[ Originally published in al-Andalus. The following are a few brief points relating to Sectarianism and Secularism. We have kept the points and article brief as to encourage debate and discussion]
Recently, a movement has been growing across Lebanon calling for an end to Political Sectarianism. The solution, they propose; secularism. The ambiguity surrounding their proposed solution, makes it somewhat difficult to objectively evaluate the movements aims, and measure its potential success. Failing to define the form, type, or structure of the secular state they want.
Through zealous disillusionment, Secularism has become synonymous with “tolerance, plurality and anti-sectarianism” and a false Sectarianism v. Secularism binary is set up. Diluting the lines between Political Sectarianism, and Sectarianism, rendering the difference insignificant.
The colonially imposed system along with its discourse, is without doubt a system we must work towards deconstruction, but is Secularism a solution? Several points, and questions come to mind;
1) Residue of Colonialism
The Secular movement, while working against a colonially developed system set in place to decentralize power in the Muslim world and fragment Muslims in an effort to stifle any possible resistance - ironically, import a purely Eurocentric discourse from the same country which colonized Lebanon; France. Struck by intellectual and historical amnesia, lacking the ability to look beyond colonial legacy, beyond that of the nation-state, to a time in which even Jews inhabited parts of the nation and coexisted peacefully with Muslims and Christians.
A stark reality becomes all the more obvious; the vestiges of colonialism, and its mental bondages still pervade the Muslim world. And that domination comes not only through political structures, but also over conscious.
2) Can we remove the Secular Political Sectarianism System with a “Secular Civil Democracy” in the absence of a national-identity?
The current sectarian political system, as pointed out by Maya Mikdashi of Columbia University, to the surprise of many is secular. More specifically, its referred to as a consociational democracy in which each sect/confession is given representation in parliament. A system put in place by the Imperial French Colonialist, and was compounded by the Ta’if Agreement in 1990 to perpetuate the sectarian culture created secular political elite. The question is, does a national culture exist? A national culture or base according to which citizens, regardless of their sect can vote? The answer to this question is obvious; no. Removing the Political Sectarian system, before cultivating a national culture would lead to a civil war, the proportions of which Lebanon has yet to see. A political system and its constitution always reflects the values, ideals, and culture of a nation - and not vice versa.
Considering that the socio-political, geographical, economic, and spatio-temporal conditions for a nation and state do not exist, let alone the obstacles put forth by the sects which would be deemed minorities and lose all political influence.
We put forth, the following question; what would be the grounds for morality, plurality, diversity, or coexistence, according to which “citizens” would vote in the absence of a national identity?
People, in making decisions, be it at home (“private square”) or through political participation (“public square”) do not, as many secularist think, transcend their immediate self and think “rationally”. Our actions, and judgments are based on certain moral frameworks, experience, emotions, and bodily impulses or desires. To assume that, once stripped of a political sectarian system that the populace will base their decisions on national identity, and rational is absurd.
3) Problem; religion, or politicians?
Usama Makdisi, a professor at Princeton University points out “Colonialism transformed the social, political, and economic significance of religion into a reified order wherein decontextualized religious identities alone defined individuals” (Makdisi 1996)
Looking at the conflicts that ravaged Lebanon since it gained independence in 1943 - it becomes obvious and evident that the problem was never with religion, but with the political elite who exploited a “decontextualized” religion for their political and personal gains. What exactly about the 1958 civil war between Lebanese patriots and Arab nationalist, involved Islam or Christianity? Or, the Arab-Israeli conflict and PLO which lead to the 1978 civil war? And, the most recent conflicts are surely not drawing on religious values and principles.
The aim then, should not be the removal of religion from the public square, as Secularism seeks to do. Doing so, as T.N Madan points out would only lead to its exploitation and evisceration. William E. Connolly, in his seminal work Why I am Not A Secularist proposes a more fruitful and realistic notion; an ethos of engagement between religions in the public square. Our goal, regardless of what “sect” or religion we belong to should be to recapture religion from the corrupt political elites. A return to the true practicing of faith - drawing from its values and not the modern-day tribalism which has come to replace the faiths. The only substantive force which can replace the culture of sectarianism, is religion itself. Otto Maduro, a neo-Marxist, even recognized and decisively said “Religion is not necessarily a functional, reproductive or conservative factor in society; it often is one of the main (and sometimes the only) available channel to bring about a social revolution (Maduro 1977: 366)”
Above, we have sought to briefly shed light on a few points and questions that come to mind. Our challenge and questions remain open.