Anti-sectarian law only skin-deep in Lebanon

February 15, 2009

When Lebanese Interior Minister Ziad Baroud issued a memorandum giving Lebanese citizens the option to remove their sect from civil registry records, it seemed like a step towards removing deeply embedded sectarianism from Lebanon’s social fabric.

The country has been convulsed by bouts of sectarian violence, most notably the 1975-90 civil war, in which 150,000 people were killed, and more recently last May when a power struggle spilled into armed conflict and supporters of Shi’ite Hezbollah briefly took over parts of Sunni western Beirut.

Study the measure a little more closely and some questions emerge. What happens to those wanting to run for seats in parliament, which are distributed according to sect to satisfy Lebanon’s delicate power-sharing balance? What about citizens who have to go to court over personal status issues, which in Lebanon are presided over by courts run by religious sects? Ultimately, they have no choice but to reveal their religious affiliation.

So it is doubtful that this measure will really remove sectarianism from Lebanon’s moral and social consciousness, especially when you have a political and legal structure in which sectarianism is required to achieve a power-sharing balance to accommodate 17 different religious communities.

The Lebanese media has covered this issue extensively: “The change is a step in the right direction but it is not sufficient. The government needs to take the next step and ensure that all Lebanese have access to personal status laws that aren’t religiously based,” said Human Rights Watch’s Nadim
Houry. “The Lebanese confessional system is discriminatory and has proven to be a failure,” he told Reuters.

After all it is still common to come across taxi drivers who refuse to foray into Sunni Muslim western Beirut from Christian eastern Beirut. And some are reluctant to venture into southern Beirut, a Shi’ite Hezbollah stronghold.

Some Lebanese will even admit to feeling uncomfortable in districts which they are not religiously affiliated to. And while most will poo-poo sectarianism, they will almost always support the political party that is based on their religious affiliation. It is a testament to how ingrained sectarianism is in Lebanon’s culture that it is the subject of office politics, jokes and the main soccer teams are divided on Sunni-Sh’ite lines.

A group of Lebanese friends recently held a symbolic civil marriage ceremony in one of Beirut’s bars in the hip Gemmayze strip to highlight the fact that Lebanon does not allow civil marriages to be conducted in the country. Generally, a couple either has to go to a Muslim sheikh or a Christian priest to wed, which creates a problem when inter-religious couples want to wed — another sectarian aggravation. Ultimately, if neither one of them converts they are forced to travel abroad, usually to Cyprus, to get married in a civil ceremony.  My colleague Alistair Lyon blogged about that issue here.
The Taif Peace Accords which ended the 1975-90 civil war said “abolishing political sectarianism is a fundamental national objective” but gave no timeframe. Political alliances since then have been based on religious and sectarian affiliations, although the Christians are now fractious. The constitution also calls for a committee to be set up to abolish “political confessionalism”.

So while Baroud’s measure and the mock civil marriage are attempts at nullifying sectarianism, will they really do much to change Lebanese prejudices? Or are these just cosmetic changes? Does the political system need to be overhauled along with secularising the legal system to bring about real change?


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Sectarianism is so primitive I wouldn’t know where to start. The best thing Lebanon could do is to remove the religion factor completely from public life and make all the courts and public offices and works secular. There is no place for religion in the modern world, it is a painful vestige of a too complicated system of living that we in the west have gladly given up. Mark Montgopmery

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[…] When Lebanese Interior Minister Ziad Baroud issued a memorandum giving Lebanese citizens the option to remove their sect from civil registry records, it seemed like a step towards removing deeply embedded sectarianism from Lebanon’s social fabric Continue .. […]

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It seems silly for “westerners,” Americans in particular, to criticize Lebanese sectarianism when we ourselves are practitioners of it. When was the last time a non-Christian was elected in the States? We chant “separation of church and state” yet, at the same time, demand our politicians make public their religious beliefs. The recent election only goes to show that Americans still require our politicians to make this type of discloser and that it does in fact impact our decision. We Americans vote along a single line, the Christian line, and there was an uproar when Obama was accused of being a Muslim. Americans are just as sectarian as the Lebanese in many ways, we just don’t call it by the same name.

Posted by Hannah | Report as abusive

Today we live in times were it is easy for any individual to complain and argue the negative in any situation, we cal it “freedom of speech” but i wonder how many of those who have negative speech have lived among the people that they so easily verbally abuse by using vocabulary thats makes the report sound eligant, countries live by what they have rather than promises of a better future that never seems to happen, people living in times were the western world interfers in century old unions between religious groups, they claim religion has no place simply because that is the system they obide by, they should understand that its not how other countries work, and the sectarian violence throughout lebanons history is simply controlled by malitia who have no regard for there religion or for human kind, not a battle of religions, this would only be understood if one has lived through such difficulties with the people of that land. throughout the civil wars people of all religious backgrounds helped and supported one another to bring peace, if thats not proof of valor and respect then i dnt know what it, lebanon is lebanon not america nor england and it is run based on its needs and wants, not the needs of other countries and there gospel of a better future for all, lebanon is a land of freedom that is beeing infected with vicious ideologies of western culture and sectarianism, every country has its people, every country has its system, and every country should run its own.

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public records marriages…

Thanks for the information. Any other posts or blogs you can recommend on public records marriages?…

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