Rubina Abu Zeinab-Chahine
The quest for achieving a coherent national identity, sense of belonging and loyalty remains sound today even as Lebanon has marked its 74th anniversary of independence. The idea and ideal of citizenship are binding in any nation-building processes. While identity is based on one’s race, language, religion and especially on place and origin of birth, national loyalty is another story.
What really happened in the last two weeks? Did we pass our citizenship test? Did we swear our loyalty to our country? Were we able to create the loyalty content with every action, comment, post and upload? In the last two weeks, thousands of people uploaded videos to YouTube and posted on Facebook and Twitter highlighting the concept of “togetherness,” with the trending hashtag #kelna, meaning “all of us.” Here comes everyone saying, “All of us Saad.”
This sense of a shared nationhood, of being one society, of being responsible for our own collective fate was so powerful, presenting a moment to be marked in history; a moment defining our sense of belonging to our nation-state and a long-term commitment to build the future together. A manifestation that needs to be studied and examined in terms of how the conception of citizenship evolved in situations of substantial political upheavals in Lebanon.
Citizenship evolves through constitutional moments that sometimes pass without us being aware of them. A recent poll conducted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, covering around 1,400, adults found that Americans know little about the basics of their government, its functions and its fundamental constitutional provisions. The survey indicated that nearly four out of 10 Americans failed to name any of the “First Amendment rights.”
The survey found that 33 percent of those questioned were unable to name one branch of the U.S. government, and only 26 percent of the respondents could name the three branches, legislative, executive and judicial.
Chris Cillizza, CNN editor-at-large, in a viewpoint published in September on CNN Politics titled “Americans know literally nothing about the Constitution,” wrote, “Sadly, the Annenberg poll is far from the first to reveal not only our collective ignorance about the basic tenets of democracy but also the fact that we are even less informed than we were in the past.” Comparing the poll results, those of 2011 were much better, with 38 percent able to name all three branches.
Timothy Egan, in an opinion piece for The New York Times this month, discussed the idea that in order for people to be eligible to be engaged in the system, they have to pass a test about values, history and geography, similar to a test that immigrants do as a part of the legal citizenship process.
He indicated that delivering high-quality civics education in the schools and giving students the citizenship test before they graduate is the only thing that would make the Annenberg survey results rise.
It is not only America that is struggling from ignorance of its national values, history, constitution and government’s function. Many countries rank similarly as per different citizenship surveys.
How to produce an informed citizenry? Would it be possible to teach students about the government’s functions before they leave high school? Is it possible to equip students with the skills and knowledge to perform the basic functions of citizenship?
On the occasion of the 74th anniversary of Lebanon’s independence, MP Bahia Hariri, the president of the National Initiative for the Centennial of Greater Lebanon, tried to answer some of those difficult questions.
As part of the “Lebanon 2020, a State of Knowledge” program, the National Initiative has launched a training platform targeting students in their third year of secondary school in public and private schools from the city of Sidon and its surroundings, aiming at developing their inquiry and research abilities.
Students will be trained to design the right questions, and thus eventually reach the right answers. The “right” question is the question that does not convey the answer in its structure, that is not derived from prejudgments and does not carry a preanswer.
Convinced that questions form the basis of knowledge-building, in her speech addressing the students, Hariri said, “Today we wanted to hand over the flag to you who will reach the age of responsibility with the centennial of Greater Lebanon 2020.”
From Khan al-Franj in Sidon which will host all the preparations for the centennial celebrations, Hariri announced the countdown to the centennial of Lebanon 2020, with around 1,000 days left. Addressing the students, she said: “This is your country, and its future is your responsibility. ... You will be the ambassadors of the centennial of Greater Lebanon.”
The program’s aim is to promote active participation of youth in public life. The launch included 250 students from the total of around 128,000 students in public and private secondary schools in Lebanon as per Education Ministry statistics.
The students went through a visual timeline that included 22 presidents of the republic, 17 heads of Parliament and 41 prime ministers since 1920, as well as constitutional reforms.
The students completed a 153-question survey covering topics related to the history of the state, governance, and basic national knowledge on different national priorities and realities such as the environment, agriculture, culture, arts and economy, aligned with the sustainable development goals. The survey is to be completed by all secondary school students across Lebanon.
It is very important to understand what the concept of “citizenship” is. It is not just a bundle of rights and privileges. However, it is a commitment to shared values accepted with pride and faith.
It is that sense of belonging and togetherness that makes our citizenship more than a legal status but a powerful unifying force overcoming the disconnect between the public and the state.
Rubina Abu Zeinab-Chahine is executive director of the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 29, 2017, on page 3.