Lebanon's Liberals

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.

Pragmatic liberals

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..


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  • http://thejrexpress.com The JR Express – Jad Rahme

    I totally agree with you Mustapha! Great piece :)

    • Mustapha

      Thanks Jad, glad you liked it :)

  • Wassim

    The problem is not with the sheikhs or priests, the problem is with the politicians who are only concerned with their sects. This is were secularism is needed! Being a religious person and a secular one at the same time is something most people don’t get. What’s the problem with being so? Why must it be either religious or secular? The problem is with the “snap” thing you mentioned and which i totally agree with. If Miqati is Sunni but a financial expert, ill gladly vote for him, and and if Nicolas Sihnaoui is a Maronite and doing a good job, ill vote for him as well! The problem with the orthodox law is that its pushing me to vote for qualified people that belong to my sect only.

    • Mustapha

      That nuance it seems is lost on many in Lebanon, who insist on pigeonholing you as a sectarian.

    • romeo

      I used to call myself a secular.

      Until I realized I was afraid to call myself an atheist.

  • Ayman Mhanna – Tajaddod Youth

    You won’t be surprised to know I totally agree with you.

    We’ve had meetings with many of the secular non-mainstream groups and we share many of their concerns and ideas. However, we’re still convinced that you need to play ball. You need to do whatever is needed – of course, respecting democratic and ethical standards – to be influential. We’re proud that Tajaddod MPs submitted to parliament bills to abolish the death penalty, establish truly functional judiciary independence, enforce independent regulations on privatized sectors, and so many other reforms that go in the direction of what secular groups want. If we’re to ally with sectarian parties in the next election we will not contradicting by any means our values. We’d only be pragmatically seeking to reach positions that can allow us to increase the chance of implementing our policies.

    In order to do this successfully though, we also have to complete our homework and get our houses in order. This is the only way to overcome the challenges I outlined in this paper http://www.tajaddod-youth.com/blog-page/6017.

    And it seems we have to add a 6th challenge: reaching some kind of common grounds with people who share our values but not our tactics. They’re very often fiercer adversaries than the enemy we know.

    • Mustapha

      Thanks for your comment Ayman, you know that the Tajaddod movement is a classic example if not the canonical example of liberals working from within the system.. I greatly admire your work and dedication…

  • http://twitter.com/omarionation Omar

    Great post, but i think it’s time we start thinking outside the traditional left-right paradigm,

    Lebanon need’s a libertarian party, a party with the goal of reducing the central government to the absolute minimum, practically aiming for miniarchism on a nationwide scale, while at the same time working towards decentralizing the power to local authorities.
    Do we really need so many Ministers and MPs? Ministry of Media, really? n

    The bureaucratic government , has already been proven incompetent in running anything, especially in Lebanon, while the Lebanese private sector has always gained a reputation for innovation and adaptation despite the harsh economical environment and lack of stability. The most shining example would be Lebanese State TV compare that with other private Lebanese TVs, and start handing it over to the private sector, from public transport, drilling for oil etc..

    Other more sensitive sectors like policing, energy management, environment, could be handed over to local municipalities, who should also be given more powers, and the power to tax and spend locally.

    We should also think about applying a libertarian approach to the national defence strategy.

    Apply a strategy similar to that of the Swiss Army , also an ethnically diverse army with a history of ethnic rivalry, where all capable adults are considered soldiers with formal periodic training, and access to a firearm.

    Maybe also adopting some of the IDF principles of everyone being a soldier on reserve waiting to be called for combat, and find a way to incorporate militias based on their own religious ideology under the all inclusive Lebanese army, maybe Hezbollah can get their own brigade in the libertarian Lebanese army?

    Sorry for the long reply, but i think it’s time we start thinking outside the box, and stop trying what has failed us already.

    • Mustapha

      Thanks for the comment Omar.. I am a Libertarian myself, but even libertarianism is not immune to the left-right divide. Libertarianism has degrees and can be anything from mild to extreme. You can be libertarian in spirit (an instinctive aversion to big government), and you don’t need to be Ayn Rand to realize that some of Ron Paul’s positions for example are extreme…

      • http://twitter.com/omarionation Omar

        Yea absolutely, not all libertarians are anarchists, and there are degrees to libertarianism like you say, just like not all left-wingers / liberals are communists.

        You mention Ron Paul a Libertarian with a capital ‘L’ , on the extreme side of libertarianism, but let me also mention Margret Thatcher, who could also be labeled as libertarian with her socially liberal and economically conservative stances, but is usually labeled as right-wing due to the restrictions of the traditional single axis paradigm, a more accurate political view that we need to adopt would be something along the lines of the Nolan Chart, which takes into consideration a double axis paradigm including an axis of libertarianism – totalitarianism.

        In my opinion, Lebanon needs a Margret Thatcher type of libertarian.

  • lola

    Lebanese leaders have gone too far with their corrupted systems, in fact, even when they do something beneficial it always turns to have millions of side effects. For example, making the voters list and all information about people available publicly on the government website and also on private websites and mobile applications, such as People of Leb.

  • http://www.antounissa.com Antoun Issa

    Hi Mustapha,

    While I don’t disagree with much of what you said, my specific mention of the secular liberal activists (that I stereotyped according to you) is due to their enthusiasm to be politically active.

    Secularism is a priority for these activists, and my piece should have been interpreted as constructive criticism on how they can transform their small protest movement (which is on the fringe) into concrete political action.

    As for the notion of secularism itself, of course, multiple shades of that exist in Lebanese society. It ranges from the likes of the SSNP and Communists to Helem to you and I.

    That should be seen as a positive that there are people on the political and economic Left and Right that see the need for secular change.

    I don’t see why we can’t have a coalition of left-leaning and right-leaning secular parties and groups that run and vote together on this issue.

    If Nadine Moawad wants to start a left-leaning liberal party with secularism as a platform, I’m not sure why such a group can’t cooperate with (e.g.) Ayman Mhanna’s more right-leaning party that also places secularism as a key policy issue.

    Why can’t they unite in elections and join lists? Why can’t they form a coalition?

    The Future Movement and the SSNP are about to vote together against this law, while the LF/Kataeb will join Hezbollah. If these guys can maneouvre for their own interests, why can’t those of us who strongly believe in secular change (whether Left or Right)?

    I disagree with your Libertarianism, but we can agree on secularism.

  • http://qifanabki.com Qifa Nabki

    Snap to grid politics = great term that I will steal (and credit to you).