Tag Archives: sectarianism

Search for Common Ground in Lebanon

1 Oct

By Dalila Mahdawi

BEIRUT: Religious pluralism is a defining feature of Lebanon: so much so it is enshrined in the country’s political system, designed to give political representation to all communities. But with Lebanon’s  population divided across 18 recognized sects, the country’s politics and society have historically been wrought with bitter ideological differences. 

These differences are often perpetuated by the prejudices parents pass on, intentionally or not, to their children. It is perhaps inevitable, then, that Le­banon’s youngsters at times find themselves reinforcing the country’s religious, socio-economic and political disputes with peers at school. 

Aware of the need to reach out to youth, as well as the underfunding of teacher-training programs in Lebanon, one of the biggest conflict-resolution organizations in the world has instigated a national program to train teachers on ways to communicate, promote respect for diversity and mediate disputes. 

The idea of peace education is not new, but in Lebanon it has yet to become common practice in schools or universities. 

“The best way for us to really be effective [in creating a tolerant society] is to begin with children and youth … the future of tomorrow,” said Sarah Shouman, director of Search for Common Ground’s (SFCG) Lebanon office. 

The pilot project is currently under way at four public and three private schools across the country, where an average of 20 teachers receive practical training in “instilling a culture of listening and problem solving in schools,” Shouman added. One exercise teachers are learning to pass on is how to frame their grievances in more neutral language, as opposed to adopting accusatory stances that usually elicit confrontational responses. 

While the project comes at a time of relative calm in Leba­non, bloody clashes in May 2008, uneasy relations with Israel, and the current political deadlock over the formation of a national-unity government, mean the possibility of renewed conflict is never too far away from people’s minds.

Teachers and school administrators were initially reluctant to participate, Shouman said. “I think some schools are sick to death of people coming in and telling them they’re doing it wrong. That’s not our intention at all. We understand that there’s a lot of pressure in the education system … we’re trying to build on what is there already.” This approach seems to be working: “Every hour in this workshop has value … every action has a new goal in my life,” said one teacher who participated in the training. 

Building on the success of the pilot scheme, SFCG will embark on similar teacher training projects in 80 schools nationwide over the next two years, in partnership with Lebanon’s Education Ministry, Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue, the Arab Group for Christian-Muslim Dialogue, and the Hariri Foundation. “We want to capitalize on the expertise already in Lebanon and also make the most of expertise around the world in peace education,” Shouman said. 

While SFCG’s Lebanon office only opened in October 2008, the organization has already made considerable strides in promoting a culture of tolerance and conflict resolution. 

 SFCG’s first project here was the much-acclaimed television series, “Kilna Bil Hayy,” English for All of Us in the Neighborhood.” The show, whose first season just wrapped up on LBC International, follows the adventures of six families from Lebanon’s biggest communities – Armenians, Christians, Druze, Palestinians, Shiites and Sunnis – who live in the same apartment complex. A supernatural presence, personified as Lina, teaches the children to look beyond the political, religious and socio-economic prejudices of their parents and to build friendships with their neighbors based on commonalities, respect for diversity, and trust. 

 The series was adapted for the Lebanese context after the huge success of “Nashe Maalo,” a similar SFCG television series in Macedonia promoting intercultural understanding. SFCG Le­banon is now looking for funding to produce a second series. 

 The group is also organizing a traveling film festival on truth and reconciliation for October. The film festival has been running in other countries since 2001, screening films or documentaries that show the human face of war and contribute to preventing and reducing conflict. The festival will travel to 12 schools and eight universities around the country and will be followed by moderated talks.

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Unity a must after elections

6 Jun

BEIRUT: The key test of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections on Sunday is whether it can achieve peaceful compromise between the rival coalitions and prevent sparking renewed violence, a prominent non-governmental organization said on Thursday. Sunday’s elections pitting the March 14 coalition against the March 8 opposition will not resolve decades-old sectarian wounds, said International Crisis Group (ICG) in its report, “Lebanon’s Elections: Avoiding a New Cycle of Confrontation.” The organization sees a coalition government similar to the current arrangement as the only viable option for ensuring stability, but says the old political divisions will remain.

“That the parties agreed to shift their conflict from the streets to the ballot box is surely a good thing, but it should not be misinterpreted,” said Peter Harling, project director at ICG Lebanon. “The results will almost certainly be close and thus replicate the schism that divides the political arena into two irreconcilable camps.”

The report pointed to aggressive campaigning by both political camps which the ICG said “awaken” memories of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil War. “Both camps are engaging in brinkmanship, seeking to intimidate opponents by implicitly warning of widespread instability should results be not to their liking,” ICG said.

ICG labeled the chances of a one-sided government as improbable and unwise, citing both Hizbullah’s ability to obstruct political decision making and the group’s keenness to avoid repeating Hamas’ experience in Gaza. “Regardless of post-electoral maneuvering, the best one can expect is avoiding a new violence confrontation, even as political paralysis and underlying conflicts persist,” the report noted.

Lebanon’s elections will also assess how the international community reacts to the election results, ICG added. “Central in this regard will be the attitude of foreign powers, whose local allies are quick to admit that Lebanon’s domestic conflict only can be resolved if they reach a deal,” said Robert Malley, ICG’s Middle East Director. “At a minimum, the coalitions’ respective external supporters ought to avoid past mistakes, recognize the legitimacy of electoral results and press their allies toward a peaceful compromise.”

The organization made several recommendations, including reiterating a plea for Lebanon’s divided camps and their respective allies to accept the election results and support power-sharing, and to re-launch the national dialogue agreed upon as part of the May 2008 Doha Accord.

ICG also called upon Lebanon’s foreign allies to deal with the future government based on its behavior rather than its composition, and to back civil society efforts to introduce systematic reform to the country. 

ICG hoped the elections, which are the first to be conducted in the post-Syrian age, would set a precedent for future polls. Sunday’s elections “are an opportunity to lay the ground for changes, however modest and incremental, to a political system that no longer has the luxury of blaming the Syrian occupation for all its many shortcomings,” the report concluded.

Children ‘abused’ during political campaigning, says rights coalition

30 May
Not harmless fun: involving children in electoral campaigning is exploitation

Not harmless fun: involving children in electoral campaigning is exploitation

BEIRUT: They might not all be able to vote, but Lebanon’s young people are playing an important part in political campaigning ahead of the June 7 elections, either by appearing in poster or television campaigns or by handing out flyers. According to a national child’s rights coalition, however, the use of 14-18 year olds in political campaigning often tends to be exploitative.

“Past experiences of parliamentary and municipal elections between 1992 and 2005 have shown that 50-60 percent of electoral mechanisms were mostly based on “youth,”” said Maria Assi on behalf of the Child Protection Working Group (CPWG) on Friday.

“Their presence is not included within their rights to participate or learn about the electoral process,” but is rather harnessed for such responsibilities as hanging up political posters or distributing candidate lists outside of polling stations, she added.

In this politically divided country, those tasks can often lead to violence. “They are used, or rather, abused, as the flames to ignite any potential fires that occur during or after voting,” Assi said.

CPWG gathered Friday to highlight the exploitation of young people in the upcoming elections and urge Lebanon’s different political parties to respect the rights of the country’s youth. “Let children live as the children of today and not as the youth of tomorrow,” said Assi, who is also director of Beyond, a child-rights organization involved in CPWG.

Political parties “probably think that because they are children, they won’t be exposed to any trouble, but [what they are doing] is exploitative,” said Wafa Issa, monitoring and evaluation officer at Right to Play Lebanon, a global child rights organization.

Tasks like distributing flyers “are not always perceived as exploitative or as putting children at risk, but they are.”

Maha Damaj, a child protection officer at UNICEF, agreed. “It’s like sending your child next door for a cup of sugar because it’s less embarrassing than going yourself,” she said of parties that send young people to flyer in areas where their candidate might not be endorsed. “In this case, they can get into squabbles, even against other children.” Encouraging children to attend political rallies is likewise exploitative, she said, as the children might not fully understand the meaning of the event or the party’s political agenda.

The problem is complicated by the fact that children often do not realize they are being exploited, said Issa. “Sometimes they are paid by the party in question,” or the young individual willingly chooses to help because of familial or other peer affiliations, she said.

Issa and CPWG stressed the importance of “positive participation” by Lebanon’s youngsters in political life. “They need to be fully informed about the parties, their involvement should be voluntary, and they need to know what they are getting themselves into,” she said. “We consider any participation that doesn’t necessarily put them at risk but isn’t voluntary as exploitative.”

So far, said Damaj, there was only “anecdotal evidence” that young people were being exploited, but will be verified by the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, a LPWG affiliate, which is collecting evidence about such incidences.

Memo to remove confession from records is ‘not enough’

14 Feb

By Dalila Mahdawi               Friday, February 13, 2009

BEIRUT: Just one day after Interior Minister Ziad Baroud issued a memorandum allowing citizens to remove their confessional identity from their Civil Registry Records, a number of Lebanese political analysts and civil society activists have said the measure does not go far enough to tackle Lebanon’s confessional political system.

The memo, which was circulated on Wednesday, stipulated that the registrar should accept requests to remove a person’s religious identity and replace it with a slash sign ( / ). Although Baroud’s move was welcomed by civil society organizations and political analysts, many said it was merely a cosmetic change that would make little real difference to people’s lives as long as Lebanon’s political system remained rooted in sectarianism.

“I think this is an exceedingly important and positive first step on an issue that has long been a demand of secular and civil society groups,” said the director of public policy think tank Carnegie Middle East Center, Paul Salem.

But he noted that the move to remove religious affiliations from government records would create a number of problems for those who chose to do so. There are no secular family courts in Lebanon – citizens are instead referred to state-subsidized courts run by their religious sects which implement their own personal status and family laws. Those who choose to remove their sectarian affiliation from official documentation would therefore no longer be registered in religious courts and it is not yet clear where they would be referred. “What needs to happen is for these people to be covered constitutionally and legislatively,” Salem said, urging the government to address the issue.

While he also hoped the move would also pressure the government to begin talking “seriously about de-confessionalizing Lebanese politics,” Salem was careful to emphasize that this did not necessarily suggest a weakening in people’s religiosity. “I hope political and religious figures do not take it as such,” he said.

Nadim Houry, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said Baroud’s move was “a welcome but insufficient step” for a society with an “embedded” confessional system. “While people can now remove their confessional status from civil records, their confession will continue to govern their lives and the political office they run for,” Houry said. “It doesn’t get said enough, but sectarianism in Lebanon is discriminatory. If you’re Shiite, you can never dream of becoming president,” a position reserved for Maronites.

Dima Dabbous-Sensenig, director of the Lebanese American University’s Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World, agreed. “The fact is, this [memo] doesn’t change anything. If I want to get married, divorced or to adopt, I still have to go to a religious court. The system will still work in a sectarian manner.”

Salem, Houry and Dabbous-Sensenig all said Baroud’s memo would need to be followed up with moves on creating secular personal and family status laws.

For Nadine Farghal of the Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform, the move also raised other questions. A possible follow-up law “would be to have a secular electoral system,” she said.

For some, the move came much too late. “While this step is highly welcomed, it is a decree that should have been introduced more than 30 years ago,” the web-based Middle East Times wrote in an editorial on Thursday. “The absence of one’s religious affiliation on the national identity card could have saved the lives of thousands who were mindlessly killed during the Civil War, based purely on what religion was marked on their ID cards.”

 Interior Ministry officials were not available for comment.

Beirut nightspot looks to end sectarianism

10 Jun

Beirut nightspot looks to end sectarianism

Doubling as an NGO, Club 43 wants to bring Lebanese from different walks of life together
By Dalila Mahdawi
Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: Hidden away on the second floor of a residential building, it would be easy to overlook Gemmayzeh’s most unusual bar. Club 43 is perhaps one of the area’s best-kept secrets, offering more than the usual fare of drinks, music and food. The club is also a non-governmental organization (NGO), and the first in Lebanon to combine social activism with a bar and restaurant.

From the entrance lined with bright plastic flowers to the club’s choice of paint, Club 43 lacks the formal atmosphere that plagues many other NGOs and cultural clubs. “We wanted to create a place where you could come, have some drinks and laugh with your friends. I believe culture is better expressed with some music and a few beers,” says president Imad Geara.

Originally established in 1967 by lawyers as a cultural club for members of the legal profession, Club 43 opened up to the public shortly after. Run solely by volunteers, the club generates its entire income through its bar and restaurant services. Club 43’s refusal to accept donations, whether by organizations or individuals, is fueled by a refusal to be compromised by a sectarian or political agenda. Indeed, from its inception, the club has focused on social welfare activities and has continuously campaigned against sectarianism.

Two Club 43 members, lawyers Sami Chkifi and Marcel Geara were the men responsible for the court case that saw the word “sect” removed from Lebanese identity cards.

Although Lebanon’s 18-month-old political crisis was solved by the Qatar-mediated Doha agreement, sectarianism is still widespread and many of the confessional militia groups that fought in the 1975-1990 Civil War are still functional in Lebanese politics today. After the May clashes between opposition and pro-government gunmen in Beirut and other cities, Club 43 replaced the international flags that normally hang from its windows with the flags of Lebanon’s numerous political factions.

“Some people don’t like what we’ve done. But we have put all the flags together to try and say, ‘We are all Lebanese and we must accept each other.’ We are trying to send a message of peace and tolerance,” Geara said.

In line with that message, the club also produces stickers that read “Say No to Sectarianism.”

Every Friday at midday, the club opens its doors to 70-100 homeless people and provides them with free meals. During this time, they can receive free legal advice from the many lawyers who volunteer. In the past, Club 43 has also offered them free blood and cholesterol tests.

“Interestingly, 90 percent of them did not have any health problems because they walk everywhere and don’t eat junk food,” Geara laughs.

The weekly lunches have provided otherwise excluded members of society with a chance to engage with others, and according to Helene Ata, a psychologist who volunteers with the club, numerous close friendships have been formed as a result.

Geara is emphatic about the secular nature of the club, remarking: “We never ask their religious or political affiliations. They just come, feel at home and have lunch.”

Club 43 has also offered itself as a meeting space for other NGOs, such as Nahwa al-Muwatiniya, Khallas! and Rotar-Act, the youth branch of the Rotary Club. The Club is also in the process of launching an NGO FM radio station, to be launched this month, which will replace KISS 104.9. The station “will play music, give free airtime to NGOs to make public service announcements and have three interviews daily with different NGOs,” says Geara.

Adorning one of the walls in the club’s bar is a framed Daily Star article dated October 1968 and quoting the club’s then-president, Marcel Geara: “‘We decided to call the club 1943 because it was then that Muslims, Christians and Druzes were united in establishing an independent Lebanon.’ But, he pointed out, 25 years after Independence, there is still enmity between the religions.