Beyond the World news headlines
Anti-sectarian law only skin-deep in Lebanon
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?