Sectarianism Kills (Lebanese workers)

“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.

The one gable wall slogan that still rings true down the years is that “Sectarianism kills workers”

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7 Responses to “Sectarianism Kills (Lebanese workers)”

  1. goodhardrant Says:

    Glad you saw this and thanks for an interesting comparison between NI and Lebanon. A supposedly democratic state in which religion is citizen’s primary marker (prominently displayed on Lebanese ID cards) is a incredibly fraught one, as the aftermath of the civil war demonstrates. Like NI, the state enshrines sectarianism in a way that makes daily life a negotiation of conflicts and power hierarchies rather than a true civil society. Lebanon’s relative success in multi-faith coexistance belies the difficulties, violence and infringement of rights that goes hand in hand with sectarianism. I’m wondering what you make of the final comment about wanting to be ‘Lebanese’ – I know some marchers felt very uncomfortable with the national anthem that was sung. Do you see any conflict between ‘nation’ and secularism here?

  2. Garibaldy Says:

    I don’t really know why there was the problem with the national anthem, so can’t comemnt on that. The concept of nation certainly can conflict with secularism (as we know all too well from Ireland), but it seems to be that if the secularists are pushing a communal and secular version of citizenship and identity, then that must be an improvement on those provided by religion. I could have talked about India in this piece too, where they face many of the same problems of sectarianism, and where it is the left in the Communist Parties leading the battle against religion poisoning politics. I’m not sure of the class basis of this Lebanonese thing is, although it seems middle class to be, but still progressive and worthy of support in this context.

  3. yourcousin Says:

    G,
    The problem with you assessment is that basically everything kills workers. Capitalism kills workers, Facism kills workers, Communism kills workers, Socialism kills workers, The Russians (can I emphasize them enough?) kill workers. To put it bluntly, work kills workers. And I do mean that in all seriousness. April 28th was National Worker Memorial Day here in the US in which we honor all workers killed on the job. I’ve worked on jobs where people have died and people from my own company have died from work related things.

    To act as if the problems in Lebanon or Ireland are religious while technically accurate are to read the situation so shallowly (is this is a word?) that it contravenes logic. The outworkings of social structure, say through sectarianism are complex, nuanced, can fit quite nicely into secular society. The limiting of Catholic workers in the H&W had little to do with theology, though sectarianism did. If that makes sense. Even in a secular society, position and privilege (however distributed) are always going to be sources of conflict, especially if distributed unequally. It has very little to do with religion in and of itself.

    So yes, sectarianism does kill workers, but that does very little to shed light upon any solutions

  4. Garibaldy Says:

    You are of course correct YC that lots of things kill workers, especially when employers can get away with ignoring health and safety to cut costs, nevermind dangerous forms of work that entail longterm exposure to chemicals etc. So yes, work definitely kills workers, as do the other things you mention.

    Having said that, adding religion to a dispute is always a recipe for extra viciousness and poison. And religion is functioning here as a badge of identity rather than as theological disputes over transubstantiation or whether Mohammed as sent by god.

    We should that the there are broader political questions at work in Ireland, or Lebanon. But sectarianism in the sense of identifying primarily as a religion, and a diferent religion to others at that, certainly fuels the divisions in Lebanon and Ireland, and certainly fuelled the troubles in the north.

    The urge to hit back at the other side was a powerful one, and led to many deaths. So to put this in Fight Club terms, lots of things were killing people in that zen bullshit we are all dying kind of way (not an accurate quotation but close enough), but sectarianism was killing people like cancer. People who had made no conscious choice were being murdered for what they were in religious terms, something altogether nastier than the targetting of those who at least made a choice by joining an organisation directly involved in what was going on.

    That’s why it was worth singling out, as it was the organising principle of society. The statistics speak for themselves in terms of schooling, housing etc. And it is worth singling out still, both in Ireland and Lebanon. As an organising principle of society, religion is a poison. Just as big a poison as colour.

    On the point about identifying solutions, we need to understand the problem properly. And sectarianism is a central part of the problem in both places. The GFA has essentially parked the political disputation but not the question of sectarianism, which continues to be a major problem. And it seems that the 1990 arrangement in Lebanon hasn’t made much difference there either.

  5. goodhardrant Says:

    Laïque Pride have already started to organise another March for secularism to keep the momentum of the first event going. It’ll start on Hamra Street, Beirut, on Sunday, 17 April 2011.

    Lebanese citizens in the Diaspora are invited to rally on the same day, at 11 am (local time) in front of the closest Lebanese embassy or consulate to show their support for secularism in Lebanon.

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