Is There No Place for People Like Me in Lebanon?

The delusion of co-existence in a sect-based country.

Lebanese politician Boutros Harb

The Lebanese government has collapsed. In a maneuver organized by Hezbollah, 11 opposition ministers resigned from the Cabinet, and Lebanon entered a new phase whose outcome can be best described as unknown. As everyone waits for the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon to hand down its indictment, there is endless talk of gloomy scenarios. It seems likely that the future will be one of still more divisions and uncertainties.

Only one thing is shared by all Lebanese: fear. The Shiites are afraid of Israel using this opportunity to strike at Hezbollah again. The Sunnis, whose leader, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in February 2005, fear Hezbollah will not allow justice to be done. And the Christians, who are divided between the two political camps, are worried about their role and continued existence in Lebanon.

The Christians’ fears are intensified because Christians in Iraq, Egypt, and the rest of the Middle East are being targeted, and because Hezbollah has reportedly been using Iranian money to buy vast pieces of land in Christian areas.

With no civil-status law to protect its citizens, Lebanon still cannot look beyond its sectarian divisions or deal with its challenges as one nation, even more than 20 years after the end of a vicious sectarian civil war.

To be Lebanese, you need to be a Christian, a Sunni, or a Shiite. Otherwise, you will not feel that you belong. You will have no rights. Only your sectarian community is there to protect you, and in return, you must pledge your loyalty to it on all levels: political, social, and, when required, to its religious institutions.

That is if you do not want to feel like an outsider. If you want to try to be a secular Lebanese citizen, you can. It is difficult but not impossible.

I decided a long time ago to embrace secularism on a very personal level. But after reading about a new draft law proposed by Lebanese MP Boutros Harb, I feel I am being pushed to go back into the box; that is, to be a Shiite. Harb’s legislation would ban the sale of land and property between Christians and Muslims for 15 years.

Of course, the legislation isn’t directed at me personally, and I do understand Harb’s motives. As a Lebanese Christian, he is afraid, and his proposed law is a reflection of his community’s valid fears. (Harb’s proposed law is unlikely to pass. Even if it made it onto the next Cabinet’s agenda—whenever it forms—the majority of Lebanese politicians will oppose it; Hezbollah will make sure of that. Still, it reflects the Christian community’s desperation and a general tendency within Lebanon.)

Right now, the mood in the region is one of banishing the other and forsaking tolerance. This is what we see in the attacks against Christians in Iraq and Egypt, and also in the growth of the Sunni-Shiite struggle across the Islamic world, in the division of Sudan, and in the potential collapse of Yemen’s unity.

This is not something to be taken lightly, and as a Lebanese woman, I am equally concerned. But I am concerned because Hezbollah is also taking over other areas of Lebanon. It is buying land everywhere, including in Lebanon’s south, where the Shiites are the main population.

Harb is worried that Hezbollah’s land purchases will change the country’s demographics and force Christians to leave their homes and potentially their country. His fears are valid, but why can’t Harb and other Christian and Sunni leaders in Lebanon see that the south is also being emptied?

I come from the south, and I lived there until I was 18. When I go there today, I feel like a stranger in a place that doesn’t look like itself anymore. It has lost its color, and people have forgotten how to smile.

Young Shiite men have the same reasons as young Christian men for trying to get out of the country: They want decent jobs and security. It seems that everyone in Lebanon has given up on the Shiites and handed them over to Hezbollah. Whether they like it or not, Shiites are left with no one but Hezbollah to provide services and protect their interests.

It is true that there are fewer and fewer Christians in Lebanon, and many have already left the country, but Harb’s legislation wouldn’t solve the remaining Christians’ problem. The Christians’ problem is not legal, it is political, and it is the same problem that is facing all Lebanese people: the threat of Hezbollah’s arms and Iran’s money.

It should also be noted that secular Lebanese citizens who still dream of a secular civil state in Lebanon would be sacrificed if Harb’s law passed. At some point, people like me would probably feel that it would be better to leave the country than risk still more alienation by a system that cannot tolerate secular individuals.

Ten years ago, I married a Maronite Christian. We had a civil marriage in France, and a few years later, we bought a house in Achrafieh, in the Christian area of Beirut. Then we had a son, who was by Lebanese custom automatically considered to be Christian, like his father.

During those 10 years, Lebanon was divided along political lines; it was March 14 vs. March 8. As a Shiite who supported March 14 principles, both personally and as a journalist, I was immediately labeled as anti-Hezbollah.

People like me—secular Lebanese and/or independent Shiites—are a minority that is never accounted for by the Lebanese state, and we feel like outsiders everywhere we go. In my own sectarian community, I am considered an outsider, and in the Christian area where I live, I feel like a stranger. Is it fair to feel that your own country is rejecting you?

According to Lebanon’s sect-based legal system, a person cannot inherit the estate of someone of a different religion. Therefore, my son, a Maronite, cannot inherit from me, his Shiite mother. The only solution would be for me to sell my property to my son for a symbolic price so that I could pass it on to him. If Harb’s proposed legislation passes, even that would be impossible. My son would not be able to inherit anything from me.

Harb’s proposal emerged in a time of fear, and fear can drive people back into their own communities, especially in a country like Lebanon, where sects, not the state, are the first point of reference. But this cannot be a solution. The only solution is to unite again as Lebanese people, as we did in March 2005, when we started the Cedar Revolution, and try to remember why and how we felt so strong then.

We were strong because we felt we were in it together as Lebanese citizens. We were strong because we believed we could fulfill our dream of a democratic, free, and modern country. The moment that we started to become Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites, we lost that dream.

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