Let’s start with a brief overview of what constitutes the specificity of Lebanon, namely confessionalism. The term ta’efa in Arabic, or “confession” in English, refers in Lebanon to the 18 tawaëf (plural of ta’efa) duly recognized by the Lebanese Constitution (12 Christian, 5 Muslim and 1 Jewish). In the beginning, these tawaëf were active religious communities which evolved into what is known today by sociologists as “supra-functional” groups, in the sense that they attribute to themselves all possible functions and not merely ritual practices. Under the Ottoman Empire, that ruled the eastern Mediterranean from the sixteenth until the twentieth century, the confessional political arrangements for Christian, Jewish and some Muslim heterodox groups was codified in what was known by the “millet system”.
That system contributed efficiently to transforming the tawaëf into autonomous and officially recognized entities. Accordingly, confessional identity became part of judicial and administrative structures of the State; religious leaders became the official representatives of their respective tawaëf to the authorities; and each confession had the power to manage its own affairs related to religious issues, personal status and even educational and welfare services. The allegiance to the ta’efa became consequently primary in contrast to the allegiance to the State or to other acquired identities as professional status. In fact, the State as a legal entity was never designed to interfere in internal confessional affairs.
Although Lebanon is a parliamentary democratic republic according to its Constitution, the political confessionalism has always been overlapped with democratic principles. Thus, for example, the highest positions in the State are reserved for representatives of the most numerous and prominent tawaëf: The President of the Republic must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of the Parliament a Shiite Muslim, and so on. This system based mainly on confessional affiliation fosters nepotism, clientelism, favouritism and corruption. Today, a great number of Lebanese, who are suffering of successive crises of all kinds since decades, aspire to establish a real democratic State which respects human rights. What Lebanon badly needs is a national vision for a modern democratic State.
Many obstacles prevent the realization of this objective, including the interference of religion in politics. What is the gravity of this situation? The intertwining of religion and politics creates in local confessions a theological-political affiliation that negatively employs religious beliefs in political action and the formation of social ties. The theological content of any religion represents in the eyes of its followers the complete truth. Ipso facto, the truths held by other religions are considered to be either partial or misleading. When this background is translated politically, it generates a negative vision of the political and national scene. That is because its theological-political nature does not allow to go beyond the “juxtaposition” of religions existing in the society and prevents a positive approach to diversity so that it can develop the spirit of a single national belonging on the basis of equality of rights and duties under the law and the common good; that is, the set of principles embodied by the modern State.
In other words, the theological background overlapping with politics thwarts pluralism that enriches debate in society for the good of all citizens, regardless of their religious affiliation. In the name of the preservation of the particularity of confessions, but also out of fear of the ‘other’, the theological-political basis continues to sustain sectarianism. The debacles currently raging in the country are only the consequences of this sad reality. This prevents the development of healthy social ties that are the foundation of the modern State, including the voluntary union of individuals on the basis of common interests and humanitarian and national values and principles allowing solid social cohesion under the aegis of a strong rule of law. It follows that these social ties are different from the natural bond of family or religious character.
The prevailing situation thus prevents the meeting of citizens as individuals given the power of confessional affiliation. This latter continues to be nourished by religious celebrations which have often political character and by the confessional discourse which focuses almost exclusively on defending the interests of the confessions and their particularities. As a result, the establishment of a strong State capable of developing a feeling of a unique national belonging and a citizenship based on equality between citizens becomes literally blocked. Modern political action requires a national vision that transcends sectarian loyalties and a dynamism in reflection and planning in order to serve the good of all Lebanese.
In addition, the drift of religion into politics has harmful impacts on religion itself, not only because it loses its universal dimension by linking itself to a particular group within a restricted society but also because political action creates an environment where negotiations, maneuvers, compromises and lies take place. This means that religion, once entangled in the political arena, loses seriously its credibility. In fact, the very truth that religion carries becomes a mere political topic subject to all kinds of exploitation. In his book “The Republic”, Plato says: “If really lying is useless to the gods, but useful to men in the form of a remedy, it is obvious that the use of such a remedy must be reserved for doctors, and that the profane must not touch it” (Book III, No. 389 b). It is obvious the political arena can never be safe from lies and false and misleading promises. This in itself is a sufficient reason to dissociate religion from politics.
It is incumbent on religious references to protect the greatness of the divine message entrusted to them from politics and to occupy their rightful place within the society, namely, a reference which awakens the conscience to the ultimate objective of life: Fraternity under the gaze of the single God who loves humankind.
Article published on “Salaam” (October 2022, vol. 43, n. 4), the quarterly on Christian-Muslim understanding of the Islamic Studies Association, Vidyajyoti College of Theology, New Delhi, directed by Dr. Fr. Victor Edwin SJ.