An article written on March 24 by Jean Aziz for Al-Monitor titled “Tripoli: A powder keg of fundamentalism" triggered concerns about the delicate status and future of Lebanese society. The following commentary is in part a response to that article.
With the recent developments within the Salafist enclaves in Tripoli, specifically the incendiary rhetoric put forth by the prominent Sheikh Salem Al-Rafii at a gathering of his supporters on March 18, one is left to ponder whether individuals like Al-Rafii consider the implications of their intellectual verbosity within a wider context of the internal dynamics of Lebanese society coupled with the volatility of border regions.
Consider the statements made by Sheikh Al-Rafii as quoted in Aziz’s article: “Helping the revolution in Syria achieve victory is jihad and an obligation dictated by Sharia law.” He continued: “Make preparations because the great battle is nigh. It is the battle of truth against falsehood, to raise the banner of Islam. I tell you there are enemies more dangerous than Amal and Hezbollah (both Shiite groups). They are our compatriots who sit with us and eat with us. They are the Sunnis who conspire against us and against the country and prepare themselves to fight us. These are our enemies, those who empowered the Amal movement and Hezbollah in Sunni lands.”
When one’s vocabulary is dominated by terms such as “enemies”, “jihad”, and “obligation” it becomes increasingly difficult not to perceive most (if not all) disagreements within the spectrum of conflict and good versus evil. These cognitive barriers ultimately serve one purpose, channeling all logic and reasoning down a path that inevitably leads to conflict or in the least preparations for such engagements; with the latter serving as a pressurized bottleneck lying in ambush for any manner of perceived provocation or transgression.
How then is an increasingly wary society to deal with individuals and groups who, as a matter of belief and principle, perceive themselves to be above the reach of established rule of law, to the point even the very laws they attempt to enforce themselves do not apply directly to their decisions and actions? Does Islam, or any other religion for that matter, justify plunging an entire nation into cross-border and internal sectarian conflict simply as a matter of preserving an unthreatened ideology or vision?
The answer is an unequivocal no. Self-prescribed scholars of Islam as well as local imams have, in recent history, taken it upon themselves to act unilaterally and attempt to impose upon society at large a narrow and fundamentally questionable personal interpretation of Islamic policies governing military engagement and rule of law. Such perceptions and expectations have historically resulted in widespread suffering and loss of lives for those directly involved and others caught on the sidelines.
For those who know, it is easy to separate sensationalist rhetoric and propaganda noise from meaningful discourse and relevant debate in pursuit of truth. Well intentioned purpose-driven individuals seeking truth for the sake of truth don't make noise, they plant seeds that provoke thought, highlight opportunities that others ignore and empower society to act on principles. It is left to those individuals and other like-minded groups to challenge accepted yet detrimental sociopolitical norms and processes that are rampant in Lebanon.
It is an accepted quasi-norm to find individuals, politically affiliated groups, religious-based movements and militias who, whether intentionally or not, undermine the sovereignty, internal security and economic stability of the country without being subject to charges of treason and crimes against the state. Lebanese in general are responsible for the incompetent and corrupt condition that prevails amongst the political, religious and social elite enterprise within our state.
I use the word enterprise with a clear intention of highlighting the obvious, that for generations the old guard politicians, religious leaders and self-serving business elite have continuously manipulated the political system and turned it into a business that advances personal financial gain over national economic development, rewards political posturing and power plays over rule of law, and creates social and sectarian divisions to maintain a much needed "customer base" of support amongst the ignorant and uneducated masses.
Insofar as the old political and religious guard continues to exist, the Lebanese people will see stagnation if not a decline in political and good governance initiatives that serve democratic principles. We will forgo a desperately needed pluralist system that serves the nation and not simply its sectarian, ethnic and religious enclaves. The conditions of today, whether social, political, economic or religious, and the global transition into more interconnected and interdependent societies have made some of the realities of the past obsolete.
It becomes prudent then to question the necessity and efficacy of having established religious leaders become involved in politics, while similarly pondering the implications of elected politicians involved in and manipulating religious sentiments. The imam/sheikh or the bishop/pastor of hundreds and thousands of years ago was a necessary sociopolitical stabilizing factor because education was generally limited to either the study of religion or obedience to it for the majority of the people due to socio-economic realities; while a more formal secular-based education encompassing science, mathematics, engineering as well as the study of social and governance structures was a pursuit available to the more affluent and connected members of society.
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Our current condition however is that we have made tremendous advancements in every aspect of our human existence and therefore need not the involvement of religious leaders in politics and rule of law; they are essential only to maintaining the moral and spiritual welfare of society. We have transitioned into an age which demands our religious leaders are educated in more ways than one; and should be graduates not only of religious learning, but of secular academic disciplines as well. How else can religious leaders, when they venture, address the shortcomings of socioeconomic and political realities that exist without first understanding their context relative to more secular applications?
Islam explicitly demands that we educate and be educated. It is enough to mention that the first word presented to the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was “iqra” (read or learn), followed by “iqra’ bismi rabbi-ka ‘l-ladhi khalaq khalaqa ‘l-insana min ‘alaq iqra’ wa-rabbu-ka ‘l-akram al-ladhi ‘allama bi-’l’qalam ‘allama ‘l-insana ma lam ya’lam…” (Read in the name of thy Lord who created; He created man from a blood clot; Read; and thy Lord is the most generous, He who has taught with the pen; Taught man what he did not know). Taught man what he did not know; meaning not just holy scripture but learn or pursue knowledge of what you do not know and be educated in a manner that makes one understand the dynamics of the world and to use that understanding to behave, in the least, within common sense logic. But the question emerges, what constitutes common sense logic for each individual? Self-righteous indignation prevails for the most part over common sense. Too often the former is misinterpreted as being the latter.
For society at large, education must be compulsory, easily accessible and affordable, if not free, at least to the level of a high school diploma. This will go far, significantly reducing the mass ignorance that seems to be prevalent amongst our citizens who blindly support public officials, religious leaders and business personalities without considering the impact of their decisions. It is proven that a society whose majority of citizens have easy access to education and are educated facilitate the establishment and continued progress of a just and balanced system of government and the creation of respected civil institutions that protect the sanctities of good governance, justice for all and peaceful coexistence.
Education is key to a forward moving, historically conscious and morally-driven society. It empowers society to pursue free enterprise on a domestic, regional and international level. When societies are interconnected through commerce and economic development, there is little appetite or tolerance for conflict. It facilitates the establishment of channels for communication as well as the necessary social and civil structures in pursuit of intellectual advancement. These concepts are not new and evident in the teachings of Islam. The following provides ample justification:
1. Issue of religious freedom/pluralism – “There is no compulsion in religion.” And “Do not abuse those they (other religions) appeal to instead of Allah.” (Sura 2, v. 256 & Sura 6, v. 108)
2. Issue of governance and democracy – “And their business (affairs of state) is conducted through mutual consultation.” (sura 42, v 38)
3. Issue of due process, justice and conflict/violence – “Do not kill a soul which Allah has made sacred except through the due process of law.” And “Do not be provoked by your conflicts with some people into committing injustice. You shall be absolutely equitable, for it is more righteous.” (sura 6, v151; sura 5, v 8)
4. Issue of international relations and cooperation – “And we made you into nations and tribes so that you may know each other (not that ye may despise one another).” (sura 49, v 13)
5. Issue of economic rights, social services and poverty – “And in their wealth there is acknowledged right for the needy and the destitute.” (sura 51, v 19)
It is only natural that once people are educated, the subsequent progression is to demand and expect freedoms of expression, representation, religion, and (to the extent possible) ownership of their respective destinies. Society becomes less likely to succumb to other ideological alternatives that cannot deliver same, and actively pursues opportunities for progress in the various fields that contribute to the positive evolution of a nation state.