BEIRUT: On dashboards, rearview mirrors and car windows are symbols that tell stories of different communities in a small divided country.
Owners of the small crosses, Qurans, religious verses, swords and fish symbols say that they are displaying their faith for protection or for a blessing. But those who refuse to profess their faith publicly scoff at it as a sign of sectarianism.
“People shouldn’t display religious symbols on their cars. If they do, they should put a Quran and a cross together,” says Ali Saleh, a taxi driver on Hamra Street, waiting for passengers. “The Bible and the Quran both have the same message – to treat people well. I keep my Quran at home.”
Fellow driver Abu Ayman has a Quran on his dashboard because, he says, “It gives me protection.”
“Don’t say that,” Saleh says. “People will laugh at us. God doesn’t protect people based on whether or not they have a Quran in their car. Mine is at home.”
“Ninety percent of people displaying religious symbols are doing it out of sectarianism,” he adds.
In Lebanon, where sectarian divisions pervaded in the Civil War and even other times of more recent strife, religious symbols serve as both a reminder of what divides Lebanese society as well as a comfort for those seeking solace in their faith.
Some people wear symbols of their faith around their neck, while others, more noticeably, plaster it on their cars and trucks, in what sometimes can seem like a competition. About five years ago, a trend among Christians was to plaster a large sticker on their rear window that read “King of Kings.”
Shortly thereafter, a sticker in the same pattern depicting Mecca also started appearing on cars.
At the Bible Society, a Christian souvenir shop in Downtown Beirut, Rita Khoury says her customers have various reasons for buying religious symbols. “Some people want to show people they’re Christian when they’re driving through different areas in Lebanon,” she says.
“Other people want a symbol to show their faith because if they get into an accident they would want to see a priest in their final moments. We also have a few Muslim customers who buy these as gifts for their Christian friends.”
At Nader, a shop that sells prayer beads on Hamra Street, Dima Dakakni, a regular customer, says she has at least 30 sets of prayer beads at home. She started making them at her mosque when she was a child during the war. Her brother likes to display his in his car. “Some people say they’re a blessing or good luck. I used to live in Jordan, and they weren’t as into religious symbols as they are here.”
Precisely because of the prevalence of these symbols in Lebanon, a country largely divided on religious and sectarian lines, secular activist May Abi Samra, who was part of the now-dormant anti-sectarian movement that began around five years ago, worries that they are intended to mean more than just a blessing.
“It shows how sectarian Lebanese society is, and it makes me think I don’t want to be like that,” she says. Abi Samra recalls once asking her friend why he put a cross on his rearview mirror. He told her it was “for protection,” to which she responded: “Then why does it have to be so visible?”
Asaad Thebian, who has also been involved in anti-sectarian activism, disagrees with the practice of displaying religious symbols in cars, particularly in taxis, where passengers don’t have the choice as to what they see.
“I think in the public vehicles there should be a law that bans using any religious symbol since the vehicle is to be used by different people from various backgrounds and it is not the right of the driver to confiscate their opinions. This also applies to the religious radio stations people listen to,” he says.
“As for private cars, I think it is a [matter of] personal freedom. But I do not agree it is a sign of faith; I think it is rather a sign of lack of faith when a person needs a visual reminder to let them know that God exists.”
For Father Tony, a Maronite priest based in Harissa, the question of whether someone should show a religious symbol on their car isn’t clear-cut. For him, it depends on their motivation.
“There are extremists, there are those who show their religion out of fear of God, and those who love their faith and aren’t ashamed of it,” he says.
Father Tony believes the third reason is the only justification to show one’s faith. If people decide to display their faith on their car, then they have the responsibility to represent their faith well by not littering and obeying traffic laws.
“Obviously people I ask give intrinsic motivations,” says Charles Harb, a psychology professor at the American University of Beirut, who specializes in identity and group dynamics. “But these symbols are also there to declare and perceive someone’s identity with a particular group.
“At the same time, there was the reverse trend. You’d see people with stickers on their cars reading, ‘Say no to sectarianism,’” Harb notes, adding that when someone doesn’t display a symbol – particularly in Lebanon, where they’re so prevalent – it’s tantamount to making a statement.
“It’s odd. People are also taking a stand. The absence of a symbol is just as noticeable as the presence of one.”
Although he’s not overly concerned with overt displays of religion, Harb, himself a secularist, says, “At the end of the day it’s a symptom of group division. Lebanon is particular because of the presence of multiple sects. In this country, the power and resources are based on sectarian alliance and group identity.”
He sees symbols on cars as a much bolder statement than those worn around the neck.
“On the car, it’s a bigger statement. Either you’re proselytizing or you’re showing your sectarianism. You’re claiming space, and that’s potent in Lebanon,” he says.
“Imagine what it looks like to someone who’s feeling fear.”