Hussain Abdul-Hussain

The Islamization of Lebanon

This is the story of Lebanon’s shrinking non-Muslim population.

When the French created Lebanon in 1920, they designed it as a Christian country (Wikipedia)

In 1982, Catholic Christians made up around one quarter of the population of the town of Baalbek. At school, our favorite teacher was Jean-Pierre, or Jan as most of us called him. He taught us math and science, was a talented pianist; he even played accordion on school outings.


In the late 1980s, he took a job as a radio host. When the holiday season came, he broadcast Christmas carols, which angered Shiite thugs — most probably from Hezbollah or Islamic Amal — who invaded his studio, destroyed his equipment and kidnapped him. After his release, he went into self-exile somewhere in Europe. He later told me that many years after his emigration, he made one trip to Baalbek to attend his mother’s funeral. Even then, he was told he was not welcome. He left and never looked back.


This is the story of Lebanon’s shrinking non-Muslim population.


When the French created Lebanon in 1920, they designed it as a Christian country. To dilute the Sunni majority in its Levantine territory, Paris created five states: A Christian Lebanon, an Alawite state in northwestern Syria, a Druze state in southern Syria, and two land-locked Sunni states in Damascus and Aleppo.


For Lebanon, France borrowed the emblem of the Maronite Church, the Cedar, and put it on a French flag, which was redrawn in 1943 as the Lebanese flag we know today. The French carefully calculated Christians made up over half of Lebanon’s population, with Shiites constituting one quarter and securing a comfortable non-Sunni majority.


In 1987, my family moved to Beirut, where we have owned property since 1965. The title lists us as the fourth owners since the land was first deeded to Druze Al-Hamra family, who gave their name to the capital’s famous street.


In the alley where we lived, there were two buildings with 21 apartments between them, only three of which were inhabited by Muslim families. The families that populated the alley included Maronite Bassil, Shartouni and Maani; Catholic Touma; Armenian Orthodox Qadayan; Greek Orthodox Bekhaazi, Nassar, Zewaneh, Saba, Majdalani and Abu-Dayyeh; Druze Monzer; and Jewish Hajjar.


When rounds of fighting between the various militias in west Beirut intensified, when Shiite Amal knocked on doors seeking Palestinians while Druze Jaish Shaabi and Sunni Murabitoun invaded houses looking for Shiites, the families in our alley devised a cunning tactic: they hid in the apartment that they figured was least prone to be hit by random shelling. When militia thugs knocked on the door, they sent the men who belonged to the same sect as the invading charlatans to answer. Druze would deflect their militiamen, and so did Shiites and Sunnis.


With political, economic and social nooses tightening, non-Muslims left west Beirut throughout the Civil War. They moved mostly to Christian enclaves in the eastern part of the country. In their stead came Muslims; mainly Shiites who were fleeing the inferno of southern Lebanon.


When the Civil War ended, the displaced Christians never came back. Syria’s Hafez Assad — Lebanon’s actual rule — propped up his Muslim allies, particularly Shiites, at the expense of Christians, who called the 1990s the decade of “Christian Frustration.” From the diaspora, Sunni billionaires like the Hariri family and Shiite millionaires, mainly from Africa, funneled money into the country, often buying out Christian stakes.  


Between 1920 and 1975, Lebanon’s Christian population had swelled, at times infused by Christians like the Greek Orthodox, who relocated from troubled Palestine. But by 1990, Christians were bruised — their real estate outside of the eastern enclaves had been occupied and their population decimated.


By betting on the wrong regional and international horses, Christians found themselves beaten. They reluctantly accepted the constitution as amended by the Taef Agreement, which made them equal, rather than dominant, partners in the country that the French had made in their image.


In 2005, Christians — especially the followers of lawmaker Michel Aoun — made further mistakes. Instead of caucusing with the non-Shiite underdogs, Aoun took a shortcut and started using Shiite power to beat his Christian and Sunni allies. Aoun then became a junior partner in an alliance with a much stronger Shiite party.


Aoun was not the only shortsighted leader among the Christians. His rivals, those who stayed in March 14, proved worse. Instead of propping up March 14 for strategic purposes, they battled other March 14 factions to win small concessions. Druze Walid Jumblatt learned a lesson: March 14 was too unreliable for him to use as a strategic counterweight to Hezbollah. In 2008, he conceded and has since sat out the regional war between Sunnis and Shiites.


Jumblatt is the savviest Levantine politician. He understood that the problem of non-Muslims was structural rather than tactical. Decades of wars have taken their toll on non-Muslims, whose numbers have dwindled and their power, both economic and political, has weakened. Jumblatt now pines for the good old days when Druze and Christians, whom he calls “Red Indians,” reigned supreme.


With the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) ravaging the Syrian countryside, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra deploying on Lebanon’s eastern border and with Shiite Hezbollah overrunning the once-Christian southern suburb of Beirut and now dominating the entire country, Lebanon and Syria are destined to become nations with absolute Muslim majorities.


There is nothing wrong with the Islamization of Lebanon per se, but it will mean that diversity is lost and tolerance minimized. Baalbek had already become intolerant of the likes of my teacher, Jan, and his Christmas carols long ago. Southern Lebanon started to go dry in the 1980s. And not to be outbid by Shiites, Sunnis in Tripoli and Sidon censored alcohol and banned its ads. Friend and fellow columnist Michael Young explains here how Muslim areas of Beirut are now drying up, as well.


Islamization in Lebanon is creeping into Christian areas. Many Muslims have moved to Achrafieh and other neighborhoods that were once counted in the Christian column.


My friend Sam, a Greek Catholic in his late 50s now, hails from Tyre where he was born and raised. He fondly speaks about his memories in the southern town that, like Baalbek, has become completely Shiite today. Sam now lives in Beit Mery. With him, I share memories of how the predominantly Greek Orthodox Ras Beirut is now turning into an Islamic hood.


In the alley where I grew up in, only three of the 21 households are now Christian. The youngest of the three is past his retirement age. His two sons relocated to Rabyeh. His daughter moved to Geneva. The two other Christian households are widows in their 80s. When their day comes, their children in Europe and whoever else remains of the Christian enclave will remember our alley with a smile. When these children are gone, memories will fade away, and Lebanon will have become just another state in the Muslim Middle East.


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Alrai newspaper. He tweets @hahussain

When the French created Lebanon in 1920, they designed it as a Christian country. (Wikipedia)

By 1990, Christians were bruised — their real estate outside of the eastern enclaves had been occupied and their population decimated.

  • Phil؟

    Bachir Gemayel had the chance to correct all this mess when the Israeli tanks had his back in the 80's. But instead of using his power to re-create a Christian state, he chose - as did the Maronite Church before him - out of arrogance and ignorance - to root for an all-inclusive Lebanon where Christians and Muslims live side by side despite the huge differences between their traditions, cultures, and - most importantly - social norms. Sadly a big mistake and ultimate failure which still resonates hard today.

    January 12, 2015

  • abc2000

    there is no studies showing the christian population is shrinking now (ref to CIA World factbook)

    January 11, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Contrary to Arabist propaganda, of which Abdul Hussain is yet another victim, France kept advising the Maronites NOT to attach the Syrian Muslim regions of Tripoli, Akkar, Hermel, and Jabal Amel to their Sanjak of Mount Lebanon that was already autonomous, independent from Istanbul, and internationally recognized since the Reglement Organique of 1860. In the Sanjak, the Maronites were 80% and the Druze another 20%, and virtually no Muslims. But the Maronite Church insisted on annexing those Syrian Muslim areas to its Greater Lebanon scheme with visions of grandeur, ancient and antiquated Phoenician glory, blended with a Francophile culture and the arrogance that, even at 50% of the population, the Maronites would continue subjugating the "lesser" 50% Muslims who in fact did not want to join the monster hybrid. Just as Israelis are today swamped by the Palestinian "Demographic Threat", Lebanon's Christians have actually succumbed to the threat. Back in 1920, the French were more interested in cavorting to King Faysal's Syrian Arabs for obvious economic reasons than to satisfy the ideological lunacy of the Maronite Church. The only reason the French finally went against their own advice and acquiesced to Greater Lebanon was the intransigence of King Faysal in Damascus and his threat to join the British. The ungovernable mess we live in today is the result of the lack of political vision by the Maronite Church who, at the time, was trying to emulate a Jewish homeland in Palestine with a Christian homeland in Lebanon. While the former is in all evidence an abject failure, the latter is equally a lamentable dead end for Lebanon's Christians who, as Mr. Abdul-Hussain tells us, have become a shadow in their "homeland".

    January 10, 2015

  • abc2000

    ---become a shadow in their "homeland". --- in addition to the fact, that christian leadership is mediocre today, it look like there is no united christian stream , as you can notice (aounist vs fl) which shows that many Christians can adhere to khomeinist ideas ...

    January 11, 2015

  • danny.farah.73

    The title "The Islamization of Lebanon" - per se - clearly suggest that Lebanon at its roots is not Muslim or even Arab for that matter. It is all wrong to Islamize Lebanon, especially that the writer failed to share with us the benefits of doing that. Though they have their own shortcomings, Christians presently play a role of keeping the two main Muslim sects from going to an all out obliterating war against one another at a blink, whilst Muslims seek Christian cover to legitimize their actions. Without the Christians, Lebanon is drastically short on good imagination, culture & folklore, cuisine, wine and alcohol (Arak), fine educational institutions/Universities, Hospitalization, etc. That said, there are fine Men of State amongst the Muslims in Lebanon who know the facts of Lebanon more than some of the Christians would want to admit or realize and they themselves hold on to Christians and their values, which has enriched Lebanon throughout the years. We are not exaggerating when we say that about 90% of all Muslim politicians of Lebanon are graduates of Christian schools and universities in Lebanon. On the other hand, the Christians found a rich source of income by working in Muslim countries in the region who welcomed them with open arms and which Christians are grateful. There is so much cooperation that can be done between the two religious communities.

    January 6, 2015

  • Freedomforall

    Dear Hussein, now you know where your leftist, pan-Arab ideologies eventually lead to… Now you know why Lebanese Christians always choose to fight instead of living as Dhimmis, now you know why the LF exists, now you why we refuse to be called Arabs, to melt in a society that will eventually treat us as second class citizens before eradicating us. But rest assured, Free Christians have survived for more than 1,400 years in Lebanon, and if you read history you will realize that what we are going through today is nothing more than a “Picnic” compared to what we endured in the past centuries… And yet, we shall survive.

    January 6, 2015