Much has been written about the rise of Islamism as a political ideology in the Middle East since the 1970s, mostly in connection with the clash between Western, secular values and the supposed religious “fundamentalism” of various Islamist movements. This encounter has urged intellectuals in the West to reflect on our age as a “post-secular” one, in order to better understand and accommodate moral and philosophical differences held by other cultures. But is there a case when institutional arrangements specifically designed to appease and strike a balance between multiple religious groups also leads to an impasse?
This seems to be the case in Lebanon today, where there has been a push toward secularism by a coalition of progressive activists, NGOs, and politicians. In an unprecedented rally in Beirut, over 2,000 people marched on the streets to call for a curbing on the influence that both Muslim and Christian religious authorities have on politics. To quote the story at length:
“Eighteen groups make up Lebanon’s multi-denominational system, and the civic rights of the members of these groups are determined by their religious leaders rather than the government. Only religious authorities can register marriages, births or death or rule on matters of inheritance – so all Lebanese end up having different rights. Muslims, for example, cannot adopt children; Maronite Christians cannot get divorced, and it is impossible for members of different sects to marry each other, while civil marriage is not an option here. The government, too, is divided. Since independence in 1943, Lebanon’s president has always been a Maronite Christian, its prime minister a Sunni Muslim and speaker of parliament a Shia.”
In a country that has a history of violent inter-religious conflict, including a fifteen year civil war (1975-1990), the push toward a separation between church and state is a sign that Western political discourse has not completely lost ground in the Middle East. If secularism as a political ideology and goal is to reemerge in Lebanon, one has to hope that it takes the form of a more democratic and less authoritarian movement than the pan-Arabist and national socialist movements in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria in the middle of the 20th century.