Lebanese march for secularism

Beirut, Lebanon - They had no blessing from the government. No politician in a big black SUV bankrolled them. None of the television stations controlled by political parties publicized their efforts.

And no cleric preached their cause at the pulpit.

Yet on Sunday morning, thousands of Lebanese, drawn by a largely informal campaign on Facebook and other Internet sites, marched through the heart of Beirut to demand that religion be excised from politics, a rare assertion of secularism in a region increasingly defined by religious identity.

"I don't believe religion and politics should be mixed," said Amer Saidi, 28, a student of political science at Lebanese American University, who joined as many as 5,000 people beneath a gleaming blue sky for what many considered the nation's first "secular pride" demonstration. "Religion should not be used as a political tool."

Saidi said he was born a Shiite Muslim but considers himself agnostic. He vowed to strike his religion from his national identity card, an option recently permitted by Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, a champion of nonprofit organizations and other civil groups that organized the march.

Many at the demonstration, which finished at a boisterous rally before the parliament building, said they were there in reaction to Lebanon's unique government system, which divvies up the nation's political spoils among leaders of the diverse religious communities.

"What's your sect?" read one poster held up by marchers, mimicking a common question in a country where government jobs or university posts are granted or denied by institutions run as sectarian fiefs. "None of your business," the poster continued.

"This type of system has brought only war and chaos," said Yasser Andari, an architect and member of Lebanon's Druze community, as he attended the rally with his 1 1/2-year-old son, Adam, perched on his shoulders. "We want a government that looks at all people as people."

The turnout at the event, the first of its kind since Lebanon's civil war ended in 1990, stunned its organizers. Usually a few hundred hard-core activists turn up at demonstrations for various causes. The march brought together many groups that feel marginalized by the system set up after that conflict, including old-school leftists and gay rights activists. Men and women younger than 30 and even teenagers dominated the crowd.

"I'm not against religion," said Laila Harb, 21, a Shiite college student who was among the few women to attend the rally wearing a hijab. "Being a secularist means you separate religion and politics."

Throughout the Middle East, secularism means different things to different people, its semantics clouded further by the frequent use of the politically loaded French equivalent laicite in Lebanon and other Arab countries, and its associations among Muslims with atheism and godlessness.

Activists describe secularism as a separation of mosque and church from the functions of state, allowing, for example, couples to marry without going to a cleric, impossible now in Lebanon and many other Middle East countries.

Westernized intellectuals sometimes contend that secularism is the path that would get the Arab world out of its economic and social doldrums.

Influential Muslim clerics define secularism as the Western-inspired quashing of religion, conjuring up images of modern Turkey's founder, Kemal Ataturk, or Iran's Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi forcing women to remove their Islamic veils in the early 20th century.

But demonstrators at Sunday's march contended that Lebanon's divisive religious political system kept the state and nation weak, allowing foreign powers to exploit the country.

"Neither Syria, nor America," they chanted in reference to two of Lebanon's major foreign power brokers, "but a secular Lebanon."