Lebanon, Reform

A Nineteenth Sect, or None at All?

mosaiqueThe editorial in today’s Daily Star discusses Interior Minister Ziad Baroud’s order authorizing “personnel at his ministry to grant any request to have confessional identity removed from one’s official file at civil registries across the country…”

This is a very significant move, yet another feather in the activist minister’s cap. As the editorial goes on to say, it represents “a long-overdue first stage toward meeting a key term of the Taif Accord, which ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil War: preparing for the abolition of sectarianism.” I support the minister’s initiative and look forward to visiting a civil registry to perform this operation. I’m hoping that it will involve some kind of purification ritual, something akin to wading into a secularist mikveh or swearing on a copy of The Origin of Species, but it will probably just amount to standing around in a smoky waiting room and being told after three hours to come back the next day. For once in my life, I probably won’t mind.

Just to play devil’s advocate, though, let’s compare this initiative to a similar one that surfaced a few years ago to create a “nineteenth sect”, namely the non-sectarian sect. The idea was that people who did not identify with their particular sect could join this one, and eventually, over time, their numbers would grow to the point that they could begin to demand proportional representation for their “non-sectarian sect” within the government.

At the time, my problem with the 19th-sect initiative was that it seemed to further entrench the sectarian model by virtue of the fact that it did not propose abolishing it altogether, but rather creating one more fish in a sea of confessional identities. Upon reflection, however, I don’t really see how the no-sect initiative is actually different. It creates a 19th category, just like the 19th-sect initiative, which will raise the same questions and concerns, for example:

1. How will a member of either the 19th sect or the zero sect (let’s call them 19’ers and 0’ers) aspire to any governmental or municipal position that is traditionally given to a member of a particular sect? How will they be able to run for parliament, when the Ta’if Accord says nothing about 19’ers or 0’ers?

2. What is the legal status associated with the act of leaving one’s sect, from the perspective of religious law? I think it is perfectly straightforward to make the argument that removing one’s confessional identity from an official file does not amount to renouncing one’s faith, however I can also imagine that many people would be uneasy about doing so without an explicit statement along these lines from a religious authority. What interest would such an authority have, however, in making such a statement if it meant that people would drop their sectarian affiliation?

3. What happens if the people who choose to join the 19’ers or 0’ers come disproportionally from one sect? In other words, if 300,000 people decide to become 19’ers or 0’ers and the vast majority of them are Greek Orthodox or Shiite, this will tip the confessional balance of the country, raising questions about the proportional distribution of governmental positions.

4. I know what you’re thinking… people are already raising questions about the proportional distribution of governmental positions, and with good reason. The best estimates put the Shiites in Lebanon at around 40%, while they hold only 21% of parliament seats. Meanwhile, Christians probably represent around 30% of the population, while holding 50% of the seats. This leads us to our final problem, which derives from the first and the third. If 19’ers/0’ers accumulate enough numbers to the point where they can start making an argument from proportionality to be included in the government, what is to prevent anyone else from making the same argument?  In other words, if we’re going to start counting, then let’s count everybody.

The simple conclusion to be drawn from all of this — and I don’t doubt that Minister Baroud, like many others, has already thought dozens of steps beyond it — is that while such initiatives are good first steps, they will not suffice. Their chief virtue is to nudge the country in the direction of a precipice, but many more reforms and insititutional mechanisms will be needed in order to make the leap of faith. As we saw in the case of General Michel Aoun — who returned to Lebanon in 2005 as a champion of secularism, and then returned from Syria in 2008 as the leader of the Eastern Christians — sectarianism is so deeply ingrained our society that even the most fervent secularists have to wear their sectarian affiliations on their sleeves to survive in Lebanese politics.

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10 thoughts on “A Nineteenth Sect, or None at All?

  1. While point one has a lot of validity I think your logic on points 2 and 3 is flawed. Why would one need explicit permission from a religious authority to remove one’s sect from a political document? There is no connection between the 2. If 300,00 people from one sect remove their sect from their id, it doesn’t tip the secterian balance. They won’t disappear. They will still be there, still be able to vote and have their influence.

    One more thing you haven’t touched on regarding this. I think for those Lebanese that lived through the civil war, a war where you could be executed at any checkpoint just for having the wrong sect on your id, this move will be psychologicaly very important.

    Posted by mo | February 13, 2009, 11:45 am
  2. Mo

    Of course no one would *need* explicit permission from a religious authority. I’m just thinking aloud about whether there would be social pressure exerted on people not to do it, for these reasons.

    As for point three, it is true that they would still be able to vote. But the point is that if we do not transition to a system where sectarianism is abolished then the political players in the bigger sects will have less and less reason to aid the emergence of a nonsectarian system, rather pushing for an adjustment of the existing system (i.e. changing the operative proportions).

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 13, 2009, 1:51 pm
  3. Qifa,
    Sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t agree with you. The sectarian system is profoundly ridiculous but I don’t think its going away anytime soon. I think the Hizballah-FPM alliance, as derided as it may be by its opponents was a revolutionary step in Lebanon’s history.

    But it will take many years and many more measures like that to build enough trust between all Lebanese to get us to a point where we trust our politicians to do what is right by the country and not their sect or heaven forbid their bank account.

    Many of today’s politicians need the sectarian divide not to remain in power but to happily abuse that position knowing no one is going to seriously challenge them because they “represent” their sect.

    But for the sectarian politics to disappear the people themselves will need to stop simply supporting their own zaims just because they are the most powerful clan in that sect. In other words, we have to get out of this age old tribal mentatlity (that is lets face it a problem in most Arab countries) and start thinking with a national one.

    Posted by Mo | February 13, 2009, 10:27 pm
  4. Probably such step is more useful on a minor level, someone applying for a job, etc…

    Definitely on the big scale it’s nothing but a cute new addition (more like retraction) from our system. I agree with you, even though it might not be life changing, it is still something i’d definitely do, when i have time.

    The steps to follow in order to have a non-sectarian country, to have a completely secular country is to remove any reference to our religion from our civil registry, and to have the parliament, the ministry, the president be voted for their qualifications and their electoral program and not their sect.
    The final step is to have all Lebanese people, residents and expatriates remove any sectarian reference and xenophobia from their mind, that can be arranged with some sort of futuristic machine that can only target religious neurons in your head.
    And then we live happily ever after 🙂

    Posted by Liliane | February 16, 2009, 2:52 am
  5. Liliane,

    Im not sure Im as pessimistic as you. We don’t need a machine, just a just and fair society where no one in any sect feels like a minority or is scared that one sect is out to destroy another.

    To get that we need politicians who are willing to work for the country rather than their sect or their cronies or their bank accounts.

    The language used in recent years to ferment what is tantamount to hatred and incitment for violence against the “other” will only work once that language is no longer effective. Its not a question of removing secterian reference but removing the natural inclination of supporting the representative of ‘my’ sect who is patently dishonest over someone who is from another sect but patently more honest.

    Our warlords swapped their guns for mobile phones but they still rape the country of its resources. It will be up to each sect to remove its own dishonest leaders rather than what happens now where each sect wants to nominate who leads the other sects.

    Posted by mo | February 16, 2009, 10:24 am
  6. Opps meant to say:

    “The language used in recent years to ferment what is tantamount to hatred and incitment for violence against the “other” will only stop working once”

    Posted by mo | February 16, 2009, 10:58 am
  7. Another issue (and I’m not Lebanese so forgive me if I ask something ignorant here): if you choose to withdraw from your sect on a legal basis, what happens in legal personal status matters? Will your original sect let you get married, buried, divorced or whatever? Does the law in Lebanon grant those powers to sectarian authorities and if so would 19’ers and 0’ers be left out in the cold? I know for example in Palestine people in the West Bank who leave their sect to join newer, smaller unrecognized religions (like Jehovah’s Witnesses) end up in some weird and uncomfortable legal limbo on these matters.

    Posted by Jamal | February 19, 2009, 9:20 pm
  8. Hi Jamal, good questions. Actually, NOW Lebanon had a very good article (for once) on this subject. If you dig around on their site you’ll find it.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | February 20, 2009, 4:53 am


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