Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Laïque pride… can this civil initiative be saved?

Posted by worriedlebanese on 07/12/2009

In an earlier post, I alluded to this new civil initiative that made quite a buzz on the Lebanese blogosphere a couple of weeks ago. And the general excitement surrounding it doesn’t seem to be abating. You can find “Laïque Pride” on facebook, twitter, over-blog.

The version you see here was rewritten on December 9th. I found the original draft too aggressive and pontifical and couldn’t leave it that way (If you’re feeling masochistic enough or miss your preacher, you can check it out in the comment section).

Anyway, let’s get back to our business. What seems to be a growing number of Lebanese citizens are getting ready to hit the streets on April 25th 2010. They intend to march for the establishment of a secular state in Lebanon. That’s pretty nice, but there’s something that doesn’t seem too right with this initiative.

The whole approach is very dogmatic. What do they mean by secularism? How can they translate that in practical terms. A quick look at their declaration of intent shows that several of their demands already  exist and others are so extremely abstract that one wonders if they are little more than abstract principles or ideological slogans.

To paraphrase Elvis, I’d say a little bit less ideology, a little more pragmatism please. Forget about the anti-confessionalist rhetoric that we’ve been brought up with and look at the dynamics of our political and legal system. If you want change, target specific goals! It’s only by pinpointing specific problems in our system that we can solve them, putting ideology on the shelf and tackling one issue at a time (or at least separately). Each target needs a different strategy. Let’s be realistic! With such a declaration, what could the outcome of the march possibly be? collective unwinding and a public release of pressure… is it worth working for months and mobilising so many for a simple فشت خلق ?

Here are a couple of targets that I would work on:

  • Fight State censorship. Why not rally for the abolishment of the censorship committee within the Interior Ministry? Why not replace it by a rating system like in the US? Sure Tareq Mitri mentioned this once or twice (when he was minister of culture), and Ziad Baroud did too… But is that enough? Come on! Wouldn’t it be more profitable to march for the abolishment of this censorship committee (in which the religious establishment participates without any habilitation to do so). Shouldn’t we be telling our politicians that we refuse any kind of “tutelage”. Couldn’t we actually contravene systematically to this law? Obviously we can. But people seem to lack the courage to do so. It’s much more comfortable to uphold abstract ideals than actually fight for specific rights.
  • Respond to the religious establishment’s interference in public affairs and criticize politicians who seek backing from the religious establishment. Why not meet with politicians and clergymen to discuss these issues. Why not protest when their behaviour shocks you? Why didn’t anyone do anything when the Prime Minister asked the Maronite Patriarche to nominate candidates to the Lebanese presidency? Why doesn’t anyone remind the State authorities (Baroud, Hariri and Najjar) that Sunni and Shiite preachers are not allowed by law to give a political opinion when they preach because they are civil servants…
  • March to pressure the State into adopting a legislation for the Secular community (Communauté de droit commun). People tend to forget that the very law that recognised the different communities also recognised the existence of a secular community (communauté de droit commun). The legal provision already exists. This community is already recognised! All that is needed is to establish its legislation (and why not, its institutions, if you want it to be independent from the conservative thugs that are in parliament)! So why not pressure the government and the parliament to finally enact the laws that were promised over 70 years ago?!
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12 Responses to “Laïque pride… can this civil initiative be saved?”

  1. In an earlier posting, I alluded to this new “civil initiative” that made quite a buzz on the Lebanese blogosphere a couple of weeks ago. And the general excitement surrounding it doesn’t seem to be abating. You can find “Laïque Pride” on facebook, twitter, over-blog.

    What seems to be a growing number of Lebanese citizens are getting ready to hit the streets on April 25th 2010. They intend to march for the establishment of a secular state in Lebanon. That’s pretty nice, but what do they actually mean by a secular state? Let’s look at their demands to find our answer (there are several differences between the French and the Arabic version of the text, so I’ll be basing my translation on the “official” text, the Arabic one, even if it seems that the original text was written in French):

    I am Lebanese citizen
    I reject the interference of religion in State affairs,
    I demand a secular state independent of religious identity, and a civil administration that manages civil registries and personal status affairs (birth certificates, identity documents, marriage, divorce, funerals, etc).
    I demand a state that recognises my rights as a citizen on equal terms with other citizens regardless of my religious convictions.
    I demand the respected of my human dignity in a state where law and power do not derive their legitimacy from religious rules and principles.
    I demand a Sate in which the political authorities are not based on religious, communal, confessional and tribal affiliation.
    I stand by my right for democracy, for freedom of expression and opinion.

    As I look at this declaration, I can’t help but say to myself “what a mess!”, do these people actually know anything about their political system and state institutions? They obviously have a die-hard secularist agenda that Voltaire wouldn’t have shied to uphold. And I think everybody should be entitled to voice her/his opinion, but if they want to achieve a bit more than that, shouldn’t they start by learning a bit more about their political system and establishing clear and specific goals that are attainable?!

    What’s wrong with the declaration?

    It confuses communal identity with religious identity and faith. But then so does the Minister of Interior in one of his circulars, so you can’t really blame them. But someone should inform them about the difference! In Lebanon there is a legal distinction between both (which isn’t the case for instance in Egypt), and this has many legal consequences! Let’s say a religious community excludes you from its ranks because you practice another religion. This has no effect on the State. The State does not interfere in matters of belief (which isn’t the case in Egypt, for instance, since it secularised its personal status laws). The fourth point in this declaration is ludicrous. The state doesn’t care about people’s religious convictions! It sometimes takes into account the communal affiliation that a person is free to choose regardless of her/his religious convictions. And citizen rights are recognised on equal terms with other citizens regardless of their communal affiliation. The general rule shouldn’t be confused with the exceptions (some would argue that these aren’t exceptions at all). People usually see in the quota system and its allocations of seats an exception to citizen equality. But this a central piece of our political system. So if they are displeased with it, why not call for its abolishment instead of throwing in a demand that gives the impression we are living under Apartheid!

    It is unaware of the Lebanese constitutional order and legal system. The Lebanese state is secular by most definitions of secularism. Religious matters are foreign to it. Two of the demands of the Laïque pride group have always been part of our legal system! The civil registries are state administered and have always been (they seem to be confusing our system with the Ancien Regime in France or the Ottoman system in which the civil registries were kept by the religious establishment). State law and power do not derive their legitimacy from religious rules and principles in Lebanon! It’s actually the other way round, religious law and power derive their legality from lebanese secular law (the constitution and laws enacted by parliament). Lebanon isn’t Saudi Arabia or the Islamic Republic of Iran, so why present it as if it were?!
    The problem that Laïque pride has on this issue is not a legal problem but a socio-political one. Politicians try to legitimate their power through their ties with the religious establishment. This is not a legal issue. It has to do with their behaviour. Does Laïque Pride want to prohibit such a behaviour? That wouldn’t be very liberal now would it. Wouldn’t it be simpler to publicly criticize the politicians when they do that?!

    It muddles legal issues with political issues. What does “religious interference in the State’s affair mean”?! The Lebanese state does not uphold any religious law as its own. It regards them as foreign laws and approaches them in the same way it approaches any foreign law. This is why community law in Lebanon is a sub-discipline of international private law! So let’s be a bit serious about this issue. If it’s not about the law, then maybe it’s about the behaviour of the religious establishment. But doesn’t the religious establishment have the same rights as other citizens and interest group in voicing its opinion and trying to pressure state institutions to protect its interests? I think it does. So it’s not about the law, it’s about differences in interests and opinions. So instead of “demanding things from the state” why doesn’t this group of people exercice its right as citizen to counter the opinions of the religious establishment and its interests?

    What can be done about it? My recommendations

    A little bit less ideology. Stop looking at things dogmatically. Look into our political and legal system as it is, not as it is presented to you. Recognise its complexities and pinpoint the problems you have with it. Don’t make a mess of a myriad of issues by trying to fit them under abstract headings.

    A little bit more pragmatic. If you want change, target specific goals! After pinpointing the problems you have with the Lebanese system why not tackle one issue at a time (or at least separately). Each target needs a different strategy. Let’s be realistic! what could the outcome of the march possibly be?

    Here are a couple of targets that I would work on:

    • Fight State censorship. Why not rally for the abolishment of the censorship committee within the Interior Ministry? Why not replace it by a rating system like in the US? Sure Tareq Mitri mentioned this once or twice (when he was minister of culture), and Ziad Baroud did too… But is that enough? Come on! Wouldn’t it be more profitable to march for the abolishment of this censorship committee (in which the religious establishment participates without any habilitation to do so) and function and start contravening to that specific law? Obviously. But people seem to lack the courage to do so. It’s much more comfortable to uphold abstract ideals than actually fight for specific rights.
    • Respond to the religious establishment’s interference in public affairs and criticize politicians who seek backing from the religious establishment. Why not meet with politicians and clergymen to discuss these issues. Why not protest when their behaviour shocks you? Why didn’t anyone do anything when the Prime Minister asked the Maronite Patriarche to nominate candidates to the Lebanese presidency? Why doesn’t anyone remind the State authorities (Baroud, Hariri and Najjar) that Sunni and Shiite preachers are not allowed by law to give a political opinion when they preach because they are civil servants…
    • March to pressure the State into adopting a legislation for the Secular community (Communauté de droit commun) that was established in the 1930s at the same time as the religious communities were recognised! The legal provision is there. This community is already recognised! All that is needed is to establish its legislation (and why not, its institutions, if you want it to be independent from the conservative thugs that are in parliament)!
  2. Personal views on the Laïque Pride declaration

    Here are my thoughts on the issues raised by the declaration. All what is in bold is my translation of the arabic text. What follows in normal script is my critique.

    I am Lebanese citizen, we know that! So am I. I reject the interference of religion in State affairs, what does that mean? Do you want to change religion? Do you want to change the political system? Do you want the religious establishment to stop interfering in politics? Do you want politicians to stop using clerics and clergymen for personal gains… all these are very different issues.

    I demand a secular state independent of religious identity Lebanon is already quite secular. None of our state laws have a religious grounding and the country has no official religion (that’s more one can say about most European countries and all Arab countries). and a civil administration that manages civil registries and personal status affairs (birth certificates, identity documents, marriage, divorce, funerals, etc). Such an administration already exist. All civil registries are state administered. You can be buried as you so wish. As for personal status affairs, you can choose amongst many, and most people can choose the law they want by getting married abroad. If you are christian or jewish, you can easily opt out of your personal status law (get married in Turkey, the whole thing will cost you a hundred dollars each and you’ll probably never see a religious judge in your life).

    I demand a state that recognises my rights as a citizen on equal terms with other citizens regardless of my religious convictions. The state recognises equality between all its citizens! We even have anti-discriminatory rules!!! And it doesn’t care about your religious convictions. So why are you depicting Lebanon as if it were Apartheid South Africa, Wahabi Saudi Arabia or the Islamic Republic of Iran? What our state actually does is look sometimes into our communal affiliation, which is a different issue. So basically, it’s about supporting the abolition of confessionalism. OK. Fine. But if you want to rehash anti-confessional slogans just do it. Don’t hide under a new banner!

    I demand the respected of my human dignity in a state where law and power do not derive their legitimacy from religious rules and principles. In Lebanon, State law and power do not derive their legitimacy from religion. As for the respect of ou human dignity, I’m all for it, but what does that have to do with this march?! You should tell the Minister of Interior to do something about it.

    I demand a sate in which the political authorities are not based on religious, communal, confessional and tribal affiliation. Political authorities are not based on any of these affiliation. We have a quota system and seat distribution for some positions… Our legal rules have to do with participation, not with “ownership” and the foundation of authority.

    I stand by my right for democracy, for freedom of expression and opinion. Hurray.

  3. Alexandre Paulikevitch said

    Dear worried lebanese :)
    I thank you for your concern and very pragmatic opinion!!
    We need this kind of critisizing so that we can do things in a better way… and together is the best way :)

    It’s true that we seem a bit confused but the words we choose are simple and straight to the point and i don’t think that we are far from you proposal… but in different may be inappropriate words :)
    We are going to discuss all that you proposed and please please please continue critisizing :)

    Thank you and hope that you will be walking with us on the 25th ;)
    alex

    • Thanks for being such a sport. And I’m really sorry for being so preachy and somewhat of a party pooper. I think the energy, the generosity and the good will you’ve shown as a group to be wonderful. But I’m really afraid the dynamic you started will end up like the one surrounding the proposition for a civil mariage.
      Do you remember this other facebook initiated campaign last year?
      civil mariage campaign on facebook.
      and we know what was the outcome of this vast mobilisation. Let’s us not repeat the same mistakes and waste all this courage and energy.

  4. Ahmad Chidiac said

    First of all thank you for criticizing our movement and sharing your thoughts and point of view about it.

    basically the purpose of the march is to prove to the lebanese community that there are some lebanese citizens that refuse to be part of the sectarian system that is ruling the country. You were right about one thing, it is that secularism in Lebanon is not seperating state from religion because it is not the church or mosque that are ruling the country, rather than some sectarin-political leaders that are using religion to stay in power.

    You said:

    “What’s wrong with the declaration?

    It confuses communal identity with religious identity and faith. But then so does the Minister of Interior in one of his circulars, so you can’t really blame them. But someone should inform them about the difference! In Lebanon there is a legal distinction between both (which isn’t the case for instance in Egypt), and this has many legal consequences! Let’s say a religious community excludes you from its ranks because you practice another religion. This has no effect on the State. The State does not interfere in matters of belief (which isn’t the case in Egypt, for instance, since it secularised its personal status laws). The fourth point in this declaration is ludicrous. The state doesn’t care about people’s religious convictions! It sometimes takes into account the communal affiliation that a person is free to choose regardless of her/his religious convictions. And citizen rights are recognised on equal terms with other citizens regardless of their communal affiliation. The general rule shouldn’t be confused with the exceptions (some would argue that these aren’t exceptions at all). People usually see in the quota system and its allocations of seats an exception to citizen equality. But this a central piece of our political system. So if they are displeased with it, why not call for its abolishment instead of throwing in a demand that gives the impression we are living under Apartheid!”

    As you said, there are many exceptions that do enforce the sectarian inequality in our community. why can’t a muslim be president? or a christian be the prime minister? All the other problems we have in our community stem from these upper positions in politics. When a certain leader is in place, we will make sure to use his religion to make peopel more fanatic and people sadly walk into this trap easily. You mentioned many times that the state doesn’t care about the citizens religions. Here you have to define that do you mean by “state”. if the state are the people who are ruling us, then you are very wrong in that! if the state are the set of rules that define our country, then political sectarianism should have been aborted 20 years ago! in both meanings, there is a need to change.

    you said:

    “It is unaware of the Lebanese constitutional order and legal system. The Lebanese state is secular by most definitions of secularism. Religious matters are foreign to it. Two of the demands of the Laïque pride group have always been part of our legal system! The civil registries are state administered and have always been (they seem to be confusing our system with the Ancien Regime in France or the Ottoman system in which the civil registries were kept by the religious establishment). State law and power do not derive their legitimacy from religious rules and principles in Lebanon! It’s actually the other way round, religious law and power derive their legality from lebanese secular law (the constitution and laws enacted by parliament). Lebanon isn’t Saudi Arabia or the Islamic Republic of Iran, so why present it as if it were?!
    The problem that Laïque pride has on this issue is not a legal problem but a socio-political one. Politicians try to legitimate their power through their ties with the religious establishment. This is not a legal issue. It has to do with their behaviour. Does Laïque Pride want to prohibit such a behaviour? That wouldn’t be very liberal now would it. Wouldn’t it be simpler to publicly criticize the politicians when they do that?!”

    You are right in most of what you have said. However i disagree that it wouldnt be liberal to have a set of rules to prohibit ties between politicians and religious figures. This has to be enforced by law. Since politicians cannot preach in a mosque or church, religious figures should not also preach in religious matters.

  5. Thanks Ahmad Chidiac (should I add Fares too ;-)) for your comment.

    If “the purpose of the march is to prove to the lebanese community that there are some lebanese citizens that refuse to be part of the sectarian system that is ruling the country”, then I’m really not interested in it. This approach is typical of the prevalent political culture in the country, ثقافة المواقف. I don’t care about ideological stands. What I want is results.

    There is a whole bunch of problems in our country and connecting them all to the attribution of a couple of posts to members of specific communities is the best way of not dealing with them. In the declaration that Laïque Pride has published there are a great number of issues that are raised. If you keep them all tied up together and march against confessionalism, then you are sure nothing will change. I’ve really grown tired of anticonfessionalist fundamentalism. I want change… change I can believe in (to paraphrase Obama).

    Imagine what would have happened in the UK if all political demands were linked to the abolishment of the monarchy because “all citizens cannot become kings or queens and this creates an inequality between them”! Instead of banging their heads on that issue, the English fought for the abolishment of slavery, increasing the power of government and parliament, granting suffrage to women…

    Anti-confessionalist rhetoric and mobilisation has brought parliament to abolish communal attribution within the public administration (except for first category civil servants). And that was even introduced in our constitution! Did it translate institutionally? No!!! Quite the contrary. The politicians have reinforced it after Taef. So please let’s be pragmatic for a moment.

    I have proposed three targets that are attainable. I’m sure that there are more. And I think the march should target one of them if you don’t want it to be a simple فشت خلق
    - Fight State censorship.
    - Respond to the religious establishment’s interference in public affairs
    - March to pressure the State into adopting a legislation for the Secular community

    I personally don’t believe a march is the best way to advance these issues. But what do you think of these targets? Do you have other ones in mind?

  6. Ms. Tee said

    I think you make very good points in this post and some of your points were well taken, as I see.

    I definitely agree that communitarian identity is not religion, but I don’t agree with all of your points. Particularly that religious matters are foreign to the Lebanese state. Personal registries might be kept and overseen by the state, but the administration of these daily affairs lies under religious authorities, as you know. The nufus cannot marry or divorce you. The fact that you can marry abroad is a non-argument. You are bypassing the system and the system accommodates it and weds it to economic inequalities. You can remove your sect from the registry, true, but your affairs in Lebanon will continue to be administered by a religious authority or the other and the legal reasoning of those rests on religious principles.

    There are other arguments to be made on the relationship between religion and the state in Lebanon, but in general, I think a facile separation between the two is a bit reductive.

    • Thanks for your comment Ms Tee
      As for my argument that “religious matters are foreign to the Lebanese state”, your example is actually a perfect example of that. These things are left to “religious authorities”, and the state doesn’t interfere in them.
      And, yes, you are right, religious authorities do follow a legal reasoning that rests on religious principles. My point is that the state doesn’t do that, and this is an exception in the Middle East, the only exception I know of.

  7. Ms. Tee said

    It is not that simple. There are many overlaps between the state and religious authorities. “Mufti al-jumhuriyya” is one example of many. The other problem is that a set of citizen rights – in this case, marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc – which are normally administered by a “secular” state are administered by religious authorities in Lebanon. “That is our form of secularism” you might counter. Which I would be fine with had it not been for the fact that you cannot exist as a citizen without coming under the jurisdiction of one of those religious authorities. You cannot opt out. It is an integral part of who you are as a Lebanese citizen.

    Finally, Lebanon is no exception. With the exception of two countries, what is called “personal status” is under the purview of religious authorities in Arab countries. Like Lebanon, most Arab states are “secular” on paper, according to your definitions. And you know, on paper, many Arab states are also democratic. Which is my final point: a state is not just about an abstract set of administrative and judicial frameworks, it is also about how it is practiced. But Rogers Burbaker has done enough arguing on this point, so I will stop here.

    • You raise a lot of points here Ms Tee… and most of them are quite polemical.
      There are many theoretical considerations and some factual ones.

      Let’s start with the factual ones. Under my definition of secularism, most Arab states are not secular (regardless of what their constitution says) because they do not separate between religious and state law, between religious and secular legitimacy. Lebanon is the only country that does that.
      You also raise the question of labels. I never stop at that, but many people do. I’ve noticed a tendency to celebrate Turkish secularism, but most people ignore that the turkish version of Laïcité not only considers Islam as the Nation’s religion, but has no problem financing islamic institutions that are linked to the state… the second feature is actually a shared by the Lebanese system.
      As for the possibility to “opt out”, I kind of see your point. But our system actually allows this possibility, “theoretically” (through the same decree that recognises communities), but parliament and our “secularist” have done nothing to implement it. Now this consideration is an important one in a liberal perspective (that I believe we both share). But it isn’t essential in a republican perspective where a central authority defines its competence and the scope of its power, keeping some matters out of its scope until it changes its mind (something Lebanon did in matters of inheritance in 1959).

      Now for the theoretical elements that I believe can clarify a lot of things, it is important to distinguish between ideal-types and actual “tradition”. There is a French ideal type for Laïcité and an actual French tradition of laïcité that are not the same. The same can be said about a lot of systems, including the Lebanese system.
      Until Taef, the ideal type of lebanese secularism is state neutrality in matters of religion and separation between religious affairs and state affairs. Some collaborative features were added during the war and the with Taef agreement, institutionally and in practice, but that is another question.
      Sure, muslim institutions are formally state institutions (they are financed by the state and theoretically fall under state supervision and control). This is an ottoman heritage that was extended to 3 other “muslim” communities. And it does contradict many of our basic principles regarding State Religion relations (equality, neutrality, autonomy…). Interestingly enough, if you look at the way things are practiced, you’ll see that they are closer to the basic principles stated than the actual text.
      On the same theoretical track, I believe “secularists” in Lebanon have been parroting european approaches that are not quite valid in the near east. They confuse communal with religious. And they confuse state religion relations with state church relations.
      I do understand it when a european person does it, because this is how these matters developed in Europe. But I don’t understand how people born and bred here do that.

  8. [...] The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914 by Ilham Khuri-Makdisi). . There are criticisms leveled at the Laique Pride that I agree with, primarily its lack of clarity and the confused and [...]

  9. [...] « articles » constituent la charte. On peut trouver une critique très intéressante sur le blog de worried lebanese (a lire avec les [...]

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