In praise of Lebanese Sectarianism
By Michael Young
Over the decades, eliminating sectarianism has come to be associated with the brisk air of modernism. There is some justice in the claim. A society cannot truly flourish if every aspect of life is reduced to one's religious affiliation. Promotion by sect usually means a state bureaucracy where merit is lacking. Confined to confessional boundaries, politics or public service means that the most ambitious must either tie their fate to sectarian political leaders to get somewhere, or emigrate. And the rigidities of sectarianism are such that
Perhaps. But sectarianism is also the one thing that has made
A few years ago, Nasrallah, in an Ashura speech, decried the Lebanese arrangement, saying it was characterized by "leaders of alleyways, of confessional groups, of districts." Instead of this, Hizbullah's leader declared,
In both Nasrallah's and Aoun's dislike of the system is a sometimes defensible loathing for wheeling and dealing - even though the two men are not lacking in that talent. However, they regard themselves as above the political fray, better than the riffraff maneuvering down below. Both consider an enhanced state, one they control, as the way around sectarian bargaining, even though they are fundamentally sectarian in their outlook and Nasrallah's ideal state looks very different than Aoun's. There is something deeply disturbing in their attitude: an intolerance for diversity, for making concessions to earn concessions, for the disorderliness of a system they would prefer to replace with something regimented.
Aoun and Nasrallah may be on a collision course when it comes to their totalistic visions for
Today, Hizbullah is in a quandary.
Siniora is here to stay and Nasrallah is absorbing the unforgiving dictates of sectarianism. Though the Hizbullah leader may have been dragged kicking and screaming into the alleyways of confessional politics, he now knows that he cannot ignore this. He is displaying modesty, in contrast to Aoun, who is beginning to sense that his plan to take over the state is slipping away. It is no coincidence that the Aounists have started a parliamentary petition condemning Siniora's alleged abuse of the Constitution. For weeks it has become double or nothing for the general's nervous followers, but by dismissing sectarian sensitivities they will almost certainly end up with nothing.
Every few years the Lebanese must cope with an individual, party or community that ignores, disastrously, sectarian conventions. When the Maronites, the Sunnis and the Druze couldn't get it right during the 1970s, the country descended into a 15-year war. Today, it is Hizbullah, as prime spokesman for the Shiite community, that is making a similar miscalculation. If conflict can be averted, then the party's learning a lesson will have been worthwhile: better a weak Lebanese state where communal alignments can counterbalance the hegemonic tendencies of one side to a strong, purportedly non-sectarian state that will consistently drift toward a disputed, therefore unstable, authoritarianism.
That said, permanent, rigid sectarianism is not ideal. For any truly democratic order to emerge, the Lebanese must ultimately think as citizens, not as members of religious tribes. But wishing that away will not work. The only solution is to modify sectarianism from within, to provisionally accept its institutions while making it more flexible and opening up space for non-sectarian practices. The Taif agreement outlines the means to reach this end, and just as soon as Lebanon can break free of Syrian and Iranian manipulation, just as soon as Hizbullah agrees to a process leading to its disarmament, no matter how lengthy, sectarian negotiations will become possible and the road to reform can be taken.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.
Copyright (c) 2006 The Daily Star