By James Abate
Superficially, the Lebanese Republic has become synonymous throughout much of the Western world as a Middle Eastern state with the ability for religious and ethnic diversity to not only exist but also thrive. In Beirut’s central district, Saint George Maronite Cathedral and the Sunni Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque tower side by side. Directly down the street is St. Georges Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Pictures of these monumental houses of worship are displayed proudly as a testament to Beirut and Lebanon’s commitment to religious diversity. However, what this picture and so many others fail to depict are the deep-rooted social stratifications that permeate Lebanese politics and society. Rather these images merely depict the hope for a modern, stable country despite the cracking foundation that Lebanon’s government has been built on.
Having an accurate census is essential to ensuring proper governance, economic management, and inclusive representation within a state. Despite this, Lebanon has not conducted a census of its population since 1932 and to date, despite internal pressures, fails to provide a proper and thorough account of its citizens. Upon the creation and takeover of Greater Lebanon in September of 1920, Colonial France saw this area as rich in culture with an aspect different to that of much of the rest of the Middle East: a majority Maronite Catholic population in a greater region dominated by Islam. The French colonial government of Greater Lebanon, however, began to govern areas outside of the vicinity of Beirut such as South Lebanon and Baalbek, areas dense in Muslims and in particular Shi’a Muslims. Despite this growth in area, the infamous census of 1932 erroneously concluded that for every six Christians in Lebanon, there are five Muslims without citing any historical evidence. This lack of historical record fails to conclude whether or not this census is accurate even in the early 20th century, largely due to the significant backing of Catholic and Christian citizens by the colonial government. In 1943, using key data from this census, the National Pact was formed; this unofficial agreement which guaranteed that the President of the Republic to always be Maronite Catholic, the Prime Minster to always be a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Parliament to always be a Shi’a Muslim. The envisioned “secular” state thus created a skewed power distribution favoring Christians. Thus, for almost a century, a colonial-backed census created the political, economic, and social underpinnings and tensions within Lebanon.
Fast forward to 2015. With the mass emigration of Catholics and Christians from the republic during the Lebanese Civil War lasting for almost 15 years and the Taif agreement in 1990, the demographics of modern day Lebanon have changed drastically from this original demographic polling. Though there lacks any formal data, it is roughly estimated that the total Christian population hovers at 40 percent of the population whereas as the Muslim population has become the majority, with Shi’a Muslims forming the majority within this figure. Despite these drastic changes in the social makeup of the Lebanese Republic, Muslims on average are far more disadvantaged: the birthrate ratio of Muslims to Christians is 2:1, and the poverty level is currently over 50 percent in three major Muslim cities (Akkar, Tripoli, and Tyre), a staggering figure in comparison to the 30 percent level in Lebanon as a whole. In the northern predominantly Muslim areas, only one in three children attend school at age 12. This poverty and lack of institutional resources for communities that have become the majority within their country is inherently reflective in not just the social stigma the outdated census has created but in their lack of representation politically. A new census explicitly detailing the true makeup of the republic would shake the governmental structure that has remained in place for almost a century.
On the other side of this argument is a controversial political reality: this new census may officially reveal that Christians are no longer the majority in a country that has hitherto bolstered their power. Ultimately, Christians could be subject to further marginalization and acts of violence similar to that of Iraq and Syria towards these minority populations. The religious diversity found in Lebanon is a large part of what makes the country unique in the region, despite majority-minority breakdowns. Examples of Christian persecution and subsequent exoduses can be found in nearby Iraq and Egypt with their Assyrian and Coptic populations respectively. The UN High Commission for Refugees estimates that about one-third of all Iraqi refugees are Christian, highlighting the high levels of discrimination these communities face. If there were a new Lebanese census and a subsequent change in the political tide, the now minority Christian communities as well as the smaller Druze community could be face severe persecution.
The prospect that Christian and minority religious groups may face if the political and social tide of Lebanon began to turn is horrifying. Nonetheless, recognizing that much of this republic’s economic and governmental problems rest in its faulty and misleading census and hierarchy will prove critical in taking the first step to address these underlying issues in the country. Lebanon must begin to shed its colonial power’s guise if it hopes to move forward in the coming decades. Too much of the Lebanese population clings to the French colonial era despite its independence more than five decades ago. Lebanon can truly live up to the dreams it sees for itself and can fill an empty hole for minority ‘inclusionism’ in the Middle East; however, the République Libanaise must begin to shed its colonial foundation, conduct a proper accurate census, and provide representative governance to become the true Al-Jumhūrīyah Al-Loubnānīyah.