Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Muslim-Christian Cooperation and Conflict: Lessons from the Case Study of Lebanon

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Muslim-Christian Cooperation and Conflict: Lessons from the Case Study of Lebanon

Article excerpt


Lebanon is a divided society. Although a small country, less than 130 miles long at its furthest north/south axis, it contains an extraordinary plethora of ethnic, religious and sectarian groups. Most broadly, and most importantly for our purposes here, it is a country divided more or less evenly between Christian and Muslim Lebanese.

Although a small country, Lebanon in its history has been a major example of two things: religious-sectarian harmony and religious-sectarian conflict. Lebanon has been famous, or perhaps the best word is infamous, for the horrible civil war which took place there in 1975 and 1976. The apparent divide in that civil war was Muslim versus Christian. Such a characterization is grossly inadequate, but it is nevertheless an appropriate starting point since that is the most common impression of that conflict.

At the same time, however, Lebanon has also been famous as an example of religious-sectarian harmony. Through almost all the years from 1943 (Lebanese independence) to early 1975, Lebanon was famous for its apparent religious-sectarian "harmony," or at least lack of religious-sectarian conflict. Through almost all of those years, Lebanon's many sectarian groups experienced very little inter-sectarian conflict. It was commonly regarded as a viable model of different religions and ethnicities living together successfully in relative peace and harmony. In their most benign self image, the Lebanese liked to call themselves the "Switzerland of the Middle East." The relative political stability and harmony achieved by Switzerland's ethnically, linguistically and religiously divided society--French speakers versus Italian speakers versus German speakers; Catholics versus Protestants--was not an inappropriate comparison for Lebanon's relative stability within their similarly divided society. Lebanon's subdivisions rival those of Switzerland in number. The Christian/Muslim divide is only the crudest overview of Lebanon's fragments. Among the Muslims, there are significant numbers of Sunni and Shi'a (12'er), with a third group, the Druze (an offshoot of the Shi'a branch of Islam). Although numerically smaller than these others, the Druze have always been important in the politics and history of Lebanon far beyond their numbers. On the Christian side, the Maronite Christians, a rite within the Roman Catholic Church, are the largest in numbers, with Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic (distinct from Maronites) segments. (1) To these can be added significant numbers of Armenians. Mainly Orthodox Christians, the Armenians in Lebanon are refugee survivors of the genocide committed against the Armenians in the beginning of the 20th century. There is an even larger segment of Palestinians in Lebanon as well. They are also refugee survivors, some Christian but mainly Sunni Muslim, who fled from their homes in former Palestine in 1947-1948 when the state of Israel was created.

A further parallel exists between Switzerland and Lebanon. Whatever the form of governance Lebanon and Switzerland share, however difficult it is to characterize, what is obvious is what it is not: neither have been, or are, authoritarian or dictatorial states. Both achieved their goals of relative internal stability in divided societies with a type of democracy. I emphasize that the Lebanese and Swiss version of democracy is one that most people would not recognize nor immediately comprehend. It is not a version of America's separation of powers model of democracy, nor is it the parliamentary (or more accurately, "majoritarian") model of the UK and most other industrial democracies.

Indeed, Lebanon's type of democracy is most different from, in some senses the exact opposite of, a parliamentary/majoritarian style of democracy. (2)

Now most people would have little problem with the value judgment that "democracy," of whatever form--non-dictatorial government--is morally and politically preferable to dictatorial government for internally divided societies. …

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