Why it is wrong to reserve the words “secular” and “liberal” for people who are outside the Lebanese political system.
I was reading with interest Antoun Issa’s post about the Orthodox gathering’s election and how Lebanon’s seculars and liberals can make use of it. Regular readers will know that I previously wrote about this topic, but I want to address an issue that I’ve been thinking about for a while, something that Antoun’s post helped crystallize in my mind. It has to do with the perception in Lebanon of secular liberals .
Meet the liberal stereotype
Whenever people in Lebanon talk about “secular” and “liberal” folks, there is a tendency to think of godless leftist demonstrators fighting for workers’ rights, gay rights, womens’ rights and foreign domestic workers’ rights in small demonstrations. These people are usually highly educated “elites” that are “disconnected” from the reality on the ground and too “westernized” (I’m quoting words that Antoun used in his post)
Antoun repeated that stereotype, believing that the people above are the ones who could benefit from the election law, if only they worked hard enough to get closer to the concerns of the real voters. In that worldview “Liberals” and “seculars” belong by definition to the fringe, since because of Lebanon’s sectarian politics only people who are outside of the system can be truly secular and liberal.
In my opinion, this is a superficial and non-inclusive understanding of who Lebanon’s liberals are.
If you think of secular people as those who believe in a separation of mosque/church and state and who primarily work toward achieving that objective, then you’ll be right to assume that none of the existing mainstream political parties are liberal or secular. But what if we broaden our perception to include people who are secular at heart and spirit, but who are working within the system to improve the country’s economic and developmental metrics, perhaps until it the population is more amenable to a true separation of religion and state?
What if liberals in a position of responsibility decided that co-opting religious leaders is less costly to the country than confronting them, even if in their hearts of hearts they don’t believe that sheikhs and priests should be doing any kind of statecraft?
The problem with a purist interpretation of the words liberalism and secularism, with the prerequisite that religion be completely shut out of public life, is that it will make you think that secularism in Lebanon requires either a “revolution” in the classic sense of the word, or a monstrosity like the Elie Ferzli (a.k.a Orthodox gathering) election law to bring the fringes into mainstream political life.
“Snap to grid” politics
In Photoshop and other image editing software, there’s a handy setting called “snap to grid” which makes it automatic for graphic elements on a page to “snap” to prepared guidelines. It’s a great feature for aligning graphical elements and obtaining order, but it comes at the cost of flexibility: If you try to place a circle between two guidelines, it will immediately snap and align with the one closest to it, it cannot be placed in the middle.
There’s a similar dynamic going on in Lebanese politics. If a politcal party with a secular manifesto gets slightly close to a certain sect (usually the one the founder of the party belongs to), either for political expediency or for electoral posturing, –SNAP!– the party is immediately cast as a sectarian party. There is very little that party can do to prove that it’s not motivated by narrow sectarian interests, so it decides to play along, sometimes covertly, and sometimes overtly.
Antoun mentions the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) and the Future Movement (FM) as two examples of parties that have “failed” as secular projects despite the original intentions of their founders. We all know that Michel Aoun was not driven by sectarianism before. We also know that Saad Hariri is no religious zealot (as proved by his latest support for civil marriage). But they were both pushed by the system, –Snap!– into the role that people wanted of them: That of sectarian leaders.
Incidentally, both parties belong to the center-right in economic policies. That is a further reason why the Lebanese people can’t see them as secular. Somehow in Lebanon people associate secularism with the left, perhaps because of the left’s tradition of blunt anti-religious discourse, and the age-old “communist” accusation, which is interchangeable in many minds with the word “atheist”.
Why I don’t want to “take back parliament”
I like to think of myself as a secular person. I’m religiously agnostic and I think sheikhs and priests don’t belong to public life. I even get angry when I see them on TV. But I won’t be voting for “take back parliament”, an admirable effort by Nadine Moawad to use social media to come up with an alternative to the current political class, even if it markets itself as a secular movement.
The reason is simple: I like secular parties, but I also want to like their policies. From the slogans I’ve seen in facebook from Take back parliament‘s page, I realized that this party is too left-leaning for my taste. I like social justice, but I’m not a fan of extreme redistributive policies that will leave my country broke in no time.
This means that I will end up voting for the “same old faces”. I will gladly strike out the names of Khaled el Daher and Abou el 3Abed Kabbara because I am sick of their overt sectarian discourse, and I will probably replace them with Mikati and Safadi because they know a thing or two about managing finances.
But does that mean that I, or tens of thousands like me in all sects, are not secular or liberal? You wish..