by Chaden Hani
In 1918, Lebanon was liberated after four centuries of Ottoman hegemony following the empire’s collapse at the end of the First World War. The Lebanese nationalists felt that it was time for them to materialize their grand dream of establishing Greater Lebanon. The Administrative Council of Mount Lebanon including representatives from all Lebanese sects during the Mutasarrifate System (established in Lebanon during the tanzimat era of Ottoman reforms), sent a delegation to the Paris Peace Conference on 18 January that had adopted U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of the self-determination of nations. Maronite Patriarch Elias Hoyek led this delegation of Lebanese notables “in the name of the government and the Administrative Council of Lebanon, and in the name of the people of all of Lebanon,” to ask the Peace Conference for the autonomy of Lebanon and “the restoration of Lebanon in its full natural and historical borders”- under French mandate. It is important to acknowledge that other delegations appealed to the Paris council with different aspirations for Lebanon. Many sought political and cultural unity within the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria, as the apogee of Arab nationalist aspirations, while others deliberately looked to Europe as a counterweight to what they saw as Hashemite designs on the Levant, specifically Lebanon. Ultimately, by the end of 1920, the League of Nations granted the establishment of the State of Greater Lebanon from the provinces of Mount Lebanon, North Lebanon, South Lebanon and the Bekaa. Later, in 1926, a Unified Lebanese Republic was declared under French mandate.
I believe we had back then an opportunity to create a unified country and work towards that end, but sectarian aspirations, allied with regional and international agendas, prevailed.
Next year, in 2020, we celebrate the centennial of this historic event in the development of our nation. Lebanon still contains the religious diversity which contributed to its formation. But, what I find interesting is that even amidst competing visions for the country and its place in the region at that time, unity in diversity was nevertheless an articulated goal. Today, our conception of Lebanon is not the same. Rather, we perceive Lebanon through the lens of nearly autonomous, sovereign territorial enclaves of diverse religious sects. Our only source of unity, in this perspective, is that of our common citizenship in the Lebanese Republic – if we are among the fortunate. We lack a sense of common belonging. And, I believe the main problem preventing us from developing a healthy nation relates to our lack of unity, specifically a vision of unity that makes space within itself for the diversity of our neighbors. Is it possible to conceive of our national identity as Lebanese in such terms, for the common good of those with whom we share this historic space?
Recent events, manifested in the inability to reach a consensus government for months until just days ago, reveal the depths of division between the Lebanese on the basis of our competing religio-political allegiances. Looking back after a century, I believe we must ask ourselves how we can rethink, reimagine national unity. But, is this even a possibility today within the stew of internal interests and external agendas pushing and pulling each religio-political grouping in a multiplicity of directions?
In the early 1990s, the recently concluded Civil War left a deep impact on Lebanese society – as one can imagine. Civilians had been forcibly displaced on the basis of their religious backgrounds. In 1993, interreligious dialogue began when religious clergy members formed the “National Christian-Muslim Committee for Dialogue” to address sectarian issues among the major religious groups in the country and to promote interreligious dialogue. Other secular institutions followed this path and got actively involved in promoting and training others in intercultural dialogue, peacebuilding and tolerance. Much great work in the field had been done, yet still we are as sectarian as we have been since the formation of our state. We co-exit rather than share in each other’s existence.
Building on this history, a new body of religious leaders and faith representatives was formed to lead a peacebuilding initiative, the Church-Mosque Network, catalyzed by the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES). In my view, this steering committee has come to represent an important stage in mending the sectarian estrangement and communal alienation that has existed within Lebanon for years, and it represents hopeful aspirations for rethinking our national identity.
Within this steering committee, religious leaders from the diverse religious constituents of Lebanon came together a year ago and began working towards the creation of a grassroots interfaith exchange with a vision for unity in diversity as the people of Lebanon. If I want to describe the value and beauty of these meetings, I would start by speaking about the richness of values and aspirations for the creation of a new understanding of religious diversity in Lebanon. The members of this committee are distinguished persons in their communities, recognized for their high level of dedication and commitment as well as for their integrity and maturity. All these qualities are brought to the meetings in such a spirit of appreciation and devotion toward one another, compelling me to dream that this committee represents the future we all dream of for Lebanon. The striking solidarity between team members, despite their historical differences and oftentimes legitimate disputes, demonstrates the possibility of establishing a new reality wherein Muslims, Christians, and Druze, together with all their various sub-groupings, share a common sense of belonging to and ownership of the country. These courageous leaders stepped out beyond their respective comfort zones and chose voluntarily to stand with the “other.”
I witness an almost tangible beauty in these meetings, as Sheikh and Priest share their concerns and seek reciprocal advice, when they share stories with one another broken throughout by laughter, and when they plan projects and compete for responsibilities.
For one hundred years, we have always had high expectations for our country even through all of its struggles. This is very normal behavior for people in relation to their countries. But as we celebrate modern Lebanon’s centennial next year, let us consider what we can offer: the gift of a devoted group of religious leaders driven by faith and equipped by God to work for reconciliation, for a unified country. Truly, what the religious leaders within the Church-Mosque Network are achieving is a gift to Lebanon. The work being done and relationships formed by this group brings hope by elevating our God-ordained human dignity above our religio-political divides and toward a common language of love and service to one another, in faithful surrender to God.