Lebanon’s Sectarianism Recipe for Religious Freedom Disaster

By: Fernando Perez

IIRF Research and Analysis Report - 2/2015

The protracted presidential vaccuum in Lebanon reveals how sectarian politics has turned as a result of the conflict in neighboring Syria, and should serve as a warning for those who care for stability and religfious freedom in this Middle Eastern nation.

Lebanon’s parliament has not been able to reach consensus on the election of the president despite 20 attempts over the last 10 months, which has paralyzed lawmaking and crippled the government’s work at a time when the country has around 1.18 million registered Syrian refugees, mostly Sunni, and sectarian violence is growing.

Lebanon’s politics is highly polarized.

While the Sunni Muslims-led March 14 Alliance is known for its anti-Syrian regime stance and strong ties to the United States, the Shiite Hezbollah-led March 8 Alliance is seen as pro-Syrian regime. The former blames the March 8 Alliance, calling it a proxy of Iran, for the political crisis in Lebanon by obstructing the presidential vote with their consistent boycott of parliament sessions.

Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad is from the Alawite minority, which is an offshoot of Shia Islam. And those fighting against his regime are mostly Sunni Muslims.

Some in the March 14 Alliance believe that unless a president fully supportive of Iran is elected, the March 8 Alliance won’t allow the election to be held successfully. Others say Iran wants to pressure the West to finalize a proposed nuclear deal with Tehran before allowing the presidential election to be held in Lebanon.

The Syrian conflict has also spilled over into Lebanon’s society. Hundreds have died and thousands injured in numerous incidents of sectarian violence in Tripoli and Beirut as well as northern, southern and eastern parts of Lebanon since mid-2011.

Sectarianism is also reflected in the Lebanese press. Nearly all media outlets have ties to sectarian leaders or groups, and consequently practice self-censorship and maintain a specific, often partisan, editorial line, according to Freedom House.

Of Lebanon’s estimated 4.1 million people, about 60 percent are Muslim – roughly equally divided between Sunni and Shia – and 39 percent are Christian.

Religious identity is pronounced among the people of Lebanon. Religion is generally written on national identity cards as well as a few other official documents. 

The constitution provides for political offices to be in accordance with religious affiliations. For example, it states that Christians and Muslims be represented equally in parliament, the cabinet and high-level civil service positions.

Besides, an unwritten National Pact of 1943 requires that Lebanon’s president must from the local traditional Maronite Christian community, the largest Christian denomination in the country. However, the 1989 Taif Agreement, which ratified the end of the country’s 15-year civil war of 1975 to 1990, reduced the power of the Maronite Christian presidency.

The multifaceted Lebanese Civil War resulted in an estimated 120,000 deaths and mass exodus, and tens of thousands remain displaced even today.

The National Pact also states that the speaker of the parliament must be a Shiite Muslim, its prime minister Sunni Muslim, and the deputy speaker and the deputy prime minister Greek Orthodox.

Moreover, law offers potential tools to sectarian elements, be they in the government or society, to persecute communities. For example, the penal code provides for one-year imprisonment for “blaspheming God publicly.” The law also allows for censorship of material that may incite sectarian discord or be deemed a threat to national security.

Evangelism is not punishable by law, but religious leaders and communities strongly oppose it, sometimes with the threat of violence.

The Syrian conflict and its repercussions in Lebanon, the diverse demography, the civil war legacy and political instability are enough ingredients to reignite major tensions.

To prevent renewed conflict in Lebanon, it is urgent for international organizations and foreign players to ensure at the earliest mitigation of the spillover effects of the conflict in Syria, national stability and reduction of sectarian tensions.

The way forward could be to help improve humanitarian access into Syria so that the influx of refugees is checked, to provide development assistance to Syrian refugees in Lebanon as well as to the Lebanese citizens who are hosting and helping the refugees, to help strengthen Lebanese armed forces while ensuring they don’t turn sectarian, and to reduce violence in Syria by a dialogue that includes all regional players that have stakes in the Syrian conflict.