Amid the Scud missile revelation, the recent Israeli threats, internal disputes and Iran’s nuclear program, some people still find it relevant to talk about secularism in Lebanon. Although it sounds random when there is a war at the door, secularism is always timely.
In Lebanon, there is always conflict looming, and most of the time, our sectarian political system is at the core of the tensions. So maybe it is actually the time to bring up all the issues that are usually pushed aside because “it is not the time.”
At the very least it is time to consider the option of instituting a civil personal-status law. Such a law would allow citizens to refer to the state as the only authority in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance, currently the domain of confessional courts, which rule in line with religious guidelines.
Having a civil personal-status law would mean that the state would take a degree of power, and income, away from the church and the mosque, the priest and the sheikh. Opposition from religious and political figures anxious to maintain their grip on power has so far succeeded in scuttling most serious initiatives to create civil laws.
But let’s ask ourselves the question: What have religious institutions done for Lebanon?
For someone like me, religious institutions constituted a hindrance to my freedom and independence as a woman, and placed me in a sectarian box that is extremely hard to break out of.
As a woman in Lebanon, I am a second-class citizen, as I do not enjoy the same rights as men. I cannot be considered the legal guardian of my children, if I marry a foreigner I cannot pass my nationality to my husband and children, and I need permission from my father or husband to do anything. If they do not approve of my choices, they can stop me.
Simply, I, as a Lebanese woman, am treated by the powers that be like a child. As a woman, I need a guardian, because I cannot be trusted to make my own decisions as a free citizen. Why? Because my religious institutions say so.
According to the Lebanese system, I was born a Shia, I have lived as a Shia and I will die a Shia, even if I do not want to, even if I prefer to be identified as “Lebanese”. Wherever I go, I am labeled. No matter how hard I try to shake the stamp off, it still sticks to my skin, because in Lebanon if you are not labeled, people aren’t comfortable dealing with you. They need to know your sect in order to feel at ease. Without sectarian categories, people would have to confront difficult questions of identity and learn to think in a different way.
And change is always difficult, even if it is for the better.
In Lebanon there are 18 sects, and accordingly, there are 18 religious courts and 18 definitions of a Lebanese identity. Who is a Lebanese? Nobody knows. But if you are a Shia, you are immediately considered pro-Hezbollah. If they know you are a Shia, many people from other sects start blaming you for the destruction caused by the 2006 July War and Hezbollah’s invasion of Beirut in May 2008.
At the same time, if you are a “self-hating” Shia, as some people like to call those who criticize Hezbollah, you can be labeled “a traitor” by your co-religionists.
In Lebanon, if you are not politically and conscientiously part of your sect, you have no safety net. You are an outsider in your own country.
A few months ago, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Shia leader who is famous for abusing state institutions to boost his support base among the Shia community, decided to announce himself the voice of secularism.
In January of this year, Berri launched a campaign to abolish political sectarianism, something stipulated in Article 95 of the Taif Accord. He called to establish a national committee to abolish political sectarianism in the wake of the formation of the national unity cabinet and considering the current political stability in Lebanon.
Although Berri’s demands matched the dreams of many secular Lebanese, his campaign raised some concerns regarding the consequences of such a move.
The primary benefactors of the abolition of political sectarianism would be the Shia, demographically the largest community in Lebanon, who overwhelmingly side with Hezbollah and Amal. Despite the urgency of eliminating sectarianism from both Lebanese society and the country’s official texts, it would be hard to accept that the largest community, one controlled by the Hezbollah-led opposition and its arsenal, would then be able to control the country.
Many want to see a secular state put in place, but they also want to go about it carefully. How could we do it without jeopardizing the freedom of minorities and without putting control of the state in the hands of the largest sect in Lebanon?
People need guarantees of representation for all sects, but how can we provide these guarantees and at the same time ensure equality among citizens?
One answer is a civil personal-status law, where civil marriage could be possible and where men and women are equal before the state.
But obliterating political sectarianism requires erasing it on every level, from the education system to discriminatory laws. It requires eliminating the power of religious figures, coming up with a unifying civil law and forbidding the formation of religious parties.
Secularism is a right for those who would like to live without having to leave major decisions in their lives to their religious institutions. Is this too much to ask?
Hanin Ghaddar is managing editor of NOW Lebanon