Readers will forgive me if I use a personal milestone as the premise for what follows. The year 2012 marks 20 years since my return to Lebanon, after an interregnum abroad. On the occasion, what change has struck me most during this period? Without a doubt, that affecting religion.
By this I don’t mean the primacy of sectarianism, though that is certainly part of it. What I’m referring to is the pervasiveness of the outwardly devotional, of public manifestations of faith, a belief in miracles, and the compulsive recourse to God or other sacred figures in all varieties of day-to-day situations. Moreover, such religiosity seems everywhere present physically – on trinkets, lockets, wristbands, key rings, bumpers, pocket flashlights, lighters, and wherever else one can affix the image of a saint or a Quranic verse.
Religion is, or should be, a private matter. Yet what is so startling is that the Lebanese today routinely wear it on their sleeve, literally and figuratively. They mechanically assume that if they mutter a religious invocation, that their interlocutors will respond in kind. And many do. Stranger still, it is the young who are the most dedicated. Where one would assume that youths are impatient to cut loose from religious tradition, in Lebanon they are the ones holding the trenches.
The phenomenon is disturbing. To believe in God is one thing, and it is a right no less meriting of protection than the right to religious unbelief. However, it often appears that the rise in overt Lebanese religiosity, like the rise in sectarian polarization, is one consequence of the breakdown of confidence in the state and its social contract.
If so, the issue we’re addressing perhaps has less to do with religion as such than with the particulars of identity. Among Christians, for instance, there is a palpable connection between explicit examples of religiosity and a sense of communal decline. When you feel yourself to be on the ropes, the natural reflex is to reaffirm your presence by whatever means possible, even if it means overdoing things.
I still recall walking into a bank one day and watching a young trainee teller as she went through the steps of verifying my check. The girl, she must have been 22 at most, was a movable reliquary. She wore a large rosary around her neck and religious strings around her wrist, alongside a smaller rosary doubling as an elastic bracelet. I may have caught sight of the Immaculate Conception on a chain as well.
The teller was hardly to be blamed for her convictions. Yet I wondered at how developed must have been the inner sanctum inhabited by this girl, and how this somehow represented a loss for Lebanon as a whole. When youths of any sect bury themselves in the depths of a creed, that is in one measure because they are unwilling, or more likely unable, to have a say in the world outside – in the republic.
This contrasts sharply with attitudes among an older generation of Lebanese, those who were in their 20s during the 1970s. In that first decade of the Civil War, secular ideologies still held meaning. Sect was important and militiamen flaunted their religious artifacts. But back then they still seemed to be fighting over the state, over something tangible: their version of what they regarded as an ideal polity. For many Lebanese in their 20s nowadays, once they manage to transcend their cynicism, the ideal polity, typically, is abroad.
Not surprisingly, political and religious leaders have facilitated the Lebanese retreat to religion. On the one hand, religion provides sectarian leaderships with a fine instrument to impose unanimity behind their authority; on the other, the alienation Lebanese feel from public matters means politicians are left unchallenged.
The clergy has been no better. More religion makes them more relevant, but also bolsters their much-inflated influence. Priests and sheikhs can only applaud when their flocks fall back on the outer trappings and paraphernalia of the faith, as opposed to the spirituality purportedly at its core. For it is the churches and the mosques that administer the public facets of devotion, lending them legitimacy. Yet there is an irony. Few Lebanese are naïve about the corruptions of their religious institutions. Rarely have clerics been as mistrusted, as blatantly enslaved to the worldly. And yet they still enjoy obedience.
If the Lebanese aspire to a better future, they will have to break out of their sectarian islands and closeted religious mindsets. Religion will remain a defining feature of Lebanon, the secular notwithstanding. But whatever the rewards of religion, when religiosity is emphasized in a mixed sectarian society, it becomes a medium of demarcation or separation. Identity politics can be divisive politics, just as a surfeit of religious ostentation conceals deeper insecurities. In the framework of unstable states, these hinder a consensus over coexistence.
Many will disagree with this assessment, so essential to their life is religion, precisely because the Lebanese state has let them down. It’s a vicious circle, no doubt. However, then we might refer back to that phrase about the necessity of rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. On this earth, let’s attend to what is Caesar’s, and those who want to deal with God will have an eternity to do so.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle” (Simon & Schuster). He tweets @BeirutCalling.