Muslim-Christian Relations in Lebanon: From Conflict to Dangerous Alliances

John O. Voll

Demonstrations and clashes in Lebanon in recent weeks reflect significant changes in the nature of Muslim-Christian relations in that country. Current developments increasingly involve alliances between important Christian and Muslim groups. Tragically, however, the new-found Muslim-Christian cooperation is part of current conflict within Lebanon rather than involving efforts for increased stability and peace in the country.

The rallies on the second anniversary of the murder of former Prime Minister Hariri in support of the current government of Prime Minister Siniora and the continuing “sit-in” protest in central Beirut opposing that government involve the important reshaping of Lebanese political life in many ways, including the nature of Muslim-Christian relations. In the current crisis, Muslim-Christian alliances are part of an emerging framework of tensions that is quite different from the lines of conflict in the old Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990. The old conflicts were complex but could, with some accuracy, be described as power struggles that pitted Christians against Muslims.

The classic descriptions of the old Lebanese political system all start with the picture of Lebanese politics defined by the historic agreement among Lebanese leaders during World War II: political positions were divided between “Christians” and “Muslims” according to an agreed-upon ratio. When this system broke down in the mid-1970s, the resulting civil war was regularly seen as involving the competition between those two groupings. In the early 1980s, both participants and analyst-observers saw the conflict in these terms. Robin Wright noted that “the main dispute is over the balance of power between the majority Muslims and the ruling minority Christians.” (Christian Science Monitor, 2 April 1984) The battle lines in Beirut and elsewhere in the county were described as being between rival “Christian” and “Muslim” forces by observers like E. J. Dionne, Jr. (New York Times, 16 March 1984) and Thomas Friedman (New York Times, 17 April 1984).

In the current tensions, however, the basic conflicts are between Sunnis and Shi’is, with Christians forming some alliances with groups on both sides of the current battles. The battle lines in Beirut reflect the changing conflict. Anthony Shadid notes that the “line of separation between Sunnis and Shiites” is roughly the same as the “Green Line” separating Muslim and Christian combatants in the old civil war. (Washington Post, 27 January 2007). In the new struggle, large Christian groups have joined with their old rivals, the Sunnis, in supporting the Siniora government, while a controversial Christian former militia leader and presidential aspirant, Michel Aoun, has joined forces with Hizbullah in opposing the current government.

One of the challenges posed by the current situation in Lebanon is to find ways to use the new frameworks of Muslim-Christian cooperation to break with a history too-often characterized by Muslim-Christian conflict. Major Lebanese religious leaders have strong political commitments but they have also begun publicly to call for avoidance of violence and for stronger support of Lebanese political processes. The recent call by the Sunni Grand Mufti for a summit of religious leaders might be a fruitful starting point. In regional terms, recent high level discussions between Iran and Saudi Arabia can assist in reducing Sunni-Shi’i tensions in the region in general and in Lebanon in particular. The United States, as a part of its major efforts to provide international funding for Lebanese reconstruction, could also take important initiatives by discussing Lebanese issues with Syria and Iran, and could insure that Lebanon be part of the agenda of any discussions between Israel and Syria. It is important to emphasize the constructive potential of Muslim-Christian cooperation rather than simply accepting Christian-Muslim alliances as an element in continuing conflict.

John O. Voll is Professor Emeritus of Islamic History at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.