The growing trash heaps and angry protests in Lebanon over a government that is failing to provide one of the most basic services have drawn attention to the political deadlock among a government that is largely divided along religious lines.
What is less well known is that a student-based movement is calling for a secular state that would end the sect-based government.
Back in 2008, the government tried to clamp down on Hezbollah, the Shi’a militant group and political party, and an armed conflict erupted between a coalition aligned with Hezbollah and a coalition aligned with a group known as the Future Movement. Some students on the campus of the American University of Beirut brainstormed how they could fight for real political change. That was the beginning of the AUB Secular Club.
“Everyone was sad about what was happening in Lebanon, so we started thinking of an alternative to the Lebanese sectarian politics,” Ali Noureddine, the first president of the AUB Secular Club explained. “At that time there were some leftist or secular clubs at AUB, but they all had alliances or coalitions with one of the two sides.”
“We believed that to change the sectarian regime,” Noureddine added, “we should have a radical position against all the sectarian parties in Lebanon that formed the sectarian regime.”
Efforts on campus
As politics and sectarian affiliation are often aligned in Lebanon, the same sectarian politics trickle down into student elections on university campuses. Although universities throughout the country usually forbid direct external political support of any student organization, the affiliations exist nevertheless and are usually well known.
At the American University of Beirut, the campus is physically divided during elections between the supporters of the two major coalitions. However, as the Secular Club has increased in popularity, elections now see a third division for independent students running for office and supported by the young organization.
Leaders of the Secular Club say their fellow students sometimes misunderstand the organization as promoting atheism. In reality, the club is made up of Christians, Druze, Muslims, atheists and anyone who believes that one’s sectarian affiliation should not be married to personal politics. The club started with eight members and has 200 registered participants today.
Although the club promotes tolerance, it has itself faced opposition to its existence, especially after managing to make significant political gains during student elections.
“Because we have been able to establish ourselves as a credible independent group, there has been a lot of opposition from both sides of the political spectrum,” said Poliana Geha, who was president of the AUB Secular Club last year.
The Secular Club has also taken on the university administration, protesting against administrative decisions that it feels hurt students. During the past two academic years, the Secular Club has worked to stage large campus protests in response to tuition hikes.
Regardless of the pressure that the club may have put on the university, many administrators welcome it.
“All of this can only be a positive addition for AUB and Lebanon in terms of diversity,” said the dean of students affairs, Talal Nizameddin, who works closely with AUB’s student organizations. “Lebanon’s greatest strength is that there is a philosophy of non-elimination of the other. Some people find this frustrating, having so many voices and opinions, but Lebanon is a cedar tree with many branches.”
The idea of secularization has taken hold at other universities.
At the Lebanese American University, a similar secular organization called the Alternative Student Movement has started but is still struggling to find its identity, according to some students who are familiar with it. “There was this issue that a lot of us aren’t just secular,” said Mahdi Zaidan, an LAU student formerly involved with the movement. “A lot of us are leftists and we don’t only believe that the end goal of our activism is a secular system. It must be supplemented with other things like social justice [and] economic justice.”
Many of its current and former members work for other causes on campus and more broadly in the country, such as the issues of migrant rights, LGBTQ rights and civil marriage. (In Lebanon, matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance are settled by religious courts of the roughly 18 religions and sects. Those desiring a civil marriage must leave the country, although there was a brief legal opening a couple of years ago when a few couples did have civil marriages. )
The spread of secular ideas has changed the thinking of some students in Lebanon who formerly aligned with sectarian ideologies.
“I used to be a real fanatic in the past but then I was introduced by my friend to workshops . . . [where I became] more knowledgeable about the meaning of secularism,” said Bilal Youssef, a student at Beirut Arab University.
Currently there is no secular club at that institution, as university policy discourages all political affiliation in hopes of avoiding conflicts.
“There are no secular clubs or movements at BAU, yet I’m sure there are plenty of students who consider themselves secular,” said Youssef. “I hope for a formation of a secular club.”
By coming together under the banner of secularization, students have also been better able to organize behind other movements that share their values. Secular-minded students from various universities regularly participate together in issue-based political demonstrations, including the ongoing “You Reek” protests. That movement has developed in response to the piles of garbage that filled the streets of Lebanon following the government’s inability to establish a new landfill.
While the government sinks deeper into political deadlock, unable to find a solution to the trash crisis, and security forces violently crack down on protesters, secular students still hope that they can effect positive political change.
“We hope that the experience of the Secular Club will be used later in other frameworks outside of the university. It’s kind of exporting or producing skilled activists,” said Jean Kassir, a president of the American University of Beirut’s Secular Club in 2013-14.
“You build an institution; you export the model; you create networks; you become a force as a student, and then when people get out of the university and finish their studies, they can become active by joining a political movement or starting their own.”
“I believe that someday a political group will appear which gains the support of the people and changes this regime.”
Jason Lemon is the assistant to the editor at StepFeed.com and is currently finishing his master’s degree in media studies at the American University of Beirut.