The Confessional System in the Dock

More than 3,000 Lebanese took part in a demonstration in Beirut last weekend against the influence of religion on politics, an influence that they believe represents a long-term threat to internal peace in Lebanon. Details from Birgit Kaspar

Demonstration against religious influence in Beirut (photo: AP)
Fear of religious influence on politics: some 3,000 Lebanese demonstrated in downtown Beirut for secularism and a reform of the confessional system

​​ "What's your religion?" – "Mind your own business!", chant the demonstrators. Some 3,000 Lebanese have gathered in downtown Beirut for a rally in support of secularism and a reform of the confessional system – a premiere for the Lebanese capital. Most of those present are young people, intellectuals and artists.

"We are making it clear that there is a new generation with values other than those that simply defend religious assets," says 29-year-old actor Aurelien Zouki. We do not want to uphold the power of individual confessional communities, but to reflect on a collective Lebanon, he adds.

The population of Lebanon totals around four million, and many people here are unhappy about the confessional system. But at the same time, they do as a general rule define themselves primarily through their religious affiliation. There are 18 officially recognised confessions, with 15 different religious courts regulating matters of family law. A civil marriage is just as rare as a state regulation of inheritance laws. This exacerbates the social division between religious communities.

Demonstration in Beirut against religous influences in politics (photo: &copy Birgit Kaspar)
"Confessionalism is bad! Let's do away with it!" – demonstration in Beirut

​​ But nevertheless any attempt to change the status quo is blocked by religious institutions – both Christian and Muslim. This is not surprising, says Paul Salem from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut: "This is one of their last bastions of power, and it's an important one," he says. Family law is after all something that affects everyone in at some point in life, he adds.

Complicated proportional system

In addition, the long arm of these religious institutions reaches far up into the high echelons of politics. Political statements by those leading Friday prayers in Mosques are just as much part and parcel of daily life as a weekly commentary from the Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir on current political developments.

Salem explains that Sfeir is trying to serve as a spiritual leader for Christians in Lebanon, by setting out a general political direction: "Rather like the Shiite Ayathollah Sistani in Iraq, not directly involved in politics, but very influential," he says.

Another example of how religion exerts an influence on politics is provided by Hezbollah: Party leader Hassan Nasrallah bears the religious title of "Sayyed", which assigns him religious status, but at the same time makes him the most powerful politician of Hezbollah.

Lebanon's 1943 National Pact

Paul Salem (photo: &copy Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)
In view of the prolonged confessional conflict in Lebanon Paul Salem, Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, recommends cautious reforms

​​ The situation in Lebanon is further complicated by a National Pact agreed in 1943, when the country adopted a democratic model based on confessional affiliation. It means that all political posts in Beirut are assigned according to a religious code: the President must always be a Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the parliament, a Shi'a Muslim.

The 128 seats in parliament are divided equally between Christians and Muslims, and a particular religious proportionality is also taken into consideration when filling all posts across the public service.

This can, for example, lead to a situation where a post remains open for months because no qualified candidate from the right confession is currently available to fill it. Retired teacher Aman Makouk thinks this is absurd:

"This job is for a Muslim, and that one for a Maronite. Why?" she asks. "Even in the government. Why should the President be a Maronite? He could just as well be a Muslim, a Druze or anyone else for that matter!"

Fair, or too complicated?

The confessional system is blamed for many problems in Lebanon. But Paul Salem from the Carnegie Endowment stresses that the system also ensures that no one feels overlooked. That could also trigger unrest, and for this reason he proposes a programme of cautious reforms. A good start could be a reform of electoral laws, aimed at delivering greater proportionality. But such a suggestion was just recently blocked again, just before the local elections scheduled for May.

Salem says this is a classic problem in governing oligarchies of five or six dominant politicians. "They won't share their power voluntarily or change the system in way that would weaken that power," he says.

Although more than 50% of respondents to a recent poll expressed dissatisfaction with the confessional system, it does not look as though the hidebound model will soon be relaxed. It would seem that the desire to see religion viewed a private matter for individuals is only being expressed by an avant-garde movement in Lebanon. Most people are simply too afraid of the unknown.

"The Christians are afraid because they live in a Muslim Middle East. The Shiites are afraid of the Sunnis, and vice versa. And the Druzes are afraid of everyone!" says Salem. Everyone is afraid, everyone perceives himself as a victim – in view of this general mood – it is difficult to instigate such profound reforms, he adds. But this should not prevent those young Lebanese who are hungry for reform from increasing their social pressure on the political sphere.

Birgit Kaspar

© 2010

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Lewis Gropp

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