The 18 Religions That Make Up Lebanon’s Government


While there are many religious theocracies
and secular democracies around the world, very few countries have found a way to bridge
the gap between religion and politics. But in Lebanon, not only does there exist a democracy
within a larger religious structure, there are actually 18 official religions built into
the country’s parliamentary system. So let’s take a look at how and why a dozen and a half
different sects are able to rule over one country. Lebanon’s multi-religion government actually
stems from its invading predecessor: the Ottoman Empire. From about 1516 to 1918, Lebanon was
under the jurisdiction of this Empire, and around the 1830s, a system of reorganization
by the Ottomans called “Tanzimat”[tahn-zi-maht], declared that all citizens were equal under
the law, regardless of their religious affiliation. For Lebanon, this was a problem, as the country’s
many different religions, spanning Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, had each established
their own legal rules, which were implicitly unequal. Before Tanzimat, the Ottoman Empire stressed
religious pluralism, with each religion considered it’s own nation-like entity, called a “millet”.
Together these millets comprised the Empire, and had individual legal protections. Today,
Lebanon operates under a similar system of religious pluralism called “confessionalism”. Within Lebanon’s constitution is a guarantee
that all citizens will have the same rights and duties, without discrimination. But it
also establishes a hardline balance of power among the country’s many religions. These break down into more than half the population
adhering to the two major Muslim faiths, Sunni and Shia, and about thirty five percent are
Christians known as Maronites [mah-roh-night], Greek Orthodox, and Greek Catholic. The rest
are a combination of Druze [drew-ze], an ancient Arabic religion, smaller Christian denominations,
Jews, Bahá’ís [Ba·ha’is ], Buddhists, Hindus, and a very small proportion of Mormons. Legally,
there are four Muslim denominations, 12 Christian ones, Druze, and Judaism, comprising the country’s
18 official religions. These religions are allocated within the government
as a result of an unwritten agreement, established during the country’s independence in 1943,
known as the National Pact. It places a different member of each religion within a position
of power. The President is required to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a
Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of the Parliament a Shia Muslim, and so on. There is even a
required balance of power within Parliament’s 128 seats, originally at a 6:5 ratio of Christians
to Muslims, but since the 1989 Taif Agreement, the two are now evenly divided. Moreover, these coalitions break down into
seven major political parties, with two major political factions. One of these is called
the “March 8 Alliance” and is a pro-Syria, Iran-backed group including Hezbollah and
the Free Patriotic Movement, the largest Christian party in Parliament. The other is called the
“March 14 Alliance”, and represents Sunni Muslims via Future Movement, the largest party
in parliament. March 14 also includes two large Christian parties. This religious divide and proportionality
specifically stems back to the country’s only census to date in 1932. At the time,
Christians comprised 51% of the population, leading to this original 6:5 ratio of Christians
to Muslims in Parliament. This Christian hegemony in government was believed to have been established
after Lebanon encapsulated predominantly Muslim areas, but without granting them citizenship.
This 51% figure stemming from the 1932 Census has been challenged, as many Muslims were
not counted. For this reason, the government has been reticent to perform another census,
should the balance of government be shifted towards Muslim rule. Throughout its history, the division along
sectarian lines has led to conflict, strife, and even warfare. It is difficult to suggest
that Lebanon has a well-oiled functioning government. Prior to late 2016, the country
had gone more than two years without a President due to political infighting. Years before
that, the country was embroiled in a massive and long-lasting civil war, largely over political
and sectarian disputes. Although Lebanon’s government does seem to represent all of its
religions, the system in place isn’t necessarily working. Part of Lebanon’s importance in geopolitics
is that it isn’t solely focused on sectarian divides domestically. To find out how other
countries have meddled in Lebanon’s fractured government, watch this video. Be sure to like
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