Note: This is the fourth in a series of five thematic Lebanon-related posts, based on a conversation between the author and a Lebanese citizen who preferred to remain anonymous. The first three posts (on politics and the parliamentary elections, the economy and the environment) were published last year.
Eye on the East (EOTE): Happy Easter.
Lebanese Citizen (LC): Thanks, I guess.
EOTE: Not much of an Easter person yourself?
LC: Not really, I’m just enjoying the long weekend. Everyone becomes religious during the religious holidays, whether Christian or Muslim. I don’t really know if it’s because I notice more, it’s just a habit or people feel they need to express some religious fervor to justify the holiday.
EOTE: Are we really going to talk about religion now?
LC: I’d rather not, because I don’t have much to say about it.
EOTE: I don’t believe you.
LC: I knew you wouldn’t. But even I, who looks forward to a good lively discussion on almost any topic, try to stay away from this one. It’s absolutely hopeless.
LC: Not hopeless, absolutely hopeless. Listen, I know we agreed to talk on a variety of topics and this is a major one. I mean, if we’re talking about Lebanon, religion and sectarianism is crucial, if not at the heart of every single problem plaguing this country. And I mean every single one of them, from fighting corruption, to reform, to the debt, to accountability, to justice, to better services, everything.
EOTE: Give me one example.
LC: Let’s say fighting corruption. The vast majority of politicians are corrupt. Currently, there seems to be a “serious” drive to combat corruption. The other day, a Maronite accused a Sunni of corruption. The Sunni community considered the accusation as an attack again the entire community, although the Sunni guy is truly very corrupt. As far as I’m aware, the fight against this particular case of corruption ended right there. Case closed. You see what I mean? It became about religion. The same has and will happen when other people of different religions/confessions accuse someone else, or even within confessions. It’s hopeless. So how are we supposed to fight corruption again?
EOTE: We won’t. Or maybe they’ll just fight petty corruption, nothing too controversial and equally across confessions.
LC: Yes, but that won’t get us anywhere in the larger scheme of things. Just a placebo, for us to feel the government is serious about change and anti-corruption, when in fact we are far from it.
EOTE: Anyway, back to the hopeless topic.
LC: Have you heard of the expression ‘godless in the land of gods.’
LC: Of course you haven’t. I just made it up.
LC: It’s what this place has made me into, godless in the land of gods.
In the Middle East, the birthplace of the world’s three main monotheistic religions – where religion plays too big of a role in people’s lives – it isn’t just easy but almost forced upon anyone who genuinely has an open and free mind, to become religiously ambivalent, skeptical and even godless in the land of gods.
In this, our land of the cedar (since there’s just a couple left), belonging to one creed or another is generally seen as inalienable, self-evident and unquestionable. Lebanon has pushed people to transform religion almost into a personality trait, a common denominator that brings people together, a quality that provides a sense of belonging for the lack of a viable alternative. Sometimes it even feels as if the religion people claim to adhere to is void of any meaning, and adopted as history, culture, a political statement or even more dangerously, an identity. That’s one of the main reasons why I prefer to stay away from this topic: many people won’t understand or are afraid to even listen when you argue and question.
But becoming godless in the land of gods is more than just one’s personal relationship with faith, or a protest against how destructive a role it has played in our country. Godless is a state of mind that refuses religion as a basis by which to live and judge human existence. It is a protest against those who believe theirs is the only religion that matters and through it existence is better fulfilled. It is a stand against the hypocrites who claim to refuse to be controlled by faith, yet are the most conformist and bigoted of all, refusing to engage with “the other,” afraid of loving “the other,” unaware that they too are “the other” to someone else, and with this predisposition, all “the others” are all the same, and with them no kind of viable society can ever be built.
EOTE: You always have something you want to say.
LC: And you sure know when and how to ask to get it out of me.