In Lebanon, Citizens Fight Religious Leaders For the Right to a Civil Marriage

Lebanon, a nation that has proudly promoted itself over the years as a democratic nation in a region dominated by dictatorships, is nothing but a dictatorship of its own — a confessional sectarian dictatorship, that is. In Lebanon, freedom of expression is suppressed by a system of censorship enforced by the religious groups in the name of “civil peace."

The Lebanese state has been stuck in a confessional system, where the elected and main public positions are filled on the basis of religious affiliations rather than on an equal-merit system.

But that’s not why I call Lebanon a confessional dictatorship. No. I call Lebanon a confessional dictatorship because in a country whose constitution promotes civil rights, equality and freedom, we find ourselves always dragged into a sea of racism, hatred, inequality and policies and practices befitting of the dark ages. In the latest in the Lebanese sage, civil society has been calling for the right to a civil marriage amid immense opposition from the majority of religious leaders who view this danger to their religion and their beliefs.

Lebanon doesn’t have a mechanism to allow for a civil marriage to be overseen by state institutions. Instead, thousands of Lebanese couples wishing to get married have had to seek out alternative ways to do so. Many end up flying over to neighboring Cyprus in order to get married. 

In this regard, President Sleiman makes a very critical point: “All this discussion is happening while a large number of Lebanese men and women are getting married outside Lebanon as if this country is not their nation.” Yes, our own nation doesn’t allow us to get married under the state’s institutions, and then they wonder why our youth is emigrating at an increasingly rapid pace.

Amid increasing sectarian tensions sweeping through the region, Lebanon must be wary of the continuous control of religious leaders on the state. The country has paid far too much because of it and because of policies that promote hatred, fear of other and segregation.

In a nation that claims to be democratic, it has become our duty to stand up to this tyranny and injustice. It has come time to abolish this system and send it to the pages of history where it belongs. In a nation that promotes freedom of religion, what many fail to understand is that freedom of religion and freedom to practice are just that and nothing more. They are not a path to impose certain religious views on state and public policies. They are not a path to limit debate or to censure. My relationship with God, my religious views and beliefs, my interpretation of sacred books, or the complete lack of it, are all a private matter. They have no place in governance.

So, with all due to respect to Mufti Quabani, and while I respect all religious views, and I respect people’s right to practice their own religion freely and will forever defend that right, the recent remarks made by the Mufti are dangerous, illegal and unconstitutional. That the Mufti Quabani is using religion to threaten members of parliament against discussing the issue of civil marriage is an abomination and a disgrace. To call those who are calling for equal rights and the idea of a civil marriage as a “germ” is quite frankly disturbing, racist and eerily similar to the same categorization made in genocides to certain ethnic groups.

In a nation where we are told that we need to preserve the civil peace, in which we need to embrace our differences and learn to co-exist with one another, our religious leaders and politicians are unwilling to provide the basic of civil rights to the nation. They are unwilling to provide the right for people to have even the option of a civil marriage, instead of having it be restricted to a “religious” marriage, in which one of the two partners would have to convert from their religion to be able to get married. A civil marriage would be an option for couples to choose, an option that couples may choose to ignore if they want to. (And by all means, those who do not want it should ignore it.) In a multi-cultural, multi-confessional country, civil marriage is a necessity to promote coexistence, to reduce the fear of others, and to have our society move forward. 

Addtionally, the two leading legal documents in Lebanon, the constitution and the Taif accord, clearly state that civil marriage may not be impeded. As President Sleiman, who has been championing the push for civil marriage amidst strong resistance from religious leaders and the prime minister, noted via his Twitter handle (@SleimanMichel)  “We cannot overlook the aspirations of the youth regardless of their sectarian differences ... Refusing to address this issue in state institutions or refusing to approve a marriage is a violation of the Taif Accord.”

The debate over the civil marriage highlights growing issues within Lebanese politicians and religious leaders who see themselves above the law and above reproach, who continue to imposing their will on this nation, violating our legal system and our most precious document, our constitution.

As was noted by President Sleiman, Lebanon has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which stipulates the right of marriage of individuals and their right for a consensual marriage, with the state providing the protection needed to do so.

Yes, Lebanon is a confessional dictatorship. Religious leaders are dictating our policies. They are forcing members of parliament to take positions that they personally oppose. And most importantly, they are forcing politicians to vote and govern in manners that benefit their own religious groups, instead of those of the state and the aspirations of its people and youth. All of these actions are a violation of their oath of office, and hence they should be held accountable for it.

The civil society is taking note, and is taking steps to put pressure on lawmakers by hosting a peaceful sit-in outside of the parliament doors on Monday at 3 p.m.