Roger Dib: The perspective of Lebanon Vis a Vis the challenge of a peaceful coexistence between different religions.

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Prime Minister and esteemed participants,

Let me start by thanking the Organizers of this symposium for the importance and timeliness of the subject and the richness of background of the participants; we all look forward to a fruitful and open exchange that will enrich our engagement to the crucial objective of enhancing inclusiveness in times of crisis, fully aware that inclusiveness becomes more difficult in times of crisis.

I have been asked, in my key note speech today, to highlight the perspective of Lebanon Vis a Vis the challenge of a peaceful coexistence between different religions. Indeed, after long years of strife and despite the tremendous burdens and difficulties she faces today, Lebanon is now a living example of possible peaceful and fruitful coexistence between religions and different confessions of the same religion. Hence, it is of utmost importance to understand why…

1. Two reasons prevented Lebanon erupting with the current crises that swept the region

1.1. Internally, as a nation, we moved further on the civil strife avoidance learning curve. Indeed, the long civil strife of the 1970s’ taught our leaders of today the horrible cost of civil war; so our political parties agreed to a power sharing national government as these destabilizing regional events showed they are in for the long term; also, the concerned factions tacitly agreed for those who were adamant to fight with one side or the other of the regional wars, not to do it inside Lebanon ; in addition, the Lebanese security forces, with serious international support, proved capable to hit hard on elements that wanted to bring the Syrian fire into Lebanon .

1.2 The 2nd reason is that ,this time, the all so important external factor assisted Lebanon ‘s internal peace instead of instigating trouble
Diverse multi religious or ethnic countries are particularly vulnerable to their immediate environment as their components are usually continuations of communities AROUND THEM; it is hence always important to analyze what happens inside and around them; in the 1970s’, Lebanon paid the price of its proximity to Israel and the Palestinian armed resistance, as some Lebanese welcomed it in Lebanon while others did not… Today, the crises have moved to one between Muslim regional powers and their local affiliates whose epicenters are in Syria and Iraq, not Lebanon…

2. On the more fundamental level, Lebanon’s coexistence sits on more solid grounds than other countries of the Levant; it has 5 pillars to rest on:

2.1 The long tradition and Experience of social coexistence and longer State building experience
Emirs in mount Lebanon managed a true coexistence for close to 8 centuries; then, the Motasarifia experience of the late 19th to the beginning of the first world war was an era of autonomous self government with a Christian ottoman non Lebanese governor; afterwards, came the pre independence period for another 25 years under a French mandate; in total, nearly a century of assisted but real autonomy and quasi complete state building experience before independence. Then, the first 30 years after independence in 1943 were a period of enhancing democracy and economic prosperity till 1975.

All of this state building time gave Lebanon a reasonable immunity to face up, with a lot of pain and loss but without breaking up, to the tremendous turbulence the region faced since the drama of Palestine and the ensuing and on-going Arab Israeli conflict, the emergence of Iran as a regional power and the reactions to it, September 11 and its repercussions , the American intervention in and hasty withdrawal from Iraq bringing her to breakdown and chaos, the jihadist extremism global awakening and expansion, the Arab spring and the civil war in Syria…. Truly, an unlucky neighborhood for Lebanon!

2.2 Lebanon has a sense of identity and common values and purpose that Lebanese of all denominations adhere to and are very proud of

2.2.1. Individual freedoms, advanced levels of education, multi linguism and multiculturalism, tolerance and respect of specifity of each community, developing economy supported by a striving Diaspora strongly attached to its country of origin and a consensual democracy, even if working at minima.

2.2.2. Appealing and felt value added and specifity Vis a Vis the environment whereby Lebanese Muslims feel much closer to other non Muslim Lebanese than most of their co religionaries in the region. Lebanon was founded around the idea of personal liberties, equality and democratic power sharing not as a homeland for its founders, the Christians.

2.3. Our Political system structure, despite many important imperfections, ensures true power sharing and reflects sensibly the historical reality, desire and strive for co existence of all Lebanese

2.4. Our Religious leaders adopt and actively promote a moderate brand of their own religion and act as a moral safety cushion to political or religious extremism.

2.5. Most of our political leaders have mastered the ART of Management of contradictions and ambiguities and the ensuing necessary political dialogue and compromise.

3. Looking at the future, I see 5 internal challenges and 3 real regional dangers for Lebanon

3.1. The internal challenges

3.1.1. As a natural consequence of diversity, there is factional and political fragmentation in diverse societies; however, we have witnessed, since the end of the civil strife in 1991, an extreme personalization of the political leadership; the necessary compromise building skill has become a tool to bypass the constitution and the democratic calendar for personal and community interests. The current vacancy in the Presidency of the Republic is an unfortunate and dangerous symptom of this illness.

3.1.2. In countries of diversity such as Lebanon, most central governments are slow in decision making and have rather limited capabilities and, at times, competencies to manage a weakening Economy, with strong deficits and very high debt caused by the reckless behavior of most political leaders over the last 40 years. At the same time, these very countries are more vulnerable to economic crises as they often turn into conflict among the different components; to the contrary, a strong and fairly distributed economy and prosperity are major elements of national cohesion. (Swiss and Belgian examples)

3.1.3. Lebanon needs to build wider national support for neutrality, so needed for its internal peace; an important milestone was achieved by the declaration of Baabda, under our previous President Michel Sleiman, but some parties came back on their original adherence to it.

3.1.4. We need to manage seriously ,though cautiously, the evolution of the government system towards more decentralization and gradually to a more secular state, at least at the central government level

3.1.5. Lebanon needs to deal with the internal unbalance and the external consequences of Hizballah becoming a regional, not only a local “super” actor

3.2. The regional elements of danger

3.2.1. Geopolitical regional settlements that could disrupt the internal balance as was historically the case when Syria’s accommodation was paid by influence over Lebanon or the geographical impact of the Syrian war that forces Lebanon into a de facto juxtaposition of minorities , totally in opposition to Lebanon history and purpose of equal coexistence with all.

3.2.2. Radicalism taking over in Syria, a mortal danger with possible “effet d’entrainement” on a part of Lebanese population, especially in the North.

3.2.3. Syrian and Palestinian Refugees staying over the long term will disrupt fundamentally the already delicate demographic balance of the country, further weakening the Christian presence and role.

4. As for Lebanon ‘s Regional perspective

4.1. Lebanon has a vital interest in acting to contribute shaping its immediate environment:

4.1.1. Lebanon needs to promote actively its own brand of fruitful co existence with a moderate and open Islam that lived for centuries with Christians and others and be a leader in co sponsoring and disseminating the likes of the Amman declaration in 2004 and the al azhar Cairo declaration in December 2014.

4.1.2. Peace and justice for the Palestinian people is a condition sine qua non for regional peace and more peaceful relations between the West and the Muslim worlds; if you look profoundly into it, most of jihadist organizations leadership have a deep connection with one of the Palestinian refugee camps, starting with Abdullah azzam, the co founder of al Qaeda…

4.1.3. Syria and Iraq are still in the post dictatorial Deconstruction phase of their states; however, we need to avoid at any cost that they are taken over by radical and violent jihadism and do our utmost to help them reunite and build a structure of government that is commensurate with their will to coexist and build a common country and not force a solution on them which is in contradiction with their realities and the national aspirations of their different components. In my opinion, if Iraq stays united, Syria will too, though the structures that will translate their unity will be different: federation for Iraq and decentralized regional autonomy and guaranteed power sharing for Syria. In this way only, we can guaranty the safe return of Syrian refugees to their homeland, as most of them will not return to a jihadist or pro Iranian Syria!

4.1.4. There is no higher national interest for Lebanon than moving from the expansionist dictatorships that surrounded us since our independence, to a neighborhood of democratic states that recognize and organize around their own diversity with leaders freely elected by the people in a transparent and democratic way pursuing cooperation not domination policies with their smaller neighbors. If today’s dramatic events turn into this optimistic scenario, Lebanon is poised to go back to the golden days we lived from our independence in 1943 to 1975 when the terrible civil war started.

4.1.5. Regional powers have to cease their fights by proxy and follow non intervention policies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya or else they face the danger that their proxy wars will turn into direct regional confrontations. The history of the Balkans in the European wars teaches us indeed this lesson. The region needs urgently a Middle Eastern Treaty of Westphalia, or else, partition of more than one country will become a possible outcome with grave consequences.

4.2. To stop this slaughter, non intervention is necessary but not sufficient; over the long term, we need

4.2.1. A supra national cooperation umbrella that brings together all the diverse components of this part of the world: a new form of cultural Arabism and a large economic and free trade area.

4.2.2. A Middle East marshal plan that launches the drive for the modernization of the Middle East physically, economically, politically and socially.

4.2.3. A true European engagement: The Middle East never thrived better than during the period from the mid 19th century to the first quarter of the 20th century when Europeans, Arabs and Ottomans engaged in trade and cultural exchanges and built great modern and multi cultural cities such as BEIRUT, Izmir and Alexandria. The “Union pour la Méditerranée” EU initiative is more needed than ever.

4.2.4. Last but not least, the international community, through the security council, should become more interventionist against reckless national leaders who, through their refusal to leave power democratically and their corruption, take their states into failure, since, in this globalised world, their reckless behavior brings havoc on countries and communities far beyond their own.

Let me close by reiterating my thanks to the organizers of this symposium. I am sure that all participants will profit and make their respective countries profit from such valuable and rich exchange.

Thank you.

Corfu, July 19-23, 2015