Different banners within the greater Lebanese struggle for civil laws

DSC06920Another unpublished one I wrote as an intern at the Daily Star, there is lots of material I gathered on the anti-sectarian movement. After more than two years, Lebanese parties are too busy countering the repercussions of the Syrian uprising, but there is no doubt that anti-sectarianism is a bigger long-term existential threat for them. Soon or later it hit back, as the first civil marriage on Lebanese soil proved in February 2013.

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

Different banners within the greater struggle for civil laws

Beirut, 30 December 2010

An interfaith civil marriage between two Lebanese, who decided to keep private their sectarian affiliation. Is it possible? Yes, provided that you are ready to endure the institutional unpreparedness to such a legitimate choice. Ali Khalife, professor at the Lycée Franco-Libanais Verdun, is from a Shi’a background, his wife from a Sunni family, and they underwent an odyssey in order to register their marriage, after having lawfully deleted the respective sects from the civil registry records (sijillāt an-nufūs). “We contracted the marriage in front of a religious court, since this marriage was precedent to the deletion of my sect,” remembers Khalife, “what happened was that we got married, then we wrote off our sects, then we went to the Interior Ministry in order to be registered on the civil registry records, but they refused on the basis that I did not appear to belong to any madhhab.” At that stage, the marriage was paradoxically recognised by a religious court, but not by the state, thus condemning the couple to a citizenship without any rights.

According to article 25 of the Constitutional decree 60 L.R., issued on 13 March 1936 by the French High Commissioner, civil marriages are recognised by the Lebanese state, only if contracted abroad. Therefore, the only option left to Khalife and his wife was to contract a civil marriage in Cyprus, to have it subsequently recognised by both the embassies, the Foreign Ministry and the Interior Ministry in Lebanon. Such a bureaucratic hassle took almost 3 months without resulting into a legal guardianship against future sectarian discrimination. In fact, according to the Lebanese Court of Cassation, the disputes derived from civil marriages contracted abroad are subject to the law of the specific foreign country. Khalife fears the consequences of this contorted juridical framework, since the Lebanese judges are called to know and implement a wide range of different laws, without being prepared to deal with the possible contradictions arising between Lebanese and foreign law codes.

According to Khalife and numerous civil rights groups, the solution to celebrate civil marriages on Lebanese soil would be the introduction of an optional personal status (aḥwāl as-shakhṣiyya al-‘ikhtiyariyy), giving the right to abide by civil laws to those citizens not willing to belong to any sect. Khalife notes how this provision was already part of the same Constitutional decree 60 L.R., where the 19th sect, “the sect of ordinary law” (ṭa’ifa al-ḥaqq al-ˁadiyy) was mentioned. Article 14 of the decree allowed the existence of sects adhering to ordinary law. On 30 March 1939, the Muslim sects obtained the decree 53, ruling the non implementation of decree 60 L.R against Muslims, under the charge of being an interference in their religious affairs.  It is not coincidental that only article 25 of the Constitutional decree 60 L.R. was implemented so far, allowing civil marriages abroad, since the introduction of a secular sect would have significantly endangered the influence of religious leaders.

However, Khalife is convinced that the Lebanese public sphere is aware of this law and the obstacles delaying its reinforcement are not exclusively institutional, but a crucial disagreement is dividing activists into factions: “some want to be a sect within the current system, some want to stay outside the current system,” concludes Ali. His opinion is a reflection of the supposed broader rift between the aspiration to a secular (madaniyy) state and that to a secularist (ˁalamāniyy) one. Talal al-Hussein, head of the Civil Center for National Initiative (CCNI), a prominent collective in the campaign to remove sects from the nufus, emphasizes his group’s distance from secularism: “our campaign is a secular one, […] we don’t want to separate the state from religion [or] force people to choose civil marriages,” specifies al-Hussein, “it is necessary to maintain freedom of choice within the personal status law”. However, although the Civil Society Movement (CSM) and the activists behind the Lebanese Laique Pride march define themselves as part of the “secularist network” (al-ˁalaqāt al-ˁalamāniyya), none of them is realistically determined to impose a French-styled laicité; also for the reason that the struggle for secularism is still at its embryonic stage, having achieved the first significant result only in 2009 with Baroud’s memorandum.

Furthermore, there are divergences in the approach adopted by each group in its campaign. Jad Lezeek, a member of the CSM, prioritises lobbying for a civil marriage law, being confident that it would accelerate any other related campaign. To this aim, the CSM is planning to obtain the support of at least 10 MPs to have its law proposal approved by the Parliament by mid-2012. In contrast, al-Hussein regards this kind of initiatives as doomed to fail, due to the Parliament’s sectarian foundations. “The sectarian discrimination is rooted in the civil registry records,” explains al-Hussein, so that “one who decides to delete his sectarian denomination will enjoy the right to have a civil marriage and an optional personal status law.”

The outcome of this disagreement is nothing other than fragmentation and lack of cooperation. Lezeek admits that the CSM is working on civil marriages exclusively with another NGO, called Shamal, whereas there is no coordination with the Union of Lebanese Democratic Youth (ULDY) and the CCNI, but mere expectation about reciprocal support.

Each organisation has developed a viewpoint on the current situation which would be complementary to the other ones, but, unfortunately, the lack of cohesion is seriously thwarting the power to pressure those lobbies of political and religious figures, whose interests are tied to sectarianism.

The CSM strives after a Parliamentary law on civil marriages, despite being aware of the weight of sectarianism in allotting seats and calling for a proportional reform of the electoral system. The same organization also claims to have the majority of Lebanese university students in favour of civil marriages, more than 50%, according to a survey they conducted all over Lebanon. Lezeek vows that the group will continue working on changing the people’s minds to foster a positive debate on the issue, admitting the intention to call for a referendum on civil marriages at the right moment.

Such an approach implies considering Lebanon a democracy based on majority, whose ruling will is reflected in surveys and referenda. On the contrary, according to a poll carried on by Information International in January 2010, the Lebanese picture appears more difficult to read, due to its additional nature of  “consensual democracy” (ad-dimuqrāṭiyya at-tawāfuqiyya). On 500 citizens from different areas and sects, 58% support the abolishment of political sectarianism and only 22% oppose it. On the other hand, 48% are against civil marriages, compared to 45% in support. In terms of sectarian composition, the majority of Sunni and Shi’as are in favour of the abolishment of sectarianism and opposed to civil marriages, whereas most of Maronites are against the end of sectarianism and supportive of civil marriages. It emerges a contradictory picture, where Maronites look secular-minded, only as long as their political privileges are not tarnished by demographic change, while Shi’as and Sunnis appear more eager on seizing larger power shares rather than concerned about civil rights. The civil marriage law and the abolishment of sectarianism cannot be separated, if this happens, then it means that the struggle for civil rights in Lebanon is biased by political gains.

For similar reasons to those outlined for surveys, according to al-Hussein, a referendum would not represent faithfully the Lebanese public opinion. “To call for a referendum in Lebanon you’d need Swiss-type decentralization, that signifies asking the opinion of Lebanese regardless of their belonging to different areas and sects or asking the opinion of each different area,” stresses al-Hussein, “otherwise it wouldn’t work: Christians and Druzes are opposed to the use of referendum in a country with a Muslim majority”.

A “consensual democracy” necessitates a homogeneous consensus, it cannot function on proportional basis, because the majority would be always conceived as the demographically strongest community prevailing over the others. Being majorities meaningless, according to Information International, “it is necessary to stop demanding the formation of the national council to abolish political sectarianism, […] even if there is a violation of the constitutional text”, namely the constitutional amendment calling for this national council, issued on 21 September 1990 on the basis of the Ta’if Agreement (pt.II, G).

To solve this deadlock, al-Hussein prioritises eliminating sects from the people minds, before than from the legal texts (min an-nufūs qabl an-nuṣūṣ). This is equal to raising the awareness of the private, apolitical nature of the sects. “In Islam and Christianity, it is not possible to inherit one’s religion, […] the problem in Lebanon is that religious belonging is inherited according to the clan,” clarifies al-Hussein, the Lebanese “did not know about the possibility to stop being sectarian, start being citizens and talk about sectarian identity as a personal issue.”

However, the nufūs campaign cannot be the only viable solution, considered the persistent support for sectarianism emerged from the above mentioned survey. Another effective strategy to weaken sectarian barriers is to promote interfaith marriages, as suggested by Lezeek, thus winning over also the gradual support of those mostly entrenched in the status quo. This is a further confirmation that civil marriages, particularly those helpful to cross borders between religions, and anti-sectarianism need to remain complementarily intertwined.

Moreover, al-Hussein partially underplays the deficiency of the Lebanese juridical framework (i.e. the nuṣūṣ) in facilitating the struggle for civil rights. “Those thinking that there are constitutional obstacles on the road to civil marriages are talking nonsense,” he affirms, while minimizing also the problems faced by those who wrote off their sects from the nufūs.

Nevertheless, the CSM rightly underlines the need to reform a passage of the Constitution (part B, chapt. I, art. 19), which rules that “the officially recognized heads of religious communities have the right to consult this Council [i.e. the Constitutional Council] only on laws relating to personal status, the freedom of belief and religious practice, and the freedom of religious education.”  This article could be actually prejudicial to any reform of the personal status, including civil marriage laws, since it bestows on clerics the right to appeal to the Constitutional Council once the law is approved by the Parliament.

About those who joined the nufūs campaign, they are demanding legal guardianship to avoid being subjects to sectarian discrimination, on the basis of their choice. “Lebanese law repeatedly contradicts this legal initiative, it needs to be reformed to favour changes into sectarianism,” observed the ULDY after years of campaign. These pleas should not be dismissed, they should suggest instead a further step: the legal recognition of “the sect abiding by ordinary law” mentioned in the Constitutional decree 60 L.R. Since the nature of “consensual democracy” prevents the creation of a national council to abolish sectarianism, according to the Ta’if Agreement, for the time being it would be more feasible to recognize the 19th sect. This is the solution proposed by Ali Khalife, when saying that it is enough “to recognize the 19th sect, in order to have clear and well-known [civil] rights in the laws to be implemented by the state.”

And the legacy of neglected laws is by far longer than this, since the first secular auspices are traceable in the oldest Lebanese Constitution (1926), which allowed sectarianism only as a provisional measure: “temporarily, with the intention of assuring justice and harmony, the communities will be equitably represented in public employment and in the composition of ministries” (art. 95).

The potential of all these organisations is at the same time promising and frustrating, due to the lack of coordination among kindred campaigns divided by minor disagreements. Ideally, each group should be complementary to the others, combining anti-sectarian citizenship awareness with a focus on Constitutional reforms.

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