Lebanon: What happened to the campaign to remove sects from civil registry records?

An unpublished article I wrote for the Daily Star (Lebanon) about the campaign launched by the Union of Lebanese Democratic Youth (ULDY) against one of the facets of political sectarianism. Then the Lebanese government collapsed in January 2011, big fuss, and the anti-sectarian movement was not worth much attention anymore (and I had to deal with an idiot editor at the Daily Star). Well maybe this piece was just not good enough to be published, I leave it up to the readers, at least it found its place on this blog…

A special thank to Tareq al-Wazzi for his photo shot at one anti-sectarian demonstration in Jbeil in 2010.

What happened to the campaign to remove sects from civil registry records?

Beirut, 15 November 2010

More than one year and a half have passed since February 2009, when the Interior Minister Ziyad Baroud issued a memorandum allowing Lebanese citizens to remove their religious identity from civil registry records. It was a significant achievement for the joint campaign carried on by the Union of Lebanese Democratic Youth (ULDY), the Progressive Youth Organisation, the youth sections of the Lebanese Communist Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and the People’s Movement of former MP Najah Wakim. Since then, the ULDY has been gathering hundreds of citizens all over Lebanon, urging the Registry’s civil officers (ma’muuriin an-nufuus) to respect these people’s right to conceal religious identity on official records. Specifically, according to the Constitutional Court’s ruling on this initiative, every Lebanese citizen is legitimately entitled to have his religious affiliation deleted from the sect records (sijillaat at-ta’ifiya) kept on paper at the Registry Department (daa’irat an-nufuus). However, since the last ULDY’s mobilisation under the spotlight in April 2010, the campaign faced a series of administrative impasses and unexpected repercussions, leading to a long-lasting deadlock.

At first, those who removed their religious identity from the records were prevented from applying for low-level job posts within the army and the security forces. Arabi al-Andari, a ULDY’s representative, refers to these rejections as completely unlawful according to the Ta’if Agreements’ call to “abolish the sectarian representation base and [to] rely on capability and specialization in public jobs, the judiciary, the military, security, […] excluding the top-level jobs and equivalent jobs which shall be shared equally by Christians and Muslims without allocating any particular job to any sect” (II; G a). From this passage it is clear that only the highest posts (wazaa’if al-fi’ati l-‘uulaa) are still supposed to be allocated according to sectarianism. In Nabatiyeh, on the contrary, ‘Ali was precluded from being among the eligible candidates for a police officer post, merely because of his decision to maintain religion in the private sphere. Left with no choice, ‘Ali asked the civil officers to re-include the sect in the nufuus but, paradoxically, he was first required to beg ‘forgiveness’ from the religious leaders, as if he abandoned his sect. “‘Ali never stopped to be a Muslim or a Christian”, al-Andari commented, adding that the campaign is about the right to defend one’s privacy, when it comes to sectarian and religious belonging, not about turning people away from religion.

In the majority of the cases, including ‘Ali’s one, Baroud’s personal intervention was necessary to counter the lack of a coherent administrative norm and to allow equal opportunities of employment, regardless of sectarian identities. This applies also to the story of a father from Ma’arika, Issam, who struggled for five months before seeing the Interior Minister intervening to finalise the registration of his newborn child, without any sect mentioned in the nufuus. When he went for registering his son, Issam found the civil officers completely unaware of the possibility to hide one’s sect, on the contrary, they “make you feel like the situation is complicated and ask you about getting a future job”.  “I am religious and I believe in God but this has nothing to do with my daily life and should not determine my future”, Issam adds in support of the ULDY’s campaign. Instead of being helped to exert his rights, Issam was discouraged from proceeding and he had to drive the daily Al-Akhbar’s attention to his case, before having Baroud solving personally the issue. The secretary general of the ULDY, ‘Ali Mutayrlik, explains: “these problems were administrative and not legal, the interior ministry has thus to solve the issue: some heads of the muhafazaat did not even know about Baroud’s memorandum!”. In the face of this situation, the campaign has been temporarily halted, while the UDLY has been vainly calling for a meeting with the Interior Minister for the last five months: according to Mutayrlik’s words, what they want is “a new memorandum, where Baroud will reaffirm the campaign’s legality and he will specify the way people could reverse the procedure, if willing to”.

According to the ULDY, the campaign seems to be exclusively hindered from administrative impasses but, at the time of Baroud’s initial memorandum, others expressed more scepticism about the initiative’s mass appeal. For instance, Doha Shams wrote in Al-Akhbar: “Do Lebanese truly dream of a secular civil state? And how many of them have this dream?”. In response to this, more than one year later, al-Andari has no hesitation in concluding that the mobilisation enjoyed a wide support all over Lebanon.  Those opposing the campaign were restricted to the political circles benefiting from sectarianism. Even on the local scale, Mutayrlik adds: “some people tried to attack politically those joining the campaign during the municipality elections, claiming that they were ‘shy’ of stating their sect”.

Al-Andari emphasizes how a similar mobilisation cannot even encounter the opposition of religious leaders, as it doesn’t curb any religious dominion. Here lies the difference, for example, from the late president Elias Hrawi’s proposal for civil marriages in 1998. At the same time, the issue of civil marriages along with all the sectarian facets of Lebanese law are expected to be next among the ULDY’s priorities, after the auspicated success of this campaign. The removal of the religious identity from the nufuus is a preliminary step, al-Andari is perfectly aware that since “Lebanese law repeatedly contradicts this legal initiative, it needs to be reformed to favour changes into sectarianism”. In the end, the ULDY’s efforts will have to revolve around the crucial absence of a secular personal status law (ahwaal as-shakhsiya). For the moment, the campaign is conceived to start Lebanese citizens thinking of themselves as such, regardless of sectarian affiliation, but the long-term struggle for secularism in every field is clearly among the core reasons for support; Issam is particularly concerned about education: “there are different religious books, different history books. The student grows in a closed environment and is identified according to his sect and this is a factor for having a civil war”.

Social actors like the ULDY work on changing people’s minds to gradually change the whole legal system, but they need institutional assistance to speed up the pace of even small scale campaigns. Since this institutional support has been deficient in the last five months, the only option left to the ULDY is to autonomously re-organise its efforts in another direction. As pointed out in February 2009 by Saseen Kawzalli for Menassat, a Beirut-based website, Baroud’s memorandum was not an “automatic removal of confessional designations from current civil registry records”; thus ideally, the ULDY could increase its pressure on institutions by calling for a national referendum to abolish directly, and once for all, the sects from the nufuus. Depending on the outcome of such a referendum, the administrative impasse could be overcome and the political elites could be cornered by a more radical demand for change.

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