The Road to Secularism

If you happen to be in the Middle East these days without punching your fist in the air, calling for the downfall of someone or something, then something must be wrong. To be fair, the people of every single Arab country (and Iran) are/would be completely justified in doing so.  Yet in the chaos and confusion of it all, there was one single nation standing out, that was apparently on the sidelines of all the action: Lebanon.

Was it because we already had our own revolution in 2005?  In retrospect, I am afraid not, if only by considering the most basic definition of a revolution.  It being a “sudden, radical, or complete change,” a “fundamental change in political organization; especially: the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed.” The Syrians physically withdrew, fortunately, but eventually everybody crept right back in, albeit wearing a different hat.

Not a people to be outdone, and with revolution fever sweeping the region, popular frustration and anger finally focused on one of the main causes of Lebanon’s hopeless system and its discontents: confessionalism.  “The People Want the Downfall of the Confessional Regime,” the slogan went.  Although this wasn’t anything new– with Lebanon’s first organized march for secularism held by the Lebanese Laique Pride movement on April 25, 2010– the additional grassroots movement, with its heated public discussions and ever-growing demonstrations, has certainly helped enhance momentum of the cause.

And so it begins. A journey that will provide hope for many and become the worst nightmare of those that have helped institutionalize confessionalism, used it to their personal advantage, and reaped the spoils of it.  A fight for a secular society, where every individual is seen, defined and valued not by what he believes in, but what he stands for; not by who he is backed by (many times his coreligionists), but what he has to back himself up with; where each and everyone of us stands equal in the face of one and the same body of law, regardless of who you believe- if any- is the higher being watching over you.

I am not the idealist that believes that becoming a secular state will be easy, nor that it will provide an immediate cure to all our ills.  I do not even know what to say to those I hear arguing on whether secularism has to be inculcated in people’s hearts and minds before being implemented on the ground or whether this is a good time for it to happen or not.  Yet I know that when I see young people calling for secularism, who have seen how it works abroad and suffered from the lack of it inLebanon–be it through corruption, injustice, and missed opportunities– detached of any political affiliation, I am hopeful.  Listening to any politician calling for the same thing doesn’t inspire me.  I don’t trust them, and feel sorry for them, since they believe they (or their associates or inheritors) will still be around to reap the political benefits of a new system, but don’t realize that by then, they will no longer be a force to be reckoned with.

For secularism to work, it certainly has to be accepted by all, and not used as a veil for a confessional-majority to rule or a confessional-minority to dominate.  This is always a fear in the Middle East, given the importance of religion and the heterogeneous nature of our society, and something that should be addressed.

But it is probably about time for religion to take its proper place in the nature of the world, that is, in our hearts and minds, and if chosen, as a guide for life, and not to dictate the course of our lives and that of others.

Knowing that we have open-minded people of religion, both Muslim and Christian that believe in secularism in Lebanon, even joining the latest anti-confessional protests is encouraging.  But having clergy who not only have been fierce advocates of secularism but so forward-looking is remarkable.  In 2002, Bishop Gregoire Haddad noted that in the “inevitable battle between those who want secularization and those who are keen on confessionalism, the internet is the progressive movement’s best ally.”

It’s going to be a long and winding road, the road to secularism, but everyday getting a little bit closer…

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