Beirut (AsiaNews) - Reacting to a government decision to remove all political symbols in public spaces, a Sunni lawmaker from northern Lebanon, Khaled Daher, on Tuesday said that if all religious political symbols have to be removed in al Nour Square (formerly Abdul Hamid Karami Square), so should the statue of Christ the King overlooking the mouth of the Nahr al-Kalb River, on the northern edge of Beirut, and the statue of the Blessed Virgin in Harissa, which overlooks the Bay of Jounieh.
The statement quickly caused an uproar. On Thursday, Mr Daher was suspended from the Future Movement, Lebanon's main Sunni political party. However, regardless of how this statement is used, one is struck by the fact that no one responded with a rational argument to the lawmaker's remarks, not even his colleagues in the Future Movement.
The fact is that the statues of Christ the King and Our Lady of Lebanon are on private land, namely convents, and that they cannot be compared with what Islamist groups have done in Tripoli's Abdel Hamid Karami Square. The statue that once stood in the middle of this square was taken down and replaced by a monumental sculpture of the world Allah with the inscription 'Tripoli, a Muslim stronghold'. The square itself is full of black flags with Qur'anic verses in white. Some of them are hard to distinguish from the flags of the 'Islamic State' group.
On Thursday, the lawmaker backtracked on his earlier statement and apologised but it was too late. His membership in the Future Movement, Lebanon's main moderate Sunni political force, was suspended. However, in announcing the suspension, the Future Movement failed to say anything about the different that exists between public and private spaces. Speaking for himself, MP Ahmad Fatfat merely reiterated that his party is opposed to all forms of sectarianism, as well as against everything that divides and undermines Lebanon's pluralistic vocation.
For Fr Fadi Daou, from the Adyan Foundation, an inter-faith think tank, "The distinction between public and private space is certainly fundamental, but not absolute. Private spaces have a public side as well, like the face of a building, reflecting its identity and character. This is the trademark of Lebanon's diversity and charm. Even when they are private, spaces partly belong to everybody. This is why they have to reflect Lebanon's shared culture, and must be neither provocative nor sectarian."
In this regard, for most Lebanese, neither the statue of Christ the King, nor the Virgin in Harissa, can be regarded as sectarian and provocative, quite the opposite. They are fundamentally unifying symbols, because of their religious function and the services they render. On some days, there are almost as many Iranian pilgrims in Harissa as there are Christians.
Nevertheless, not all of Lebanon's Christian religious symbols are so innocent. For example, since the end of the Civil War, many, more or less big metal crosses have appeared on the hills in "Christian country," and represent a way to stake out a claim to the land and assert one's confessional identity. In most cases, political parties put them up. As creeping Islamisation continues on the ground, which some Christian leaders fear, these cross are subtle declarations of hostility. This is not good, reflecting a still openly divided body politic. By and large, such problems should be treated rather than repressed, to avoid the possible resurfacing of "repressed feelings", as psychoanalysts put it.
When it comes to public spaces, which reflect something of the diversity of a pluralistic country like Lebanon, we must still remember that they are under the jurisdiction of the State, and not of any particular groups. It is clear that now some decency was imposed on al-Nour Square, and that not all Tripoli residents identify with the slogan "Tripoli, a Muslim stronghold," a sectarian statement if there ever was one. Emphasising Tripoli's Muslim identity this way comes at the expense of its inter-faith and pluralistic character. For Christians, upholding the latter would mean fiercely defending the city's precious Islamic heritage, should it ever be threatened.
It thus seems obvious that the State has a regulatory role to play in this field. Doing so does not necessarily antagonising fundamentalist Islamic groups, but it does mean not accepting the imposition of their symbols, not to mention their customs, in public spaces.
The issue is also one of perception. One need not be as abrupt as Interior Minister Nouhad Mashnouq, but the State has to exercise extreme vigilance in this area. Such vigilance is justified by past attempts to impose a daytime ban on restaurants during the month of Ramadan, or ban on beer ads. Indeed, Tripoli, a city of so many faces and faiths, redeemed itself this winter, through the explosion of Christmas garlands and trees that appeared during the holy season, and the restocking of the shelves a bookstore that was torched last year.