What is Secularism? Why are Lebanese Youth Advocating For It?

By: Sandrine Sader

The Lebanese Thawra (Revolution) which came back on the 17th of October 2019 and united the Lebanese people regardless of their differences. It was truly kilon yaani kilon, everyone was rooting for a better country, fighting for their fundamental human rights, and rising against the ruling class and every politician’s corruption. We did it, holding on to a sliver of hope; for a better life, for equality, and for radical action not just reformation. 

One of the many ideas supported by the movement is the call for the secularization of the state, although it was opposed by many groups. The future of Lebanon’s political and religious principles is still discussable and debatable. So, is the future of Lebanon secular? What is stopping us from fighting harder for a secular state? What effects would be present short term and long term if such a system was established? 

First of all, it is essential to understand the main ideas of secularism and its objectives, as well as the truth about the myths surrounding it. Secularism is defined as a political idea based on the separation of religion and the nation state. It is founded on religious freedom. It also doesn’t rely on any unproven beliefs to form its ideologies, as one of its pillars is science or scholarly knowledge. More often than not, the disadvantages people find to oppose secularism are mostly misconceptions of its principles. The key to developing an opinion is to understand the topic, so we need to stay clear of misleading information.

For example, it’s been said a lot that secularism is a threat to freedom of religion because the political field doesn’t uphold religious beliefs. This is false because one of the secularist state’s goals is maintaining religious freedom as a personal right. Not every secularist is non-religious, secularism is not, and never will be a synonym to atheism. It’s about religious equality, not religious suppression. It’s the right for everyone to believe in what they choose. 

Furthermore, a lot of people think secularism doesn’t maintain equality, because when the state doesn’t follow religion, it’s an opening for one to rise over the others. But truly, it’s the opposite. When politics valorize a religion over another is when such injustice happens. Secularism is a way of making sure religions are equal, as they all have the same value : the personal freedom to be practiced. It assures religious minorities can also get their share, which they wouldn’t in a religious system. 

Today, Lebanon’s governmental system is based on sectarianism, which means the state and religion are related, since the political parties heavily rely on religious sects. The current Lebanese political sectarianism is rooted in 1920 with the declaration of the State of Greater Lebanon and its 1926 constitution. On the 22nd of November 1943, Lebanon got its independence from the French mandate, which was accompanied by the “National Pact” between Bechara El Khoury and Riad El Solh, respectively president and prime minister at the time. This unwritten agreement divided the government between the sects present in Lebanon, therefore creating the confessionalist system we have today. Confessionalism is a system which consists of distributing political power proportionally on different religions in a consociational state (state in which people of different religions or ethnicities live durably together).

Would a change from our current sectarian Lebanon to a secular Lebanon be possible despite all the history between Lebanese people for the last century? 

When we talk about Lebanon’s history, it is mandatory to mention the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) that opposed the people of the same nation over something as simple, but yet as complicated, as religion. It is estimated that approximately 150,000 deaths were caused by this war and thousands were injured, leaving Lebanon traumatized on a material, humanitarian, and moral level. 

To this day, we still hear people blaming each other for what happened, throwing accusations for the crimes that were committed, especially among the older generation whose longing for revenge has yet to disappear. Will the Lebanese people ever be able to forgive each other for what happened? The topic of forgiveness is something that requires much more than just love in everyone’s hearts to be able to reunite, as it has been made political. But in order to advance, it is essential to put the incidents behind us, and work hand in hand to build a better future. 

Moreover, this hate is being nourished by all the political leaders, whose power depends on sectarianism. Turning the Lebanese people against each other is a way to keep the system going, disguising it as the only working system in this consociational society. Promoting the idea that one religion is superior to another and using the argument of “protecting said religion in Lebanon” as an attempt of victimizing themselves is another way political leaders use to justify and solidify their racist point of views. The sectarian system is solely a way to keep the current parties in their place and encourage divisions by controlling the brainwashed people. 

Secularism in Lebanon would be a step in the process of uniting a divided society, by giving powerful positions to people who are able to take the challenge of governing a country, regardless of their religious beliefs. 

Nevertheless, the sectarian system that has been put in place in Lebanon for decades and that gave power to corrupt and selfish people who still nurture it and promote it as the ideal. As well as the consequences and impact left on the Lebanese people from the Civil War and the inability for many to forgive are significant obstacles to uniting everyone in agreement of such political ideologies. Especially in a country gathering 18 different sects, sharing the same territory while struggling to let go of their own need for representation, and brainwashed to contribute to sectarianism by politicians who only care for their own seats of power.

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