Universities feed religious divide

April 12, 1996

The Lebanese government, under pressure from powerful religious lobbies, is licensing six new universities, three of them directly run by religious organisations. The decision has led to fierce controversy with echoes of the civil war which split the nation for 17 years until 1992.

The universities sprang up during the strife and have sought permission to award recognised degrees. Beirut, the bitterly divided capital, is home to two new Muslim universities and one Christian.

The Shiite Muslims have a licence for the Islamic University, which will teach Islamic studies, health sciences, tourism and management. The Sunni Muslims' licence allows them to award degrees at Dar al Fatwa, the Islamic University of Beirut, teaching Islamic law and jurisprudence and Islamic arts among other things.

The Antonine Fathers, a Maronite Christian order, will be licensed to found a university offering theological studies. The Francophone Society for Educational Development is to open a University of Technology.

One of the objectors is Walid Jumblatt, the powerful minister for displaced persons. He believes the decision will perpetuate religious divisions that have wrecked the country. He also complains that allowing these new institutions to award their own degrees will devalue the international status of a Lebanese degree.

One of Mr Jumblatt's followers told me: "Jumblatt opposes licensing the new universities because he knows how much harm these sectarian divisions have done to our country. Now we have a government which is supposed to be bringing us all together, and what does it do? It licenses universities for each religion."

But his opposition is suspect, say sources close to education minister Michel Edde. Mr Edde, a Maronite Christian and a Marxist, is said to believe that Mr Jumblatt's opposition is based on the fact that the government has turned down a proposal for a university run by his own religious group, the Druzes.

Mr Jumblatt is the hereditary ruler of the Druzes, a former warlord and one of the two or three most powerful men in the country, a man who can have 5,000 men under arms whenever he feels the need. When Mr Edde's Maronites were getting western support for their war effort, Mr Jumblatt became Moscow's client.

Druzes share many beliefs with Muslims, including belief in the Prophet Mohammed, but their practices are very different. They have no formally recognised priests or mullahs, they consider religion a very personal thing, and they believe in reincarnation.

An editorial in the Beirut English language newspaper Eco says: "The ministers were pressured by different religious groups not willing to accept 'no' for an answer." It predicts the result will be "the continuation of existing sectarian drifts" adding: "If the Lebanese are to belong to Lebanon through their citizenship and not religious labels, an educational strategy towards this target must eliminate hasty decisions creating new hurdles. If the government gives in to pressure, then it would be falling into a trap that will put an end to its efforts in building a new Lebanon."

But Myra Boustani, a member of the board of the long-established American University of Beirut, says its concern has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with standards. "There are now universities where the teaching is not up to standard. The government must help them bring up their standards."

Nadim Shehadi, director of the Centre of Lebanese Studies in Oxford, thinks both criticisms are misplaced. "No university is entirely free of a confessional aspect. Every Oxford college was founded by a religion. The Islamic universities have plenty of funding and high standards, and they are tied to old established societies.

"If the government were creating confessional institutions from scratch, it would be guilty of creating divisions in our society. But it is not: it is giving legitimacy to those which already exist."

Before the war Lebanon already had six well-established universities - a reasonable score for a country with just three million people and very little history of state funding for education. The AUB and Beirut University College for women were both set up in the last century by American Presbyterians, while St Joseph's College was founded by the Jesuits in the 1870s. The present century has seen the foundation of the Arab University, the Middle East College, and the government-sponsored Lebanese University.

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