I was traveling when the recent popular uprising began in Lebanon.
At first, it emerged as an outcry to the trash crisis that has been engulfing Lebanon with its stench for several months now.
Lebanon hasn’t had its “Arab Spring.” Some people think that’s because – God forbid – everything works perfectly here! Others note that Lebanon has no dictator to overthrow.
Yet, the reality is that nothing is working, whether basic services like water and electricity, law enforcement, economic growth, political or security stability.
Nothing is working, yet it is difficult to identify what exactly is wrong, and virtually impossible to put your finger on how to bring about change, for there is no clear enemy.
But suddenly the Lebanese realized that the trash crisis was nothing more than a symbol of their reeking political elite.
Then the hashtags began to rise from the ashes of burning trash: #you_stink and #WeWantToHoldYouAccountable.
At first I felt the movement was futile, without a clear agenda, but mostly dangerous because of the risk of leaving a vacuum with no intentional alternative in view.
But then I remembered that some Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans too were scared of the revolution.
The Syrians still are, and rightly so, particularly Christians who fear the unknown savagery more than they do the familiar one.
The Lebanese, by taking to the streets, are wavering dangerously at the edge of the cliff of the unknown.
As a Lebanese, when I think about “change” and the power of grassroots movements, I often feel envious of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
Their causes were clear: the overthrow of oppressive colonial domination and cruel segregationist racism. The enemy is loud, evil, hiding behind an ideology of self-justification, yet naked for the entire world to see.
Even the Arab revolutions that have been raging for the past four years have been somewhat clear cut: a population oppressed for decades, seeking to liberate itself from self-serving dictators and their minions.
The goal has been rather straightforward: Overthrow the oppressive elite in power.
You may be cynical about the revolution’s ability to produce real change, you may be convinced of an external conspiracy driven by competing political or economic aspirations, or you may deplore the worst outcome of the revolution in the immediate future and thus prefer the status quo.
But even when you believe that the alternative will be “more evil,” with these very words you are actually recognizing the inherent evil of the ruling power.
Perhaps Lebanon has finally figured out its own domestic version of the “Arab Spring” after all.
Its revolutionary cry? “Down with the political elite!” “Enough with the systemic corruption!” “Bring in transparency and accountability!” “Give us politicians who understand that they are at the service of the people and accountable to God and the electorate.”
Lebanon may boast the “shape” of a democratic system but we are little more than vassals to tribal warlords ruling over segregated sectarian communities.
The sectarian system that was once designed to guarantee equal political representation for all religious communities, particularly the numerically smaller ones, has turned into a cult of self-serving personalities with no political agenda other than maintaining themselves in power, accumulating as much wealth as possible before the next election and securing their political seat for their offspring.
Lebanon is profoundly puzzling. We have the semblance of a democracy, and therefore, though there is no clear enemy, every Lebanese to some extent gazes at the enemy every morning in the mirror.
To the questions, “Who do I overthrow?” “Who do I bomb?” “Who do I hang?” comes the answer: “Surely this man who stands before me if he does nothing!”
But the confusing reality of Lebanon may be the reason why so many Lebanese have been reluctant to participate in the popular movement that has been rumbling under the surface for the past few weeks.
There are the expected accusations of conspiracy that try to tame the rumbling, and the usual political suspects that try to capture the movement’s agenda.
But we can legitimately ask: What alternative are we seeking? If the Lebanese sectarian system has been a cesspool for corruption and a failed state, does that make religion the problem?
I certainly believe that the sociopolitical manifestation of religion is at least a part of the problem in Lebanon. So do we strive for secularism as a cure to shake us out of our confessional system?
Though secularism has proven itself a successful framework for democracy in many parts of the world, I don’t believe that secularism will work in Lebanon, particularly at this time of history when religion has become the core component of so many people’s identities.
What we need, then, is responsible religion; people who believe that their religion makes them into better people, and people who will respect those who choose no religion at all.
And if that is the case, then religious leaders, peacemakers and civil society actors need to agree once and for all that sectarianism has to serve equal representation rather than their individual communities’ tribal sensitivities.
Perhaps we can then agree on electing only competent people from the various sections of our society as public servants.
Only then will the religious pluralism of Lebanon become a beautiful tapestry. Short of this, religion simply reeks.
Jesus once called his disciples together and said to them, “You know that in this world kings are tyrants, and officials lord it over the people beneath them. But among you it should be quite different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28).
If we fear that Lebanon’s rumbling volcano of change might leave a vacuum, then the solution is not to grab on to the old tyrant, but rather to ride the wave of change intentionally and masterfully.
This is a crucial moment in Lebanon’s history for people of faith. Those who draw inspiration and wisdom from their religion – whether Muslims, Christians or others – will find in these words of Jesus a driving value for preaching and teaching, and an ethos for the life of their communities.
We Lebanese have ridden the wave. There is no turning back. The coast is not yet in sight, but its proximity is up to us.
Martin Accad is director of the Institute of Middle East Studies (IMES) at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. A version of this column first appeared on the IMES blog and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @marzaatar and IMES @IMESLebanon.