A short essay on the failure of Secularism in the Middle East
By Hanna Samir Kassab

In today’s Lebanese political environment, many leaders are debating the future political structure of Lebanon. For example, Michel Aoun and Hassan Nasrallah are pursuing the idea of a Secular Lebanon, the erasure of the current political establishment based on an appreciation for religious diversity and a creation of a new Lebanese identity outside of religion. So far, their plans to do so remain pre-maturely undefined.

In this essay, I would like to remind readers about the failures of Secularism to take root. For example, the failure of Pan-Arabism, a politically organized entity that embodied a single Arab nation from Morocco in the West to Iraq in the East; Syria to the North; and Sudan to the South promoted by Christian intellectual Jurji Zaydan. By analyzing these issues, we will be able to further understand the undeveloped idea of a Secular Lebanon.

Jurji Zaydan saw the end of the Ottoman Empire years before its actual collapse sought to create an Arab identity to usher in an Arab nation. He was the first to lay the foundations of Arab Nationalism by informing Arab readers of European political philosophy and concepts such as Secularism. He argued that Islam was just one facet of Arab identity and that Arabs should focus on their larger history. Thus, he began to incorporate Babylonian, Assyrian, Phoenician and other peoples into an Arab family. For example, Hammurabi and his Code of Laws were adopted by Zaydan as Arab even though it belongs to the Babylonian civilization. More important to Zaydan was the establishment of a common language. Arabic has many diverse dialects from East to West and so, to incorporate all peoples, the Arabic language had to be manipulated to achieve universality. Thus, in order to achieve universality, Arab language must become Secular. Zaydan was the first to forward this theory of Arab Nationalism and a homogeneous Arab people.

This conception of Nationalism was advocated by a Christian who saw that Secularism was the only way the Christian was to be included in the wider Political Discourse. Some Muslim and Arab leaders reacted poorly to these ideas and there are two reasons for this. First, Zaydan was seen as a threat to Islam, simply because as he was a Christian. Leaders did not accept his ideas because they were written with a “Christian pen”. His desire was to Secularize Arabic, the Holy Language of Islam. This is seen as apostasy and rejected by Muslim leadership.

Thus, when arguing for Secularism, one must first address the failures of Arab Nationalism and Secularism. It is irresponsible to work toward something when one is unaware of past failures and its repercussions. As British statesman Edmund Burke said “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”. Aoun and his allies want to promote unity through the common thread of Lebanese Nationalism. However, Lebanese Nationalism is not yet fully formed. Some have different ideas for Lebanon, others don’t even want to see it on a map. How then would one expect to establish a Secular Lebanese state based on Lebanese Nationalism? I understand that Imperial European powers had a role to play in dividing the Middle East, that is a given. However, this does not erase the facts presented in this essay; they cannot be neglected, but must be confronted with energy.

The self-titled Father of a Secular Lebanon, Michel Aoun, states that Lebanon is unprepared for Secularism, but will be in the future. What does this mean? Is he serious about Secularism or is he is simply an opportunist who is trying to get into power by towing the line of his allies? This is of course dangerous to the stability and existence of Lebanon. I would like to challenge Aoun to further develop this discussion of Secularism before there are any future political alterations.

February 04/2010