On Sunday April 25th, some 3,000 to 4,000 people showed up in downtown Beirut for a march demanding an end to sectarianism in Lebanon, carrying banners saying “Civil marriage, not civil war”, and shouting slogans such as “Shu tayftak? Ma khassak!” (“What’s your sect? None of your business!”)

The march for secularism received wide coverage in the international press, including the BBC, Al Jazeera and TF1, but not one Lebanese TV station showed up – despite the crowd being as young and photogenic as any in the Independence Intifada of 2005 , and much more diverse, as virtually every sectarian and political community was represented. An enthusiastic and fairly numerous response to a call from an organisation – Laïque Pride – that emerged less than six months earlier, with a cause which is outlined in only the vaguest of terms. As U.S.-based Lebanese analyst Elias Muhanna argued on the Guardian’s website a few days earlier, nobody really agrees on what exactly the concept of ‘secularisation’ would entail in a country such as Lebanon, where minorities of eighteen different religious persuasions live side by side. Yet this very vagueness also presents the opportunity to develop a system uniquely suited to the Lebanese situation, as pointed out by another frequently chanted slogan at the demonstration: “La Turkiyyeh, la Franjiyyeh, ‘almaniyyeh Lebneniyyeh!” – meaning “No to Turkish or French secularism, (we want) Lebanese secularism!”

 Awareness campaigning

Kinda Hassan, one of the five activists who founded the Laïque Pride movement, stresses: “We as Laïque Pride are a citizen’s movement, not a political party. We don’t want to define what Lebanese secularism should look like, and we will not be drafting or implementing the laws governing it. We merely seek to raise awareness and exercise pressure on the relevant professionals and experts in the different fields involved. We aim to encourage a wide debate in and by society as a whole around what should constitute Lebanese secularism.”

The movement is in the process of setting up a website to serve both as a reference – containing relevant articles of the constitution and other legal texts – and as a forum for debate. The march itself will become an annual event: “Next year, we will have at least twice the number of participants. Many people responded very positively to our initiative, but were hesitant to show up – whether out of cynicism or uncertainty. Now they have seen we are serious, and next year they will all be there. Then the sectarian-linked Lebanese TV channels will not be able to ignore us anymore like they did this time,” assures Hassan.

Additionally, an awareness campaign is planned in the media, in the streets and through artistic creations. “All five of us come from artistic backgrounds,” says Hassan, “and we have devised the slogans, designed the posters and produced the hiphop theme track that was played at the march. We plan to produce more music, video clips, documentaries and the like to spread our ideas. We are currently in talks with a Lebanese TV channel which is interested to incorporate the issue in its objectives and maybe even as part of its programming.”

 A gentleman’s agreement

So what is the situation that the group wants to change? Lebanon’s population is divided into eighteen religious communities, each belonging either to the Muslim or the Christian spheres. The country’s politics and entire social organisation are based on the confessional or sectarian system. This is a notoriously complicated edifice which covers many different aspects, the most visible of which is the confessional system ruling the country’s politics. According to a gentleman’s agreement concluded between Muslim and Christian leaders at the time of the country’s independence in 1946, power is shared along rigidly fixed lines. The president and army commander must be Maronite Christians. The prime minister’s post is reserved for a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament is a Shia Muslim.

This system of quotas is consistently applied not only at the top but down to the assistant under-secretary of every minor government department. It includes the army, the administration, the judiciary, the diplomatic service and the education system. This ensures some form of representation for each of the sectarian communities in the country, but it also excludes individuals from various positions of power. If you are a Druze, for example, you will never be commander of the armed forces, no matter how competent or ambitious you may be. If you are a Greek Catholic, you can never be speaker of parliament. Neither does it make for a system where the ablest person is automatically put in the position most suitable to him (or, more rarely, her).

The Taif agreement of 1989, which ended the 15-year civil war, modified the system by adapting it to the changed demographic situation, giving the Muslim communities equal representation with the Christians in parliament, and by increasing the quotas of the under-represented smaller communities, but otherwise left the principle intact. At the time, this was affirmed to be a temporary solution, and the agreement also stipulated the eventual abolition of the sectarian system. However, subsequent parliaments and governments have consistently ignored this provision.

 Honeymoon in Cyprus

Another important element of the sectarian system is the legal peculiarity which, in the days of the Ottoman empire, was called the millet system. This entailed that, in matters of ‘personal status law’ (mainly marriage, divorce and inheritance), minority religious groups were not subjected to the Sunni Sharia-based legislation governing the majority of the empire’s population, but instead were judged in courts of their own religious persuasion. Independent Lebanon has taken this system to its logical conclusion, whereby the various minorities (and they all are, as no confessional community has the majority) are all subjected to courts of their own. This means citizens of the same state are subject to widely varying laws.

As a consequence, Lebanon has no civil marriage procedure. Those unwilling to have a religious wedding are therefore obliged to marry abroad and have their marriage registered in the country afterwards. Paradoxically, Lebanon does recognise civil marriages concluded abroad, and its judges even conduct divorce procedures according to the law of the country where the marriage was concluded. The most common destination for Lebanese civil marriages is Cyprus, which has profited from the situation to create an entire industry based on ‘wedding tourism’ – which it incidentally also markets to Israelis, who cannot conduct civil marriages in their country either. This situation also impedes inter-sectarian marriages: in couples who can’t afford the trip to Cyprus, one (usually the woman) has to convert to the faith of the other.

 Opposing visions

“Stands taken by different parties on these two issues clearly show how sectarian views keep dictating agreement with, and opposition to secularisation. Those members of parliament who are in favour of instituting civil marriage are opposed to abolishing the sectarian political system, while those who are in favour of the latter oppose civil marriage”, says Kinda Hassan. Indeed, seen from a sectarian perspective, it is the Maronites who have most to lose from abolishing guaranteed political representation as it stands now, while the Shia (as the largest but underrepresented community) and the Druze (and other small communities) stand to gain most from it. Civil marriage, on the other hand, is demanded most fervently by the Maronites, whose Vatican-united church remains adamantly opposed to divorce for any reason. In fact, the resistance to civil marriage unites the clergy of all sects, for whom weddings represent an important source of income and power.

“Because of this opposition of different groups to different aspects,” Hassan continues, “the second important point in our view is that we should not secularise the system piecemeal, one law at a time. Instead, there should be a comprehensive package, preferably implemented as a whole, to ensure that one community or individual is not benefiting while another is disadvantaged at any stage.”

Of course, there are more aspects to the sectarian system: “An important element is the introduction of common history books in schools,” argues Hassan, referring to the fact that Lebanese history classes in primary and secondary education end abruptly at the year 1975. Beyond that point – the start of the civil war – there is no common agreement on ‘the historical truth’ between the various communities. As a result, Lebanese youngsters learn their country’s recent history only in the version endorsed by their community, through parents and religious, political or cultural organisations. This phenomenon reinforces divisions and keeps tensions simmering. “At the very least, we think the debate on all these issues must be at an advanced stage before any single aspect is implemented,” says Hassan.

 The pillars of Jupiter

The sect-based organisation of society has often been compared to the six (remaining) pillars of the temple of Jupiter in Baalbek, which form separate ‘roads’ leading to the same architrave on top, where they come together. Indeed, all the aspects of the political and social system taken together ensure that any individual is beholden to his or her sectarian representatives in virtually all matters of administration and state employment. The clientelist and nepotist nature of the economic structure tends to reinforce this dependency by extending it to employment in much of the economy. Another contributing factor is the intensified geographical separation of the communities into their own, semi-homogeneous areas, enforced through the civil war. The war has moreover virtually eliminated the previously existing cross-confessional secular political parties, whether they were socialist, communist, Lebanese nationalist or pan-Arab nationalist. Since the end of the war in 1989, these parties have either no longer played any major role in politics or have reverted to sectarian groupings, as in the case of Kamal Junblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), which was reduced from a genuinely cross-sectarian movement with an explicitly secularist political platform to a largely Druze affair.

 ‘The nineteenth sect’

Does Kinda Hassan see a similar outcome as a potential danger to the Laïque Pride movement? Could the movement be recuperated at some point by a particular sect or political tendency? “That is a very relevant question. We certainly hope not, and I think we have safeguarded our movement against that possibility by not forming a political party, but a citizen’s movement – an umbrella organisation if you want. In fact, the people who marched belong to many different political parties and communities, and subscribe to very diverse identities, so I think our umbrella is too big for any tendency to try and recuperate us.” She sees a more immediate danger though, “The worst outcome, something we absolutely want to avoid, is that we as ‘secularists’ would end up as the nineteenth sect, where people who refuse any religious identity would become a separate ‘millet’. This would miss the point completely, and this is an actual existing danger.”

As the positive reactions to Laïque Pride’s initiative show – the organisation refuses financial donations from organisations or companies, but has received material support from a wide variety of anonymous individuals – the group’s desire for an end to sectarianism touches a nerve in the country. In fact, even the current minister of the interior, Ziad Baroud, who has an activist past himself, last year took the unprecedented step of allowing Lebanese citizens to have their religion scrapped from their administrative file. Lebanese identity cards have not mentioned their holder’s religion anymore since the end of the civil war, in which people were killed on the basis of their ID, but birth certificates and administrative files still do. Indeed, the civil registers of municipalities – typically in the form of large ledger books – are often ordered by religion rather than alphabetically.

 A long way to go

But in an illustration of the danger of piecemeal reform that Hassan warns against, it remains to be seen what the consequences will be for the individuals involved in terms of personal status law, since technically they are no longer subjected to their sect’s courts, but at the same time there is no civil judiciary system they can turn to. Sami Halabi, a Lebanese journalist, grabbed the opportunity. “It took me three months of taking administrative hurdles,” he sighs, “a very exhausting, time-consuming battle to overcome the resistance of administrative and religious authorities. In the end it worked.”

But this is only the beginning of his struggle. “In fact, and Baroud mentioned this very clearly when he announced the law, this has landed me in a legal vacuum, and it is up to me and the other people who chose to have their religion scrapped, to now lobby local and religious authorities to provide us with the documents and legal judgements we need regardless of the scrapping. When your documents mention your religion, your sheikh/priest/imam is obliged to issue the documents you request. Without it, he is not, and I have to persuade him to do it. But I want to make the effort, because I believe that my country needs to be modernised, these archaic laws must be abolished, and we should have real citizenship. I don’t want my children to have to deal with a sectarian society later.”

 A constitutional issue

In fact, the political power distribution as well as many other aspects of the overall sectarian system are in direct contradiction to the Lebanese constitution. Article (c) of the preamble to the constitution clearly states, “All Lebanese are equal before the law in rights and duties, without any restriction”, says Hassan. “Whether we are talking about requiring membership of a specific religious community for a government position, or subjecting different Lebanese to different laws regarding divorce, for example, the situation is in fact unconstitutional. We have made this article into our main slogan, and our root cause is demanding the application of the constitution and instituting real equality. This obviously implies the secularisation of the state, but there are other issues too, specifically gender-related inequality.”

Indeed, despite the socially ‘liberal’ and progressive image the country likes to project to the outside world, Lebanese women – regardless of their religious adherence – in fact have fewer legal rights than their counterparts in Tunisia or even Qatar.

To cite but the most blatant example, women cannot pass on their nationality to foreign husbands, or even to their children if the father is not Lebanese. In politics, women only play a role as the ‘widow, or daughter of’. The ongoing municipal elections are the first ones where a quota of women has been legally imposed. “Which is a positive step,” argues Hassan, “but only a small one. Equality requires a lot more than that, and I am happy and hopeful that the recently appearing citizen’s movements, including us, are militantly demanding changes to the many archaic laws we still carry with us from the times of the Ottoman empire and the French mandate. I have no illusions about our struggle, it will be a long and hard one, but if we as citizens do not stand up for our rights, nothing will change. The politicians will only act if we put enough pressure on them.”


Bart Peeters was born in Belgium in 1966. After graduating as an English/French translator, he spent the next fifteen years combining such diverse activities as translation, journalism, political activism and playing bass guitar in rock bands, regularly taking time off for extended travels around the (old) world. He retuned to University in 2003 to study Arabic and cuneiform script. Since graduating in 2007, he has been based in Lebanon, working as a journalist, translator and researcher. His blog “In the Middle of the East”, can be found here.

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