The Daily Star

Posted by The Daily Star on July 21, 2012 in News Clips

BEIRUT: Just over one-third of Lebanese believe that laws should be based on the values and principles of Islam, while almost one in five believe that laws should comply strictly with the Quran, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center.

While these figures, along with the rise of Islamist groups in parts of Lebanon and the greater Middle East, may worry sections of the secular and Christian populations, political analysts believe Lebanon’s diverse religious makeup renders wholesale radicalization unlikely.

“Lebanon has a unique character,” observes Dr. James Zogby, founder and president of the Washington, D.C.-based Arab American Institute as well as senior adviser for polling firm Zogby International, which was founded by his brother, renowned pollster John Zogby.

“Every religion-based, sect-based group [in Lebanon] is theologically more moderate [than those in other Arab countries]. They understand the need for a more open society.”

In Lebanon, Pew carried out face-to-face interviews in Arabic with 1,000 people. A multistage cluster sample was taken in Lebanon’s seven major regions (excluding Beirut’s southern suburbs and areas in the south near the border with Israel, to which access is generally restricted to locals).

The survey claims to be proportional to Lebanon’s population size and the percentage of urban to rural inhabitants. The margin of error was plus or minus 4.2 percent.

The survey shows that 35 percent of Lebanese believe “Laws should follow the values and principles of Islam” while 17 percent believe “Laws should strictly follow the Quran.”

Elias Muhanna, an assistant professor at Brown University who is well-known for his blog Qifa Nabki, believes formulations such as “the values and principles of Islam” are “loose definitions” that do not translate into attempts to impose Islamic law.

“If you were to ask people in my large extended family if biblical values are important to political life, about 90 percent would say yes even though they are not all devout,” Muhanna says.

The survey, which includes five other predominately Muslim countries – Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan – indicates that 84 percent of Lebanese have a “Continuing Desire for Democracy” (an increase of 3 percent from 2010) and that 93 percent of Lebanese believe women should have rights equal to those of men.

Of special note is the fact that Lebanon assigns more importance than the survey’s other countries to a prosperous economy, free elections, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, political stability, and uncensored access to media and the internet.

Zogby, who has over three decades of experience in taking polls, recalls a 2005 poll taken during a meeting of the Arab Business Council. At the council, he asked business leaders from several Arab countries the question: “Should Shariah law be applied to business?”

“In many countries the answer was yes,” he says. “In Lebanon ... every group [from each sect] said no.”

“Lebanese values inherit an openness in the country,” he points out, adding that Lebanon is the only country he has polled in the Arab world in which people assign more importance to their national identity rather than their religious, sectarian or Arab identity.

“The society is more robust and most don’t want partisanship,” he maintains of the Lebanese. Where religious intolerance and extremism do exist in Lebanon, Zogby blames Lebanese political leaders who “manipulate fears and anxiety” to create perceptions of extreme fundamentalists in other sects, a practice that furthers their personal agendas and ambitions.

But Muhanna, the blogger, argues that a political shift has started taking place in Lebanon, pointing to the recent media attention received by controversial Sidon Sheikh Ahmad Assir and sectarian clashes between armed groups in the northern city of Tripoli.

“Assir emerged with the Nasrallah strategy,” Muhanna says, comparing the Sunni preacher to the leader of Shiite Hezbollah, with whom Assir is politically at odds. “He talks a lot of sense.”

A charismatic speaker, Assir has used his skills as an orator and his pragmatism to attract attention and support.

But regardless of Assir’s spike in popularity since early 2012, Muhanna maintains there is still a long way to go before Islamist political influence is heavily felt in Lebanon.

“The wide-right [Islamists] are not mainstream and nowhere near the mainstream,” he insists.

Muhanna says Islamists such as Assir face “too many barriers” to political success at present, though this could change if a new electoral system is adopted or if Islamist movements begin to obtain a “critical mass” large enough to make their mark on the Sunni political landscape.

In fact, the Islamist phenomenon in Lebanon and its neighbors may simply be a reflection of regional political activity. After years of oppression under authoritarian dictatorships, Islamist parties have now come to power in Egypt and Tunisia. At the same time, events in Syria have left many wondering what role Islamists will play if and when the regime of Bashar Assad falls.

There are many ways to predict the future, though as Machiavelli once said, “Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past.”

Nadim Shehadi, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program, likens the rise in Islamist movements to historical trends in the Middle East.

“If you look at snapshots from different periods of the 20th century, you can have three characteristic ones that represent the ... changes of moods that follow major regional shocks,” he says.

“For example, 10 to 15 years after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, [there was] a ruling elite dominated by liberal, rather Western-leaning notables. They created constitutions inspired by the West and built opera houses.

“Ten to 15 years after the shock of the 1948 [Arab-Israeli war] defeat, these were replaced by the Free Officer types, socialist, authoritarian, pro-Soviet types who were doing land reforms and building dams.

“Then comes the 1967 [Middle East war] defeat, and 10 to 15 years after that the image changes to beards, turbans and robes with the rise of Islamists. By the early 1980s, images of the Iranian Revolution, the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, [Hezbollah], Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood dominate the region.”

Shehadi believes that the region’s contemporary developments stem from either the events of Sept. 11, 2001, or the fall of Baghdad under Saddam Hussein – or even both.

He also notes that contemporary regional trends have sometimes influenced countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, leaving analysts to wonder whether the “Arab Spring” will extend into such relatively far-off, non-Arab countries.

As with the Western-leaning liberals and the elites that followed the Ottoman Empire, and the socialists and allies of the Soviet Union who wielded power during the middle years of the 20th century, it is now the turn of ideology-bereft Arab autocrats to be replaced.

Shehadi believes the Islamists are not immune to this cycle, and that they too will experience a prolonged decline.

“It took 20 years for [Islamist movements] to rise, and if it means that the reversal will take the same time this is very significant indeed.”

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