Marching for secularism in Lebanon

"They did not know it was impossible, so they did it." Encouraged by these words from Mark Twain, several thousand Lebanese are expected to march through Beirut on Sunday, calling for secularism.

The event – known as Laïque Pride – is the latest result of internet activism in the Middle East. It was started by Saeed Chaitou and four of his friends, and organised throughFacebookTwitter and a blog. At the latest count, 7,418 people have said they will attend on Sunday. Other demonstrations will be taking place at the same time outside Lebanese embassies abroad.

Stressing that it is "an independent citizen movement that absolutely refuses to by hijacked by politics", Laïque Pride calls for:

  • Non intervention of religious institutions in state affairs as much as the non intervention of the state in citizens' freedom of worship;

  • Independence of people's representatives from any allegiance to religious leaders and the sectarian system;

  • Laws respecting human rights and absolute equality between women and men;

  • A Lebanese civil code for personal status;

  • Reinforcement of public education to promote citizenship values among coming generations;

  • Securing equal opportunities in employment in the public sector based on qualifications rather than religion, race or gender;

  • An independent judiciary in charge of protecting citizens' rights in an attempt to circumvent the unhealthy predominant social habit of resorting to the power of kin-groups for backing.

Writing in The National last month, Elias Muhanna commented:

Moves to eliminate political confessionalism in Lebanon have a long history of failure, dating back to the earliest days of the republic. Leftist political parties and secularists advocated for the abolition of the system in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Taif Agreement (which ended the country’s 15-year civil war) called explicitly for the establishment of a non-confessional bicameral legislature, a demand that has gone unheeded for two decades.

In 2006, a Lebanese civil-society group launched a media campaign comprised of satirical newspaper advertisements and billboards that purported to offer jobs and services to members of specific sects: parking spots for Christians, doctors who catered only to Sunnis, a modelling agency searching for beautiful Shiite women. If the goal was to provoke debate about the infiltration of sectarianism into every aspect of Lebanese society, the campaign was a great success: in many neighbourhoods, billboards were defaced by angry residents who mistook feigned bigotry for the real deal.

But while many find the commingling of politics and religion to be odious, most Lebanese seem to regard the prospect of surrendering the imagined security provided by these arrangements far worse than whatever putative benefits a more democratic and non-confessional government might produce.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 April 2010.