Finding God everywhere in Lebanon

By Michael Young
The Daily Star, Lebanon

Readers will forgive me if I use a personal milestone as the premise for what follows. The year 2012 marks 20 years since my return to Lebanon, after an interregnum abroad. On the occasion, what change has struck me most during this period? Without a doubt, that affecting religion.

By this I don’t mean the primacy of sectarianism, though that is certainly part of it. What I’m referring to is the pervasiveness of the outwardly devotional, of public manifestations of faith, a belief in miracles, and the compulsive recourse to God or other sacred figures in all varieties of day-to-day situations. Moreover, such religiosity seems everywhere present physically – on trinkets, lockets, wristbands, key rings, bumpers, pocket flashlights, lighters, and wherever else one can affix the image of a saint or a Quranic verse.

Religion is, or should be, a private matter. Yet what is so startling is that the Lebanese today routinely wear it on their sleeve, literally and figuratively. They mechanically assume that if they mutter a religious invocation, that their interlocutors will respond in kind. And many do. Stranger still, it is the young who are the most dedicated. Where one would assume that youths are impatient to cut loose from religious tradition, in Lebanon they are the ones holding the trenches.

The phenomenon is disturbing. To believe in God is one thing, and it is a right no less meriting of protection than the right to religious unbelief. However, it often appears that the rise in overt Lebanese religiosity, like the rise in sectarian polarization, is one consequence of the breakdown of confidence in the state and its social contract.

If so, the issue we’re addressing perhaps has less to do with religion as such than with the particulars of identity. Among Christians, for instance, there is a palpable connection between explicit examples of religiosity and a sense of communal decline. When you feel yourself to be on the ropes, the natural reflex is to reaffirm your presence by whatever means possible, even if it means overdoing things.

I still recall walking into a bank one day and watching a young trainee teller as she went through the steps of verifying my check. The girl, she must have been 22 at most, was a movable reliquary. She wore a large rosary around her neck and religious strings around her wrist, alongside a smaller rosary doubling as an elastic bracelet. I may have caught sight of the Immaculate Conception on a chain as well.

The teller was hardly to be blamed for her convictions. Yet I wondered at how developed must have been the inner sanctum inhabited by this girl, and how this somehow represented a loss for Lebanon as a whole. When youths of any sect bury themselves in the depths of a creed, that is in one measure because they are unwilling, or more likely unable, to have a say in the world outside – in the republic.

This contrasts sharply with attitudes among an older generation of Lebanese, those who were in their 20s during the 1970s. In that first decade of the Civil War, secular ideologies still held meaning. Sect was important and militiamen flaunted their religious artifacts. But back then they still seemed to be fighting over the state, over something tangible: their version of what they regarded as an ideal polity. For many Lebanese in their 20s nowadays, once they manage to transcend their cynicism, the ideal polity, typically, is abroad.

Read more:
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

A church and a mosque sit next to each other in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012. (Mohammad Azakir/The Daily Star) Read more: (The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

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