“What’s your religion?” big signs asked and thousands of Lebanese shouted, “None of your business” in a daring, bold and ambitious effort to demand a secular country.
A group of young activists and intellectuals have prepared for the event for months mainly through social media. They created a Facebook page, produced several promotional videos which they distributed through YouTube and they engaged the media and the street in a subtle way until Sunday, April 25, the day of the march.
A couple of thousand people showed up. All age groups and genders were represented from babies in strollers to an aging generation of Lebanese who bore witness to atrocities that resulted from sectarian divisions in their country. They expressed through slogans their impatience with their country’s present status, where every aspect of their life rotates around religion and tradition.
In one of the promotional videos leading up to the march, the organizers announced their mission statement through a rap-like song.
“Let's march on April 25, march for a secular state in Lebanon,” it said.
Lebanon’s infrastructure is built on the basis of religion. Politics and social life are all about religion and sectarian divisions. The presidency belongs to one group while the premiership belongs to another, government positions are distributed by quota to make sure the various groups and sub-groups are fairly represented. This has been the case since Lebanon's independence in 1943 and several wars have been fought over the years in the name of religion there.
The tiny Mediterranean nation of about 4 million inhabitants has seventeen official religions and keeping a “balance” among them has been the source of many headaches for government officials and citizens alike. Local artist Maya Zankoul captured the complexity of the issue and its essence in a humorous cartoon highlighting what many Lebanese consider normal behavior - to guess someone’s religion from their name, which they will use then as a basis to judge that person. Zankoul herself joined the secularism march and reported on Twitter that it was “Peaceful, fun, happy and full of positive vibes!”
The signs people carried during the march and the slogans they shouted gave a hint to what the youth of Lebanon are interested in.
They rejected the quota system among the various religious factions and insisted on everyone's right to equal opportunity in jobs, property ownership, wealth distribution, all the way to love, marriage, divorce, and child custody.
"One shouldn't have to change religion to achieve what they want" some signs read.
Among the marchers was a son of Lebanon, world-renowned author Rabih Alameddine who happened to be in the country. He said it felt great that “young Lebanese [are] full of hope.”
Although it's clear that one demonstration is not likely to bring any immediate change but Alameddine thinks that is not important. What’s important he said, is that “they believe they can, or they hope they can.”
He added, “In Lebanon, everyone has given up hope that the status quo can change. To have people with hope is what changes things. It's a miracle!"
For Alameddine who grew up during Lebanon's civil war and wrote about it in his book ‘The Hakawati’ this small step is a miracle.
Others watched from a distance shrugged and dismissed the notion that any change will result from this march or any other.
The big winners were the young people who believed they can march and demand a secular country, and they did. They're now living the highlight of their achievement, wondering what they can do next to turn their dream into reality, and their peaceful demonstration into effective change. A tall order for a conservative region and a country interwoven in tradition. It would require before anything, tough skin.