“Sectarianism kills” and “We are for civil marriage, not civil war” read the colourful banners at Sunday’s protest in the centre of Beirut.
Hundreds of young Lebanese gathered to march for secularism in a country that lives under a deeply divisive sectarian system.
The slogan “Sectarianism Kills Workers”, sometimes shortened to “Sectarianism Kills”, was a prominent theme in Republican Clubs and then Workers’ Party propaganda throughout the Troubles. It appeared not only in posters like the one above, but also written on gable walls. It was a stark message that described the true reality of the relationship between violence and broader society in Northern Ireland. The gunmen and the bombers were merely the most extreme manifestation of the cancer that polluted – and continues to pollute – practically every aspect of life, from education to work to socialising. The terrorists were rejected by the majority of the population, but the sectarian division that led to the violence continues to be embraced by the overwhelming majority of people in the North. That is a harsh reality, but it is one that progressives must acknowledge and confront if we are ever going to defeat sectarianism.
It was with some interest then that I saw this story about the secular protests in Lebanon on the BBC website. Their use of the slogan Sectarianism Kills reflects the reality of a country still riven by deep religious divisions and where each of the 18 officially recognised sects has its own set of laws. The positions of power in the country are also divided along sectarian lines, and have been for decades, including before the civil war that devestated the country between 1975 and 1990. I remember watching the news from Lebanon during the 1980s, and thinking that Christians fighting Muslims didn’t seem that outlandish a suggestion, possibly even logical. Not of course that the situation in NI ever approached anything like that in Lebanon – partly because there were no international power politics at play as there was there – but the fundamental question of sectarianism is one parallel. It didn’t seem so inexplicable as it must have done to people in, say, Surrey.
There are of course good reasons to have power-sharing in Lebanon, but at the same time, the restrictions placed on those who do not wish to be bound by the conventions of religion and religions tradition are fundamentally anti-democratic.
Ziad and his wife Reine say they joined the movement because the Lebanese system had failed them.
They come from different religious backgrounds and, since civil marriage is not permitted in Lebanon, they could not get married.
“Our families fought each other in the civil war and then I had a big fight about my relationship. The social and family pressure is immense,” Reine says.
They had to go to Cyprus and get a civil marriage registered there. Obviously, there are class issues here. Those who can afford to move abroad or to get married abroad will do so. Poorer people will be stuck. The need for secularism is obvious – it not only offers more rights and liberation for all the people of Lebanon, but it also has the potential to foster an inclusive sense of identity that maintaining social divisions along religious lines never can.
That’s what keeps the society so split, so divided. And its also unfair. I don’t want to be associated with my sect, I want to be Lebanese,” says Kinda.
And so the march represents a small step forward towards building an alternative, and perhaps the beginning of a movement for people to rally around. Unless an alternative can be built, then what was and is true in Northern Ireland – where low-level sectarian violence continues – will be true in Lebanon as well.