The 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.