Sfeir’s Departure and the Strong Wall of Nationalism

Sunday, 19 May, 2019 - 09:15 Issue Number [14782]

A week ago, former Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir passed away. Social media sites and the remaining newspapers were full of sincere grief and lamentation. A great sense of loss has affected the March 14 environment, which has been shaken by years of defeats and a number of setbacks.

The Cardinal deserves the honor he has received based on his stance on national issues. He sponsored, in partnership with Walid Jumblatt, the “reconciliation of the mountain”, before backing the "Qornet Shehwan gathering". These events in 2000 and 2001, in a sense, have paved the way for the birth of the March 14 forces following the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri.

In addition, Sfeir did not visit Damascus during its hegemony over Lebanon. Even his last political statement insisted that Hezbollah’s arms were illegal and unacceptable, but were forcibly imposed by the status quo.

It is no exaggeration to say that he was one of the most prominent fathers of the second Lebanese independence, which led to the withdrawal of the Syrian military and security forces from Lebanon.

However, it was noted that some of those who participated in Sfeir’s tribute were advocates of social, cultural, and sexual freedoms, hostility to any authority, and rejected any restriction on the freedom of doubt and any interference of religious institutions in public life. The holders of this position have not registered any reservation dictated by their beliefs. In fact, Sfeir, as a prominent cleric, did not share these values, nor was he required to do so.

They, of course, do not tolerate conservative values and are not required to do so. If we add to the freedoms the issue of Syrian refugees, it is doubtful that the late Cardinal had the same sensitivities expressed by critics of racism. He was, till the very end, very attentive to sectarian balances in his capacity as a spiritual leader of a sect.

These words do not involve a value judgment. It is the designation of two stances that are very difficult to converge. Reservation and understanding should not be ignored in their artificial conformity. Yes, there is a wide intersection in the national question, but beyond that, the issue is different.

Many countries have seen the bias of senior clerics towards national questions. We find this, for example, in countries like Ireland or Poland, whose church has sponsored its people’s revolt against the Communist and Soviet regimes. However, those clergymen, were in definition, against divorce and abortion. Their position with regards to women’s freedom and rights is often worse than that of the communist regime. Thus, with those clerics, it is necessary to mix support with criticism, that is, to adopt a color of critical support.

This section of Lebanese has done the same with political leaders who do not necessarily share their values and convictions, such as Rafik Hariri, Ghassan and Gebran Tueni, and before them Kamal Jumblatt and Bashir Gemayel: maximizing support and reducing criticism.

When wars of identity are raging, it becomes difficult to be completely and homogeneously aligned with values: these wars develop in us what brings together and perpetuates our cohesion against the other side, which seeks to perpetuate its own cohesion facing “us”. The search for fathers becomes urgent.

We have already witnessed, on a broader scale, similar cases in which an emotional event, such as the death of a leader, is compounded by bitterness and defeat that fall on his supporters: after the 1967 war, for example, the radical left began insulting Jamal Abdel Nasser as a “petty bourgeois”, because of his approval of the Rogers project and UN Resolution 242. Calls for toppling Abdel Nasser’s regime became a daily activity of this portion of people, who presented themselves as the "revolutionary" alternative to Nasserism. But when Abdel Nasser died in September 1970, Al-Hurriya magazine - the most prominent representative of this left and the sharpest voice in the Egyptian president’s satire - came out with a famous cover: Nasser, the “reservoir of Arab dignity.”

The worst form of the search for the “protective father” is seen at some pro-Hezbollah progressive figures. They are trying to suggest that the party shares their feminist views and those related to cultural and sexual freedoms, as well as their own rejection of racism and anti-Semitism; while Hezbollah, on the other hand, is exclusively led by male clerics, disseminates anti-Semitic literature in its areas of control, and claims nothing but the opposite of what it tries to portray.

The transition from absolute support to critical support, here and there, is useful to all and beneficial to the issues they are supposed to embrace.

It brings us to a higher level of politics, may carve small scales in the wall of rigid nationalism, and make us gradually favor values over preferences.