Of the many things Lebanese pretend to have is an open mind, notably when it comes to those who are of a different sect. The catchphrase goes: welcome to the country where 18 sects live together peacefully. The reality is anything but. We pretend otherwise anyway.
Lebanese peace, fragile as it is, is always at the breaking point of a sect feeling threatened. Sometimes the mayhem that ensues is tangible, with guns and arms and black shirts. Other times, the mayhem is a scandal at a local school.
You’ve probably heard of SABIS by now. They have a bunch of well-renowned schools across the country and the region. They will also soon open a university in my hometown in Batroun. Education is what they do. Their tuition fees are steep and their students receive the best facilities possible. What SABIS also does is enforce the notion of secularity at its establishments and in doing so, it has gotten itself in some deep trouble.
A Christian Problem:
Recently, SABIS Adma issued new regulations that forbade religious signs from being displayed among students, unless such a sign was an obligation. Parents and students have therefore risen in uproar against the regulations that they believe unfairly targets Christians who wear Crosses around their necks while allowing Muslim girls who adorn the Hijab to continue wearing their religious garment at school. Crosses are meant to be worn under the vest. Hijabs can’t obviously be hidden.
This comes a couple of months after another regulation by SABIS which forbade students with an ash cross on their foreheads from attending classes on Ash Monday, at the beginning of lent.
There’s even a news report about the matter for you to check:
In typical Lebanese Christian fashion, the problem at SABIS got turned into yet another existential crisis that targets their existence in Lebanon. Do Christian parents and students have a point in being angry? Perhaps they do. Do they have a point in feeling like their entire presence is targeted in Lebanon because their children can’t flaunt a $1000 golden Cross? I daresay they don’t. In fact, on that particular point there’s a substantial amount of chill pills which need to be taken.
The regulations at hand, in delineating a clear difference between obligatory religious rules and non-obligatory rules, seem to be aimed squarely at those Christian parents and students. But is the comparison between the Cross and a Hijab a fair one to begin with with one being facultative in its religion and the other being obligatory?
There are other items worn by Muslims that could be forbidden with such regulations such as a necklace with the word Allah or a necklace with Ali’s Sword. But is the point of enforcing secularism at SABIS, whatever that means, ending up with a list of what to wear and what not to wear that is well accustomed to the religion their students were born in?
The problem at hand is that this notion of secularism at SABIS is half-assed at best. It’s like someone who has a foot in the door of modernity with all their other limbs staying outside, clinging to familiarity. You either enforce full secularism at your schools, affecting all students regardless of their religious obligations, which is how it happens in some European countries, or you ignore your students’ religious views by simply not caring whether they wear a Cross or an Allah pendant or a Hijab while not providing them with religion classes, facilities for prayer and whatnot.
SABIS‘ half-measures when it comes to their secularism emanate from their regional context with their schools in the Gulf not facing such a problem due to those countries’ demographics. But is applying regulations emanating from the Khaleej in Lebanon a good idea? Christian anger seems to indicate otherwise.
The problem with applying half-assed measures, with subtle nuances ignored, to a well-rooted Lebanese problem such as sectarianism is that it always brings out sectarian anger, regardless of how well the original intention of the proposal is. It’s easy to say why bother and to just leave things the way they are, but wouldn’t secularism at the school level at least help towards alleviating sectarianism at the national level with subsequent generations taking charge? And would a lacking notion of secularism, which pushes people towards adopting a sectarian speech, lead to the change we hope to have in Lebanon?
It’s ironic that when Lebanon attempts modernity, with neo-regulations at new-styled schools, the overall outcome turns out to be the same-old, same-old regression towards the us versus them mentality: cross versus hijab all over again. It really shows, doesn’t it, how far we are from actually becoming a modern nation where our children don’t go to school to flaunt their religious views, whether knowingly or unknowingly, where a school enforcing such a regulation is met with actual dialogue and where that precise us versus them mentality is buried way too deep for it to pop up at any given moment.
Back in my days, the point of going to school was to get an education, plain and simple, not to learn the art of provocation. It seems the former has become too mainstream these days.