Friday, December 26, 2014

Going dry - Lebanese tolerance isn’t what it used to be

Sheikh Hussam al-Ilani, of the Ghufran mosque in Sidon, had some very un-Christmas-like remarks to make in his Christmas day statement this year. “Christmas and New Year’s are for the Christians and not Muslims,” he said, pointing out that “some Muslims make a mistake by putting up a Christmas tree in their homes and dressing up their children in ‘Santa Claus’ outfits.”

Christmas may not be a Muslim feast, though Muslims recognize Jesus Christ as a prophet. But New Year’s? What happens to Muslims every January 1? Do they drift off into a parallel reality, detached from the times and dates of the world? Likely not, so what is so Christian about marking the new year?

Sheikh Hussam’s comments are merely the latest in a pattern of behavior that has increased in Lebanon in recent years, and that has challenged the more tolerant attitudes of the past.

For instance, there are large parts of Lebanon, in the north and the south, as well as places in western Beirut and in the downtown area, where alcohol can no longer be bought or consumed. Suddenly places where one could buy a beer not so very long ago are today no longer offering it — instead replacing it with that dreadful concoction called non-alcoholic beer.

More intriguing still, prominent restaurant chains that offer alcohol in eastern Beirut somehow no longer do so at their outlets in western Beirut. And a row of restaurants in the downtown area, next to parliament, no longer serve alcohol at all.

If religious Muslims don’t wish to drink, that is their right. There are those Christians, also, who prefer to remain dry. But why the sudden urge to deny alcohol to those, Muslims or Christians, who do enjoy a drink? One can be personally devout and not drink, yet make alcohol available to those who want it. Many Muslim homes apply this compromise for the benefit of their guests.

We have long known the more radical solution to be true in Beirut’s southern suburbs, under Hezbollah rule. But what of Tripoli, Sidon, or western Beirut; places where Christians have always lived and where Christian institutions operate to this day?

What makes such creeping restrictions so disturbing is that they reflect a similar pattern seen in places known for their absolute intolerance — not least areas under the control of the Islamic State. The organization recently issued a decision banning the wearing of wedding rings. And the reason given for this highly bizarre ruling? That it was necessary “in order not to imitate Christians.”

Sheikh Hussam is not the Islamic State, but to the untrained ear his comments on Christmas seemed not so very different in their justification: Muslims must avoid doing what Christians do, even if it involves habits — celebrations of the new year and the non-religious aspects of Christmas and the wearing of wedding rings — that have absolutely nothing to do with Christianity.

That is not to suggest that Sheikh Hussam speaks for all Muslims. If anything, he has taken political positions in defense of Hezbollah in Sidon, against Salafist Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir, so there are not a few Sunnis who must eye him with suspicion. But subtle changes in social behavior often pass over the heads of a majority, whose inaction allows restrictions to expand.

The increasing refusal of certain restaurants to serve alcohol in western and central Beirut is such an example, though there is no official decision making that ruling mandatory. It’s all being done under the radar, and it’s difficult to oppose because owners of such establishments are free to serve what they please.

But the essence of coexistence and a liberal order is to live and let live — to accept the freedom of others to behave as they want just as they accept yours — as long as such behavior does not harm others. In a bizarre way, dysfunctional Lebanon has more or less adhered to this rule. That is why many Muslims do not find it strange to put up Christmas decorations, nor accept the absurd opinion that the new year is a Christian celebration.

Perhaps Sheikh Hussam had ulterior motives for making his comments. These days, the more narrow-minded one appears, the more support one gets. Nor should we give the cleric more merit than he deserves. Nevertheless, the region is changing profoundly toward its minorities, regardless of the recent expressions of sympathy with Christians during the Christmas season.

All we can do is hope that Lebanon retains its habits of old in a region where religious and ethnic chauvinism are on the rise. That may seem a strange thing to say about a country riven by sectarian conflict. But the fact that Lebanon survives as a single country, even after all these conflicts, says a lot about who we are.

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