Lebanon’s Discontent Has Religious Roots

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Lebanese antigovernment demonstrators in Tripoli, Libya, Oct. 29. Photo: ibrahim chalhoub/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images The country was founded as a haven for Christians but has lost its purpose. By Robert Nicholson

For more than two weeks Lebanese citizens from every walk of life have taken to the streets demanding social and political reform. While the protests have been unifying and peaceful, at the heart of Lebanon’s problems is a deep-seated identity crisis. After World War I the French established Lebanon as a homeland for Christians who had been hiding in its mountains since the advent of Islam. Long famous for its cedar trees—and the Phoenicians who used them to build ships for the world’s first maritime trading empire—Lebanon always has been a nexus between the Semitic heartland and Greco-Roman world beyond. The distinctive expression of Lebanese Christianity, the Syriac Maronite Church, was an Aramaic-speaking Eastern rite affiliated with the Western See of Rome. Lebanon’s geographic isolation still didn’t hold back the outside world. After one particularly bad anti-Christian pogrom in 1860—and subsequent intervention by Britain and France—the Ottoman Empire gave Lebanon’s historic autonomy the force of law. Sixty years later, the French took possession and moved the country toward independence over the objections of local Muslims who wanted to remain part of Greater Syria. Maronite leaders asked the League of Nations to extend the borders of the fledgling state to make it more economically viable. This move more than doubled Lebanon’s Muslim population, making the region’s only Christian state barely half-Christian before its official founding. The Maronites retained control over Lebanon’s pre-independence politics until Christian emigration and Muslim population growth forced them to make concessions in the National Pact of 1943. While successful in consolidating control of the presidency, army and Parliament, the Maronites disavowed their allegiance to the West and conceded Lebanon’s Arab identity. Never mind that most did not see themselves as truly Arab. Hence the fundamental source of Lebanon’s instability: Though built as a Christian state, Lebanon has become less Christian over time. The discrepancy between law and fact grows more glaring. Already on the eve of independence in 1943, Lebanon was little more than a Christian-Muslim power-sharing experiment. Since then, the growing Muslim majority has sought to cast off the control of a shrinking, frustrated and increasingly paranoid Christian minority. Caught up in the Arabist tide of the mid-20th century, Lebanon slid toward crisis in 1958 and again in 1975 when local Muslim forces teamed up with Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian guerrillas to challenge state authority. The violent countercampaign of Lebanon’s Christians, which launched a bloody 15-year civil war, was the panicked response of a people determined to save a homeland they had never really possessed. After some initial success, Lebanon’s Christian factions turned on each other and lost the war. Exhausted and forced to compromise, the two sides struck a deal in 1989. The Ta’if Agreement reduced Christian representation in Parliament, limited the power of the Maronite president, and enhanced the power of the Sunni prime minister. It also forced the disarmament of Lebanon’s militias—with the exception of Hezbollah, which was allowed to keep its weapons to fight Israeli forces commanding a small strip of land on the Lebanese side of the border. Thirty years later Hezbollah is stronger, Muslims are more numerous (especially after an influx of Syrian refugees), and Christians are divided among various Sunni and Shiite parties to which they have pledged allegiance to survive. Meanwhile, an Islamic civil war playing out across the region has made the Near East even more dangerous for Christians than it was a century ago. The tiny country that was built to shelter them has itself become a vehicle for repressing them. Lebanon’s Christians need security more than ever. Given the region’s history of religious violence, their fears are likely to grow in proportion to their exclusion from Lebanese politics. Where those fears will lead—and how they can be addressed—is the question world leaders should ask. Whether it’s decentralization, partition or emigration, the country needs a solution quickly. Lebanon can’t be a Christian state: That ship sailed in the 1940s. If Lebanon serves no purpose distinct from its neighbors, why should it exist? The failure to answer this question lies at the heart of the country’s instability, harming Christians and Muslims alike. Without a cogent sense of national identity and a vision for its future, Lebanon’s economic and political decline—and its manipulation by foreign powers—will get worse. Mr. Nicholson is president of the Philos Project.

Main Street: During a speech at Notre Dame law school on October 11, 2019, Attorney General Bill Barr explained how secularists are assaulting religious freedom in an effort to break down traditional moral values and instead impose their own orthodoxy. Image: Robert Franklin/Associated Press