogues, and even pictures of Syrian Jews living in Holon (Israel). It tackles the participation of Jews in Syrian national politics and even blood libels in the 19th century.

If you read the chapter on the two 19th century cases of blood libel, you would find the author conspirationalist and antisemitic. He seems to believe that the charges were true and that those who were arrested were actually guilty and that they owe their release to the power Jews had over Western Europe. The author’s view isn’t surprising, it is the most dominant view in Syria today. But it is rather bewildering to find in a book that contains a very positive chapter on Jewish participation in Syrian national politics, and another chapter on the ties that remain between Israeli Jews of Syrian origin and what the author considers to be their homeland (Syria).

So when your “anti-semitism” siren blows, don’t jump to conclusions. There’s nothing systematic in what is expressed. You will find other elements that will spark a totally different signal. The Middle East is not Europe. Intercommunal relations are viewed as being complex just as they are experiences. You will find acceptance and rejection coming from the same source. That’s probably why a synthesis becomes impossible. It will reduce all contradictions to one idea, one that would contradict the daily experience of each person, just as it would contradict the national experience.

Posted in Conspiracy, Culture, Discourse, Diversity, Identity, Intercommunal affairs, Israel, Religion, Syria | 5 Comments »

A Shiite exception? (part one)

Posted by worriedlebanese on 10/01/2010

"Dahieh for beginners", extract from Umam's exhibition: Collecting Dahiyeh

"Dahiyeh for beginners" from Umam's Collecting Dahiyeh

Is there such a thing as a Shiite exception in Lebanon? This is the theme of a heated debate I had with a friend yesterday… a debate that stretched for almost two hours non stop! And we could have kept going for another hour or two if I didn’t have to rush out to meet someone.

What is meant by Shiite exception? Is this community different from the 16 others that share the same land and make up the same national society? His answer was yes. Mine was no.

But what made it so different? What particular circumstances was it living through, what structural feature or socio-cultural dynamic did it have that others lacked? His answer was pretty simple: Hezbollah, a spreading culture of death, a political leadership that was clerical (a feature that makes it “untouchable”, shielded from criticism), and a mobilised community behind it.

I agreed with all his points but didn’t see what was exceptional about that. Most communities were mobilised behind their leadership (zu’ama). The culture of martyrdom is quite widespread, even the leftist group that this guy belonged to had transformed one of its members into a martyr and started a cult around him. Most politicians are backed by their clergy, and if they do not back them, they replace them with more compliant clerics (this has become the rule in three muslim communities for the past decade. The autonomy of the christian churches makes the relation between clerics and politicians much more complex). As for a dominant party with a strong social network that has an ascendancy on most spheres within one community, this is also true for the Sunnis (with Mustaqbal and the Hariri clan), the Armenians (with Tashnag) and the Druze (with Ishtiraqi and the Jumblatt dynasty).

He sort of agreed with me but insisted that the Shiite exception comes from the particularities of Hezbollah and the resonance it has in the shiite community (for structural and cultural reasons). Let’s check its particularities first: it is an armed, religious, communal party with a strong social network and media support. Now that’s a strong argument. The particularity of Hezbollah is that it combines the strongest features of  the most important parties and militias the country has ever seen: it is the most religious of all parties, it is the most powerful of all militias we have known, it has the most efficient social network, it is the most adaptive political structure we have seen, it has one of the most charismatic leaders the country has know… It’s a sort of “best of”, and all these features combine to enhance  its strength and appeal. What makes its strength is its coherence, internal and external.

Posted in Civil Society, Culture, Discourse, Diversity, Intercommunal affairs, Lebanon, Pluralism, Religion | 2 Comments »

Discovering the missing cultural link: the Umayyad Mosque

Posted by worriedlebanese on 28/12/2009

View of the Umayyad Mosque

Damascus caught me off guard. I didn’t expect to be so easily seduced by a city with such a dull geomorphology and bland urban landscape.

The new neighbourhoods were completely uneventful… though I did find a couple of good books there. But it’s the old town that cast a spell on me. Its architecture surprised me. I didn’t expect to find this type of construction less than 130 km from my hometown.

Sure I was impressed  by the Souks, especially Souk al-Hamidiyeh which starts with a roman structure and ends with a 19th century ottoman one. But it’s the small streets behind it, with their wooden structures and fascinating windows that struck me the most.

What completely blew my mind  was the Umayyade Mosque. I  had seen a picture or two of this building before, and had always thought that the building had originally been a church, that of Saint John the Baptist. What I learned before getting to Damascus was that the church had been totally destroyed and the whole structure was actually islamic. So I expected to see a structure similar to that of Anjar, the summer residence of the Umayad situated in Lebanon, within a roman urban structure and a blend of arabic and roman architecture. What I saw was an extremely harmonious structure that blends roman and byzantine elements while reinterpreting them to suit the new prevailing culture and developing islamic components to them. This reminded me of some Churches in Rome where the roman elements are still visible and yet reinterpreted to suit a burgeoning christian civilisation. I think that the byzantine and roman roots of Islam are nowhere more visible than in this impressive building that wouldn’t have shocked the eye were it situated in Rome.

Posted in Culture, Identity, Islam, Personal, Religion, Syria | Leave a Comment »

Christmas, elections and territorial conquests

Posted by worriedlebanese on 23/12/2009

MP Kanaan (with his elves) speaking to the children

I stumbled on an interesting news item today on Tayyar.org that says more about Lebanese affairs and our current political culture than the season’s celebrations. Here is what it had to say:

“The secretariat of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) organised a huge christmas celebration for the children of the Norther Metn district. The event took place at the Miche Murr Sports facilities under the patronage of Michel Aoun and brought together Ibrahim Kanaan and Salim Salhab, clerics and FPM coordinators, mayors and mukhtars”.
These extremely descriptive and conventional sentences actually inform us on the many changes that underwent in the Metn region. The FPM is now a local political force. It is able to mobilise people on Michel Murr’s (its former ally and current rival) home “turf” and use the public facilities and agents that were part of his patronage network. All these are good indicators that the FPM is very likely to conquer many municipalities in the coming municipal elections.

The brief news report ended with an amusing (and embarrassing) quote by MP Ibrahim Kanaan. He spoke to the children with these words : “We would like to extend our wishes to “Jeddo” (grandpa) Michel Aoun who watches over you, over peace, over understanding, over tolerance… all those values that Santa Claus spoke to us about and that are the true meaning of Christmas” [my translation from arabic].

Do I need to comment it?!

Posted in Communication, Culture, Entertainment, Lebanon, Political behaviour, Politics, Religion, Values | 1 Comment »

Confused, Dazzling and Misleading: anti-confessionalism advertised

Posted by worriedlebanese on 08/12/2009

I stumbled on this advert yesterday while checking out what was new on Laïque Pride, and I think a short comment on it would sums up my position on this issue perfectly. I’m sure most of you are familiar with it. And you’ve probably heard me on this topic too. Two years ago, I reacted quite violently to a campaign by Amam05. A couple of months ago, I discussed the paradoxes of anti-confessionalism, its ambiguities, the consensus and state support it enjoys as an ideology and its side effects. So I’m sorry to repeat myself. But I think it will enable me to sum up my rants and clarify the point I’m trying to make.

The ad you’ve just watched is clearly intended to shame the Lebanese for identifying with a specific community. Everyone in this clip identifies himself/herself according to his/her nationality, except for the Lebanese, who bow their heads in shame after declining their communal identity (with firearms shots to add to the dramatic effect).

This scenario is quite unlikely. When asked about their identity, most Lebanese refuse to tell you what community they belong to. This is a taboo subject, and in all statistics, it’s the most troublesome data to collect. So why shame people for something that is taboo?!

The underlying idea is that our political system because of its recognition of communities, quota system and multiple personal laws, prevents people from identifying as Lebanese. If this is the case, the choice of countries in the sample we just saw is mind-boggling.

  • Oman: Not only the State is clearly divided according to religious lines (Ibadi, Sunni, Shiite), but islam is the official religion and the law is based on the Coran.
  • Serbia: The Serbian identity revolves around Christian Orthodoxy, just as the Croatian identity revolves around Catholicism (withstanding the extensive secularisation of both societies). Moreover, the country had recognises a special status to two ethnic minorities: Albanians (who are now independent) and Hungarians.
  • South Africa: The country still maintains quota systems (in the private sector!!!) and considers itself as a rainbow country, respecting people’s choice to identify as Afrikaans, Zulu, Indians (etc) and seeing no contradiction with being South African.
  • Palestine: Interestingly enough, Palestine isn’t a sate yet, but it shares two elements with us. It has a quota system for christians and also multiple legislations in matters of personal status, and religious tribunals.
  • India: Now this country is probably the most diverse country in the world. And believe it or not, they have a system of personal laws quite similar to our own. An Indian would identify herself as Indian to a foreigner. But in India she is likely to put forward her communal or state identity (Punjabi, Bengali, Kashmiri, Tamul, Sikh, Hindu…). What language is this Indian going to use to identify herself to start with? This in itself is the marker of a distinct identity. The only way out is to use English, and not Hindu (which by the way is the sister language of Urdu, the original difference is purely religious).
  • America: It is quite common for Americans to refer to themselves as African-American, Jewish-American, Italian-American, Cuban-American, Scandinavian-American… Few people find a problem with that. Just pick any American TV serie and see how the characters in it identify themselves or are portrayed.

Lebanon isn’t as “unique” as we would like to admit. We have multiple identities, and the State recognises this diversity. This isn’t very rare around the world, and certainly not in the sample chosen in this advert! Some of us are attached to their communal identity while others are not… This trait is equally shared by many societies. So to make its point clear, this ad not only misrepresents the social reality in Lebanon, but social reality in other countries as well. So how do you explain all the praise it received?

Posted in Anticonfessionalism, Blogosphere, Civil Society, Culture, Discourse, Diversity, Identity, Idiosyncrasy 961, Pluralism, Prejudice, Religion, Secularism | 2 Comments »

Laïque pride… can this civil initiative be saved?

Posted by worriedlebanese on 07/12/2009

In an earlier post, I alluded to this new civil initiative that made quite a buzz on the Lebanese blogosphere a couple of weeks ago. And the general excitement surrounding it doesn’t seem to be abating. You can find “Laïque Pride” on facebook, twitter, over-blog.

The version you see here was rewritten on December 9th. I found the original draft too aggressive and pontifical and couldn’t leave it that way (If you’re feeling masochistic enough or miss your preacher, you can check it out in the comment section).

Anyway, let’s get back to our business. What seems to be a growing number of Lebanese citizens are getting ready to hit the streets on April 25th 2010. They intend to march for the establishment of a secular state in Lebanon. That’s pretty nice, but there’s something that doesn’t seem too right with this initiative.

The whole approach is very dogmatic. What do they mean by secularism? How can they translate that in practical terms. A quick look at their declaration of intent shows that several of their demands already  exist and others are so extremely abstract that one wonders if they are little more than abstract principles or ideological slogans.

To paraphrase Elvis, I’d say a little bit less ideology, a little more pragmatism please. Forget about the anti-confessionalist rhetoric that we’ve been brought up with and look at the dynamics of our political and legal system. If you want change, target specific goals! It’s only by pinpointing specific problems in our system that we can solve them, putting ideology on the shelf and tackling one issue at a time (or at least separately). Each target needs a different strategy. Let’s be realistic! With such a declaration, what could the outcome of the march possibly be? collective unwinding and a public release of pressure… is it worth working for months and mobilising so many for a simple فشت خلق ?

Here are a couple of targets that I would work on:

  • Fight State censorship. Why not rally for the abolishment of the censorship committee within the Interior Ministry? Why not replace it by a rating system like in the US? Sure Tareq Mitri mentioned this once or twice (when he was minister of culture), and Ziad Baroud did too… But is that enough? Come on! Wouldn’t it be more profitable to march for the abolishment of this censorship committee (in which the religious establishment participates without any habilitation to do so). Shouldn’t we be telling our politicians that we refuse any kind of “tutelage”. Couldn’t we actually contravene systematically to this law? Obviously we can. But people seem to lack the courage to do so. It’s much more comfortable to uphold abstract ideals than actually fight for specific rights.
  • Respond to the religious establishment’s interference in public affairs and criticize politicians who seek backing from the religious establishment. Why not meet with politicians and clergymen to discuss these issues. Why not protest when their behaviour shocks you? Why didn’t anyone do anything when the Prime Minister asked the Maronite Patriarche to nominate candidates to the Lebanese presidency? Why doesn’t anyone remind the State authorities (Baroud, Hariri and Najjar) that Sunni and Shiite preachers are not allowed by law to give a political opinion when they preach because they are civil servants…
  • March to pressure the State into adopting a legislation for the Secular community (Communauté de droit commun). People tend to forget that the very law that recognised the different communities also recognised the existence of a secular community (communauté de droit commun). The legal provision already exists. This community is already recognised! All that is needed is to establish its legislation (and why not, its institutions, if you want it to be independent from the conservative thugs that are in parliament)! So why not pressure the government and the parliament to finally enact the laws that were promised over 70 years ago?!

Posted in Anticonfessionalism, Blogosphere, Civil Society, Communication, Democracy, Discourse, Diversity, Idiosyncrasy 961, Lebanon, Reform, Religion, Secularism | 12 Comments »

The receding masquerade اي أمل واي مستقبل لعيد البربارة؟

Posted by worriedlebanese on 03/12/2009

Tonight, some children in Lebanon will be putting on their costumes or masks, painting their faces and going around their neighbourhood knocking on people’s door, singing and dancing to them and eating something sweet or receiving a bit of money. It’s not Halloween they are celebrating, but an old and local custom, St Barbara Day.

The similarities between the two feasts is quite striking. This explains why many uninformed people in Lebanon call it “halloween”. But there are some differences between the two, even if they are gradually disappearing. Adults used to partake in it (before its banning during the civil war for security reasons). It envolves local songs telling the story of St Barbara (that most children do not know anymore) and the sweets that are offered are local sweets (uwaymat, mshabak, maakron) and one desert specific to the feast (a kind of porridge). Costumes used to be specific too. The most common one was charcoal painted faces because one legends claims that this is how the actual saint disguised herself.

Last october, I was surprised to see how much Halloween has moved in our cultural landscape. Friends were organising halloween parties (one party had a “scottish theme” and all the men were wearing quilts), and my cousins were preparing pumpkin heads for their children and they had bought for them many disguises (mostly superheroes or other cartoon characters). So seeing Ste Barbara’s feast being less celebrated seemed a rather obvious outcome. It looked like a poor repeat with very little significance.

What is the significance of Saint Barabara day?
Ste Barbara is a feast that has been celebrated in Lebanon from time immemorial. It is particularly interesting because it has very little religious significance. Saint Barbara is by no means an important saint in the Catholic or Orthodox Canon. She is a martyr among many. And her name doesn’t seem to have ever been very popular (which is sometimes an indication of the relevance of a Saint to a pious community). Moreover, the commemoration of her martyrdom has a very slim religious side to it; there are no visits to shrines or special masses, no priest accompanying the people in disguise…

So the only meaning it has is communal. It is a communal feast that brings together people in a common cultural celebration, one that has a common meaning to them, one that gives a common meaning to their existence as a group. Such feasts are very important in the life communities. These communities are “cultural groups”, i.e. groups bound by culture (in scientific terminology, they are identified as ethnic group, but this terminology spurs useless debates outside academia, so I’ll stick to a another label while referring to the same thing). Culture is here understood as a web of meaning that enables individuals to make sens of their existence and their ties to others. It implies shared meanings and converging froms of identification (the way people situate their collective identity in space and time). You can see how important a feast such as “St Barbara day” is. It alludes to a shared history, it perpetuates the life and death of a person that is considered relevant to the group. When you look a little closer at that person’s story, the picture becomes even clearer. St Barbara is a martyr. She died because of her faith. She tried to flee persecution by hiding under another identity, but the political power caught up to her and killed her.

So basically, St Barbara’s story reflects the way Christian communities perceive their own history in the Middle East. A religious group dominated by another religious group (i.e. Muslims), assuming another identity to try to preserve itself. Such a story was particularly relevant before the establishment of Lebanon as an independent state. But even after that, it stayed relevant because it alludes to a particular perspective of history, one in which Lebanon incarnates a haven for religious minorities, an alternative story to the fate of Barbara.

How can we interpret the demise of Ste Barbara’s day?
First of all, this local feast is suffering from a very tough competition. The prevalence of american culture and the huge marketing behind halloween (with films, tv series, cartoons, products…) is impossible to overbid. So the first signs of this prevalence is a sort of contamination. The two feasts are increasingly celebrated in the same way and have the same significance to children who call them by the same name when speaking English or French.
On a national level, Ste Barbara is a christian feast while Halloween is perceived as a secular feast (even if its origins are religious). So Halloween become much more politically correct with regards to intercommunal relations.
On a communal level, there is no strong cultural production to support Ste Barbara (in contrast to the intense cultural production behind the Shiites commemoration of Ashoura that is slightly more than a century old yet extremely vibrant).

Posted in Culture, History, Identity, Lebanon, Religion | 3 Comments »

Swiss voters ban building of minarets

Posted by worriedlebanese on 29/11/2009

Islamophobia - Swiss style

More than 57% of voters and 22 out of 26 cantons voted in favour of a referendum proposal banning the building of minarets in Switzerland. The result came as a surprise. All surveys preceding the vote showed a majority of Swiss opposed to the ban. So how can one explain this gross disparity between the predicted and the actually result?

There are three explanations for this disparity:

              • The surveyors did a bad job. They relied on bad sampling… This could very possibly be the case. But how come all surveys gave similar results up to today? Could they all be wrong? And how come they were so wrong. We’re not talking about a 1 to 5 % error range, but more than 10%. That’s huge.
              • People who had declared  that they would vote against the ban didn’t turn up to the polling station at the same rate than those who voted in favour of the ban. If this is true, one still wonders why they were not motivated? Were they too comforted in their belief that the ban wouldn’t be approved? Did the parties that had declared their opposition to the ban (all except one it seems) fail to mobilise their constituencies? etc.
              • People who wanted to vote for the ban declared that they would vote against it. But why would they do such a thing? Could it be because they understood that their vote would be considered as islamophobic, and that such feelings are morally condemned because of their xenophobic character?

What next?

Instead of trying to understand why the Swiss voters decided to support the ban, I would like to quickly look into its significance. Most of the analysis I’ve encountered were geopolitical. Some analysts were worried about the possible international  outcomes of the ban: disinvestments, riots, targeting of Swiss embassies. It is quite obvious that the Danish Cartoon affair is still present in many minds. Some of the analysis I’ve come across were more interested in the social consequences it could have in Switzerland. How would this ban effect the relations between muslim and non-muslim individuals and groups in Helvetia?

Could this cow find the poster offensive?

My thoughts on this question have been drifting another way. The Swiss law doesn’t ban the building of Mosques. It bans the building of Minarets. In other words, it is targeting one essential element in Muslim religious architecture. Let’s not get all freudian about it, but it’s obviously a form of castration. They are banning the most defining feature of this religious building, what makes it recognizable as a Mosque. Interestingly enough, modern technology has removed much of a Minaret’s functional importance. Loudspeakers are more efficient and less costly a solution to call to prayer. And there is no legal provision banning these loudspeakers (except for the general nuisance provision that could be used by mayors). So basically, the Swiss banned a defining architectural element, what makes the building recognizable in the urban setting. So it has more to do with identity and visibility in the public space than anything else.

Did we say Freudian?

Such a ban is new to Europe (I wonder how the Council of Europe and its court will react to it). But similar provisions existed in the Middle East. The Ottomans for centuries had banned bell towers. They were only allowed during the second part the 19th century. In cities, there were even provisions stating that no Synagogue or Church must be prominent; And no distinctif part should be seen from the street (menorah, tables of the law, cross)…  The general idea behind the islamic provision and the swiss provision are the same. National religious minorities should remain invisible.

Posted in Diversity, Identity, Intercommunal affairs, Islam, Judaism, Religion | 18 Comments »