Middle East needs truly secular governance

Special to The Japan Times
BEPPU, Oita Pref. — The march for secularism held on April 26 in Lebanon focused attention on the country and the region’s conflicts and battle of values. Thousands of Lebanese from various social backgrounds — Shiite, Sunni, Maronite and more — took to the streets and marched to the national parliament in Beirut to demand a secular state.

Lebanese have a deep-rooted distrust of state-endorsed consociationalism. In this system, religious authority comes first before the state. As a consequence, being a Lebanese in Lebanon is not just a matter of citizenship. The first question that comes to mind when Lebanese meet is “what is your sect?” without considering the fact that all citizens are equal before the law and have equal rights guaranteed by the constitution.

However, collusion between short-sighted religious leaders and corrupt politicians makes implementing the mandate of the constitution difficult. The sectarian system has turned Lebanon, once dubbed the Paris of the Middle East, into a battlefield of civil wars driven by geopolitical interests between conflicting parties in the region.

This is the result of having ethno-religious interests at the front rank, surpassing the need to maintain national unity. Rather than defining a national and multicultural identity, Lebanon has chosen the wrong path and is trapped in a frenzy of identity politics. With this mindset, the selfish tendency for “us” and not for “them” emerged among Lebanese.

Thus, the battle for identity, authority and “singularization” of the country began. Ignoring the reality of a melting-pot society, intolerance grew, which angered the citizens and drove them into the streets to demand equal rights.

The Middle East was once an historically-conscious society where differences were not opposed but respected and celebrated. Albert Hourani, a leading Lebanese-British scholar, illustrated this phenomenon in his classical text “Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age.”

From 1798 to 1939, though the Arabian Peninsula was colonized by European powers, Arab culture enjoyed a high degree of tolerance and equality among the different layers and backgrounds of society. Islamic enlightenment, which was rooted in the region, had a place in the Middle East and combined with new ideas from Europe.

Intellectuals, both Muslim and non-Muslim, ranging from the devout Muhammad Abduh to the secular Taha Hussein, were free to express their opinions and ideas. Discourse over the identity and future of society was dynamic and vibrant, and was brought into practice by the endorsement of political establishments at the time.

But after that the secular administrations of Arab countries failed to manage the economy of newly-independent states, implemented authoritarian methods to maintain power, while at the same time struggled to promote the livelihood of the people. This absence of democratic participation left no room for citizens to have their voices heard.

The only choice open to them was religion, and with the help of chaotic Western foreign policies in the region, militant Islamism rose onto the stage, which has meant that making a sober choice between corruption of the state or delusion from religious fanatics much more difficult.

The consequences have been miserable. Taha Husein’s hope of a modern, Western-friendly Egypt is now far from reality. Lebanon’s achievements in finance and tourism have also dissapeared, replaced by prolonged conflict.

The next task is to watch this civic movement in Lebanon. The sentiment should not be taken for granted because it’s a real desire for change. First and foremost, the state should know its role in society, especially in the context of a multicultural Lebanon. If the state does not know its role in society it will face a big problem. In other words, the state must be able to differentiate between its domain and the domain of citizens. When states regulate things that are beyond its mandate it creates a problematic situation in society.

Government should take care of the people’s welfare, build roads and infrastructure, and help the economy, and not be concerned with one’s religion, ethnicity or any other identity markers.

If the government insists on intervening in people’s lives and doesn’t protect their rights than it’s not a fully-functioning government. It’s simply a dysfunctional state. The Middle East desperately needs effective and efficient governments that treat everyone equally. By committing itself to this principle, Lebanon might regain its status as a home for peaceful coexistence between peoples and religions and send a message to the Middle East and the world.

Iqra Anugrah, a third-year student at the College of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan, is active in various Islamic and student groups.