27/02/2009

Complicated secularization in Lebanon

On March 11th, a circular of the Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud allowed Lebanese citizens to choose whether they wanted or not to remove the reference to religion on their civil register, a document required for each administrative demand as well as at work.

In a country still haunted by civil war and where the religious community is the identity reference – 18 faiths are recognized – this measure is anything but trivial. It is at least a victory for associations asking for years for the introduction of a civil personal status in a country where people of different faiths must go to Cyprus to get married. Moreover, in a global context of exacerbated claims and tensions between religious communities, this initiative shows a great contrast.

« A step towards secularism”, assesses Le Point. Symbolically, it is indeed a major step because not to have to be defined by a religion allows not to be reduced to a membership of a confession but to exist as a Lebanese citizen before any other allegiance.

However, it would be naive to see this measure as a step toward a « de-confessionalization » of Lebanon. For now, its impact is limited as marriages, divorces and inheritance are managed according to the confession of the citizen.

More broadly, going beyond communities in the coming years in Lebanon is unlikely to happen unless a complete overhaul of the Lebanese communautarian system. Indeed, the constitution of 1926 requires that the president has to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the chairman of the National Assembly a Shiite Muslim.

If the system generates obvious violent tensions and blockages, it is the essence of the pact concluded between the Lebanese and the key to the balance of power sharing itself, society and administration.

In fact, could this step towards a « religious anonymity », as it is called by the daily Liberation, be followed by others or is the status of citizens in a deadlock, conditioned by the prevailing national organization? Can we move towards a civilian status without affecting the balance of Lebanon or, like Gorbachev’s USSR, is the Lebanese system impossible to reform? This measure is clearly positive as an evidence of changing mentalities and willingness of modernity but it will have to be followed by a questioning of the very organization of the Lebanese society to be given its full meaning.

Luce Ricard