What defines you as who you are?

Lebanon is a country that has seen some of the most vicious fighting seen in the 20th century. It’s a country with a proud heritage, but surrounded by larger more powerful states. Those same powers have tried with differing success to influence and control Lebanon. Turkey, Israel, and Syria in more recent times, but France and the UK must also be mentioned. The result is a mix and match population. So what defines your average Lebanese person?

It’s easy to fall into the trap of answering “Religion of course”, but that’s both lazy and not entirely correct. The mix of ethnicity in Lebanon goes beyond a mere Christian or Muslim divide. There are disagreements between the Druze and other branches of the Shia Muslim faith. The influx of refugees from their neighbours has exasperated inter-Islamic differences, with the numbers of Sunni Muslims increasing. Throw in the Maronite and Orthodox Christians and you’ll start to see a very complicated picture.

Religion is an important factor though. In Lebanon it defines everything about who and what you are. Yet there are an increasing number of Lebanese turning their backs on organised religion. In such a polarised society with deep political and religious links, this can have very real consequences as this BBC report outlines.

Lebanon's atheists on losing their religion
Lebanon's atheists on losing their religion

It takes a brave person to turn their back on their religion, particularly where it is central to your society’s belief structure. It can lead to family break ups and worse. Even Fatwas and honour crimes in extreme cases. Where turning your back on what for centuries has been deemed acceptable, you have to expect some difficulty. As pack animals, we humans don’t like change. Yet at the same time each generation attempts to push the boundary of what is acceptable. It’s a natural progression that brings technological improvement and innovation.

Recognised religion tends to be that stabilising force in everyday society. It provides a broad base from which all human interaction can be deemed acceptable or unacceptable. Whether it is the Tora, Bible, or Koran, the central statements are broadly the same. In fact if you do even the most preliminary research, you’ll soon discover that the Christianity came from a split with Judaism, and Islam uses elements of both religions. In the same way Roman Catholics split from the Orthodox community, all remain Christians with broadly the same beliefs and valves.

So what about those Lebanese? If they turn their back on religion, what defines them? Are they still Lebanese? Their passport says they are, but society says they’re not. In most countries that’s not an issue, but in a country where it can mean your rights being abused that’s an issue. As an Irishman I was baptised a Catholic. Yet I am able to say anything against my country and religion. 

The issue of identity is at the heart of this post. What does a particular belief say about who you are? Personally I don’t care if someone identifies me as an Irishman, Londoner, Catholic, or just a man. They can be handy in creating a picture, even if it’s a fairly general one. What really matters is what I believe in. We love to pigeon hole people, but that’s just a lazy way of communicating who we are. Such nouns have their uses, but to deny people their rights based in them is just plain wrong. 

Would you deny someone the right to buy property because they’re Palestinian? Would you rule out someone from a job because of their skin colour? Would you deny someone the right to vote because they earn less than £30000 per year? Most countries would consider such discrimination not only wrong, but against the law. So why should discrimination based on your religious belief be any different?