I believe Lebanon has played a unique role in the Middle East. This role, that the country played since its independence in 1943, (and even before its independence), till the present was based on the intersection of three major concepts.
1- Freedoms have to be valued and practiced;
2- Peaceful coexistence of all religions, through respect, has to be celebrated and regarded as a top priority;
3- Quality education for girls and boys, women and men, is a valuable “natural resource.”
Regarding the freedoms: Lebanon had golden years and decades where freedoms of all kinds were practiced. There were times, however, where these freedoms were not as respected as we would have wished them to be. In general, the Lebanese population recognized and still respects individual freedoms, democracy, religious and ethnic diversities, innovative approaches to art and literature, new frontiers of thought, and the acceptance that new horizons are part and parcel of the culture. The identity of Lebanon is tied to these qualities and concepts. For some of the Lebanese, these ideals are an integral part of what Lebanon is all about. These values and practices were part of Lebanon’s fabric at its independence, they flourished in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s, suffered setbacks during the civil war, and especially in the 80s. These values started regaining the respect of the population at the beginning of the 21st century. These freedoms amplified the fact that Lebanon was not just a geographical space but was also a cultural space with a message about the importance of freedoms and the centrality of diversity. This did not always mean that the geographically small, politically fragile, and militarily vulnerable Lebanon was always on solid ground. It was clear that, on the one hand, Lebanon was instituting new ways in the Middle East by taking an unchartered road and incubating new ideas and practices; and on the other hand, that Lebanon was a fragile, small nation. Despite its fragility, Lebanon in the 60s and the early 70s, had experienced a golden age during which it provided opportunities for its people to grow in a new and forward-looking ways. That golden age, many of us thought, was a time that would propel Lebanon forward despite the political problems and security constraints. That golden age, we believe, would allow Lebanon to keep moving on the pathway that would consolidate the hard gains already made around the practices of freedom and respect of diversity.
Lebanon took many bold positions regarding the values of freedom. For these reasons, many Lebanese were devastated when the security issues and political conflict threatened those precious values of freedom and diversity. I admire the fact that Lebanon, against all odds, is able to reaffirm freedom despite the fact that it exists in the middle of an ocean of regimes and extremist movements where freedoms do not exist.
In Lebanon, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of gatherings, freedom of demonstrations, freedom of the press, freedom to practice one’s faith, and many other freedoms continue to be practiced. In the neighboring countries, individuals are thrown in jail for such practices. Of course, the freedoms in Lebanon are not practiced in a perfect way, but compared to all of the neighboring countries and extremist movements that exist in the region, freedom in Lebanon remains in a better place.
Beirut was and remains, to a large extent, the capital of free thought in the Arab world, the capital of free media, of students’ demonstrations, of women’s movements, of youth’s demands, and of innovative thinkers. Beirut was bold; and remains so, it knows how to take risks. The city embraces the avant garde in publishing, the experimentation in theater, the new schools in dance, the rebellion in poetry, the exploration in university activities, and the unexpected in visual arts.
The second concept is respect of all religions. Lebanon is a mosaic of various religious sects. The Lebanese of these different sects have lived together, their children went to the same schools, and a small percentage of them intermarry.
The most recent demographic study conducted in 2011 by Statistics Lebanon, a research firm based in Beirut, indicated that 27 percent of the population are Sunni Muslim, 27 percent Shia Muslim, 40 percent Christian, and 5 percent Druze. There are also very small numbers of Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Hindus. Clearly there is no dominant majority. This could be considered a strength and a weakness. However, for most of its recent history, except for the years of the war from the mid 70s till the late 80s, the Lebanese managed to use this demographic diversity as the basis of peaceful co-existence. Many of the Muslims of Lebanon celebrate Christmas in one form or another, and many Christian Lebanese are the first to recognize the importance of Ramadan and to wish their Muslims compatriots a happy Ramadan.
Finally, the third major concept that intersects with the first two is quality education for girls and boys, women and men.
The Lebanese always recognized that investing in the education of their children both girls and boys is the most important investment. They also recognized that primary education is only the foundation, secondary education is a must, and tertiary is what propels their children into a successful future. The Lebanese population is united when it comes to the importance of quality education for both girls and boys. Lebanese parents invest seriously in ensuring that their daughters and sons get a quality education.
According to a 2014 World Economic Forum report, Lebanon ranked second in the Middle East and North Africa, (behind the very rich Qatar), in terms of quality of primary education and net enrollment rate. The reports also states that Lebanon’s adult and youth literacy rates rank among the highest in the MENA region.
Lebanon has 41 nationally accredited universities, several of which are internationally recognized. The American University of Beirut (AUB) and the Université Saint Joseph (USJ) were respectively the first Anglophone and Francophone university to open in Lebanon and the first Anglophone and Francophone university in the Arab countries. The 41 universities, both public and private, operate largely in French or English as these are the most widely used foreign languages in Lebanon.
The highest-ranked and most prestigious universities in Lebanon in addition to AUB and USJ include, among others, the Lebanese American University, the Notre Dame University, Université La Sagesse, the Lebanese University, the American University of Science and Technology, and the University of Balamand.