Lebanese sectarianism a mixed blessing

by Luna Farhat
Sidon, Lebanon - Religious pluralism is a major feature of Lebanese society and key to its political system, which requires the distribution of key positions in the state to different religious communities. Although many feel that Lebanon has outgrown this political structure, this system has served the country well in the past. The question thus becomes how the Lebanese can continue to operate within this system while at the same time strengthening their sense of national identity relative to that of religious affiliation.

One of the positive features of the Lebanese system, which has 18 officially recognised religious groups, is that it allows all religious communities to have representation in the government, participate in the management of the state and contribute to its development.

This formula was established in the unwritten National Pact of Independence in 1943, which stated that the president would always be a Maronite Christian elected by parliament, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shia, and that parliamentary seats would be divided along a 6:5 ratio between Christians and Muslims, respectively – a ratio that held in principle till 1989.

Some believe that the 1975 to 1990 civil war erupted in Lebanon as a result of the sectarian system's inadequacy at ensuring all religious groups were fairly represented in government.

In other words, the system may have been designed to achieve a political balance between various sectarian communities and secure their peaceful coexistence, but precisely because it is a sectarian one, it placed more weight on religious affiliations than on national cohesion, thereby inhibiting a sense of national unity.

The Taif Accord of 1989, which led to the end of the civil war, introduced a number of amendments to the political system. For example, the 128-seat parliament is now divided equally between Christians and Muslims, instead of on the basis of a 6:5 ratio. The seats are even further subdivided within these categories (for instance, Maronite Christians are given 34 of the 64 total seats allotted to Christians; Sunni and Shi'a Muslims are allocated 27 seats each, while the remaining ten seats available to Muslims are divided between Druze and Alawites).

The Accord preserved the distribution of key political offices among major confessional groups. Real institutional reforms designed to minimise the negative aspects of sectarianism were absent. The Accord did mandate the establishment of a national council to "examine and propose" ways of abolishing sectarianism from public institutions, but this national council was never created.

What the Taif Accord failed to do therefore, and what is needed now, is a plan to strengthen national identity.

This can only be accomplished by changing existing electoral processes and the country's political culture. Critical to such change will be the holding of referendums and the direct election of individuals to office, thereby promoting direct communication between Lebanese citizens and their governmental institutions, including the presidency.

Having the people, rather than parliament, directly elect the president would strengthen the relationship between the people and their head of state and give the presidential office more legitimacy and popular support.

Civil society groups are meanwhile contributing positively by working to keep Lebanese citizens from all the religious communities involved in the political process, in a bid to create an overarching sense of citizenship that changes the political culture by emphasising national identity and not just a sectarian one.

For example, Towards Citizenship (www.na-am.org), a non-profit organisation in Beirut, recently launched a programme to educate students about the Lebanese electoral system. Its aim is to deal with the absence of political awareness amongst youth, which often leads them to vote along sectarian lines.

The programme works in 15 schools and targets around 1,350 students just shy of voting age and who come from diverse religious backgrounds. It trains students to use civil society organisations for political engagement, as this is an arena that is more independent of sectarian concerns. Their ultimate goal is to create citizens who are invested in their national community.

More of these types of initiatives in Lebanon are necessary. Creating engaged citizens is a goal that all Lebanese people can support.


* Luna Farhat holds a PhD in law from Lebanese University’s Faculty of Law and she is a teacher at the Institute of Islamic-Christian Studies at the University of Saint Joseph in Beirut. This article is part of a series on pluralism in Muslim-majority countries written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 11 August 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
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Other articles in this series

Reviving Pakistan's founding principles by Haroon Nasir
Islamic tradition and religious pluralism by Maher Y. Abu-Munshar
Saudi Arabia's push for religious dialogue by Fahad Alhomoudi
Religious pluralism in today's Muslim world by Asma T. Uddin
Indonesian pluralism should be guided by principles not politics by Irfan Abubakar