Sectarianism ends at home

Lebanon's political and religious leaders have little to gain from the abolition of sectarianism

By Sami Halabi

As Mediterraneans, we Lebanese like to compare ourselves to our Italian counterparts in more ways than one: our food, our way of life, our weather; the list goes on. But one, perhaps less desirable, similarity is just starting to be addressed by our Mediterranean cousins. Last month, an Italian judge ordered a father of a 32-year-old to pay his daughter’s allowance, which came to $490 per month, as well as $16,850 in arrears or risk having his assets confiscated. The ruling was slammed by Italy’s Minister for Public Administration — who described the ruling as “a slap in the face of good sense” — calling for a new law to force Italy’s bamboccionas, roughly translated as ‘big babies’, to leave home by the age of 18.

Generally speaking, laws that dictate to the public how they should conduct their lives are antithetical to free societies; but considering that more than 59 percent of Italians under the age of 34 still live at home, the proposed law could be a welcome exception.

Looking to our own country, a similar pattern of refusing to fly the nest emerges. The lack of a census makes hard numbers impossible to come by, but the phenomena of the bambocciona in Lebanon is perhaps embodied in a well known Arabic proverb: “Those who live with their parents [can] take it easy.”

Taking it easy, however, has far-reaching economic consequences. Without incentives for progress, societies naturally become inefficient and lose economic footing. Just look at the former Soviet bloc’s economies during the Cold War or that of Cuba’s today. Conversely, societies that push their youth to “find their own path” not only encourage (or force) them to find a job, retain it, and develop their own ideas independently from their family; they also, in effect, encourage integration within society that breaks down cultural stigma and religious discrimination.

With a little help from the Allies in World War II, the Italians managed to scrap their most deplorable political construct: fascism. Even with the horrors of a 15-year civil war, the Lebanese have still not managed to do away with their primary political ailment, sectarianism, since it reared its ugly head in the mid-1800s.

The conflation between the bambocciona and the protraction of sectarianism in society is significant in the Lebanese context since children are first and foremost susceptible to their parents’ ideologies. In a seemingly endless and vicious cycle, children raised in a sectarian household pick up the bitterness of the previous generation, add their own context to it, and inevitably hand it over to their children. What’s more, young men and women typically leave the nest only when they are married, usually to someone from the same sect and political mindset, thus compounding the problem and making any break of the cycle virtually impossible.

It is almost laughable to observe Lebanon’s political class squabbling over the establishment of a committee to merely study the abolishment of political sectarianism, let alone sectarianism in general. Firstly, those spearheading the initiative — the parliamentary opposition and more specifically the parliamentary speaker — have little political interest in implementing tenants of the Taif accord, which mandated that a non-sectarian senate be formed who’s head would rival the speaker’s for political influence. Hence, it’s quite obvious that the call is little more than a political parry to the parliamentary majority’s thrust over the issue of Hezbollah’s weapons.

For their part, the Christian parties in the parliamentary majority and opposition are up in arms and clinging to the rights accorded to them by the institution of political sectarianism. Those with the most to gain from sectarianism, the country’s religious figures, predictably balked at the mere suggestion of setting up the committee. The last time civil marriage was proposed, the Sunni mufti rejected it outright, as did the Maronite patriarch out of “solidarity” with his Muslim counterpart. To top it off, the prime minister could only muster the sentiment that any agreement should be based on a “consensus,” the Lebanese code word for indefinite delay.

With all this bickering in the political sphere just to establish a committee, waiting for our “leaders” to resolve the issue is tantamount to “Waiting for Godot.”

While enacting policy in Lebanon to force youths out of their homes and into the real world may be a tad excessive — not least given the economic hardships Lebanon has faced since the end of the civil war — creating the societal structures to produce a healthier and more economically vibrant country has to start somewhere. It’s not going to start in the halls of government, so it might as well start at home. Babies have to stop crying sometime, no matter how big they become.

First published in Executive Magazine’s February issue.


Author: Sami Halabi

Sami Halabi is a policy consultant who covers a range of policy issues and analyses development programmes, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Sami specialises in analysing policies and programmes in order to provide evidence-based recommendations to policy-makers and international development agencies. Sami holds a Master of Public Policy with Distinction from The University of Edinburgh.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: