Letter to A Secularist Fellow-Lebanese.

My dear secularist fellow-Lebanese:

I would have never imagined writing, in my life, an open letter where I would assume an anti-secularist stance. And yet, here we are, my God-loving friend, standing on opposite sides. Now that I am thinking of arguments, trying to speak my mind clearly, now that I am fishing for words, I can’t help but thinking of myself and the way I was years ago.

To tell you the truth, you and I used to be brothers. Comrades, mates. As a pure product of French “secular” education overseas, I was taught for years to believe that secularism was the most noble attribute of “modernity”, that it was the very best value “civilization” had ever yielded. Why wouldn’t I give in to this belief? Was there any value more venerable than mutual tolerance and respect regardless of race, gender, religion, culture, and physical disability? No, there wasn’t. Was there any ideal more venerable than that of living together, in love and communion, irrespective of differences? No, there wasn’t. In fact, do religious ethics not command us to have love for one another? Isn’t love an act of permanent forgiveness and disregard of differences?

The moment we consider each other as different, it’s too late, for our tragedy is one of perception: we hear difference, we see difference; it’s a matter of senses. We have always been taught that secularism was about politics and religion. Nowadays, are we not still convinced that the ideal polity is that where religion and politics do not meddle?

Secularism is indeed an offshoot of modernity. We can see this in its two fundamental characteristics, individualism and equalitarianism. The former is a prominent concept, typically modern, taking the individual as a supreme value. There is a big difference between the “person” and the “individual”. The person is a human being, but no more than a subject. The person is a silhouette. The individual, on the other hand, is a social being driven by rationality and free will. He is theoretically responsible for his own choices, his own values, his own freedom, and his own fate. In short, this is what we call “self-determination”. You choose your law and you commit to abide by it, as long as you respect your fellow human being’s individuality, that is to say, his right to be a fully-fledged individual as well. This is the rule of reciprocity.

Equalitarianism is an immediate corollary of individualism. Since individuality is not a privilege reserved for a certain portion of society, it ought to be generalized. In fact, the equalitarian nature of individualism is precisely what opposes it to the hierarchical nature of “traditional” society, characterized by established relations of domination and submissiveness between the ruler and his subjects. This is the difference between the “Ancien Régime” and the “République”. Theoretically, hierarchy is ascriptive; you are born with a status which you can rarely and uneasily change. Your freedom is relative; it is confined within the status you are given. In a modern society, your freedom is, in theory, absolute.

Secularism is the pure expression of those modern values, which we were scrupulously taught to cherish religiously. The other common belief about secularism is the phrase “separation of church and state”. Acknowledging the individuals’ right to choose and practice their own beliefs, values, and faith, “separation of church and state” came to consecrate the rule of individual freedom and reciprocity. Its guiding principle is simple: no authority has the right to impose anything on anyone. Therefore, there ought to be no official religion and the state ought to stay neutral.

Until now, our beloved Lebanon is formally secular, but partially modern, given our brilliant mish-mash of tradition and modernity, equalitarianism and hierarchy, freedom and social stratification. At this stage, we both agree on the above. Unfortunately, I did not write you a letter to agree, but to disagree. Here is where the bone of contention lies: the Lebanese state acknowledges the religious sects as essential actors in the political system. Therefore the grammar of the game is not about faith, not about religion, not about transcendental beliefs, not about the sacred, not about God. The cocktail, at its core, is between sect and politics, not religion and politics.

Did you know, my secularist friend, that “separation of church and state” took place in countries where there was one church for one nation, and one nation for one state? We have been instilled to take the notion of “separation of church and state” matter-of-factly. It has become a dull commonplace to us, a commonplace to which we mechanically adhere. If the emblematically modern process of rationalization led us to disenchantment towards the preexisting societal order, then should we not apply this rationality itself to the so-called “modern” ideas we take for granted? This is the first step I ask you make, my secularist friend: deconstruct. Enough of ready-made, off-the-peg ideas. Let’s think: is our state comparable to other states? Is our nation comparable to other nations? It seems to me that the former is failed and the latter is skeptical (or “in-between”, if you prefer). So, which separation are we talking about? We have no nation-state, an undefinable nation and a panoply of navel-gazing sects!

In the Lebanese political system, as desacralizing as this might sound, religious sects are not considered as religious entities but as mere cultural phenomena, or even worse: as miniature nations. What is, then, left to separate? The act of separating is a deliberate rational act. What about feelings and emotions? What about collective memory? Do we Lebanese feel the same about the past and the present? Do we have the same prospects as to fundamental issues? Do we feel the same about East and West or about regional politics? The “secularist solution” does not even touch upon any of these matters. So let us deal with the fact that Lebanese mainstream culture is sectarian. If you’re not mainstream, then you’re an exception. Exceptions only confirm mainstream culture, they don’t govern it.

The second necessary step is to his-to-ri-cize—historicize. Don’t think in terms of abstract immobile ideas but in terms of temporal evolution. Time wears everything away; our doctrines, our ideologies, our social structures, our prefabricated thinking, us. Don’t we all die at the end of the day? No matter how successful an idea can get, time eventually reduces it to failure. Life reconstructs life with fragments not wholes. Put simply, what I mean is the following: just as “modern” secularism disenchanted “archaic” and “backward” sectarianism, I invite you to disenchant “modernity” and secularism.

Our best tool to do the job is history. Take a glance at the past of most secular countries, what do you see? Wars of religion, deportation, ethnic cleansing and persecution of minorities. So maybe we’re on the right track (that’s a joke, never mind). Take a glance at the situation today: in France’s self-negating Catholic secularism, the “République” is a pastiche of the Catholic Church. If you want to be sure of it, I invite you to assist to a civil matrimonial ceremony at the Mairie. Furthermore, once the mainstream “secular” culture is slightly challenged, global commotions occur. Take the “Muslim phenomenon” in Germany, France, Switzerland, etc. I ask myself: how secular is Western “secularism” really?

When I left Lebanon, I was an orthodox secularist at heart. When in France, I tried to do as the French do and to think as the French think. Studying sociology of religion and secularism in France is a life-changing experience, my friend. Now that I write these lines, I realize that this disenchantment, this jadedness that I have towards secularism is the outcome of sustained philosophical and empirical experimentations. Let me admit upfront that this is partly due to the nihilistic and cynical nature of scholarship in general and French scholarship in particular.

No doubt that our sectarianism is repugnant and reprehensible, my dear secularist fellow-Lebanese. But even in secular societies and states there is discrimination, racism, implicit sectarianism and intolerance. Even in secular societies and states there are ghettos, oppressed minorities and disrespect of the other. In the US, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted forty years ago, and yet, take at look at New Orleans.

I have come to the conclusion that all societies are equal in terms of “good” and “evil”. Isn’t that what cultural relativism teaches us to believe? As for the world order, well, it is not aggregated in terms of “good” and “bad” but on the basis of power struggles between states.

My dear secularist fellow-Lebanese:

Nationalism and sectarianism have this unpleasant feature of rendering us oblivious to the fact that we are all part of the same creation. Are we not all human, don’t we all belong to the same kind?
The only secular place in this world, my God-loving friend, is Paradise. But Paradise is not of this world.

Yours truly,

A Non-Secularist Fellow-Lebanese.

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