Thursday, January 19, 2012

More on God and man in Lebanon

An article I recently wrote on rising religiosity in Lebanon has provoked the ire of some readers. Fortuitously, after its publication I was sent the results of a fascinating survey adding substance to my unempirical observations.

Among the reactions of outrage was that of writer William Peter Blatty, who did not like the argument that when Lebanese youths bury themselves in the depths of a creed, this is in one measure because they are unwilling, or more likely unable, to have a say in the world outside – in the republic. Blatty found the statement “logically unsupported, if not absurd.”

Running to the rescue is Professor Theodor Hanf, who since 1982 has carried out six surveys on the attitudes and opinions of economically active Lebanese. The latest of these, conducted in early 2006, was published in 2007 by UNESCO’s International Center for Human Sciences. Hanf, a German social scientist, also happens to be the author of the highly regarded “Co-existence in Wartime Lebanon: Death of a State and Birth of a Nation,” which came out in 1993.

If linking religious belief to politicization is logically unsupported, then I’m guilty of an error made by everyone from Karl Marx to scholars of the Middle East who have studied that connection in the context of authoritarian Arab countries. Turning to religious practice so that it gives central meaning to life is a way individuals have, and there are others, to compensate for a perceived inability to influence their environment, especially their political environment.

This is not to affirm that all Lebanese believers are depoliticized. Indeed, religious identity can be a highly potent instrument of political mobilization. However, my topic was, and is, religiosity – the outward manifestations of religion. Lebanese have developed a powerful personal bond with their religion, and are increasingly flaunting this bond in their daily life. Somewhere, this tells us something about their outlook toward the world around them.

Readers deserve better than my gut feeling, so to Professor Hanf. His survey covers a range of opinions. For our purposes I will focus on just three, not in the same order as Hanf. The first examines Lebanese views of religion. Hanf writes, “Secularizing moderation of religious convictions and less observance of religious practice is not part of the Lebanese agenda, not 20 years ago, and today even less so.”

Whereas in 1987, 71 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative when asked “I believe in a life after death, in which the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished,” in 2006 the figure was 94 percent. To the question “I try to live by the teachings of my religion,” 75 percent said yes in 1987, while in 2006 the figure was 90 percent. In 1987, 38 percent of respondents said they often visited a place of worship, whereas 63 percent replied in the affirmative in 2006. And in 1987 and 2006, only 11 percent agreed that “I can be happy and enjoy life even if I don’t believe in God.”

While I have cited 1987 and 2006, Hanf also did a survey in 2002. The results show upward trends in answers to the first three questions in the periods covered, excepting the last question. In other words the percentage of respondents answering affirmatively rose between 1987 and 2002, then again between 2002 and 2006. Nothing in current daily life suggests that these trends have been reversed.

A second category of attitudes Hanf examined pertained to political orientation and how the Lebanese viewed their political system. Here, Hanf found that depoliticization was widespread. In response to the question “If you keep out of politics you have peace and quiet and a clear conscience,” 62 percent agreed with the statement in 1987, while 69 percent agreed in 2002 and 67 percent agreed in 2006.

Hanf qualified this, however, by noting that almost a third disagreed in 2006, articulating their political involvement by naming the political organization to which they belonged. A new survey is needed to determine perspectives today. However, again based on what I see around me, I predict the figure has risen beyond 67 percent.

Finally, Hanf asked respondents about their fear of the future, their cautiousness and powerlessness. In response to the question “When I think of the future, I feel uncertain and afraid,” he found rather alarming results. In his four wartime surveys, about 60 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative; in the 2002 survey 81 percent did so, and in 2006 no less than 84 percent did. In other words, 16 years after the war ended, a significantly larger number of Lebanese were more anxious about the future than during wartime.

As disturbing were the responses to the question “You should always be careful. You cannot trust the people you live or work with.” In 2002, 78 percent agreed, while 84 percent did so in 2006. Who did respondents trust, according to the survey? In 2006, 95 percent pointed to “relatives,” 71 percent to “friends,” and 41 percent to “members of one’s religious community,” to name the top three categories. This represented upward trends over 1987 and 2002.

What does this partial reading of Hanf’s survey show? Those like Blatty may repeat that nothing in the results proves that higher religiosity is linked to higher depoliticization. Indeed, but there is a definite correlation between the two, even if multiple factors enter the mix. The Lebanese in 2006 were uncertain about the future; more than two-thirds had negative attitudes toward political participation – and we can safely assume a reason for this was a sense of political futility; and religion was ever more important to an overwhelming majority of Lebanese, to the extent that only 11 percent admitted to being able to live happily and enjoy life without believing in God.

Here we must return to the notion of a republic as, literally, the common wealth of its citizens. In Lebanon it is, plainly, under great stress. A republic is built on trust between citizens, their confidence in the future and the ability to collectively shape that future. When happiness is so strongly associated with religion rather than matters related to life in the polity, we can legitimately ask whether burying oneself in religious creed reflects an unwillingness, or an inability, to have a say in the republic.

In a final section, outside the confines of the relationship between political action and religious practice, Hanf addresses the issue of national coexistence. He finds intriguing results, allowing him to conclude that Lebanese want to live together, but in ways indicating they have also drifted apart; they seek unity in pluralism.

Has Professor Hanf made my case? Perhaps not enough for some. But his studies are invaluable for casting light on the intersection between personal belief, political participation and public confidence in the Lebanese state. Address any further protests to him.

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