Can ‘SuShi’ births challenge Lebanon’s confessional system?
By: Dania Hawat
Published Tuesday, March 18, 2014
For over a century, Lebanon's political society has been divided along sectarian lines. As soon as a citizen is born, they’re legally classified into one of Lebanon's 18 officially recognized religious sects. However, today, there are around 750,000 citizens who hold a fluid sectarian affiliation; they are the outcome of the increasing phenomenon of intermarriage between different sects. According to figures compiled by Information International since the Taef agreement was signed until 2003, this type of intermarriage has increased by 15 percent.
A study conducted by the Chamber of Commerce found that there are 400,000 Shia-Sunni mixed sect births in Lebanon, and another 350,000 Christian-Muslim births. Together, they form almost 20 percent of Lebanon’s population. Keeping in line with this growing trend, a new label is being attached to individuals with parents from both the Sunni and Shia sects: “SuShi.” Hisham Kanso, a “SuShi” living between Kinshasa and Beirut said, “the term ‘SuShi’ is just another word coined by the Lebanese, but we will never become a third sect. We support our nation, and we don’t limit ourselves to groups." Aya Haydar, also born from Sunni-Shia parents, hopes that people like her work towards attaining a secular country.
In extremist sectarian societies, a person of a different religious background is looked upon as an outsider. Family members, and people from the society tend to impose their opinion on them under the assumption that they might have inclinations toward the religious beliefs of the other parent.
Hisham was lucky, his parents allowed him to make his own choices, and gave him the freedom to pick his political and religious affiliations. “My grandmother, on the other hand, was pretty much convinced that my mother was of an unworthy background and that I should not get used to her sect, or be involved with the party she supports,” he commented.
Aya grew up in Tripoli and now lives in Kaslik. She says, "the difference between an open-minded society and an extremist one is really huge, take it from an expert.” However, she remains optimistic, “I am relieved to see that there are some societies that are open to differences, and even though they are in the minority they still give me hope."
For Hisham, praying was a difficult issue growing up. The different sides of his family had diverse ways and imposed them on him whenever he was around them. He and his friends made jokes about their differences, but when anything serious happens in the country, ranging from elections to bombings, the laughs turn into arguments and the sectarian dilemma erupts again.
The way Hisham sees it, many of the paths you choose in life will be affected by whom you support. “Thankfully I engaged in my family’s business in the Congo, far away from here. We work with Jews, Christians, Sunnis, etc... It’s all about the profit, not the people,” he said. “The thing about Lebanon though is the only profit you find will be within your sect, so if the sect leader is doing something wrong, you have to turn a blind eye,” he added. Many of the country’s political leaders are said to attract supporters on the basis of the provisions they hand out to members of their own sects.
Nour Daher, whose background is Muslim and Christian, is from Akkar but has lived in Zgharta before recently moving to Tripoli. Her Christian friends disapprove of her support for a Muslim political party, and even encourage her to turn against it, claiming it’ll turn the country into a conservative one. Similarly, some of her friends in Akkar and Tripoli judge her rather open-minded beliefs as “cheap” and “immoral.” They also criticize the fact that she accepts the Alawite minority as a part of Tripoli. She sometimes get responses like, “you can get killed for defending them,” or “they don’t belong here, neither does anyone who supports them” when acquaintances learn of her support for their cause. She realizes the threat of opposing a sectarian based society, but faces it with the belief that “it is the only way towards a civil, secular, and united society.”
Hisham’s political stand is clear, “I can support a political group, but if it does not support me in any way then I am not willing to shed my blood for it. I can support it by voting for its candidates, and spreading awareness about how they will benefit Lebanon.” He wishes more people shared his view, “they do their thing, which is to protect and develop the country, and I’ll do mine and mind my own business.”
Nour views Hisham’s advice as removed from those who need it most. Her friends and the people around her speak of what they call “zuama” or “political leaders” as if they are speaking of a god. “They are blinded by their sect; the only solution to this problem is to be involved with different sects, getting to know them and placing themselves in each other’s shoes.” As an example of this devotion, she says her friends from the Marada party even claim they have green veins, in reference to the party’s flag color. She believes that her friends who support the Lebanese Forces are provided with security resources, gas coupons and other provisions, a good enough reason she claims for them to pledge full allegiance to the party.
Secularism as the solution
Sociologist and university professor, Chawki Attieh, noticed that those born from mixed marriages tend to accept diversity more, because they tend to see things from different perspectives while growing up. He also believes that intermarriage is helping the Lebanese accept and demand secularism. Dr. Attieh said during an interview with Al-Akhbar," I encourage mixed marriages in Lebanon. In fact I believe it’s one of the ways to end the sectarian regime in our country. But one thing should be taken into consideration, the couple should be well aware that they will face many challenges, especially if they belong to two different religions (Islam and Christianity)."
Hisham, Nour and others like them don’t deny having political inclinations, but emphasize that having a secular Lebanon is their priority. “We call for a united Lebanon and I doubt anyone growing up with different religions in the household would disagree with me,” says Nour. She is one of many in the Lebanese civil society calling for, and supporting an uprising for a secular government, where seats are allocated by meritocracy - not sects.
Activists working for secularism claim Lebanese from different religious backgrounds fear one another and are afraid of coexisting because of the politicians’ propaganda. Each sect has its own set of excuses for not accepting the other, be it “we’re afraid they’ll use their weapons against us,” or “we’re afraid they’ll abuse their power, and not give us our rights in this country.”
As the number of intermarriages increases, secularist movement activists are hoping that Lebanon will one day have the majority of its population calling for secularism. Dr. Attieh explained that, "those born from mixed marriages can soften the sectarian feelings in Lebanon. They do understand that the “other” is not the enemy, but rather just another Lebanese with a different set of beliefs.”
While many politicians obscenely reject secularism as a solution to some of Lebanon’s problems, and refuse to push forward civil marriages, many Lebanese with a mixed background are actively working against the confessional system. Some are doing it with mere words, by spreading awareness, but they are doing something about it none-the-less. “We are increasing, we will take over Lebanon one day and make it the most secular place on earth, you’ll see...” challenged Hisham.