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Citizenship, State and Community in Lebanon : Reflections from the Lebanese Social Movement

A new president was elected in Lebanon on May 2, 2008, ending months of political deadlock. For the past year and a half, NGOs have been asserting pressure on the political sphere to try to cause an outcome. But what finally led to an agreement was the worst outbreak of violence since the civil war. The presidential election signified the return to legitimate institutions and non-violent coexistence. Yet, this is not enough. Activists ask : “They killed Lebanon and they are reviving it again. When do you think they will kill it again ?” [1]

There is a common conflation between the notion of a multiculturalist and pluralistic society and that of living in a distinctly segregated (regionally, socially and politically), yet diverse environment. The misnomer stems from the fact that all communities  [2] are supposedly included. The political system tries to accommodate the diverse interests in a unifying manner, but conversely reinforces differences by unifying separate communal entities while denying a national civic identity. The end result is the sharing of power into pieces without multiculturalism’s normative commitment for mutual recognition and equality.

The priority given to religious communities and the accommodation of different religious groups within the Lebanese political, social and legal system must be understood as concept of the state resulting from political compromise between communities [3]. Yet, can such a political project be national in the sense of encompassing both national and community interest ? To what extent do, or can, different community groups produce different national values ? What is the legitimacy and extent of their claims in limiting the private life of the individual ? How is the individual situated as a citizen and as a member of a religious group ?
Community, State and the Citizen in Lebanese Civil Society
The Lebanese Social Movement is an NGO established to address local concerns and empower citizens through lobbying, networking, raising awareness and initiating new community projects.

It aims to channel demands and civic action through institutions based on principles of grass root democracy and equality.
The landscape of Lebanese civil society, specifically in rural areas, is very similar to that of Koura. Koura is characterized by a wide political vacuum, at both the representational and institutional level, resulting from successive unfair electoral laws and the absence of local and national political and societal organizations. Most, if not the only active groups are religious based organizations, both Christian and Muslim, affiliated with the church or mosque of the village. These groups basically fill state created vacuums by providing critical social services as well as a sense of community, hence the strength of the allegiances. In general, civil society is conflated with communal society.  [4] 

The Lebanese personal status law reinforces the influence of such religious and communal groups by paving the way for communal influence to supersede state influence. Each of the 15 religious groups designs its own laws and regulations regarding matters such as marriage, divorce and inheritance. It is therefore religious groups who conceive their legal order and apply it to those under their jurisdiction. The state is used as a framework to enforce the rule of the religious groups, and the formulation or amendment of those rules cannot be undertaken by public authority.

As a result, the membership in a religious community is a requirement of citizenship. This is even more obvious in the laws concerning children conceived outside of wedlock. These children are officially and permanently referred to as illegal and are devoid of basic rights since they are not recognized by the state as citizens if their father does not claim them. If the father does recognize his children, the son or daughter will not have the same rights as the man’s legitimate children, especially pertaining to inheritance law. Also, rights and duties are constructed through the patriarchal and tribal lens embedded in kinship relations rather than through the principles of inclusive and equal democratic citizenship. Such logic legitimizes the denial of citizenship to illegitimate children and unequal laws regarding women, such as the impossibility of a woman to pass nationality to her descendent. The law also addresses honor killings, stating that if a man surprises his ascendant, descendant or sister having sex or in dubious circumstances with a man outside marriage and murders her, he will receive a significant reduction in his sentence. [5]

Difference, Identity and Political Action

How does the individual situate himself as a citizen amidst a divided and sectarian civil society and political realm ? The identity of the individual as a citizen conflates with his ‘social identity’, namely his community’s identity in the case of Lebanon, and the sociological ‘social organization’, community, he belongs to. The connection, or disconnection, of the social self with citizen behavior is the outcome of the relationship between the ‘self’ and the ‘social environment’ [6] and the relationship between the ‘communal self’ and the community at large, whereas every human being strives to enhance and protect the identity that they associate with. [7] During his life process, the individual integrates those ‘private’ or ‘social’ matters within his conception of ‘self’ and ‘being’ through the process of socio-psychological identification. [8]

Identification goes beyond individual identity and ‘situates’ the ‘communal individual’ within the larger society. Indeed, communities encumber the self with a loyalty that provides support and generates meaning. [9] As a result, social allegiances preclude a certain cluster in the crowd of the multiple actors of civil society. ‘Objectivity’ and ‘reality’ cease to be ‘inter-subjective’ (ultimately derived from distinctiveness), but become ‘intra-subjective’ based on the construction of the self, the perception of otherness and group ties.

Conceptually, republican accounts of the public sphere dismiss the effect of identity on political action as they locate identity in the private, or worse social, sphere. Hannah Arendt argues that action in the public sphere discloses the ‘who’ an individual is rather than the ‘what’ he is or ‘what’ he produces [10] The self is formed jointly with societal allegiances only in terms of the ‘what’ but independently in terms of the ‘who’. Yet, on the sociological and psychological level, patterns of identification call for recognition regardless of any conceptual or normative idea of human beings and politics.

The Political, the Self and the Group

How can we practically limit the claim of the ‘what’ over the ‘who’ ? What is the desired relationship between religious, cultural or community groups, the citizen, the state and other political actors ? How can we accommodate the various identities and affiliations when we attempt to achieve maximalist normative standards of the political, namely fostering freedom, respect, equality and agency rather than mere stability ?

Freedom  [11], in a multicultural setting, can only be protected through two balancing poles : individuality and polity. Both the rights of the community and the rights of the individual must be protected. It is through the suppression of internal restrictions and the encouragement of external protections that freedom of individual is best preserved. [12]

Equality has also different levels as “human beings are at once both similar and different, they should be treated equally because of both.” [13] Therefore equality might require taking cultural differences as norms into account, and recognizing that needs, moral values, requirements, opportunities and social costs vary among different cultures.
Finally respect14 necessitates a cross-cultural, inter-individual dimension of inter-subjectivity. Therefore, groups and individuals need to morally recognize the different ‘others’, whether as groups or individuals, and engage in dialogue with different political actors.

Acknowledging different identities, accommodating different groups and encouraging diverse forms of actors in civil society is required for democracy. Yet democracy necessitates limiting actions that jeopardize the individual’s privacy, autonomy and choice.

References :

Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago : The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Bloom, William. Personal identity, national identity and international Relations chap 2, New York : Cambridge University Pres, 1993. pp. 76‐ 105.

Herman, Barbara. 1996, “Pluralism and the community of moral judgement” in Toleration an elusive Virtue, ed. David Heyd, NJ : Princeton University Press.

Honig, Bonnie. Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics. New York : Corness University Press, 1993.

Kymlicka, Will. Multicultural Citizenship. Clarendon : Oxford, 1995.

Kiwan, Fadia. “The Formation of Lebanese Civil Society,” in http://www.lcps‐lebanon.org/pub/breview/br6/kiwanbr6.html (accessed 30 May 2007), The Beirut Review 6 (Fall 1993) : 69‐74.

Oldfield, Adrian. Citizenship and Community, New York : Routledg , . 1990.

Parekh, Bhiku. Rethinking Multiculturalism. New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Rouhana, Hoda. “Muslim Family laws in Israel : The role of state and the citizenship of the Palestinian women. Women Living under Muslim Law Publications. December 2005. http://www.wluml.org/english/pubsfulltxt.shtml?cmd[87]=i‐87‐531765


[1Gilbert Doumit, President of NGO Nahwa el Muwatiniya (Working towards Citizenship) and Khalas (Enough) : end the political deadlock campaign in a mass email. He continues : “Lebanon’s life and death, war and peace, depend on 2 factors ; first and foremost is the self-narrow interest of the politicians and second are the agendas of regional and international players.”

[2Communities in Lebanon refer to religious communities. Yet, individual conceive of themselves as part of the community not necessarily based on their faith but because of their belongingto the group socially, politically and legally.

[3Also the accommodation of Muslim law in the state of Israel is the result of a political compromise. See Rouhana, Hada, women under Muslim law, 1995.

[4Few organizations exist that are simply unaffiliated with communities. Fadia Kiwan argues that while there is a form of working civil society in Lebanon, it has degenerated from the pre-civil war years largely because of the particularistic attitudes that have permeated society and that Lebanese youth have been taught or developed in “The formation of Lebanese Civil Society”,1993.

[5Article 562 of the Lebanese penal code

[6The individual internalizes and identifies with the behavior of his social environment to achieve psychological security. Bloom in “Personal identity, national identity and international Relations” 1993, p.23

[7Every human being strives to enhance and protect the identity that they associate with Bloom in “Personal identity, national identity and international Relations” 1993, p.23

[8This view has wide acceptance among the two major contending schools of psychology, namely the introspective (Freudian) and behavioral (initiated and championed by Mead)

[9Sandel in Honig, Bonnie. Political Theory and the Displacement of Politics. New York : Corness University Press, 1993.

[10See Hannah Arendt, the Human Condition .

[11Freedom is the faculty to initiate action and choose between existing choices of action (Shell). In that sense, it is related to the concepts of authenticity, i.e. true to the authentic self and self determination, i.e. free from the will of other(Oldfield)

[12Kymlika (1995) classifies rights into two categories : the first category refers to those rights whose purposes are of internal restrictions, i.e. to limit the activity of its member ; while the second serves the aim of external protection, i.e. to limit the predominance of the majority group.

[13Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism (2006), p. 240

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.